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Morning Notes

Sunset along Columbia Pike near the Air Force Memorial (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

County Fair Starts Today — “The Arlington County Fair will take place from August 17 – 21 at Thomas Jefferson Community Center located at 3501 2nd Street S. The Arlington County Police Department will conduct the following road closure to accommodate the event: From approximately 8:00 a.m. on August 17 to 11:00 p.m. on August 21… 2nd Street S. closed between S. Jackson Street and S. Irving Street.” [ACPD]

Fewer Car Tax Notices — “Arlington County Board members as part of their annual budget process eliminated the $33-per-vehicle decal fee… About 20,000 vehicles will thus have nothing owed on them, and the treasurer’s office has decided not to send notices to them. An additional 30,000 county residents who own two or more vehicles under the same name will see their billing information consolidated into a single mailing in order to achieve ‘significant savings on paper and postage,’ Treasurer Carla de la Pava said in an Aug. 15 letter.” [Sun Gazette]

Senators Hail New Law — “U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) released the following statement after President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law: ‘We’re proud that this law will lower the price of prescription drugs, reduce the deficit, bring down energy bills and fight climate change… We will continue to look for ways to support the health and well-being of our communities, decrease inflation, and lower costs for Virginians.'” [Sen. Mark Warner]

Opera Making a Comeback? — “Supporters of Northern Virginia’s opera scene are hoping to reanimate the dormant Opera Guild of Northern Virginia, which through the years has raised funds and provided other support to opera organizations as well as promoting fellowships among those who appreciate the art form and introducing children to the unique and inclusive nature of opera.” [Sun Gazette]

It’s Wednesday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 81 and low of 65. Sunrise at 6:26 am and sunset at 8:02 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Morning Notes

Patriotic banners and yard ornaments adorn homes along S. Oak Street (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Water Main Break in RosslynUpdated at 7:50 a.m. — “Emergency Water Main Repairs: Crew working on 8-inch main at [Fairfax Drive and N. Lynn Street]. Some 100 customers could be affected.” [Twitter]

New Va. Laws Taking Effect Today — “Several new laws become effective across Virginia on July 1. This includes legislation pertaining to health care, transportation, economic development and law enforcement.” [Arlington County, FFXnow, ARLnow]

Local Dems Set Up Roe Page — “The Arlington County Democratic Committee has created an online resource to provide information on abortion and the political implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling sending the matter back to states.” [Sun Gazette]

Local Brothers Write Birding Book — “Maxwell and Danté Julius stealthily slip through a dirt path that cuts a serpentine route through Arlington County’s Long Branch Park and Nature Center. They’re equipped with binoculars, cameras and a permeating curiosity about the native birds of their home county. Together, the high school brothers have created a ‘Guide to the Birds of Arlington, VA.’ But it’s much more.” [WUSA 9]

County Looking for Tree Adopters — “Arlington is home to approximately 750,000 trees – or three for every resident – and the local government is asking the public’s help in supporting them. The county government’s Adopt-a-Tree program is designed to help trees make it through dry seasons.” [Sun Gazette]

New Contract for Arlington-Based Raytheon — “The U.S. Army announced Tuesday its effort for a next-generation, software-centric ground system is transitioning to another phase. The service awarded $36 million each to software company Palantir Technologies and defense firm Raytheon Technologies for work on the Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node, which is currently under development. TITAN is expected to help connect sensors with users in the field to support beyond-line-of-sight targeting.” [C4ISRNET]

Missing Middle Piques Interest in F.C. — “It has become a very contentious issue in Arlington, with scores of citizens showing up at public meetings to weigh in, as Clark reported. It is clear to us that, despite smokescreen issues like trees and other environmental factors, the zoning change is feared most for its perceived potentially negative impact on home values, as well as for the issue of population diversity. The Arlington board will have a work session on the subject with the county manager on July 12 and is set to take a vote in the fall. Falls Church leaders should play close attention.” [Falls Church News-Press]

It’s July — Humid and partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 90 and low of 74. Sunrise at 5:48 am and sunset at 8:39 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares visited Arlington yesterday (Thursday) to launch a political fund aimed at unseating progressive prosecutors.

