A proposal by the City of Falls Church to buy several acres of privately owned open space in Fairfax County for a new school has run into stiff opposition from homeowners who view the communal property as integral to their 52-year-old community of moderately priced townhouses.
Falls Church officials last week formally presented a $4 million offer to buy the land on Cherry Street from the Hillwood Square Mutual Association, a cooperative of 160 families whose homes and an adjacent field occupy 19 acres just outside the Falls Church city limits. The association has not voted on the offer, but the initial response was far from favorable.
Some residents oppose selling the land at any price. Others say the city's offer was much too low. Also in dispute is the size of the parcel. Falls Church puts it at 5.67 acres. Hillwood Square officials say it is more like 6.5 acres.
"They don't want to buy the land; they want us to give it to them," said Bobby Eppard, 66, a school bus driver for Falls Church public schools who bought a duplex in Hillwood Square two years ago.
"I'm very much opposed to school construction on our property," said Marge Cratty, 82, who has lived in Hillwood for 52 years. "Traffic would be a big problem."
"We probably have one of the largest privately owned open tracts of land inside the Beltway," said Steve Tingen, 50, a computer systems analyst who strongly opposes any sale. "To many of us, the land is priceless."
The issue has stirred a measure of intrigue in the community of wooden two-story townhouses, whose front doors open onto pedestrian-only walkways and towering trees ablaze in fall colors.
Originally built by the Navy in 1941 for workers at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, the development became a private cooperative in 1950. Today, three-bedroom homes in the community sell for about $130,000. Under the mutual association's rules, any sale of the communal land requires a two-thirds vote by the membership.
While a core of preservationists opposes any sale, residents say, other homeowners have been quietly contacting developers, who have offered up to $24 million for the land. Those favoring a sale have spread the word that Falls Church could declare eminent domain and take over the land at a price to be set by a judge.
After presenting their proposal last week, Falls Church officials told Hillwood Square homeowners that the city had not yet made any decision on declaring eminent domain and wanted above all to negotiate a purchase price for the land.
"We don't need to consider what our legal authority may be until all opportunities to negotiate have ended," City Manager Daniel E. McKeever said. He said declaring eminent domain remains "one of our options" if the city concludes that the Hillwood property is "the only site we should consider and there is no other way to obtain the property."
McKeever said he hopes to receive a counterproposal from Hillwood and believes further negotiations are possible.
Fairfax Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), whose district includes Hillwood Square, said that under Virginia law, cities -- unlike counties -- have the power to declare eminent domain as a last resort. But he said he had received assurances that Falls Church would not use that authority. He said he nevertheless warned city officials that Fairfax County would fight such an action vigorously in court.
"The county will not sit idly by and let that happen," Connolly said. "That would be an infringement on our sovereignty and a hostile act by a neighboring jurisdiction."
The quest by Falls Church for land outside its borders is especially galling, Connolly said, because Fairfax transferred the former Whittier School site to the city about 10 years ago.
"Instead of renewing it as a school, the city chose to demolish the building and use the land to develop some upscale townhouses so that they could add residents to the city and broaden their tax base," Connolly said. More recently, he said, a proposed school site within the city limits ran into opposition from local residents and ended up as a park.
"Falls Church residents want to send their children to fine Falls Church schools, but they don't want them in their back yard," Tingen said. "They want to come onto the land of private property owners in Fairfax County and thrust [a new school] on us. And to add insult to injury, none of our children would be able to go to it" because they live outside the Falls Church city limits.
McKeever said the former school property on Hillwood Avenue was sold to developers before the city knew how rapidly the school-age population was growing.
Falls Church's four public schools -- all but one located outside the city's boundaries -- are currently over their capacity with 1,800 students, and enrollment is projected to grow to as many as 2,500 students in the next 10 years, said Mary Ellen Shaw, superintendent of city schools.
She said that Falls Church needs a new middle school for 600 students by fall 2006 and that the Hillwood Square property is the best site.
Hillwood Square preservationists bristle at the suggestion that the property is "vacant land" just waiting to be developed. In addition to a playground with a slide and swings, it has a ballfield with a backstop, an area for soccer games, grills for barbecuing and garden plots where residents grow corn, squash, okra, tomatoes and asparagus, among other vegetables. A fig tree stands next to the plots, and an evergreen grows beside the playground in memory of a boy who died of cancer.
"In no way is it vacant land," Tingen said. "It's part of the original design of our community." He noted that Hillwood spends $5,500 a year for mowing services and has been paying a hefty county property tax on the land for more than 50 years.
"It's developed the way we set it up," said Heather Flood, 30, a registered nurse who moved in recently. "It's developed as an open space."