Since the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) wants to enlarge its school on busy Popes Head Road in Fairfax Station, traffic will be a major consideration in Fairfax County's decision whether to approve this proposal. Local residents gave the Board of Supervisors an earful, Monday night, July 13, at a public hearing on the matter.
"Driver safety on Popes Head Road is why the supervisors shouldn't approve expansion," said John Marino, Glendilough Homeowners Association president. "ISA has been a good neighbor, but we don't want Popes Head to become more dangerous to us because of increased drivers on the road due to extra buses and staff."
He also wondered why ISA would spend money to expand a campus that would only accommodate 500 students and "never the entire student body. Would a phase three or four expansion occur in the future that would serve 1,000 students? That could doom Popes Head to future gridlock and devastating accidents."
Popes Head is narrow, curving, has sight-distance issues and has a documented accident history. But land-use attorney Lynne Strobel, representing ISA, stressed that the school is at the road's eastern end, less than a quarter mile from Route 123, and students won't drive to school.
Furthermore, the worst sections are further west, and the school will have parents, staff and buses arrive from the east. It would also put in a left-turn lane where buses turn in to the campus and would widen the road there so buses won't stop on Popes Head.
When 425 students are enrolled, the county Office of Transportation would decide whether the ISA must lengthen the eastbound, right-turn lane at the intersection of Popes Head with Ox Road, as well as the northbound, left-turn lane at that intersection.
BEECH RIDGE Homeowners Association President Sherry Keramidas said the neighbors have serious, land-use concerns. "We respect their right to have their school, but Popes Head is one of the most dangerous roads in Fairfax County and won't sustain the increased number of students."
She said the new building represents "a tremendous increase" in building size and impervious surface and noted that the septic-field analysis is not yet completed. However, Strobel said only 17 percent of the site would be impervious surface and final approval of the septic field is normally done during site-plan process.
She also said fencing and landscaping would mitigate the visual impact and noise from the soccer field. "Both county staff and the Planning Commission recommend approval, and a lot of people here support this application," said Strobel.
Still, Beech Ridge resident Ron Parker said Popes Head is a two-lane road that has become a major cut-through between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway. He also wondered if the buses would be filled to capacity to reduce the number of trips and whether parents would add to the traffic by picking up their children after school.
Fairfax Station's Albert Strong said Popes Head "isn't an appropriate site for a school expansion," adding, "All the homeowners associations are opposed to it."
Glendilough's Carol Marino said she respects "all human beings, races and religion." But she, too, worried about "too many students and staff placed on one of the 10 most-dangerous roads in the county. Expansion jeopardizes the safety of all Fairfax County residents driving it. I've come across many accidents there and wept with grieving families of those who've died."
In bad weather, she said, "The road floods and trees fall across it and there's a sizeable deer population. It would be unconscionable to think it's safe. Parents won't just enter from Route 123. You can't control someone's driving behavior."
Neighbor John Ziu said "over 90 percent of the residents — 300 people overall — signed a petition [against the expansion], It's not because we're concerned about the school's teachings, but because we're concerned about the safety of the neighbors and the students who travel Popes Head Road regularly."
"It's had 90 accidents in the past five years, some of them fatal," he said. "Safety is a moral obligation each of you have to the citizens of this county."
Hazel Rathbun lives on Popes Head, less than a half mile west of the school, and she said some people drive 70 mph on that road. "There've been scores of accidents and injuries and three fatalities," she said, presenting details of some of them. If accidents occur, who's to blame? The drivers, or those who knowingly allowed these dangerous conditions to exist?"
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) then asked someone to verify whether Popes Head is indeed in the top 10 dangerous roads in the county, and Chuck Almquist with the county Department of Transportation said he'd do so.
Former ISA student Christina Sheets read a statement from Kamal Suliman of Springfield. "The school has had half a century of peaceful co-existence and the roads continue to function well and absorb the surrounding traffic," he wrote. "Popes Head is classified as an urban collector [road] and the school's beginning and ending hours won't affect morning and evening commuters on it."
Robin Antonucci, with traffic consultants Wells & Associates, said traffic volumes on Popes Head decreased when the parkway opened, and "accident rates since 2004 have been below VDOT's acceptable rates for a road of that size."
Dana Nicholas, a 20-year ISA employee in her fifth year as assistant principal, promised the school would do everything it could to ensure the safety of students and staff on that road. "Our bus drivers have an exemplary driving record on the twists and turns of Popes Head Road, for over two decades," she said. "Some of our students [currently] drive in traffic an hour or more, back and forth to school each day – and they're driving their siblings. Give us and our teens a chance to show we can be good neighbors.