Arlington, VA

Over the past two decades, parents say Arlington has become known as one of the best places in the country to raise a child with Down Syndrome.

Three local families with children with Down Syndrome told ARLnow that the county is renown for investing in resources, and its proximity to D.C. means parents are often uniquely suited to lobby for legislative fixes.

A “Tight-Knit” Community

Tom and Kay Tiernan have 20-year-old triplets named Jon, Liz, and Anna. Their daughter Anna was born with Down Syndrome and currently attends the county’s Arlington Career Center, which prepares her for the working world.

Anna plays in the Arlington Little League games for those with disabilities, which Kay says  serves as an opportunity for parents to sit in the bleachers and swap stories about their children’s school experiences.

“Because Arlington is so small and with three high schools you can really connect and share what’s going on one act other’s back yard,” she said.

“A lot of it is knowing what’s out there that’s available to you,” said Rick Hodges, who is a father to 13-year-old Brita and 18-year-old Audrey — who also has Down Syndrome. “If you don’t know that there’s a resource then you don’t look for it, you can’t use it.

Hodges, who works as a journalist, said the “tight-knit” group of families with Down Syndrome children in Arlington helped clue him into resources like Early Intervention when Audrey was a baby, and the Department of Parks and Recreation’s therapeutic recreation activities when she was older.

Suzanne Garwood has two children with Down Syndrome — Connor, 16, and Sloane, who is 14, nonverbal and was recently featured in an advocacy video in New York City. She said there was once an opportunity in her work to move her family to Plano, Texas but she never considered it because she feared the social services wouldn’t be as strong as they are in Arlington.

“I would absolutely never leave the D.C. area,” she said. “I do think it’s unique.”

Although research has found disparities in life expectancies for people with Down Syndrome depending on their race, the genetic disorder itself affects all races equally and is caused by an extra copy of a chromosome in their cells.

“It’s a random genetic issue so you end up meeting all kinds of different people that you might not otherwise meet,” said Hodges of the community parents have formed.

Arlington’s community may be unique because of its proliferation of lawyers, journalists, and other high-powered professionals who fight for change.

“Maybe we are a little more aware of how to advocate for our kids and also our community very passionate anyway,” said Garwood, who is an attorney. “You have to be because a lot of times our kids don’t have voices for themselves, so they need us to do advocacy for them.”

One of the issues parents worry about is the housing shortage for people with disabilities, a problem exacerbated by Arlington’s overall shortage of overall affordable housing. The Medicaid program allows people with disabilities who turn 22 to receive housing vouchers, but Anna Tiernan’s parents say there’s no telling what position she is on the government waitlist.

“We don’t know if she’s 10th in line or 110th in line,” said Kay Tiernan, who works as a project manager for a tech company.

“Once you pass 21 it’s known as ‘the cliff’,” added Tim Tiernan.

“I do worry what it’s going to be like when they age out of school, and it seems it’s coming around the corner,” added Garwood.

All the parents who spoke with ARLnow said they hope banding together with disability advocacy organizations like The Arc of Northern Virginia and the National Down Syndrome Society, as well as volunteering on local government organizations like the Community Services Board, can help fix the problem.

“A few dads from Northern Virginia”

Rick Hodges did exactly that several years ago when he and other local parents pushed for what came to be called the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act.

The bill allows a disabled person to keep a savings account of up to $100,000 without jeopardizing their federal benefits, and was signed into law after Hodges says Northern Virginia parents leveraged their background as Capitol Hill staff and lobbyists to marshal bipartisan support.

The idea itself came from a seminar Hodges went to at Arlington Central Library about how to save up a college fund.

“They were talking about these things you can do to save and I realized that she might not go to college, I don’t know yet,” he said. “These systems for saving are based on a typical life. But Audrey may not have this kind of life, and it would ruin her government benefits.”

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Arlington was almost poised to get rid of a “redundant” regulation for contractors this past weekend.

The Arlington County Board was slated to consider revising a chapter of county code related to home improvement regulations during its meeting this past Saturday, November 16. Specifically, members were scheduled to vote on nixing a requirement for home improvement contractors to match county regulations with state regulations.

