Press Club

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

One of Arlington’s greatest assets is our highly educated population and range of knowledge in various policy topics. With my last column on ARLnow, I want to encourage you to pick something that you are passionate about in our community, and participate in our local government process. As a society, we would be better off with fewer keyboard warriors and more doers.

Commissions & Advisory Groups

Arlington has 50 commissions and advisory groups that are tasked with advising the County Board in their areas of interest. These groups also contribute to planning documents that shape how we operate. When people say things about how “the decision was already made” before it gets to the County Board for a vote, it is because dozens of commission and advisory group members have already given extensive public feedback prior to getting to the County Board for a vote. Meetings are typically once a month for 1-2 hours and you will have staff support for the logistics of getting things done.

Examples of commissions at work in the community: Phase 1 of the Draft Missing Middle Housing Study involved feedback from the Long Range Planning Committee, Commission on Aging, Climate Change, Energy and Environment Commission, Joint Facilities Advisory Commission, Forestry and Natural Resources Commission, Housing Commission and Transportation Commission.

Civic associations

Every neighborhood of Arlington is broken down into geographic areas that are represented by a civic association. Civic associations are your neighborhood advocates and organizers for everything from future development to dog parks to social gatherings. 

Examples of civic associations at work in the community: A group of civic associations around National Landing created a coalition called “Livability 22202” to proactively propose land use ideas. This has been used as the foundational ethos for Pentagon City Planning.

Public comment on planning documents

Engage Arlington is a site with ongoing planning documents that are open for public comment. Check this website regularly to ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to have your voice heard in the future of Arlington County. Currently, comment is open for the Fiscal Year 2023 Operating Budget.

Additionally, sign up for Arlington’s newsletter that will regularly deliver updates about ongoing projects.

Volunteer with your local political party

To get policy done, you need to have elected officials that believe in your values. Local political parties make targeted investments in local, statewide and federal elections to enhance political candidates’ ability to win. After Trump’s 2016 win, I got extremely involved in Arlington Democrats, where I was sent to knock doors as conveniently as my neighborhood for local elections, and as far as Georgia to support Sen. Raphael Warnock or Norfolk, Virginia to support Rep. Elaine Luria in order to flip key districts blue as part of the Beyond Arlington program.

If there is a local candidate that you like, reach out to them on their website and sign up to volunteer, donate, or host a meet and greet. Local politics is a small world and the more you help candidates with the groundwork of getting elected, the more influence you are likely to have in the future.

Conclusion

Get involved early and often. Make your voice heard. With so many forums for involvement now being virtual, it is easier than ever to make a difference. If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Infrastructure needs should be built into Arlington’s Sector plans and the Missing Middle study as part of the long-range planning process.

Currently, our long-range planning documents largely center around building heights and setbacks, building and greenery aesthetics, as well as road and public transportation configuration, design and demand management. Missing from this are other significant aspects of infrastructure including schools, public facilities, parks, public spaces and stormwater. I am defining infrastructure as anything that Arlington has used bonds to fund.

Arlington has five planning studies currently in progress — the Clarendon Sector Plan update, Crystal City Building Heights Study, Missing Middle Housing Study, Plan Langston Boulevard and Pentagon City Planning Study — that will all have significant impacts on infrastructure needs over the next several decades.

To give an example of why this is important: I was a part of the Pentagon City Planning Group and strongly advocated for including a potential range of additional housing units expected in future development. This was so that Arlington Public Schools (APS) could provide student projections and in turn, Planning would be able to include potential sites for a school that we know is needed in the area.

Staff were accommodating to that request, which was appreciated, but it was obvious that this was not a part of the usual planning process. Even with APS and Planning in the working group together, there was no “normal” procedure for the type of request that was made. That lack of coordination can be said for other aspects of infrastructure as well.

