|The office building at 6245 Leesburg Pike as seen from Hazelton Street.|
Residents of the Sleepy Hollow Manor and Buffalo Hill communities are unhappy that they weren’t informed about the project until it was already far along in the planning process and have raised objections about traffic and safety problems.
On Dec. 5, the Fairfax County School Board approved a resolution to acquire the five-story building at 6245 Leesburg Pike—using eminent domain if necessary—and retrofit it in time for students in grades 3-5 to start attending classes there in September 2014. The Fairfax County Planning Commission approved a measure allowing the building to be used as a school.
Bailey’s has nearly 300 more students than it was designed for. Mason School Board member Sandy Evans explained the rationale for using the office building to relieve overcrowding in a Q and A document. She told residents she will set up a meeting to address their concerns.
Sleepy Hollow Manor resident Debbie Ratliff complained that only about 30 people—on her cul de sac on Shadeland Drive and on Buffalo Ridge Road—received notices about the Dec. 4 Planning Commission hearing. The letters weren’t delivered by certified mail as required, so some people thought they were junk mail and didn’t open them.
“We weren’t part of the process,” Ratliff complained. She said the project will benefit students who attend Bailey’s magnet programs and don’t even live in the Bailey’s attendance zone. “This is literally in our backyard,” yet neither Evans nor Mason Supervisor Penny Gross “communicated with us. A lot of us feel insulted.”
Ratliff believes putting children into the building without making any alterations to the grounds will be unsafe. FCPS plans to seek approval to put up a playground and other exterior improvements, but that process will take much longer.
That delay means it could take two years before a fence could be put up to prevent children from running into the street, she said. Meanwhile there is heavy traffic and speeding on Route 7. Last year there was a car crash fatality on Castle Road and an armed robbery at a post office across the street in the Seven Corners Shopping Center last year. “It’s a mess; it’s dangerous,” she said.
Ratliff said the attorney hired by FCPS to oversee the acquisition, John McGranahan Jr., of Hunton & Williams, promised residents that their children would never go to the office building school. “That is insulting,” said Ratliff. “If it’s not good enough for my kid, it’s not good for any kid.” Besides, he can’t make that promise; FCPS is likely to carry out a boundary adjustment study within the next few years.
At a meeting at Bailey’s Nov. 26, Gross told the audience that the office building will become “a permanent elementary school for all of us,” Ratliff said. “Now it’s being spun as a Bailey’s-only solution. It’s insulting for anyone to tell us it’s not going to be our neighborhood school.” Children in Ratliff’s neighborhood currently go to Sleepy Hollow Elementary School.
Richard Chesterton, vice president of the Buffalo Hill Citizens Association, urged the Planning Commission to reject the proposal, also citing the lack of notification and traffic concerns, as well as the lack of pedestrian access and insufficient screening between the building and the neighborhood. In addition, he said the site is only three and a-half acres, which is one-third of the minimum size recommend for an elementary school by the Virginia Department of Education.
“At some future date, this school is expected to cease being an auxiliary school for Bailey’s Elementary and may well become our local elementary school,” Chesterton said. “To meet its long-term purpose, we want a well-designed school with adequate grounds that is not the product of crisis management.”
He also said the community has been misled. Fairfax County voters approved a school bond in November that included $20.8 million for what was supposed to be construction of a new school building in the Bailey’s Crossroads area. Now those funds are being diverted for the acquisition and retrofit of an existing building.
Mary Chesteron raised additional problems associated with introducing school bus traffic to an already congested area during the morning rush hour. In addition, she said, many parents will drive their children to the school.
The office building was occupied by Fairfax County health and human services offices until summer 2012 when they moved to the Heritage complex in Annandale. Critics of the school project say many of the clients who came to those offices took public buses.
The Fairfax County Department of Transportation issued a memorandum on the school proposal citing “substantial issues” regarding the inadequacy of access to the site from the Route 7 service road, including the need for school buses to make sharp turns. FCDOT also urged FCPS to coordinate with the Seven Corners Land Use and Transportation Task Force, which is developing recommendations to improve transportation throughout the area.
Ernie Wells, a resident of Sleepy Hollow Manor who has a son that spent six years at Bailey’s, said he understands the need to address overcrowding at the school but is concerned about the possibility of cutting through roads in her neighborhood to provide vehicular and pedestrian access to the building.
He said the lack of information provided to people who live near the site “was a fundamental error and misjudgment on the part of FCPS” and “added to a sense of mistrust.”
Regarding the overcrowding at Baileys, FCPS has “kicked the can down the road” so many times, it’s gotten to the point where it’s become a crisis, meaning “the threshold for acceptable solutions is lowered,” Wells said. And that doesn’t bode well for a well-thought-out solution for addressing overcrowding at Glasgow Middle School and Stuart High School.