By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Loudoun County school officials are trying to purchase 100 acres of land for a new middle school and high school south of Route 50, part of an effort to relieve school crowding and play catch-up with the rapid growth the county has seen over the past decade.
But rather than viewing the proposal as a way to address the effects of growth, some residents have complained that it could be an impetus for development in the county's so-called transition area: a semi-rural swath meant to act as a visual buffer between the county's dense east and rural west.
To answer those concerns, school officials organized a meeting Tuesday night that more than 100 people attended. The officials took questions on why the location was selected, on the need for new schools and on the effect the project would have on nearby residents.
The proposed site on Lenah Road is across from the Lenah Run subdivision, which has 227 public school students, but it is otherwise surrounded mostly by undeveloped land.
The property is being offered to the school system by Greenvest, a development firm that was poised to build in the transition area before the previous Loudoun Board of Supervisors quashed the so-called Dulles South project in 2006. That proposal would have significantly raised the area's maximum residential density and allowed construction of more than 30,000 additional homes.
Some residents argue that building two schools at that location would put Greenvest in a better position to get residential development approved in the surrounding area, because the company could make the case that new residents would help fill the schools.
Opponents also contend that the site is too far from populated areas to the east such as South Riding and that high gas prices would make bus and car trips from those communities a hardship.
"If you approve a rezoning for a school, the logical question's going to be then by the School Board, 'We need more housing in this area to support the school,' because I think they'll be under tremendous pressure given $4-a-gallon [gas] . . . not to leave a school there isolated," said Steve Hines of Families for Dulles South, a group that opposed the massive Dulles South development proposal that was denied two years ago.
But Sam Adamo, director of the school system's Department of Planning and Legislative Services, said concerns that new schools will spur residential development are backward: Development creates a need for schools, he said, not the other way around.
"It's sort of like that 'Field of Dreams' analysis: 'If you build it, they will come,' " he said. "Schools are a mitigation for the development that's already there. We aren't the cause of development."
Adamo also said the location is desirable because the new schools would be well positioned to serve students in the suburban east and the rural west.
They also would relieve crowding at Mercer Middle School and Freedom High School, which are projected to be even more packed in the coming years, especially if the housing market rebounds and by-right development picks up again, Adamo said. The new middle school would open in fall 2010 and the new high school in fall 2011.
The schools would be built in place of homes, he added, saying that as many as 129 residential lots could be developed on the land under its current zoning. He declined to disclose the sale price of the land, since the deal is pending, but he said that it was consistent with appraisals of the property and that it was much cheaper for the school system to buy land there than in the South Riding area, where there are few available sites.
"When you begin looking at the Route 50 corridor, what our future needs are, we believe it will fulfill public school needs in that area," Adamo said. "There's already so much growth and development that's been approved."
Greenvest officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The sale hinges on applications for a special exception and other permits that the school system has filed with the county. The Board of Supervisors would have to approve the applications before the schools could be constructed.
The next major step in the approval process is a Planning Commission public input session, which officials said could get pushed back until after August.