In Virginia, contractors paid more than $1,000 for a project must seek either a class A, B, or C license based on the scale of their projects. If a contractor is seeking project that pays under $10,000 they can apply for a class C license, while projects up to $120,000 require a Class B license, and more expensive projects require a Class A license. Officials said because Virginia didn’t previously require contractors to sit for an Class C exam, Arlington decided to administer its own to verify their qualifications.

“However, as of December 1, 2012, all contractors seeking a license from the state Board of Contractors are required to take an examination in their specialty, for all classes (A, B & C),” said county spokeswoman Erika Moore. “Because the Board of Contractors is already administering a test to ensure these individuals are qualified, having the County administer another test is redundant and not cost efficient.”

In an email to ARLnow on Friday, Moore added that the county has only administered one test since 2012, which cost the county “the time it takes staff to process the required paperwork to administer and review that test and then to issue the license.”

However, the proposal to nix the exam — which was originally a part of the Board’s consent agenda — was later removed from the meeting agenda later last week.

Moore told ARLnow that staff removed the item from the agenda because “the report [to the Board] was not completed in time for posting of the consent agenda 72 hours prior to the County Board meeting.”

When asked, she did not answer when the item is expected to return to the dais.

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Arlington could be extending a protected bike lane in Crystal City, a block from Amazon’s future home.

The county posted on its website that intends to “rebuild 18th Street South between Fern and Eads Streets in order to continue the existing South Hayes Street protected bike lane further east.”

Designs on the website show the current unprotected bike lanes being converted to protected lanes without a loss of vehicle travel lanes. Additional pedestrian-safety upgrades are also planned.

A group of residents advocating for eliminating single occupant car commuting at Amazon’s future headquarters celebrated the news. On Twitter, the group thanked DES and wrote the planned infrastructure was “GOOD NEWS!”

https://twitter.com/CarFreeHQ2/status/1191824320194060288?s=20

“The project will improve the safety of the South Fern Street and 18th Street South intersection by removing the southbound right turn slip lane and building curb extensions on all four corners of the intersection to reduce pedestrian crossing distances,” said Department of Environmental Services (DES) spokesman Eric Balliet.

“It will also extend the existing protected bike lanes on South Hayes Street (west of the Fern St/18th St intersection) along 18th Street from South Fern to South Eads Street,” he added.

The project will include features for pedestrians, like high visibility crosswalks. Per the county website:

Additionally, the intersection of 18th Street South and South Fern Street will be rebuilt to decrease crossing distances and decrease the existing impervious area. This will improve pedestrian, bicycle and vehicle safety at the intersection.

The project will also add stormwater retention, replace a water main and upgrade the streetscape, helping improve the connection between the core of Pentagon City and Crystal City.

The work is part of the 18th Street S. Complete Streets project and is expected to cost the county $5.3 million, which will be paid for by funds earmarked in the Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal years 2017-2026 and a Crystal City transportation infrastructure fund.

Near Amazon’s HQ2, cycling advocates have also successfully pushed for more protected bike lanes.

Arlington first added plastic bollards and moved out the parking area along S. Hayes Street in 2014 to physically protect cyclists from cars. Since then, DES has tested out more protected bike lanes, adding two in Ballston and Courthouse.

However, transit advocates have pushed for the county to pick up the pace, citing the dangers of cars blocking unprotected lanes which forces cyclists into dangerous, busy roads. In addition to cyclists, bike lanes are also used by e-scooter riders.

Balliet said the department expects construction on the 18th Street S. project to begin next fall.

Images via Arlington County & Google Maps 

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Arlington is considering removing a planned section of road in the Metropolitan Park site in Pentagon City, the future home of Amazon’s permanent HQ2.

The Arlington County Board will vote during its meeting this Saturday, November 16 on the first step to nixing a stretch of 14th Road S. that was supposed to one day extend eastward on the lot that now slated for the first phase of Amazon’s headquarters plan.

Officials say the road no longer necessary now that Amazon is moving in.

