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Peter’s Take: Arlington Drags Feet in Measuring Fiscal Impacts of Development

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 an earlier column, I discussed an ARLnow.com story quoting County Board members on why Arlington should up-zone major portions of the County to improve housing affordability. (Up-zoning = approving more dense development than permitted by current zoning.)

That column sparked many comments regarding whether up-zoning will have the beneficial effect on housing costs these Board members expect.
A small sampling:

  • S. Sundburg:A 2018 Federal Reserve report, highlighted by Forbes, suggests that housing will be much the same: ‘The implication of this finding is that even if a city were able to ease some supply constraints to achieve a marginal increase in its housing stock, the city will not experience a meaningful reduction in rental burdens’. Add 5% more housing to the most expensive neighborhoods and the rents would drop only by 0.5% and the underlying Fed report can be found here.
  • UrbanNotSuburban:Math. If land values go up 20%, say, but the number of units per acre triples, then the land value PER UNIT declines. It would only go up if land prices tripled, but that doesn’t happen…. The driver is jobs and demand for housing created by those jobs, not density….
  • Dave Schutz:One of the problems we are having … is different specifications of ‘here’. If ‘here’ is Arlington all by itself, we are in a world of hurt, and trampling on the settled expectations of folks who bought in single-family neighborhoods is pretty compelling. If ‘here’ is the DMV, then lots of things are more feasible, because there’re a lot more less expensive building sites.

Like many other jurisdictions, Arlington should deploy tools to measure the fiscal impacts of development

Faced with conflicting arguments about the potential fiscal impacts of major new development projects, or major new policies like large-scale up-zoning, other jurisdictions already are far ahead of Arlington in facilitating an understanding of what those fiscal impacts will be.

Prospective project-specific fiscal impact analyses

Project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each special exception, site plan project were recommended by Arlington’s Community Facilities Study Group in 2015. Such statements would be helpful because they would inject vital, new input into the County’s planning and budgeting. But Arlington’s County Manager and County Attorney have strenuously resisted such analyses for years. They continue to be unwilling to candidly and transparently share their detailed reasoning with the community.

By contrast, most of our Northern Virginia neighbors have been using these tools for years. Examples include the City of Falls Church, Stafford County, and Loudoun County.

Retroactive, aggregate fiscal impact analyses

Arlington also has dragged its feet in developing periodic, retroactive assessments of the fiscal impacts of development. The same kinds of computer software that our neighbors such as Falls Church have been using for years can be adjusted to enable Arlington to perform retroactive fiscal impact analyses.

A year ago, under the leadership of John Vihstadt, the County Board, as part of its budget guidance, directed the County Manager to develop a plan to prepare and make public retroactive cost-benefit analyses of new residential and commercial developments on an aggregate basis.

But the Manager waited until December 31, 2018 to send a 3-page draft on this subject to the County Board. To my knowledge, although this draft is a public document, it has not been posted on any County website. It is filled with caveats about how difficult and complex this will be–without acknowledging that our neighbors have managed to resolve comparable complexities and have valued these tools for years.

For example, Falls Church has been using the TischlerBise impact analysis model for more than 15 years!

Conclusion

With major up-zoning proposals just around the corner, the County Board owes it to the community to jump start the deployment of new tools to measure the fiscal impacts of development.

Regardless of whether you currently support or oppose major up-zoning in Arlington, you should support understanding what the fiscal impacts will be.

Preparing and sharing such fiscal analyses with the community will improve the community’s ability to weigh the benefits and costs of major new Arlington development on our increasingly crowded schools, parks, green space and community infrastructure.

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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