Arlington, VA

(Updated at 10:45 p.m.) About a year ago at this time, Arlington looked to be in serious trouble down in Richmond.

In mid-March 2018, county officials faced the decidedly unpleasant prospect that they’d come out on the losing end of a bruising legislative battle with two local golf and country clubs.

One of the county’s foremost foes in the General Assembly had engineered the passage of legislation to slash the clubs’ tax bills, potentially pulling more than a million dollars in annual tax revenue out of the county’s coffers.

Arlington had spent years tangling with the clubs, which count among their members local luminaries ranging from retired generals to former presidents, arguing over how to tax those properties. Yet the legislation from Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District) would’ve bypassed the local dispute entirely, and it was headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

That meant that Arlington’s only hope of stopping the bill was convincing the governor to strike it down with his veto pen.

In those days, long before evidence of Northam’s racist medical school yearbook photos had surfaced, the Democrat was well-liked in the county. He’d raised plenty of cash from Arlingtonians in his successful campaign just a year before, and had won endorsements in his primary contest from many of the county’s elected officials.

Yet the situation still looked dire enough that the County Board felt compelled to take more drastic steps to win Northam to their side. The county shelled out $22,500 to hire a well-connected lobbying firm for just a few weeks, embarking on a frenetic campaign to pressure the governor and state lawmakers and launch a media blitz to broadcast the county’s position in both local and national outlets.

“It became apparent to all of us that every Arlingtonian had something at stake here,” then-County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “At a time when we were making excruciating decisions about our own budget, the idea that you would take more than million dollars and put it toward something that wasn’t a priority for anyone here was so frustrating.”

That push was ultimately successful — Northam vetoed the bill last April, and the county struck a deal with the clubs to end this fight a few weeks later.

An ARLnow investigation of the events of those crucial weeks in spring 2018 sheds a bit more light on how the county won that veto, and how business is conducted down in the state capitol. This account is based both on interviews with many people close to the debate and a trove of emails and documents released via a public records request (and published now in the spirit of “National Sunshine Week,” a nationwide initiative designed to highlight the value of freedom of information laws).

Crucially, ARLnow’s research shows that the process was anything but smooth sailing for the county, as it pit Arlington directly against the club’s members. Many of them exercise plenty of political influence across the region and the state, and documents show they were able to lean heavily on Northam himself.

“One would expect a Democratic governor to be highly responsive to one of most Democratic jurisdictions in the state,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “But this was a matter of great concern to a bunch of very important people in Virginia, and that may well be the reason why additional efforts were necessary.”

And, looking forward, the bitter fight over the issue could well have big implications should similar legislation ever resurface in Richmond.

“Structurally, this bill could absolutely come back someday,” Cristol said. “And the idea that a bill that has such deleterious consequences for land use and taxation in jurisdictions across Virginia could come back and garner support because of an effective lobbying interest is very much a real threat.”

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Sebastian Gorka, a former aide to President Trump fired amidst mounting criticism of his anti-Muslim views, is coming to Arlington to raise money for local Republicans.

The Arlington Republican Women’s Club announced this weekend that Gorka will be a featured guest at its Sept. 23 fundraiser, to be held at the Army-Navy Country Club. Tickets run anywhere from $25 to $250 for the evening.

Long a fixture on Fox News and other right-wing news outlets, Gorka joined the Trump administration shortly after doing consulting work for the campaign on foreign policy matters. Yet he frequently courted controversy during his time in the White House, particularly after reporters discovered his ties to far-right, anti-Semitic groups in Hungary, and he was dismissed from his post last August.

Carole DeLong, the president of the Republican Women’s Club, told ARLnow that she expects Gorka “will speak to us about his time in the White House, and the interesting subjects of his books.” Gorka’s published works include “Why We Fight: Defeating America’s Enemies — With No Apologies” and “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.”

DeLong added that she recently met Gorka at an event they both attended, and quickly convinced him to come speak in Arlington.

“He is a very nice and unique person,” DeLong said. “We are all so happy that he agreed.”

Arlington Democrats are considerably less enthused about Gorka’s imminent arrival in the county.

County Democratic Committee Chair Jill Caiazzo dubbed Gorka a “far-right ideologue” in a statement, highlighting his vocal defense of Trump’s travel ban targeting majority Muslim countries, in particular. She noted that her committee happens to holding its own potluck on the same day, headlined by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th District), which she sees as a clear contrast between the two parties.

