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Peter’s Take: DPR Misled County Board, Public on Parks Plan

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.

At its Jan. 8 meeting, the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed) passed a resolution 66-17-3 regarding the Level of Service (LOS) recommendations for athletic fields contained in the latest draft of the Public Open Spaces Master Plan (“PSMP” or “POPS” plan). (LOS is an acronym for Level of Service.)

Among many other provisions, the Civ Fed’s two-page resolution calls upon the Arlington County government to “withdraw the specific LOS athletic field recommendations” from the POPS plan.

Civ Fed’s January 8 program was designed to stimulate dialogue and improve understanding of this complicated topic. Civ Fed invited the county staff to have an open conversation with its delegates specifically about the lack of supply/demand data and the transparency of the public POPS process. While staff from Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) were the most knowledgeable people to answer specific methodology questions, the County Manager declined to have DPR staff attend.

Instead, two volunteer resident members of the POPS Advisory Committee spoke on the county’s behalf. They tried to defend DPR’s lack of transparency, while two other residents and proponents of the resolution explained DPR’s own data, which were accessed through a residents’ FOIA request and a six-month resident analysis reviewing diamond fields only. DPR should have defended and explained their process and data, not residents.

Standard industry LOS methodology was not followed; analyses and documents left out

DPR told the County Board, county commissions, stakeholders, and the general public that DPR was following a standard industry methodology called “Population Based LOS” to provide quantitative estimates of levels of service. But, DPR didn’t follow it.

DPR excluded from its calculations and from the public POPS process the abundance of supply/demand field data and analyses which DPR had in its files. But according to DPR’s own consultants’ standard industry methodology statement, these data are necessary to determine Population Based LOS correctly: “Each community determine its own LOS standard based on current supply and demand and future supply/demand projections” POPS_LOS Methodology_171220.  This LOS methodology statement was discovered among the documents produced via the FOIA.

DPR’s exclusion is significant. Among the other documents residents obtained under FOIA were DPR’s own analysis showing adequate diamond field facilities through 2035 in contrast to the deficits indicated by the improperly calculated LOS currently in the POPS plan.

Further details explaining how DPR did not follow standard industry methodology are available here.

The importance of the PSMP plan and LOS facility recommendations to long-term planning

The accuracy of LOS for specific categories of facilities — or lack thereof — can be hugely important to subsequent planning decisions.

These specific quantitative LOS recommendations will be used over the next 20 years to decide:

  • how acres of public parkland will be used (i.e., more or different sports fields, casual use space, or other features)
  • whether to install multi-million-dollar capital improvements (i.e., synthetic turf and/or lights)

These decisions must be considered in a holistic plan developed according to proper standard industry methodology and based on how Arlington residents actually use and need these facilities. Without such a plan, it will not be possible for residents to:

  • prioritize which facilities are needed in individual parks
  • introduce comprehensive, supply/demand data in any subsequent individual park planning proceeding because such data can only be developed reliably on a county-wide basis, in a county-wide proceeding

Conclusion

Approving the POPS plan while it still contains the erroneous and incomplete quantitative facility (LOS) recommendations will cause the misallocation of tens of millions of tax dollars and substantially harm efforts to meet residents’ needs and priorities in our public spaces.

As the Civ Fed has recognized and supported, the best solution to the present situation is to:

  • remove the erroneous LOS recommendations for sports fields before approving the final POPS plan
  • commence a new, independent and transparent process to:
  1. develop new quantitative estimates of county-wide supply/demand for sports fields
  2. develop new priority systems to maximize the efficient use of our existing fields
  3. implement an online reservation system to ensure that facility usage is transparent to the public and sports users
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Peter’s Take: No Virginia Tax Dollars for New Redskins Stadium

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.

On Jan. 9, Virginia House of Delegates member Michael Webert (R-Fauquier) offered legislation (HB 1886) that would, if enacted, establish:

“an interstate compact among the Commonwealth of Virginia, the State of Maryland, and the District of Columbia (the party states) that prohibits the party states from providing incentives for a Washington area professional football team franchise facility, including tax incentives, state or local appropriations, and loans.”

In support of his bill, Webert explained,“think tanks on the left and right show the subsidies that go to professional stadiums, there really is not the return on investment that everybody says there is.”

State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) disputed Webert, holding out hope that Virginia would at least be willing to “offer to build a Metro station or highway ramp to serve a stadium, or provide land for it at a nominal rent.”

Football stadiums do not spur significant economic growth

The evidence is overwhelming that subsidizing the construction of a new Redskins football stadium will never be in the best interests of Virginia taxpayers:

“Roger Noll, an economist who studies sports-stadium subsidies at Stanford University, says he has never witnessed the construction of a football stadium that has had a significant positive impact on the local economy.”    

Direct costs outweigh the benefits

Fifty-seven percent of a panel of U.S economic experts agreed that the costs to taxpayers are likely to outweigh the benefits, while only 2 percent disagreed–though several panelists noted that some contributions of local sports teams are difficult to quantify.

Subsidizing stadiums is a game that taxpayers lose: “Governments should never finance a stadium with public money as it is simply a subsidy to rich team owners and a few businesses that stand to benefit from the events held there.”

Opportunity costs further tilt the balance against taxpayer funding

The costs of a new Virginia stadium for the Redskins are even higher when you factor in the opportunity costs. Virginia tax dollars spent on such a stadium would be tax dollars that could have been spent to:

  • increase Virginia’s state share of the new dedicated funding stream for Metro
  • increase Virginia’s state share of public education funding
  • redress some of the many remaining critical deficiencies in Virginia’s mental health facilities
  • help bring high-speed broadband to rural areas of Virginia that currently lack it

These are only four of hundreds of more deserving needs than a Redskins stadium.

