A 10-acre patch of grass in a busy section of Fairfax County is the source of much angst and anger these days. Currently known as Blake Lane Park, the mostly vacant lot is the proposed site of a new elementary school, a prospect neighbors see as depriving them of their last bit of green space.
Neighborhood activists organized under the name Save Blake Lane Park supported school board member Dalia Palchik in her recent successful run for the county board based on her vow to protect the park. But the new members of the county board haven’t yet been seated, and now residents have learned that the outgoing county board has included the project for funding under an upcoming bond referendum.
The board fudged slightly, allocating $35 million for the project but defining it only as being in the “Fairfax Oakton area.”
“We want to save the park AND the school,” the neighborhood group said on its website, speculating that other land suitable for the school could be found somewhere else. But, as always in such cases, just where that “somewhere else” might be is the question.
Tightly packed townhouses
The neighborhood, hemmed in by I-66 on one side and busy Route 123 on another, consists mostly of relatively new townhouses, packed in tightly over the last few decades. Besides the traffic that is omnipresent in Fairfax, the area already has its share of schools.
Oakton Elementary School, an old high school long since converted and expanded for lower grades, is just a few blocks away on Chain Bridge Road. Oakton High School is a few blocks up the street and a large private school campus, Flint Hill, is just across Route 123.
But the area is growing rapidly, mostly with infill development that replaces older single-family homes with higher-density townhouses and condos. All of this presents Fairfax County officials with a problem they are all too familiar with — where to put vitally needed public facilities in a county that is already full of houses and townhouses.
The residents of the Blake Lane neighborhood don’t deny that more classroom space is needed. Oakton Elementary was expanded a few years ago and Oakton High School is now in the midst of a major renovation that will, for at least awhile, replace the trailers that now provide overflow classroom space.
A sidewalk is a big deal
This is, remember, a county of 1.2 million people that regularly holds ribbon-cutting ceremonies when it manages to build a new sidewalk. Decades of free-for-all development has simply filled up most of the available space, leaving little or no room for new roads, schools and parks.
It’s worth noting, as well, that what Fairfax considers a “park” is often a massive development with a large recreation center, golf course and playing fields but not much room for anything else. In fact, just across 123 is the Oak Marr Recreation Center, which boasts all of those things but doesn’t have much space for informal outdoor activities.
Blake Lane Park, on the other hand, has 10 acres of mostly open space where neighborhood kids get together after school and on weekends for both organized and informal games and activities. There’s also a dog park tucked away behind the trees, one of the few in the area. Oak Marr discourages dogs and employees sometimes try to direct dog walkers to Blake Lane.
Don’t want schools?
It might be surprising to newcomers that Fairfax County voters get so upset about a school being built in their neighborhood. After all, don’t people move to Fairfax specifically because of its reputation for outstanding schools? And who wouldn’t want to have a bright and shiny new school for their children to attend, especially if it’s within easy walking distance — a rarity in carcentric Fairfax.
Such disputes are not unusual, though. A few decades ago and a few miles away, residents of the Oakton Estates neighborhood became incensed at plans for a new elementary school on Waples Mill Road. Neighborhood meetings with school board officials were so intense that police sometimes showed up.
Why? “I want to protect my investment,” fumed one homeowner who was convinced that the value of his $1 million manse would somehow be threatened by having a new school across the street. The school was built anyway and complaints quickly fizzled away. Property values, at last word, continued their ascent unhindered.
Park was originally a school site
Interestingly, what is now Blake Lane Park was originally known as the Blake Lane School Site Park, according to the Fractured Fairfax blog.
“Originally purchased by the Fairfax County Public Schools system as a site for an elementary school, the site was turned over to the county in 2006 as part of a quid pro quo for an additional $150 million in funding,” the site said.
This illustrated the difficulty the Blake Lane residents may face in their quest for an alternate site. The county already owns the land in question. Having to find and purchase (or, more likely, take by the eminent domain process) would be not only difficult but expensive.
A Zillow search found no lots for sale in the Blake Lane area. One 1.5-acre lot on Hideaway Lane, a mile or two away, was listed at $1.1 million.