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by Peter Rousselot — January 12, 2017 at 11:45 am 0

Peter Rousselot

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com. 

As I explained last year, Arlington has set aside too little parkland to adequately meet current demand, no less a projected 29% population increase of 63,000 people by 2040.

Discussion

The gap between demand and available parkland has resulted in conflicts among users and between users and adjacent communities negatively impacted by intensified use. Examples include controversial conversion of “multi-use” green areas at Virginia Highlands Park to sports uses, limitations on multi-use of a baseball field at Bluemont Park and plans to install new lighting on fields at Discovery ES/Williamsburg MS.

The current approach to resolving these conflicts seems ad hoc, with at least the appearance that those users who are best organized and advocate the longest will prevail.  As I noted last month, County staff may not always be serving as neutral facilitators in proposing changes in use and then resolving ensuing conflicts.

The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan, and has recognized the importance of responding to the wide range of park and recreation needs in the community.

Current parkland uses

Although there are many uses of our parkland, one possibly useful perspective is that there are four overall “use” categories:

  • (1) natural areas and wildlife habitats,
  • (2) designated sports fields and court areas,
  • (3) “multi-use” green areas, and
  • (4) other use-specific facilities, e.g., dog parks, playgrounds and pavilions.

Staff has undertaken mapping current natural areas, sports fields and other uses in our parks. Completion of this project could provide a baseline against which to assess proposed new uses or changes in current uses.

Guidance as to desired uses

The County has published the results of its statistically valid 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey which indicated that natural areas and wildlife habitats–as well as hiking trails–were two of the three most important outdoor facilities to respondents.

Possible framework principles

Therefore, one core principle for approaching conflicts in use is that we must preserve and enhance our remaining natural areas. Once lost they are unlikely to be replaced. Other core principles are ensuring continued adequate availability of multi-use green areas as well as distributed and equitable access to all park amenities. Finally, with limited park resources, not every possible use can have its own allocated, exclusive space, nor should it.

Longer term approaches

The primary driver of these conflicts remains the demand/park resources gap. The best way for the County to minimize these conflicts is to undertake an aggressive parkland acquisition program, including the Board adopting the goal set forth in last year’s Civic Federation resolution for the County to acquire on average 3 acres of new parkland per year. The Board must then authorize sufficient ongoing funding to support this goal through both planned and opportunistic acquisitions.

Even aggressive land acquisition will not by itself adequately close the demand/resources gap, and the County needs to also “create” new space, especially for sports activities, e.g., basketball and tennis courts and soccer fields in high rises and on top of buildings.

Conclusion

With 63,000 more residents by 2040, people will need parks more than ever. Committing to and funding the aggressive land and space acquisition goals discussed above, and implementing a conflict resolution framework, can convert too limited parkland into diverse and accessible parkland.

by Peter Rousselot — January 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In my December 22 column, I highlighted a flawed public engagement process recently employed by Parks & Recreation. I also cited examples of other recent controversial County public processes. These controversies demonstrate systemic problems and the need for Arlington to develop an improved model of public engagement.

Discussion

The engagement processes used for the Community Facilities Study (CFS) and the South Arlington Work Group (SAWG) were innovative, transparent and productive.

Reports such as CFS and PLACE have pointed the way. Now we need a plan for getting there.

This new model needs to be grounded in an overall framework of basic principles, including facilitating the broadest realistic consensus, process legitimacy and real-time fact-based decision-making.

Ten core process improvements that should be implemented by the County in 2017 include:

Standard Models: Develop a limited number of standard public engagement models with clear guidance as to what types of processes require a specific model so that the public understands what these processes should look like. The siting model proposed by the CFS provides a starting point.

Ethical Communication: Arlington County’s Code of Ethics should guide both County staff and Board-appointed volunteers serving on project groups during community engagement. Staff must be neutral facilitators.

Civic Engagement Plans: Each project should include a civic engagement implementation and communications plan approved by the County Manager’s Office.

Consultations Hub: Increase transparency and participation with a one-stop-shop online portal to access all ongoing, planned and closed County public engagement processes, including input, questions, survey results and associated documents. These hubs have become standard in government. Three examples: here, here, and here.

Charges: All Charges developed to govern a proposed public engagement process should be published for public comment sufficiently prior to submission to the County Board for adoption.

Disclosure of Material Facts: Disclose relevant material facts upfront, or if arising during a community engagement process, then promptly after being known.

Scientifically Valid Surveys: Surveys conducted by the County need to be scientifically valid. A set of principles for all surveys needs to be published to assure citizens that the surveys are fair, balanced and accurate. Promptly publish all survey results.

Diversity of Views: Project groups should include members with critical or alternative viewpoints. The CFS Residents Forum was a welcome innovation in this direction.

Notification and Minimum Review Cycles: Standardize time periods and processes for notification of stakeholders and for review of decision-making documents. Materials to be submitted by County staff for action should be published no less than five business days and subject to public comment prior to action by Staff or Board. Hold public hearings well in advance of Board consideration, not immediately prior.

Fiscal Stewardship: Project groups must consider best use of resources and be informed upfront of any applicable dollar authorization for their project. Any options considered by the project group must have needs assessments and associated dollar estimates, including maintenance, so that budget impacts are a real-time part of deliberation.