Dan Snyder doesn’t need the money

Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder is a billionaire who doesn’t need a public hand out. Any Virginia tax dollars for a new Redskins stadium will go directly into Dan Snyder’s pockets.

A 2003 study by a member of the University of Texas economics department documented that a new stadium increases:

  • team profits by an average of $13 million annually
  • payroll salaries by $14 million annually
  • team book value by $90 million

Sixteen years later, all these numbers are likely to be much higher.

Conclusion

Regardless of what DC or Maryland decide to do, nothing related to any new Redskins stadium should be subsidized by Virginia taxpayers. Dan Snyder should arrange 100 percent private financing. Under these conditions, Snyder could build his stadium in Virginia if he could find a welcoming local government.

San Francisco 49’ers cornerback Richard Sherman got it right: “I’d stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums…and maybe make the billionaires who actually benefit from the stadiums pay for them.”

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Peter’s Take: Virginia Should Adopt No-Excuse Absentee Voting

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.

The 2019 Virginia legislative session begins on Jan. 9.

Once again, a batch of proposed bills have been submitted which, if enacted, would authorize no-excuse absentee voting in Virginia.

No-excuse absentee voting bills

Some of these no-excuse absentee voting bills have been continued from the 2018 legislative session, e.g., SB 136 submitted by state Sen. Janet Howell (who represents portions of Arlington). Others are new, e.g., HB 1641 submitted by state Del. Charniele Herring..

Virginia should enact a law authorizing no-excuse absentee voting

Like other voting rights issues, Arlington voters only can obtain the right to no-excuse absentee voting if that right is enacted at the state level because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state.

Virginia has developed a series of 16 narrow, but often confusing and overlapping, excuses that entitle registered voters to vote absentee before Election Day. Unless your reason for wanting to vote absentee fits squarely within one or more of the 16 categories on the authorized list, you can’t vote absentee.

Virginia’s current system should be changed. It should be replaced by a system that permits any registered voter to vote absentee without having to provide any excuse.

Reasons to support no-excuse absentee voting

The most important reason why the current system should be changed is that experience in many other states has demonstrated that no-excuse absentee voting enables more legally registered voters to vote to choose their elected officials. The broader the base on which our political leadership rests, the more likely that decisions made by our leaders will be respected.

The League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area has prepared a helpful checklist of reasons to support no-excuse absentee voting. Those reasons are:

  • All voters should have equal access to the ballot
  • No voter should have to provide personal unrelated information to cast a ballot
  • Voters have found their eligibility to vote before Election Day very confusing
  • Voting absentee in-person is as secure as voting on Election Day
  • Local election offices have had success in reducing long lines on Election Day by encouraging absentee voting
  • For voting absentee in-person, eliminating the cumbersome process of completing the absentee application would save time as well as the expense of printing the form
  • Extra personnel are needed to explain the form and check it for completion before a voter can proceed to checking in
  • Eliminating the use of the application form would speed the voting process considerably

Opponents of a no-excuse absentee voting system have argued that it encourages too many more voters to vote too early, thereby foreclosing their opportunity to vote based on late-breaking developments in a political campaign. Weighing this risk against the depression of voter turnout under the current system, the benefits of providing more opportunities to vote outweigh the risks that some voters might regret that they voted too early.

Both Democrats and Republicans should support no-excuse absentee voting

Twenty eight states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. Those states include so-called “red” states such as South Dakota and Wyoming as well as so-called “blue” states like California and Vermont. Therefore, absentee voting should be a subject on which Virginia Republicans and Virginia Democrats also ought to be able to agree.

Conclusion

No-excuse absentee voting will enable more eligible Virginia voters to vote.

The current patchwork quilt of 16 authorized excuses should be replaced by: no excuses necessary.

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Peter’s Take: The Fiscal Impacts of Development in Arlington

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 a Dec. 17 interview, County Manager Mark Schwartz, when asked about Arlington County government’s projected $20-$35 million FY 2020 budget deficit, stated:

“For the last [several] years, the commercial market has either been flat or going down. If revenue grows less than your expenses, you already have a gap. Now, add on top of that the obligations to Metro, expansion of Medicaid, public safety pay increases, steady funding for affordable housing and you get to $20-$35 million quickly.”

Schwartz also acknowledged that:

  • at least in the short run, Amazon’s arrival in Arlington will not solve the county government’s structural budget problem
  • APS is projecting a $43 million (!) FY 2020 budget deficit

Fiscal Impact Analyses of Development

There are some steps the County Board should take early in 2019 regarding the fiscal impacts of development across the county, especially in light of the major land use changes now planned in Crystal City by JBG Smith and Amazon.

At its April 21 meeting, the County Board took one small, partial step in the right direction. As part of its FY 2019 budget guidance, the Board directed the manager to develop for Board review by the end of this calendar year (2018) a plan for preparing and making public periodic, retroactive cost-benefit analyses of new residential and commercial development on an aggregate rather than a project-specific basis.

The manager has yet to share for discussion with the community a draft of his proposed approach to this Board directive.

