After lengthy and vigorous debate over whether a Mormon meetinghouse to be used by more than one congregation is legally a church, the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals this week approved construction of the meetinghouse on residentially zoned land in the McLean/Falls Church area.
Even though the proposal for a Mormon building with a seating capacity of 367 had the blessings of the McLean Citizens Association, members of the Lemon Road Civic Association argued bitterly against it.
The facility will be built on approximately six acres at the intersection of Kirby Road (which becomes Idylwood at the intersection) and Great Falls Street. Plans call for a worship hall and a cultural hall, joined by movable walls to accommodate six annual conferences. The conferences, which would be attended by more than 1,000 members of the Mormon church, generated strong opposition. Residents argued that the building would be used as a regional conference center, not a church.
Lemon Road civic group President Conrad Clark said his association voted 46 to 24 on Tuesday to oppose the building. "It is not a church. It is a stake center. It is not in harmony with the residential neighborhood," he said. A stake in the Mormon church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, is similar to a diocese in the Catholic church.
Clark said the Mormons should have asked the Fairfax Board of Supervisors for a special exception to use the land as a conference center rather than asking the Board of Zoning Appeals for a permit to build a church in a residential neighborhood. Fairfax County allows churches to be built in residential neighborhoods if the Board of Zoning Appeals approves the application.
Clark said the application for 400 parking spaces far exceeded the number needed.
"This facility has a full-size basketball court. It will have a significant adverse impact on our community," Clark said. "It is not a church."
Randy Williams, a member of the Haycock Road-Great Falls Street Civic Association, said he was "not uncomfortable with the church in our neighborhood, but I am concerned about the traffic impact of this project on our area." He said he also is worried about traffic expected to be generated in the area when the West Falls Church Metro station opens. That station is just a few miles away along Idylwood Road.
Other area residents complained that the Lemon Road community was being asked to bear the burden of another "regional facility." One man said the Metro station, the Dulles toll road lanes and I-66 were all regional facilities that had adversely affected the neighborhoods around the proposed meetinghouse site. A resident of nearby Hyde Road compared building the meetinghouse and its proposed parking lot to putting in a development "the size of a Giant Food store."
"I don't believe the neighborhood can absorb this excess of traffic," another resident said.
According to attorney Charles Shumate, who represented the McLean stake of the Mormon church, use of the facility will be limited to church-related functions. Two congregations will use the facility on Sundays for services generally lasting three hours each. Six times a year, conferences for Mormon congregations from neighboring areas will use the facility, he said. The church will not ask for permission to run a day care facility, Shumate said.
Residents of other nearby single-family neighborhoods, such as Foxhall, off Kirby Road, supported the plan. Church spokesperson J. C. Richards, a McLean resident and a member of the church, presented petitions supporting the project.
When the fighting was over, the Board of Zoning Appeals ruled that the church had met county standards to qualify for a special permit to build the meetinghouse. However, the board said the church could build no more than 300 parking spaces and would have to provide extensive buffers. There also are tight restrictions on the site's landscaping plan. The board said it would have to see a final site plan prior to groundbreaking.