Conclusion

Recent actions by the County, including tasking a senior manager with civic engagement oversight, seem to indicate a willingness to rethink our approach to public engagement. Such rethinking and relevant reforms are vital and long overdue.

Acknowledgement of the community principles and implementation of the core improvements discussed above would confirm that the County is willing to move toward a new model of Arlington civic engagement.

by Peter Rousselot — December 29, 2016 at 12:30 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

As 2017 looms, the Arlington County government’s best estimate (Profile 2016) is that Arlington will have 63,000 more residents in 2040 (283,000) than we have now (220,000).

That 29% population increase will require substantial investments in new or refurbished core public infrastructure. These investment requirements will extend well beyond the 2026 end date of our current Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Discussion

Arlington prides itself on planning. Writing in last week’s Progressive Voice column, Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz aptly recommended “a special emphasis on long range planning.” I agree.

Longer-term forecasts are subject to greater potential for error. But, flexible longer-term plans can be adjusted as new information becomes available. Flexible longer-term plans are better than no longer-term plans.

Here are 8 of the initiatives that the County Board should pursue in 2017:

FINANCE

  1. Longer-term financial modeling: Develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least 3 assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). Publish the results and the assumptions. Invite community input, and publicize what the community says.
  2. Revise the CIP process: While retaining the current practice of formally adopting a new CIP every other year, develop and publish revised CIP projections in the “off” years (e.g., 2017) to show the impact of significant changes since the prior year’s CIP was adopted. Invite and publicize community feedback.
  3. To protect affordability, maintain stability in property tax rates.

GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

  1. Project-specific impact statements: As the Community Facilities Study Group recommended, prepare project-specific impact statements for each special-exception site plan development project. Reject the myth that Arlington lacks the legal power to require such statements.
  2. Revise Community Benefits Allocation: Link the allocation of “community benefits” to the demonstrable impacts on community services and infrastructure as revealed by the project specific impact statements. In all appropriate cases, community benefits should include compensation from the developer for the costs of incremental school enrollment directly attributable to the project.

SCHOOLS

  1. New Arlington high school: Collaborate with APS on APS’ existing plan to decide by October 2017 whether the next new Arlington HS should be a comprehensive HS or a choice HS. Our current CIP is based on the assumption that we will need 1300 new HS seats by 2026. However, if it were to turn out that our best population growth estimate suggests a need for 2000 new HS seats by 2032, how should that 2032 estimate impact our 2017 decision? What is the relative public demand for individual, specialized HS programs vs. comprehensive HS programs?
  2. Lower per-seat costs of new school construction: Jointly with APS, adopt appropriate revisions to the design standards and community review processes for constructing future new schools, utilizing a mandated specific percentage numerical target for per-seat cost-cutting (say, 25% less per-seat than recent new schools).

PARKS

  1. Adopt specific numerical targets for new parkland acquisition: To keep pace with population growth, formally commit to acquiring 3 acres per year for new parkland.

Conclusion

The Arlington County government should make greater use of longer-term planning. Arlington needs to demonstrate to the public that it has fiscally-sustainable plans to accommodate the substantial development and population growth that Arlington says will occur between now and 2040.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — December 22, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On December 8, Jane Rudolph, Director of Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), issued a formal apology on behalf of DPR and the County Manager’s Office. At issue were the ways in which Parks staff interacted with residents last year over a proposed additional playground at tiny Nelly Custis Park:

County staff made statements that were inappropriate and inconsiderate. The engagement within the community was not at the level that Arlington County expects to deliver to their residents. We are sorry. …We will strive to ensure that all members of the community are a critical part of the project moving forward.

Discussion

Kudos to Jane Rudolph and Mark Schwartz for their forthright apology.

On the very same day, Gillian Burgess, writing in the Progressive Voice column, observed: “Arlington has the opportunity to be a national leader in developing a modern model of community engagement.” I agree.

What Happened

The County’s apology concerned a proposal to spend nearly $1M of Neighborhood Conservation bond funds to construct a playground at a .8 acre park–the 3rd playground in a little over one block.

The proposal was highly contested for several reasons — less green space, proximity to nearby homes, need and equity. Why, some asked, did Aurora Highlands need a 6th playground when 16 neighborhoods have none?

Adjacent neighbors were not notified. Follow-up meeting notifications didn’t occur. From the beginning, it appeared that Parks staff was giving undue weight to some voices, including daycare and commercial users.

Numerous community members suspected that there was something wrong with the community engagement process. This led to a January 9, 2016 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the County. Emails and other documents the County produced in response confirmed these suspicions.

The documents produced showed that:

  • County staff failed to follow Arlington’s code of ethics,
  • Committees failed to follow their own process guidelines,
  • Persons with special interests undisclosed in the NCAC approval process worked nearly exclusively with staff, and
  • Numerous efforts were pursued (both publicly and with staff) to exclude, discredit and even falsely campaign against residents including stakeholders, working group members and active civic volunteers.

Lessons Learned

The Nelly Custis Park project illustrates the serious issues that Arlington faces relating to community engagement. Three other examples are the WRAPS process in western Rosslyn, the fencing of a Bluemont Park baseball diamond and the Williamsburg fields lighting proposal.