  • Project-specific fiscal impact statements needed for major site plan projects

As I have previously explained, what Arlington really should do is adopt the recommendation of the Community Facilities Study Group (CFSG) for prospective, site plan-specific, fiscal impact statements. We need project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each major site plan project, particularly to measure impacts on schools and parks.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that constructing new, large multi-unit residential projects consistently generates more new costs than new revenues. The most comprehensive “cost of community services” survey of 125 jurisdictions nationwide found that the mean ratio was $1.18 of incremental costs incurred compared to every $1 of incremental revenues generated (at p. 392).

This comprehensive study’s results recently were corroborated by noted GMU economist Stephen Fuller in a November 2018 Amazon Arlington HQ fiscal impact study (at Table 6).

Just some examples of the other studies reaching the same net-negative-cost-impact results are available here and here.

  • Arlington County Attorney continues to block transparency

The adoption of project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for major site plan projects continues to be blocked by the stubborn and unjustified refusal by the Arlington County attorney to release for review by independent legal experts a public-facing version of his existing legal memorandum that Arlington lacks the legal power to implement the carefully-considered CFSG recommendation for such statements.

The County Attorney has been refusing to disclose his detailed legal reasoning to the public for at least 5 years.

In an interview with ARLnow.com earlier this year, the county attorney also demonstrated that he does not understand the facts regarding development and school enrollment growth. He mistakenly believes that “the practice of replacing small, single-family homes on large lots with multiple new homes tends to drive most of the strain on Arlington’s classrooms.” To the contrary, the principal enrollment growth challenge APS confronts now is the absolute total number of students generated when:

  • thousands of elevator apartment units are being built every year
  • these units are not evenly distributed across the county

Conclusion

Arlington County government:

  • cannot legally proclaim a moratorium on by-right development even if it realized that it previously might have approved too much of it
  • can and should prepare project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for major site plan projects in which developers are seeking more density than permitted by current zoning
  • should be able to condition approval of such projects on the developer’s willingness to provide community benefits directly tied to the impact of the project on schools and/or parks
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Peter’s Take: County Manager Plan Discourages Volunteer Recruitment

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.

The County Board approved the Four Mile Run Valley Area Plan (Area Plan) at its Nov. 17 meeting. A Dec. 13 c ounty press release summarizes the plan.

The plan recommends the continuation of industrial and commercial uses, while also encouraging more arts-related uses. The recommendations also call for a new working group to duplicate what another county committee already has accomplished.

That new working group will:

  • waste government resources and volunteer time
  • discourage future volunteer recruitment

Background

At the direction of the County Board, the Arts District Committee was formed to study the possible creation of an Arts District in the Four Mile Run Valley Area. With significant and constructive input from businesses, arts representatives and the community, a detailed report, known as the SNAIQ report, was issued. Like other parts of the Four Mile Run Valley study, this report was shared widely through numerous meetings and public engagements.

What the County Manager is mistakenly doing now

A county manager Oct. 12 report recommended a new planning process to identify “an arts/industry vision.” This manager’s report also recommended the appointment of a new working group to work on this project for at least a year.

Referencing the existing SNAIQ report, the county manager’s  Oct. 12 report states: “while these suggestions have not yet been fully analyzed by staff, staff would make this information available to the future working group established to advance the arts district idea.”

The SNAIQ report was published in 2017. The County government now has admitted that it hasn’t reviewed it, yet it somehow did find the time to recommend a new working group to duplicate what another county committee already has accomplished?

In outlining the proposed new working group process, county staff, at an Oct. 20 County Board hearing, said it wanted to “establish a vision for a possible arts district” and “look at a variety of scenarios… and pros and cons” (beginning at 1:16:17 and at 2:01:16 and in the county manager’s report).

This is a direct duplication of what the existing Arts District Committee already did in preparing the SNAIQ report. (Just read page two of the SNAIQ report to verify.)

Conclusion

I have previously criticized the possible use of new taxpayer subsidies that might be part of the creation of a formal Arts District. Before any serious consideration is given to any such new taxpayer subsidies, the County Board must adopt a comprehensive 21st century arts subsidy policy and engage in a transparent cost benefit analysis of any proposed Arts District.

However, the County Manager’s plan for a new working group essentially ignores a significant and effective job by volunteers on an authorized, existing county committee (page 5).

County Board members often proclaim that recruiting and encouraging residents to serve on county committees is a high priority, but the county manager’s plan here will have exactly the opposite effect. The County Board failed us by acquiescing in the manager’s plan at its Nov. 17 hearing. (The county government even failed to post on its website a Nov. 16 letter from the existing Arts District Committee explaining its position.)

The Arts District Committee ably fulfilled its charge. If further work needs to be done, this existing committee would like to do it. Instead of duplicating its significant work, the county should ask this existing committee to continue its work with a new, expanded portfolio.

As one Arts District Committee member stated, “All in all, I think the Arts District Committee experience has been a model for how such groups can and should operate – dare I say it, a model of ‘the Arlington Way.'”

Proceeding with a new working group in these circumstances mocks the Arlington Way.

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Peter’s Take: Cancel the Science Focus-Key Swap

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 October, I explained why the Arlington Public Schools superintendent was placing the cart before the horse by proposing to swap the buildings currently housing the Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) and Key Elementary Schools.

On Nov. 16, APS staff posted a new FAQ document that continues to dodge these major questions:

  • does the swap make sense?
  • should the School Board leave that decision to APS staff?

The School Board should direct the Superintendent to cancel the ASFS-Key building swap

APS’s premise that the Superintendent can approve this swap because it only entails swapping programs is incorrect. Further, given the major level of disruption that a swap would cause, the School Board should step-up and own any swap decision as a matter of community accountability.

