The Right Note: Verify Then Trust

by ARLnow.com January 31, 2013 at 3:00 pm 1,088 56 Comments

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

GOP county board candidate Mark KellyCounty Board members went out of their way last week to say “the fix” was not in on the PenPlace development near Pentagon City in South Arlington. PenPlace has raised serious concerns from local residents who are not thrilled with the type and amount of non-residential development proposed there.

As part of the deal, Vornado is reportedly offering land for the Columbia Pike trolley maintenance facility as well as $20 million to help offset the costs of the new aquatics center. The Board desperately needs the space for the trolley facility, and the money for the pool is good PR for an expensive facility that had its share of detractors. With these sweeteners on the table, future public discussions seem likely to only be a formality.

Residents in the South Arlington neighborhoods who are concerned about PenPlace need only look back a couple years to the Crystal City redevelopment plan. They raised a number of issues on the plan with the County Board and staff throughout the process. At the end of the day, virtually none of the issues were addressed by the Board. Instead, the Board created an ongoing neighborhood advisory group, presumably to keep talking about changes the Board has no intention of making.

They can also look back at the widespread neighborhood opposition to the proposed purchase of 2020 14th Street North to house a new homeless shelter. The new building and renovations could cost the county nearly 20 times what it would have cost to retrofit the current facility. The County Board hearing room was packed by opponents of the plan, but their concerns simply fell on deaf ears. The decision had already been made.

Chairman Tejada just announced that there will be a public forum on the future of the massive Columbia Pike trolley project on March 27th. But, the promise of a forum seems somewhat hollow after the January 1st meeting where Chris Zimmerman pronounced the trolley issue had already been decided.

The Board certainly has a history of encouraging community dialogue and input. What seems to be a recent trend is that the Arlington Way stops when the Board realizes the community will not come around to their way of thinking. This is probably why a friend quipped to me last year after then-Chairman Hynes announced her PLACE initiative — it really stands for “Pretending Like Arlington County Ever-listens.”

When negotiating with the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan’s philosophy was “trust but verify.” Based on our Board’s recent track record of paying lip service to concerns raised by Arlingtonians, South Arlington residents concerned about PenPlace should consider taking the posture of “verify then trust.”

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

  • Sam

    With regard to the streetcar – or “trolley” to its detractors – was Chris Zimmerman not correct when he stated that the matter had already been decided? I’m talking about process. Hasn’t the project been through the necessary steps and been approved by the Board? Just because detractors are unhappy with the decision doesn’t mean that the decision wasn’t made. I have been unhapp with any number of decisions made by local, state, and federal agencies and boards, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t make a decision.

    • Wayne Kubicki

      Not quite…the Board is pursuing the streetcar/trolley. They currently don’t have the money for it. And depending on how the financing is structured, a voter referendum might (or might not) be required.

      • Gilmer

        THEN we can declare who wins and who loses.

      • Not quite?
        • Wayne Kubicki

          Not quite…below are excerpts from the CIP you referenced. The streetcar is an “outyear” project, for which the Board does not have funding, and County staff has now acknowledged that any bonding where the debt service would come from the commercial real estate tax surcharge would require a voter referendum under state law:

          The preliminary financing plan includes bonds that are potentially supported by the
          commercial real estate tax, beginning in FY2014. These bonds will total $70.0 million
          over the life of the project. Additionally, this project is anticipated to be funded with $60.0 million in federal money, $32.7 million in state money, $31.3 million from Arlington’s Transportation Capital Fund.

  • drax

    So you and some other people had an opinion, and the Board chose not to go with it. That just means you lost. Doesn’t mean they didn’t listen. Doesn’t mean others in the county don’t support the Board’s actions. Doesn’t mean they already had made up their minds.

    It’s frustrating when things don’t go your way. Don’t turn it into arrogance or corruption or stupidity. It’s just people having a different opinion from yours. Other county residents disagree with you and support the Board’s actions sometimes. If the Board went your way, would that mean it “ignored” them?

    • littlebritches


    • Old Yeller

      Spot on. It’s all too common these days for people to confuse tyranny with losing. Sure, losing tastes like a s**t taco. But this is a democracy. Dust yourself off, get your like-minded people together and fight on. You’ll get ’em next time. Or maybe you won’t. Hmmm, so maybe it was tyranny all along….

    • novasteve

      Yeah, but it seems that your side gets to decide which laws they obey or not though. Why is it that you get to choose to ignore immigration laws for us in the county, but I have to respect the wishes of the county board on their choo choo trains?

      • drax

        Arlington County is complying with immigration laws.