The serious community engagement issues highlighted by all these recent controversies include:

  • Lack of a needs assessment including demographic information,
  • Prematurely deciding that a proposed project is needed at all,
  • Properly defining the nature of the proposed project and alternatives to it,
  • Providing adequate public notice to close-by residents and all stakeholders,
  • Need for properly designed community surveys,
  • Undue influence exercised by organized special interests, and
  • Lack of fair and neutral stewardship by County staff.

Conclusion

The Community Facilities report analyzed why Arlington needs to do better in this area. The County’s recent hiring of Bryna Helfer as its Assistant County Manager for Communications and Public Engagement is encouraging. But the Nelly Custis controversy indicates how much new thinking, processes and leadership are needed in order for Arlington to develop a new model of civic engagement. The County apology indicates progress.

by Peter Rousselot — December 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In last week’s column, I explained why Arlington is not ready for a major flood.

On Saturday, December 10, the County Board approved zoning changes to S-3A zoning districts without the safeguards against flood risk that I recommended in that column.

Discussion

Commenting on my earlier column, Arlington environmental activist Suzanne Sundburg noted County Manager Mark Schwartz’s admission (at December’s Arlington County Civic Federation meeting) that no one in Arlington County government has been assigned the responsibility of assessing Arlington’s cumulative flood risk.

Mr. Schwartz’s failure to assign anyone this important task means that no one is weighing or producing public analyses that encompass ALL of the dynamic factors that can increase flood risk, including:

  • Land use changes and increases in impervious and semi-pervious surfaces;
  • Climate change, including sea-level rise and higher tides in the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River and therefore, the Four Mile Run watershed;
  • Other existing floodplains and historically flood-prone areas;
  • The limitations of storm-water management systems for flood-reduction purposes;
  • The loss of Arlington’s mature tree canopy, etc.

The more development and the more pavement (aka “impervious surfaces”) added to public parks (including FEMA floodplains, flood-prone areas, Chesapeake Bay resource/riparian protection areas and other portions of our watershed), the greater the risk of flooding.

Arlington’s lack of a “flood czar” and its lack of a comprehensive flood-risk assessment means that we are gambling with the lives and property of Arlington citizens and business owners. The County itself also risks damage to or loss of its own critical infrastructure and assets.

Ms. Sundburg also has asked whether County staff has or can obtain updated local stream gage measurements to supplement those found in a 2004 document: Flood Frequency Analysis for Four Mile Run at USGS Gaging Station 1652500, now almost 13 years old. Updated local measurements may be useful in assessing Arlington’s current flood risk.

A recent Texas A&M study suggests that even in the absence of climate change, cities and urban areas are facing an increased flood risk. So discounting the added impact of climate change doesn’t negate the increasing flood risk that Arlington and other urbanized communities are facing.

Remnants of a 2011 tropical storm that hit us wouldn’t be considered a “100-year rainfall event.” Yet, this storm was sufficient to cause significant localized flooding along Four Mile Run. You can see it in action in this YouTube video.

And the mere presence of flood-protection improvements made in the downstream and upstream Four Mile Run watershed since Hurricane Agnes in 1972 coupled with the fact that Arlington has not suffered comparable flood damage since Agnes are NOT confirmation that those improvements offer sufficient flood protection in today’s environment.

In truth, we have no reliable basis on which to be certain whether these post-1972 improvements are sufficient because:

  • Arlington lacks a flood czar to evaluate them, and
  • We haven’t had a storm comparable to Agnes since the 1970s.

Conclusion

The County Board should direct the County Manager to:

  • Appoint a flood czar;
  • Direct that czar to prepare and make available for public review and comment a comprehensive flood risk assessment; and
  • Direct that czar to prepare and make available for public comment a flood mitigation plan for Arlington similar to the Westchester County Plan that I discussed in last week’s column.

by Peter Rousselot — December 8, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In 1972, the eye of Hurricane Agnes passed directly over the DC metropolitan area. Agnes caused major flooding in Arlington, collapsing the Walter Reed Bridge, and severely damaging the rest of the Four Mile Run watershed. The Four Mile Run watershed is particularly flood prone — even in storms far less severe than Agnes.

Discussion

Email exchanges between an environmental activist and County staff raise serious doubts as to whether Arlington has planned adequately for a major flooding event — even though flooding has been identified as one of Arlington’s most significant hazards.

At its December 10 meeting, the County Board is scheduled to vote on County staff’s proposal to amend Arlington’s Zoning Ordinance for all S-3A zoning districts, which include public parkland and sites owned by Arlington Public Schools (APS). The amendments effectively remove the maximum height restrictions and minimum setback requirements for all new school buildings — whether they are built on APS-owned property or on public parkland. Staff also has requested to apply these changes to all uses (not just school building uses) in all S-3A districts.

Arlington environmental activist Suzanne Sundburg has:

  • asked the Board to delay final adoption of these sweeping changes to enable more careful consideration,
  • provided examples of environmental zoning protections adopted by other Virginia jurisdictions that Arlington should consider adopting,
  • posed a series of questions to County staff regarding the cumulative impact such changes might have on storm water run-off, and
  • asked the County to identify which staff member(s) have the final responsibility for comprehensive risk assessment and deciding whether the flood hazard and risk exposure are worth assuming.

Several Virginia jurisdictions have developed zoning solutions to help better protect their natural resources. Fairfax County has a zoning overlay for environmentally sensitive areas in its zoning ordinance. See Article 7, Part 3.