An APS memorandum (“memo”) discussed at an August 28th School Board meeting offered six reasons for the swap. None of those reasons justify a swap:

  1. The memo states that ASFS is the only neighborhood school that sits outside its attendance boundary. It proposes the swap to fix this without thoughtful consideration of what a new boundary could offer. APS created this problem via its Options and Transfer Policy. APS should fix it by drawing a revised attendance boundary around ASFS.
  2. The memo states that the Key building can accommodate all 680 ASFS K-5 current students through use of trailers. However, if APS intends to move the ASFS program to the Key building, APS also needs to move the associated equipment to Key, reducing the Key building capacity to 605 students. Meanwhile immersion students will be crammed into a building that is 19 percent smaller.
  3. The memo states that a swap offers more flexibility than boundary changes. APS guarantees that once a student is admitted to an option school or accepts a transfer to a neighborhood school, enrollment is continuous until there is a boundary change. Since the School Board plans to revisit all boundaries in 2020, APS should maximize its flexibility by waiting for the next boundary process to determine if option and neighborhood schools should be moved. If a program move is needed (such as moving an elementary immersion program), a county-wide analysis should first be published and discussed with the community to determine the optimum locations of elementary immersion programs and to locate neighborhood schools in places where all the seats will be filled.
  4. The memo claims the swap would minimize the number of students needing to be reassigned to different schools. But as demonstrated repeatedly during the just-concluded South Arlington boundary process, parents deserve to be highly skeptical of such APS assurances. Rather than make an impetuous decision, APS should wait until the 2020 boundary process to determine if program moves are needed and all APS sites should be considered.
  5. The memo claims the swap would reduce transportation time for students, incorrectly comparing the 46 percent of students who could walk to Key to the 18 percent of students APS says can walk to ASFS. But the superintendent did not do a comparative analysis of crossing guards and walkability. Others have. Their analysis shows that drawing a boundary around ASFS and adding a crossing guard at N. Kirkwood Road enables more walkers than Key. The Key crossing guard enables 62 students to walk, while one at Kirkwood will enable 184 more ASFS students to walk. ASFS’s ½-mile and 1-mile walkability rates are 40 percent and 51 percent respectively, while Key’s are 28 percent and 46 percent. Drawing a reasonable boundary around ASFS yields the greatest reduction in the number of busses and reduces transportation time for many students who have one of the longest bus rides in APS (to Ashlawn Elementary) even though they live within ½-mile of ASFS. During a $43 million APS budget shortfall, this fiscally responsible path forward has no “TBD”-program-move costs and reduces overall transportation costs.
  6. Finally, the memo notes that the current constrained ASFS walk zone is not diverse. But, for diversity purposes, APS should be comparing attendance boundaries not walk zones. The families who live within 1-mile of ASFS are diverse. Moreover, APS overlooks major developments that will provide diversity like the 100 percent committed affordable housing American Legion redevelopment in the same planning unit as ASFS.

Conclusion

Even to the casual observer, the Superintendent’s proposed ASFS-Key building swap exposes a lack of basic long-range planning. For that reason alone, the School Board should cancel the swap and work to regain the public trust.

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Peter’s Take: Arlington Must Jump Start Long-Range Schools Planning

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.

Amazon’s new Arlington HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into planning for all the new public schools Arlington will need over the next 15 years.

In an interview striving to minimize Amazon’s impact on our schools, County Board Chair Katie Cristol observed:

A job doesn’t create students. A housing unit or a family generates students. Our highest estimates are that 15 to 20 percent (4,000 to 5,000) of these Amazon employees will live in Arlington County. [W]e anticipate that’s between 80 and 100 more students (from pre-K to 12th grade) per year, and that’s at the high peak…

I think the most important thing for our schools is that the increasing tax base coming from [Amazon] could bring up to $360 million over 16 years, of which 46 percent will go to our schools. [E]ven under the most extreme scenarios [that additional revenue] will more than supplement [the increase in student population].

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including schools)

Arlington prides itself on its comprehensive planning:

But neither APS nor fiscal considerations have been appropriately integrated into any of those long-range plans.

Since Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community supported, long-range financing plan for all the new public facilities Arlington will need over the next 15 years, we cannot evaluate fully Chair Cristol’s hopes about Amazon’s minimal impact on our schools.

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), affordable housing, schools, parks, fire stations and other public investments that will be required? Will we have such bond capacity under several different, but all plausible, alternative economic scenarios? Note: as taxes increase to meet these added costs, those tax increases will inflate the costs of many other items, including “affordable” housing.

When asked to choose among:

  • “X” more needed new school seats
  • “Y” more needed new acres of park open space
  • “Z” more needed new units of affordable housing

we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices.

And, it is certain that such choices will be required.

Arlington’s failure to plan appropriately for the impact on APS enrollment of new, large multi-unit housing developments undermines Chair Cristol’s optimism. The county and APS continue to promote the fantasy that new elevator apartments don’t present significant challenges for APS because such apartments generate only 0.08 students per unit. However, the principal challenge we confront isn’t the per-unit generation rate but rather the absolute number of students generated when:

  • thousands of these units are being built every year
  • these units are not evenly distributed across the county

Conclusion

The APS Facilities Advisory Committee (FAC) has prepared an excellent report on future school facilities needs. But many of that report’s recommendations have not progressed due to a lack of an appropriate sense of urgency by the County and School Boards.

Successful long-range (15 years) facilities planning must follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • clear understanding of who is responsible for meeting those goals and timetables

Arlington lacks an appropriate long-range facilities plan now because it has failed to follow these principles.

