Arlington, VA

The following op-ed was written by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), chair of Virginia House Public Safety Committee, following Gov. Ralph Northam signing several gun violence prevention measures into law.

Knocking on doors last summer and fall, I asked Arlington voters their top legislative concerns. The largest response, by far, was for the General Assembly to take action to reduce gun violence.

That same sentiment has been growing across the commonwealth for years due to the lack of response to tragedies, such as, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Columbine, and more recently, Virginia Beach. But the gun violence prevention movement is not just about the mass shootings you see and hear about in the media. It’s the daily acts of gun violence — over 100 a day — occurring in our communities and firearm suicides that you don’t hear about.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017 there were 1,041 gun deaths in Virginia. The Virginia firearm suicide rate has increased by 15% over the last decade and the firearm homicide rate increased 45%. Of all the suicides, nearly two-thirds are by firearm. Thirty-two children die by firearm every year in Virginia. Year after year, advocates from Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign, Giffords, and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence come to Richmond to lobby for commonsense solutions only to be rejected.

But the 2020 legislative session would be different. I could tell gun violence prevention was going to be a rallying point for voters ever since Governor Ralph Northam, who called for a July 9 special session following a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, had his call to action thwarted by Republicans who immediately adjourned the session without taking any action. Virginia Democrats made gun violence prevention a central campaign theme in the 2019 election. Legislators finally listened to the voices of voters and we delivered.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn tapped me to chair the House Public Safety Committee to oversee the passage of one of the House Democrats highest priorities: gun violence prevention. Those items that passed and recently signed by the Governor include:

  • Universal background checks on all firearm sales;
  • Reinstate the law allowing the purchase of only one handgun within a 30-day period;
  • Requiring lost or stolen firearms be reported to law enforcement within 48 hours;
  • Create an Extreme Risk Protective Order that would allow a court to order the temporary separation of firearms from an individual determined to be danger to self or others (this bill was patroned by Del. Rip Sullivan);
  • Prohibiting the person the subject of a protective order from possessing a firearm (this bill was patroned by Sen. Janet Howell);
  • Enhancing the penalty for recklessly allowing child access to a loaded firearm;
  • Allowing localities, such as Arlington, to prohibit firearms in County buildings, parks, or recreation centers.

These laws will save lives.

Other bills that passed include the requirement for a person to receive a concealed handgun permit to demonstrate competence in-person (patroned by Del. Alfonso Lopez); creation of a Virginia Gun Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund; adding child day centers to the list of schools where firearms are not allowed; prohibiting the possession/sale of bump stocks; and my bill to clarify school boards are prohibited from arming untrained personnel for school protection; and another to require family day homes to lock up firearms during operating hours.

The House passed a bill to ban military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines but, unfortunately, the bill was defeated in a Senate Committee. This bill was patroned by Del. Mark Levine.

Critics say the House moved too fast. It may seem that way if you are used to doing nothing or preferred we did nothing. In my view, however, we struck the right balance acting only on measures that have been proven to save lives. Many of these bills have been introduced, studied, and debated for years. It was time to be responsive to Virginia voters and act.

Why does this issue mean so much to me and so many others? Kris Brown, Arlington resident and President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, summed it up best when she recently tweeted: “There are too many children living in constant fear in their schools, in their homes, and in their neighborhoods. We owe them all a better future.” As the father of three children, I couldn’t have said it better.

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The following was written by the Anderson/Palmer family, which has lived in the Clarendon area for the past few years.

Clarendon, this year, you are our Valentine.

By you, I mean the managers, staff, store clerks, baristas, and kitchen assistants that make your establishments run. The ones who go above and beyond to ensure that our family, which includes a severely autistic, nonverbal young teen, has the space and ability to experience normal life, as a normal family, at local restaurants, coffee shops, and stores.