“Like the races on the ballot in November, it’s not a hard choice for Arlington voters who seek to reject the extreme Trump-GOP agenda, including the discriminatory travel bans championed by Dr. Gorka,” Caiazzo said. “We look forward to seeing those voters at the potluck and the polls.”

Despite Caiazzo’s criticisms, DeLong said she had no compunctions about working with Gorka, calling him “delightful to work with.”

Gorka has made headlines in Arlington once before, prompting a brief Twitter outcry when someone spotted his distinctive Ford Mustang with the vanity plate “ART WAR” parked on a sidewalk near Rosslyn’s Gateway Park.

Photo via @SebGorka

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Morning Notes

Army-Navy Country Club Employee Alleges Supervisor Used Racial Slurs — A former golf cart attendant at the club claims that one of his bosses repeatedly used racist language to refer to him and former President Barack Obama. It seems the supervisor has been fired, and the club’s employees are receiving sensitivity training. [Falls Church News-Press]

Crystal City Hotel to Host Anti-Muslim Group’s Conference — ACT for America will hold its annual gathering at the Crystal City Hyatt this fall. The group has alleged that Muslims can’t be loyal citizens of the United States and held “anti-Sharia” marches across the country, prompting Muslim groups to call on the hotel to abandon the event. [DCist]

Man Accused of Indecent Exposures Around Rosslyn Previously Convicted in Alexandria — County police arrested Fairfax County resident Santiago Rodriquez Campos on indecent exposure charges Monday, and it seems he’s been convicted on similar charges in the past. Immigration officials also believe he entered the country illegally. [WJLA]

Arlington Police Chief Reviews Restructuring — Chief Jay Farr says all has largely gone smoothly with the county’s restructuring of the department to cope with a staffing crunch, which kicked off in May. The county even has its largest class of recruits ever currently in training. [Arlington Connection]

County First Responders Make a Special Delivery — Arlington medics were hoping to get an expecting mother to a D.C. hospital, but her baby had other plans. They made it to the Virginia Hospital Center in the nick of time. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by ksrjghkegkdhgkk

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County officials seem to have found some money to speed up design work on an access road to link the Arlington View neighborhood to Army Navy Drive.

County Manager Mark Schwartz initially proposed some hefty delays for the project, which is set to stretch across a section of the Army Navy Country Club, in his proposed 10-year plan for county construction efforts. Under his proposal, design work on the effort wouldn’t even start until fiscal year 2027, with construction set for 2029.

The county’s budget challenges have ensured that Arlington officials haven’t suddenly found enough money to build the road, and its accompanying bike and pedestrian trails, right away. But county staff did manage to track down about $230,000 to pay for design and engineering work starting in fiscal year 2020, officials told the County Board during a work session Tuesday (July 10).

That news is quite welcome for Board members and residents alike, considering that the county has been working to build the 30-foot-wide road since 2010, in order to better connect Columbia Pike to Crystal City.

The road would run from S. Queen Street, near Hoffman-Boston Elementary, to the I-395 underpass, where a country club access road meets up with Army Navy Drive. The process of securing an easement to even cross the country club in the first place was a challenging one for the county, but the two sides ultimately struck a deal after the county agreed to allow the club to build a larger clubhouse than county zoning rules would ordinarily permit.

Staff cautioned the Board that reallocating this money for design work won’t do anything to change when the project gets built, at least for the time being. But members supported the change all the same as a way to provide some more detailed plans for the Board to consider a few years from now, when the county’s fiscal picture could improve.

“At least it’s getting us somewhere,” said Board member Erik Gutshall. “We’ve got to move the ball forward.”

In order to get that design work moving, the Board would need to pull $105,000 away from some minor arterial road projects over the next two fiscal years, and another $125,000 away from the “Walk Arlington” program for pedestrian-centric projects. The latter move will leave just $50,000 available for the program in 2020 and 2021.

But Board members seem to believe the funding shake-up is well worth it, particularly as bicycling advocates stress the importance of the project.

“There is a compelling case to be made that this will allow one of our largest growing population centers, Columbia Pike, to have more access to one of our major commercial and office centers of Crystal City,” Board Chair Katie Cristol said. “The most important thing is we get the scope of this proiect to the point where we can have those conversations about feasibility.”

