In the end, the path leading to Fairfax County's decision to allow the Islamic Saudi Academy to enlarge its school on Popes Head Road was almost as convoluted as the road itself. Initially, it looked as if the Board of Supervisors would deny the special permit the school needs for expansion, but then things took a turn and the Board approved it, 6-4.
"I think, ultimately, the board members looked to the recommendations of [county] staff and the Planning Commission and made their decision based on land use," said the school's representative, land-use attorney Lynne Strobel, afterward. But with the time it takes for site-plan approval, building permits and construction, she doesn't anticipate additional students at the Fairfax Station school until about 2011.
Since 1984, the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) 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 plans to expand to include the students in grades two through 12 currently at its Mount Vernon District campus.
Three existing buildings will remain, and an 8,976-square-foot structure would be replaced by two-story, 103,000-square-foot building for the gym, classrooms, library and auditorium needed for the older students. Enrollment will be limited to 500 students.
At a heated public hearing, July 13, people on both sides of the issue gave the supervisors an earful. Many people from out of the area, nervous about the school's foreign roots, said it teaches terrorism. Students, teachers and parents said otherwise. Nearby residents said what a good neighbor the school's been, all these years, but feared that more students would mean increased traffic troubles for their already-overburdened and insufficient road.
Monday afternoon, Aug. 3, before a large crowd — and police SWAT team officers, in case order needed to be restored — the supervisors returned to the county Government Center to vote on the issue. Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), in whose district the ISA is located, said his decision wasn't easy, but traffic on Popes Head Road was his defining issue.
Since he drives it frequently, he said, "I'm familiar with its congestion and dangers and have had many close calls as motorists rounded corners in my lane. The residents know that the natural hills and curves of Popes Head, which make it a unique and rural road, also make it dangerous to travel. It is for these reasons they believe this road is not suitable for the expansion of the Islamic Saudi Academy, and I agree with them."
Herrity said the county's Comprehensive Plan says schools should have minimal impact on existing homes, and special-exception permits should only be granted to uses oriented to an arterial road, which Popes Head is not.
Furthermore, he told the Board, "You've heard the testimony from several of the community members that the additional traffic on Popes Head will adversely impact their ability to use the road. The community has also successfully argued that buses and cars will not be able to turn left across traffic into the site because of oncoming commuter traffic in the morning."
Noting that the ISA said it would encourage, but not require, students to take the bus, Herrity said, "Two-lane, rural and already-congested Popes Head Road cannot safely handle this additional traffic. [It's] narrow, curving and has multiple sight-distance issues. The increased volume of traffic will translate into more accidents and potentially more fatalities."
Therefore, he said, "If we allow expansion of a school at this location, we will not only be changing the nature and character of this area, but jeopardizing the safety and wellbeing of those attending the school and living in the community." Herrity then made a motion to deny the application.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said he drove that road three times, after the public hearing. "It's a beautiful country road, without shoulders; and where it ends, there's either a deep ditch, embankment or big tree," he said. "There are also two blind hills and signs warning of steep curves."
Cook said it was tough driving there on a clear, summer day. But, he said, in rain or ice "or if there are errors in judgment, there will be accidents. I do not believe we should endanger future children there. The community is universally against it, as are the civic associations and the district supervisor."
Agreeing with him, Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) worried about the blind spots for drivers unfamiliar with the road. "I sympathize with the neighbors' qualms," she said.
"I'm concerned that the school can continue to operate with no [traffic] improvements," said Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason). "This application comes with development conditions, so I'm voting for it."
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said he got lots of letters about terrorism and "misdirected issues" and said he "felt bad that the students and teachers had to prove they were good people and a good school. I'll cast my vote based on land-use issues, but we're fortunate to have you."
Meanwhile, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) cited the county Department of Transportation's report concluding that "it didn't expect an increase in traffic intensity on the road. "I have to respect that," she said. "I'll also consider the prior recommendations for approval."
Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At-large) called Popes Head a "twisty, turning road that can be treacherous." While appreciating the students' and teachers' earlier testimony, she said, "I'm familiar with [that] road and its accident history."
The Board then voted on Herrity's motion to deny and it failed. So Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) made a motion to approve the application, with Foust and Gross seconding.
"I've had the ISA in my district for more than 15 years, and there've been no problems," said Hyland, referring to ISA's campus in the Mount Vernon District. "They've been magnificent neighbors. There are both Muslim and Christian teachers, and I've never had any misgivings about that school being in my community. From a land-use standpoint, my vote has to be yes."
The supervisors then voted, 6-4, in favor of his motion. Afterward, Strobel said there would be no student drivers and the number of buses and vehicle trips per day would be regulated by the development conditions.
"Today, the school has few restrictions, but the 40 development conditions regarding transportation and the environment will benefit both the school and the community," she said. "I respect the community's traffic concerns, and I hope the people who have doubts about the school will someday be pleased with it."