        • Marie Antoinette
          • drax

            I repeat, Arlington County is complying with immigration laws. This resolution doesn’t change that fact.

            The County thought that participation in the Secure Communities program was legally optional. Turns out it isn’t. Arlington is still participating.

            There was never an attempt to not comply with the law, nor was the law ever not complied with. The County simply believe it could leave the program and still be in compliance with the law.

            End of story.

            At least make an effort to know WTF you’re talking about, Marie.

      • malaka

        Hope you are not referring to cohabiting unmarried couples..(illegall in VA)..time for an unmarried couple round up!

    • Chuck

      I have to whole heartily disagree with you. The Cherrydale Fire Station is a perfect example of the County not listening to their own appointed community task forces. The current location was not even mentioned during the task force meetings.Not to mention that the original bond for the “new” station had expired and the County had paid debt service on it without spending a dime on the project. So WE paid debt service (interest and fees) over the life of the bond.

      I did not serve on the Cherrydale Fire Station task force, however I have served on several boards and committees. The County does NOT listen to their “citizen” committees…AT ALL.

      • jan

        Accurate observation.
        Wish the county had an Inspector General.

  • Observer

    This article and headline read like Zimmie and the board broke a promise. Did they?

  • Mr Lenin

    Доверяй, но проверяй!

    • Mr Gorbachev

      У меня есть переводчик слишком

      • KalashniKEV

        Meenya nye nooshna perevodchik.

      • Mr Stalin

        я люблю трамваи

      • Mr Reagan

        Что это за «переводчик» вы говорите?

  • JohnB

    There are political decisions and there are technical decisions. Political decisions are about where we are going. Technical decisions are about how we get there. When a vocal minority who disagrees with the majority’s political decision on where we are going criticizes technical decisions on how to get there because they don’t want to go there their criticism should be ignored and they should be encouraged to advocate for different political decisions.

    PenPlace is a technical decision that is a result of the political decision to concentrate high density mixed use urban style development near transit infrastructure.

    • BBMS

      But PenPlace is a developer’s proposal. Somehow the way your post reads is that the county is responsible for the design (the “technical decision” as you put it).

      And I don’t even believe there is unanimity within the government on the proposal before them. And civic associations are formed by the government to serve in advisory roles.

      Frankly, I have no idea how your post relates to this issue.

    • SouthArlington1

      No John, In spite of your description that is not the case with PenPlace, if it was, you would see 300 foot tall buildings over the Orange Line metro at Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square etc… Those Orange line stations actually have better train service and greater platform capacity than Pentagon City and those stations currently serve a tiny fraction of the number of users of the Pentagon City station which is one of the most heavily used in the county.

      So this is not a “technical decision” as you describe, but a very very political decision where the political calculus is that they can shove this density in South Arlington and hopefully no one will complain.

      • JohnB

        @ SouthArlington1 – I would argue that comparing the capacity of the transportation infrastructure to the anticipated increase in usage due to new density would be a technical critique, valid, and relevant. The flavor I get from the opposition to PenPlace is that they don’t want anything there at all. The flavor I get from Mr. Kelly is that if you disagree with the political decisions made at election time you should be pissed that your political critiques are dismissed during the technical input process. I disagree with Mr. Kelly on that point.

        • Southarlington1

          John, I am sorry, but not surprised that you had that opinion. It is common to label opponents as extreme or nimbys, the county staff and developers do this to discredit the critics as if their opinions are not valid

          The fact is the the civic associations opposing Penplace is actually supportive of a mixed use development that would give the developer significant density. The key is they want that development to have reasonable limits and true mixed use. No community would support penplace if it was in their neighborhood. It’s just bad planning or a giveaway to a developer depending on your level of cynicism

  • Buddy

    Mark Kelly, thank you for reminding us that the so called “Arlington Way” is
    not always in the interest of our tax paying property owners.

    Property values go down, taxes stay virtually the same, values go up by a little
    and taxes leap.

    Just watch….if the streetcar line is built, taxes will jump so much that some folks may
    have to move from their homes. As a retired person, that really concerns me.

    • John Snyder

      Buddy. The reality, not the alarmist rhetoric, is that the Arlington share of the Pike streetcar will be paid for with a surtax on commercial property. That surtax is already being assessed, and cannot go up because it is at the highest legal rate. If it were so awful, wouldn’t you have noticed. And since you have not noticed, doesn’t that show that the impact is not significant to you?

      • Money is fungible

        Money is fungible. Money being dedicated to pay for the trolley can’t be used in other locations. When, and yes, when, the inevitable sequestration hits Arlington County residents wallets and it will, where is the money going to come from to make up for the short fall. So, that surtax would normally go away and be part of the general revenue fund to reduce the amount of any tax increase that would come.