The reform-minded approach of “left-wing liberal prosecutors” has “directly resulted in higher crime in our communities and they must be stopped,” Miyares said in a statement that specifically called out Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

The goal of the Protecting Americans Action Fund, he said, is to “elect District Attorneys who will enforce the law and prosecute criminals, instead of this warped version of criminal justice, which is endangering Americans.”

Miyares did not name-drop Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Descano’s Arlington counterpart, but coming to Arlington was enough to prompt her to mount a defense of her prosecutorial approach.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church fired back on Twitter with a volley of tweets.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by reducing racial disparities in prosecution as well as recidivism and incarceration, while investigating wrongful convictions. Last year, there was an effort to recall her that accused Dehghani-Tafti of offering criminals lenient plea deals.

Miyares contends crime is up in places like Northern Virginia, under the leadership of Descano, Dehghani-Tafti and Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj. But Arlington’s top prosecutor says these jurisdictions “have the lowest crime rates of any large jurisdictions in Virginia and country.”

She reiterated the crime trends she touted earlier this year, including that her jurisdiction recorded no homicides in 2021 — down from three homicides in 2020 and two in 2019.

(Two reported deaths last year were in federal jurisdiction, including the police officer who was stabbed, shot and killed outside the Pentagon and the security contractor who died at the U.S. State Department’s National Foreign Affairs Training Center.)

“I’ve long resisted the claim that the drop in homicide is due solely to my policies. Instead, I’ve credited the work of our County Board, local delegation, police department, school board, defense bar, public defender, and community and faith groups in teaming up to prevent crime,” she said.

“And yet, the AG and other anti-reformers have no hesitation in cherry picking any individual incident or any uptick in any crime, however slight, to mislead the public and paint a false picture of our reform achievements,” she continued.

Some crimes were trending up during her election year, 2019, and continued upward during her first year of office. This includes an uptick in property crimes, driven largely by carjackings, according to 2020 crime data — the most recent available from Arlington County Police Department.

This uptick prompted more police patrols and coordinated regional response in 2021, which may explain why, according to preliminary ACPD data for last year, carjackings dropped from 16 in 2020 to eight, while car thefts dropped from 323 in 2020 to 306.

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Arlington 911 dispatcher at the county’s Emergency Communications Center (via Arlington County)

Arlington County is developing an alert system aimed at improving its emergency response to behavioral health crises.

The aim of the system, dubbed the Marcus Alert, is to keep people in crisis — due to a mental illness, substance use disorder or intellectual and developmental disabilities — from being arrested and booked in jail.

It comes from the Marcus-David Peters Act, which was signed into law in late 2020 and is named for Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old biology teacher who was killed by a police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

Once operational, the system would transfer people who call 911 or 988 — a new national suicide and mental health crisis hotline — to a regional call center where staff determine whether to de-escalate the situation over the phone, dispatch a mobile crisis unit or send specially trained law enforcement.

Last summer, Arlington began developing its Marcus Alert plan, a draft of which needs to be submitted to the state by May 22. It’s asking residents to share their experiences with the county’s current behavioral health crisis response via an anonymous and voluntary survey open through mid-March.

Locals can also email the county to sign up to participate in focus groups, which will convene in early- to mid-March.

State law requires that the county’s final plan be implemented by July 1.

Arlington’s timeline for the Marcus Alert (via Arlington County)

“We are hopeful that with the Marcus Alert and increased community outreach and co-response, we will see a reduction in arrests of people with [serious mental illnesses],” Suzanne Somerville, the bureau director of residential and specialized clinical services for Arlington’s Department of Human Services, tells ARLnow. “The system is tremendously strained at this time and hospitalization for people that need it for psychiatric symptoms is not always easy to attain.”

DHS attributes the strain to COVID-19 and a lack of beds in state-run mental hospitals after the Commonwealth closed more than half of these hospitals to new admissions amid its own workforce crisis. This overwhelmed local hospitals and the Arlington County Police Department, and drove fatigued DHS clinicians and Arlington police officers to quit.

“Everyone is trying to do the right thing and get the client the services they need and deserve and we just don’t have the resources currently,” said Aubrey Graham, the behavioral health program manager for the Arlington County jail.

Bed shortages also impact court hearings, as many inmates with mental illnesses require competency restoration services to understand court proceedings and work with their defense attorney. Graham says inmates must go to Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services state hospitals, which limits beds even more.

