Arlington, VA

(Updated at 11 a.m.) While sitting a safe distance away from each other, members of the Arlington County Board voted 4-0 to approve a declaration of local emergency this morning, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

County Manager Mark Schwartz signed the declaration of emergency at 7 p.m. Friday. He said the declaration will allow the county to more easily obtain state and federal funds, acquire needed goods and services, and hire staff as needed.

The county will continue to provide essential services, including emergency services, maintenance, and even permitting during the outbreak, Schwartz said. There will be more changes put in place soon, however.

“We know that these new measures are an inconvenience, but we believe that these changes to county government are Arlington’s best chance of slowing this virus,” said County Board member Katie Cristol.

Arlington is continuing to encourage residents to practice social distancing — avoiding crowds and staying at least six feet apart from each other to prevent the spread of disease — County Board members said in a pre-recorded video, played at the Board’s special meeting Saturday morning.

As of Friday afternoon, all Dept. of Parks and Recreation programs were cancelled. All libraries are closed this weekend, though Central Library and the Columbia Pike branch library plan to reopen on Monday, while others remain closed. Schools are now closed through mid-April.

Schwartz said on Monday a new list of hours and operational changes for county facilities will be posted on the county’s website.

“I hope everyone pays attention to the social distancing, washes your hands, wipes down surfaces — this is going to be with us for awhile,” Garvey said, wrapping up the brief meeting. “Your local government has been working flat out for weeks now. We’re going to continue to do so. Please be safe and gentle with each other.”

At last count, there were five confirmed cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, in Arlington.

Large crowds of shoppers and empty shelves, meanwhile, continue to be reported at stores in Arlington.

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There are confirmed cases of coronavirus on the East Coast, so Arlington County assembled some local experts to talk about what the county is doing to prepare for a potential outbreak while clearing up some misconceptions about the disease.

A number of county officials fielded questions sent via social media during Wednesday night’s online panel discussion. Dr. Reuben Varghese, the Arlington County Director of Public Health, answered the lion’s share of the questions as he told locals what to do, and what not to do, to prevent the spread of the disease.

Varghese, like health officials across the country, said the most effective way of keeping yourself safe is by frequently washing your hands, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds at a time.

“The tried and true [advice] for public health activities is to wash your hands with soap and water,” Varghese said. “Don’t touch mouth, nose, eyes. Those are portals for how germs get into body. Cover your cough with elbow and tissue.

Varghese said hand sanitizer can be handy in a pinch, but warned that it isn’t a replacement for thorough handwashing. Any soap will do, Varghese said, noting that antibacterial soap and regular soap make no difference here since the disease is not bacterial.

“Whenever you enter a building, wash your hands,” Varghese said. “When you get home, wash your hands.”

Some asked why the focus on stopping a respiratory virus was on hands and not breathing, but Varghese said that’s a common misconception with diseases like this.

“It’s not always through respiratory contact that you get spread of germs,” Varghese said. “Unless you’re routinely in very close proximity with someone, the most common way of transferring respiratory illness is disease on hands touching [your] mouth, nose or eyes — which then get into the system and cause respiratory illness.”

Varghese also said Arlingtonians shouldn’t be too worried about the spread of coronavirus through apartment complex air systems.

“Whether it’s a high rise or home, [spread of the virus] is all about how air handling is done in these facilities,” Varghese said. “As far as I know, the vast majority have very good air handling in the high rise buildings so it should not lead to spread within these areas.”

Other panelists said now is a good time to take stock of emergency supplies.

“The time to prepare is before emergencies,” said Aaron Miller, director of Arlington’s emergency management department. “In these stages, where we’re still monitoring [the outbreak], take this opportunity to relook at your kit. Look at the food, water, medications.”

Miller said businesses should have a plan for continuity of operations in case of emergencies, referring them to guidance from the CDC.

For those with plans to travel, Miller also advised referring to the CDC travel advisories. In general, Varghese said travel should be limited to absolute necessity.

“People need to be smart, in general,” Varghese said. “Ask the question: is the travel essential? We’ll leave it to you to decide what’s essential.”

Regarding the schools, County Manager Mark Schwartz said decisions to close in the event of a local outbreak would be made on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re in constant communication with the schools,” Schwartz said. “As far as decisions for closing classrooms or schools, I can’t say ‘this should happen’ or ‘that should happen.'”

“If your kid is sick, the best thing you can do is keep that child at home with you,” Schwartz added.