The 14th Street segment was originally planned to “connect South Elm Street to a private court at the rear of two planned residential buildings” once envisioned on the site almost two decades ago, per a staff report to the Board.

Now that Amazon is finalizing designs for two sky-high office towers on the lot, “there will no longer be the need for the planned 14th Road segment,” the staff report noted. “The proposed new buildings have been designed to utilize S. Elm Street and 14th Street S. for their vehicular access.”

If members vote to advance the removal, the county will hold a public hearing on Monday, December 2 during the county’s Planning Commission meeting at 7 p.m. in the Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd.) The discussion would then return to the County Board for a final vote on December 14.

Approving a public hearing is currently listed on the Board’s consent agenda for tomorrow’s meeting — a position usually reserved for items staff expect members to pass without debate.

The Transportation Commission unanimously approved removing the road in a vote last month, per a letter of support sent to the Board.

Nearby, the Board also recently considered doing away with a pedestrian path in the way of the Verizon site project on 1400 11th Street S.

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At least one County Board member could be pushing to change setback regulations in a bid to provide more of a buffer between homes.

Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey recently visited an infill residential development on N. River Street, near McLean, with several neighbors she said were upset that a developer clear-cut trees on the lot and is planning to build several homes that could be located close to the neighbors.

Garvey tweeted about the issue last weekend, posting photos of the project in Arlington’s tony Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood, which in September prompted a petition from neighbors concerned about mass tree removal, a loss of privacy and decreased home values.

“This destruction has caused substantial harm to surrounding neighbors who previously had a natural green oasis abutting their backyards,” the petition says.

“I actually went to our top lawyer and said ‘This is really terrible is there something we can do?'” Garvey told ARLnow. “And he said ‘Well, maybe setbacks.'”

Garvey said state laws prevent Board members from intervening on most matters related to tree removal on private property, but the Board could weigh in on the distance required between houses — as members did earlier this year when considering accessory dwelling units.

The idea is that requiring a larger distance between buildings could help preserve existing mature trees instead of incentivizing property owners to cut them down.

Garvey said she believes this type of development — clear cutting trees and building multiple homes or very large homes — is becoming more common as housing prices spike.

“You got a lot of turnover of the baby boomers starting to move on, downsize, leave their home,” she said. “Some of those homes tend to be those smaller homes with a whole lot of yard and not a whole lot of house — and that makes for an opportunity there.” 

However, trees can also help absorb storm runoff — a topic of discussion that gained new urgency after this summer’s flash flood, which sparked conversations about the need for urgent stormwater management solutions.

When asked whether those discussions led her to request the regulatory review, Garvey said she has always been an advocate for preserving Arlington’s tree canopy.

“Looking at a big tree-covered lot turn into a big mud pie is just upsetting to everyone,” she said. “But the community as whole is more aware of [the importance of trees.]”

Garvey said she expects the review of setback regulations to take “a few months” and result in a set of recommendations to the Board.

The Board has been long-criticized by environmental activists before for its failure to preserve trees on private properties, as well as public parks.

Board members have frequently cited state laws that prevent them from interceding on private property, with former member John Vihstadt (I) once describing Virginia as a “‘mother-may-I’ state.”

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County officials have stripped a requirement that defendants plead guilty before becoming eligible for a jail diversion program for those with mental illnesses.

Staffers note they made “significant changes” to a newly-released draft document for the proposed program after activists and local officials expressed concern over the guilty plea requirement, among other aspects to the program.

“The new draft reflects feedback from community members and key stakeholders collected at the public hearings and submitted electronically,” Arlington Dept. of Human Services Assistant Director Kurt Larrick told ARLnow in an email.

The new draft allows participants to choose between pleading or not pleading guilty before requesting to participate in the voluntary program meant to give people with mental illnesses access to the treatment and social services they need.

The new draft kept language forbidding people from participating who have been charged with violent felony crimes or sex offenses, though it noted that the “ultimate decision lies with the judge.”

The county will hold another public meeting on the topic this upcoming Monday, November 18 from 6-8 p.m. at the DHS headquarters (2100 Washington Blvd.)