We are a very small family that moved here several years ago. We live, work, and play in this community. You have probably seen us around, shopping at Market Common, walking through Lyon Village, or dining outdoors in the summer at all of our favorite spots. Or perhaps you’ve seen evidence that we are around – a rubber frog or stuffed toy puffin flying through the air may ring a bell. It is no secret that our young teen is quite the socialite who adores being out amongst people!

Daily life with severe autism is challenging, which few understand. We know that you cannot fully get it unless you live this. We love your kindnesses, just as they are. We are amazed every day, by the kindness and understanding shown us, by the unsung and often unnoticed people who work in the establishments that make Clarendon…Clarendon! Today, we want to tell you, we notice everything. We love you all!

We specifically want to give a shout-out to Delhi Club – Mir, Himal, and Yadav – you have made a second home for us there from day one, as restaurateurs, as the best of friends, and as a second family.

Northside Social — you were our first introduction to Clarendon and that day, we decided we could be very happy and very accepted living here. Randi, Karin, Isaac, and the entire cast of “Noso regulars”– you all rock! Even every Noso customer we have encountered has been representative of all the genuine, kind, and “real” people that call Clarendon and Arlington home. We are happy to bask in the company of all of you. (Special shoutout to the unknown woman who sat across from us outside this summer, noticed our predicament, and offered to go inside and get our coffees and desserts for us! We love you. We have not forgotten.)

Liberty Tavern — shout-out to the best and most caring kitchen staff and wait staff. There has never been a better kitchen crew anywhere.

Circa — it was at least a full year before we were able to convince our autistic teen to try Circa. Sarah, Eddie, Josh, Chris, Heather, Seth, Kevin and Gabriel (Angel) and every staff member … you all are the definition of a large team that is so in tune that you have at times just blown us away with your spontaneous command of unexpected autism moments and your absolute class and professionalism 100% every time, all the time. Without fail. It has not always been easy for you, but you always make it easy for us.

Sephora — you all rock! Way to get our back under duress! And we love the way you always find those little rubber frogs. Rougue status all the way!

Whole Foods — you have been the unwitting recipient of some very autistic moments, and we are eternally grateful for your employees’ unflappable cool. Shout-out to Joseph!

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Op-ed: Arlington is Nonbinary

The following op-ed was written by D. Taylor Reich, a native of Arlington and a graduate of H-B Woodlawn, whose writings have also appeared on ARLnow sister site Tysons Reporter.

I am not a woman or a man. I am an Arlingtonian.

In the twenty-first century, gender is social limitation. Biological differences between sexes are irrelevant in the age of AC, GPS, and iPads for middle-schoolers. ‘Gender roles,’ we often say, are archaic and obsolete. Gender limits women’s salaries to four-fifths of men’s, and limits men to emotionally-stunted friendships and a suicide rate three times higher than women’s. It limits girls from enjoying the thrill of a touchdown and boys from the elegance of a flowing dress. It limits how we eat, how we speak, and how we love.

But gender doesn’t limit me. I deny its two traditional roles. My friends refer to me as ‘they,’ rather than ‘she’ or ‘he.’ At work, I might wear a necktie, button-down, and a skirt. I don’t deny that I grew up with a gender, but I have chosen to live beyond it.

I call myself ‘nonbinary.’ Others use other terms: ‘gender nonconforming,’ or ‘two-spirit,’ or ‘genderfluid,’ or ‘enbie.’ My generation has found many labels for an identity that defines itself through freedom.

This life comes with its own limitations. I uninstalled some dating apps because they don’t include nonbinary options. At work, I have to walk up an extra flight of stairs to get to the gender-neutral bathrooms (which are legally mandated in D.C., but not in Arlington). Sometimes people look at me funny on the Metro. But I’m freer than I ever could have been as a boy or a girl.

On a sunny Saturday a few weeks ago, I visited the new makerspace at the Central branch of the Arlington Public Library. It’s an inspiring place, embodying our community’s respect for learning. In the building where I learned as a child to love to read, people are finding creativity in mediums from embroidery to 3D printing. That afternoon, I learned to make buttons.