        Second, what happens when the trolley’s revenue numbers don’t hit the required levels and the surtax can’t cover the losses. Guess, where that money is going to come from. It isn’t from increase surtax revenue but from the general tax revenue. Which means my wallet and also means I was correct.

        • John Snyder

          Nobody has ever said the streetcar funding is not part of overall Arlington finances. The claim is that tax increases for the streetcar will force people from their homes. That claim is totally false, as the homes are not even being taxed for it. The level of taxation is happening now, and not even noticable by the writer. Recognizing that those claims are totally false, you now argue for diverting money from the streetcar to somewhere else where it is not needed.

          • Not Needed?

            Dude, We’ve got a lot of needs. For instance if you could divert that money from your poor, misunderstood, little street car, maybe we could fully fund the schools — you know with luxury items like teachers, classrooms, and desks.

            Oh, by the way, those school children are in many cases living in the infill projects and increased density approved by the County Board. But to hear our Board talk about it was a big happy surprise that all those new residents decided to procreate, and I supose an even bigger surprise that they choose to send them to APS. Some times are smart growth hasn’t proven to be so smart…

      • Marie Antoinette

        I feele the surtax being assessed on commercial property…every time I order a $14 martini around here. The Choo choo train, lol. Beauty. The Folly Trolley works just as well.

        • John Snyder

          You are breaking my heart. But for the commercial property surtax you could get $13.98 Martinis.

    • arlimprov

      My property assessment went up $300k since 2009 and I made NO improvements to my property in that time. I have one of the smallest lots in my neighborhood and smaller house and I am assessed at a higher rate than my neighbors with large lots and those mammoth Mickey/BCN houses. I went before the Board with tons of data, etc. They agreed with the data we presented. They concluded with ‘we will need to look into how we assess..blah, blah’. They didn’t change anything or provide any remedy. This is how the County Board opperates this is NOT democracy. This is a smoke screen. The Board is a Rogue Entity. It makes its decision and then has focus groups to say ‘we’ve had the sessions’ and then continues with the Decsion these few people made. This is NOT listening to the people the Board represents. Add in a bunch of lemmings that only vote Democrat without paying attention to what is going on in the County and you have the New Arlington Way. It is possible to vote Democratic nationally and Repubican locally, btw. Maybe some of these ‘bright’ people do not realize it. Enjoy your new homeless neighbors and overcrowding. Maybe you can all take a bath in the new pool in the acquatic center together.

      • bemused bystander

        If you took your assessment gripe to the County Board, you were in the wrong place. If you went to the Board of Equalization, you have no complaint about the County Board.

        • arlimprov

          I have a gripe with all the County Boards. The New Arlington Way. F8ck the man!

  • MC

    The author works for the Hertitage Foundation, right? Seems very stuck in the 1980s citing Reagan and the Soviet Union. Wonder if he owns a mobile phine.

    • Marie Antoinette

      Not sure if he owns a mobile phine, but i suspect he has spell check on his computer.

  • Arlington_Reisdent

    The County Board really does not care too much about citizen’s voice. The “Arlington Way” is generally sham process for covering up whatever Board wants to do. And, as we know, some Board members are even on developer’s staff and/or receive hefty contributions from developers. This is the best government that the money can buy….

    The board members went to “listen” to residents, only to report later that they checked the box. It is really not a true listening, but rather formality.

    Of course, the Board will approve what Vornado wants. This is fixed, and Board is just playing mind games with media, press and citizens.

  • brown before green

    Does anyone else find it ironic that this essay from a Republican is hyper-critical of significant PRIVATE PROPERTY development moving toward approval in a heavily Democratic location? And that the Republican party was behind a constitutional amendment to strengthen PRIVATE PROPERTY rights in Virginia just last November? Seems like the gentleman is pandering to a few noisy friends in a desparate attempt to be relevant in pro-business, Democratic Arlington.

    • Enough already

      So again with personal attacks and the requisite belittling of what has been sustained and widespread public opposition to the Vornado plan. This is not a Amarth growth development and has little if any redeaming feature for the community. Why should any neighborhood accept bad planning and such an enormous zoning change? Arlington owes its residents better and Arlington owes vornado nothing.

      • confused

        how different is this in total density from what would be built as of right? Note, the as of right zoning does not require a multi use building with FroYo shops, etc. Thats not the as of right alternative. The county could require, for the extra density, multiuse and FroYo – or they could instead take the land for the troller mtnce, and the proffereed $$ for the acquatics center. Seems from the county POV, the latter may look much better. As for the “neighbors” arent the civic asscns objecting mostly homeowners too far away to be directly effected by the height, which is hardly out of line with the height of other nearby buildings?

