City, School Officials Mull ‘Eminent Domain’ Taking of Fellows Property

FALLS CHURCH CHIEF Financial Officer Richard LaCondre spoke to Monday's meeting of the Falls Church City Council about the annual independent audit process that the City and School budgets are subjected to. (Photo: News-Press)
FALLS CHURCH CHIEF Financial Officer Richard LaCondre spoke to Monday’s meeting of the Falls Church City Council about the annual independent audit process that the City and School budgets are subjected to. (Photo: News-Press)

The City of Falls Church’s government, including its City Hall management, the elected City Council and the elected School Board, are in private talks to impose “eminent domain” on the 1.8-acre property at 604 S. Oak Street for purposes of acquiring the land, which is adjacent the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, for educational purposes, the News-Press has learned.

In the latest step, the School Board, at its meeting Tuesday night, went into a closed session with the stated, explicit purpose of discussing acquisition of the property, known as the Fellows Tract.

The tract’s owner, the Fellows Living Trust composed of members of the family led by the elderly woman who was raised and lived her whole life on the wooded tract in the middle of the section of residential Falls Church known as the “Virginia Forest,” had just won a preliminary approval for a sub-division of the property into seven parcels for residential development at the F.C. Planning Commission last week.

It has been mentioned in public sessions that the occupant of the land, Ms. Fellows, has been adamant about not wanting to sell her land to the City.
On the other hand, the City does retain the legal right to “condemn,” or invoke “eminent domain” on, her land for a government purpose, and the News-Press learned that this has been under discussion in closed meetings for some time.

The potential move is motivated by growth pressures on the school system, but made more acute by the fact that the Falls Church City Schools have been unable to date to win approval from adjacent Fairfax County for the expansion and renovation of its Mt. Daniel Elementary School that is a few blocks outside the City limits in the county.

While the petition for approval of the Mt. Daniel project is still before the county’s Planning Commission, no date is yet certain for that to be acted upon, and the McLean Citizens Association, the county group with the most political clout on the matter, remains opposed to the project.

So, the acquisition of the Fellows tract could be a “Plan B” if the Mt. Daniel plan is rejected by the county. The Mt. Daniel plan having been stalled for almost a year now, the City is sitting on cash from an $11.4 million bond sale approved by voters and on which it pays $950,000 in annual debt service.

According to City Manager Wyatt Shields, in an interview with the News-Press this week, while the bond referendum and the bond sale both specified the funds were to be used for the Mt. Daniel School, it is not clear that they specified the location of the school, such that if the school itself were relocated, the money could be used for it at a new site.

Such a scenario would create a potential conundrum for Fairfax County, as it would pose the prospect that the City’s schools, in moving Mt. Daniel, would put the land where the school now site up for sale in a prized residential neighborhood of the county, something that could cause some considerable heartburn for current residents of that neighborhood.

According to News-Press sources, the City has already had the Fellows tract formally appraised for its market value. In the event the City Council were to vote to invoke “eminent domain,” it would have to provide “fair market value” to the Fellows Living Trust in exchange for taking control of the property.

Were this to become the course of action, the F.C. City Council would have to vote in public session to invoke “eminent domain” on the property, and then would also have to approve, contingent upon a favorable F.C. Planning Commission recommendation, the terms of the sale of the land. The negotiations and terms of the sale could be subject to legal challenges, although the right of the City to “take” the land in this way is clearly allowed for by state law.

The F.C. Planning Commission, in granting preliminary “by right” approval for the subdivision of the Fellows tract last week, expressed many reservations about subdividing the land for seven residential tracts and thus made its approval only preliminary pending more work on the concerns of the neighbors and other factors that arose about such a subdivision.

The acting chair of the Planning Commission, Russ Wodiska, said at that meeting he did not favor the proposed use applied for by the family trust, but that under the circumstances, there was little anyone could do.

Invoking “eminent domain” would change that.