Windy Hill Foundation’s proposal to save old Arcola Elementary School by converting the building into affordable housing is under fire—and Dulles jet traffic.
Last March, the county asked for proposals for a public-private partnership to save old Arcola Elementary School, which is listed on both state and federal registers of historic places. The school was built in 1939 and served as a school until the 1970s, when it was converted to a community center.
The Windy Hill Foundation, which builds affordable housing in Northern Virginia, made the only proposal that met all of the request’s requirements. Windy Hill proposes to renovate the building into apartments and build a separate two-story, 36-unit apartment building on the property. The foundation would also include five units for the intellectually and developmentally disabled, build an athletic field, and preserve the school’s gym for community use.
“This is really not Windy Hill looking for a place to put a project,” Foundation Executive Director G. Kimball Hart told the board during a March 9 public hearing. “We responded to the county looking for a way to save the old Arcola school. We would like to help you save the old Arcola school.”
But the building is about two and a half miles from the end of one of Dulles Airport’s runways, directly under the airport’s left-turning traffic pattern and near the centerline of a planned fifth runway. Jetliners thunder low overhead day and night, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s sound meter on the roof of the building consistently registers the loudest noise of all the meters scattered around the county.
Airport representatives and some supervisors wonder whether putting in housing there might not be doing future residents any favors, and harming the airport as well.
“Would you want to live under that?” asked Supervisor Matthew F. Leatourneau (R-Dulles). “Because even if you attenuate the indoors, you showed a nice courtyard. Who wants to stand in a courtyard when you have an 85 decibel rating, which is scientifically dangerous to the ears according to medical analysis, above you?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, sustained noise of 85 decibels or higher can cause hearing loss. One-time sounds cause hearing loss at 120 decibels or more.
“At two and a half miles distance from the airport, your standard commercial jet airliner is at an altitude of 800 feet,” Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said. “I’m a former pilot. A 747 with four large Pratt [and] Whitney engines has a wingspan of 211 feet. That looks like a pterodactyl over your house.”
Other supervisors, however, support the project, and point out that the previous board, including Letourneau and Buona, voted unanimously to move the project ahead.
“Are we forcing anyone to move in there?” asked Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge). “No.”
Supervisor Koran Saines (D-Sterling) said he enjoys jet traffic and seeing planes at night over his neighborhood, and Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) pointed out that under the area’s antiquated zoning, this development would be by-right on privately-held land.
“Had we gone ahead and sold this property in September of 2014, rather than pursue this arrangement with Windy Hill or somebody else, whoever bought that property could have done exactly what they’re talking about doing, and had access to water and sewer, and had no limits on the number of houses and units they built on the property,” Higgins said.
Airport industry representatives spoke against the project. Keith Meurlin, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, said allowing housing near the airport would generate complaints to elected officials about the airport, resulting in tighter regulations on airport traffic—which he said is responsible for regulations choking flight traffic around Reagan National Airport. David Mould, vice president of communications and government affairs at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, agreed that the housing would be bad for both the community and the airport.
“In the spirit of being a good neighbor and a good civic partner, we do oppose putting our neighbors in harm’s way by building homes of any kind in such proximity to an active runway,” Meurlin said.
Denise Kloeppel, who lives nearby, said the jet noise isn’t as bad as the gridlock on Stone Springs Boulevard nearby.
“Our biggest concern from our HOA has never been the noise of the airport. Our biggest concern has always been the traffic and the safety of our children,” Kloeppel said.
But some organizations support the project. Bill Wilkins, chairman of the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, read a statement from that commission commending the proposal, which he said “demonstrates proper respect for the architecture, appearance, and character of the school and its setting.”
Kelly Kerchner, the community manager at Shreveport Ridge Apartments, which provides affordable workforce housing, said the project is badly needed. She said Shreveport Ridge can’t keep up with demand for housing as it is.
“As of today, we still have over 200 families on our waitlist in need of affordable workforce housing,” Kerchner said.
The board voted 7-2, Letourneau and Buona opposed, to send the proposal ahead to a future board meeting as Windy Hill fills out the last details of their plan.
“This, to me, is not a vote against the airport,” Buffington said. “It’s a vote to save the school.”