Population projections included in the Draft Pentagon City Plan (courtesy of Nicole Merlene)

The following infrastructure planning areas are needed:

Schools: It is obvious that there is a disconnect between Arlington County and APS in school site planning. APS staff has indicated that estimates on the range of new housing units and types are needed to properly use their multiplier equation and estimate future school sizes. Typically, this information isn’t provided in a study, but was for the first time in the Pentagon City Planning. This allowed APS to communicate a potential new school footprint size, and thus, in the last draft we were able to see potential sites for a new school. This was a big win, but is not what is or will be included in all of the other planning studies.

Transportation: Current planning processes do a good job of planning transportation impacts of future development. A “Travel Demand Forecasting Model” produced by the Washington Area Council of Government’s is the basis for demand management, and plans will also prescribe extensive details on street dimensions, medians, bike lanes, public transit specs and traffic calming measures.

This type of planning should continue in the other areas of infrastructure listed, with the same type of specificity and modeling. One item for improvement in this area is that there is not always a marrying of the Comprehensive Transportation Plan to long-range planning. This lack of continuity between infrastructure planning and long-range planning will be a theme among my recommendations.

Read More

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Homeownership is one of the fundamental pillars of building wealth in the American economy.

In Arlington about 60% of our housing stock is renter occupied and new housing stock is almost all in rental housing development, with almost no new development of ownership housing stock.

The Missing Middle housing initiative has the opportunity to provide expanded home ownership stock. The current Missing Middle draft lacks intentionality around homeownership and even pushes back against the concept. My hope is that this changes in future drafts.

Arlington has the highest median home sale price in the D.C. metro region from 2020:

  1. Arlington: $670,000
  2. D.C.: $630,000
  3. Alexandria: $600,000
  4. Fairfax: $575,000
  5. Montgomery County: $483,000
  6. Prince George’s County: $345,000

When the topic of homeownership was requested during multiple public meetings, it was largely shutdown as illegal based on “discrimination by tenure.” This is a term I have been unable to find in any fair housing laws and contrary to the fact that Arlington County is currently discussing dedicated home ownership exclusive units on Columbia Pike right now.

Homeownership is important for millennials, people aged 25-40, who are in their prime home-buying years and dominate the U.S. workforce. Millennials hold just 4.6% of U.S. wealth and have 56 million in the workforce, whereas Boomers are 10 times wealthier and hold 53% of U.S. wealth and have 41 million in the workforce.

When Boomers were in the current age-range for millennials, they held 21% of U.S. wealth or four times what millennials hold today. Since homeownership is a key to wealth building, this gap in purchasing opportunities is fundamental for the economic outlook of future generations.

We know that Missing Middle-type housing, when available for purchase, is lower-cost than single-family homes, while this rental type is not necessarily more affordable. For example, in 2021 average assessed value of homes were:

  1. Single-family detached: $1,000,300
  2. Attached townhouse: $846,800
  3. Condo townhouse: $686,800
  4. Multi-unit condos: $447,700
  5. Cooperatives: $158,400

Additionally, if we are planning to reduce ownership housing stock in single-family houses, we should have a plan to replace it with ownership housing. We have plans to produce thousands of additional rental units throughout the county and no plan for additional ownership opportunities, and the Missing Middle Housing initiative should be exactly where we seek to do so.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

It is likely the last chance to weigh in on what the future of Pentagon City and the 22202 zip code will look like for the next several decades via the Pentagon City Planning Study. Comments, which can be submitted online, are due Oct. 31.

I had the opportunity to work on the study over the past year and am generally happy with where we ended up. Mostly, I find it exciting that we were able to include a new element to this plan that other area and sector plans have excluded, which is to estimate the number of housing units to be added to the area in order to help guide infrastructure needs.

Estimating new housing units; infrastructure

Additional people in any area will inevitably put pressures on community infrastructure, ranging from transportation to schools to parks to stormwater management. From what I understand, this is the first time a planning study has made estimates on new housing units in the short, medium, and long term based on conservative and liberal expectations. Usually, we only see anticipated units that have already been approved or are currently in the pipeline.

In most studies, transportation “level of service” estimates are included and hotly debated. Other aspects of infrastructure such as school capacity, green space and stormwater are generally left out. This plan not only includes housing estimates but also includes potential sites for a new elementary school that we know will likely be needed in the area.

