by Kristen Mack, The Washington Post

6 December 2007, page B5

“The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has voted to extend a sewer line to a church in an 80,000-acre swath of the county protected from development, which critics say could lead to future growth in the Rural Crescent.

“The board created the crescent-shaped preserve about 10 years ago to conserve rural land in the western part of the county. The Rural Crescent creates a transition between the county’s developed eastern and central sections and the rural character of Fauquier County to the south and west. Sewer hookups generally are off-limits to deter dense development in the area.

“The board voted Tuesday night to allow the 250-member Fireside Church, which is part of the Wesleyan denomination, to hook into the county’s sewer line. The church, which bought land on the dividing line of the Rural Crescent just west of Route 15, had asked supervisors to change the county’s Comprehensive Plan to allow the sewer connection.

“Instead, the board approved a permit allowing an exception for the church because Fireside’s property is near an existing public sewer line and the poor soil on the church’s property would not support a septic system.

” ‘This is a tremendously dangerous precedent,’ said Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), whose district includes a large portion of the Rural Crescent. ‘You will see other applicants coming to us in the near future asking for the same consideration.’

“Gifford R. Hampshire, Fireside’s attorney, said the church made a responsible request. The church would be more like a community center for Boy Scout meetings and other local events, he said.

” ‘We didn’t come into this recklessly,’ Hampshire said. ‘It’s the desire to build the church within the limits of the law. It will not set a precedent for residential development. This is a different sort of development. It’s a church.’

“Zoning laws covering the Rural Crescent limit development to one house per 10 acres. Most of those houses have septic systems.

“Slow-growth activists say that denying access to the public sewer system is Prince William’s ultimate weapon against sprawl. Regulations allow the county to extend sewer into the Rural Crescent only if an existing structure’s septic system fails and there is no other solution or if the property is within 300 feet of a public sewer line.

“Tuesday’s hearing and vote were initially scheduled for late January because the board has a long-standing rule not to consider land-use changes after an election and before the new supervisors are sworn in. Fireside’s application was moved up with short notice, leading to accusations that supervisors rushed it onto the agenda before the new board can consider it.

” ‘This smacks of trying to sneak in a change when people are distracted and not paying attention,’ said Patti McKay, who lives in the protected area. ‘This will cause irreparable harm. This is the virtual end of the Rural Crescent.’

“Resident Bob Pennefather said it sounded like ‘a case of a good church trying to build on a bad site. This is not about religion. It’s about land use, impact and fairness.’

” ‘I have sympathy for Fireside Church’s desire to grow within our community,’ Pennefather said. ‘However, when it comes to land use, churches must be evaluated just like other structures, commercial or residential.’

“Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), who backed the church’s request, said it was intended to give Fireside a sewer connection but not set a larger precedent by amending the Comprehensive Plan, which would have applied broadly to development in the area.”

” ‘I have no hidden agenda. I’ve always said I support sewer in the rural area,’ said Covington , whose district includes the Rural Crescent. ‘I am saddened by the tone. I take offense to some of it.’

“The board supported the measure 5 to 3, with Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), Supervisor Michael C. May (R-Occoquan) and Stirrup voting against it.

“Fireside parishioners filled the board chambers, and members of its youth group wore T-shirts saying, ‘Ignite Your Passion for God!’

“Pastor Allen Perdue said: ‘We come as a church family, because that’s what we are. We are passionate about serving God. But this is not a vote for or against God. I come representing Jesus Christ. I’m not asking for special consideration.’

“Fireside holds services at four sites throughout the county. Now that the sewer hookup has been approved, Perdue hopes to have a sanctuary built in two years, he said.

” ‘Everything hinged on this,’ Perdue said. ‘We needed to see what the will of the county was. We have not presumed that we had any more rights than anyone else.’

“Another church is scheduled to go before the board this spring with a similar request.

” ‘I’m not looking to change the rural area and the density,’ Covington said. ‘I get their concern in reference to this opening things up, but I don’t believe this will cause a ripple across the rural area. I’ve always thought there should be an open discussion.’ “