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Peter’s Take: Up-Zoning Plans, New APS Enrollment Projections Spur Need for Long-Range Planning

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.

Two stories posted on ARLnow.com last week underscore the urgent need for the County and School Boards to expedite long-range public facilities and fiscal planning.

The first story (“Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste”) quoted various activists and County Board members stressing the need to make Arlington housing more affordable by up-zoning in order to substantially increase housing supply. (Up-zoning = approving more dense development than permitted by current zoning.)

The second story (“New APS Enrollment Projections”) quoted various activists and School Board members about the need for a fourth comprehensive high school.

The most up-voted comment to the second story captured how the two stories are linked:

Gavrilo2014  Those advocating housing growth, whether “affordable” or otherwise, need to address the questions of school capacity.

First, the good news

The good news is that since the Community Facilities Study Group released its final report and recommendations in 2015, relentless pressure — primarily from citizen activists — has pushed the County and School Boards (often grudgingly) to work more closely together to integrate their forecasting methods and improve their ability to estimate future APS enrollment more accurately.

As I noted in a December 2018 column, the APS Facilities Advisory Committee (FAC) has prepared an excellent report on future school facilities needs. But that FAC report was prepared prior to publication of the latest APS enrollment projections.

Second, the questionable news

Particularly since the announcement that Amazon will be locating a new HQ in Crystal City, various County Board members and citizen activists have been sending strong signals that county government is planning to unveil a series of far reaching new proposals to up-zone major areas of Arlington. A Jan. 31 story (“Arlington Must Open Up Single-Family-Neighborhoods To Different Housing Options”) further described these suggestions.

Proponents of up-zoning believe that if we increase housing supply relative to demand substantially, then housing prices will be significantly lower than they would have been otherwise. This hypothesis is alluring but must be tested in the context of long-range cost-benefit analyses in Arlington to determine whether the hoped-for benefits justify the costs. Evidence elsewhere casts doubt on the hypothesis.

Nowhere in any of these recent stories is there any indication that county government officials are planning to accompany their major up-zoning proposals with quantitative estimates of the net long-range (15-year) fiscal impacts on county and APS budgets of their proposals.

Particularly unhelpful are remarks like those by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy about the new enrollment projections: “take a breath, look at this one year, and see if these patterns begin to play themselves out over a long period of time.” As another commenter to the enrollment story noted:

LocalChatter it sure seems like Murphy’s statement is another way of saying “I don’t want to deal with this”

Murphy has been singing the same song for many years: this year might be an aberration, so let’s wait ’till next year. Murphy consistently has been proven wrong.

The community cannot afford to wait any longer. We are out of breath. The new APS enrollment projections forecast a net deficit of 2,400 elementary school seats by 2028. Those projections don’t yet take Amazon’s arrival into account. Where will those new elementary school seats be located? How much will they cost to fill? When will the two Boards provide the answers?

Conclusion

Up-zoning designed to increase affordable housing does not entail immediate taxpayer cash subsidies in the same way that AHIF contributions do. But major up-zoning does lead directly to major public infrastructure costs, such as the need to provide new seats for new students. While affordable housing is a worthy goal, it must take its seat at the budget table along with many other community priorities.

Even before Amazon showed up, Arlington had failed to develop a long-range (15-year) plan regarding:

  • where to locate the new public facilities (e.g., schools, parks, fire stations) Arlington will need to handle the development already authorized by current zoning
  • how Arlington will pay for those new public facilities

Amazon’s arrival heightens the imperative for the two Boards to create such a long-range strategic plan and discuss it with the community before approving any proposals for major new up-zoning.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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