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by Peter Rousselot — February 16, 2017 at 2:15 pm 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.

In January, I discussed 10 steps that the County Board should take in 2017 to improve Arlington’s model of civic engagement. I noted that the goal should be to reach the broadest possible consensus and ensure a legitimate, fact-based process to inform real-time decision-making.

To achieve this goal, the County Board should adopt an additional reform often called the “72-hour rule.”

Discussion

During their 2015 election campaigns, County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol and County Board member Christian Dorsey each expressed support for the 72-hour rule. In January 2017, County Board member John Vihstadt supported an alternative version he described as the 48-hour rule.

The County Board should formally adopt the 72-hour rule for all significant Board votes.

Under this rule, all critical supporting documents underlying any agenda item for which a significant Board vote is scheduled must be sent to all Board members and posted on the County website at least 72 hours before the meeting at which the vote is scheduled.

At a minimum, a “significant Board vote” should include votes on any of the following:

  • Approval of any contract, agreement, appropriation, grant, plan, project or budget committing $1 million or more of taxpayer funds,
  • Site plans/amendments review,
  • Ordinances, plans and policies, and
  • Acquisition of private property or the sale/vacation of public property.

At a minimum, “critical supporting documents” should include all information, reports, presentations and recommendations from County staff, consultants, advisory bodies or applicants. Any history of previous Board votes on the item should be included.

Once approved and if County staff fails to comply with the 72-hour rule, then postponement of the Board’s vote on the item would be required unless at least four Board members vote to waive the 72-hour requirement in case of emergency.

Why should the Board adopt the new rule?

Arlington citizens, taxpayers and Board members themselves have a right to receive transparent, complete and timely information before significant government decisions are made and actions are taken. Without timely access to complete information, the public lacks a reasonable opportunity to communicate with elected officials before a vote is taken.

Seventy-two hours permits elected officials sufficient time to review all supporting agenda documentation–running anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pages–for final and last-minute changes before making decisions. Based on past experience, significant Board votes almost always rely upon very extensive and complex documentation.

Likely arguments against the new rule lack merit.

The County Manager, County Attorney and staff might oppose the new rule, arguing that it might require extra work. Such arguments lack merit. No extra work will be required. The same work simply needs to be completed earlier. If that is not feasible in a particular case, then the vote should be postponed.

Though the Manager and staff also might argue that Board members already receive briefings much earlier than the 72-hour rule would require, this argument misses at least two critical points:

  • Even if such briefings occur, without this rule the public lacks the 72-hour minimum access to review the underlying documentation, and
  • Last-minute, substantive changes in the underlying documentation often deny Board members sufficient access.

Conclusion

Adopting the new 72-hour rule offers far greater benefits–transparency and accountability–than any costs it might entail.

by Peter Rousselot — February 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm 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.

ARLnow.com reported last week that APS has hired a consultant to study the way APS projected enrollment during the recent high school boundary adjustment process.

Discussion

APS needs independent professional help on enrollment forecasts (and closely-related issues like per-seat construction costs). Since literally tens of millions of our tax dollars are at stake, properly designed consultant studies can produce benefits that far exceed the costs. As a community, we need a fully-transparent conversation on these issues.

December’s HS boundary decision

The period leading up to APS’ December decision to adjust the boundaries for Arlington’s three current comprehensive high schools (Yorktown, W-L, Wakefield) was plagued by many enrollment data errors that savvy parents identified and called out. Doubts justifiably were cast on the competence and credibility of APS staff who prepared the data.

Last week’s Discovery Elementary meeting

Last week, the Discovery Elementary PTA hosted an important meeting to discuss policy issues surrounding APS’ booming enrollment. Over 100 people attended. Once again, savvy and engaged parents were quick to spot new errors and inconsistencies in some of the APS slides presented at the meeting.

Discussing her reactions on social media, one parent captured the sentiments of many when she observed:

I hope parents will push for full transparency in the projections going forward. While it’s ridiculous that parents have to be the ones to catch the mistakes, it’s even worse when APS hides the numbers and the methodology so that no one can even see the errors. During the boundary process, many of us thought that Yorktown’s projections looked way too low, and it appeared that APS was making wacky assumptions as to how many kids would transfer out of YHS in order to make their numbers “work.” But APS wouldn’t release their transfer projections and they still won’t. If they had released them during the boundary process, perhaps this mistake could have been fixed before they voted to change boundaries.