These housing unit estimates are vital to tracking our infrastructure needs in departments across the county.

Putting housing units near Metro

It is my belief that for long-run economic success and stability, growth must be built on sustainable infrastructure, which is why the estimated number of new housing units is so important. That estimated increase in housing units surrounding Pentagon City Metro is also an important part of that sustainability.

Unless we wish to stagnate our economy, growth is inevitable. It is where and how we chose to grow that is important and why it’s important that we grow densely in areas close to transit corridors. When homes, offices and retail are near transit corridors, it is convenient to walk, bike or take public transit. This makes it easier to incorporate physical activity into daily routes and reduce transit costs and environmental impact.

Incorporation of Biophilia

I will admit that I was immediately skeptical of this concept, and in the most recent draft of the plan, have been won over by the inclusion of biophilia in the study. My skepticism lay in the concept of potentially losing real green space in Pentagon City and in return getting leaves painted on impermeable sidewalks and tree sculptures being erected outside of buildings — this did not end up being the case.

The plan enables at least five and up to 10 new acres of new parks and green space distributed across Pentagon City, plus expansion of Virginia Highlands Park by at least one acre. In the “Green Ribbon” of walkable space, there are specifics on how it will be lined with plantings and more often than not, that is in-ground plantings as opposed to in-pot, meaning help for things like stormwater management and space for dogs to relieve themselves. Although the aesthetic aspect I previously mentioned is incorporated, it is not without real specifics on permeable surfaces.

Conclusion

I am proud of the work product that has been presented, but now it is time for everyone to give comments. This document will shape the 22202 zip code for decades to come and it is important that all voices are heard in that process — not just those of us who spend the most time at these meetings. Participate here.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As we continue to move forward with Plan Langston Blvd, improving the Glebe Road divide in Ballston and finding ways to mitigate the significant car collisions on Route 50 pointed out by Vision Zero, sights should be set on improving our planning process integration with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and our relationship with this large state-operated department.

Some major thoroughfares in Arlington are owned and operated by the state of Virginia including Glebe Road, Langston Blvd and Route 50, in addition to interstates 66 and 395. According to many community members and county staff members, a somewhat amorphous relationship with VDOT makes changes to these areas more difficult than most when making improvements to these roads.

One example of this was last year when VDOT came to Arlington County with a Route 50 widening proposal that was rejected by the Transportation Commission and ultimately the County Board. The Transportation Commission Chair at the time, Chris Slatt, said:

“Safety improvements are needed in this area, but VDOT’s study was clearly set up to recommend a backdoor highway widening at great expense rather than targeted, affordable safety improvements. If this study was about safety, it would have at least looked at driver speeds. It wouldn’t have discarded the cheapest, most effective option during the scoping phase. It would have considered re-purposing the space that is currently the dedicated right turn lane at Irving to limit the widening impacts.”

It is in instances like this that we see a clear disconnect between what we would like to see here locally and what VDOT has in plan. When entire corridor planning such as Plan Langston Blvd’s success hinges on major redesigns to the road and sidewalk design, that amorphous relationship seems like a major hurdle in the long term.

A list of projects recently completed, under construction, in design and coming soon are all available online and, in my opinion, are projects that aren’t of the most significant interest to the planning that is being done in our community. Generally, projects are selected by VDOT using a process called SMART SCALE, which weighs congestion mitigation as the majority scoring factor. I would predict projects along Langston Blvd to slow traffic or widen sidewalks along Glebe Road might score low in those types of categories even though they are of high significance for our local needs.

Two possible options are to take local control of roads such as Langston Blvd and Glebe Road while encouraging a large-scale VDOT evaluation of Route 50, or to have our state representatives put pressure on local VDOT representatives to do a much better job at being present and active in our local planning processes, particularly in area and sector plans.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

An increase in extreme weather events and community power usage has made the need to modernize our power grid’s resilience a pertinent topic of discussion.