        • Patty Joyce

          Confused: Currently, the PenPlace lot (Parcel 1D) is zoned C-O-2.5, which allows limited 12-story commercial, hotel, and residential use. The parcel is part of the larger Pentagon City Phased Development Site Plan which allowed certain total densities and uses within its boundaries.

          Currently, what is “left” in the totals allowed within Pentagon City for use on this site is:
          582 hotel rooms
          930 residential units

          The 930 residential units will not be used on this parcel: but they are not available for conversion of use, because they are being moved across the street to Vornado’s Met Park development (incidentally increasing density originally intended for that parcel as well).

          Therefore, to build PenPlace as proposed, the County will need to (1) change the zoning to allow office use and also to raise the allowed building heights from 12 stories to 22 stories, and, also (2) create or find (through TDRs) and then grant and/or sell the entirety of the requested 1.8 million square feet of office density/use to Vornado.

          Bottom line, Vornado is requesting an increase of 1.8 million sf of office be placed on this single parcel.

          PenPlace as proposed would more than double the amount of office space currently found in the entirety of Pentagon City (which is currently at about 1.2 million s.f.).

          As for how far we live from the site, please feel free to go google maps and take a look at the 22202 zip code. This gives a good overview of why any development south of 395 affects all of us. This is why Arlington County has invited ARCA and AHCA to sit on every Pentagon City review committee since the 1970s. Our standing has been acknowledged for decades.

      • Exactly


    • Yup

      I was thinking the same thing. This seems much more like a partisan attack (surprise, surprise) than a reasoned philosophical position. Ok we get it you don’t like the AC Board. Maybe if other parties ran an actual credible candidate rather than Mark Kelly (again) or a loon like Clement there would be a chance for them to win. Hint: Arlington is a socially liberal County, don’t run socially conservative candidates…

      • drax

        The tone of the whole column, and the “trust but verify” theme, implies that he thinks he was promised something that wasn’t delivered.

        The Arlington Way means your views are heard. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get your way.

  • Jarocks

    I’m surprised that the voice on the right on this blog has little to no respect for property rights. If he wanted to develop his own piece of property in a legal manner that comports with the comp plan for Arlington, how would he feel if the neighbors wouldn’t allow him to do so or would allow him to do so only if they designed it for him? Does Mr. Kelly believe in the rule of law or the rule of the mob? Jurisdictions outside of the DC area have something called zoning, put in place by professionals, which means that land use decisions are not made by the neighbors on a case-by-case basis.

    • See The Light

      Right on Jarocks! From what I understand the Pen Place development is in conformance with the County approved Comprehensive Plan and meets the zoning requirements for the County under the optional method that requires the 4.1 site plan process. Both the zoning ordinance and the comprensive plan are approved via the regular legislative process and therefore represent the law in Arlington. If you disapprove of the zoning laws by all means work through the legislative process to try and amend them but don’t decry a property owner the right to use their property as the law allows. The real crime in this story is not that the Board approved the project but that the County “encouraged” the owner to cede both a portion of their property and $20Million in cash simply to be granted the rights afforded them under the law. Sadly this type of “pay to play” corruption disguised as “community benefits” has become the defacto S.O.P. in local land use, and If any component of this approval process represents tyranny, that is it.

      And in the end, who doesn’t understand that the houses in the Arlington Ridge neighborhood are worth significantly more due to their proximity to the office, apartment and retail density of Crystal and Pentagon City? Every house within walking distance of Pen Place was just given a boost to their value thanks to the developer.

      • MyRightsMatterToo

        If PenPlace were developed as a mixed-use, vibrant, 24/7 block, that would also improve our property values and would ALSO protect the community’s quality of life.

        ‘See the Light’, this sounds like the contrived legal justification for this project cited by Vornado… and maybe if you did indeed go to court then this claim would reveal some sort of contradiction in County laws/ordinances… I have no idea…

        But we both know its not true that Vornado has the “right” to develop this property however they like… which is why the County can require public process and ‘sell’ the right to them by requesting community benefits! (or ‘pay to play’ which frankly benefits Vornado far more than it could ever benefit any single family home property owner!)

        I strongly question the premise that the developer would go through this 2 year process if there was settled law giving them the “right” to develop as they please. However, I will be happy to write to the County Board and ask their opinion on this. If I ever receive an answer I’ll be happy to post it here first.