Likewise, Virginia Beach created a separate zoning category or district called a “P-1 Preservation District” in the city’s zoning ordinance to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Its goals include protection of its lands and waters from pollution, impairment or destruction. Critical areas of special concern include parklands, wilderness areas, open spaces, floodplains, floodways, watersheds and water supplies.

Arlington should adopt a comparable environmental protection ordinance before (or concurrently to) adopting changes to zoning in S-3A zoning districts in order to minimize the expansion of impervious and semi-pervious surfaces in or near sensitive watersheds and flood-prone areas.

Arlington’s storm-water management webpage summarizes its goals, but it appears that Arlington lacks an adequate plan to reduce or mitigate major flood risk. An example of such a plan is Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use manual which covers the following topics related to flooding (among others) in detail:

  • Flooding causes and the relationship to development,
  • Comprehensive and watershed planning,
  • Successful floodplain management tools,
  • Local ordinances,
  • Site plan review tools, and
  • Storm water management design.

Developing a plan comparable to Westchester’s involves assigning a County staff person this task and giving him/her sufficient resources and the authority to use all appropriate means to minimize flood damage.

Conclusion

The County Board should defer final action on the proposed changes to S-3A zoning districts until it also adopts adequate protections to conserve Arlington’s watersheds, to comprehensively assess flood hazard and reduce or mitigate the risk, and to safeguard Arlington residents and their property against flooding.

by Peter Rousselot — December 1, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In February 2017, the Williamsburg Field Site Evaluation Workgroup (WFWG) must report to the County Board on whether field lights can be installed at Williamsburg Middle School (WMS) without unduly degrading neighborhood character and quality of life.

Discussion

As the County Board Chair acknowledged in 2013, the WFWG exists because WMS neighbors were “ambushed” (Comments on item 59).

Arlington Public Schools and County staff previously had assured WMS neighbors that the WMS fields would remain unlighted Bermuda grass. County staff broke this promise by inserting language in the Discovery Elementary School Use Permit, providing for synthetic turf and expedited action on lights (See page two of report by Charles Monfort, beginning at pdf p. 15).

WMS neighbors are not selfish NIMBY fanatics. They simply chose to live in an area that’s among the most sparsely populated in Arlington, composed entirely of single-family homes, some located less than 100 feet from the WMS fields. At night, it’s quiet and dark. Wildlife abound in the wooded area nestled against the soccer fields.

Sports user groups have led the drive for field lights. The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) solicited a plan from Arlington’s sole-source lighting vendor, Musco Lighting, without a competitive bidding process.

Musco proposes to install the highest intensity non-professional sports lights inside the Beltway — radiating more blue light than the new street lights many Arlington residents say are too harsh, brighter than the lights residents of Queens and Brooklyn refused to tolerate.

Nancy Clanton, a nationally recognized expert on sustainable lighting design, concluded that Musco’s plan would produce glare levels 2-3 times higher than national and international standards for dark, light-sensitive neighborhoods, cause even more glare on humid evenings, and increase human health and environmental risks.

In June, the American Medical Association sounded the alarm about high intensity blue lights, warning these are associated with reduced sleep time, nighttime awakenings, impaired daytime functioning and harmful glare affecting the elderly and children with vision-related disabilities.

Noise and nighttime traffic are also concerns since County sports fields are exempt from the noise ordinance. Nor do the County’s low traffic projections seem realistic given sports users’ hopes for thousands of hours of additional playing time from field lights.

Although adult use of rectangular fields County-wide has steadily declined since 2013, the number of children playing organized sports is rising. WMS neighbors advocate alternatives to meet children’s needs by adding a new lighted field enthusiastically supported by neighborhoods near Long Bridge Park, organic synthetic turf and less polluting lights to replace those currently at Kenmore, and non-carcinogenic turf at parks and schools elsewhere in the County with soggy grass fields.

Lighting advocates suggest mitigation measures such as installing blinds and using white noise machines. But the proposed measures are either not enforceable or would drastically alter neighbors’ quality of life. Who wants to live with blinds and curtains drawn tight and without being able to go outdoors or open windows at night?

Conclusion

Arlington’s General Land Use Plan seeks to preserve the County’s traditional residential neighborhoods–especially those that possess unique natural values. The County Board must decide whether these are worth preserving. Once lost they cannot be restored.

The County Board should say NO to field lights at WMS.

by Peter Rousselot — November 17, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

At its November 9 recessed meeting, the County Board unanimously approved the contract of Dr. Chris Horton as Arlington’s new independent auditor. Dr. Horton reports directly to the County Board, and his work is supervised by an Audit Committee.

John Vihstadt led the effort to create the independent auditor position, and continues to play a leadership role as a member of the Audit Committee.

Discussion

Prior to her July departure, Jessica Tucker (the former independent auditor) identified six metrics to determine which County programs or services should be audited: cost savings; improved service delivery; revenue enhancement; increased efficiency; transparency and accountability; and risk mitigation.

At its March meeting, the Audit Committee applied these metrics to 33 pending suggestions for possible audits.

Any member of the public may recommend an area for audit consideration by filling out and submitting the form available here.

