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Board needs to give Hunter Mill decision more than a passing glance

Thousands of Fairfax County residents likely aren’t aware of it yet, but an item on the Board of Supervisors’ Sept. 10 agenda will play a significant role in their future commutes.

At the center of a long simmering debate sits Oakcrest, a private, McLean-based secondary school that’s seeking to build a new 22.7-acre campus at the intersection at Hunter Mill and Crowell roads in Vienna.

Oakcrest officials secured zoning approval for the school back in March of 2010, but two recent changes to their original proposal have angered many in the surrounding community. One involves replacing a long-agreed-to roundabout at the heavily traveled intersection with a three-way stop light. School officials say their attempts to secure right-of-way from adjacent property owners were unsuccessful, severely hampering the prospect of a roundabout.

Another point of contention involves the school’s decision to relocate a long-planned entrance on Hunter Mill Road to Crowell Road, a move detractors say place it — and many inexperienced 16- and 17-year-old drivers —far too close to a blind turn on Crowell.

Despite those concerns, and a handful of others, the Fairfax County Planning Commission on July 31 approved Oakcrest’s proposal for a traffic light and new entrance.

The hope here is that the Board of Supervisors actually dig into this application and don’t simply rubber-stamp last month’s decision.

For thousands of drivers in western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun, Hunter Mill Road has evolved into an intra-county connector of sorts. For some, it serves as the most direct route to the Dulles Toll Road from parts of Herndon, Great Falls and Sterling. For others, it’s a way to avoid traffic-choked Leesburg Pike or Va. 123 on trips to Fairfax City or Oakton.

Whatever the reason, the once-sleepy road now ranks among the most heavily traveled arteries in Fairfax County. That’s most evident during the morning and evening rush hour, when it can take drivers 15-20 minutes to navigate the intersection. Part of the problem can be traced to the four stoplights that currently sit on a half-mile stretch of Hunter Mill between Sunrise Valley Drive and Sunset Hills. Placing a fifth stoplight 100 yards up the road at Crowell would only exacerbate a terrible situation.

While we understand a property owner’s aversion to giving up a corner of their land under virtually any circumstance, this appears to be a textbook case for eminent domain laws. Regardless of your measuring stick — speed, safety, or aesthetics — the benefits of going with a roundabout instead of a traffic signal appear to be clear.

Start with speed. According to a recent study at Kansas State University, roundabouts actually move traffic through an intersection more quickly, and with less congestion on approaching roads. They also promote a continuous flow of traffic. Unlike intersections with traffic signals, drivers don’t have to wait for a green light at a roundabout to get through the intersection. Traffic is not required to stop — only yield — so the intersection can handle more traffic in the same amount of time. At a choke-point like Hunter Mill and Crowell, that would likely be the difference between 30 cars getting through the intersection per minute to 15 or 20.

Safety also benefits. Studies of U.S. intersections converted from traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts have found reductions in injury crashes of 72-80 percent and reductions in all crashes by 35-47 percent.

Relocating the school’s entry point from Hunter Mill to Crowell should also raise a few red flags. Nobody disputes the fact that the switch will result in greater traffic volume along Crowell, which links Hunter Mill to Beulah Road. Even more troubling than the additional cars is the fact that the entrance is expected to sit 15 or 20 yards from the end of a sharp turn. For an inexperienced 16-year-old driver making a left turn out of the school — or a driver rolling north on Crowell Road — that limited line of sight could prove disastrous.

We understand that our county officials deal with hundreds of complex land-use decisions every year. Each of them present a unique set of challenges, and this one is no different.

That said, it’s also worth noting that whatever decision Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors reaches next month will impact tens of thousands of Fairfax residents for decades.

Before ordering traffic lights and leasing bulldozers, officials at Oakcrest would be wise to engage in an earnest discussion with any property owner who currently opposes the roundabout project. Tougher projects than this one have succeeded through compromise and finding a comfortable middle ground.

Hundreds of hours went into crafting Oakcrest’s original plan, one that was widely supported by the Hunter Mill community, county officials and even the school’s attorney.

To tear all of that work up late in the fourth quarter and replace it with a rushed, shaky alternative is extremely short-sighted.

It also sets an awful precedent going forward.