During a meeting organized by activists in August, one mental illness policy expert panelist noted that if the docket “requires a guilty plea it literally can’t decriminalize mental illness.”

Public defenders in Arlington and Fairfax County also expressed concerns that holding a potential jail sentence over a defendant who fails the docket program is “sending the wrong message.”

Another person who protested the plea requirement was Planning Commission member Daniel Weir, who spoke in his personal capacity.

“If we’re going to have a post-plea docket we’re going to have to look ourselves in the mirror and be willing to accept the collateral consequences that we’re exposing people to go through this program,” said Weir during the July meeting, referring to the recent threat of ICE raids in the area.

Another change is that the new draft “broadened” eligibility criteria to include adults who have a “serious mental illness, developmental disability and/or dually diagnosed based on the diagnosis, intensity, and duration of symptoms.” 

The inclusion comes after Juliet Hiznay, a special education attorney by training, expressed concern that the original draft proposal would exclude defendants with certain mental illnesses and disabilities.

The most recent state data available indicates that 20% of Arlington inmates suffer from some sort of mental illness, with bipolar and schizophrenia diagnoses making up the majority of cases, though mild depression and anxiety were also recorded.

Defendants who have been charged with felonies could now also be eligible for the program “on a case by case basis” — a change from the original draft which specified that only people with misdemeanor charges could be eligible.

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The Arlington County Board is poised to advance the Ballston Harris Teeter project with several zoning updates.

The County Board will vote during its meeting this Saturday, November 16 on whether to approve the developer’s request to change the land’s zoning categories to permit the the many housing units as planned (732) and add retail to the buildings (83,600 total square feet.)

Georgia-based developer Southeastern Real Estate Group, LLC is planning to demolish the existing grocery store, nearby Mercedes Benz parking lot, and a single-family home at 525 N. Thomas Street. Southeastern will then build:

  • a new Harris Teeter on the ground level of a five-story apartment building containing 390 housing units
  • another, six-story apartment building with 234 apartments
  • an 11-story building with 243 housing units, and 10,592 square feet of ground-floor retail space
  • A strip of public open space fronting N. Thomas Street

The park will include a pedestrian path, a dog run, a picnic area, as well as “pollinator meadow zone” with plants selected to feed pollinator insects and birds, according to the latest plans filed with the county.

The Board previously approved a public meeting on the Southeastern’s zoning requests this summer. During the meeting, several residents asked the county to wait before approving the zoning changes, expressing concerns over too much traffic and the trees that will need to be cut down according to the construction plan.

In April, the developer bumped the number of housing units in the project from 700 to 732, cut some parking spaces, and announced its intention to seek LEED Silver sustainability certification.

The development is across the street from another site at at 501 N. Randolph Street and 4019 5th Road N. where builders envision a 10-story hotel with 240 rooms, featuring amenities like a jacuzzi, light display, and possibly home-grown herbs, as well as the renovated Ballston Quarter Mall.

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Arlington’s leaders will be pushing the state to increase its affordable housing contributions more than five-fold as Democrats head to Richmond after taking control of the House of Delegates and State Senate.

The Arlington County Board will vote this Saturday, November 16, on holding a public hearing about the legislative priorities as the General Assembly prepares to convene in Richmond for the 2020 legislative session between January 8 and March 7. The draft document lists a number of priorities Arlington leaders hope its state delegates and senators will also push during the 60-day period.

One priority is calling for Virginia to add $100 million to the state’s Housing Trust Fund in the budget for fiscal years 2020-2022 in a bid to solve the area’s persistent housing squeeze. The fund offers low-interest loans to offset developer’s costs when building affordable homes — a program Arlington’s Del. Alfonso Lopez (D) has pushed to increase funding to since founding it three years ago but failed when Republicans blocked the budget proposal this winter.

In addition to the public hearing, the County Board is also due to discuss legislative priorities during a work session with the county’s state representatives on Tuesday, December 3 from 3-5 p.m. in the Bozman Government Center in Courthouse (2100 Clarendon Blvd).

Increasing the state fund to $100 million would match Lopez’s recommendations. It also comes on the heels of Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol saying the county was “trying to fill a really big hole” when it came to funding local projects like the 160-unit affordable housing building on the site of the American Legion Post 139.

