Arlington, VA

Something exceedingly rare happened during last night’s County Board meeting.

A broad spectrum of Arlington civic life — including progressives, the Chamber of Commerce, business owners, county commissions and a local civic association — all lined up to speak against an ordinance recommended for approval by county staff — one that was temporarily approved by the Board a month and a half ago.

The Board voted 4-1 against extending the sidewalk crowding ordinance, which was approved on July 31 on an emergency basis and will now expire at the end of this month.

The ordinance was passed in a closed County Board session amid growth in coronavirus cases among younger Arlington residents, and outcry against large crowds lined up outside popular Clarendon bars and outdoor venues, as seen in photos posted to social media. It prohibited congregating in a group of more than three in designated zones in Clarendon, making violations a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of up to $100.

While the county’s health director and other local experts agreed that such crowding presented a risk of virus transmission, it was also not necessarily seen as riskier than other activities that remained perfectly legal — dining inside at a restaurant, driving with a group in a car, etc.

With the rate of new cases now down from the summer peak, the urgency with which the emergency ordinance passed was replaced at last night’s meeting by a more sober assessment of whether enforcement was worth the effort.

A county staff presentation suggested it was.

“Clarendon has seen an influx of patrons 10 p.m.-2 a.m.,” the presentation said. “Efforts to spread out long lines of patrons by officers and restaurant security have been met with defiance, confrontation, and hostility.”

County Manager Mark Schwartz, however, revealed that no fines — “zero… the number between negative one and one,” he said as County Board member Christian Dorsey sought clarification — have been issued so far, despite the posting of signs and an ongoing public education effort.

Community members who spoke before the County Board’s hearing were unanimous in their skepticism of the ordinance.

Gillian Burgess, chair of the Arlington County Bicycle Advisory Committee, started her remarks by listing the names of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others.

“There are but a few of the Black Americans who lost their lives due to minor infractions,” Burgess said. “After a summer of reckoning with America’s and Arlington’s racist past, we must acknowledge the role of over-broad laws and ordinances in allowing police a pretext to stop Black people and people of color.”

She went on to say, as also argued by Arlington Transportation Commission Chair Chris Slatt, that the ordinance prohibits common pedestrian activity, singling out those on foot.

The ordinance “seems to make it an infraction for me to walk down a specified sidewalk with my three young children,” she said. “It almost certainly would be an infraction for the four of us to wait at a bus stop on those sidewalk.”

“I support limiting the spread of COVID and urge the County Board to use every tool in its toolbox to support getting vulnerable children back into schools… this ordinance is not a tool that helps with this problem,” she concluded. “I urge the Board to repeal this.”

Joining in the criticism were representatives from the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, the Arlington Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and the Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association, as well as local business owners.

Spider Kelly’s owner Nick Freshman, speaking on behalf of business owners in the Clarendon area, said the ordinance is doing little to stop the spread of the virus while hurting main street businesses that are in danger of closing.

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The Arlington County Board over the weekend voted to ban guns in county buildings, parks and at some special events.

The new ordinance was made possible by the Virginia General Assembly, which recently approved legislation allowing localities to adopt certain prohibitions on firearms.

Forty people signed up to speak at Saturday’s County Board meeting, some for and some against the proposal. Those for it said county properties would be safer without guns. Those against it said people should be able to exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms and defend themselves, even in a public park or county building.

Among the speakers was independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement, who said the ordinance endangers lives.

“I’m afraid that the current County Board led by my opponent, Libby Garvey, is endangering the citizens it has sworn to protect,” she wrote in an email to supporters earlier today. “It adopted a blanket gun ban on County property and County sponsored events, thus assuring that future targets of gun violence are unable to defend themselves on public property.”

“The issue isn’t dead, as gun rights advocates have vowed to challenge the gun ban in court,” Clement added.

Others spoke in favor of the ordinance, including Navy veteran and former Democratic congressional candidate Bruce Shuttleworth.

“We need to keep our weapons of war out of our places of peace,” Shuttleworth said, after asserting that he had more experience handling weapons — from sidearms to grenade launchers — than anyone at the meeting.

