Press Club

Peter’s Take: Arlington County Staff Need a Hippocratic Oath

Peter RousselotPeter’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

Last week, The Washington Post published a story about newly-imposed parking restrictions on a one-block, dead-end street in the Woodmont neighborhood.

After initially receiving a complaint from one street resident, county staff decided that parking on certain narrower portions of the street should be prohibited even for residents, per the article: “Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten said that the county does not seek out violations of its parking or zoning laws but that once a complaint is filed, it is obligated to respond.”

The Post story explained that the county’s decision to ban parking was based on “rules that allow the government to ban parking on streets narrower than 21 feet (24th Street N. is only 15 feet wide in places) and concerns about how fire department vehicles could quickly get in and out.”

Arlington County staff’s solution was worse than the problem

Once county staff received the original complaint, staff were obligated to “respond” by investigating, learning about all relevant facts and circumstances, and respectfully seeking to engage with all street residents (there were only 13 homeowners) regarding possible solutions.

One of those solutions could have been: take no action. The county’s “rules,” as quoted in The Post, are not mandatory. Even if they were, the county could change them. Justifiably, when residents of the block finally found out that “most of their curbside parking was about to disappear…they were outraged.”

Understanding the character of the neighborhood puts their outrage into context:

All of the houses on the block have at least one off-street parking space. Edwards and his wife, Vicki Edwards, 80, who has an artificial knee and artificial hip, share a steep private driveway with Joe Ruth and Sharon Rogers. When it rains or snows, however, both households prefer to park on the street, which gives them easy access to their front doors. “This is definitely limiting our goal of aging in place,” said Rogers, 75, who has helped organize the street’s resistance.

After the original complainant withdrew her complaint, all street residents opposed county staff’s solution.

The squeaky wheel shouldn’t always get the grease

There are too many instances in which County staff receive a complaint or a request from an individual citizen that at first blush suggests taking an action, but after careful investigation and consideration actually deserves a no-action response.

Another example is the Nelly Custis playground request I discussed in a column a few months ago. In the Nelly Custis situation, the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation initially decided to install a 3d playground in a .8-acre park located in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood.

That neighborhood already had two playgrounds within a little over one block. DPR made that initial decision at the request of a nearby day-care provider, but without taking into account the objections of many other neighbors who preferred to retain open green space at that location in their small park.


Even the intervention of a sympathetic County Board member, John Vihstadt, didn’t fundamentally alter the outcome in Woodmont: “‘It’s sometimes hard to fight city hall, even from the inside,’ he said.”

We need a new culture at city hall: first, do no harm. Why is the current culture so often oblivious? What happened to common sense?

Ms. Minton told one resident that staff’s solution couldn’t be changed because “this ship has sailed.” This ship should be returned to port.

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