Parents and supporters of the St. James Catholic middle school packed the Falls Church City Council chambers at City Hall Monday night to plead to the F.C. Planning Commission that it not approve a proposed Hilton Garden Inn hotel adjacent the school in the block of W. Broad St.
It’s the third such large protest by the school’s parents and teachers, and there will probably be more, since the matter comes back to the Planning Commission for its vote at its next meeting May 5 to recommend, up or down, to the City Council. Then the matter will come back to the City Council for a final vote later in the month.
The Council indicated a strong initial support for the hotel last month, triggering the mobilization from St. James, which serves 622 students.
Strident speakers Monday warned the Planning Commission of “the likelihood of inappropriate conduct between adults and children” due to the “transient nature” of hotel patrons. They also cited traffic congestion issues, noting that “car crashes are the number one killer of children under 14.” One said that N. Oak St. would become “a mini-mixing bowl.”
Concerns were expressed of “hotel rooms being used in crimes against children,” and laws cited in some jurisdictions across the U.S. prohibiting registered sex offenders from living near a school.
Judy Meehan, a victim’s rights advocate, said it was “disgraceful” that the City did not begin consideration of the project “with a concept of risk.” The City has been “negligent,” she said.
“The connection between crime and hotels is well known,” Meehan said, suggesting the heightened instances of prostitution and rape “in and around hotels.”
But Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press Tuesday that “the data simply doesn’t support their premise,” adding, “It is very difficult to prove a negative” in a case like this.
He said that matters such as traffic impact are concrete and can be studied, but the degree of seriousness of the parents’ concerns can’t readily be quantified.
On the other hand, Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, seeking re-election next month and commenting on the issue during a candidates’ debate Tuesday night, said about the hotel project, “Maybe it’s not a good idea. The St. James parents are looking out for the health and welfare of children, just as are we.”
But she added that if the hotel were only ten feet lower, it would not require Council action granting a special exception, and could be built by the developer “by right.”
St. James advocate Mary Beth Kerrigan also questioned, in her petition to the Planning Commission Monday, what she called the “spot zoning” provisions of Falls Church’s “special exception” ordinance, charging that they might be found unconstitutional if legally challenged.
St. James Parent-Teacher Organization president Tom Letecky said that the need for the “special exception” suggests the “project just doesn’t fit” on the site, thus requiring “a bubble gum and duct tape legal maneuver.”
Bob Young, in comments to the News-Press Tuesday, said, “These all certainly are issues we want to address with the St. James community, and I hope for an opportunity to do it.”
The Planning Commission took no action this Monday, pending its vote of recommendation on Young’s special exception application at its May 5 meeting.