However, a dispute over where that school should be located has been growing — and spilled over this week at a hearing before the county Board of Supervisors.
Frustrated residents told Fairfax lawmakers that a proposed two-acre site on Columbia Pike is too small for a school and too close to traffic. Instead, they want the county to renovate and reopen a long-closed school building on a larger parcel two miles away.
That site, however, has been targeted by a county task force and Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) for broader redevelopment, including a new satellite government center, housing and retail.
At a hearing Tuesday on planning guidelines for development of the Columbia Pike land, resident Denise Patton-Pace said putting a school there instead of reopening the closed Willston Elementary School would be “a slap in the face” to those who live in the area. The county’s desire to use the Willston site to spur economic development in the area should not, she said, take priority over educational needs.
Children, Patton-Pace told the board, “have become pawns in a land-grabbing power struggle that essentially reduces them to the status of second-class citizens.”
The Columbia Pike proposal was put forward by the developer Avalon Bay and includes townhouses and an apartment building as well as a school. Before the county can formally consider the plan, it must decide whether to change planning guidelines and zoning for the parcel to accommodate what Avalon Bay is proposing.
As that process has gotten underway, however, proponents of the Willston Drive site have begun to pressure the supervisors to reject the Columbia Pike school option. State Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax,) who used to represent the area as a school board member, co-authored an e-mail sent to citizen groups over the weekend urging them to speak out for the Willston site.
“The children of Mason District deserve the best and safest environment that we can provide,” read the e-mail, which was signed by Kory and former Mason District supervisor Christine “Tina” Trapnell.
The county took control of the former Willston Elementary School in 1983, when the school-age population in that area of Fairfax was low and school officials designated the property as “surplus.” It currently houses a county multicultural center.
A task force appointed by the county to study ways to develop Seven Corners proposed replacing the school building, playground and open space with a satellite government center, housing and retail.
When school officials got wind of that proposal, they sought to reclaim the Willston site. In a letter sent to Fairfax County Executive Edward Long Jr. last month, Superintendent Karen Garza said the school system has “articulated the need for Willston on many occasions over the past two to three years.”
Gross reacted to the letter with anger and surprise. “I’ve been working for a year or more on the idea of an East County Government Center there,” she said.
Garza declined requests for an interview.
Reopening the Willston school would require expensive repairs to modernize the building and comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Gross said, and would deprive the county of an important economic development opportunity.
But parents are more concerned about depriving their children of quality classroom space.
Like other aging, relatively affordable parts of the Washington region, the area surrounding Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads has experienced a dramatic influx of young families and new students in recent years. Several local schools are overcrowded or in danger of being over capacity by 2018, according to school enrollment figures.
“It’s maddening,” said Debbie Ratliff, whose family lives near the Willston site. She said her seventh-grade son’s school — Glasgow Middle — now has four lunch periods to accommodate all its students, the first starting at 10:50 a.m.
Some residents worry that plans are being executed without enough community input. “There is a lot of information, a lot of planning, that they have not been a part of,” Kory said.
Residents say they are also frustrated that John Thillmann, the chairman of the task force that recommended against a school on the Willston site, has ties to one of the owners of the Columbia Pike land that Avalon Bay wants to develop.
Thillmann is a vice president at the Landmark Atlantic development company, whose president, Scott Herrick, is a co-owner of the Columbia Pike land through a separate limited-liability corporation. Thillmann also has functioned as an agent for Herrick on filings for the Columbia Pike project.
Although he insists he has no financial stake in either proposal, residents who oppose the idea of a school on the Columbia Pike parcel say Thillman’s involvement adds to their concerns.
“That trust gap has impacted how the community feels about all of the redevelopment of Seven Corners,” said resident Catriona MacDonald.
Thillman said the task force opposes a school on the Willston site because the county wants to use the land as “a catalyst for potential revitalization and redevelopment. And I just don’t think a school provides that catalyst. I think an office building will.”
Current school board member Sandy Evans (Mason) has pushed for the Willston option. But with all the growth planned for the area, she said recently that she wouldn’t mind a new school on both sites. “We probably will need more classroom space in a number of different areas,” Evans said.