by Rose Murphy, Bull Run Observer

14 December 2007, pp 11-12

“Mandatory hookup to public sewer is one of the conditions Fireside Wesleyan Church must pay for in the Rural Crescent as part of a special use permit (SUP) granted by Prince William Board of County Supervisors after a December 4 public hearing. A companion comprehensive plan amendment (CPA), which would have changed the site from agricultural and estate zoning to residential, was turned down by the board.

“The church plans to build up to a 400-seat religious institution and a summer day camp for up to 50 children on the 14.61 –acre property on the west side of James Madison Highway north of Lee Highway in Brenstville Magisterial District.

“Voting for the SUP were Wally Covington, (R-Brentsville); Marty Nohe, (R-Coles); Maureen Caddigan, (R-Dumfries); John Jenkins, (D-Neabsco), and Hilda Barg, (D-Woodbridge). Against the motion were John Stirrup, (R-Gainesville); Mike May, (R-Occoquan), And Corey Stewart, (R-at large and board chairman).

“More than 40 people addressed the hearing, speaking both for and against the SUP. Several criticized the board for moving the hearing, originally set for January 20, to December. They also charged the church was being used to extend public sewer into the Rural Crescent, which the county set aside for minimal development on large tracts.

“Covington said after the vote he always has supported the hookup of the church to public sewer, and that the SUP does not change the boundaries of the Rural Crescent. He said the church property is ‘a unique area in a failing watershed above Lake Manassas.’  He added that passing the CPA ‘would have set up a broader precedent for other churches’ in the area.

“Stewart also noted after the vote that, ‘the sky’s not falling.’  He explained that the passing of the CPA ‘would have been a disaster, and would have been the first time the board made a major change in the Rural Crescent to allow for development.’  He added it is unclear what precedent, if any, passing the SUP may have set.

“Kim Hosen this week questioned why the board had not had public facilities review (PFR) before the vote, since the SUP extends sewer into the Rural Crescent. She contended the county bypassed the PFR by claiming the matter ‘was routine and ordinary.’

“Hosen, who represents Occoquan District on the county’s planning commission, noted she believes the vote on the SUP ‘sends a message to the community that the board is committed to the Rural Crescent, and that their votes are strong enough to uphold the density called for in the comprehensive plan.’

“In its SUP proposal, the church said if the CPA were approved, it would connect to public sewer and bear all the costs. It added that if the CPA were denied, it would install a septic system. The motions passed by the board, although denying the CPA, makes connection to public sewer a condition of the SUP.

“Gifford Hampshire, attorney for the church, told the hearing before the vote that a consultant reported that the property is suitable for a septic system, but that the question is, ‘How long the septic system will last.’ He said the church could install a two-acre septic field for $200,000, then have to pay an additional $60,000 to $90,000 to hook onto public sewer should the septic system fail.

“Covington asked county staff if Prince William County Service Authority (PWCSA) could be expected to waive the sewer hookup fee if the church septic field failed. John White, planning staff member, said, that while he ‘is not familiar with PWCSA pricing policies,’ he believed the service authority would want to collect the fee.

“Hampshire contended the church does not plan to sell the property for residential development, and that even if it did, the board ‘could deny a future residential rezoning request.’  He added the church could ‘give a restrictive covenant, providing that the property can only be used to develop a church. This could be enforced by the county.’

“Hampshire told the hearing area where the church wants to build ‘has a documented history of failures of septic systems.’

“Stirrup said he feared extension of sewer into the rural area would set a precedent, and ‘would provide a de facto need for sewers.’ He pointed out documentation supplied by the applicant to bolster its contention of failed septic systems was at least 25 years old.

“Stewart asserted that passing the CPA ‘would bring other applications on Rt. 15, but that passing the SUP still would allow the church to be constructed.’

“Fran Burnszynski of the county’s planning staff told the hearing the church’s first application was for a 1200-seat church, which was reduced to 400 seats. In response to a question from Barg, he said he did not know if a percolation test had been done for the site.

“Nohe reported this would not be the first time sewer was extended into the Rural Crescent. He explained it had been approved in recent hears for failed residential properties on sites just north of the church property. The sewer line runes across the church property, he added.

“During the public hearing, Patty McKay, Nokesville, chastised the board for ‘trying to sneak (the church) in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

” ‘I’m not surprised at Mr. Covington, whose agenda is to extend sewer into the entire area,’ McKay said. She added she ‘has sympathy for the church, but approval of this would end the Rural Crescent.’

“Bob Pennefather, president of Nokesville Civic Association, told the hearing, ‘This is a good church on a bad site. This is not a religious issue. You should evaluate churches as you would other residential or commercial uses. Churches who have brought in other areas shouldn’t see others be rewarded for picking bad sites. Emergency measures apply only to existing systems.’