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Peter’s Take: Latest ‘POPS’ Plan’s Other Serious Flaws

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 a November 8 column, I discussed some serious flaws in Arlington County’s latest draft of its proposed Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP) or POPS plan. That column discussed errors in the quantitative estimates of present and future demand for sports fields prepared by the staff of the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).

Today’s column identifies additional weaknesses in the latest PSMP/POPS draft.

Impact of Amazon’s Arlington Headquarters

On November 13, Arlington County announced the new Amazon HQ2 facility to be located in Crystal City. In welcoming Amazon, Congressman Don Beyer also expressed caution:

“We all know that success presents its own challenges:

  • Ensuring that the quality of life — parks and open spaces, safe neighborhoods, well-educated children — keeps pace with rising wealth.”

Amazon’s arrival underscores the urgency of correcting the PSMP draft’s substantive flaws to ensure the most efficient and effective possible use of Arlington’s limited land and financial resources.

Statistically valid evidence of community priorities omitted

A 2016 public survey’s statistically valid results appear to have been omitted from this PSMP draft. These data were used to produce Fig. 17 in a previous PSMP draft. Fig. 17 displayed the respondents’ top priority investments for outdoor spaces and public parks, with the overwhelming majority of residents choosing hiking trails, natural areas & wildlife habitats, and paved multiuse trails as their highest priorities.

As documented in the survey graphic below, Arlington residents are not prioritizing the continuing development of public parkland with lots of expensive “amenities.” But, Arlington County’s DPR staff is pushing for expensive, new outdoor infrastructure that will deplete our constrained financial resources.

DPR’s spending priorities conflict with Arlington residents’ priorities.

Virtually no new funding for open space acquisition

The latest PSMP draft calls for acquiring 30 more acres of park/open space. Unfortunately, this is an empty promise. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) adopted by the County Board in July 2018 contains NO new park/open space acquisition funding for the next 10 years:   

“With no new funding scheduled from bond funds over the next ten years, the Program will focus on utilizing remaining Bond and PAYG balances (approximately $3.5 M) to fund high priority opportunities that arise.” Adopted FY2019-FY2028 CIP, p. C-51.

(Note: Roughly half of this $3.5 million is earmarked to purchase the WETA building in the Four Mile Run Valley, where County staff intends to create an “arts district.”)

With little to no new park/open space acquisition in the foreseeable future, it becomes imperative for us to preserve, not pave over, the limited natural space we still have.

Conclusion

Because the POPS plan guides all Arlington park and recreational planning decisions for the next 20 years, we must get it right.

The latest PSMP draft should be amended to

  • reinsert the 2016 statistically valid needs survey data showing community priorities for investments in parks and recreational facilities,
  • use these survey data to set priorities,
  • acknowledge the lack of funding for the next decade to acquire new open spaces, and
  • place a greater emphasis on sustainability–including the preservation and restoration of existing parkland and natural spaces by reducing existing facilities’ footprints, by trimming nonpriority new facilities, and by converting dedicated fields and sport courts into multiuse facilities that serve the greatest number of people and needs.
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Peter’s Take: Parks Countywide Planning Document is Still Seriously Flawed

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.

On Oct. 24, Arlington County posted on its website the latest draft of its proposed Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP), or POPS plan (Plan for Our Places and Spaces).

The POPS plan will guide all Arlington park and recreational planning decisions for the next 20 years.

The latest POPS draft incorporates highly inflated quantitative estimates of present and future demand for sports fields.

After the 2017 POPS draft was posted, Arlington residents sought information to understand the plan. The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) refused to provide many kinds of data and answers, so residents launched a series of FOIA requests in December 2017.

By late Spring 2018, DPR had produced a lot, but not all, of its data regarding field supply and demand. Those data demonstrate that a remarkable amount of inefficiency and mismanagement have resulted in a very large amount of unused field capacity. Further details are available here.

Despite the large discrepancy between DPR’s own supply/demand data and the public POPS recommendations, DPR continues to defend to the public, to the POPS Advisory Committee, and to the County Board that the POPS recommendations are valid because DPR is using a valid methodology which DPR has called a “Population Based LOS.” (LOS = Level of Service.)

While a properly performed estimate of Population Based LOS is indeed one methodology used to estimate park needs, DPR’s own expert consultants state that a properly performed LOS should be based on current and future supply/demand data. Their methodology statement was provided to DPR but was not made part of the POPS document.

Not only did DPR fail to incorporate that necessary data, it failed to tell the public that it had not done so. Further details are available here.

Approving erroneous supply/demand estimates is destined to misallocate land and tens of millions of Arlington taxpayer dollars

The POPS plan is intended to guide quantitative park and recreational decisions for 20 years. Therefore, basing that final plan on the erroneous and incomplete LOS recommendations will result in the misallocation of tens of millions of tax dollars and hamper efforts to meet residents’ needs.

That misallocation is destined to occur because in any subsequent proceedings, e.g., to develop an individual park’s master plan or whether to make investments (e.g., add synthetic turf or lights), it is inevitable that DPR and advocates for such investments will rely on the erroneous POPS quantitative estimates to justify those decisions.

In response to the concerns raised, some County Board members have suggested that subsequent individual park planning could consider a single facility’s usage to determine its need or new investment. However, county-wide demand needs to be determined in a county-wide proceeding.

