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Peter’s Take: Trade In the Neighborhood Conservation Program

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 ARLnow.com.

On July 19, the County Board approved another extension of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC Program). But, this program no longer can function effectively.

Arlington’s NC Program had a noble objective:

When the program was created in 1964, the goal was to empower residents by having them come together to discuss and share ideas for improving their neighborhoods.

Though nothing could sound more idyllic or representative of the “Arlington Way,” the way NC actually works in practice undermines its lofty goals. NC has problems in three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.

Discussion

Equity. NC’s principal inequity — a crippling one — arises because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are being denied timely neighborhood infrastructure improvements since they live in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association. (Belonging to a civic association is an NC requirement.)

Many civic associations have modest memberships, representing just a fraction of the community’s population. Most are operated by a handful of volunteers. Quite a few lack functioning, updated websites, and still fewer are capable of producing anything approaching a newsletter. Newsletters distributed to the highest possible percentage of community members are the surest means of effective communication.

Simply put, too few civic associations are truly functional. Many are run by a few people with little knowledge of or consent from those living within the association’s boundaries. Arlington County cannot mandate that every civic association function properly.

Residents without a fully functioning civic association are barred from tapping the NC Program’s roughly $12 million annual budget.

Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive requirements, which include monthly meeting attendance–often for years–to gain “funding points,” and repeated outreach and notification efforts, mean the complete NC “process” can take anywhere from 5 to 10 years. If an association’s NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.

Project engineering, always in short supply, further delays project funding. The current status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.

Cost. Typically, delays make projects more expensive. Earlier this decade, the cap for NC projects was $250,000. Then, it grew to $500,000. In the most recent funding round, improvements to Nelly Custis Park clocked in at almost $800,000.

NC rules also add to costs. For example, NC street projects must contain curb, gutter and sidewalk components, whether or not a sidewalk is needed or desired. With flexible spending caps, expensive add-ons like lighting are common–even though Dominion will install new lights at no charge.

It’s time to provide a more equitable, timely and cost-effective way to provide critical infrastructure to neighborhoods. Back in 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. County staff has the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding.

Conclusion

Over the next two years, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely and re-allocate current NC Program funds.

The Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient. A more flexible Missing Links Program could be another.

The goal should be to fund critical infrastructure equitably, efficiently and in a way far superior to what is possible under the NC Program.

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