Buttons: they’re for politics, they’re for low culture, they’re for art, they’re for identification. I spun off a quick design. A shiny button an inch across, with the blue-pink-white-pink-blue transgender flag in the background (flip it upside-down and it’s the same). In the center, I drew the outline of our 26 square miles. Superimposed, three words: “Arlington is nonbinary.”

“Arlington is nonbinary.” What does that mean? For me, it holds three truths.

In the first sense, it’s literally true. Like me, this county is neither a woman nor a man. No geographic locale is a woman or a man. Maybe this is pedantic, but I think it’s a nice thing to remember.

In a second interpretation, Arlington is nonbinary because it is an exceptionally welcoming place for those of us who are nonbinary or transgender.

After I’d punched out a few dozen buttons, an adult at the next table interrupted.

“Excuse me,” she asked, “could I have one of those?”

She was a teacher at one of our middle schools, and had recently seen a student through a gender transition. The student, she said, never faced any bullying — at least, not for being trans. The teacher wanted a single button to put on her desk, and I gave her handfuls of them.

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The following op-ed was written by Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Democratic nominee for the top prosecutor job in Arlington and Falls Church. Voters will head to the polls this coming Tuesday, Nov. 5.

If you had told me two years ago that I would be writing as the Democratic nominee for Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, I would not have believed you. People with my personal and professional backgrounds don’t often run for, much less win, political office.

I came to the United States as an immigrant. Like many immigrants our family struggled with poverty, with a new culture, and unfortunately, with discrimination. But my parents had faith in the opportunities America offered and they believed, above all, in the power of education. Thanks to their sacrifice and with the help of federal grants, I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a BA in Philosophy and Comparative Literature and later earned a JD from New York University School of Law.

I was inspired to go to law school because a dear friend was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. He spent three years in San Quentin before being exonerated.  Since then, for the last nineteen years, I’ve worked to reform the criminal legal system.

I’ve worked as a public defender with the District of Columbia’s Public Defender Service, litigating cases of constitutional magnitude; as the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, exonerating innocent individuals in DC, Virginia, and Maryland; and as a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and George Washington University School of Law, training the next generation of criminal law attorneys.

My platform is rooted in a simple principle: Safety and justice are not opposite values – we can’t have one without the other.  I believe:

  • Prosecutors should focus on serious crimes that threaten public safety and community well-being, including sexual assault, elderly abuse, and wage theft;
  • Prosecutors should support programs that help victims recover from the trauma of crime and restorative justice programs that help reduce crime;
  • The default approach for children who make mistakes should be diversion and education;
  • People should not be in jail because they are too poor to afford bail;
  • Whenever possible, people with disabilities, mental illness, or those suffering from addiction should be offered treatment rather than incarceration;
  • It is wrong to continue to saddle people with a criminal record for simple marijuana possession when it has life-long consequences on employment, education, and housing;
  • No criminal legal system can achieve justice if it tolerates racial and class disparities;
  • People who have served their time should be reintegrated into society as returning citizens with voting rights;
  • The government should not take your property without a conviction; and
  • The death penalty has no place in a civilized society.

These issues are grounded in sound science and supported by a wide cross-section of our community.

Since the June 11 primary, I’ve been meeting with and listening to our delegates, senators, members of the County Board and the School Board, the police, faith groups, local leaders and activists because I believe listening to their expertise and taking heed of their priorities is key to maintaining safety and pursuing justice.

I started this campaign as far back as February 2018 when it was just me, meeting one on one with members of the community in the early morning hours before work, during lunch breaks – eating on the run, weekends, and late in the evening after putting my kids to bed. I had no name recognition, no staff, and no money but the encouragement I received from so many of you is something I will never be able to repay.

Little by little, I gained the support of advocacy groups, local grassroots groups, and people who normally don’t have a voice in the system. Little by little, we became a movement right here in Arlington and Falls Church before attracting national attention. So, it is deeply encouraging that criminal justice reform is now a central part of every single Democrat running for president’s platform. But, what’s even more encouraging is that our community took the lead on this issue by voting for reform during the Democratic primary this past June and by supporting our local representatives who have long championed reform in Richmond.