It is completely impractical for any large park facility decision to be developed solely within its own park boundaries, ignoring the capacity of nearby and county-wide facilities (e.g., a decision to add synthetic turf to one field, while another field that could be used has enough excess capacity). Further details are available here http://parks4everyone.org/population-based-level-of-service/.

Conclusion

The best solution to the present situation is to:

  • remove the erroneous quantitative estimates for sports field demand from the final POPS plan
  • commence a new, independent and transparent process to:
  1. develop new quantitative estimates of county-wide supply/demand for sports fields
  2. replace the county’s current field scheduling system with a real-time, web-based system
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Peter’s Take: Re-Elect Independent John Vihstadt to the County Board

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.

Like thousands of other Arlington Democrats, I support independent John Vihstadt for re-election to the County Board.

Having an independent as one of the five Board members provides oversight, accountability, checks and balances.

John helped redirect the Board’s priorities

The Board is now more focused on core services:

  • Ended or scaled back many extravagant projects, like the streetcar, the aquatics center, the Artisphere, $1.6 million dog parks and million-dollar bus stops.
  • Prioritized funding for schools’ capacity and Metro while improving roads, parks, and public safety.

John’s community-centered vision for the future

Arlington’s population is forecast to continue to grow. That growth is a sign that we are considered a desirable place to live.

John commutes to work daily via public transit. He is the only County Board candidate who put children through Arlington Public Schools.

John has the many years of community experience necessary to implement his vision for Arlington’s future by properly managing growth.

Here’s how:

Developer contributions for schools and parks

John already has led the way to get the county soon to begin conducting development impact studies. John wants to reform developer contributions received in return for added density so that more money can go towards public facilities such as schools and parks.

Better coordination with our public schools

John is working to bring down Arlington’s high cost of school construction, to deliver new seats more quickly, and to help ensure educational equity for all Arlington communities through sound planning and adequate funding.

Community engagement from the start

John believes development impacts are better addressed when the full range of residents and stakeholders are made part of the discussion from the start, not as an afterthought.

Lowering the office vacancy rate

Free-market macroeconomic forces beyond county government’s control are a significant factor in our office vacancy rate. But, it’s still imperative that we lower that rate to hold down the tax burden on residents. John believes we must make the business environment more attractive through carefully structured economic incentives and minimizing red tape such as further reforming our permitting systems.

Improved environmental management

John believes we must do everything within our legal powers to address the negative effects of increased impervious surfaces on water run-off, our green space, and our tree canopy.

Stronger fiscal discipline

Continued funding pressures from needed school capacity and Metro repairs means it’s more essential than ever to spend our limited tax dollars wisely on core services – not extravagant projects. John is leading reforms to our approaches to end-of-year budget surpluses and to neighborhood infrastructure improvements.

Conclusion

Tribal partisanship has no place in local government decisions.

Extravagant projects like streetcars, a hyped-up aquatics center, million-dollar bus stops and fancy dog parks are not core Democratic Party values. Yet such projects sprung from group-think on a five-person Democratic County Board.

John has brought together voters from across the political spectrum, striving to take partisanship out of local issues. He has rightly questioned “the way we’ve always done things”.

We need a reliably fiscally conservative voice on the Board to evaluate the serious budget challenges coming next year and in following years.

You can read about John’s years of community service, more details on the issues on which he is running, and his support from across the political spectrum here.

Independent John Vihstadt should be re-elected on Nov. 6.

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Peter’s Take: Science Focus-Key Swap — Cart Before the Horse

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.

As ARLnow.com reported again last week, Arlington Public Schools (APS) is pursuing a highly controversial plan to swap the building currently providing the Spanish immersion program at Key Elementary with the building currently providing the science-focused program at Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) Elementary.

According to APS Spokesman Frank Bellavia:

  • It remains unclear just how the process of swapping the buildings actually will work
  • APS has yet to work up a cost estimate for the process
  • Questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019

The School Board must own or disown this proposed swap

The proposed decision to swap these two school buildings was publicized in these comments by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy at an August 28 School Board meeting:

” ‘This decision is a wise decision because we’re a growing school division, we’re adding capacity, and we really have come to this point,’ Murphy told the Board….He added that he doesn’t see any need for the Board to formally sign off on the plan…but the Board will get to help APS decide when the move happens.”

Really?

Large segments of the community are, and should be, upset by this casual description of a decision of this magnitude. The community now has witnessed elected School Board members being told by the APS Superintendent that the School Board only will “get to help APS decide when the move happens.”

This shouldn’t work this way.

School Board members themselves were taken aback on August 28:

Board Chair Reid Goldstein pointed out, “That’s going to create problems if and when boundaries are drawn.”

“If the Arlington Science Focus building is smaller and the immersion program is bigger, we’re not going to be able to grow [the] immersion program,” said Vice Chair Tannia Talento.

This is an unacceptable process.

The School Board itself should decide IF the move should happen at all. The School Board’s decision should be based upon transparent long-term strategic planning for all of APS’s programming and facilities’ needs. The School Board owes the community an extensive discussion regarding how all these plans fit together:

  • what is APS’s 15-year school facilities plan?
  • what is Arlington County’s 15-year county facilities plan?
  • what is APS’s 15-year instructional plan?
  • where do the programs now offered at Key and ASFS fit into these 15-year plans?
  • what other options besides the current proposed building swap were considered?
  • why is the proposed building swap the best available option?

The School Board must engage the community on whether this proposed swap makes sense

According to Frank Bellavia, “questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019.”

Yet again APS is proposing to engage the community on the wrong question. The right question is whether the swap makes sense in the first place. Only after that question is posed to, and thoroughly discussed with the community, should the discussion proceed to the mechanics of how any swap should occur.