“Beatrice Pennefather entreated the panel, ‘Don’t be the board who took down the Rural Crescent.’

“Gainesville resident Jim Price remarked he ‘wants them to have a church, but not at any price. If you make an exception for a church, how about other things that also serve the community.’

“A Carriage Ford Road resident contended, ‘We’re not going against the Rural Crescent. We’ve done the research. There is a history of failed septic systems in the area, and the sewer is at the street.’

“Austin Trenum, a school student from Nokesville, asked the board to save the Rural Crescent.  ‘Don’t set the example that trickery is good policy,’ Trenum asked.

“Michele Trenum, Nokesville, asserted the hearing ‘had been finagled to tonight’s date. Fireside is being used as a pawn to change the Rural Crescent.’ She said the board could say yes to both the church and the Rural Crescent by requiring the church to install a septic system and no hook to public sewer.

“Steve Mast, who said he’s a church member, said the church has invested a good deal of money in the site.

“James Eckert, church treasurer, said the church previously owned land at Devlin and Linton Hall roads, but had to sell it when realigned Linton Hall came through the site.

“Irene Croushorn, Nokesville, said her husband’s family has been in Prince William County for 100 years and owns a 600-acre farm.  ‘If the CPA is passed, it will set a precedent. Lawyers will scramble to see who’s next,’ the added.

“Tim Horn said he spent $30,000 for his septic system, and that the church ‘should abide by the rules.’  He contended the church knew there was no sewer connection when it purchased the new property, and that ‘giving preferential treatment to a church is wrong.’ He noted he and some others testifying were present, even though ‘It’s the first night of Hanukkah.’

“A man who said he was with [Prince William] Citizens for Balanced Growth [Ralph Stephenson] charged that ‘Covington is a big landowner, [with lots of] big landowner friends.’

“Catherine Ring asked the board to remove the SUP and CPA from the agenda, calling moving up the hearings a ‘sleazy scheduling maneuver.’

“Tom Kopko, chairman of the county’s Republican Committee, said ‘the Rural Crescent is under assault, and the church is being used as a pasty this time… Your church is a weapon.’ He added there’s a ‘sewer loophole’ in the county’s comprehensive plan, which he will attempt to close as chairman of the land use committee working on revising the plan.

“Allen Perdue, church pastor, related how the church had to move from its previous building site, and added that sewer already exists along its new property line.

“Cindy Smith told the board she objected to its advancing the hearing schedule for the church, noting middle schools had band and chorus performances set for that night. She added her son asked her, ‘Is the church paying Mr. Covington?’

“Some other speakers favoring the church proposals include Carl Sanders, Dennis Mast, Rachael Dodson, Michael Mast, Jennifer Bradley, Brian Miller, Elaine Wriebel, Jeff Todd, Carla Cox, Joshua Bradley, and Matthew Bradley.

“Elena Schlosberg-Kunkle of Advocates for the Rural Crescent (ARC), told Covington, ‘This is good, Wally. No one caught it the first time. We get it now. The sewer is the real Trojan Horse.’ She contended, ‘no one is against the churches in the Rural Crescent, just against sewer.’

“After discussion on the proposals, Covington passed out a revised SUP motion for consideration. His revision mandated public sewer hookup for the church, while the original SUP said the church would install a septic system should the CPA be turned down.

“May noted he could ‘support the SUP as written, but is concerned that (the revision) is a precedent for sewer. The next group of good people will remember we did an exception for this.’ He said he had to vote against the revision.

“Stirrup called Covington’s revision, ‘A dramatic change. This is the first time I’ve seen it.’ He asked staff to explain the new version. Burnszynski replied he had not ‘digested’ the new language.

“Nohe remarked that, ‘This is about the Rural Crescent. Precedent was set in 2002 when the previous board said there were unusual circumstances to let eight houses on two-acre lots have sewer.’ He was referring to the properties just north of the church site.

“Stirrup observed the ‘Previous SUP was okay and consistent with the comprehensive plan. The church could have septic. This mandates sewer line, and anticipates a failure of the septic system. The data on that is more than 25 years old. I can’t go with that.’

“Stewart contended the ‘church has gotten an undeserved black eye’ in the process, and that there are ‘lots of unanswered questions. The implications and what precedent may be set are unclear. I would like more staff analysis.’

“Before the vote, Barg, who is retiring at the end of the year, objected to being called a lame duck by some of the speakers. She said she intended to vote on the SUP and CPA.

” ‘I’m not a lame duck, and I will continue quacking until December 31,’ she admonished.”