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Peter’s Take: Salt Dome Master Plan Avoids Third Fiasco

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 September 2018, the County Board appointed a new 15-member task force. The Board charged the task force with developing a Master Plan for a 7.6-acre parcel of County-owned land located at 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive.

This parcel is often referred to as the Salt Dome site.

Why the new task force?

The Board’s goal was to avert a third consecutive fiasco related to this site.

The first fiasco involved the failure by County staff to justify shifting the location of Fire Station 8 to this site. The second fiasco involved the failure by County staff to provide enough notice that the old salt storage unit previously located on this site was in imminent danger of collapse.

The new task force submitted its final report to the County Board on April 12. Most other critical documents relating to this task force’s work can be accessed here.

Due to skillful leadership, the task force achieved a remarkable degree of consensus.

After 5 months, multiple meetings, and hundreds of hours of hard work, the task force, led by Chair Noah Simon, was able to forge a remarkable degree of consensus regarding the best possible recommendation to the Board given the information available.

As the Sun-Gazette previously reported: “The task force included representation from four adjacent civic associations — Old Dominion, Yorktown, Donaldson Run and Rock Spring — plus representatives from a number of government advisory commissions. Marymount also was represented on the panel, as was St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.”

County staff attempted to make a case that a substantially increased percentage of the acreage on the site should be paved over and devoted to vehicle parking and staging areas to support snow removal equipment (roughly 100 new parking spaces) and the existing leaf storage operations. But when challenged to present operating and other data to justify why it was necessary to expand snow operations, staff failed to provide sufficient data.

Most important lessons learned

The public cares deeply: instead of simply saying NIMBY, most neighbors came together and said essentially, “if in the future you can compile the necessary operating data to make your case, here is our recommended plan for how the site should be re-configured to support those operations.”

Dozens of members of nearby civic associations joined the discussion, providing creative options that included: arranging to park on nearby paved areas; using existing changing facilities nearby, such as Langston; looking at jurisdictions that stopped mulching leaves in an expensive, energy-intensive way; and exploring other systems of loading salt. Others asked why the shift-change facility needed to be co-located with salt storage?

The positions taken by County staff lack supporting data: staff was unable to provide data concerning the number of snow events/year across time, or what volumes/quantities of road salt or brine they distribute. Other jurisdictions, such as Maryland, measure the number of salt/mile of road/inch of snow, work to reduce dependency on salt (vital because of salt’s toxicity), and accordingly demonstrate percentage reductions in salt use annually.

The County should begin to measure all critical aspects of the “problem” to develop meaningful data to drive management decisions. The County should develop similar metrics for the leaf collection and mulching process. How much is “free” mulch costing its residents?

Conclusion

In our rapidly developing County, proposed changes in the uses of land all come with direct and opportunity costs and must be justified by data that backs up proposed changes.

Despite this site being on a precipitous hill, at the edge of a Resource Protection Area, and at the trailhead of Donaldson Run, County staff too often talk about massive soil disturbance as though it comes at no cost — even in the face of tree removal and other proven environmental damage.

County staff is too narrowly focused on short-term construction of facilities without considering medium- and long-term impacts on erosion, water quality, air quality, flooding, or mitigation of climate change. The County is being paved over at an unsustainable rate, and flooding is a severe problem. Shared use of existing paved areas needs to be a priority.

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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