Conclusion

In one of the most famous scenes in Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts, over Alice’s protests, proclaims: “Sentence First, Verdict Afterword.”

With this proposed school swap, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy threatens to displace the Queen of Hearts.

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Peter’s Take: The Way Forward on the APS One-to-One Device Program

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.

Arlington Public Schools (APS) is in the early stages of what is currently envisioned as a very small-scale and limited evaluation of its justifiably controversial 1:1 digital device program.

At the same time:

  • There is accumulating evidence regarding the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and developmental risks of these devices, particularly in the elementary years
  • Superintendent Murphy has announced that APS currently is projecting a $43 million operating deficit in FY 2020.

The latest evidence of the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and childhood developmental risks of these devices is disturbing

The fact that children’s use of digital devices (aka “screen time”) can be harmful isn’t news. We are bombarded almost weekly with mounting evidence that the more time children spend using electronic devices, the greater the risk of physical, psychological and developmental harm.

This evidence may explain why:

  • Silicon Valley parents are raising their children tech-free
  • China’s Department of Education has begun to regulate the sale and use of digital devices marketed to children for noneducational purposes in an attempt to prevent myopia (nearsightedness)

A 2015 study reviewing school IT programs in over 36 countries worldwide (not in the United States) concluded that less is better when it comes to using technology, both for reading scores and particularly for math scores.

A 2017 study used MRI scanning technology to compare functional brain connectivity patterns when children were using screen-based media versus reading a book. It concluded: “brain connectivity is increased by the time children spend reading and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.”

The combination of the questionable educational effectiveness and the costs of the 1:1 program require a thorough and extensive review

Both Arlington County and APS are currently reviewing their budgets to identify potential cuts that will help plug significant budgetary shortfalls. APS should be completely transparent about the total costs and per-pupil costs associated with these devices, including insurance, maintenance and administrative costs. This information is critical to enable Arlington taxpayers to evaluate costs vs benefits.

The public is entitled to a comprehensive and transparent program review to determine the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of 1:1. This is the only way for the public to make informed choices regarding our priorities regarding expenditures that provide the best return on our investment.

For example, APS should prepare and seek public feedback on the costs and benefits of transitioning to a:

The currently envisioned APS 1:1 program evaluation should be modified in significant ways to produce a meaningful analysis that can lead to major reforms

It appears that APS has no current plans to seek data or input from parents — and even more to the point, from education and health experts who rely on the most current data and research — to evaluate the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of the 1:1 digital device rollout to children as young as 7-8 years old.

Conclusion

APS needs to conduct and share with parents and the entire Arlington community a thorough, complete and objective evaluation of all the costs as well as the benefits of its current 1:1 program. All options must be on the table.

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Peter’s Take: Putting the ‘Community’ Back in Community Infrastructure

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.

One of the four bond referenda on the November 6 ballot is the so-called “community infrastructure” bond valued at roughly $37 million.

What’s in this bond?

This bond is a grab bag containing a wide variety of seemingly unrelated projects.

The largest dollar components are:

  • $14 million for construction of Fire Station 8,
  • $8 million for facilities maintenance capital improvements (including design and construction of roofs, electrical and heating/cooling systems and other facilities infrastructure) in county libraries, community and recreation centers, and other county buildings.

This bond’s proceeds also will fund:

  • the Nauck Town Square project,
  • assessments, renovations & improvements to other government facilities,
  • Neighborhood Conservation projects and other County infrastructure projects. (The Neighborhood Conservation Program provides funding for a variety of neighborhood-identified capital improvement projects including street improvements (sidewalk, curb and gutter, drainage, paving), traffic management and pedestrian enhancements, park improvements, street lighting, recreational facilities, landscaping, and beautification.)

Enhancing the community’s role

I plan to vote for this bond.

But, the next time around, the County needs a new approach that enhances the role of the community in deciding what community infrastructure investments to make.

Community infrastructure investments should be designed to benefit the community. The community, not the County government, should have the greater say in deciding which community infrastructure investments to make. The community should be extensively consulted at every important stage as to what its priorities are for spending our limited tax dollars.

Discussing how much money is available to spend

Community consultation should begin by sharing and discussing with the community important long-term financial planning information that will determine the total dollars available for all kinds of investments including community infrastructure.

The Arlington County government should develop multi-year financial projections for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The results and assumptions should be published and shared with the community.

The community should help to set priorities, including the total amount of money the community would like to spend on community infrastructure.

Capital vs. operating funding

Best municipal financing practices suggest that it is inappropriate to use bond financing to pay for assets with expected useful lives that are significantly shorter than the repayment schedules of the bond proceeds used to purchase those assets. Yet, with respect to a substantial number of the community infrastructure assets that form part of this bond, the assets proposed for purchase have much shorter useful lives than the related bond repayment schedules.

Next time around, we should use operating not capital dollars to pay for assets with these shorter useful lives.

Example of flood mitigation

In several recent columns, I have explained why the county government needs to increase its investments in community infrastructure designed to protect its residents against flood damage.

In Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood, three flood mitigation projects previously included in earlier versions of Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan were dropped from that plan due to lack of funds.

The community should be given an opportunity to weigh in on whether to increase expenditures for flood mitigation and, if necessary, what other community infrastructure projects should be cut to enable such an increase. 

Conclusion

The community should have a greater say regarding community infrastructure spending. The community should be provided with more of the information it needs to make informed decisions.

