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Peter’s Take: Arlington’s Commercial Assessment Fiasco

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Peter RousselotWhy?

That’s the key question after broke the story last week about Arlington’s skyrocketing commercial property assessments.

Fair market value can rise or fall from year to year, but as Ellis Schaeffer commented last week:

[H]ow do you explain an average of [a] 65.8% increase on the 11 business survey provided in the article? Is it merely a change in methodology? Did I miss the singular event in the past 365 days (i.e., mineral deposits, or a new casino) that made Clarendon properties suddenly SIGNIFICANTLY more valuable?

In one fell swoop, Arlington’s commercial assessment fiasco has cast a dark cloud over all of the following:

  • the new initiatives for economic competitiveness touted in the County Board Chair’s New Year’s Day speech,
  • the integrity of Arlington’s commercial property assessment process (is it properly insulated from politics?), and
  • the reliability of the revenue forecasts in Arlington’s FY 2015 budget (which depend upon the validity of the valuation of Arlington’s commercial real estate).

In the wake of this bombshell, these are the elements of the public statement that the County Board should have issued:


  • are alarmed by the enormous annual increases in so many commercial property assessments,
  • are determined to get to the bottom of this, and
  • have directed the County Manager to analyze and share with the public relevant information about each of these categories of commercial property:
    1. all properties assessed at a value 50 percent or more than last year,
    2. all properties assessed at a value that is between 40 percent and 49 percent more, and between 30 percent and 39 percent more, than last year, and
    3. all properties which experienced value increases in those same three percentage brackets (30 to 39, 40 to 49, and 50 or more), for each of the prior two years (from FY 2012 to FY 2013, and from FY 2013 to FY 2014). profiled 11 commercial properties in Clarendon alone. But, Michelle Cowan, Arlington’s Director of Management and Finance, advised the County Board there were about 90 commercial properties County-wide that increased in value by 50 percent or more.

I find both numbers (11 and 90) to be large and disturbing. But, limiting any review only to those 90 properties — as the County Government is planning — is far too narrow an approach.

To really get to the bottom of this, and ensure transparency, we need a much broader compilation, analysis and public discussion.

The County Board should step up now, and direct the County Manager immediately to broaden the inquiry to include all of the additional categories of commercial property — noted above — that are now conspicuously missing from the announced plan.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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