I am Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. I humbly ask for your vote on Tuesday, November 5 for Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church so that we can continue the movement for reform and build a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, treats everyone fairly, and reflects our values.

Editor’s note: “Why Should You Vote for Me” essays by candidates in competitive races in Arlington will run on Monday.

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The following op-ed was written by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington).

For patients — including many of my Arlington constituents — accessing and affording the health care they need can be an overwhelming task. Even when they’ve found an insurance plan and physician specialist that works for them, just keeping up with all the co-pays and meeting high deductibles can prove to be a huge financial strain. When emergencies arise, as they always will, receiving an unexpected bill that you thought your insurance covered, is unfair.

The Virginia General Assembly tried to address surprise billing last session in a fair way that protected patients and didn’t unduly burden the physicians, hospitals or insurers. We were unsuccessful, but now we are seeing this issue has reached beyond Virginia to become a national issue that could benefit from a national solution. I will continue to work for a solution here in the Commonwealth, but I’m hopeful Congress will act sooner to end surprise medical billing fairly and without delay.

But just as important as passing a legislative solution is getting the job done the right way – one that’s good for patients. That means avoiding an approach that gives one side undue influence in the payment process.

There are bills pending in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that rely solely on internal, insurance company rates as the “benchmark” to settle out-of-network payment disputes between insurers and providers — and eliminating any hope of a level playing field between insurers and providers.

That is why Congress should stick to a more equitable approach that doesn’t let any side — the government, doctors, or insurers — arbitrarily dictate rates. Congress should choose an approach that mirrors what we tried to do in Virginia. Our legislation would have protected patients in numerous ways by creating a level playing field between doctors, hospitals and the insurance industry. The best solutions being offered right now on the federal level are bills which include an Independent Dispute Resolution (IDR) process.

IDR would enable physicians and insurance companies to enter into an unbiased negotiation process in order to resolve payment disputes without getting the patient involved at all. The entire process takes place online and lasts no more than 30 days. Independent third-party mediators would make a final decision on payment amounts and, until that time, insurers would provide initial payments that help protect smaller, at-risk hospitals.

As evidenced in New York, IDR works — and it works well. Since establishing the IDR process to address this very issue in 2015, New York has seen network participation grow, out-of-network billing shrink, and in-network emergency costs decrease — all while patient protections and insurer transparency has increased. Meanwhile, California is struggling with its own benchmarking solution, which has led to an increase in contract terminations by insurance companies, threatening patient access to care.

I hope that Congress, led by Virginia’s Senators Warner and Kaine and Representative Bobby Scott who, as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, has a chance to craft a House-version of an IDR bill, will work together to end surprise billing once and for all. However, if Congress is unable to act, I’m committed to Virginia passing a fair, equitable solution to protect patients in the 2020 General Assembly session.

Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

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The following op-ed was written by Andrew Loposser, Chairman of the Arlington GOP.

Mark Kelly is correct. In his most recent “Right Note” opinion column, Kelly writes:

It would serve the community well if a qualified Republican or Independent ran for all of these offices rather than leaving so many of them uncontested. An electoral contest provides the voters with the opportunity to hear a real debate on the issues and forces Democrats to make a case for the vote.

As the Chairman of the Arlington GOP, I have begun the process of identifying and recruiting credible, qualified candidates for office up and down the ballot for 2020 and beyond. Arlington voters are well-educated and expect government to work for them — especially local government.

That’s why we’re looking for candidates who are already invested in this community — potential candidates may currently serve on boards and commissions or be involved in their civic associations or other civic groups.

The Arlington GOP has a platform focused on local issues.

  • Increasing the number of school seats and the supply of market-rate affordable housing
  • Improving Metro management
  • Ensuring community input into major decisions like incentives to attract large businesses
  • Separating bond referenda to avoid forcing all-or-nothing votes on a mixed bag of marginally related projects

Arlington Republicans — like many Arlington voters — expect local government to be responsive and accountable to the taxpayers.

