A Schoolhouse in the Park?

A Schoolhouse in the Park?

Citizens discuss the Oakton Schoolhouse as they provide suggestions for future uses of the Park Authority-owned Corbalis site.

Two bodies will be working this summer to determine what should happen to parcels of land near the intersection of Hunter Mill and Chain Bridge Roads. While the Fairfax County Park Authority is canvassing area citizens about future uses for the Corbalis property, located off of Hunter Mill Road, the citizen group Options for Oakton is surveying the local community on what should happen to the Oakton Schoolhouse on the former Appalachian Outfitters site.

The two issues intersect because the Oakton Schoolhouse may move to the Corbalis property, which is currently undergoing the master plan process as a recently-acquired park. Indeed, they have already begun to intertwine, as witnessed at a Corbalis property master plan information session which took place on Tuesday, June 8 at Oakton Elementary. While the meeting was to listen to citizen comments on what park amenities they would like to see on the 9.81-acre parcel, an update on the efforts to save the Oakton Schoolhouse was an equally dominating issue.

"We will look at [the Schoolhouse] in the context of the Corbalis site," said Kirk Holley, manager with the Park Planning Branch of the Park Authority.

During a break from discussing the Corbalis property, citizens learned the fate of the Appalachian Outfitters property, which had been on sale for several months after Appalachian Outfitters declared bankruptcy last winter.

Incorporated into the Appalachian Outfitters building is the 1898 Oakton Schoolhouse, which served as an elementary school for white children. A latter addition to the building was constructed in the 1920s or 1930s.

Citizens had been interested in preserving the Schoolhouse not only for its history, but because of its role as the entranceway to Hunter Mill Road and its central location to the Oakton village. If preserved, citizens had suggested turning the Schoolhouse into an educational exhibit that could also be open for public use, such as the Vale Schoolhouse in Oakton or the Waterford School in Loudoun County.

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, the citizens' group Options for Oakton has been trying to find ways to save the Schoolhouse. But events took a turn when they learned that the Appalachian Outfitters property was recently sold. According to members of a task force overseen by Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence), the property has been sold to Chevy Chase Bank. The task members learned of the sale as they were meeting in Smyth's office.

When at Smyth's office, a lawyer representing Chevy Chase Bank told them that although the bank was not interested in keeping the Schoolhouse at the site, they would consider funding its move to the Corbalis property several blocks north.

The lawyer representing Chevy Chase Bank did not return phone calls.

If the community decides to save the Oakton Schoolhouse, it would have several options. One would involve Chevy Chase Bank. As a community, citizens could ask Chevy Chase Bank to keep the Schoolhouse at its present site, or it could ask them to move it. It could inquire whether the bank could contribute financially to the school building's upkeep or to pedestrian-friendly improvements on Hunter Mill Road. If Chevy Chase Bank constructs a building, the community could also ask that the company consider modifying their building to make it complement the area.

"Something needs to be done to that site that gives it proper deference," said task force member and Options for Oakton member George Lehnigk in an interview after the meeting.

Lehnigk added that it would help the community if they knew the difference in what the property value for the site would be, should a special exemption be approved for Chevy Chase Bank to have a drive-through ATM.

ANOTHER OPTION for the Oakton Schoolhouse would be creating a public-private partnership which would fund the Schoolhouse's move to the Corbalis property.

Tom Fleury, senior vice president of the McLean-based WestGroup, described the workings of a public-private partnership with citizens at the meeting. Because of his past experience with similar partnerships between businesses and the local government, he had been approached by Smyth and the Park Authority to discuss how a partnership would work.

The partnership would be a group of businesses, associations and Oakton organizations with a common interest in moving the Schoolhouse, explained Fleury. That group could include building companies or associations who have knowledge in moving historic buildings, or organizations that might have a special interest in saving the Schoolhouse, such as a teachers union.

The partnership itself would become a nonprofit, thus pooling together manpower, expertise and tax-deductible contributions. As a nonprofit, the partnership could also be more attractive when applying for state, local and federal aid and grants for historical structures, Fleury added.

Yet the action to create the partnership is predicated on other elements regarding the property, such as the go-ahead from the community and the approval of county permits and of the proposed special exemption application by Chevy Chase bank for the ATMs.

"When there's a decision to move it, when there's permission to move it, that's when you can see the public-private partnership," Fleury said after the meeting.

Indeed, for Bob Adams, a task force member and Options for Oakton member, he would prefer working with both Chevy Chase Bank and Fleury, as he, Lehnigk and others survey the community for their input. Adams said he could see the bank funding the move while the partnership funds the Schoolhouse's upkeep.

"What I would like to see is that the Schoolhouse is saved," Adams said. "The problem is, there is no legal bar to the destruction of the school."

Regarding Chevy Chase Bank, Adams said, "At this point, you have to assume that Chevy Chase Bank will [develop] the property...the community owes the bank the opportunity to discuss, in a friendly way, the options to the bank and the community."

Both Adams and Lehnigk agreed that their next step would be asking the community to see what they want done to the Schoolhouse, and bargain from there.

"I view my role and Options for Oakton as being a mouthpiece for the community. So it's the community's call," Lehnigk said.

AFTER BEING briefed on the Oakton Schoolhouse, the roughly 50 citizens present at Tuesday's workshop discussed what uses and amenities they would like to see at the Corbalis site. Since the Corbalis site is designated as a community park due to its size, suitable activities would include trails, a picnic area, playgrounds, or lighted or unlighted playing fields.

Most preferred that the site be minimally enhanced, in order to preserve the eastern portion of woods. Some wondered whether a portion of the site could be a playing field for soccer, lacrosse or baseball. Several western portions of the site are already cleared, grassy fields.

"We are seriously underserved for soccer fields," said David Seager of Oakton, one of several people at the meeting advocating the addition of a soccer field.

Seager and other playing field advocates added that the field did not have to be lighted, since lighted fields had been among the concerns of neighboring citizens.

Others wanted trails along the woods or sidewalks leading up to the site from Hunter Mill Road. A few also asked that the woods in the eastern portion of the Corbalis site be preserved, so as to protect the natural habitat.

"When you see an albino deer in your yard, I gotta tell you, I don't think that's something you can destroy," said Corbalis neighbor Frank Puschauver, remarking that deers like to eat at the apple trees next to the Corbalis house. "Once you do a lot here, you're really destroying the habitat."

After hearing remarks that night, the Park Authority will review comments to incorporate into a master plan for the park. The Park Authority will then conduct another public hearing for the draft master plan. Once the master plan is finalized, it will go to the Park Authority Board for approval.

However, the timetable for implementing any action on the Corbalis site is unclear. The master plan process takes about a year, and permit approval takes another year. But that schedule depends on funding, as well as the rank of the site within the Park Authority's priority list, said Park Authority staff said on Tuesday. The Corbalis site is under consideration to be included in the 2004 November bond referendum for park funding. Another way to build the park is through partnerships, staff added.