About 60 people who live near Catharpin Park turned out for a community meeting Sept. 25 to express their strong opposition to a proposal to build a school bus transportation center next to the park.
The raucous meeting opened with residents threatening to walk out if they were not given the opportunity to speak. Before it ended, a member of the Prince William County School Board apologized for her vote to move forward with the plan, and the Gainesville District supervisor said he would try to slow the process to allow more time to get public input and consider other options.
The meeting took place about five weeks after Prince William schools unveiled a proposal to build the transportation center on a 14-acre site next to Catharpin Park, at Kyle Wilson Way and Route 234. School officials said the facility, where about 150 buses would eventually be housed, fueled and maintained, is needed to meet the needs of the rapidly growing population in western Prince William.
Most of the site proposed for the facility is owned by the county. Under the proposal, the school system would pay the county $1.3 million for the land. The county could use that money to help fund planned improvements at Catharpin Park, school officials said.
Dave Cline, associate superintendent for finance and support services, opened the meeting by asking residents to write their comments and questions on forms that would be collected and addressed later in the meeting. Mac Haddow, president of the Oak Valley Homeowners Association, responded angrily, saying that the school officials were treating the residents “like children.”
“If you won’t allow people to speak to give you input . . . what’s the point?” Haddow asked. “If this is just going to be a propaganda session, we should all walk out.”
As Haddow and several other residents stood up to leave, Supervisor Peter K. Candland (R-Gainesville) stepped in to calm the audience, saying that he would stay after the meeting to hear all the residents’ concerns. The meeting proceeded as school officials made a case for the transportation center, in a presentation punctuated by shouts, questions and occasional bursts of derisive laughter from the residents.
Ed Bishop, director of transportation services for the school system, said that western Prince William is served by the McCuin Transportation Center, which is operating over capacity. Buses have to travel long distances across the county for routine maintenance and refueling, and building a transportation center north of Interstate 66 and Route 29 would reduce traffic, driving time and costs, he said.
Throughout the presentation, residents raised concerns about increased traffic on Route 234, safety issues, the proximity of the proposed transportation center to homes and wells, and the effect of the facility on property values of nearby homes.
“Traffic is . . . a huge concern because [Route] 234 is only a two-lane road,” Catharpin resident Wendy Kaczmar said. “It’s already heavily traveled, and you’re going to add 150 buses and 300 cars at two trips a day.”
“The entire community in Catharpin . . . everybody is on well and septic,” Kaczmar said. “This is an industrial facility that is going to have refueling taking place, and I’m concerned about the environmental hazard to the wells. When you’re on a well, and your well is damaged, then you have no water. And that impacts not only their lives, but it impacts their property values. It basically wipes it out.”
Haddow charged that the county is following the “path of least resistance” by placing the facility in the Catharpin area, where there are relatively few residents to fight the plan.
“What’s happening now, because this is the Rural Crescent, because there is very little development here, you’re making this a junk corridor,” Haddow said. “We saw it with the Bi-County Parkway, we’re seeing it with Dominion Power [lines], and now we’re seeing it with the school bus maintenance depot. You’re making it a junk corridor even though it violates the very tenet of the Rural Crescent.”
In response to a question from Haddow, Alyson A. Satterwhite, who represents the Gainesville District on the School Board, admitted that she had reluctantly voted to move forward with the proposal after the School Board discussed the land acquisition in executive session.
“I messed up,” she said about voting on the matter without first seeking public input. “I’m sorry. I’m human. I made mistakes.”
Candland said he was uncomfortable with the schedule calling for an Oct. 15 Planning Commission public hearing on the proposal, to be followed by a Board of County Supervisors decision next month.
“I’m not comfortable voting on that in November,” Candland said. “That’s what I’m going to push for . . . that we allow people more time to talk about this, to see if there are other options, to see if there’s any way that we can possibly mitigate this situation to allow it to move forward.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.