County transportation director Dennis Leach cautioned that additional examinations of the project could reveal that it’s too challenging for the county to pursue. He noted that the “steep grades” in the area, combined with its proximity to woodlands and I-395, could all combine to make the effort “extremely expensive.”

Initial estimates pegged construction costs around $5.2 million, but the county hasn’t updated that figure in years.

Cristol added that there are also “big questions” about whether the county can afford to bring the project into compliance with federal accessibility laws. However, she did suggest that one avenue for addressing those cost concerns might be redirecting some revenue generated by the commercial and industrial property tax on Crystal City businesses, as the area would potentially stand to benefit from the project.

“I look forward to the prospect of a taking a better scoped project and having a conversation with the business community about whether it’s a proper use of that tax money,” Cristol said.

The Board will make the reallocation of money for the access road official when it votes to approve a final Capital Improvement Plan on Saturday (July 14).

Photo via Google Maps

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Construction work on an access road crossing a portion of Army Navy Country Club could be pushed back by nearly a decade, as Arlington grapples with a funding squeeze impacting transportation projects.

County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan calls for engineering work on the project, which is designed to link the Arlington View neighborhood to Army Navy Drive, to start by fiscal year 2027 with construction kicking off two years later. The county has long expected to start design work for the project by fiscal year 2020, with work to begin in 2022.

Since 2010, county officials have aimed to build the new road, which would be reserved for emergency vehicles looking to more easily cross I-395, as well as bicyclists and pedestrians. The 30-foot-wide road would run from S. Queen Street, near Hoffman-Boston Elementary, to the I-395 underpass, where a country club access road meets up with Army Navy Drive.

The process has required a good bit of back-and-forth with the country club — the county only secured an easement on the club’s property as part of a deal to allow Army Navy’s owners to build a larger clubhouse than county zoning rules would ordinarily permit. Some members of the country club even sued the county to block the arrangement, over concerns that cyclists and pedestrians on the proposed trail would be disruptive to golfers.

Yet Arlington leaders have pressed ahead with the project all the same, with the County Board approving two different updates to the county’s Capital Improvement Plan, known as the CIP, including funding for the project.

Schwartz hasn’t gone so far as to ask the Board to abandon the project — his proposed CIP calls for the county to spend $837,000 on engineering work in fiscal years 2027 and 2028 — but the delay does reflect Arlington’s new challenges paying for transportation projects.

As he’s unveiled the new CIP, Schwartz has frequently warned that the deal hammered out by state lawmakers to send the Metro system hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding has hammered localities like Arlington. Not only does the deal increase the county’s annual contribution to Metro, but it sucks away money from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a regional body that would ordinarily help localities fund transportation projects.

With the county having to shift money around to compensate for those changes, officials say smaller projects like the Army Navy access road will necessarily suffer.

“Overall, the transportation CIP has fewer resources for smaller, neighborhood-scale improvements due to reduced funding resulting from legislation,” Jessica Baxter, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Environmental Services, told ARLnow via email.

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Morning Notes

Family Wants to See Relative Shot By Police — The family of Steven Best, who was shot by police last week after allegedly trying to ram a police cruiser with a van, says they have not been allowed to see him nor have they been given information on his condition. [WJLA]

Legislative Threat Helped Country Club Tax Deal — “The decision by two Arlington country clubs to take their case to the General Assembly helped get all parties to come together on a deal more expeditiously than otherwise might have been the case, the Arlington government’s top legal official said,” reports the Sun Gazette. Arlington clubs, meanwhile, “came away with most of what they were seeking in assessment reductions.” [InsideNova, Washington Post]

Local Sixth Graders Make Headlines — A fourth-period, sixth-grade class at Gunston Middle School is the May Class of WaPo’s KidsPost. [Washington Post]

Marymount Employee’s Boston Marathon Journey — Katie Sprinkel, a lab coordinator and adjunct professor at Arlington’s Marymount University, overcame knee and leg injuries — and a battle with breast cancer — to finish this year’s Boston Marathon. She was back at work the next day. [Marymount University]

Arlington Among Top Walkable Places — Arlington is No. 9 on a list of the most walkable communities in the country. The list was compiled by the travel site Expedia. [Viewfinder]

Major Metro Work Starting Next Summer — “There will be no service on Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines south of Reagan National Airport for 98 days beginning in May 2019, as the transit agency embarks on a platform rebuilding project spanning six stations, part of an effort to refurbish 20 station platforms over three years.” Arlington’s East Falls Church Metro station is also on the list of platforms to be rebuilt. [Washington Post, WMATA]

Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman

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(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) A dispute between two private country clubs and Arlington County that resulted in some wrangling in Richmond seems to have come to an end.