Current Status of Independent Audits

The Audit Committee has agreed on three priority areas for Dr. Horton to pick up at the point Ms. Tucker left off. Those three areas, and their most recent public status, are:

  • Emergency Medical Services (Ambulance) Fees: Contract Oversight and Revenue Management — Draft report provided to management on July 6; awaits Management Response to findings.
  • Site Plan Conditions — Tracking, Monitoring and Enforcement: Recommendation to defer until implementation of the new permitting system; request that the Advisory Commissions develop a more complete list of “unfulfilled” community benefits.

As noted in a March Planning Commission memorandum, developers have been required to provide community benefits as conditions of special exception, site plan approvals. At times, developers subsequently request changes, and not all such requests go back to the Planning Commission or the County Board for review. Some of the changes have greatly altered a project from what was approved originally.

The purpose of this audit is to analyze these changes over the years — how many have there been, what types, who actually approved them, and did the changes alter the physical project or the community benefits in the plan the County Board originally approved?

  • Jail Medical Services — January 2006 Recommendations, Follow‐up: The Sheriff provided Ms. Tucker with an email documenting how many of the findings in a 2006 report had been remediated.  The Sheriff’s Office is continuing to work on providing a more complete update on the 2006 findings.

Despite a series of jail healthcare reforms recommended in the 2006 report, there have been multiple healthcare issues at the jail. For example, a man collapsed and died there in October 2015. And, a deaf man alleged that the six weeks he spent there amounted to torture because of inadequate procedures to deal with deafness.

The Fraud and Abuse Hotline

John Vihstadt also led the effort to create the fraud and abuse hotline made available to County employees last Spring and to the general public effective November 15.

Any member of the public may submit a complaint:

  • By telephone at 1-866-565-9206, or
  • On the website, available 24/7/365.

Current Status of Internal County Audits

The County Manager’s office also continues to conduct and publish internal audits. You can access published audit reports here.

Conclusion

All these new and ongoing measures provide safeguards to strengthen the financial controls and accountability of our County government.

by Peter Rousselot — November 10, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Properly translated, arrivederci means “until I see you again.” The Arlington County government should say arrivederci to the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola.

Discussion

Arlington was correct to study the gondola

To retain Arlington’s competitive edge in a rapidly changing marketplace, Arlington County has to be open to spending reasonable amounts of money to study new ideas. That’s what the County did regarding the gondola.

One of the prime movers urging Arlington County to participate in a study of the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola was the President of the Rosslyn BID, Mary-Claire Burick. Mary-Claire is a savvy and effective advocate for making Rosslyn a better place to live and work. Here on ARLnow.com, civic activist Dave Schutz also has been an impressive and effective advocate for the gondola. Kudos to both.

Now it’s time to shelve the gondola

There are several good reasons to shelve the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola, but we really don’t need to move beyond the dispositive reason: the crisis at Metro and Arlington’s share of the cost to fix Metro.

It will be several years before we know what it has cost Arlington to help fix Metro. Until it is clear both that we have fixed it and that we know what it has cost us, Arlington should not incur any significant further expenses relating to the gondola.

We should not build the gondola just because it’s feasible and legal

In the study of the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola, its authors concluded that the gondola would:

  • be feasible and legal,
  • cost about $80-$90 million to build, and
  • cost $3.25 million per year to operate.

Although the Arlington County government shouldn’t spend any significant further amount of our tax dollars on this project, gondola proponents would do well to focus any of their further efforts and their dollars on conducting cost-benefit analyses of the gondola compared to other options.

“Mass Native,” a commenter on the Washington Post’s gondola study story, observed:

I used to walk home over the Key Bridge from work. AND I’ve actually ridden the Roosevelt Island cable car, so I consider myself uniquely qualified to opine. This won’t work out well. The walk over the bridge is quick and easy, and if you don’t want to walk, taking the bus back and forth from Rosslyn to Georgetown is pretty easy also. If bus service is a shortcoming, I suspect the gondola money would be better spent improving bus service. Given there is no metro stop in Georgetown, the many bus lines that run through Georgetown are vital, and they actually do a pretty good job connecting Georgetown to the rest of the city (there are probably at least 6 bus lines that run through Georgetown). The advantages of taking a gondola just aren’t compelling enough.

Why wouldn’t improving bus service be more cost-effective than the gondola?

If the gondola is really about promoting Rosslyn’s restaurants, bars and hotels, how many more Arlington taxpayer dollars should be spent on a gondola to promote these Rosslyn businesses compared to the tax dollars we are now spending to promote such businesses elsewhere in the County? Why should these incremental tax dollars be spent on the gondola?

Conclusion

Until Metro is fixed, the Arlington County government should stop spending any significant further Arlington taxpayer dollars on the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola.

by Peter Rousselot — October 27, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Arlington County seeks public input on the Manager’s recommended allocation of $17.8 million in surplus “one-time” close-out funds (from FY2016) and on the Board’s proposed budget guidance to the Manager for FY 2018.

The Board will vote on both matters in November.

Discussion

Kudos to the Board and Manager for embracing reform in choosing to discuss the surplus close-out funds’ allocation and the Board’s budget guidance in October and wait to adopt them in November. This gives the public more time to weigh in before decisions are made.

Submit public comments on both matters here.

Arlington should follow certain principles to guide its decisions in allocating the close-out surplus.

  1. As a matter of prudent financial management, a fair and reasonable percentage (i.e., a % higher than 0%) of any close-out surplus always should be allocated to moderate the tax rate and/or reduce bonded indebtedness.

