Supervisors unanimous; it’s Lansdowne For HS-8

By Erika Jacobson Moore

Leesburg Today

Sept. 20, 2011

There is still debate among some residents in Lansdowne about whether the National Conference Center site is the right location for Loudoun’s next high school, but there was no such public debate among supervisors Tuesday.

The board voted unanimously after two closed sessions to approve the new high school, known as HS-8, on the conference center property in Lansdowne. The school is the final piece of what has been called the “three-school solution” for Ashburn students, as area schools have continued to experience overcrowding and lack of seats as the young population there continues to age through the public school system.

“We don’t make this decision in a vacuum,” Vice Chairman Susan Klimek Buckley (D-Sugarland Run) said. “We have talked about this for years. We have worked on this issue for years. We have looked at options and options and options. I believe that HS-8 at the conference center site is the right school at the right location at the right time.”

The 45.61-acre site will be purchased for the contract price of $20 million, according to the action taken by the board. But the contract is only step one of a long process, supervisors opined. Once the contract is executed, a 120-day due diligence period will begin. During that time county staff will be conducting studies on the property and determine its final feasibility for a high school. There also will be a rezoning process, including a public hearing before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, to put in place the land use to allow for development of a high school.

The area just south of the National Conference Center property is home to Belmont Ridge Middle School, and the new high school will be developed as a co-located facility with the existing middle school. Supervisors also touted its walkability.

In May, supervisors announced they were pursuing the purchase of the 45-acre National Conference Center property for the future site of the high school over any other options that had come forward. County staff members have since worked on a contract for the property, which sits just north of Rt. 7 off Belmont Ridge Road.

The proposed high school plan calls for a 265,000-square-foot building with room for 1,600 students. If all goes according to plan, it is scheduled to be built in time for a fall 2015 opening.

“There are potential hurdles in the way, but we will do everything we can to open doors there by September 2015,” School Board Chairman John Stevens (Potomac) said following the vote. “We definitely have students ready to go.”

Moving forward, supervisors called for a process that fully engages those residents who have remained adamantly opposed to the project. County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said he would like to see a similar process as that conducted during review of the Sterling sheriff’s substation. That project also saw resident pushback over concerns of impacts to its community.

“I would ask that as we go through this process that we ensure that we sit down with the community because not all are in agreement,” York said, adding that the county needs “to do, to the best of our ability, mitigation of all the concerns.”

Many of the opponents to the NCC site instead supported a high school on the Lexington Seven property located on the north side of Rt. 7 just west of Loudoun County Parkway. Following the board action, Ken McVearry of Capital Associates, said, “While we respect the Board of Supervisor’s decision to move forward on a contract with NCC, we will of course be open to discussing the Lexington Seven property with them and the school system in the future should the need arise, as it may. We firmly believe that Lexington Seven offers the students and taxpayers of Loudoun County the fastest and most cost-effective alternative for HS-8.”

Lansdowne resident Suzanne Kim is opposed to a high school on the NCC site because she says there are still many unanswered questions, such as the significant traffic impact of a high school and a middle school will have on the neighborhood.

“I hope there is still room to talk about this because there are a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “A lot of people in this neighborhood feel this is not the right place for this high school.”

But not all response to the NCC has been negative and there has been a strong contingent of parents, both from Lansdowne and Ashburn Farm that have called on supervisors to follow through on its commitment to their communities. Monday night more than a dozen of those parents came before the board wearing green “for go” to ask for a final resolution.

“We know you understand the need for HS-8 or we wouldn’t be this far with the NCC site. This is an opportunity to correct over development of Loudoun County and catch up with other schools,” Lansdowne resident Angela Bennett said.

Some of the parents who spoke in favor of the high school live only one or two blocks from the proposed site, and said they fully expect to hear the sounds of the band practicing, football games and other activities. But the benefits of the school far outweigh any impacts, they said.

“I look forward to the community spirit and [sense of] neighborhood it will bring to our community in the long term,” resident Deborah Pitonyak said.

“I lived about a half a mile from James Madison High School,” Riverpoint Drive resident Glenn Gaines said, noting he graduated from there in 1961, and his wife and child also graduated from there. “I enjoyed listening to the band and the great sounds one would expect from an education facility…We’re talking five football games a year. And it was so nice to hear the national anthem from your front porch. And it is your front porch. You can’t hear it inside your home.”

Before it was thought of as a location for a school site, the NCC property was proposed for a different kind of development. In 2009, there was a plan for up to 212 residential units, including up to 45 single family homes, 105 townhouses and 62 multi-family units. After a public hearing at the Planning Commission and a community meeting that saw extensive public opposition, that plan fell by the wayside. If a school was not built on the site, NCC would still be able to build a number of commercial uses by right, including a zoo, airport, convention center, RV park, campsite and museum. Supporters of the school said that was one important reason to build HS-8 at that location.

“It sits practically in my backyard, but to ensure a school for my children I am willing to go with it,” Lansdowne resident Sharon Mundie said. “The NCC site would have been sold for a commercial use if not for school… on that property a school is a better choice for our community.”

Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run), who lives in Lansdowne, said she was happy to see residents of her neighborhood and Ashburn Farm come together over HS-8, after battling over the boundaries of Tuscarora High School.

“There were a lot of hurt feelings and it even filtered down to the kids saying hurtful things to each other,” Waters said. “But now they’re putting the kids first. And it is a good example. They will see that together we can accomplish much.”

Staff Writer Danielle Nadler contributed to this report

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