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Peter’s Take: Phase Out The Neighborhood Conservation Program

Peter Rousselot

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 ARLnow.com.

Last week, ARLnow.com reported that the Neighborhood Advisory Conservation Committee voted to suspend its spring funding round.

Discussion

NC’s financial crisis provides yet another occasion to reconsider the program. The safety of pedestrians and need for safe, walkable streets continues to grow more acute in our urbanizing neighborhoods.

As I have written previously, the NC program should be phased out entirely.

NC has problems in at least three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.

Equity. NC’s principal inequities arise because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are denied timely and critical neighborhood infrastructure improvements and access to the NC Program’s roughly $12 million bi-annual budget because they are:

  • Living in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association.
  • Required to have a County-Board approved NC Plan documenting all potential projects.
  • Lacking consistent NC volunteer representatives to complete projects.

Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive volunteer requirements, including monthly meeting attendance — often for years — to gain “funding points,” and outreach and notification efforts, mean a complete NC project “process” can take anywhere from five to 10 years. If an association’s volunteer 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. A recent status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.

Cost. As I mentioned previously, project delays and unnecessary add-ons like street lights (which Dominion will install at no charge) and components like curbs, gutters and sidewalks (which sometimes are unnecessary), make projects more expensive.

Conclusion

Many commenters on last week’s ARLnow.com article on NC offered horror stories about how improperly functioning civic associations cripple the NC program. But, Arlington cannot mandate that any — let alone every — civic association function properly. Nor can Arlington mandate that residents volunteer for any activity, including the NC. Thus, the NC program cannot be fixed.

The County should not allocate further bonding authority to the NC program. Instead, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely over the next two years, and re-allocate current NC Program bond funding.

In 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. Revised and updated NIPs can provide the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding. We cannot leave this job to NC’s volunteer patchwork quilt.

A revised and updated Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient for street-related infrastructure.

An alternative to the current NC process could include:

For sidewalks:

  • High priority areas, schools and urban Metro corridors could be addressed by engineers and County staff first.
  • For missing links, neighborhoods could propose sidewalks directly to staff for analysis and priority.

For park beautification:

A reformed department of parks and recreation could allocate small sums annually and equitably so that neighborhoods could spend on their parks as they decide. Neighborhoods could request to withdraw funds for small improvements like flowers or trees, accumulate for a small amenity, or bundle their allocated share to apply to one neighborhood park in need of the most attention.

Finally, it’s important that the County commit to a robust, thoroughly updated civic engagement process for all projects across all departments.

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