With the fate of the Mt. Daniel Elementary expansion and renovation project remaining in limbo at least until a vote of the Fairfax County Planning Commission on Sept. 14, the Falls Church School Board agreed to move ahead with alternative plan options at its work session Tuesday night.
The need for swift action was underscored at the meeting, with Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones having informed the board this month that a 4.6 percent growth in enrollment is possible, according to very preliminary data, when the City’s schools open after Labor Day.
The primary focus of Tuesday’s discussion was the Fellows Living Trust Tract at 604 S. Oak St., across from the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, and Dr. Jones presented three already-completed preliminary design options for a two or three story school structure on that 1.95 acre land that currently has one unoccupied house.
But while moving ahead toward possible “condemnation” or the exercise of “eminent domain” on that land, agreeing to proceed to obtain a formal assessment of its fair market value, the board did not rule out exploring the possibility of the former Madison School site on N. Washington, as well.
“There is a history of the dust up that neighbors to the Madison School site caused when that location was considered for a middle school,” Board Vice Chair John Lawrence said.
But others on the board, including Margaret Ward and chair Justin Castillo, said that all options need to be explored now, with the only condition being that a location be found inside the 2.2 square mile City limits so that hassles born of a dependency on the approvals of a neighboring jurisdiction, such as the board has faced with the Mt. Daniel situation, won’t be repeated.
There was also talk of re-purposing the Falls Church Community Center for school system use, but it was agreed that if it were to be considered, it would be much further down the road. Exploration of the acquisition of commercial property in the City was also put on the table.
The two main options – the Fellows Tract through “condemnation” and fair market purchase and the former Madison School site, currently a park – each have specific benefits.
The Fellows Tract is directly across from an existing school, freeing it from the need to have the full complement of facilities that an adjacent TJ Elementary has.
The former Madison School site is already owned by the City of Falls Church, and therefore it would cost nothing to acquire the land. The cost of acquiring the Fellows Tract could exceed $4 million.
(There is already $4 million set aside in the City’s Capital Improvement Fund for the prospective acquisition of that site).
The school board’s legal counsel, Tom Horn, told the board Tuesday that if it moves to acquire the Fellows Tract through “condemnation,” it would begin the process by making an offer for purchase, in the context of making it clear an intent to take the land for a public use by “condemnation” as allowed by law.
Then there would be an independent appraisal, likely followed by litigation in the courts to establish a fair market value.
A complicating factor in establishing the value may be the approval by the F.C. Planning Commission last month to a sub-division of the Fellows Tract into seven lots for residential development.
However, the 5-1 vote by the City Council earlier this month to redesignate the land in the City’s Comprehensive Plan from “low density residential” to “parks and open space,” which potentially degraded the value of the land by virtue of making the sale of individual residential parcels on the land less attractive in the face of potential contrary acts by the City.
Concepts of which students will go where and other aspects of a new structure at the Fellows Tract or Madison Park remained totally fluid Tuesday night as a lot of hypotheticals were thrown out to begin the deliberative process.
So, the need to act with dispatch, and to limit choices to those in the City limits were the two major points of consensus Tuesday, including going ahead with an appraisal of the Fellows Tract and a preliminary review of how something at Madison Park might look.
The three renderings of options on the Fellows Tract all showed the property taking up far less for building space than would be the case if seven residential homes were built there, Castillo noted.
Meanwhile, Castillo noted that news reports of two new area school construction projects – the Teddy Roosevelt High School and Ron Brown Middle School both in the District of Columbia – were done at costs comparable to the preliminary estimates of costs of similar construction in Falls Church.