The Virginia Housing Trust Fund contributed $700,000 for that project — an amount dwarfed by the $13,000,000 loaned by the county’s own affordable housing fund to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH).

However, some experts warn that the shortage of affordable housing units could displace hundreds of thousands of D.C. area residents in the next 20 years, including some 20,000 Arlingtonians.

Lawmakers added $5.5 million in the last legislative session, upping the total amount to $9.5 million, reported the Washington Post.

Increasing the funds even more in the upcoming session would also make legislators’ incentive promise to Amazon to contribute at least $75 million towards affordable housing in Northern Virginia over the next five years a reality. Arlington and Alexandria have also pitched the Crystal City-area to Amazon by promising to spend $150 million on affordable housing over the next decade amid concerns that Amazon’s incoming workforce at its new headquarters could spike housing prices.

Amazon itself announced a $3 million donation to affordable housing in Arlington earlier this year, citing the fact the county has “fewer than 25 apartments dedicated for the lowest-income individuals and families who can live independently.”

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is scheduled to introduce his proposal for Virginia’s state budget for fiscal years 2020-2022 on December 17. The General Assembly will then deliberate on the budget during its January session.

Other proposed legislative priorities for Arlington include more state funding for Metro, more local tax authority, additional state funding for school, state funding for the Long Bridge rail project, drivers licenses for non-citizen, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and more leeway for localities to mandate tree preservation on private property.

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The Arlington County Board will soon vote on whether to spend over $700,000 upgrading the County Manager’s Office.

Member are scheduled to vote on the proposed renovation to the third floor office suite in the Bozman building (2100 Clarendon Blvd) during their meeting this Saturday, November 16.

If members vote to approve the project, the county will award $631,535 to Manassas-based Juniper Construction Company, Inc, plus an additional $126,307 for unanticipated costs.

A staff report to the Board indicates that the contract would fund upgrades to:

  • Create a “joint reception area” for the County Manager and County Board offices as well as a new “huddle room”
  • Several “open office concept work spaces” for staffers
  • Renovated conference rooms on the 3rd floor
  • “New finishes” in the offices and hallway

As of today (Thursday), the item is listed on the Board’s consent agenda, a place usually reserved for issues members expect to pass without debate.

The work is funded by a tenant improvement allowance negotiated as part of the county’s lease renewal and is part of a larger project to renovate the local government headquarters.

“The total project budget for the Bozman Government Center Renovation Project is $23.5M with the 3rd Floor CMO Suite renovation at $757,842.17,” the report notes.

Recently, the Board approved a multimillion dollar contract to replace the heating system at the county’s jail and courthouse building.

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Amazon and JBG Smith could one day brush off the dust on Arlington’s long-underused dark fiber network.

The Arlington County Board was scheduled to vote on issuing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) for the tech giant and developer to discuss the “ConnectArtlington” network during its meeting this Saturday, November 16.

The network currently provides internet service to many county buildings, but was once promised to be a way for local businesses and organizations to also access access high-speed internet at faster speeds and cheaper rates than available from larger commercial providers like Verizon.

“The purpose of this item is to discuss the County’s Fiber Optic Network ‘ConnectArlington’,” said Jack Belcher, the county’s chief information officer, when asked for more information about the County Board item.

“An NDA is necessary as the fiber network and its location is considered critical infrastructure of the County,” he added.

Arlington previously spent $4.1 million building the 10-mile underground cable network. But in February, an ARLnow investigation revealed that almost no businesses were able to license the network due to “flawed” legal requirements.

A spokeswoman for Amazon told ARLnow that the county had included the dark fiber network in its pitch for the company’s second headquarters, and that the upcoming County Board vote was “just part of exploring everything that Arlington had included in the original proposal.”

“We don’t have specifics to share about our ongoing discussions but look forward to learning more about the program,” the company spokeswoman told ARLnow, adding that the NDA will allow the county to “fully brief” Amazon about the capabilities of the network.

However, the exact details for how Amazon and JBG Smith could use the network are murky.