The Q&A session (a video replay is below) would likely be the first of several chats in the coming weeks, said Schwartz.

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If you’ve got a lead foot, you should probably slow down, especially — soon — on three particular Arlington streets.

In January the Arlington County Board voted to start imposing an additional $200 fine for speeding on certain residential streets.

At the County Board meeting on Tuesday, County Manager Mark Schwartz announced the first three streets that would be subject to the new fine.

  • Carlin Springs Road from Columbia Pike to George Mason Drive — through the Glencarlyn and Arlington Forest neighborhoods
  • Military Road from Old Glebe Road to Nelly Custis Drive — through the Bellevue Forest and Donaldson Run neighborhoods
  • Lorcom Lane from Military Road to Spout Run Parkway — through the Maywood and Woodmont neighborhoods

The $200 fine would be in addition to standard $6 for every mile per hour above the speed limit and the $66 in court fees.

Schwartz said the meeting was the first announcement of which streets would have the new fines, but emphasized that there would be more public notification before the change goes into effect. Schwartz did not specify when the new fines would be implemented.

“We will put more out there,” Schwartz said. “People should not think today, all of a sudden, we flipped the switch.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Amazon is moving in at a quickening clip and Arlington County’s budget-makers are breathing a sigh of relief.

After a few years of tight budgets, involving tax rate hikes and a handful of county staff layoffs, “this is a good budget year,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said today, ahead of presenting his proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget to the Arlington County Board.

That means a lack of hard choices: under the proposal, the $1.013 per $100 property tax rate remains steady, county staff — particularly public safety personnel — are getting raises, and library fines are being eliminated.

“We’ve gone through some lean years where we’ve been challenged on the revenue side,” Schwartz told reporters. “This is a good news budget, based on the fact that… we have a revenue infusion that has allowed us to do some things we just weren’t able to do before.”

In all, the $1.4 billion budget increases spending by 2.9% and anticipates a 4.6% increase in tax revenue, thanks in part to rising property assessments and a boost in business taxes paid to the county.

The average homeowner can expect to pay an extra $376 in property taxes, even with the rate holding steady. Arlington’s tax rate is lower than that of Alexandria ($1.130), Fairfax ($1.150) and Loudoun ($1.045).

After years of budget pressures caused by increases in health costs and Metro funding, among other rising expenses amid slowly-growing revenue, Schwartz struck a decidedly upbeat tone this year. He predicted future revenue growth as Amazon continues to grow its presence and other businesses flock to the county.

“The past few years we have seen the effects of a record-high commercial vacancy rate,” Schwartz said in a statement. “Now we are beginning to see the results of our commitment to economic development and spending realignments. This budget represents an investment in the cornerstones of County government with an eye toward an innovative future in Arlington.”

“We’re coming out of the trough,” Schwartz added.

Perhaps the biggest source of budget friction this year will be with Arlington Public Schools.

Schwartz is taking pains in his presentation to emphasize that Arlington County has been increasing the percentage of tax revenue it sends to the school system, a separate governmental entity. This year, under Schwartz’s budget, APS is slated to receive $550 million, up from $500 million two years ago.

Schwartz says he expects APS, with its ever-rising student enrollment, to ask for more. But the extra $17.7 million the schools are receiving this year should be more than adequate to account for the increase in students, he said.

The budget presentation notes that APS spends $19,921 per student, according to the Washington Area Board of Education formula — the highest per-pupil cost in the region.

Other highlights from the budget include:

  • An additional $9.1 million for affordable housing, including more for housing grants, rent assistance and affordable housing development.
  • A 3.25-3.5% increase in pay for general county employees and an approximately 6.5% increase in pay for public safety employees (to help, in part, with police and fire department recruitment.)
  • $49.3 million for Metro, a 4 percent increase from last year.
  • Creating a new “traffic enforcement and control” position inside the police department, with six new full-time staffers charged with enforcing things like scooters on sidewalks and cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Nine new positions in the fire department and funding for a second recruit class.
  • Eliminating library fines, as part of the county’s new focus on equity. The fines disproportionally are imposed on people of color who live on the western end of Columbia Pike, Schwartz said.
  • “Funding to phase in [County] Board member salary increases over a three-year period.”
  • Additional funding for sidewalk, street, and streetlight maintenance.

The budget focuses “on foundational area of County government” and “shores up investments in County infrastructure and core services,” Schwartz says in his presentation.

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Traffic cameras are used by the media to inform the public about incidents on the road — from crashes to road closures — in traffic and news reports.