In 2016, roughly 27,000 voters cast ballots for a presidential candidate other than the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket. That is a significant number of voters un-represented or underrepresented by the Arlington County Democratic Committee machine.

Republicans want a seat at the table, and we’re working hard to outline positions on local issues and talking with friends and neighbors across the aisle.

As I wrote at the beginning of this letter, Mark Kelly is correct. We do deserve a rigorous debate on the important issues our community faces. So if you’re dissatisfied with the Democratic Establishment, I encourage you to give us a first or second look. And perhaps even consider running for local office as a Republican.

File photo (top)

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The following op-ed was written by Levi Novey, Laura Watchman, and Elenor Hodges, members of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability.

Last December, Aracely Vance, a teacher at Claremont Elementary School, was tasked with figuring out what to show in the primary display case at the school entrance.

Aracely is a science teacher and is also very engaged with sustainability efforts. Recently she had learned that Claremont had one of the highest recycling rates among schools in the county. But she was also surprised. Anytime students, teachers, or parents discussed recycling at the school, the attitude was pessimistic. Few people believed that recycling was actually happening. A group that was frequently blamed for the perceived lack of recycling were the custodial staff. Aracely decided she wanted to tell a different story. She decided to make the display case a tribute to them, and feature them as “recycling heroes.”

Aracely’s idea would have an immediate impact at Claremont, and later an even larger impact than she originally could have imagined.

What she did inspired us and our colleagues with whom we serve on the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee for Sustainability for Arlington Public Schools (APS). We are a group of sustainability-focused professionals who have a connection to APS, either as parents, students, teachers, staff, or community members. Our charge is to help the school system find ways to be more sustainable through both its operations and its teaching and learning.

This past year, the Sustainability Advisory Committee chose to have a major focus on helping schools to both reduce waste and increase their recycling. During committee discussions, we noted frequently that we needed to change misperceptions at schools about recycling. Like Aracely, we heard repeatedly that people think recycling does not actually happen and that the custodial staff are often to blame. In reality, our research indicates it is often the opposite, and that custodial staff are working hard to implement successful recycling programs. It’s worth noting that the recycling industry at large is undergoing a lot of changes, based on the economics of recycling items such as glass. It admittedly can cause a lot of confusion and frustration.

We also know from comprehensive site waste assessments conducted at eighteen schools this past year that APS has taken many positive steps. For instance, recycling and waste bins are available in most school classrooms, cafeterias, and hallways, as well as some signage. When you look inside bins, however, you can frequently find items that can be recycled in the trash. Items that are trash are also frequently put in recycling bins. In other words, there’s contamination and there is a lot of room for improvement from everyone.

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The following op-ed was written by Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Democratic nominee for Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney. As the presumed victor in the unchallenged November election, which followed a heated primary campaign, Dehghani-Tafti will be the area’s chief prosecutor amid questions about how the prosecutor’s office will change under her leadership.

Moments after 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 11, while standing on a sidewalk on Clarendon Boulevard near Courthouse, I received a phone call from my friend and deputy campaign manager excitedly telling me that the voters of Arlington County and the City of Falls Church had selected me as the Democratic nominee for Commonwealth’s Attorney. In that moment, with the sounds of supporters cheering in the near distance and the sight of young people milling about on a warm spring evening, I was reminded, as I knew from the very start of the campaign, that it would soon be my charge, together with other branches of law enforcement, to help maintain the safety, welfare, and wellbeing of nearly 250,000 people.

The campaign had been long and hard-fought, but in our very first debate, I was asked to name one thing I admired about Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos. I honestly answered that I found it admirable Ms. Stamos had chosen public service when she could have long ago leveraged her skills into more lucrative private sector work. Had I had another moment for thought, I would have added what I also believe to be true: she persevered in a field that had long been dominated by men and, in doing so, opened a path for other women, myself included.

