Land Purchase for Schools Rejected

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors rejected a $19 million plan yesterday to buy land for a middle school and a high school in a split vote that put the board sharply at odds with the school system.

The majority in the 5 to 4 vote voiced concerns that the 99-acre Lenah property in southern Loudoun was overpriced and too far from communities it would serve. Board Chairman Scott K. York (I) and Supervisors Susan Klimek Buckley (D-Sugarland Run), Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) dissented.

"I do not believe that this short-term solution will lead . . . to the long-term welfare of the county," said Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles), who proposed the motion to stop the deal.

With about 57,000 students, the Loudoun school system is the region's fastest-growing. Finding land for new campuses is a perennial challenge.

Miller said that the county's priority should be to find land for new campuses to serve developed communities and that the Lenah site did not do the trick. School officials had said the site was centrally located because of development they anticipate in that part of the county.

Miller also expressed concern that developer Greenvest, the property owner, was charging nearly $200,000 an acre for land on which it is appealing its tax assessment. Greenvest is arguing to the County Board of Equalization that the land should be valued at $35,000 an acre for tax purposes.

Sam C. Adamo, director of planning and legislative services for the Loudoun school system, said that such appeals are standard business practice and that the assessed value, $150,000 an acre, was well within range of the purchase price.

Dissenters said the board majority was making a mistake.

The proposal "is well within budget; the process was a legitimate one, and it played out," Buckley said.

Burton, who has loudly criticized the deal, was a surprise dissenter.

"I don't like this location. I don't like what the School Board did," he said. "I think we are handing money to Greenvest." But Burton said the legal grounds for rejecting the deal were weak.

Many parents were disappointed by the decision. On Monday night, more than 80 people came to a hearing on the proposal, with more than two dozen speakers supporting the deal. Other meetings and hearings on the issue also have been well-attended.

"We're scratching our heads, wondering what happened," said Ed Sugg of South Riding, father of three children in Loudoun schools. "We're building elementary schools. Has the board not done the math that elementary school students eventually become middle school students and then high school students?"

The site would have accommodated a middle school that was to open in 2010 and a high school that was to open in 2011. Those dates will probably be pushed back two years, Adamo said.

The school system has been looking into the Lenah site since March 2007, he said, and has invested about $1 million in surveying and preparation costs. He estimated that the cost to build a school rises $4 million a year, meaning that the combined construction costs for the two schools would be $16 million higher with the delays.

The board decision is "kind of disheartening, and this has some long-range implications," Adamo said. "You're asking a landowner to give up a piece of land for a pretty long time" as studies and preparations are made for potential sites for schools. Adamo said he worried about the school system's ability to negotiate future land deals.

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