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Peter’s Take: Neighborhood Conservation Program — End It Because You Can’t Mend It

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.

In the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) he unveiled last week, County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting the funding of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC) from $60 million in the last CIP to $36 million in the new CIP.

The NC program should be ended because it cannot be reformed.

Why the NC program should be ended

The safety of pedestrians and need for safe, walkable streets continues to grow more acute in our neighborhoods, but the NC program cannot meet these critical needs. The NC program has insoluble problems in at least two key areas: equity and timeliness.

Equity

NC’s principal inequities arise because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are denied critical neighborhood infrastructure improvements 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

But, Arlington cannot mandate that any — let alone every — civic association function properly.

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.

A former member described her NC experience to me this way:

“[I]t is a crazy incentive system where the only way you can even get your project considered — even if you have an organized civic association (CA) — is to attend and get points for attending every meeting… Then the arguments were literally a well-organized CA with a plan that took a couple of years to do with dedicated resources from the county… vs. a couple of neighbors who don’t want a sidewalk… or a sign or a light or a something. There is no framework… to guide the conversations prior to it getting to the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee (NCAC), so the NCAC becomes the breeding ground for chaos.”

But, Arlington cannot mandate that residents volunteer for any activity, including the NC process.

What should replace the NC program

In 2007-2008, county staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) 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.

A revised and updated 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 or benches.

Conclusion

Arlington County should take complete control from the NC over the new construction or restoration of neighborhood infrastructure.

The county then should proceed to use its new extensive public engagement process to deal directly and fairly with neighborhood residents regarding neighborhood conservation projects.

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