By Luke Anderson | [email protected]
City council voted unanimously at its public hearing on Saturday to allow the Alexandria Presbyterian Church to move forward with its expansion project at 1302 W. Braddock Road.
The project was previously approved by the planning commission in November. Following the commission’s unanimous approval, Richard Weiblinger and Andrew Anderson, two neighbors who live close to the church, filed an appeal alleging that the project violated two Alexandria zoning ordinances related to “purpose and intent.”
Specifically, the appellants argued that the expansion would disturb the established character of the neighborhood and the well-being of residents and bring additional traffic to an already congested area.
During the public hearing, 24 people from both sides of the issue voiced their opinions. All members of APC who spoke were in favor of the church’s expansion, whereas most – but not all – of the neighborhood residents who spoke were against it.
“We are residents who live here every day and who see these streets and these issues every day,” Weiblinger said.
He presented photographs of bumper-to-bumper weekday traffic lining nearby Scroggins Road, which often makes it difficult for residents to pull out of their driveways. Largely due to navigational apps, Scroggins is often used as a cut-through for motorists traveling from King Street to West Braddock Road, according to Weiblinger. Although the photos of the traffic were taken during the week, Weiblinger said he fears the photos represent what Sundays would also look like, should the expansion happen.
The neighborhood is already home to several other churches, including Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on West Braddock Road and First Baptist Church on King Street. Blessed Sacrament also operates as a school during the week, and T.C. Williams High School is located close by on King Street.
Some parents in the neighborhood walk their children to school, Weiblinger said. Currently, narrow sidewalks run directly beside West Braddock Road and there are no sidewalks on Scroggins Road or Roosevelt Street. These conditions, in conjunction with the high volume of traffic, are hazardous for pedestrians, Weiblinger said.
Additionally, many residents said they were uncomfortable with the size of the new church, which is expected to have a footprint of 22,794 square feet. They argued that the structure will be disproportionate to nearby homes and will alter the character of the neighborhood.
Councilor Amy Jackson expressed concern that the building might obstruct visibility for oncoming traffic at the intersection and suggested installing stop signs and crosswalks.
“We need something there,” Jackson said. “I know it will always be backed up at certain times, and those stop signs might actually help – instead of an actual light at that intersection – to help the flow of traffic and safety.”
Weiblinger agreed that installing stop signs would increase safety, but worried that they would cause further backup on West Braddock Road.
Previous studies showed that that intersection does not warrant a stop sign, according to Ryan Knight, a city civil engineer.
City staff plan to conduct a broader traffic study this spring, Urban Planner Carson Lucarelli with the Department of Planning and Zoning said.
APC conducted its own traffic study in January 2019. According to the study, the church expansion would not increase cut-through traffic on Scroggins Road. Some residents argued that the study was not accurate because it relied on traffic patterns observed during the federal government shutdown last year.
“The data collected by the applicant is considered valid because it closely mirrors numbers previously collected by the city in recent years,” Lucarelli said. “It should also be noted that church uses are most intense on Sundays when the government is closed.”
APC attorney Cathy Puskar said that APC accounts for less than 1 percent of traffic volume during the week and only has a 4.2 percent impact on traffic volume during the peak hour on Sunday.
Lucarelli said that the current site plan also includes updates to the existing sidewalk on West Braddock Road and sidewalk installations on Scroggins Road and Roosevelt Street.
Many residents spoke of their concern with the current storm water drainage system in the area. They said the storm water drain that runs underground along Scroggins fills quickly during large rains and contributes to flooding around many of the houses in the area.
Elizabeth Lee has lived on Scroggins Road for about five years. During that time, her basement has flooded five or six times, leading to foundational damage totaling about $20,000, she said. Like many of her neighbors, Lee said she worries that the new APC parking lot, which will contain 98 parking spaces, would push even more rainwater runoff towards their homes.
“Please do everything you can to make sure that that runoff stays on that property because the storm drains are very old and they’re already at capacity and if you don’t perk the water down very slowly, those of us who live in the surrounding areas, and your own building as well, you’ll have water underneath it a lot,” Lee said.
Despite the current issues, planning commission members said they did not think the expansion project would make things worse.
“We also discussed the existing issues with traffic and storm water and found that this project did not exacerbate them and that, in fact, we were getting enhancements to storm water, that there would be a much better outcome from the storm water issues once this project was constructed,” Commissioner Melinda Lyle said.
Additionally, Lyle said the planning commission found that APC’s site plan met all zoning requirements in regards to parking, height, floor area ratio and setbacks. APC showed a willingness to work with residents by agreeing to install a six-foot fence instead of a hedge row on one section of the border, per a neighbor’s request, Lyle added.
“Unfortunately, as has been mentioned, we are really in a tight spot,” Councilor Del Pepper said. “There’s no wiggle room, really. We have to follow the law.”
Pepper added that she hoped both sides felt that they had been heard.