Compared to other jurisdictions, Arlington sends proportionately more people to Western State Hospital for competency restoration, per data ARLnow requested from DBHDS. It also saw the greatest increase in admission rates between 2020 and 2021.

Competency restoration rates (courtesy of DBHDS)

Graham says she doesn’t know of any studies that explain why Arlington sees so many individuals with serious mental illnesses, but geography plays a role, as about 70% of people sent to state hospitals come from D.C., Maryland and other parts of Virginia. Only about 30% of those sent to state hospitals from Arlington are actually Arlington residents.

“Although there are a high number of competency evaluations requested in Arlington courts, the referrals are entirely appropriate, and most are deemed incompetent to stand trial,” Graham said.

That’s why police should not arrest them in the first place, says Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood, adding that people with mental illnesses are over-represented in the county jail, which is seeing a continued inmate deaths and may not have the resources to treat the needs of the mentally ill.

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Gavel (Flickr photo by Joe Gratz)

The philanthropic arm of the Arlington County Bar Association is looking to support local nonprofits with a connection to the legal community.

From now through the month of April, the Arlington County Bar Foundation is accepting grant applications from organizations promoting or improving the justice system in Arlington and the City of Falls Church. The foundation helps local charities through grant funding and personnel support, says Paul Ferguson, the Arlington Bar Foundation Grants Committee Chair.

Grants are largely funded by members of the legal community through tax-deductible donations to the Bar Foundation, said Ferguson, the elected Clerk of the Circuit Court in Arlington, a former County Board member, and a GMU law alum.

“The Arlington County Bar Foundation is a charitable board made up of mostly attorneys,” he said. “Grants are awarded to organizations that have a connection to the law [or] legal community. Sometimes the grants go to specific projects or initiatives but they also can be non-specific.”

Awards typically range between $250 and $2,000, although the foundation has given out larger amounts in years past.

Traditionally, Ferguson says, the highest-dollar grant recipient is Legal Services of Northern Virginia, which provides legal advice and services to the region’s neediest populations, including veterans, human-trafficking victims and people with disabilities.

Other past recipients used the funding to tackle domestic violence and homelessness, including SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now) of Northern Virginia and Doorways, or to help formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter society, such as Offender Aid & Restoration and Arm & Arm.

Many recent award-winners work with Northern Virginia’s immigrant population: Ayuda, the Borromeo Legal Project, the immigrant advocacy program at Legal Aid Justice Center and immigration attorney James Montana, who used the money to cover citizenship costs for his pro-bono clients.

Grant applications — which can request up to $5,000 — are due by Friday, April 29. They must be no longer than one page and include the following information:

  • Name of the organization, name of the person submitting the grant and a primary address, phone number and email
  • Purpose of the organization and how it serves Arlington and/or Falls Church
  • Connection to the legal community and/or how the project promotes and improves justice system
  • Amount requested
  • Specific project and/or what grant funds will be used for
  • Tax ID # and IRS Tax Status

Those who are interested in applying are asked to email Ferguson.

Applicants will be notified of the foundation’s decision by the end of May with grant payments available in July.

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The final vote in the Virginia State Senate for S.B. 739 (photo courtesy of screenshot/Virginia General Assembly)

A bipartisan bill that will allow parents to opt their kids out of masking rules at schools has passed the Democrat-controlled Virginia State Senate, despite opposition from Arlington’s senators.

The bill would take effect on July 1. If it were also to pass the House of Delegates and be signed into law by the governor, it would essentially make the local school boards’ recent, tentative court victory over Gov. Glenn Younkin’s executive order on masks in schools moot.

The legislation took shape yesterday when Sen. Chap Petersen, a Fairfax County Democrat, proposed an amendment on the Senate floor to a Republican-proposed bill that continues a requirement from last year to keep schools open five days a week for in-person instruction. Chapman’s amendment effectively sunsets mask mandates in time for the next school year.

The amendment “permits a parental option in regard to wearing a mask on school property,” Petersen told ARLnow. “We need to return to normal for the benefit of our children, and this legislation helps us get there.”

The amendment received significant Democratic support on Tuesday, passing the Senate with 29 votes in favor, including ten Democrats, and only nine votes opposed. Among local legislators, Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) voted in favor of the amendment while Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) voted against it.

All three voted against the final bill, which passed by a 21-17 vote today.