For that reason, it is past due for Arlington to update its 15-year 2002 Underground Utility Plan and for the Virginia Legislature to have Dominion spend some Strategic Undergrounding Program funding to underground main lines in urban/suburban corridors instead of exclusively undergrounding suburban/rural tap lines as is current practice.

In Arlington, over one-third of our energy usage comes from electric energy, which is primarily provided by Dominion Power. A known way to reduce energy loss in the process of distributing electricity while also reducing prolonged power outages is to underground power lines.

Virginia Legislature and Dominion Energy’s Strategic Undergrounding Program
How it currently works

All Dominion Power users pay a portion of their utility bill towards the multibillion-dollar Strategic Undergrounding Program that has been authorized by the Virginia Legislature. The parameters are set in Code 56-585.1 A6.

Virginia requires undergrounding project areas average nine or more outages over a 10 year period, that the project doesn’t cost customers over an average of $20,000 per customer and, specifically, the code references upgrades to ancillary tap lines and does not mention main lines which are what typically line major corridors. Dominion representatives confirmed tap lines are what are chosen for improvements. In Arlington, Dominion’s Program financed tap line undergrounding on N. Marcey Road (2016), N. Kenmore Street (2018), 16th Street N. (2018), N. Somerset Street (2020) and another project is expected on N. Kensington. The estimated cost of all four completed projects was about $750,000.

As you can see, these projects are located in leafy neighborhoods and not where a majority of residents live. Dominion representatives stated that the reason behind this choice also lies in that it is easier for their trucks to access main roads than suburban areas during storms which is why there is a better cost benefit analysis for those areas.

Moving forward

Virginia Legislators should dedicate a portion of the Strategic Undergrounding Program towards main line undergrounding. Notably, the relative cost per project would increase and, for that reason, I suggest only a portion of the fund for the highest priority main lines.

Leaving out urban ratepayers in areas passes on these costs to either 1) renters of apartments or office tenants, by way of developers needing to pay for undergrounding to get an approved site plan; or 2) all taxpayers in those urban jurisdictions, by way of local governments needing to put undergrounding efforts on a bond referendum. This creates a negative financial burden on areas like Arlington, Alexandria, Norfolk, Richmond or Virginia Beach from benefiting from this program — adding to already high local rents and putting pressure on local governments for bonding measures.

Additionally, this past week the Virginia State Corporation Commission that regulates Dominion, found that Virginia customers paid Dominion more than $1.1 billion above fair profit over four years and might need to pay back or cut rates to the tune of $312 million. This might be one of many ways the General Assembly might choose to reinvest those funds (as well as investments in renewable energy, etc.).

Read More

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Last year’s Redistricting Commissioning Constitutional Amendment approved by Virginia voters changed how we will draw lines for the Virginia Legislature and United States House of Representatives from state legislators to a process to be determined by an independent redistricting commission.

This 16-member commission composed of eight legislators and eight citizen participants has been hosting meetings since July 13 and will continue to do so through October.

The clock has begun ticking since the Census released population data on Aug. 12. The commission will have 45 days from the release to draw maps of Virginia’s House and Senate districts to the State Legislature for consideration, and 60 days for a map of U.S. House districts.

This past Monday August 23, the commission voted 12-4 for an agreed-upon bipartisan group of independent, but politically aligned, map-drawers to start from a clean slate, rather than beginning with current district lines.

This was a positive step in the right direction, but what happened via a proposed motion from George Barker, a Democrat representing parts of Alexandria City, Fairfax, and Prince William and leading Senate Republican Steve Newman. They proposed starting from old maps because it “could help the commission gain needed support for the maps from the General Assembly, which will have to approve the maps for them to be enacted,” as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Luckily the proposal failed 9-7, but is still a disturbing development for many reasons.

This shows that A — it is likely that the Republicans will block votes against the new lines, and B — that there are incumbent Democrats that are hesitant to vote for new lines in fear of losing their seats, including in extremely liberal districts adjacent to Arlington.

Democrats hold a thin lead in the Legislature and we need every vote possible to pass these independently drawn lines. The result if these lines aren’t approved by the General Assembly: redistricting will be handed over to the conservative leaning Supreme Court of Virginia. This is a large part of why most Republicans will vote in block against any proposal given by the independent commission.

