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Peter’s Take: Arlington Needs Project-Specific Impact Statements

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.

The Community Facilities Study Group’s (CFSG) Final Report contained this recommendation:

Add an economic and fiscal impact section to private development (special exception/site plan and Form Based Code) project staff reports to provide information on the costs (e.g. the projected service demands and other costs to the community) and benefits (e.g. the taxes and other economic benefits) likely to be generated by a proposed project.

Discussion

As I wrote in June, Arlington must continuously plan and explain to the public how it expects to pay for the new public infrastructure and services required to serve the 75,400 people Arlington currently projects to add by 2040. But, the county government has yet to do so.

Why are project-specific impact assessments important?

Quantifying incremental county services and infrastructure that a proposed special exception/site plan project necessitates will inject vital, objective input into the county’s short- and long-term planning and budgeting processes (e.g., budgeting for and implementing additional required school capacity, open space, public safety resources). Collecting this data for each project will, in turn, enable the county to more accurately determine geographically specific, cumulative impacts and time-specific scheduling based on project completion.

Project-specific impact analyses–as recommended by the CFSG — should be prepared for each development project in a timely manner because they provide critical facts needed to determine in advance whether we can afford to approve a project, must add conditions, or should deny the request.

What kinds of project-specific impact analyses should Arlington perform?

The county should perform an integrated fiscal impact analysis for each special exception/site plan development project. Each analysis should compare by-right development for the site with the developer’s site-plan proposal that includes any changes to the General Land Use Plan (GLUP), up zoning and/or bonus density. The goal is to determine the degree to which a developer’s cash contributions and other specific community benefits will offset the county’s cost to provide additional services and infrastructure over the life of the development.

More accurate and reliable forecasting is particularly vital now that large commercial tracts of land without any students on them are being replaced with dense, multifamily housing. Independent, third-party studies have concluded that residential projects almost always generate more net costs than benefits.

Other Virginia jurisdictions routinely utilize impact analyses.

Neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun counties use some form of project-specific impact assessments as part of their review processes. Even though these jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than a special exception/site-plan system, the benefits to policy-makers and the public of having project-specific impact assessments are common to all.

Falls Church City has utilized fiscal impact analyses for years. See a detailed description of its model here.

Caveats: Other jurisdictions’ models often don’t include capital costs or assess environmental impacts or quantify a value for natural space. A new branch of economics — environmental economics — provides new models that help to establish a monetary value for open space and the natural infrastructure.

Conclusion

Arlington County should adopt and implement CFSG recommendation 12. Arlington should expedite a public examination and discussion of alternative fiscal impact models to select one that will result in greater objectivity, better informed decision-making and enhanced planning to meet the infrastructure and service needs of our rapidly-growing population.

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