Adopting this principle would mean only that a fair and reasonable percentage of the FY2016 close-out surplus would be earmarked for property tax rate moderation in calendar-year 2017. Adopting this principle would NOT necessarily mean that the calendar-year 2017 property tax rate would fall, rise or remain the same. A final decision on that would be made next year.

What is “fair and reasonable?” That should depend upon the close-out surplus amount in any given year and careful consideration of public input. But the fair and reasonable percentage should be multiplied against the entire surplus, and set aside for consideration next year before any final decisions are made regarding how to allocate the remaining surplus.

Similarly, we should consider using some percentage of the close-out surplus for early debt retirement when that makes financial sense. The County’s bond capacity is limited, and retiring debt early will help free up more capacity in addition to reducing interest expense.

  1. The remainder of the close-out surplus (after setting aside a % for tax rate moderation and any debt reduction) should next be considered to address any emergency that requires funding before final adoption of the FY2018 operating budget.

An “emergency” expenditure is one that simply cannot be deferred until the FY2018 general fund (operating) budget is approved in April 2017. Reasons for not waiting until April 2017 might include the complete loss of a current vital opportunity or the strong likelihood of sharply escalating costs to meet a core government function.

However, the County should first determine whether it already has an appropriate reserve fund set aside to cover an emergency before tapping surplus close-out funds.

  1. All other proposed uses of the close-out surplus automatically should be deferred, and the remaining funds’ allocation should be decided in conjunction with the FY2018 budget process.

County Board action on all other proposed uses of close-out surplus funds should be automatically deferred until more is known about the County’s financial position in the coming calendar year. Close-out surpluses are “one-time” funds rather than ongoing revenue. They exist solely because the County collected more tax revenue than required to meet its budgeted commitments. Therefore, these funds should be used for nonrecurring expenditures (e.g., replacing a bridge, acquiring land, etc.) rather than for supplementing the County’s ongoing operating expenses.

Conclusion

The County Board should direct the Manager to reconsider his current recommendations by applying the guiding principles discussed above.

by Peter Rousselot — October 20, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebook

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

At its October 15 meeting, the County Board approved a County staff recommendation to advertise draft regulations relating to Airbnb.

Discussion

It’s important for health, safety and other reasons to appropriately regulate Airbnb, similar service providers and Arlington homeowners who use these services. Pursuing a robust public-engagement process with respect to draft regulations can be a constructive way in which to improve a draft.

However, the County staff’s proposed December 10 deadline for the County Board’s final adoption of appropriate regulations is problematic due to:

  • The exclusion of certain related issues either from the draft regulations and/or from public engagement regarding the draft regulations, and
  • Virginia’s ongoing work to enact a state law to cover many of the same areas.

Arlington County staff proposal

The County staff proposal is available here. At its October 15 meeting, the County Board approved this proposal with some amendments.

The staff proposal:

  • Defines a new home occupation use called “accessory homestay,”
  • Establishes standards for this use,
  • Acknowledges that many related areas have been excluded from advertisement of the proposed regulations, citizen engagement and/or final action on December 10.

Among the many areas that have been EXCLUDED are:

  • Requirement of owner-occupancy of the unit,
  • No more than one contract for an overnight stay.

Exclusion of any area in the advertisement means that, no matter what any affected party might say, no changes can be made without re-advertising and providing a new thirty-day review period. But, based on public feedback, re-advertising may be the wisest course.

The staff proposal also:

  • States that staff “does not know what the 2017 General Assembly will do” regarding the state legislation, but
  • Hopes that “implementing regulations in Arlington now could help inform the state’s decision.”

Virginia state legislative status

Legislation regulating Airbnb and similar service providers almost passed in the 2016 Virginia state legislative session. That legislation would have established the Limited Residential Lodging Act (the Act), and would have allowed property owners to rent out their homes or portions thereof for periods of less than 30 consecutive days, or do so through a hosting platform.

The hosting platform could have chosen to register with the Virginia Department of Taxation, in which case the hosting platform would have been responsible for the collection and remittance of all applicable taxes on behalf of the property owner.

Although this legislation did not pass, the Virginia Housing Commission was directed to convene a work group with representation from the hotel industry, hosting platform providers, local governments, state and local tax officials, property owners and other interested parties to explore issues related to expansion of the framework set forth in the draft legislation.

The group was ordered to complete its work by December 1, 2016, with the goal of developing draft legislation for consideration by the 2017 session of the General Assembly.

Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, there is a significant risk that state legislation in 2017 could preempt Arlington’s regulations adopted in 2016. If such state preemption were to occur, it could be seriously disruptive because it could significantly change one or more key substantive provisions in Arlington’s regulations.

Conclusion

Arlington should seriously consider deferring final approval of appropriate regulations until after the 2017 state legislative session. Is there a compelling reason why the final regulations must be enacted in December 2016?

by Peter Rousselot — October 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The School Board has begun the process of revising high school attendance boundaries in order to balance enrollment and better utilize spaces at Arlington’s three comprehensive high schools. These boundary changes will be effective September 2017, apply to current eighth grade students who will be entering high school next fall and to each freshman class in the next three school years.

The final revised high school boundary plan is scheduled to be voted upon at the School Board’s December 1 meeting. Further information is available here.