Arlington County has one of the region’s more accessible traffic camera networks, with some 180 camera feeds available on the county’s website since 2015.

“This new service is part of the County’s initiative to promote open data and better serve all those who use Arlington streets,” Arlington transportation chief Dennis Leach said at the time, when the website launched. “We’re utilizing technology to provide the public with real-time traffic conditions so that they can make informed decisions about their planned trip — anything from a commute to a special event.”

But the openness has been curtailed.

A few months ago, Arlington County implemented a new policy that proactively shuts off the feeds of traffic cameras that are in view of incidents from minor crashes to major news stories. Other times, cameras are deliberately pointed away from such incidents.

The change in policy is in the interest of privacy, county officials said.

“Arlington County cares about all the people who live, work and visit in our community,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a statement to ARLnow. “When a crash is called into 9-1-1, the Emergency Management Division’s Watch Office wants to protect the privacy of the people involved in case someone requires medical attention on the scene or the crash is fatal.”

“While we cannot always know the exact circumstances on the scene, we err on the side of caution by cutting off the public viewing of the live traffic camera feeds,” he said.

The policy was on display last week, when a minor crash on S. Glebe Road blocked several lanes. ARLnow was able to snap a screenshot of the crash shortly after it happened; moments later, the feed went dark.

ARLnow filed a Freedom of Information Act request to view emails related to the camera decision. After being told that it would likely cost around $1,000 to gather the documents, we cancelled the request.

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Morning Notes

Pike Lane Closures Prompt Apology — “Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has apologized that residents, business owners, and commuters weren’t informed how their lives would be temporarily affected by a road construction project on Columbia Pike, near the Fairfax County border,” per WTOP. County officials will be holding a press briefing about the lane closures on the Pike this morning. [WTOP, Arlington County]

Park Near HQ2 May Have Security Features — “Amazon.com Inc. is weighing methods for securing its second headquarters and appears to be looking across the pond for ideas. The U.S. embassy in London… avoids fences in favor of a number of ‘defense strategies’ disguised as a ‘welcoming landscape that is experienced as a public park,’ an Amazon representative told Arlington County officials.” [Washington Business Journal]

Ballroom Closing Is a Changing of the Bro Guards — “The millennials who do end up in Arlington are being drawn to a new generation of bars and nightspots, many of which are run by chef Mike Cordero and partner Scott Parker, including the bustling three-level tequila/tacos restaurant Don Tito… Clarendon may always have a place for the venerable Whitlow’s on Wilson, where the combination of a roof deck and cover bands makes it the most likely refuge for those missing the Ballroom… But it’s clear that Clarendon — at least, its bro-centric archetype — will never be the same.” [Washington Post]

Alabama Man Busted With Loaded Gun at DCA — “An Alabama man started the new year on a sour note when he brought his loaded handgun to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) on the first day of the new year.” [Transportation Security Administration]

New Slate of County Board Meetings Set — “Arlington County Board members will hold 11 monthly meetings (Saturdays and the subsequent Tuesdays) in 2020, along with several hearings on the proposed fiscal 2021 budget and capital-improvement projects. Regular meetings will be held on Jan. 25, Feb. 22, March 21, April 18, May 16, June 13, July 18, Sept. 12, Oct. 17, Nov. 14 and Dec. 12 and, in each case, the following Tuesdays.” [InsideNova]

‘National Gateway’ Building Sold — “An affiliate of The Meridian Group has sold part of its National Gateway campus in Arlington County, one of a handful of office properties poised to benefit from an expected surge in demand tied to Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters. The Bethesda developer sold National Gateway II, a roughly 238,031-square-foot building at 3550 S. Clark St., for nearly $60 million.” [Washington Business Journal]

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In time for the holiday season, but before there’s any measurable snow in the forecast, Arlington officials have unveiled a new snow plowing map intended to track snow clearing activity in the county.

The map is the successor to a previous online snow cleaning map — which didn’t work correctly, caused confusion following a blizzard in 2016 and was ultimately removed from the county website.

The new map is not perfect, County Manager Mark Schwartz acknowledged during a presentation at Tuesday’s County Board meeting, but should prove useful and reflects an “innovation culture” in county government.

The map does not represent whether a street is clear of snow, but instead shows snow plow activity down to the street level. It also links to Arlington’s traffic cameras.

The map is not currently active and will have other limitations during snow events. It displays data on a 15 minute delay, for instance, and will not reflect activity by plows contracted by the county to respond to major snowfalls.

