Monday, November 9, 2015

Building a Church and School in the Rural Crescent

St. Katherine Drexel Parish and School has requested a special use permit to build a church with a 1,000 seat sanctuary and 550 seat fellowship hall and classrooms for 260 children in K-8th grades, administrative offices, rectory, meeting areas for community groups and related facilities on a 28 acre parcel of land on the north west corner of Waterfall Road and Route 15 across from the 7/11. Because the land is in the Rural Crescent, the St. Katherine will require a special use permit.

On Thursday night St. Katherine had an informational meeting held at the Evergreen Fire Station to present the project to the public. St. Katherine plans to build the religious facility in phases. The meeting was fairly evenly split between supporters of the church and Rural Crescent preservationists who felt that building a large Church and school is inconsistent with the social objectives of maintaining a wildlife habitat, preservation of farmland, preservation of groundwater and surface water supplies, protection of historically significant areas and scenic views, and prevention of development on fractured rock systems highly susceptible to contamination. The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres. St. Katherine plans to build the religious facility in phases.

Officially, the Rural Crescent, established in 1998, encompasses almost 116,000 acres, but little of that total is still agricultural land. The Rural Crescent includes about 23,000 acres of federal land in the forest and Manassas Battlefield, 55,100 acres that are already developed including Quantico and existing developments, about 2,600 acres that are permanently protected land, 8,200 acres that have development plans already approved and almost 28,000 acres that are undeveloped and unprotected and could be preserved as open space and farmland.

The Rural Crescent depends on groundwater as the sole water supply for all the existing and future residents, and St. Katherine Drexel Parish and School will depend on an on-site well (or wells) for water supply and septic for sewage. How any proposed land use will impact water and groundwater sustainability should be one of the first questions asked, but is not considered in the application for the special use permit. The right of existing property owners to their water is primary and valuable and should not be compromised or impaired. Because there are natural fluctuations in groundwater levels it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view.

While groundwater is a renewable resource it is NOT unlimited. The sad truth is that we do not know how much water we have in the Culpeper basin, nor do we know what the sustainable rate of ground water use is. We can only hope that the Culpepper Basin is adequate to sustain the rural crescent in the next drought, but the USGS tells us that our groundwater basin is under stress. Sustainability of groundwater is hyper-local. Little is known about the sustainability of our groundwater basins, but potential problems are still at a manageable stage. We now have tools (groundwater models and data from the GRACE project) that can help develop a picture of the volume of the water within the groundwater basin and at what rate it is being used and at what rate it is being recharged. We need to know if the current and planned use of our groundwater is sustainable even in drought years. We need to understand how ground cover by roads, parking lots and buildings will impact groundwater recharge and what level of groundwater withdrawals are sustainable on site to determine if a proposed additional use of groundwater is sustainable before it is granted.

The proposed church and school will cover over 20% of the land with buildings, parking, walkway and other impervious surfaces that will change the hydrology of the site reducing ground water recharge in the area around the school at the same time that the school and church will increase groundwater use to an estimated 12,500 gallons a day (3-4 million gallons a year) according to the Pacific Institute. That is equivalent to building around 50 homes on the 28 acres. With reduced groundwater recharge in the immediate area of the school from all the paving, there is a real possibility that the pumping from the school will create a large cone of depression to draw water from adjacent properties or greater depth that could cause nearby existing wells to go dry, and people will have homes without water –worthless. This is a risk that has not been examined, studied or modeled. This has happened elsewhere. Once the hydrology is destroyed, it cannot be restored. The special use permit should not be granted to a use that will significantly reduce the groundwater recharge to the immediate area while taking the essential water resources of their neighbors without first studying the impact.

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