The campaign, of course, is not over. As I prepare for the November general election, I will be guided by three principles. First, I want to keep faith with members of the community who supported, volunteered, and voted for me, and earn the trust of those who did not. Elections come and go, but what endures is community. Second, I want to approach the work ahead with both an open mind and moral courage. I fundamentally believe that the choice between safety and justice has always been a false one; at the same time, I have the utmost respect for the institutional knowledge and professional expertise that resides in the current office. Last but not least, I want to keep foremost in my mind that what’s needed for the office is both integrity and humility. Our delegates, senators, county board, and school board members have deep and intimate knowledge of the needs in our community; I see as one of my main tasks to be an honest partner with them, to listen to their expertise, and take heed of their priorities — because I know the criminal justice system cannot and should not be the tool to solve every problem.

Late Tuesday evening, after all the well-wishers had gone and I’d returned home to my family, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning, making two lists: one, of the people I needed to personally thank for making this moment possible; the other, of the immediate tasks I needed to accomplish to plan for the office. Both lists grew incredibly long but each list, in different ways, made it clear to me that at this moment we have a chance in Arlington and the City of Falls Church to show the Commonwealth and the country what it means to have a criminal justice system that is safe and transparent, truly cares for victims, treats everyone fairly and humanely, and honestly addresses systemic disparities in race and class. “The world stands before you,” James Baldwin once wrote, “and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” I’m eager for the work ahead.

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Editor’s Note: Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died last night at the age of 91. Arlington resident Buzz McClain, a writer and communications professional, was a regular contributor to Playboy for two decades. Below, McClain shares a brief recollection of his time at Playboy.

From 1992 to 2012 I did a monthly home entertainment column on the movie pages of Playboy. I would review several B-movies or direct-to-tape (later, direct-to-disc) films, with the occasional A-list movie.

There are few bigger thrills than getting your first paycheck with an embossed “bunny head” on it signed by Hugh Hefner’s daughter, Christie. (Hef led the way in empowering women; his daughter was chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. His considerable philanthropy for women’s rights and free speech is largely unnoticed, and he liked it that way.)

Hef was probably the world’s biggest movie fan, with his every-Wednesday night screenings of new movies at the Mansion for his close friends and buying one of each of just about every film that became available at retail. And he watched them! No pressure on the critics, right?

Only once in 20 years did he change the “bunny head rating” on a review of mine, bumping up “Superbad” (2007) from 3 to 3.5 bunny heads. I’m OK with that.

Somewhere in the house I have an autographed copy of “Hef’s Little Black Book” he sent for my birthday. I was hoping it was his personal phone book (ahem), but it turns out it was his rules for living a full and meaningful life. No doubt that was the better option.

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Athletic field at Long Bridge Park

The following op-ed was written by Michael Peterson, a board-certified toxicologist at Gradient, an environmental and risk sciences consulting firm. He serves as scientific adviser to the Recycled Rubber Council

Given some concerns that have been raised over recycled rubber infill in artificial turf fields by your publication (“Time To Re-Examine Artificial Turf Fields,” 4/21/16), I wanted to lend a scientific perspective to the conversation to clear up some misconceptions.

Recycled rubber is the most commonly used infill — the shock absorbing layer — in artificial turf fields, and as the author states, recent reports have suggested it poses significant health risks. The actual science performed on the issue, however, shows that such fears are unfounded.

Based on the lack of citations, it is unclear if the evidence the author points to has been peer-reviewed by other scientists, a critical component in establishing scientific credibility.  The linked Change.org petition generally only cites news reports, and not reputable scientific journals or regulatory reports.  On the other hand, there have been more than 90 peer-reviewed studies, reports, and evaluations from academics, state health departments, and third-parties that have concluded that the best available evidence support that chemical exposures associated with recycled rubber are below levels associated with health effects.

