By a unanimous vote with one abstention Wednesday night, the Fairfax County Planning Commission approved the application by the Falls Church City Public Schools to expand and renovate the Mt. Daniel Elementary School located a few blocks outside the City in the McLean area of the county.
The recommendation of approval by Dranesville District Commissioner John Ulfelder was key as it is the habit of commissioners to go along with the recommendation of one of them concerning matters in the jurisdiction of that one.
Falls Church School Superintendent Toni Jones told the News-Press after the vote Wednesday night that she “is extremely pleased,” and appreciative of Ulfelder’s “on-going willingess to work with us to get to this point.”
At the beginning of the commission’s consideration of the item, Ulfelder remained poker faced on a matter that many people felt in the last analysis it would not approve.
But Ulfelder then cited changes the Falls Church Schools made to its request last month, including to reduce the maximum number of students from 742 to 660, and then slipped in the announcement of his support, in concurrence with the county’s Planning Staff.
The decision came well over a year after the initial submission and ends a tough and anguishing process for the Falls Church Schools, which announced another major enrollment increase as fall semester classes began this week.
The board and Superintendent Jones had come under sharp criticism from some quarters in the City for the delays and threat of denial of the application, given that voters had approved a referendum to bond for the improvements and the bonds were sold in early 2015. But they were vindicated last night based on a relentless effort to work with and persuade the commissioners.
What made the effort particularly daunting was the staunch opposition to the application by the influential McLean Citizens Association that was repeated in the July 28 public hearing.
Ulfelder serves on the commission as the appointee of Dranesville Supervisor John Foust. As recently as last Sunday, Foust had told the News-Press that the interests of the neighborhood residents who live there come first.
But Ulfelder cited the changes to its application that the Falls Church Schools made after the July 21 hearing, including the promise of a cap on enrollment at 660 students, compared to the earlier request to allow 792 there.
He said changes “materially improved the application,” and that was the first signal he’d support it. He noted that the height was lowered from 60 to 41 feet, with a lot of new parking places (from 64 to 105), a “kiss-and-ride” drop off and turning circle, a promise to permanently remove the two classroom trailers upon completion of the construction restrictions, a limit to the classroom hours to no earlier than 8:45 a.m. or later than 4 p.m. He then said he agreed with the county planning staff that the applications conforms with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
He then added that while it is a public school of a neighboring jurisdiction, it is still a public school.
He cited the fact that Falls Church Mayor David Tarter, School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and Mt. Daniel principal Erin Kelly had all come before the commissioners in July to promise compliance with the terms and conditions extended.
Commissioner Earl Flannigan of the Mt. Vernon District said he could not support the motion of approval because of problems in his own district where students must attend a school outside their district. But he said he’d only abstain.
Commission James Hart cited the long history of difficult efforts to make necessary improvements to the Mt. Daniel campus, including with an earlier need for expansion in the 1990s.