The ordinance includes a number of exceptions, including allowing active duty military, sworn and retired law enforcement, and certain private security personnel to carry guns, even in prohibited areas.

In addition to passing the firearms ordinance, the Board allocated $110,000 for signage, “so that gun permit holders would know easily where guns are prohibited and where they can, and cannot, carry their weapons.” In a change from the originally-proposed ordinance, the adopted ordinance will only apply to places that are “clearly marked.”

More on the ordinance from a county press release:

The Arlington County Board today voted unanimously to adopt a Firearms Ordinance banning guns in County government buildings and parks, and at designated special events that require a County permit. The restrictions will apply where the County has posted notice at entrances to buildings, parks, recreation and community centers, and at entrances to events.

The Board’s action was authorized under a State law signed by Governor Ralph Northam in April 2020 that allows localities to set their own rules on the presence of firearms in public. The County’s 2020 General Assembly legislative package included a provision requesting such authority. The Board held a public hearing on July 22, 2020, and voted to advertise a September 2020 public hearing on the proposed ordinance.

“Arlington sought and supported the common-sense gun laws passed by the General Assembly earlier this year,” Board Chair Libby Garvey said. “After hearing from many people, both for and against this measure, the Board has adopted gun restrictions that we believe reflect the values of our community, and that will enhance the safety of all those who enter County buildings, or who visit County parks, recreation, and community centers or participate in special events permitted by the County.”

After hearing testimony from dozens of people at a public hearing during its Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, Regular Meeting, the Board voted adopted the ordinance, with two changes to what was advertised. One change clarified that the ordinance would apply only in areas that were clearly marked, so that gun permit holders would know easily where guns are prohibited and where they can, and cannot, carry their weapons. The second was to include an exception for special events, so organizers can supply their own security in public areas during their event. That security would be approved by Arlington County as part of the special events permits process.

The Board also allocated $110,000 from the County Manager’s Contingent to cover the cost of signage.

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(Updated at 3:15 p.m.) Starting tomorrow, standing in the wrong place with the wrong number of people could land you a warning from police.

Arlington County says it will begin enforcing its emergency sidewalk crowding ordinance — which makes standing in a group of more than three in designated zones a traffic infraction — on Friday.

This weekend verbal and written warnings will be issued. After that, police will start issuing fines of up to $100.

“We are serious about this,” Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz told members of the County Board on Tuesday. “I remain deeply frustrated with what I’m seeing in the community… This is not a game when you’re dealing with the public’s health.”

At issue is groups of young, often maskless bargoers bunched up in lines, waiting to enter popular — but capacity constrained — nightlife spots in Clarendon. Photos and first-hand accounts of the lines have circulated on social media, leading to an outcry that the Board responded to with an emergency ordinance passed on July 31.

The ordinance limits groups standing in line to no more than three people, spaced at least six feet apart from other groups and people in line, in certain areas.

The first phase of implementation includes four line-prone stretches in which the distancing will be enforced, identified via the county’s online social distancing complaint form, county staff said. There will be additional phases in the coming weeks to add new areas, including in portions of Crystal City, Schwartz said.

Police are placing signs and sidewalk markers in areas where the ordinance is being enforced, the County Board was told.

Thus far, efforts to get those in lines to distance to the county’s specifications have been met with mixed results: some compliance and some defiance.

“We have have seen quite a bit of defiance and hostility towards the security staff and officers, who are being flat out ignored,” said Arlington County Police Department bar and restaurant liaison Jim Mastoras. “We’re trying our best to keep the lines apart and keep people separated, as they need to be.”

Mastoras noted that businesses have been trying to comply with the rules. Outdoor beer garden The Lot, a frequent subject of photos of alleged overcrowding this summer, has two employees just assigned to monitoring the line, he said.

In addition to pandemic-era capacity restrictions, Mastoras said that lines have become an issue due to a rush of patrons into the Clarendon area between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., which may or may not be linked to the fact that D.C. and Montgomery County have stopped alcohol sales after midnight and 10 p.m., respectively.

“Over the past few weeks, we have seen an influx of patrons into the Clarendon area,” he said.

The ordinance is not without its critics, who question its implementation and prioritization over other public health risks.