Youngkin declared victory after the vote today. It’s likely to pass the Republican-controlled house.

“Kids across the Commonwealth win with this bipartisan vote today,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Parents are now empowered to decide whether their children should wear a mask in schools. I promised that as governor, Virginia would move forward with an agenda that empowers parents on the upbringing, education, and care of their own children. I am proud to continue to deliver on that promise.”

“This vote also shows that school boards who are attacking their own students are stunningly detached from reality,” the statement continued. “It’s time to put kids first and get back to normal.”

Petersen told ARLnow’s sister site FFXnow that he proposed the amendment because he’s frustrated that no deadline had been set by Fairfax County Public Schools for lifting mask requirements or “shown scientific proof” that it has made difference in limiting Covid’s spread.

He agreed with Youngkin that masks should be optional in schools, but said decision needs to be made by the Virginia General Assembly as opposed to the governor.

That was the basis for the decision made by the Arlington Circuit Court last week to issue an injunction on banning mask mandates. In its lawsuit against the governor’s order, Arlington Public Schools cited a Virginia law passed during the pandemic that requires schools to take necessary, federally-recommended safety measures to combat the spread of the virus.

With the new bill overriding that clause, the court victory could be short-lived for APS and other Northern Virginia school districts that opposed the governor’s order. The bill’s implementation could even potentially be moved up after it reaches the governor’s desk, the Washington Post reported

When the bill gets to Youngkin’s desk, the aide said, the governor could add an emergency clause that would require the law to be implemented immediately. That would have to go back to the General Assembly for approval. Most bills with emergency clauses require 80 percent approval from the legislature, but a governor’s request for emergency needs only a simple majority vote. If that’s granted, the mask law could go into effect as soon as the end of February, the aide said.

Sen. Ebbin wrote to ARLnow in an email after the amendment passed that, while he isn’t opposed to lifting mask mandates soon, he wants the decision to be based on data.

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Advanced Towing truck (file photo)

A proposed bill, inspired by the former Virginia Attorney General’s lawsuit and case against Advanced Towing, would allow residents and localities better ability to protect themselves against bad acting towing companies.

“The Virginia code as it relates to towing is a mess. It’s all over the place,” says Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49), who introduced the bill last week (Jan. 18). “My hope is to improve the towing statute and get more relief for customers harmed by the towing industry.”

Basically, HB 1218 amends the law to allow individuals and localities to pursue alleged illegal towing practices under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. As the law currently stands, the violations are solely enforceable and civil penalties can only be sought by the AG’s office.

What’s more, the law currently allows for a maximum fine for each violation of only $150, which is how Advanced Towing ended up with only a $750 fine for five violations.

By moving portions of the code to be enforced under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, it would allow for fines to be at least $500 or $1,000 per violation.

Additionally, it makes the code enforceable across the entire Commonwealth as opposed to limiting enforcement to only tows that happen in Planning District 8, which covers Northern Virginia.

Lopez, who represents a large swath of South Arlington, says he hears from constituents “regularly” about alleged predatory towing practices taking place in Arlington and across the region.

“This clarifies [the code], makes it cleaner, much more readable,” says Lopez. “There would be meaningful civil penalties that are not limited to Northern Virginia. More importantly, there could finally be individual enforcement rather than solely enforcement through the AG’s office.”

This isn’t the first time in recent years that lawmakers have attempted to help residents when it comes to towing ordinances.

This is a similar situation to the bill that Lopez introduced last year and eventually became law that allows localities to have greater say over the granting of liquor licenses.

In October, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took Arlington-based Advanced Towing to trial over alleged “predatory,” illegal, and unsafe towing practices.

A month later, a decision was handed down that lent merit to some of the AG’s office claims against Advanced Towing but not all of them. The court denied a request for a permanent injunction while issuing a fine of $750.

Advanced Towing owner John O’Neill told ARLnow in December that the decision “vindicated” his company and called the AG’s case “blackmail” and a “witch hunt.”

However, the case still has at least one more hearing since the court didn’t rule on the payment of attorney’s fees with both sides believing they are owed additional money. That hearing is currently set for March 25.

But with a new attorney general now in charge, it’s possible that the case will not be pursued any further.

O’Neill claimed to ARLnow late last year that he had spoken with the newly elected AG Jason Miyares about the case, who allegedly told the towing company owner the case was “overbearing” and would not be sought.