    • MyRightsMatterToo

      Jarocks, perhaps you are not aware that to build PenPlace as currently proposed by Vornado the County Board will need to approve wholesale zoning changes to the Parcel 1D (PenPlace Site), the Pentagon City PDSP, and GLUP.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if I wanted to build something on my property that required such wholesale changes, I would not be allowed to do so. AND that my neighbors would be furious.

      I am a ‘pro-growth Democrat,’ not a Republican. But I hardly see how any of that matters in this case. MY property rights, my right to protect the value of my property, that is built and maintained within the zoning rules put in place to protect ALL of our property rights, are just as important as the rights of the owner of Parcel 1D, Vornado. Isn’t THAT how a Democrat should view this debate?

      As a neighbor of PenPlace, I assure you that if Vornado wanted to develop the Parcel as a by-right physical structure, I would not oppose that decision. I would cheer!!

      I am heartily sick of this constructed-of-wholecloth argument regarding the rights of the owner of this property to build as they will. Vornado purchased the property with full knowledge of the zoning restrictions attached. UNLESS the County Board or County Staff made backroom promises that they had no right to make prior to the public process, then Vornado has no right to grouse if they are not allowed to add over 1million square feet of additional density to this property parcel.

      I do not equate voicing dissent within the County-mandated processes to “mob rule.”

      • Westover.45

        Great post.

        The development process in Arlington can be convoluted, and in many cases far, far from by-right development. But it happens so frequently that many people who read these articles are just very confused about why these debates are even occurring, and why they are important. I myself do not even know the specific site plan and zoning requirements for this proposed development, but the simply fact that the government is involved in the approval should indicate that the developer is asking for something more than zoning allows by-right. So neighbor input is very important in this process, and should not be discounted.

        • Southarlington1

          Westover.45 Just so you know, the specifics include:
          1.8 million square feet of ADDITIONAL office space (land is currently zoned residential hotel).
          2 Secure Buildings, including setbacks that are no longer required by DOD
          About 150 feet of additonal height (for a total of 300 feet)
          and 6,800 daily car trips with about 2235 parking spaces.

          I have attended many meetings on this proposal, and frankly the entire Arlington community (developers aside I suppose) should be outraged about the influence Vornado has over our planning process. They state in virtually every meeting that they are the single largest landowner. That should not be automatically translated to “we Own this process” but that seems to be the case.

  • Jack

    I can give you one example of when the “fix was in” but the community won: County staff, Planning Commission, and Board were supportive of a Clarendon Home Depot at the site of the old Sears Auto Store. The County Manager even flew to Atlanta to ask HD to tolerate the endless hearings, assuring them that HD’s concrete big box and parking garage eventually would be approved as Clarendon’s anchor! The community dragged those show-hearings on so long that HD finally gave up before the County Board could rubber-stamp the proposal. So, Clarendon is now stuck with Apple, Crate and Barrel, lots of other stores and residential units, and thus Clarendon will never be successful without what staffed claimed was the essential “anchor” of a Home Depot across from Whole Foods. Read the Home Depot proposal County staff report and hearings reports for the “Sears site” if you doubt this.

    • MyRightsMatterToo

      Congratulations, Jack! Its great to hear about neighbors who were successful in defending the future of the neighborhood they love!

      I’m afraid, though, that in this case the process is being dragged out, going on and on and on and on, in the hope that the _neighbors_ will lose interest and go away. Its highly unlikely that Vornado will go away no matter how long the process continues. Take a look at the Washington Business Journal’s 12/12 article on Vornado’s place in Arlington County. <>

      Taken from the article: “Vornado Realty Trust’s position as Arlington’s most valuable tenant and principal taxpayer is secure, if not flat out unheard of in the Washington region… To say Vornado is Arlington’s “principal taxpayer” is majorly underselling it. If Arlington were a public company, Vornado would control the board.”

      The worst part of the process is, I think, the way the developer (and I’m afraid the County staff is complicit) paints me and my neighbors as ‘crazies.” Its incredibly discouraging and disappointing. I wonder if you went through the same sort of attempted character assassination?

  • Don

    Talk about conflicts of interest? How about – County Board’s significant other provides expensive consulting services to corporations in advance of County Board site plan approval for new buildings?

    • Shocked!

      You wouldn’t by chance mean that he consults to Vornado? Why that seems a bit like wasteful spending since Vornado makes it so perfectly clear that they are the single largest landholder in Arlington County and I guess thereby paying all the board and staff salaries directly (the rest of us taxpayers I guess just pay for the pools)

      Maybe we should launch a shareholders revolt to this massive waste a public company’s money?


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