So while it is certainly true the EPA (and two other federal agencies) are doing a comprehensive study of recycled rubber, many local and state governments have already weighed in, and among them, the Connecticut Department of Public Health in 2015 found “no scientific support for a finding of elevated cancer risk from inhalation or ingestion of chemicals derived from recycled tires used on artificial turf fields.” In short, the author’s suggestion that the federal government will conclude otherwise lacks any scientific basis — in particular since EPA’s preliminary study in 2008 did not find that chemical exposures were of concern.

Children’s safety should be placed above all else, but when making decisions about Arlington County’s fields, unsubstantiated fears shouldn’t undermine science. The best available science indicates recycled rubber does not pose health concerns.

ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity.

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North Arundel Aquatic Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which is similar in scale to what is being proposed by the author's committee

The following op-ed was written by Tobin Smith, Chair of the Long Bridge Park Citizen Advisory Committee. Smith is also a past chair of the Arlington Park and Recreation Commission.

Earlier this week, the Long Bridge Park Citizen Advisory Committee, which I chair, recommended that the County proceed with designing a new aquatics, health and fitness facility at Long Bridge Park.

This is not an attempt to revive the large aquatics center that was shelved by the County in 2014 after construction bids far exceeded the bond funds authorized by Arlington voters in 2004 and 2012. We have learned many lessons from that. The current proposal is one-third smaller and more modest. It should have a more sustainable design and less ambitious energy-saving systems. It should be bid and built with much stronger controls on costs. And perhaps most importantly, not a dime more should be spent for this project than what voters already approved. Additional features should only be added if they meet a clearly identified community need and if an outside sponsor/partner is willing to bear the costs.

The scaled-down facility would feature two pools: a 50-meter pool for lap swimming, fitness and competition and a multipurpose leisure/training pool for family fun and swim lessons/classes. It would also include ample space for exercise equipment and fitness activities, which generate revenue to offset costs. The facility our committee envisions is comparable to those enjoyed by residents of many neighboring jurisdictions, including the District and Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince Georges, Loudoun and Anne Arundel Counties.

Besides the aquatics and fitness facility, the project known as Phase 2 of Long Bridge Park includes 10 more acres of parkland for informal recreation and community gatherings; extension of the esplanade, rain gardens, public art, and parking. The authorized, available county funds for all this totals $64 million. Based on staff estimates, the hard costs for construction of the facility we are recommending should be about $44 million of that.

Our committee’s recommendations were based on extensive community engagement. Several hundred Arlingtonians provided input at the County Fair and other events. Over 1900 responded to an online survey. A statistically valid, countywide recreational needs survey found that aquatics resources ranked as the highest indoor recreational need for over 60 percent of Arlington households. Additional indoor fitness and exercise spaces also got substantial support.

Our committee also found that despite the recent improvements of Arlington’s three high school-based community pools, the Department of Parks and Recreation is not able to meet Arlington residents’ demand for county-sponsored aquatic programs such as learn to swim classes and senior water aerobics. County staff report that in the last two years, the number of aquatics class participants has grown 24%. Nearly 40% of those who tried to register for these classes have been waitlisted. Arlington’s expected population growth will make the wait lists even longer in the future. Moreover, because our existing pools are used for school instruction, they are unavailable for seniors and other community users during school hours.

The facility we recommend will be able to accommodate a wide variety of aquatics and fitness programs and activities for Arlingtonians of all ages and abilities. Such consolidated, community-run facilities have the added benefit of achieving economies of scale that maximize cost recovery, compared to the performance of much smaller neighborhood or school-based pools.

Some will say that Arlington should not build a new recreational facility right now because other county needs are more pressing. They will say that the recreational needs so clearly identified can wait, or are “wants” rather than “needs.” I disagree. As our population rapidly expands, we have a responsibility to provide ample opportunities within Arlington where our kids can learn to swim, where our county-sponsored swim team and Arlington-based water sports teams don’t have to travel elsewhere to practice and compete, where seniors can get vital exercise, and where families can exercise, recreate and play together when kids are not in school. We need to catch up with our neighbors and provide ample recreational and fitness opportunities for all parts of our population if we are to maintain Arlington as an attractive community in which to live.

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