“The ordinance appears to criminalize common behaviors: A plain reading of the ordinance would appear to prevent a family of four from walking down one of these signed sidewalks together without maintaining 6′ of distance between all family members, including small children,” wrote Arlington Transportation Commission Chair Chris Slatt earlier this month.

Schwartz called that line of criticism a “red herring,” suggesting that is not how the ordinance will be enforced.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is calling for the ordinance to be scrapped, citing concerns about enforcement and equity.

“The hastily developed ordinance has led to confusion and presents enforcement challenges,” the Chamber wrote this week. “The Chamber will continue to advocate that the County Board abandon this ordinance and find alternative, more constructive ways to promote social distancing.”

On the health side, experts agree that standing in line outside presents a risk, though it’s a risk that’s lower than equivalent behavior indoors.

Why, one may ask, are groups of more than three standing outside now prohibited, while larger groups are able to dine and chat maskless around a table inside restaurants? The latter is widely considered to be riskier behavior, albeit behavior that’s less likely to be photographed by those walking by.

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With coronavirus cases in Arlington continuing to rise, and large crowds still congregating in Clarendon on weekends, the County Board took action late last week to try to cut down on sidewalk crowding.

The Board unanimously passed an emergency ordinance “prohibiting groups of more than three people from congregating on streets and sidewalks posted with the restrictions, and requiring pedestrians to maintain at least six feet of physical separation from others on the posted streets and sidewalks,” according to a press release.

The ordinance, which will be the subject of a public hearing in September, was approved during a closed session Friday evening. Violations will be treated as a traffic infraction, with a fine not to exceed $100, though Board members said the goal will be to educate the public and achieve voluntary compliance without the need to write tickets.

The action seemed to be aimed at bar-going crowds in Clarendon, as photos are posted on social media of large queues of people outside of nightlife spots like The Lot and Whitlows.

“It’s insane!” local resident Mike Gardell said of the scene this past weekend. “Lines down sidewalks, no social distancing, about one quarter with masks but around their chins or on their wrists. And, for some reason, not one police officer in sight.”

During Friday’s meeting, County Board member Christian Dorsey said Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening, which allowed more people to gather in restaurants, “has exposed to us a real gap in our ability to ensure the public’s health.” Social distancing can be enforced inside restaurants, Dorsey said, but gatherings on sidewalks was not explicitly prohibited.

“This is absolutely necessary,” Dorsey said of the ordinance, which will be enforced by the police department following a public education campaign and the posting of signs. Board members said the aim is to achieve “a culture of compliance” without a single infraction being issued.

Coronavirus cases in Arlington, meanwhile, continue to rise. Twenty new cases were reported overnight, bringing the cumulative total to 2,945 and the seven-day rate of new cases to 122, a two-week high. There have also been five new hospitalizations over the past week.

The county’s test positivity rate, however, remains relatively low at just 4.4%. Arlington’s average daily testing rate is near an all-time high: 420 PCR-based tests per day.

While cases in Northern Virginia remain steady, the rest of the state is still seeing an elevated level of new cases and a sharp rise in COVID-related deaths.

More on the Arlington’s emergency sidewalk crowding ordinance, below, via a county press release.

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Arlington County’s zoning office is undertaking a study to find new ways to encourage affordable housing growth in the county.

The study aims to update the Housing Conservation District (HCD) report — a document which lays out measures to preserve units of affordable housing in several, specially-designated areas across the county.

Zoning staff are currently considering several new “zoning and financial incentives,” like:

  • Allowing developers to add more units to a building, or construct a second building on a property, if the developer reserves some units for affordable housing
  • Changing some zoning rules about setbacks or maximum building heights to make it easier to replace older affordable housing buildings
  • Adopting tax benefits for properties with affordable housing

The 12 areas in Arlington that form the HCD include Leeway Overlee, Glebewood, Waverly Hills, Spout Run/Lyon Village, North Highlands, Westover, Lyon Park, Penrose, Shirlington, and Long Branch Creek.

The original draft of the HCD in 2017 aimed to prevent developers from tearing down older homes in favor of new townhouses.

