By Kathleen Brown
Fairfax County, to its credit, has launched sweeping initiatives to address climate change (Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan, CECAP), the need for more inclusive and equitable policies and services (One Fairfax), and designs that answer the growing call — made real by the global pandemic — for more walkable, live-able communities.
So why is the county willing to quietly turn over two of the last remaining acres of parkland in one of the least green, most high-need areas of Fairfax County, for a non-park-related parking lot?
It appears Fairfax County Public Schools developed a building expansion plan for Justice High School that depends on ‘borrowing’ parkland located across Peace Valley Lane for spillover parking. Neither FCPS nor the Fairfax County Park Authority bothered to inform the surrounding communities. Only after months of pressure from a small group of park advocates did FCPS finally schedule a community meeting to present their proposal and answer questions.
At that virtual meeting on May 6, more than 100 people overwhelmingly registered their opposition to the loss of parkland for school parking. Community members offered many creative alternatives, including reducing the need for onsite parking through bike racks, ridesharing, community-sponsored electric scooters and parking at a nearby church.
Justice Park, created in 1961, is the only local park of its size and type in the Bailey’s/Seven Corners area. It serves a densely populated area with the highest socioeconomic needs in Fairfax County, and among the lowest amount of parkland per capita. Opportunities to acquire more parkland are practically non-existent. Many Justice High School area families live in high-rise and apartment buildings with no yards of their own, which are urban environments.
Half of the 17-acre Justice Park is covered by a hilly, urban forest with a tributary of Tripp’s Run that drains directly into Lake Barcroft. The wooded area is beautiful yet cut off from the popular recreation area of the park by invasive plants. Few park users know of it. Meanwhile, the stream is badly degraded from years of runoff from impervious surfaces including a large existing parking lot at the school.
Justice Park has all the essential ingredients to become exactly the type of walkable, livable local park called for by environmental and smart growth advocates. Instead, at a time when the County has committed to reducing greenhouse emissions, including reliance on cars, FCPS wishes to turn two acres of grass and mature shade trees into more asphalt. Among the losses: The only open-play area in the vicinity that is large and flat enough to accommodate pick-up soccer, kite flying, playing catch or frisbee.
Public city parks were founded in the late 1800s by progressive reformers who “argued that open space and fresh air were essential to childhood in a democratic society. They also regarded green spaces as necessary quiet refuges for adults bombarded with the noise and clamor of city life.” [Neil Gale, PhD, in Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal]. That’s just as true now, if not more so. Why rob the future beneficiaries of that large open green space?
How is it possible for FCPS and FCPA to justify this change? Before making changes to a county park, the Park Authority must undergo a Master Plan Amendment that provides multiple opportunities for public input. Three years ago, the nearby Ravenwood Park community asked permission to plant community gardens within the park but were denied on the grounds that a Master Plan amendment would be required. Similarly, a master plan amendment was required before lights could be added to the softball diamond. Yet now FCPA has been willing to let FCPS pave up to 25 percent of the non-wooded recreation side of the park for a non-park use without a master plan amendment.
Up to now, neither the FCPS nor the Park Authority has complied with repeated requests for full transparency about the process they have been following. Very puzzling, considering that the parkland, the school property, and the street between them are all owned by Fairfax County, not VDOT or a private developer.
The three-story school building addition for classrooms, labs and a cafeteria expansion is very much needed, as Justice High School is at capacity. Knowing the land constraints, FCPS could have planned a multi-story parking facility on school property. While it would cost more in the short run, it clearly would save money over the long term and offer optimal flexibility for future expansions.
We should not have to choose between quality schools and quality parks for children who deserve both. Need we remind FCPS and FCPA that the former J.E.B. Stuart Raiders are now Justice Wolves, and wolves need room to range on both sides of Peace Valley Lane. All we ask for is a less paving-intensive parking solution outside of Justice Park.
Those interested in sending a message to FCPS and FCPA, Mason Supervisor Penny Gross and
School Board Chair Ricardy Anderson can sign the “Justice for Justice Park” petition.
Take a virtual walk-thru of Justice Park and see the hidden side of the 17 acre park.
Kathleen Brown is a Justice High parent and a member of the school’s PTSA