Loudoun County will look for another way to save Old Arcola School after deciding against a partnership with the Windy Hill Foundation to renovate and build affordable housing on the site.
When the county asked for proposals to preserve the abandoned Old Arcola Elementary School through a public-private partnership, Windy Hill proposed 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.
But the building is about two and a half miles from the end of one of Dulles Airport’s runways, directly under air traffic and right in line with a planned fifth runway. And while supervisors lauded Windy Hill’s intent, they saw reasons to question this proposal.
“If you think it’s noisy when that A380 comes over in Sterling, go stand on this site,” said board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “You’ll be able to tickle its belly.”
Buona, a former airline pilot, Dulles Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R), and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority have argued forcefully against creating an exception to county zoning which discourages residential development around the airport.
“If we voted for this, we’d be voting to undo decades of proper planning,” Buona said. “And if you want to save the old school, fine, let’s find another way to do it, but not this way. If we want low-income housing, fine, but let’s find another way to do it.”
Letourneau and Buona have also dismissed arguments that Windy Hill plans to soundproof the buildings, as well as a 2005 study that showed less noise around the airport than is allowed for in county planning.
“This is the shell game that’s being play on this issue,” Letourneau said. That study, he said, is a snapshot in time, whereas the county’s noise rules are based on an eventual full buildout at Dulles Airport.
“That’s now what we should be looking at,” Letourneau said. “That’s a very short term to look at when we’re making decisions that you can’ t undo.”
Other supervisors also opposed the plan due to its residential density, its complete conversion from commercial to residential zoning, and questions over financing the project.
Seeing too little support for the project on the board, Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), whose district includes Old Arcola School, withdrew his motion to move forward with the partnership and instead moved to reject Windy Hill’s plan and look for other options on the site.
“I know how the other vote was going to end, and I want to make sure we give staff some sort of direction for how to go on this, and I want to make sure that includes preservation of the Old Arcola School,” Buffington said. Supervisors present for the vote agreed unanimously, 7-0-2. Supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) were absent for the vote.
The Windy Hill Foundation has built the preponderance of affordable housing in the last decade in Loudoun. Due to discrepancies between Loudoun’s Affordable Dwelling Unit program and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and Virginia Housing Development Authority grant rules, Windy Hill has been the only organization bringing HUD and VHDA grant money into the county for years. The county is now working to bring its ADU program into line with state and federal programs to open up housing grant funding in Loudoun, but decades of the old rules have meant only the Windy Hill Foundation, working outside the county’s ADU program, has been building workforce housing with HUD and VHDA money.
Windy Hill’s proposal for Old Arcola School enjoyed an outpouring of public support in public hearings and letters to supervisors.
“I don’t want to grow up and move away because I can’t afford to live in the same community in which I grew up,” said Potomac Falls senior Alex Burns, who said he has autism and Tourette’s Syndrome. “…This is our chance to lead as a county, to tap into the spirits and talents of those with special needs. You have no idea what we’re capable of unless you give us a shot.”