Arlington, VA

A week after Christmas, Chris Zimmerman is playing Santa Claus for local business owners.

Like the jolly elf, Zimmerman quietly listened to the hopes and dreams (and gripes) of business owners throughout the year, then delivered a tidily wrapped present in the form of his speech at the county board’s New Year’s Day organizational meeting.

Zimmerman, who was officially elected chairman of the county board earlier in the meeting, told the assembled few (and those “watching over their toes” on the county’s TV channel) that “to realize our goals for the community, we need businesses to succeed.”

From controversies and lawsuits over the county’s sign ordinance to business openings and renovations delayed by tie-ups with the county’s permitting process, the past year has seen a steady procession of news that cast an unflattering light on the county as a place to do business. Numerous business owners who have spoken to ARLnow.com off the record have complained about what they see confusing, unnecessary and costly regulations and processes in Arlington.

The new board chairman, it seems, has gotten the message.

“From time to time it is good to re-examine how we do what we do,” Zimmerman said. “Local government has an important oversight role to play… but good regulation exists for a purpose, not as an end in itself.”

“The county should be seen as a facilitator, a partner with small business,” he added. “We do not intend to throw unnecessary obstacles in the path to success.”

Zimmerman said he will convene a “chairman’s roundtable” to find ways to “streamline processes,” to improve “quality of and access to information about [zoning] requirements” and to provide “friendly customer service to business owners.”

Of particular interest to Zimmerman is the oft-bemoaned sign ordinance, which the county is already in the process of rewriting.

“I think it is fair to say that among residents as well as business owners, there is a growing sense that our existing ordinance doesn’t quite achieve the result we want,” he said. “Many feel it is overly restrictive and unnecessarily hard to understand and comply with. There has to be a better way. In 2011, we’re going to find one.”

In addition to making it easier for businesses to locate and expand in Arlington, Zimmerman pledged to make it easier for homeowners to get the permits necessary to renovate their homes.

“I am convinced that we can do a better job by modifying practices in a way that will benefit the whole community,” he said.

The meeting was not a total business lovefest, however. There was also some hinting at possible new regulations or enforcement measures.

Zimmerman kicked off his speech by noting that the Earth “has experienced its eight warmest years on record” since he joined the board in 1998.

“There is now an international scientific consensus that this fact… is a manifestation of climate change induced by human activities, especially those related to the burning of fossil fuels,” Zimmerman said. The county is in the process of drawing up a “community energy plan” to address such issues.

Mary Hynes, who was elected vice chairman at Saturday’s meeting, discussed a new regulatory enforcement initiative for Clarendon bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Hynes said the county “has formed a partnership” with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agent assigned to Arlington, as well as the county fire marshal’s office, zoning office and the police department. The partnership will allow for “coordinated inspections” of Clarendon businesses with live entertainment and dance hall purposes, Hynes said.

Hynes did not note in her speech whether the effort is in response to any specific complaints about nightlife in the area.

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