O’Neill’s attorney Chap Petersen (a Virginia state senator, himself) told ARLnow in an email last week that he has no intention of conceding his attorney fees since he believes the case was over-charged by the AG.

But he doesn’t believe a new AG “changes the dynamics of our case, as Judge Newman had already ruled.”

ARLnow has reached out to AG Miyares’s office multiple times to see if there’s still intent to pursue the case, if an office representative will be at the March hearing, and to confirm O’Neill’s alleged conversation with Miyares, but have yet to hear back as of publication.

Lopez tells ARLnow he thought the trial was going to have a different outcome, but is holding out hope the current AG’s office continues the case.

“I hope Attorney General Miyares would care enough about addressing this issue and take an active role in empowering individuals to use the Virginia Consumer Protection Act,” he says.

Lopez expects his bill to be referred to committee soon and is hopeful it can get bipartisan support.

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Today (Friday) marks the last day lawmakers can file legislation to be considered in the 2022 session.

Several of the bills Arlington County legislators introduced align with County Board priorities — from making permanent electronic participation in public meetings to increasing state funding for affordable housing and including race and ethnicity on driver’s licenses.

They’ve also introduced legislation to address issues that came up in the community last year.

After residents exposed poor living conditions at the Serrano Apartments to ARLnow, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49) pre-filed a handful of bills aimed at strengthening tenant protections. Lopez also appears to have taken inspiration from the Advanced Towing saga with a bill that would make tow truck driver violations subject to the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.

Here’s a roundup of some other bills Arlington’s lawmakers put forward.

Policing

  • Independent policing auditor: This bill, House Bill 670, would allow Arlington County to appoint an independent policing auditor who will support the law enforcement Community Oversight Board that was created out of the Police Practices Group recommendations. Del. Patrick Hope (D-47) is chief patron of the bill.
  • Law-enforcement officers; conduct of investigation: HB 870, which Lopez introduced, would require an officer who was involved in a shooting to be interviewed within 24 hours of the incident.

Environmental issues

  • Beverage container deposit and redemption program: HB 826, introduced by Hope, would establish a beverage container deposit, refund and redemption program involving distributors, retailers and consumers. There would be an advisory committee, required reporting and civil and criminal penalties for violations.
  • Packaging Stewardship Program and Fund: The bill, HB 918, would allow the state Department of Environmental Quality to charge sellers in the commonwealth a fee for the amount of packaging their products use and if they’re easily recyclable. Those fees would be paid into a fund and used to reimburse participating localities for expenses related to recycling, invest in recycling infrastructure and education and pay the program’s administrative costs. Lopez introduced the bill.
  • Parking of vehicles; electric vehicle charging spots; civil penalties: Senate Bill 278 prohibits a person from parking non-electric vehicles in electric vehicle charging spots. It sets a civil penalty between $100 and $250 with the possibility the vehicle is towed or impounded. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) introduced the bill.
  • Driving Decarbonization Program and Fund. This legislation, HB 351, would establish a program and a fund that would assist developers with non-utility costs associated with installation of electric vehicle charging stations. It was introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48).

Health

  • Insurance; paid family leave: SB 15, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31), would establish paid family leave as a class of insurance that would pay for the income an employee loses after the birth of a child or because the employee is caring for a child or family member.
  • Hospitals; financial assistance for uninsured patient, payment plans: This bill, SB 201, requires hospitals to screen every uninsured patient, determine if they’re eligible for financial assistance under the hospital’s plan and create a payment plan. The bill also prohibits certain collection actions. Favola introduced the bill.

Rights

  • Constitutional amendment; marriage; fundamental right to marry, same-sex marriage prohibition: This constitutional amendment, SJ 5, would repeal the constitutional provision defining marriage as only a union between one man and one woman as well as the related provisions that are no longer valid as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015. Ebbin introduced the amendment.
  • Absentee voting; verification by social security or driver’s license number: SB 273, introduced by Ebbin, would make optional the current absentee ballot witness signature requirement. It would give the voter the option to provide either the last four digits of their social security number or the voter’s valid Virginia driver’s license number instead.
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The City of Falls Church is no longer forcing La Tingeria to shut down its new restaurant by January, a city spokesperson tells ARLnow.

