by Erika Jacobson Moore
June 8, 2011
If last night’s community meeting is any indication, Lansdowne on the Potomac is going to be a community divided over the placement of a new high school for northern Ashburn students.
Last night was the second time residents have come together to discuss whether property at the National Conference Center is the best place to built the new high school, on a campus with the existing Belmont Ridge Middle School. While neighbors found themselves on opposite sides of the issue during December’s community meeting at Belmont Ridge, tensions have increased in recent weeks as the Board of Supervisors revealed it had chosen to pursue the NCC site, while another property owner, Lexington Seven, has waged a campaign to see its property along Rt. 7 considered further.
With the Belmont Ridge auditorium about equally split between supporters and opponents of the NCC site, many of those in favor of Lexington Seven, speakers and Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) found themselves having to talk over catcalls and comments from the audience to make their point. By the end of the meeting, the tone turned hostile as opponents of the NCC site accused Waters of ignoring their concerns, and elected leaders began to walk out as the meeting turned into a shouting match.
“We left in December with the idea that we were going to be able to talk about this, before a decision was made. Not fait accompli,” Ridgeback Court resident Tom Stegbauer said.
That was the complaint of many of the opponents of the NCC site-that the county appeared to have already made the decision about where the new high school would be built and they were powerless to stop it. Many pointed to Lexington Seven as a viable alternative that deserved to be fully vetted.
But Waters said the site decision is far from complete.
Contract negotiations are ongoing between the county and the National Conference Center and are expected to be complete in July. The due diligence period, during which additional study of the site will be conducted, is expected to be completed in October 2011, and the school will have to go through legislative approval before construction can begin. The legislative review process, which includes public hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, and opportunities for site and design amendments, is estimated to take between six to 15 months to complete. On that timeline, construction would begin around July 2013, with the school opening for the 2015 school year.
In addition, a bond referendum to fund construction of HS-8, as well as the new Ashburn elementary school and middle school, would have been approved by voters this November for the plans to move ahead. The School Board and the Board of Supervisors have yet to approve the wording of the questions, including the decision about whether the three schools would be included in a single question or broken up into three, Waters said. The Board of Supervisors over the last several years have listed all schools individually on the ballot.
The referendum will have to be accomplished before the supervisors’ August recess.
The need for a new high school in Ashburn is the one thing on which everyone present at Tuesday night’s meeting appeared to agree, but the tight timeline to see the school opened in 2015 requires a choice be made.
“We have to look at the choices we have. We had to make a call and choose one,” Waters told the audience. “If we want to open a school, we have to go down a path and choose one.”
Many opponents called such proclamations “scare tactic,” but others said that is just the reality.
“We need to remember why we’re here: There is no room at the high school level,” Lansdowne resident Jeff Goldman said. Goldman reminded the audience that school statistics show that by 2015 the county could open three high schools and see them all filled to capacity by 2018. “Without a high school there is just no room for our kids.”
Other supporters pointed out that the NCC site has plenty of by-right uses, allowing the owner to develop the property without seeking additional government permission to put in any number of uses, and would not be required to make improvements to the road network or to the surrounding community. Waters read a list of potential uses allowed by-right, which included a zoo, airport, convention center, RV park, campsite and museum. A proposal to build housing on the property was previously presented by the owners.
“If a high school does not go there, something else will,” Lansdowne resident Holly Wiles said. “The traffic is still going to be there, it is just going to be different people.”
As residents from Ashburn Farm have worked with Lansdowne residents to make the three new Ashburn schools a priority for the county, there were those from Ashburn who spoke at the meeting, some who live directly across from Stone Bridge High School.
“The kids are really not a problem. And they are walking,” Belmont Ridge parent Michelle Chance said. “The only thing we hear on a Friday night [is the band and the cheering].” Chance said when her children were young they used to like to go and watch the band practice at Stone Bridge in the afternoon. And when the games let out at night there are people walking through going back home. “It’s a neighborhood thing.”
But many in Lansdowne say having a high school that close to their homes will only cause problems, from teenagers racing down their neighborhood streets and overflow parking for football games and school events to loss of part of their property for potential roundabouts on Upper Belmont Place and the loss of the county’s Lansdowne park to make room for the high school program. Many speakers also questioned that if the standard acreage for a high school was up to 75 acres, why the county was attempting to “shoehorn” a school on around 50 acres.
Waters pointed out that Broad Run High School sits on about 40 acres, Stone Bridge has around 50 acres, and Loudoun County High School is on 38 acres. By comparison, Tuscarora High School is on 132 acres because of significant environmental restrictions on the property.
“This is by far the worst site I have ever seen,” Lansdowne resident John Powers, who has been a Fairfax and Loudoun teacher, said. He agreed that the NCC site had one entrance like Park View High School, but said Park View has a nightmare transportation problem. “This will become another Park View High School because it is jammed back in that corner.”
Those who support the Lexington Seven site asked why it was not being put forward as a viable option. Waters said all factors had to be considered, from the high asking price of the land; the need to construct Riverside Parkway past Janelia Farm and that the road would then bisect the property; construction costs and then the cost of busing all the students to the school.
“There are no walk zones with the Lexington Seven site,” she said. “Riverside Parkway was a big consideration. They were not just going to build that road and then give it to us.”
But supporters of that site said they wanted to see that information put out publicly.
“People are just trying to understand as taxpayers what we are really getting here,” Bill Klein said. “I’d like to see that information that proved detrimental with the Lexington Seven site. If there were so many downsides we’d like to see that comparison.”
But while so much of Lansdowne appears divided, there were some who spoke last night who expressed hope that it would not always be so.
“We have been working to make Lansdowne residents’ voices heard to get HS-8 in the [county construction plan] for FY12. We should be celebrating right now that we are getting the HS-8 that we so desperately need,” Lansdowne resident Angela Bennett told her neighbors. “It breaks my heart that we are becoming a neighborhood divided. I would like to see the community come together in a positive way.”