On October 6, the School Board voted to waive its Policy 25-2.2 on enrollment and transfers for middle and high schools. In waiving the policy, the Board offers parents an individual choice to help reduce over-capacity at Gunston, Swanson, and Williamsburg middle schools and Washington-Lee High School.

The School Board should emphasize socioeconomic status in its boundary decisions

Redistricting is going to be our new reality in Arlington as enrollment growth — and the extensive new school facilities needed — ripples through every level of schooling. With Arlington projecting 75,400 new residents by 2040, the school district of today cannot be a promise for tomorrow.

Although the number of students to be transferred this fall is likely to be relatively small, emphasizing socioeconomic status should be a “guiding principle” not only for the inevitable, greater boundary changes to come, but even for this fall’s revisions.

Decades of research justifies emphasizing socioeconomic status

Decades of research shows that socioeconomic integration is an important component to reducing achievement gaps and improving instructional outcomes for all students. Low family income correlates highly with low achievement. See also: “From All Walks of Life” by Richard D. Kahlenberg; “Integrated Education and Mathematics Outcomes: A Synthesis of Social Science Research” by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson and Martha Bottia; and research briefs from The National Coalition on School Diversity.

Given that research shows that social composition of the student body is the most influential school factor for student achievement, shouldn’t we expect our school system to address this question?

The School Board’s own rules require promotion of demographic diversity

Promoting demographic diversity already is one of the criteria (Policy 30-2.2) that the School Board explicitly must consider in revising school boundaries. While APS could utilize a variety of available data to determine demographic characteristics for purposes of school boundary revisions, one comprehensive measure definitely available is current student participation in the Free or Reduced-Price Meals Program (FARM). As of October 2015, the percentage of students participating in this program at our three comprehensive high schools was:

  • Wakefield (46%)
  • Washington-Lee (31%)
  • Yorktown (14%)

There are much more marked disparities in FARM participation in elementary and middle schools. In 2015, FARM participation at the elementary level ranged from Jamestown (2.46%) to Carlin Springs (81.8%). In middle school, FARM participation ranged from Williamsburg (9.16%) to Kenmore (51.57%). The county-wide average proportion of students who qualified for FARM in 2015 was 30.13%.

Conclusion

The instruction offered at all three of our comprehensive high schools is excellent. The difference lies in the socioeconomic status of their cohorts of students. That difference impacts the student experience and overall achievement. Exposure to people who are different provides a vital opportunity to learn life skills including conflict resolution, resilience and critical thinking.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — October 6, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In last week’s column, I outlined some of Arlington’s self-imposed limitations in utilizing “community benefits” as conditions for approving developer site plan requests for additional density. See also my Sept. 22 column recommending preparation of integrated, project-specific fiscal impact statements.

Critical Reforms

The most critically-necessary community benefits’ reforms include:

Consider fiscal impact statements at each special exception/site plan hearing

Arlington should take advantage of this planning tool routinely utilized for years by other Northern Virginia jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun. Both use project-specific fiscal impact statements as part of their review processes. Even though those jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than Arlington’s special exception/site-plan system, the advantages to policy-makers and the public of utilizing this tool are common to all of our jurisdictions.

Falls Church has utilized fiscal impact statements since 2003.

Arlington should expedite the adoption of its own fiscal impact model to be considered at each special exception/site plan hearing. Any impacts and equitably allocated offsetting community benefits need to be measured from the applicable base by-right zoning.

Assess the impact on schools of incremental enrollment

The fiscal impact model Arlington ultimately adopts should explicitly consider incremental school enrollment impacts.

In Falls Church, voluntary school capital contributions have been a staple of past agreements with developers of mixed-use projects.

The Fairfax fiscal impact model has explicitly considered school impacts since 2003.

Fairfax determines a per-student generation factor by housing type, and estimates how many students are anticipated from the particular mix of housing units in each proposed development. Fairfax then computes a per-student cost for each project, which when multiplied times the number of students anticipated from the project, yields the total incremental enrollment cost that forms the basis for negotiations with the developer.

Important updates to the Fairfax model (effective July 1, 2016) are discussed below.

Assess the impact on parks of incremental usage

Under the updated Fairfax impact model, benefits for incremental school or park usage negotiated with a developer do NOT have to be limited to creation of, or refurbishments to, a school or park within the boundaries of the site of the proposed project — so long as those benefits are “reasonable” in amount and address impacts that are “specifically attributable” to the “residential use component” of the project.

Parks include “playgrounds and other recreational facilities.” Such off-site benefits must provide a “direct and material benefit” to residents of the proposed project. Both on-site and off-site benefits for schools or parks can include cash.

Allow citizens to speak publicly at SPRC site plan meetings

By the time a Site Plan Review Committee (SPRC) site plan meeting is scheduled with respect to any particular developer proposal to obtain additional density, the principal features of such a proposal, including any corresponding community benefits, have already been negotiated in private between the developer and the county. To provide a fair balance at site plan meetings, the SPRC process should be revised to specifically permit individual citizens and citizen groups to speak publicly at the meetings.

Conclusion

Although the pace of site plan proposals declined after the Great Recession, that pace is now increasing rapidly. The County Board should initiate an appropriate public process to consider the reforms discussed here and others, with a direction to report back in six months.

by Peter Rousselot — September 29, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

This is the first of two columns.