The Army Navy Country Club (1700 Army Navy Drive) and Washington Golf and Country Club (3017 N. Glebe Road) were both pushing for property tax changes that could have cost the county roughly $1.4 million in tax revenue each year, even backing legislation at the state level this year to force those alterations. That miffed county leaders, who bristled at attempts by the state General Assembly to change Arlington’s tax policy to save money for the golf courses.

Now, the county has agreed to reduce the tax burden on each club by tweaking how it values their land, according to an April 27 email sent out by the Washington Golf and Country Club’s president and obtained by ARLnow. County attorney Steve MacIsaac confirmed that the parties have signed off on a settlement agreement, putting to bed a 2014 lawsuit brought by the clubs over the tax question.

Like any settlement, both sides give a little bit to get to a mutually acceptable outcome,” MacIsaac told ARLnow.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had vetoed the bill addressing the issue in the hopes that the county and the clubs would come to some sort of compromise, and his spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said his office is “still evaluating the details but support[s] a locally negotiated solution here.”

The country clubs had backed the legislation, sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, which would have forced the county to change how it assesses the value of the roughly 630 acres held by the two clubs.

Currently, the courses are valued as “large acreage parcels” at $12 per square foot, while residential land near each course is valued as high $100 per square foot. Hugo’s legislation would have slashed the rate to about 50 cents per square foot, in a bid to meet persistent concerns from the courses that they were overtaxed.

Washington Golf and Country Club President Stephen Fedorchak wrote a letter to members explaining that the county now has agreed to reduce the club’s valuation from “approximately $93 million to approximately $47 million” in 2018, which reduces the club’s property tax bill this year to about $460,000. Arlington also plans to credit $815,000 toward the club’s current tax bill to make up for the last three tax bills the club has paid at the previous, higher valuation, MacIsaac added.

“We are gratified by this reasonable, sustainable resolution,” Fedorchak wrote to members. “It will benefit the club’s general fiscal health for years to come.”

Raighne Delaney, the Army Navy Country Club’s secretary, did not respond to a call seeking details on the structure of his course’s deal with Arlington. But MacIsaac estimated that the club will receive about $1.25 million in credits toward its tax bill, and the valuation of the property will shrink by 25 to 35 percent under the terms of the settlement.

The Army Navy Country Club was assessed at just over $149 million for 2018, and was set to owe about $842,000 in taxes this year before any credits.

Starting in 2019, the clubs’ assessments will “increase or decrease based on the average annual change in the county’s residential real estate assessments,” Fedorchak wrote. Should the assessment change “outside those parameters” the clubs reserve the right to challenge that valuation, Fedorchak noted.

Arlington officials have previously argued that land is at a premium in the 26-square-mile county, necessitating the higher taxes.

“Our community is already grappling with reductions to services in order to address budget gaps for the upcoming fiscal year and larger projected budget gaps in future years,” the county board wrote in a March 21 letter to Northam urging him to veto Hugo’s bill.

File photo

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has vetoed legislation that would have dramatically reduced Arlington County’s tax revenue from two country clubs.

HB 1204 would have reduced the tax bills for Army Navy Country Club and Washington Golf and Country Club, but would have cost the county’s coffers nearly $1.5 million annually.

The state legislature will now have an opportunity to override the veto.

More from an Arlington County press release:

“We are grateful to Governor Northam for vetoing HB 1204,” Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said. “The governor, by his action to keep authority over local property assessments in the hands of local government, and not in Richmond, has shown real leadership.  This legislation had major implications for all localities across the Commonwealth.”

Arlington encourages all local governments to unify and ask their legislators to sustain the veto when the General Assembly reconvenes April 18 at the State Capitol, Cristol said.

“We are committed to resolving the assessment issue with the golf courses, and we are confident that we can find an equitable solution,” she said. “I want to thank our Arlington delegation for standing strong with us throughout this process.”