Last month, the popular Arlington food truck La Tingeria set up shop at 626 S. Washington Street in Falls Church. But only a few weeks later, the city sent a notice to owner David Peña saying it was pulling the restaurant’s certificate of occupancy due to neighbor complaints about customers parking on neighborhood streets.

The shop was going to have to close by Jan. 2, 2022, barring an appeal.

But now, it appears the city is backtracking and will not be revoking La Tingeria’s certificate of occupancy, at least not yet.

“The City of Falls Church and the business owner are working together to create solutions to the parking issue. The owner has already made improvements by marking the onsite parking,” Falls Church Director of Communications Susan Finarelli says. “The City is working with the neighbors and looking at the right-of-way to help with traffic and parking on the dead-end residential street. As this positive momentum continues, we anticipate not revoking the Certificate of Occupancy in January.”

This comes after ARLnow reported on the story and customers reached out to the city to express their support for the restaurant.

By revoking La Tingera’s certificate of occupancy, the City of Falls Church may have been in violation of the restaurant’s constitutional rights, according to the Ballston-based Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit that helps businesses fight against what it views as government overreach.

“Under the state and federal constitution, people have a right to run their businesses without being subject to unreasonable and arbitrary laws,” senior attorney Erica Smith Ewing told ARLnow. “I think there’s a very strong argument that forcing restaurant owners to be responsible for enforcing the city’s parking laws is completely unreasonable.”

This could have been handled by the city issuing parking tickets, notes Ewing, not the disproportionate response of threatening to shut down a business.

“Especially with the economy as it is, it’s shocking that the city is punishing a restaurant for being too successful,” said Ewing. Locally, the Institute for Justice previously took up legal cases in Arlington after county crackdowns on food trucks and a mural next to a dog park.

In the notice sent to Peña, the city cited that the restaurant’s violation of Sections 48-58 and 48-1004 of the City Code.

When ARLnow reached out to Falls Church about La Tingeria’s violations earlier this week, a city spokesperson was only able to provide one line from section 48-939 that reads “No portion of any required off-street parking or loading space shall occupy or use any public street, right-of-way, alley or property, except by expressed permission of the city council.”

Ewing wasn’t surprised by this lack of clarity.

“This isn’t the first time city officials have said that someone is violating a law and haven’t been able to show them how they’re violating it or why,” she said. “[Peña] shouldn’t have to dig through outdated codes to figure out what he did wrong. The city should be helping him understand and fix the problem.”

It appears that the city is now doing just that with La Tingeria.

Peña tells ARLnow that he’s very happy with this development, but remains fearful there could be more issues going forward.

Despite a challenging first few weeks, he still believes that the Falls Church will be a great home for La Tingeria’s popular queso birria tacos and chicken tinga.

“I absolutely [want] to stay here and see how much we can grow,” Peña says. “This is just the beginning.”

Photo (2) via Google Maps

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This week, a Marymount University graduate working in tech is packing up and moving to Dublin, Ireland.

He didn’t expect — or want — to leave his home on the border of Arlington and Falls Church this way.

Hansel D’Souza, 25, is an Indian national who was born and raised in Kuwait who now works for a tech company. He has been in Virginia since 2014, when he arrived on an F1 student visa to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology at Marymount. There, he dove into theater, student affairs and campus ministry.

“I was everywhere at the same time, wearing lots of hats,” he said. “People asked me, ‘Is there any job you don’t do?”

He programmed backstage lighting and sounds for the campus theater club, the McLean Community Players and the Little Theatre of Alexandria. With the campus ministry group, he went to Louisa, Kentucky for a service project and returned as a camp counselor for a few summers, watching campers graduate high school and go to college.

His extracurricular resume may be impressive — but none of his positions or volunteer work mattered when it came to seeking an H1B visa to continue working in the U.S. in his specialized field, which selects 65,000 people a year through a lottery. Up to 20,000 additional people can get this visa if they’ve earned a master’s degree or higher.

“This is not a merit-based system,” said James Montana, an attorney at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm in Arlington. “The question is, do you have a degree that is related to the proposed work in a specialty field? An individual can do nothing to increase his chances — other than get a master’s, which is an awfully expensive way to increase them.”

D’Souza said his frustration with the H1B process, which wrote about in a Medium post, is that it whittled him down to a number in a lottery.

