No matter what people think of the Islamic Saudi Academy's curriculum, the decision whether to allow its school in Fairfax Station to expand will be based on land use only. Planning Commissioner Pete Murphy (Springfield) made that clear during last week's Planning Commission meeting.
"From the outset, this has been an application which, unfortunately, has been beset with distractions that focused on issues not germane to our public hearing process," he said. "[But] the Planning Commission's job is to make a land-use decision." And at the end of its June 11 meeting, it recommended approval.
Since 1984, the Islamic Saudi Academy has run a school for some 300 pre-kindergarten through first grade students on 34 acres at Route 123 and Popes Head Road. It now wants to bring here the students in grades two through 12 currently at its Mount Vernon campus and consolidate them, for a total enrollment of 500 students. But it needs a special-exception permit from Fairfax County before it can proceed.
Three, one-story buildings are on the property now; two will remain and an 8,976-square-foot structure would be replaced by a new, two-story, 103,000-square-foot building to accommodate the additional gym, classrooms, library and auditorium needed for the older students.
At a March 18 Planning Commission public hearing, several speakers from the Mount Vernon area objected to the school's curriculum, but Murphy said it's not for the county to decide. He instead addressed the concerns neighbors raised about traffic on Popes Head Road, water-quality impacts on streams and noise impacts from increased use of the soccer field, plus other school events.
Regarding noise, weeknight activities will be limited to a maximum of eight a month. They'll end by 7:30 p.m., if outdoor, and 8 p.m., if indoor. Just two weekend events a month will be allowed, on Saturdays, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., or on Sundays, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Because the nearest homes have significant buffering, Murphy believes these activities won't affect them.
Since half the site will be undisturbed open space, pesticide use will be limited and there'll be water-quality features and other environmental initiatives, the Occoquan Watershed Coalition recommended approval. The soccer field and play areas will be fenced for additional screening and environmental protection.
"Without a doubt, the defining issue in this application is transportation and how increased use and traffic will impact Popes Head Road," said Murphy. "Quite frankly, in analyzing the oral and written testimony we received, this issue could be argued for a recommendation of approval or denial."
The road is narrow, curving, has sight-distance issues and has had several accidents. But the school is at the eastern end of the road, less than a quarter mile from Route 123. The worst sections are further west, and the school will have parents, staff and buses arrive from the east. It will also put in a left-turn lane where buses turn in to the school and will widen the road there so buses won't stop on Popes Head.
When 425 students are enrolled, the county Office of Transportation will decide whether to require the school to lengthen the eastbound, right-turn lane at the intersection of Popes Head with Ox Road, and to lengthen the northbound, left-turn lane at the intersection of Ox Road and Popes Head.
"There's a blind hill directly west of the school property, and a concern was raised that traffic turning into the school could back up, surprising cars coming over the hill and causing accidents," said Murphy. "But the school's provided a right-turn taper into the site and has sufficient room on site to stack traffic, and it's unlikely traffic will queue off-site to the west. [And] the school will install a flashing, school warning sign."
Neighbors worried about young, inexperienced drivers on Popes Head Road. But students won't be allowed to drive themselves to school, except occasionally, such as because of doctor's appointments. No on-site student parking will be provided and students will be bused. Therefore, Murphy said both he and county staff believe the traffic increase won't negatively impact the residents.
"This has been a very difficult application," he said. But with the imposition of 39 [specific] development conditions — several added after the public hearing to address citizen concerns — it's in conformance with the Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance and special-exception standards. Murphy then recommended approval and two other commissioners spoke before the panel concurred unanimously.
Planning Commissioner Jim Hart (At-large) was glad Murphy concentrated strictly on land use. "We received an unusually large volume of correspondence on both sides of this issue," said Hart. "Some of it was offensive … and out-of-bounds on a land-use application. The school's curriculum or textbook content are not matters for our determination. I approve of the application."
Also recommending approval was Planning Commissioner Earl Flanagan (Mount Vernon). "The Islamic Saudi Academy has been in our community for several years," he said. "They've been an exemplary facility in our district and we're greatly going to miss them."
The matter now goes to the Board of Supervisors (date not yet set), and land-use attorney Lynne Strobel, representing the applicant, said, "We have to take it step by step. I hope the Board examines it as carefully as the Planning Commission did."
After the affirmative vote, Abdulrahman Alghofaili, the school's director general for the past six years, was pleased. "I expected this decision, according to my experience with Fairfax County," he said. "I trust in their justice."