In his veto message, Northam says that he expects Arlington and the clubs to reach a compromise soon. The clubs are suing the county, fighting back against what they say is an unfair way to assess what is essentially open space — treating the many acres of golf courses as developable land.

The governor’s veto message is below.

Pursuant to Article V, Section 6, of the Constitution of Virginia, I veto House Bill 1204, which requires the County of Arlington to assess two private country clubs within its boundaries as land dedicated to open space rather than its current method of highest and best use.

This is a local dispute over a local government’s method of assessing land for property taxation. As such, the solution to this dispute should be reached on the local level without the involvement of the state.

I have been assured that an agreement acceptable to both sides of this dispute is close to being reached. I encourage the parties to continue negotiations to find a solution so that similar legislation will not be necessary in the future.

Accordingly, I veto this bill.

Sincerely,

Ralph S. Northam

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Morning Notes

Northam Talks Golf Course Bill — Speaking on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) addressed the country club tax bill that Arlington officials want him to veto. Northam said the taxation of Army Navy Country Club, which counts numerous veterans among its members, particularly “needs to be addressed” and that if negotiations are not successful he will “step in and take action,” though the exact action he would take is unclear. [WTOP]

How Arlington Almost Was Home to the Nationals — Boosters of baseball in Arlington almost succeeded in bringing a Major League Baseball team to the county. The Nationals, before landing near Navy Yard in D.C., were considering a stadium site in Pentagon City, but a series of unfortunate events nixed it. [Arlington Magazine]

ART Bus Turns into Sauna — From a Twitter user yesterday: “@ART_Alert my bus driver just begged me to contact you and ask to get his bus fixed. The heat is stuck on the bus and it must be 95 degrees inside.” [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman

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The Arlington County Board sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam today (March 27) requesting that he veto a bill adopted by the General Assembly that would provide big tax savings to two Arlington country clubs but cost the county millions.

The bill would mandate an open space assessment of golf course properties in the county, providing big tax breaks to Washington Golf and Country Club and Army Navy Country Club. According to a county press release, the assessment changes would result in a county revenue loss of about $1.43 million per year.

The hit to the county’s coffer would require “significant potential reductions in the areas of student education, public safety, transportation, community health, and social services,” the letter said, suggesting also that the “preferential tax treatment” conflicted with the Code of Virginia and the state constitution.

“This bill comes at a time when our community is already grappling with reductions to services in order to address budget gaps for the upcoming fiscal year and larger projected budget gaps in future years,” said the letter, which was signed by all five County Board members.

The full text of the letter after the jump. Read More

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Morning Notes

Dem Support for Country Club Bill Slips — A procedural vote in the Virginia House of Delegates to send the Arlington country club bill to the governor’s desk passed, but without a veto-proof margin. Some Democratic lawmakers who supported the bill the first time around voted no instead. If signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the legislation would greatly lower the property taxes of Army Navy Country Club and Washington Golf and Country Club. [InsideNova]

Four Courts Four Miler Closures — The annual Four Courts Four Miler race will close roads parts of Wilson Blvd and Route 110 in Courthouse and Rosslyn this coming Saturday morning. [Arlington County]

Food Trucks Grumble About Festival Fees — “To participate in May’s Taste of Arlington festival… food trucks must pay a flat fee of between $400 and $500. Festival attendees purchase tickets worth $5 each that can be redeemed at food trucks for a few bites. When the gates close, event organizers reimburse the food truck between 25 and 75 cents per ticket… Would you sign this contract?” [Washington City Paper]

‘Women of Vision’ Awards — Nominations are now being accepted for the 2018 Arlington Women of Vision Awards. The nomination deadline is April 20. [Arlington County]

How to Do Business With Arlington — Arlington is hosting an event next week that will show small businesses “the nuances of successfully doing business with Arlington County.” Per the event website: “Experts will be speaking on topics such as obtaining opportunities to work with the County and understanding the procurement process.” [Arlington Economic Development]

Nearby: Alexandria Tops Tourism List — Alexandria is No. 1 on Money magazine’s “The 20 Best Places to Go in 2018” list, topping Anaheim, Calif., the home of Disneyland, among other destinations. Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. was ranked No. 2. [Washington Post]

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