By Erika Jacobson Moore
Sept. 20, 2012
The Loudoun County Planning Commission last night voted to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve the land use applications needed to construct a high school in Lansdowne.
All seven present commissioners voted in favor—although some expressed hesitation at the action. Commissioner Tom Dunn (Leesburg) was absent for the vote. Commissioner Eugene Scheel (Catoctin) was absent for the meeting.
Transportation and the loss of athletic fields remained the biggest concerns from commissioners as they went through their second round of questioning on the application. But ultimately, it was the potential for what else could be built on the property, which has been purchased from the National Conference Center, that swayed even the doubtful.
“I look at the by-right possibilities and it wears me down thinking about what could be there,” Commissioner Helena Syska (Sterling) said. Among the by-right uses are an office park, a zoo, airport, convention center, community college, RV park, campsite and museum.
“It has been a very tough time dealing with this,” Commissioner Charles Douglas (Blue Ridge) acknowledged. “There are strong opinions on both sides, and valid opinions on both sides.”
But there was strong support for the new high school site on the commission as well.
Vice Chairman Bob Klancher (Ashburn), whose district includes Lansdowne, said he believed the high school was needed badly by the greater Ashburn community.
“This is not a stand alone or in-a-vacuum application,” he said. “It is an end and fulfillment of a process that has been identified for a while in a plan.”
The high school—known as HS-8—is the last part of the three-school solution for the Ashburn area, where schools are seeing continued overcrowding at all levels following the population boom of the last decade. Discovery Elementary School will open next year and a middle school will be collocated with Newton-Lee Elementary School.
The location of the high school has been a long-debated issue, with the Board of Supervisors finally settling on collocating it with Belmont Ridge Middle School in the Lansdowne community. The location has at times seemed to split the north Ashburn community and has brought out hundreds of residents for hearings and meetings.
The school will be located on 96 acres between Belmont Ridge Middle School and the National Conference Center. To construct the school, the county purchased 45.61 acres from the National Conference Center for $20 million. A portion of the Belmont Ridge Middle School property next door will be used to collocate the high school on the campus, and the existing Lansdowne sports park will be redeveloped.
According to the design adopted by the School Board, the high school will be located on the center of the property behind Belmont Ridge Middle School, with the practice fields located on the south side of the property where the sports park is now, and the football stadium and two baseball diamonds located on the north side of the property. The design was chosen so the football stadium would be furthest away from the existing residences, closer to the conference center and on topography that is lower than the rest of the property.
But even with the commission’s support, the people opposed to the site present at last night’s meeting were visibly unhappy with the commission’s recommendation. Klancher, for his part, said he believed the school would ultimately bring the community together.
“Schools serve as a focal point of the community,” he said, noting pride in football teams, arts and academic achievement felt by all. “It can be a point of pride, a point of community identity. I believe the impact of this school is substantially less than by-right development.”
According to information presented to the commission last night, the high school will create 672 peak hour trips in the morning and 208 in the evening peak hours—attributable to the differing times students leave school because of activities. The daily trips will be 2,531. By comparison, the office by-right use of an office park would have 672 morning trips, 630 evening trips and 4,550 daily trips and a community college would have 1,346 morning trips, 1,143 evening trips and 12,371 daily trips. Those numbers reflect the density allowed for those uses with surface parking. Higher density—and therefore more daily trips—would be allowed if a parking garage were built.
The commission was given more information about the transportation impacts and mitigation for the school, but some commissioners remained concerned about the roundabouts planned near the site.
To allow for the development of the school, many improvements are envisioned for the roads and areas surrounding the new school property, including lane and intersection improvements to Riverside Parkway and Upper Belmont Place, as well as at Kipheart Drive where a traffic signal would be installed. Roundabouts are envisioned on Upper Belmont Place and Riverpoint Drive and at Kipheart Drive and Carradoc Farm Terrace. In that area there also will be a second entrance to the school and the National Conference Center from Kipheart Drive to help reduce traffic on Upper Belmont Place.
“I still don’t have a comfort level with the roundabouts,” Syska said. “I think VDOT is still fairly new to building roundabouts.” She pointed to the 31 accidents at the Gilbert’s Corner roundabouts in 2010 and 2011 as a concern.
Commissioner Jack Ryan (Broad Run) asked questions about the buffer around the site, and asked project manager Marchant Schneider to work with Loudoun County Public Schools on curtailing trash and loading dock operational hours at the back of the school.
But, by far, the biggest concern remained the redevelopment of the Lansdowne Sports Park. Loudoun County Public Schools Sarah Howard O’Brien said a total of one soccer field, the tot lot and two picnic pavilions would be lost with the development of the school. The school facility, she noted, would add a football stadium with track facilities, a baseball field and six tennis courts in addition to replacing three soccer fields and two softball fields.
Commissioners remained concerned about the lost ability for private sports teams to get adequate practice when the fields are being used by the school teams.
“You say there is the loss of just one field. But that is under the assumption that we are going to have same type of usage on high school fields that we do on the current field. I just don’t think that is going to be the case,” Dunn said before he had to leave.
Klancher noted that two new fields are almost ready for use in Ashburn, by the Ashburn Ice House, and that the Brambleton park is also coming to the area to help bring more fields.
O’Brien noted that it is a “difficult decision that the county has to make” and that ultimately it was a policy decision for the Board of Supervisors because both schools and fields are needed.
“The loss of playing fields, it is regrettable,” J. Kevin Ruedisueli (At Large) said. “But I continue to feel that education is more important than sports. If have to choose if I want a soccer field or school, I’ll pick a school any day.”