This is likely the most important administrative task that the Virginia legislature will vote on this decade as it will re-draw lines for the next 10 years. We cannot leave this process to a court process where six out of seven judges were appointed by a Republican-led General Assembly.

I would like to laud Delegate Marcus Simon of Falls Church, who has been a champion of a fair and independent redistricting from the very beginning and throughout these commission hearings, for being able to see through the technicalities of every step in this process.

After this process is through, my hope is that the commission will have done a commendable job of drawing fair, compact and non-discriminatory lines for our new General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives. If you believe this to be the case, reach out to your Delegate and State Senator encouraging them to support the measure. Even strong Democratic districts are at risk of legislators voting for their own self-serving interests. Find your legislators online.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As some say, local government is primarily pothole politics. Why aren’t the water fountains working? When will the snow be removed? How do I make sure dogs are leashed in my local park? How do I fix this big crack in the sidewalk on my path to the coffee shop? Why is the crosswalk sign not working?

Some of these things like snow removal, sidewalk repair, or crosswalk sign maintenance can be done as simply as using the Service Request/Report a Problem function on the County’s website. For items that fall into this category it consistently amazes me how quickly and efficiently the system works. If all other venues don’t work, you can always tweet the Arlington Department of Environmental Services and our personal miracle worker seems to never fail.

After a discussion started by the Clarendon/Courthouse Civic Association President, David Cheek, it reminded me of the ongoing efforts to improve the Neighborhood Conservation Program that provides funding for larger neighborhood projects.

Recently, a large six-foot sign was erected by the county in the 11th Street Park in Clarendon reminding patrons not to unleash their dogs in the park. Cheek immediately recognized that the underlying problem might not be that park but neighbors’ dismay at Clarendon’s James Hunter Dog Park. He compiled ideas from the community for park improvements and is working with the county for potential solutions.

Typically, improvements to existing parks for improvements suggested by the community would be submitted for consideration by the Neighborhood Conservation Program. The recently released 2021 Neighborhood Conservation Review notes that the Program continues to be cut significantly year after year resulting in only six projects getting approved out of 30 per year, and that the process generally favors low-density neighborhoods by a rate of two to one.

The review generally recommends 1) clarifying the County’s priorities for neighborhoods and their infrastructure, ensuring priorities are supported in plans and streamlining the procedures to achieve these priorities; 2) expanding financial resources to the NC Program; 3) Offering NCAC representatives to expand community outreach and provide a bridge to other neighborhood planning efforts; and 4) simplifying NC participation requirements for civic associations.

These considerations are important for empowering neighborhoods to make a difference in their own backyard.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

It is my hope that Amazon will commit a significant portion of their $2 billion Housing Equity Fund to households that are low income or have an income that is under 50% area median income (AMI).

If a fund is being created and advertised as creating affordable housing it should do that, instead of primarily providing average market rate rental housing. Amazon’s recent commitment at Crystal House was primarily for those making 60-80% AMI. That is a housing supply that we have in abundance (see image 1). Additionally, this is middle class housing, not affordable housing.

For renters in the 60-80% income bracket participating in the affordable housing program, there is a maximum rent allowed of $1,935. That is higher than our natural market rate average rent of $1,908 for a 1 bedroom apartment in Arlington (see image 2). If funds continue to be invested in housing development that primarily produce 60-80% AMI units, it would be inaccurate to qualify their investment as a philanthropic community benefit, as it is higher than the market average.

Our community is lacking in both <30% AMI rental units and 30-49% AMI units, compared to the population that exists in those income brackets (see image 1).

In Amazon’s press release, their stated goal was for the Fund to support their commitment to affordable housing and to ensure moderate to low-income families can afford housing in the communities that they operate. While their commitment to moderate income housing in Crystal House and other local investments is appreciated, it is necessary to provide investment towards low-income populations in their next round of distributed funds.