Earlier this year, the county announced a new “Housing Arlington” initiative to help the county meets its goal of creating 15,800 affordable units by 2040. At the time, staff noted lower-income residents face a housing squeeze given that the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,000, and Arlington lost 17,000 market-rate housing units since 2005.

The new study is expected to be completed by early 2020.

County staff are also currently undertaking a study about ways to make it easier to build new elder care facilities, such as allowing developers to build the facilities in more places around Arlington than currently permitted via zoning.

Image (top) via Arlington TV

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The outside of Goody’s is now sporting eye-watering lime green and red paint after county zoning regulations forced the pizzeria to cover its colorful, culinary mural.

Tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, cheese, slices of pizza, and gyros adorned the creme-colored walls along with an Italian flag after Goody’s commissioned the mural from a local artist.

The county’s planning department warned the Clarendon staple that Arlington’s zoning ordinance requires permits for artwork that “relates to the advertisement of a business and its services” and that without a permit they’d be forced to paint over the mural.

Goody’s is owned by Glenda Alvarez who took the reins from Vanessa Reisis last spring and was unavailable for comment Friday morning.

Alvarez’s husband Danny Sabouni owns Arlington Watch Works next door and told ARLnow that Alvarez had to repaint Goody’s yesterday (Thursday) but she was not fined.

“We can put bicycles or cars outside, whatever else. But we cannot put posters or signs advertising what we sell,” Sabouni said of the zoning ordinance’s requirements. “It’s pathetic.”

A spokesperson for the Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development did not respond in time for publication.

Sabouni says Alvarez is considering commissioning a new mural for the eatery, but it’s a difficult process because the language of the ordinance doesn’t clearly distinguish between what’s a sign and what’s art.

“It’s so vague that nobody can understand it,” he said.

Previously, Alvarez said she painted the building to make it more “attractive” to customers, adding “We just wanted to get a little more attention from people walking by.”

County inspectors famously cracked down on artwork judged to be advertising in 2010 when Wag More Dogs on S. Four Mile Run Drive included dogs in their mural.

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Morning Notes

Parking Changes Among Child Care Proposals — Changing onerous parking requirements for child care centers is going to be “on the list of proposed ordinance changes we’re introducing” at a community meeting next Monday, according to a tweet from Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol. [Twitter]

Smoke the Dog Dies — “Smoke, the Arlington, Virginia, dog with a bucket list, died this week, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington announced Friday. In July, Smoke captured a lot of hearts in the area when the Arlington shelter announced that he had terminal cancer and that they’d created a bucket list for him.” [WTOP]

Letter: Arlington Lacks Airbnb Enforcement — A letter to the editor argues that Arlington County has been ineffective in enforcement of a short-term rental ordinance passed in 2016. Per the letter: “Short-term rental industry websites showed more than 1,000 units advertised for short-term rent in Arlington as of early July, but only 72 residents had obtained permits, down from 86 in January.” [Washington Post]

Dems Make Money Via Mail — The top fundraising activity for the Arlington County Democratic Committee: sending hand-addressed and hand-stamped letters. [InsideNova]

Tree Falls on Chain Bridge Road — Chain Bridge Road was closed Sunday after a tree fell and took down utility lines, for at least the second time this year. The stretch of Chain Bridge Road in Arlington that was closed is home to the most expensive house in the D.C. area. [Twitter]

Photo courtesy Jeremy Galliani

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Arlingtonwood is a tiny, affluent neighborhood nestled near the GW Parkway and Chain Bridge in the far northern corner of Arlington.

Amid what is otherwise an idyllic suburban scene along N. Richmond Street, one house stands out: a low-slung brick home covered in handwritten signs and Sharpie-scrawled writing on the white siding and doors.

“POISONED HOUSE, DO NOT ENTER – KEEP OUT,” reads the writing next to the main entrance. “DO NOT TAKE AND DO NOT REMOVE ANY POISONED ITEMS FROM MY POISONED HOUSE.”

The note goes on to claim that the house was poisoned in 1999 with various “dangerous substances” and that the “poisoning was proved to the FBI and Arlington police including other U.S. government agencies.”

“U.S. President Clinton was informed in 2000 and U.S. President Bush in 2001,” the sign continues.

