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Progressive Voice: Tackling Climate Change Close to Home, On Lee Highway

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Scott Matties

In the face of COVID-19’s massive effect on the health, safety and economic welfare of Arlingtonians, our county decision-makers face hard choices as they re-consider the 2021 budget and five-year CIP. Many economic impacts are not yet certain — accurate revenue forecasts, the toll on health and human service needs, and what the future holds when schools and businesses are able to reopen. Emerging needs have been factored into the revised budget proposal, but updates later in the year will likely be necessary.

With these serious and immediate challenges, it is easy to lose focus on long-term community priorities and their need for funding. Both the public and private sectors should do more to improve sustainability as aging buildings and infrastructure are upgraded or replaced. How we bring about this change can be a model for protecting our environment–or not. We have an opportunity now, with the redevelopment of Lee Highway, to put big ideas into action.

One example is stormwater management. The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act regulations, first implemented in Virginia in 1989, have improved the health of the Bay by focusing on water quality through the collection and treatment of stormwater run-off to reduce pollutants. Arlington’s stormwater management regulations are written, in part, to ensure compliance with this law. These regulations will continue to improve the health of the Bay and our local waterways that feed it.

A more tangible impact on Arlington discussed much of late is flooding. The frequency of very intense storms will continue to impact Arlington due in large part to our inadequate stormwater drainage systems. To address this, we need a new focus on better management of stormwater quantity. It is worth noting that the Virginia regulations related to flood protection identify minimum requirements but do not prohibit local jurisdictions from requiring more.

There are a variety of criteria in the Virginia flood protection regulations, but they generally involve mitigating 2-year and 10-year storm events. The storm that hit our region in July 2019 was a 100-year+ event. The language we use to describe these events should change as it can be misleading. We should shift from colloquial terms like a 100-year storm to what it really means – a 1-in-100 (or 1%) chance of such a storm. Another storm like July 2019 could happen tomorrow. It may be statistically unlikely but it’s time for the public to discuss storms in these terms.

As we plan for the redevelopment of the Lee Highway corridor, how do we address this? Restricting redevelopment is not a realistic approach. Community needs and market pressures are already leading to redevelopment, mostly through by-right proposals meeting only the minimum stormwater requirements.  The commercial core areas of Lee Highway are about 67% impervious, meaning covered by buildings, streets, and parking lots, making effective management of stormwater run-off in these areas very challenging. There is currently no requirement and little incentive for that existing condition to change.

So controlled redevelopment will be an important component of a broad-based plan to better manage stormwater along Lee Highway. Individual redevelopment projects can be required to do more, such as increased on-site stormwater retention and re-use allowing controlled release into the County system. But this must be balanced with the financial burden. This is a complicated and interconnected problem that cannot be solved site-by-site.

Arlington’s government should lead the way to upgrading the antiquated stormwater infrastructure county-wide. The County’s 2019-28 Capital Improvement Plan suggests about $19 million to address stormwater quality but less than $1 million to address stormwater quantity through system upgrades. The County’s current FY 2021 budget proposal appears to improve on that with about $2 million proposed in capital outlay.  However, this does not reflect the sense of urgency felt in the community to get ahead of this issue.

One silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis has been improved air quality worldwide. It is encouraging to see clear evidence that a change in behavior, whether chosen or imposed, can improve our environment.  This is likely temporary so let’s not to get complacent. Let’s use this time to get ahead of the problem and make changes, both in policy and implementation, that can improve our environment for the long term.

Scott Matties AIA LEED-AP is an architect who has lived in Arlington 25 years. He is the current president of the Lee Highway Alliance, a group of citizens, property and business owners that has been working on Lee Highway redevelopment for nine years.

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