Today, I’ll discuss some of Arlington County’s self-imposed limitations on site plan conditions for “community benefits.” These are benefits that Arlington receives in exchange for granting developers additional density and other zoning changes.

Next week, I’ll recommend appropriate planning and policy reforms.

Discussion

Arlington lists the County’s standard site plan conditions, noting that they are designed to:

Ameliorate a project’s impacts on surrounding property, as well as any additional height and/or density or other bonuses that may be approved or modifications to Zoning Ordinance standards proposed by a developer… Increased density, height or other modifications can have an impact on the surrounding community and site plan conditions help to mitigate these impacts.

Arlington’s administrative regulation also enumerates (pp. 63-64) “standard site plan conditions” that are “typically necessary,” while acknowledging that other conditions (not enumerated) might be appropriate for individual projects.

The County’s community benefits’ conditions have failed to adequately address the impact of development

Increased student enrollments and crowded parks are two important impacts of many development projects. There is no state law or County ordinance that prohibits the County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these particular kinds of impacts on schools or parks. Yet, the County has:

  • failed entirely to request cash or in-kind schools’ contribution conditions, and
  • asked only occasionally for contribution conditions relating to parkland and open space.

Efforts to discuss development’s impact have been hamstrung by lack of awareness of other jurisdictions that routinely assess those impacts (including on schools and parks), and perform related cost/benefit analyses. George Rovder, a Bluemont Civic Association past President, provided me with this first-person account of what transpired during the course of the Site Plan Review Committee’s (SPRC) recent consideration of site plan conditions for 491 new housing units to be constructed on the former Mazda Ballston site:

The applicant (developer) stated how much more tax revenue the proposed project would bring in vs. the amount currently being collected (from the Mazda dealership and the small strip of retail stores), stressing that this increased tax revenue was a key reason the community should support the project. I asked that the applicant or staff also provide figures for the costs associated with schools and other community services and infrastructure. I was advised by the SPRC Chair that there “are no costs” associated with these projects, as we already have water and sewer and the like in place. The Chair further observed that neither staff nor the applicant could possibly calculate the infrastructure and community services costs associated with the project.

The County has further failed to adequately track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions

Citizens, the Arlington County Civic Federation, and at least one County commission have complained about County staff’s failure to track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions.

Their strong complaints led Arlington’s independent auditor to place this issue at the top of the independent audit priority list. However, the Board’s new independent auditor has since resigned, leaving this audit in limbo.

Conclusion

Properly reformed and enforced, community benefits’ conditions included in site plans can materially improve the fiscal and functional sustainability of new development. Next week, I’ll propose planning and policy reforms needed to better fulfill those goals.

by Peter Rousselot — September 22, 2016 at 12:30 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The Community Facilities Study Group’s (CFSG) Final Report contained this recommendation:

Add an economic and fiscal impact section to private development (special exception/site plan and Form Based Code) project staff reports to provide information on the costs (e.g. the projected service demands and other costs to the community) and benefits (e.g. the taxes and other economic benefits) likely to be generated by a proposed project.

Discussion

As I wrote in June, Arlington must continuously plan and explain to the public how it expects to pay for the new public infrastructure and services required to serve the 75,400 people Arlington currently projects to add by 2040. But, the county government has yet to do so.

Why are project-specific impact assessments important?

Quantifying incremental county services and infrastructure that a proposed special exception/site plan project necessitates will inject vital, objective input into the county’s short- and long-term planning and budgeting processes (e.g., budgeting for and implementing additional required school capacity, open space, public safety resources). Collecting this data for each project will, in turn, enable the county to more accurately determine geographically specific, cumulative impacts and time-specific scheduling based on project completion.

Project-specific impact analyses–as recommended by the CFSG — should be prepared for each development project in a timely manner because they provide critical facts needed to determine in advance whether we can afford to approve a project, must add conditions, or should deny the request.

What kinds of project-specific impact analyses should Arlington perform?

The county should perform an integrated fiscal impact analysis for each special exception/site plan development project. Each analysis should compare by-right development for the site with the developer’s site-plan proposal that includes any changes to the General Land Use Plan (GLUP), up zoning and/or bonus density. The goal is to determine the degree to which a developer’s cash contributions and other specific community benefits will offset the county’s cost to provide additional services and infrastructure over the life of the development.

More accurate and reliable forecasting is particularly vital now that large commercial tracts of land without any students on them are being replaced with dense, multifamily housing. Independent, third-party studies have concluded that residential projects almost always generate more net costs than benefits.

Other Virginia jurisdictions routinely utilize impact analyses.

Neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun counties use some form of project-specific impact assessments as part of their review processes. Even though these jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than a special exception/site-plan system, the benefits to policy-makers and the public of having project-specific impact assessments are common to all.

Falls Church City has utilized fiscal impact analyses for years. See a detailed description of its model here.

Caveats: Other jurisdictions’ models often don’t include capital costs or assess environmental impacts or quantify a value for natural space. A new branch of economics — environmental economics — provides new models that help to establish a monetary value for open space and the natural infrastructure.

Conclusion

Arlington County should adopt and implement CFSG recommendation 12. Arlington should expedite a public examination and discussion of alternative fiscal impact models to select one that will result in greater objectivity, better informed decision-making and enhanced planning to meet the infrastructure and service needs of our rapidly-growing population.

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