If Amazon is to fully commit to providing affordable housing, they should do so for the population most in need — those making under 50% AMI. If the Housing Equity Fund does not increase focus towards their stated commitment to low-income families, this should be viewed as failing to achieve their goal.

Nicole Merlene grew up in Arlington County and has been a civic leader in both policy and political arenas. She has been an Economic Development and Tenant-Landlord Commissioner; Community Development Citizens Advisory Committee, Pentagon City Planning Study, Rosslyn Transportation Study, and Vision Zero member; Arlington County Civic Federation and Rosslyn Civic Association Board Member. In 2019 she sought the Democratic nomination for the 31st District of the Virginia State Senate. Professionally Nicole is an Economic Development Specialist where she works to attract businesses to the region. She lives in an apartment with her dog Riley and enjoys running and painting.

2 Comment

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

This Sunday is the last day to provide feedback on “Plan Lee Highway“, a multi-year planning process for the corridor that has now produced specific proposals for development levels, street improvements, stormwater impact, and other significant changes.

My biggest piece of feedback on Plan Lee Highway and every ongoing area and sector plan is the lack of consideration for our schools. We should be including school generation factors in our area and sector planning process.

Plan Lee Highway is one of three ongoing planning processes for entire areas of our county in addition to Pentagon City Planning and the Clarendon Sector Plan. For background, I am currently serving on Pentagon City Planning which has allowed me to dig into the “why” of this situation.

Background on Student Generation Factors

An average generation factor is available in the annual Arlington Profile and school facilities staff can further refine that generation factor based on neighborhood. For example, an apartment building in Crystal City will generally produce slightly more children than an apartment building in Rosslyn.

On average, a market rate apartment with an elevator produces .066 students per unit whereas a single family detached home produces .489 students. This means single family homes generally produce 7.5 times more than one apartment building unit.

In terms of Plan Lee Highway, I will use two examples of how these factors impact the planning process:

  • If we consolidate 10 single family homes into one 5-7 story elevator apartment building that has ten units per floor we would reduce our students generated from 4.98 students from the single family homes in that area to 3.3 – 4.62 students from the new apartment building. This is an example from Area 3 at the north east intersection of Lee Highway and Old Dominion.
  • If we transform a zero population shopping center into two 7 story elevator apartment buildings with 10 units per floor, we increase the number of students in that area from 0 to 9.24 students. This is an example from Area 2 in the south east corner of Lee Highway and George Mason.

While each example either increases or decreases expected school seat generation, it is at least a known quantity. We have the data to produce a seat generation factor and the Planning Department should be able to ballpark the estimated number of units we can expect in these study areas over the next few decades.

Contemplating Schools in Area/Sector Plans Rather Than a Building by Building in the Site Plan Review Process

We are reviewing school impact too late in the planning process.

Right now, we determine the school seat impact each time a new construction project is brought to the Site Plan Review Commission. That means that those new anticipated seats will be brought on in a year or two. As a result, we have a seemingly biannual fire drill about how to shift kids around to accommodate changing enrollment projections.

If we contemplate changes to school seats in the area/sector plan process, we can anticipate the number of seats added decades in advance instead of our usual fire drill situation.

This is also important for the reservation of limited public facilities and open space. In a 2019 memo county manager Schwartz identified a number of potential new school sites which is a useful tool to use in these area/sector planning processes.

In the chance that we do not have the land availability in the future for new schools, we also need to know that. Will we need to develop a fund for land acquisition? When? These are the types of answers we would only know with this long-range perspective found in area and sector planning.

Precedent for an Imperfect Estimation for Infrastructure Impact

We already have estimated infrastructure impact equations in the Comprehensive Planning process as it relates to transportation. In my capacity on the Pentagon City Planning group we had 2-3 meetings on the “level of service” calculation for roads/public transportation and almost an entire meeting for bike infrastructure level of service. All of these projections are important infrastructure considerations, but also produce an imperfect result that we can generally accept.

With schools constituting almost half of our operational budget and a significant amount of our capital improvement plan’s bonding, it seems negligent to not include these calculations in the same way we calculate other infrastructure impact in our comprehensive plan.

