One of the things Virginia McGavin, 71, likes to do most on these crisp fall days is to jump on her tractor and mow the six acres of remaining land she owns overlooking the Leesburg Pike between Vienna and Great Falls.
"That's my pride and joy," said the feisty, dark-haired woman, pointing to her red tractor sitting near her 40-year-old sprawling two-story home, which looks as if it has been sitting on top of a hillside for more than a century.
But Virginia McGavin's pastoral environment is endangered. She and her daughter, Virginia Lee McGavin-Rita, said they feel her immediate neighbor, a church, is trying to force her to leave home.
"I am here for life, or whatever I have left of it," McGavin said while walking through the remains of her summer garden to the edge of a 20-foot dropoff that she said has been created by excavations carried out by Fellowship Christian Church to make room for a parking lot.
"It is 18 inches from my property line," McGavin said. She said she is supposed to have a 25-foot buffer between her land and the church parking lot. "Can't you do something about it? I'm afraid I'm going to drive my tractor right off there. Something has to be done," McGavin told her lawyer.
On Oct. 16 the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) is scheduled to act on an application by the church that would allow it to build a Christian education building and additional parking facilities. Pastor James Ahlemann this week said his rapidly growing congregation needs more space.
Residents of two housing developments have formed the Colvin's Glen and Colvin's Forest Neighborhood Group to fight the expansion. Those two developments virtually surround the McGavin land and the church. For once, the McGavins said, they do not "stand alone" in their fight to stay on the land that has been in their family for more than a century. McGavin said the minister has offered to build a nursing home on some of her property in the past and provide her with a place to live if she would give the church parts of her land. But Virginia McGavin is far from needing a nursing home, and her roots in the western part of Fairfax run deep. Her father was Samuel Millard, who operated Millard's Mill in the late 1800s. That mill is now a county park known as Colvin Run Mill.
"I was born near that mill," McGavin said. "We used to have a swimmin' pool and recreation area down there where Route 7 is now." McGavin and her late husband Charles built the home she lives in in the 1940s, apparently patterning it after many of Virginia's rural estates.
Ahlemann said he thinks those who live around the church "are upset by the rapid growth of the congregation." Two Sunday services are now held to accommodate the 1,400 members. Fairfax County Police weekly come to the church's entrances on the Leesburg Pike, east of the Reston turnoff, to help with Sunday traffic jams.
The McGavin home is almost landlocked by property the church now owns, all of which was originally part of her family's farm long ago.
McGavin and her husband sold the land where the church now sits in 1976 to raise money "to care for my sisters who were very ill. The only other offer was from a fast-food restaurant. It had been on the market for a year and a half when the church came along. I thought, 'You can't go wrong with a church,' " McGavin said.
Since that time the church has bought land east of McGavin's house, but the access to it is across her property. There is a tangled lawsuit pending over a disputed easement. McGavin and the ministerial staff are no longer on what "you might call speaking terms," said one neighbor.
Last spring McGavin's narrow driveway was blocked by mud dumped by church crews moving topsoil from one piece of land to another. "Emergency vehicles could not have gotten in here if we had needed them," said McGavin-Rita.
"We regret that Mrs. McGavin is upset," Ahlemann said. "She sold us the land thinking it would be a little country church. She had no idea that the church would grow so fast. We didn't anticipate it either," Ahlemann said. "We have a broad ministry. We serve over 1,000 families from all over Northern Virginia."
When the church this summer filed the application with the BZA for permission to expand its existing facilities, a church official also filed an application that would have been heard by the board of supervisors for a special exception seeking approval for a day care center for up to 750 children. That application was dropped after it was apparent that the county planning staff would recommend its denial. The numbers in that request were an administrative mistake, Ahlemann said. He said the church would never have a day care center that large.
The pending measure before the BZA only seeks permission to build educational facilities. Approximately 250 residents of Colvin's Glen and Colvin's Forest have signed petitions opposing it. Charles D. Steinmetz, president of that neighborhood coalition, said the application is a maneuver to circumvent the need for the special exception. He said a request for a large day care center is almost sure to arise once the building is constructed. County staff members concede he is probably right.
Steinmetz and the McGavins point to a long list of zoning rules they say the church has violated. "Our contentions are that they are in violation in a number of areas," Steinmetz said. He listed violations including drainage problems, failure to meet landscaping and barrier requirements, over-grading, excessive clearing of trees and damage to the McGavin property as a result of erosion and siltation problems.
A spokesman for Dranesville Supervisor Nancy Falck's office agreed Thursday that there have been violations. Many have been cleaned up as a result of pressures brought by Falck's office, said Joan DuBois, Falck's administrative assistant.
"Somewhere along the line the church was allowed to have a lot of violations. Somebody blew it at DEM the Department of Environmental Management or otherwise," she said.
"The church people were told to clean up their act," DuBois said. "We are holding a tight rein on their bond," she said, referring to dollars the church had to post with the county to get its initial building permits. If a builder or, in this case, the church, fails to meet county environmental and utility standards, the county can use that bond money to help defray the cost of correcting infractions.
Ahlemann said many of those violations no longer exist and promised that the church would be "following through" better on its commitments to the county.
He blamed problems with contractors for many of the problems that resulted in the violations. "This creates a bad situation. We regret that the neighbors are upset," Ahlemann said.
A recent letter from Falck to residents of the neighborhood explained BZA procedures. She urged those opposing the proposal to do so from the standpoint of traffic safety because the church was in place before either of the two housing developments. Colvin's Glen and Colvin's Forest include homes that sell from the low $200,000 range to the high $300,000 range.
"I only know of one special permit request or amendment request by a church which has been denied by the BZA, and to be totally honest with you I will be surprised if the BZA denies this expansion request," Falck's letter said.
McGavin-Rita this week wrote the BZA asking why an applicant's record of previous performance could not be part of a presentation opposing an application. According to Falck's letter, the BZA staff can only respond "to what is a given factor, and the facts right this minute show there is one application and that is an amendment to an existing special permit."
DuBois called the situation a "sticky wicket." She suggested that the church and its neighbors "have gotten off on the wrong foot. I'm not sure government can solve it all. They have to learn to live like neighbors.