June 9, 2011
As Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) explained to residents gathered at Belmont Ridge Middle School that the county was moving forward with plans to buy land for a high school next door, the opposition pounced. And then the supporters retaliated.
What was intended to be an informative session about the next steps in the land acquisition process for what is know as HS-8 at times turned into a yelling match, with audience members occasionally talking over recognized speakers. Audience members sometimes spoke over Waters as well and she returned the favor on a few occasions.
Several school board members and county supervisors attended, but Waters took the brunt from residents who said placing a high school at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne would either shortchange students or “destroy” their community. Two plans for the site have been put forward, known as Plan A and Plan B, the main difference being the proximity of the high school stadium to residents.
But residents pushed for continued consideration of other sites, including one in the Lexington Seven business development along Route 7.
The Broad Run supervisor became defensive as the meeting continued for about two and half hours.
By the end, shouts were coming from the audience, such as, “If you were here to help, you’d listen. You’re arguing with us, you’re not listening. You’re using scare tactics.”
Waters responded directly to many questions to explain the reasons for the decision to move forward at the NCC site. She said the site is preferable to two other sites considered, including Lexington Seven property along Route 7 that straddles Riverside Parkway and the former Islamic Saudi Academy site at the southwest corner of Farmwell and Waxpool roads. Any delay in purchasing a site would likely delay the school’s planned opening in 2015, she said.
“This is reality,” she told the crowd.
But John Powers – who has taught for decades in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, and has lived in Loudoun since 1975 – said the idea is flawed because of a lack of road access.
“This is by far the worst site that I’ve ever seen,” Powers said.
Angela Bennett told her neighbors that since the county has decided to move forward, the community should work together to make sure it’s the best possible project.
“It looks to me like the NCC site is going to happen,” she said. “We should be grateful that we are getting our HS-8 that we desperately need. This is an opportunity for our communities to come together.”
Few high school site purchases have escaped controversy and ire in Loudoun County, with neighbors of proposed sites in vehement opposition, followed by supporters accusing them of NIMBYism [Not In My Back Yard].
“There are supporters and opponents of any site,” Waters said. “This site or any site is going to impact somebody.”
Traffic, law-breaking teenagers and noise were among the concerns opponents outlined, while supporters touted the idea of walking to school and compared the school’s traffic impacts to potential by-right uses. One speaker raised concerns about drug use and gangs in the parking deck the NCC plans to build to replace the surface parking that would be lost in the sale.
“I think the bigger issue for me is the social impact this is going to have,” said Chris Brown, who lives on Riverpoint Drive. “I don’t think [the students are] going to walk to this site. You haven’t really addressed football games and the impact it is going to have on that road. I don’t want things to get broken. Kids break things.”
Waters responded by saying many of those students live in the community now.
“Those are our kids and our neighbors kids,” she said, seemingly surprised by the comments.
At one point, Waters named the various by-right uses that could go on the site, if they fit and were actually pursued by someone. That list includes, but is not limited to the following: airport, college or university, hospital, museum, sports fields, zoo, bus terminal, country club, golf course, hotel, utility substation.
“Nothing on your list intimidates those that live here,” said Tom Stegbauer.
As Waters attempted to respond to one of his comments, Stegbauer cut her off and said, “You’ve talked enough. It’s my turn.” Members of the audience cheered and shouted comments such as those listed above. Stegbauer received lots of support from the crowd as he spoke and many people thanked him for being stern.
One supporter spoke of a recent rezoning application for the NCC property that could have had a much greater impact on traffic through the community.
“Something will probably happen in that area and people need to know that,” Erica McCoy said, meaning there will still be traffic, possibly much worse than school traffic. A county staff report indicated that traffic would be significantly lower with a school than with by-right uses. And, if developed without rezoning, there may be little way of obtaining additional improvements, or even those that will be made if the school is built.
Several residents said they opposed the traffic circle proposed at Belmont Ridge Road and Riverside Parkway. Several residents also said they thought comparisons to by-right development were unfair because the land has remained vacant for decades.
Many residents pointed to the nearby Lexington Seven property, where the owners have offered to sell the county a high school site with the 75 acres the school system typically prefers. The NCC site provides just 54 acres.
We have said all along that the key to HS 8 is to build it as quickly and most cost-effectively as possible for the citizens of Lansdowne, North Ashburn and the taxpayers of Loudoun County,” said Ken McVearry, representative for the Lexington Seven owners. “The Lexington Seven location can deliver a high school as fast, if not faster, and less expensively than any other location when you consider total cost of the project. All we’ve been seeking is a fair consideration of our location and as you heard Supervisor Waters say, the ideal target for LCPS is up to 75 acres for a high school and obviously the Lexington Seven site fits that mold better. We remain convinced that Lexington Seven is the best location for HS-8 and continue to be willing to discuss with all interested parties.”
McVearry also pointed out that the cost for his site was significantly lower on a per-acre basis than the NCC site.
Waters said the long-term costs were higher for the Lexington Seven site, that it was not walkable for students and that it is not in contention.
“We’re not moving forward with Lexington Seven,” she said.
Resident Kathy Hurley said it was a surprise to her that the decision has been made.
“I didn’t realize that this was just a formality,” Hurley said. She also asked for the report showing that the long-term costs were higher at Lexington Seven.
Waters said the report would remain confidential during land acquisition negotiations because it could hurt the county’s bargaining position.
Tom Berezoski, who been active in county politics, said the school system’s proposed Plan B for the NCC site could create a great project. Most residents supporting the site said they preferred Plan B.
“Plan B could be a spectacular high school,” Berezoski said. “If done correctly, it could be almost like a college campus.”
He also estimated the economic development potential at Lexington Seven could produce enough revenue to pay for three high schools. The owners of the Lexington Seven property said Berezoski’s estimated were not accurate and significantly too high.
One concern about Plan B for the proposed school is that it provided two access points. In addition to the access from Upper Belmont Place, the plan calls for access to the site from Kipheart Drive, a proposition that was both welcomed and castigated by various residents.
Opponents also criticized the elimination of the 12-acre Lansdowne Sports Park to accommodate the high school. The park, located on Kipheart Drive, has three public playing fields, two picnic pavillions, a tot lot, and a bathroom. But to accommodate a school at the NCC, 30 acres of public land will be converted from the present uses: the 15-acre sports park and the rest from the Belmont Ridge Middle School campus.