To outsiders, Blake Lane Park might look like just another neighborhood park, an austere splash of green that has so far persevered through Fairfax County’s ongoing urbanization, but to its neighbors, those 10 acres of grass and unruly undergrowth and trees are irreplaceable.
Two years ago, Blake Lane Park bore witness to an ancient, once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon when nearby residents gathered to observe the solar eclipse that captivated Americans from sea to shining sea on Aug. 21, 2017.
Girl Scouts have planted pollinator gardens at the park to support bees, butterflies, and other insects, and the park boasts Fairfax County’s first off-leash dog park, founded in June 2000 by Rep. Gerry Connolly when the congressman was still a county supervisor.
Oakton resident Kavitha Reddy lives across the street from the park at the intersection of Blake Lane and Hibbard Street. She regularly takes walks there to relax after coming home from work and often sees children playing games on the park’s soccer field.
This is the site that Fairfax County Public Schools has selected to host a new elementary school that would serve students in the Oakton High School pyramid.
“It’s a place to breathe, a place to refresh yourself,” Reddy said of Blake Lane Park. “…I can watch my kids without the fear of some car coming down the road and running into them. That one space that we can actually recuperate, be one with nature, they want to take that little space away.”
Blake Lane Park was intended to serve only temporarily as a park when it was established in 1977.
FCPS acquired the property in a proffer that designated it as a school site as a condition of the residential development surrounding the park, according to Kathleen Thomas with the FCPS Office of Communication and Community Relations.
The public school system later gave Blake Lane Park to Fairfax County. Signs around the park link the facility to the Fairfax County Park Authority, which lists Blake Lane as one of 11 off-leash dog parks in the county on its website.
However, despite the change in ownership, plans to turn the site into a school never fully went away.
FCPS has sought a new elementary school for the Fairfax/Oakton area since November 2011, when the project was included in the Fiscal Years 2013-2017 Capital Improvement Program.
A CIP summary of FY 2013-2022 capital improvement projects lists a Fairfax/Oakton area elementary school as an unfunded new construction project with an estimated $22.5 million cost.
The FY 2020-2024 CIP, adopted by the Fairfax County School Board on Jan. 24, lists a revised budget of $35 million for the planned Fairfax/Oakton elementary school, including $500,000 in prior year expenditures.
FCPS says the new elementary school is needed to address capacity concerns within the Oakton High School pyramid, which currently encompasses Crossfield, Mosby Woods, Navy, Oakton, and Waples Mill Elementary Schools.
“The elementary schools in the Oakton High School pyramid do not have capacity for all the students who reside in the pyramid,” Thomas said in an email. “Currently, more than 200 students from the Oakton HS pyramid attend schools in the South Lakes High School pyramid.”
According to the FY 2020-2024 CIP, Mosby Woods, Waples Mill, and Navy are now between 104 and 108 percent over-capacity, while Oakton is at 98 percent capacity and Crossfield is at 88 percent.
Capacity utilization is expected to decrease by the 2023-2024 school year for all five facilities, though Mosby Woods and Waples Mill are projected to still be at 102 percent capacity.
That downward trend has some people in the Oakton community questioning why FCPS is still pursuing its plans for a new elementary school at Blake Lane Park.
“They say they’ve been thinking about this for six years. Well, over the course of six years, things have changed,” Oakton resident Jennifer Pradas said. “Enrollments are going down, and we have this One Fairfax [policy]. They need to reevaluate it in terms of One Fairfax.”
One Fairfax is a resolution adopted by both the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the school board in 2017 that commits the county to considering issues of racial and social equity when making policy, program, and service decisions.
A Fairfax County Park Authority Invasive Management Area volunteer, Pradas has been serving as the program’s site leader at Blake Lane Park for about a year and is now helping spearhead a community campaign to save the park.
An online “Save Blake Lane Park” petition had garnered more than 700 signatures as of Feb. 20.
In addition to being concerned about the impact that losing Blake Lane Park might have on the area’s wildlife, Pradas says the park is the only open green space readily available to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, which consist predominantly of townhouses and condominiums.
Nearby Borge Street Park has a playground and basketball court but no open fields like the ones at Blake Lane, while East Blake Lane Park off of Lee Highway sits on the other side of Interstate 66, making it inaccessible to people looking for a neighborhood park in walking distance.
“A lot of people in that neighborhood told me they bought there, because the park was there,” Pradas, who lives closer to Borge Street, said. “They also don’t want the school, because the traffic is already horrendous.”
Amit Chudry, a neighbor of Reddy’s at Hibbard and Blake, confirms Pradas’s assessment, saying that Blake Lane Park was a big factor in his family’s decision to move to Providence District less than two years ago.
However, residents say Blake Lane already becomes so congested during rush hour that they sometimes take 40 minutes just to get out of their neighborhoods, and speeding cars that fail to stop for pedestrians make crossing Blake Lane a potentially hazardous undertaking.
After nearly being run over by oncoming traffic on more than one occasion, Chudry now drives to Blake Lane Park when he wants to visit with his 4-year-old daughter, even though they could get there much faster on foot.
“That’s the safety and traffic problem we’re saying already exists. It’s irrelevant whether the school is built or not,” Chudry said. “…Fix the problems before you start constructing schools.”
FCPS owns a roughly five-acre site at Circle Towers near East Blake Lane Park, but Thomas says the smaller size as well as a lack of road frontage along Route 29 led the school system and county to determine that Blake Lane Park would be a more suitable location for this project.
Voters authorized a school bond referendum on Nov. 7, 2017 with funds for the Fairfax/Oakton school project’s design phase. Money for construction will come in a future referendum, though an exact year has not yet been determined, according to FCPS staff.
The FY 2020-2024 CIP forecasts that construction on the new school will start in FY 2021 and finish in 2023 with scoping for a potential boundary adjustment to accommodate the facility scheduled for fall 2020.
However, Providence District School Board representative Dalia Palchik says the timeline for the project has been slowed down in response to feedback that FCPS received on Jan. 16 at a Mosby Woods Elementary School public meeting.
Palchik told community members at a Providence District Council meeting on Feb. 13 that she met with FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand and other staff to express her belief that they have not adequately answered questions about the need for a new elementary school and why Blake Lane Park was chosen as the project site.
“The community has done a really good job…sharing their concerns, helping with the outreach, and making sure that the voices of the community, especially those wanting to preserve the park, are heard,” Palchik said. “I heard them. I made sure we worked with staff, and I hope we can have a more clear, transparent process moving forward.”
Some community members, however, fear that the proposed new school is coming despite their advocacy on behalf of Blake Lane Park.
The pace at which FCPS provided information on the project has contributed to those concerns. The school system now has a webpage for the project with responses to questions submitted during the Jan. 16 public meeting, but it took pressure from Palchik to get even that online.
Several residents and homeowners’ association leaders said at the Providence District Council meeting that they only learned about the Blake Lane Park project through word-of-mouth from neighbors or online forums like the mobile app NextDoor.
“If the onus is on every citizen in the area to figure out who’s doing what and pulling what string to move this forward, we’re going to get left in the dark,” Chudry said. “What’s required is transparency on behalf of the county…I do not believe that the county officials and elected officials are acting in good faith at this time.”