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Peter’s Take: Arlington Needs a More Aggressive Water Main Replacement Program

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.

ARLnow reported last Thursday that “South Arlington Water Main Breaks Cut Off Service for Thousands Overnight“:

“The problems started around 7 p.m. yesterday (Wednesday), when the county’s Department of Environmental Services received word of pipe problems near the intersection of Columbia Pike and S. Frederick Street… . By 10 p.m., they reported several other water main breaks along the pike … and determined that the S. Park Drive problem was “related” to the previous breaks.”

In a tweet last week, the County’s Department of Environmental Services (DES) attempted to explain by saying:

“Arlington has some 500 miles of mains bringing water to homes, schools and businesses. As in most urban American towns, a lot of those mains have been in the ground and working non-stop since before World War II.

Arlington needs to replace its World War II water mains faster

It’s not as if the county government hasn’t seen this coming.

In January 2018, ARLnow reported that “County Crews Have Repaired Dozens of Water Main Breaks Since Mid-December.”

At that time, DES pointed the finger at freezing temperatures:

“When ground temperatures drop to the water main depth, the pipe material gets cold, but the water temp drops at a slower rate due to its movement…”

In May 2016, ARLnow reported that DES had boasted it had fixed “217 water main breaks in the past year.”

In January 2014, ARLnow posted another story about water main breaks. That story also highlighted the fact that “Arlington has 500 miles of water mains, 60 percent of which are 55 years or older,” with the oldest dating to 1927.

county video accompanying the January 2014 story struck the same ironic tone as last week’s DES tweet. That 2014 video proceeded from the faulty premise that water main breaks are always “unavoidable.” The video’s message: learn to live with them. The video explains why old water mains break. Surprise: it’s because they’re old and decaying!

Conclusion

Freezing weather did not cause last week’s water main breaks along Columbia Pike.

Arlington County needs a more aggressive program of water main replacement, not the “Que Será, Será” attitude consistently displayed in Arlington County’s 2014 video right on through last week’s DES tweet.

The county government is simply devoting too few of our finite taxpayer dollars to replacing World War II water mains, while devoting too many of those finite dollars to projects like a new $60 million Aquatics Center.

We can and should do better in setting priorities for how our county government spends our tax dollars.

Arlington is facing this situation (at p. 25):

“[W]ater-main failure rates generally increase exponentially over time (Kleiner, 2002). One could envision a rapid increase in break rates in the future… If a break rate doubles, the economic impact is significant; one would need to double the number [of] personnel repairing the breaks.”

The county government should prepare and share for discussion with its residents a Life Cycle Replacement Cost analysis of Arlington’s water mains as recommended (at p. 44) by Dr. Sunil Sinha, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) Center at Virginia Tech:

“[T]o meet the important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the planning, design, construction, and management of water pipeline infrastructure is required.”

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Peter’s Take: Arlington Flooding — Planning for the ‘Unexpected’

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.

Last week, the Washington Post reported record rainfall statistics for communities all around the DC region:

“It has not been a friendly rain, either. Flash flooding continues to occur somewhere in our area with almost every passing wave.”

Damage from flooding in Arlington has been severe and widespread

Just a few examples illustrate the severity of the flooding Arlington residents have experienced from the unfriendly 2018 rain storms:

  • Donaldson Run

In the Donaldson Run area, erosion and significant losses of mature trees  due to a county remediation project have led to discussion and controversy among Donaldson Run-area residents and between those residents and county government.

This situation was profiled in a February 2018 story in the Donaldson Run Civic Association newsletter (at p. 5). Two more major flooding washouts occurred in May-June 2018.

The county government’s design of the stream restoration project remains very controversial. The county has not explained publicly how it plans to pay to remediate the effects of the 2018 Donaldson Run washouts nor all the other county-wide flooding incidents.

  • Lubber Run

As ARLnow.com reported on August 7:

“A bridge for walkers and cyclists in Lubber Run Park is now closed, at least temporarily. An alert on the county’s website says the bridge, closest to N. George Mason Drive as a trail runs over Lubber Run itself, will be closed “until further notice.'”

According to a county spokesperson, this bridge was closed because a DPR crew “was concerned with the bridge, but they aren’t bridge experts.”

Residents report what appears to be significant erosion damage to various areas of the park near the Lubber Run stream bed. Quite a few mature trees along that stream bed appear to be endangered by excessive soil loss. The foundations of trail segments and existing stream-side borders appear undermined.

The bridge closure alert remains in effect. No plans have been announced publicly to reopen the bridge or to remediate the other apparent storm damage.

  • Long Branch Creek

As an apparent result of the recent severe rainstorms, residents of Arlington’s Long Branch Creek neighborhood report recent erosion damage to areas along the Long Branch Creek stream bed between the Long Branch Nature Center and Four Mile Run.

  • Waverly Hills

In a June column, I featured two graphic videos that capture the effects of severe flooding occurring in portions of the Waverly Hills neighborhood during a May 2018 storm. Another severe storm in July 2018 caused renewed severe flooding in Waverly Hills.

Three flooding mitigation projects previously were planned for Waverly Hills but were dropped from Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan due to lack of funds.

Conclusion

In my Waverly Hills column, I recommended that Arlington adopt a new plan similar to Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use manual.

One commenter asked why Arlington’s 2014 Stormwater Master Plan isn’t sufficient?

Answers to that commenter’s question include:

The 2014 Plan isn’t working.

Arlington needs new approaches to development and stormwater planning that are:

The “unexpected” is now the new normal.

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