County staffers removed the Amazon item from the agenda after ARLnow called company and county officials for comment yesterday (Tuesday), keeping JBG Smith’s NDA consideration in the agenda document.

“Agenda Item #18 was removed because the County wasn’t able to get feedback yet from the company,” said county spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.

JBG Smith declined to comment when asked for more information about the company’s interest in the network.

And as of today (Wednesday) at 12:30 p.m., the agenda included no staff reports to the Board with more information about the items. Smith said the documents had not been uploaded due to a “technical issue” and were due to be published later today.

As for other organizations looking to “light” the dark fiber network?

“Parties are able to use the fiber network and we are in negotiations with several entities today to also use it,” Belcher said.

Aboveground, Arlington has also approved a proposal for a faster, more advanced 5G cellular network.

Nearby, Alexandria is putting out a bid to build its own dark fiber network as well.

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Arlington may soon be making electric scooters a more or less permanent fixture of the county’s streets and sidewalks.

The County Board will vote on an ordinance change during its meeting this Saturday, November 16 to allow e-scooter companies to operate in Arlington — provided companies fulfill the requirements of a new permitting system starting next year.

The code change would make the pilot program for “micro-mobility devices” a permanent part of Arlington’s transit system after officials originally approved a nine-month pilot program in September 2018 — and extended it ever since.

If Board members approve the proposed code changes on Saturday, it would allow scooter companies in Arlington to continue operating as long as they fulfill the requirements of the new permit application and pay the still-to-be-determined application fees by January 1, 2020. Much like the pilot program, the County Manager’s office would also be allow to cap the number of devices permitted per company, demand equitable deployment, and levy penalties.

The program will also specify some “community and information sharing requirement” according to a staff report to the Board — a similar requirement to the one in Los Angeles that Uber refused to fulfill, and which led city officials to rescind the company’s permits over Uber’s objections.

But moving forward on the scooter program in Arlington isn’t a surprise considering a recent Mobility Lab report encouraging county leaders to make the scooter program permanent.

The recent report drew support from bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and also recommended that the county roll out some changes next year, including:

  • Adding more safe infrastructure like protected bike lanes for scooters and cyclists, as outlined in the county’s recently updated Master Transportation Plan.
  • Addressing parking complaints by creating a map of approved parking spots as well as “no-go” areas.
  • Eliminating barriers to lower-income users by waiving company’s requirements that users need credit cards

Users traveled just over 400,000 miles on scooters in Arlington between Oct. 2018 and June 2019, per a staff report, but some crashes and blocked sidewalks have prompted discussions about age restrictions and designated parking spaces as well as allowing scooters on some trails.

“Staff proposes that it be permissible to use County sidewalks (with limitations), trails, and on-street bicycle facilities for micro-mobility travel, unless specifically signed/marked otherwise,” wrote county staff in a report to the Board for Saturday’s meeting. “One of the first steps in implementation of the new ordinance would be to sign/mark as prohibited for riding those key sidewalk conflict areas identified during the Pilot program.”

The question of whether scooter riders should be allowed on sidewalks has been a topic of debate among some local groups. Staff is recommending allowing sidewalk use in areas of the county where bike lanes are not a viable option.

“Key stakeholder groups including the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Bicycle Advisory Committee, and Commission on Aging expressed concern that irresponsible sidewalk-riding could be a danger to pedestrians of any age, however they also expressed support for allowing responsible sidewalk-riding where it was not inconsistent with volumes of pedestrians using the facility, and where safe in-road options are not present,” the staff report says.

The Commission on Aging also expressed concerns that “scooter parking would create an obstruction to safe pedestrian circulation, especially near public transit stops and stations.” County staff seeks to address those concerns with restrictions that specify that scooters should be parked upright and off to the side on sidewalks, if not in a designated scooter dock.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Richmond passed legislation requiring localities to create their own regulations for where users could ride, and park, the devices.

The new ordinance would not, however, preclude future changes to the scooter program.

“Staff commits to a review of the program and consideration of potential refinements to the ordinance at or about one year after ordinance changes go into effect,” a county staff report states.

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