The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals has placed a roadblock in the way of a controversial storage facility at a Girl Scout camp in Oakton, overturning a ruling by the county zoning administrator following a Wednesday hearing.
Earlier this year, the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital applied to build a storage facility on the grounds of Camp Crowell, a 67-acre campground in Oakton.
The main entrance for the camp is through a residential neighborhood, on Justin Knoll Road, and the storage facility was proposed to be built close to that entrance.
Residents of Justin Knoll Road and surrounding streets have been fighting to stop the building, which they view as equivalent to a commercial warehouse setting up shop in their neighborhood.
The proposed 6,000-square-foot building would replace warehouse space the Girl Scout Council now rents on Dorr Avenue in Merrifield, which is slated for redevelopment. It is used to store camping equipment and program materials that scout leaders from Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland can borrow to use with their troops.
“We need a permanent place to store these important Girl Scout materials,” said Lidia Soto-Harmon, CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital.
Representatives of the Girl Scouts have tried to no avail to convince neighbors that the storage facility will be a low-key use and that there will not be heavy traffic associated with it. They agreed to a condition that troop leaders could not come to the site to pick up materials, something that was a big concession for them, Soto-Harmon said.
Rather than just waiting to try and stop the facility when the Girl Scout Council went through the land use process, Justin Knoll residents Kathy and Joe Whitcraft took a more technical approach, appealing the zoning administrator ruling that allowed the land use case to proceed in the first place.
The zoning administrator ruled that the storage facility was covered by the campground’s designation as a “public benefit use” and was not considered a different type of principal use. This, in essence, meant that the Girl Scout Council could apply for a special exception to build the facility without undergoing a rezoning process.
“The [current] warehouse is correctly located in a commercial zone,” Kathy Whitcraft said. “The Oakton location is a residential zone that does not allow this use.”
On a 5-1 vote, the Board of Zoning Appeals overturned the zoning administrator’s ruling.
“My feeling is when everything is said and done is that this facility is a warehouse and would constitute a separate principal use,” said BZA Vice Chairman Paul Hammack.
What drove the staff decision and the lone dissenting vote was the fact that the county code regarding “public benefit” uses is very broad and allows nonprofit organizations to perform a variety of functions in one location, sometimes in spite of the zoning that is in place there. Office space, athletic fields, child care centers and warehouse space could all be allowed, provided they support the designated public benefit organization.
County zoning officials cited several other examples of places where the public benefit use allows functions not typically allowed under residential zoning. The Ecumenical Community Helping Others in Springfield, as well as the Salvation Army and Goodwill, have warehouse-type facilities in the county that would not normally be allowed under that zoning.
Regarding the broad language, BZA member Jim Hart said, “We’re stuck with that, whether that was a good idea or not.”
Hart opposed overturning the zoning administrator decision, arguing that the issues the neighbors were concerned about could be adequately addressed in the special exception process.
The Girl Scout Council now has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the BZA decision to the Fairfax County Circuit Court. In a statement released following the decision, the council said it is disappointed in the decision but did not indicate its next steps:
“We believe that our proposal to construct a permanent Resource Center building on our 67-acre camp property is in keeping with Girl Scouts’ public benefit association use. The center’s sole purpose is to store Girl Scout camping equipment, program kits and memorabilia for the use of our members.”