County officials touted other snow response changes during the meeting, including the use of new electric salt spreaders, which are said to be easier to use and maintain while also being more environmentally friendly than the old gasoline-powered spreaders.

The full Arlington County press release about its Winter 2019-2020 initial snow preparations is below, after the jump.

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(Updated at 12:05 p.m.) The Arlington County Board is asking the County Manager for a budget that contains no property tax rate hike and maybe even a rate cut.

Members gave their Fiscal Year 2021 guidance to County Manager Mark Schwartz at last night’s recessed Board meeting.

The guidance for reducing the tax rate or keeping it steady will likely not, however, result in lower tax bills, as property assessments are expected to continue to rise in the wake of Amazon’s arrival. The average real estate assessment is expected to jump 4-6 percent next year.

A budget forecast paints a rosy picture of Arlington’s post-HQ2 economy, with business tax revenue expected to grow as well, though budget pressures of Metro, county employee compensation, needed stormwater improvements and flood mitigation, and a growing school population remain.

The Board also took action last night on the affordable housing front, asking the manager for options that could hike the county’s annual Affordable Housing Investment Fund contribution to as high as $25 million from the current $16 million. Additionally, the Board largely accepted Schwartz’s recommendation to carryover unspent funds from the last budget to the new budget and to reserve funds, but set aside $500,000 for emergency housing assistance.

“The Board understands that anticipated increases in property assessments could have a real impact on residents,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said in a statement. “We want the Manager to come back to us with a proposed budget with no increase in property tax rates and to consider a reduction in the tax rate if possible. Our guidance to the Manager also emphasizes the need to invest more in preserving and creating affordable housing in Arlington, including housing affordable to extremely low-income families.”

The manager will present his proposed FY 2021 budget in February, after a months-long public budget process, which will then continue through the Board’s budget adoption in April.

More from an Arlington County press release, after the jump.

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Following weeks of fallout from the July 8 storm, Arlington officials are discussing a new program for tackling future floods.

During Tuesday’s County Board meeting, County Manager Mark Schwartz introduced “Flood Resilient Arlington,” to be considered during the spring budget planning.

Demetra McBride, who heads the Department of Environmental Services (DES) Sustainability and Environmental Management bureau, said Flood Resilient Arlington will include educational forums, site visits, and a potential flood-resilience incentive program to help the county prepare for increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change.

The program “builds upon” the 2014 Stormwater Master Plan, which outlined improvements to Arlington’s stormwater management systems, streams, and watersheds over the next 20 years, according to DES Chief Operating Officer Mike Moon.

“We hear about climate change, and it always seems to be somewhere else,” said Vice Board Chair Libby Garvey. “People tend to think and accuse the government of not doing something right, they don’t buy the climate change reason, so we have a level of education we [owe].”

Funding for Flood Resilient Arlington will not be established for “eight to nine months,” said Moon.

The next steps include approximately 80 visits from Board members beginning this month to sites deemed a “high risk” for flooding, or homes that received more than four feet of water during the July 8 storm. During the Tuesday presentation, McBride listed several neighborhoods — such as Waverley Hills, Westover, and Rock Spring — as high risk for future flooding based on past data. She highlighted steps homeowners can take to stay dry.

“I realize this is emotional for people, your home is a big investment,” McBride said. “They have families and children and they’re concerned for their safety.”

Two public forums to discuss the program are planned: one on Thursday, October 24 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Arlington Central Library (1015 N. Quincy Street), and another on Saturday, October 26 from 10 a.m.- 12 p.m. at George Mason University’s Arlington campus (3351 Fairfax Drive.)

During the meetings, the public can expect to:

  • Hear from experts on flood-proof design
  • Learn about flood insurance options and coverage
  • Learn about how to flood-proof your house

McBride stressed homeowners need to educate themselves on flood insurance policies, also noting the county needs to step in with educational resources.

Several residents told ARLnow in the flood’s aftermath they had received conflicting information about their eligibility for flood insurance and were left fearing they would have to bear tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs.

During the disaster, dozens of residents fled their homes, a few beloved Arlington businesses closed for repairs, six pedestrian bridges were washed away, and thousands of dollars were raised on platforms such as GoFundMe. The county stated days later it would not cover any sewage overflow damage caused by the flood, telling ARLnow it would violate state law.