Conclusion

My opinion is not against increased density around major transportation corridors such as Metro and state highways like Lee Highway. Encouraging growth along corridors with accessible public transportation and lower commuting times is better for the environment and a diversity of housing supply will help create varying housing costs (see page 5 in the Arlington Profile 2021 for varying housing type costs).

I would find it hypocritical though to advocate for this added density without also advocating for sufficiently planned infrastructure to support that added density, and encourage us to incorporate schools in our comprehensive planning.

Nicole Merlene grew up in Arlington County and has been a civic leader in both policy and political arenas. She has been an Economic Development and Tenant-Landlord Commissioner; Community Development Citizens Advisory Committee, Pentagon City Planning Study, Rosslyn Transportation Study, and Vision Zero member; Arlington County Civic Federation and Rosslyn Civic Association Board Member. In 2019 she sought the Democratic nomination for the 31st District of the Virginia State Senate. Professionally Nicole is an Economic Development Specialist where she works to attract businesses to the region. She lives in an apartment with her dog Riley and enjoys running and painting.

0 Comments

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

For the past week I have been fuming at the ears mad about the situation at the Serrano and the impossibly difficult situation any Virginia renter that lives in poor housing conditions lives with.

Even after appreciated commitments from local leaders, systemic failures in local code enforcement and bare minimum renters rights laws in Virginia continue as a result of systemic failures. A long-term assessment of the system that has allowed this situation to happen must be taken.

Policy action items laid out in this column include near-term code enforcement by Arlington County and long-term policy changes in the General Assembly such as bare minimum living standards being included in building code, strengthening of law for the prohibition against retaliatory eviction, warranty of habitability, and remedy when a premise is condemned.

Long Term — Changes in the General Assembly

Include Bare Minimum Livable Standards in Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code

Livable building standards are currently included in the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (“the Act”) instead of in Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (“Code”). Basic living standards that were broken at The Serrano include significant mold presence, rodent infestation, and other utility grievances. Not having these standards included in code is a problem for multiple reasons.

To prove a violation of the Act a tenant must hire a professional expert to attest to these standards being violated in court after attaining a lawyer. Hiring a professional expert is a significant expense even if you are a low income resident that would qualify for free legal counsel from Legal Services of Northern Virginia. If these basic standards were included in Code a county inspector would be able to require correction of the violation or issue an abatement order and/or write a letter of attestation for use in court. These options aren’t currently available since it is not required by code.

For example, DC Housing Code requires rental dwellings: be free of insects and rodents, have A/C that is 15 degrees less than outside, have heating equipment that heats to 68 degrees, water temperature that can reach 110 degrees, paint that is not flaking, removal of lead paint, mold removal, no plumbing leaks, among other things.

Strengthen Prohibition Against Retaliatory Eviction

One of the most heartbreaking stories we heard on the most recent Tenant-Landlord Commission call was the stories of retaliatory actions by AHC’s property management team. This made some scared to bring up problems in fear of retaliatory action that could lead them to being evicted.

Technically Virginia law has a prohibition against retaliatory eviction but proving it is next to impossible. Judges generally will not apply retaliatory eviction to the landlord’s refusal to renew a lease. Other states presume that an eviction brought within a certain period (e.g., 6 months) after the tenant asserts rights is retaliatory. This presumption should apply to a refusal to renew as well.

Warranty of Habitability

Many states have a warranty of habitability for items such as heat and running water. To enforce the warranty of habitability, a tenant need not be current in rent nor have provided written notice to the landlord. In a non-payment of rent case, if the tenant proves the housing conditions entitle them to a rent abatement (a rent credit) equal to or greater than the unpaid rent, the tenant gets to stay.

Remedy When Premises are Condemned

Under existing law, if the rental premises are condemned, the tenant must vacate immediately. The tenant is entitled only to the return of unearned rent and the security deposit. The premises did not fall into such disrepair overnight. Instead, the premises must have been deteriorating for months. There should be a rebuttable presumption that the tenant is entitled to a refund of the last three months of rent. 

Read More

0 Comments
×

Subscribe to our mailing list