“Seven years of hard work, putting myself out there, making this place my home, building relationships, just came down to a lottery process,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one. I know a handful of other people going through it — and there are thousands of others across the country in similar situations every year.”

Indians in the U.S. face particular hurdles. In recent years, members of the diaspora living in the United States have protested a 150-year backlog in green cards, caused by a policy capping the number of Indians who can come to the U.S., and a coronavirus-induced excess of green cards that could go to waste despite this backlog.

Many Indian immigrants advocate for the cap to be lifted and for the immigration process to consider their technical skills instead.

As for D’Souza, he says he considered getting a master’s degree to increase his chances of staying. But after four years of tuition, and room and board, a master’s represented a financial lift he said he couldn’t justify, especially since he saw people advance in his field without one.

“Unfortunately, the world has gotten to a point where people are doing more degrees to check boxes on resume, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

It is too late for D’Souza, who departs tomorrow night (Wednesday), but he said he wants to elevate the voices of “international students and working professionals just like me.” He wants the Americans he knows to understand how complex immigrating to the U.S. is, as well.

“Immigration needs to change,” he said. “I’m hoping more people will realize it’s not all rose-colored glasses.”

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This afternoon near the Rosslyn Metro station, Bob Marley was playing and a flag featuring a joint and the words “Come and Take It” was flying.

The event was the legalization of marijuana in Virginia and a giveaway that attracted a line of some 100 people.

Those in line were waiting to receive six marijuana plant seeds — tokens to commemorate the first day of legalized cannabis possession on this side of the Potomac River. The seeds are from Virginia Marijuana Justice, an advocacy group celebrating legalization today with “The Great Commonwealth Cannabis Seed Share.”

Virginians 21 and older can now possess, consume and grow small amounts of the plant, but unless a doctor has signed off on a prescription, there’s no legal way to buy it, the Virginia Mercury reports. Lawmakers aim to begin recreational retail sales in 2024, giving the Commonwealth three years to establish a Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to regulate the market.

Outside the Rosslyn Metro station was one of four locations where volunteers with VAMJ gave out seeds. The Arlington seed share lasted from 12-2 p.m. and among the four sites, more than 20,000 seeds were distributed, said organizer Adam Eidinger.

“We are very happy on this historic day,” Eidinger said. “All four locations in Virginia had long lines and are giving away all the seeds we raised. Authorities were only concerned with large numbers of people, not the cannabis.”

The organization’s celebration started last night on the Key Bridge.

Chinara and Maurice, who only gave their first name, were among the crowd standing in line this afternoon.

Maurice said he was there “to partake in this transition that’s occurring,” saying he is glad “there is more acceptance for things that are natural.”

Despite the crowd’s size, Chinara said the line moved quickly. The R&B and Neo Soul singer-songwriter said she appreciates marijuana because “it makes me feel like I’m able to interact more smoothly with people.”

VAMJ gave out the seeds to people 21 and older with a valid ID. Organizers reminded participants to be patient, let senior citizens go first in line and make friends. They also reminded people that the law only permits four plants in a home.

The giveaway finished about 45 minutes before the thunderstorms rolled in.

Although the mood this afternoon was joyous, advocates say work remains to be done.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, the leader of a parallel Virginia-based group, Marijuana Justice, said the new law has a lot of gaps and she is skeptical that Black and Brown people will actually be treated equally for possessing the plant.

Her group is advocating for next year’s legislature to “repeal, repair and [make] reparations.” It has formed a Legalize It Right coalition to discuss the new Virginian law and how to tackle these goals.

Specifically, the group wants the legislature to remove an open container law that punishes people for possessing the plant in anything but the original manufacturers’ container. The group wants to see public consumption legalized — right now Virginians can only partake at home — and zero tolerance policies on college and university campuses removed.

In addition, Marijuana Justice wants records for marijuana-related crimes expunged and reparations for people arrested and convicted for committing such crimes.

VAMJ also wrote in a blog post that the fight is not over.

“Just because you can grow your own cannabis, doesn’t mean that the war on drugs is won,” the post said. “We still have a lot of work to do to ensure not only local legalization, but legalization across the country, to benefit all interested parties. There are still friends and family members in jail for cannabis in Virginia. We need to demand their immediate release.”

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