Since then, residents have applied for over $2.1 million in U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans, Schwartz shared, and Arlington businesses have applied for more than $100,000 in loans. Applicants can still file for a loan by Monday, October 7.

“During a majority of the 1,100 damage reports [this summer], people had insurance and thought they were protected, and then they realized there were exemptions and exclusions,” said McBride. “That’s a gap we would help to close.”

In addition to damage to private property, Arlington County reported $5.8 million in damage to county property and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall reported damage to 26 buildings.

McBride said Arlington will have to slowly overhaul its public infrastructure through several long-term projects — like upgrading the stormwater pipes, developing large tanks for water storage, and property acquisition — to help address the flood risk.

“These [will require] long-term disruption of neighborhoods,” she said. “I wish we could avoid that, but we’re simply not going to be able to and that’s going to be a partnership we need to have with the public.”

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Arlington County is adding three new places to drop off glass for recycling, and more are potentially on the way.

With glass off the curbside recycling list, Arlington residents have been flocking to the county’s two existing glass drop-off sites at Quincy Park and the Arlington Trades Center, going out of their way to recycle more than 200 tons of glass since this spring.

Officials have been working to add more sites, to make drop-offs more convenient for those who don’t want to throw away glass bottles in the trash. At Tuesday afternoon’s County Board meeting, three new sites were announced.

“Those customized purple and green containers will be added to Aurora Hills Community Center, another site at the Cherrydale Branch Library, and a third one at the Lee Community Center,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz, adding that the new roll-off bins “should appear over the next two weeks.”

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said during the meeting that “a few more” sites were needed, particularly in southern and central Arlington. More sites will come in time, Schwartz assured him.

County Board member Libby Garvey asked about the fact that the only way to deposit glass is via a few round holes in the side of the bins.

“People have to go bottle by bottle and they’ve found it frustrating to go slowly,” she said.

Schwartz explained that glass containers larger than bottles tend to cause problems in the recycling stream.

“Those holes are sized as they are — our analysis has shown that the larger containers of glass tend to be not as clean and pristine, people don’t spend time to clean them out,” Schwartz said. “Second, if you put those glass containers in, you’ll hear shattering… [the] holes are sized so that the glass doesn’t come back up.”

Glass dropped off at the bins is recycled and reused locally — sent to Fairfax County to be “crushed and turned into sand and gravel for use in paving, construction and landscaping,” according to Arlington County.

 

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As one fire station faces permanent closure, Arlington County is considering plans to open another one.

Fire Station 7 in Fairlington (3116 S. Abingdon Street) temporarily closed in October due to structural safety concerns. The crews relocated to other stations, with Fire Station 9 and nearby Alexandria and Fairfax stations assigned to cover Fairlington and nearby parts of South Arlington.

The station hasn’t reopened since, according to Arlington County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Ben O’Bryant.

That closure could become permanent. Since at least 2014, the station has been on the chopping block. A report from 2012 noted that the station is beloved by the community, but lacks the efficiency of other stations throughout the county.

According to the report:

Station 7 is located in a residential community that has narrow streets and limited access. It does not provide as wide coverage area as do other fire stations in the County. Well maintained and in excellent condition, Station 7 is considered a ‘neighborhood treasure’ to residents of the community. The Routley study also recommended the elimination of Station 7, or its relocation to South George Mason Drive near Wakefield High School. This study found that Stations 7 and 9 could be merged to a location near the intersection of South Walter Reed Drive and South Four Mile Run Drive.

At an audit meeting last week regarding the overuse of overtime in the Fire Department, County Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey said part of the reasoning behind Fire Station 7’s closure is that 60 percent of the station’s runs are to Alexandria and Fairfax.

The County Manager is close to making a decision on the future of Fire Station 7, according to county spokeswoman Jennifer K. Smith, and more information should be forthcoming “soon.”

Meanwhile, the County is in the early days of scouting sites for a new fire station on Columbia Pike. No timeline or site has been identified, but County Manager Mark Schwartz noted that the eastern end of Columbia Pike is a desirable location based on previous studies.

In the audit meeting, County officials also noted that new development planned for the eastern end of Columbia Pike and in the Crystal City/Pentagon City area — notably, Amazon’s HQ2 — will also likely increase demand for fire services in that area over the next few years.

“The current high demand at Fire Station 5 in Aurora Hills, combined with anticipated development and population growth in Crystal City/Pentagon City, may affect priorities in the next Capital Improvement Plan, which will be proposed in May 2020,” Smith said.

Photo via Google Maps

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