Needless to say, neighbors are not happy with the signage.

“I have contacted the [county] and Arlington states there is nothing they can do because the signs are on private property,” one resident told ARLnow.com. “These signs affect everyone in the area as this home is stating there are poisonous gases everywhere (in the ground, her house, etc.). People stop all the time and ask if it is safe to be in the area.”

Gary Greene, Code Enforcement Section Chief for Arlington County, confirmed that there is basically nothing the county can do about the signs and writing. He said that the county has received seven complaints about the home in the past 12 years and that the only actionable code violations found — like an overgrown lawn — were corrected by the homeowner, who does not live in the house.

There is one outstanding “minor” code violation, Greene said, but it has nothing to do with the house being vacant or covered with signs. The signs are not in violation of Virginia law or county ordinance, he said.

“The signs, letters and wall writings visible on the front façade of the property were placed there in 2005 by the property owner; they have been a primary driver for complaint calls,” Greene said. “The signs, letters and wall writings are not of a commercial or political nature and have not been found in violation of any of Arlington’s property related ordinances.”

The house, which was recently assessed by the county at $862,500, was nearly auctioned by Arlington County in 2015 for non-payment of property taxes — but the taxes were eventually paid along with a penalty fee and interest, county records show. It is currently in good standing with the tax office after $8,570.16 in property taxes were paid in 2016.

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Workers clear sidewalks during snowstorm in BallstonIf you have a house or business in Arlington and there’s a public sidewalk in front of it, you have fewer than three hours to clear it of snow and ice.

Arlington’s snow removal ordinance requires that sidewalks be shoveled within 24 hours of the end of a snow event with six inches or less of accumulation. As far as the county is concerned, Tuesday’s snowstorm ended at 2 p.m., and thus the sidewalk deadline today is 2 p.m.

If you’ve procrastinated, you might be in for a tough task. Temperatures in the low 20s means that uncleared snow and sleet has turned into a barely penetrable mat of ice.

Via Twitter:

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Police recover a parking boot from the trunk of a carA mundane update to a long-standing Arlington ordinance went viral on the internet yesterday when news organizations started erroneously implying that the county was trying to crack down on public cursing.

As ARLnow.com previously reported, the County Board on Saturday considered — and approved — an update to its public drunkenness and profanity ordinance.

The update, meant to bring Arlington in line with a Virginia law that’s on the books throughout the Commonwealth, replaced “drunkenness” with “intoxication” so that police could charge someone who’s under the influence of drugs, rather than just alcohol. It also made the crime a Class 4 misdemeanor, upping the maximum fine for the first and second offense from $100 to $250, but reducing the maximum fine for each subsequent offense to $250 from $500.

Despite the innocuous intent, news outlets both local and national saw something nefarious in the cursing portion of the law, which has been on the books for years. Among the headlines:

How prevalent are the citations for public cursing? Of the 664 citations issued under Arlington’s public cursing and drunkenness ordinance in 2014, four — or 0.6 percent — were for “curse and abuse.”

Arlington County Police Department spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said that in the rare instance an officer actually does issue a curse and abuse citation, it’s usually as a result of calls from residents about people cussing in front of children.

“It’s not like police are out there looking for people using profane language,” Sternbeck said. “It’s calls from members of the public who are concerned about subjects acting disorderly.”

Sternbeck was able to list the circumstances of three of the four cursing citations issued in 2014.

  • A public argument between two parties in front of Ballston Common Mall
  • A group of men cursing in Tyrol Hill Park in front of children, who then cursed at officers after being asked to stop
  • A driver who repeatedly cursed at a police officer after receiving several traffic violations

“Police are not actively seeking out people using profane language,” Sternbeck repeated. “[The ordinance] was just updated to be in line with the state code.”

File photo

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The Arlington County Board approved an updated noise ordinance last month, amid concern from businesses that it’s too strict and complaints from residents that it’s not strict enough.

A new video from Arlington County (above) reviews why the noise ordinance was updated and what it means for Arlington residents and businesses.

As noted in the video, noise complaints in Arlington should be directed to county code enforcement (703-228-3232) during business hours and to the police non-emergency line (703-558-2222) after hours.

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