A major win for the Falls Church City Schools was achieved at the Fairfax Planning Commission meeting last week when a deferral was granted by the commission on its decision concerning the Mt. Daniel School renovation and expansion.
Not only was the deferral granted to permit more time for the City Schools to answer questions from commission members and the public, but the deferral was set back to after this upcoming November 3 election, which could be considered the most important success for the F.C. Schools.
It means, in short, that politics as a factor influencing any decision by the commission has been neutralized. Fairfax County’s Dranesville Supervisor John Foust is engaged in a rough re-election battle this fall against challenger Jennifer Chronis.
In this context, the McLean Citizens Association has been demanding the allegiance of Foust and his hand-picked member of the Planning Commission, John Ulfelder, to its much-publicized opposition to the Mt. Daniel expansion plan.
The association issued a paper this summer claiming that the 8.73 acre site located three blocks outside the City of Falls Church in Fairfax County would simply be too crowded with the planned improvements. The plans involve increasing the site’s student capacity from 436 to 534 students.
The rule of thumb for such matters when taken up by the Planning Commission is the same as it is for the county’s Board of Supervisors. That is, the rest of the commission or board is heavily inclined to vote in whatever direction the representative of a district in question recommends.
Therefore, in this case, the recommendation of Ulfelder, as a perceived surrogate of Foust, would be decisive. If Ulfelder were to go against the wishes of the McLean Citizens Association and recommend in favor of the Mt. Daniel expansion, then the project would be approved overall, but without a doubt at the expense of Foust’s re-election.
So, Ulfelder opened the agenda item on Mt. Daniel last Thursday with the following, “The applicant (Falls Church Schools – ed.) has requested that we further defer our decision while they proceed with a detailed traffic analysis to help address the impact of the difficult traffic access and circulation issues involving this particular school site now and into the future, as well as to consider possible alternatives to the proposed expansion plan.”
He added that while written request “for further referral did not propose or suggest a specific date for a decision in this matter, the applicant’s representative made it clear to me that a new date in early November would be both appropriate and acceptable.”
Thus, by recommending a postponement of the date to reconsider until November 4, the day after the November election, Ulfedler relieved himself of a lot of political pressure, helping to better ensure that the matter will be considered on its merits alone.
“I am hopeful that the applicant will use the additional time to further reexamine the original proposal in light of the various questions and concerns raised during this review process and consider all possible options in order to not only meet the needs of their growing school system, but to ameliorate the potential impacts of any expansion of Mt. Daniel on their Fairfax County neighbors,” Ulfelder said. His motion passed unanimously without any further comment.
Ironically, whereas opposition to Mt. Daniel upgrades in the past drew the most opposition from immediate neighbors to the site, that has not been the case this time, at least not so far. Neighbors are now more concerned that the Falls Church Schools might decide to move the school off the site, altogether, and sell the site to a residential developer who could build hundreds of residential apartments there in its place.
For the neighbors, therefore, the school expansion has been seen as the “lesser of evils.”
In a summary of the schools’ position, it is stated on its website that “Mt. Daniel School is currently 100 students over capacity. Just in the last two years, dedicated program areas such as art and music rooms, and even the library have been converted to general classrooms. Couple that with the Americans With Disabilities Act deficiencies (lack of sprinklers, wheelchair ramps, small door widths, etc.), Mt. Daniel is in need of an overhaul.”
The proposed expansion and renovation involves a demolition of a building with 22,498 square feet and the new addition of 25,843 feet for a net increase in building footprint of 3,345 square feet.
Falls Church has provided data to the Fairfax Planning Commissioners citing that “the proposed school expansion is similar in extent as many school sites located in close proximity in Fairfax County.”
The nearby Haycock Elementary School, for example, has 879 students on a 10 acre parcel, or 87.9 students per acre, compared to the Mt. Daniel plan for 534 students on 8.73 acres or 61 students per acre.
Also in the Dranesville District, Spring Hill Elementary has 955 students on a 10 acre parcel for 99.5 students per acre, Dranesville Elementary has 770 students on five acres for 154 per acre, Glen Forest Elementary has 1,042 students on a 10.2 acre parcel for 102 students per acre, and Greenbriar West Elementary has 1,138 students on 10 acres in the Chantilly area for 113 students per acre.
Even when the enrollment at Mt. Daniel is expected to grow to 665 students in 15 years and 690 students in 20 years, the average would remain under 80 students per acre.