Nearly 250 Alexandria residents are fighting a proposal to open a private school in their neighborhood, complaining that the planned Christian school would add traffic, noise and congestion to an area already overburdened by all three.
The school would be operated in the educational building of the First Assembly of God Church, 700 W. Braddock Rd.
The residents of the North Ridge area have signed a petition urging the city to reject the church application for a special use permit to open the school.
Residents say the four major schools in the area already contribute to the traffic and noise problems on Braddock Road, a major commuter route. In addition, they say, traffic problems could get worse when the Braddock Road subway station opens late next year.
"This is not a religious issue in any way," says Ellie Leach, who, with her husband Harold, is leading the petition drive. Their Timber Branch Drive back yard abuts church property. "We have reached the saturation point for schools. There are only so many schools you can have in a small neighborhood and we can't assimilate more nonresidential traffic."
The Rev. Thomas F. Gulbronson, pastor of the church, said plans call for converting the three-story education building, built adjacent to the church in 1973, to a weekday academic school.
In their application for a special-use permit, church officials estimated an enrollment of 350 students, although Gulbronson gives "a very liberal estimate" of first-year enrollment of 75 to 100 students, from preschool through high school. Church officials estimate capacity of the education building at 600 to 1,000 students.
Gulbronson, who has been pastor since 1979, said his predecessor twice tried to convert the education building into a weekday school, but withdrew the requests because of neighborhood opposition. The church, which has a congregation of about 900, decided to push for a weekday school again at the urging of some of its members, Gulbronson said.
"There are people in our church who send their kids to public schools," said Gulbronson, whose son attends a Fairfax Christian school. "That's their right. What we're proposing is an alternative education program."
Church officials, contending that the noise and traffic complaints are unfounded, vigorously cite First Amendment rights, saying that providing a Christian education is a God-given ministry of their religion.
"There is no question that no government can stop us from fulfilling our God-given ministry," said the Rev. Jim Nicholls, a church member who is also a Capitol Hill lobbyist on church-related constitutional issues. "We don't go to the state for permission to run a Sunday school. That would be ridiculous.
"So why should we have to go to the state for permission to run a Monday school, a Tuesday school, a Friday school or any other weekday school. . . . This is where the church and the state are absolutely separate. They have no business intruding on our God-given calling."
Nicholls, who served on the church board that studied the feasibility of opening the school, concedes that the city has a right to assure that the public's health and safety are not endangered. In the unlikely event there were such problems, he said, the church would "follow (the city's) advice" and correct them.
Nicholls said the church is proceeding with the usual steps for the special use permit. But, he adds, "We got a permit to build an education building, so I don't really see the reasoning in having to go back to get a special use permit."
Some neighborhood residents don't quite see it that way.
"No one is objecting to their right to teach religion," says Ellie Leach. "We're only objecting to their having a full academic school in there. They're arguing that the First Amendment gives them a right to do this. Well, the First Amendment gives you the right to freedom of religion, not the freedom to put up an academic school in a neighborhood which cannot possibly assimilate more traffic, cannot possibly condone more noise."
Some neighbors have complained that the proposed school hours, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., would compound rush-hour traffic problems as children arrive at and depart from school. But school officials say they don't expect much of an increase in traffic congestion from parents dropping off and picking up their children.
Other neighbors have questioned whether the 5.2 acres of church grounds and 202 parking spaces are sufficient for a potential future enrollment of 350 students, plus 20 to 25 teachers.
"I'm in favor of churches running schools," said Willis H. Wills, a Malcolm Place neighbor who teaches English at St. Stephen's school. "But I'm concerned about whether they have room enough in a community like this. . . . If they start off with 350, they could go to 800 to 1,000 students in a few years. Do they have space enough for that? We (St. Stephen's) have 30 to 35 acres for less than 600 boys."
So far there has been little direct communication between the church and the nearby residents. But Gulbronson said the church plans to sponsor an open house in its Fellowship Hall so neighbors and church members can discuss their problems. The meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. June 21, two weeks before a July 6 public hearing before the city planning commission. The issue then will go to the City Council for a final decision, which is expected sometime this summer.