January’s consultant study

The best enrollment forecast study prepared to date is a consultant study presented at a joint County Board-School Board meeting in January. A related joint study presented at that meeting concluded (at p. 23) that Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030.

The County and APS should continue to refine the methodologies and conclusions of January’s consultant study as we move forward.

JFAC’s role

As I discussed last week, the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) has an important role to play with respect to county-wide facilities planning decisions. JFAC should play a leadership role in fostering continuing updates and improvements to January’s consultant study.

Conclusion

Arlington needs to make the best possible policy decisions regarding what new schools, parks, and other public infrastructure we will need, and when and where we will need them. To do that requires us to have the best possible forecast data for these purposes.

As I noted in December, Arlington must 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.

It is neither prudent, realistic nor fair to fail to plan for this growth because some people think or hope that it might not occur. Instead, we must plan now for the consequences of our most accurate forecasts.

by Peter Rousselot — February 2, 2017 at 12:30 pm 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.

ARLnow.com reported last week that local developer James Burch proposes to “build a 325-foot Space-Needle-like tourist destination, dubbed the Spirit of America Tower, in Rosslyn.”

The tower would be built on currently open-space, VDOT-owned land. In one of more than 25 comments he personally posted to that story, Burch (using the last name “Bureh”) revealed “we have been working on this, quietly, for about a year and a half.”

After ARLnow broke the story, Washington Business Journal (WBJ) reached out to a VDOT spokesman who acknowledged VDOT had met with Burch, but denied VDOT had made any commitments. And, County Board Chair Jay Fisette described Burch’s proposal as a “fantasy”.

Discussion

While Burch’s proposal deserves scorn, his quiet pursuit of it highlights the need for a long-range (out to 2040) strategic plan, prepared jointly with VDOT and other interested stakeholders, regarding how best to utilize the air rights throughout the I-66 corridor. That plan should include the VDOT parcel in Rosslyn with respect to which Burch currently seeks a long-term lease.

I-66 Air Rights

If we allow piecemeal, scavenger development of important individual parcels to occur in the absence of such a long-range plan, by the time we get around to it, the plan that’s best for Arlington will be hopelessly compromised.

This past October, WBJ reported that both Arlington and VDOT temporarily had suspended such planning, but that both sides still were open to it:

[A] VDOT spokeswoman … said Arlington has chosen not to pursue air rights development “to date,” but VDOT “would continue to work on any requests to explore other opportunities and locations.” …

I-66, from Falls Church through Rosslyn, acts as a “gash through part of our community,” said Arlington Board Chair Libby Garvey. Filling it in, she said, is a “long-term thing,” but the discussion is worth having, whether in Rosslyn or East Falls Church (where Garvey envisions a deck with parking below and a field above).

There may well have been good reasons for the temporary suspension of talks, but Arlington County now needs to work hard to:

  • quickly resolve any remaining obstacles,
  • further develop its own long-range land-use vision and negotiating strategy, and
  • then resume the conversations with VDOT.

JFAC Community Facilities Plan

JFAC’s overall mission importantly includes a directive from the County and School Boards to:

Place a special emphasis on long range planning for future County and APS facility needs…. Big picture, visionary thinking is encouraged, and the Commission should be a forum where fresh and creative ideas can be discussed freely.

Arlington County and JFAC should indeed engage in “big picture, visionary thinking” by carefully exploring all opportunities for Arlington to acquire new land either via air rights from VDOT, a land swap with VDOT, or some combination. The long-range plan for air rights in the I-66 corridor should be made available to JFAC.

Conclusion

Burch commented last week that “with our proposal, it is not costing the state or the county anything, and the project provides millions of dollars in tax income.” Despite such siren songs from Burch — or anyone else — Arlington should complete the two long-range planning studies described above, and discuss them thoroughly with the community, before making any deals that could undermine our long-range best interests in the I-66 corridor.

by Peter Rousselot — January 26, 2017 at 12:15 pm 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 ARLnow.com previously reported, Representative Don Beyer’s office announced earlier this month that the FAA had scrapped a proposal to transition to a new departure procedure for northbound planes leaving National Airport. The proposed path, known as “LAZIR B,” would direct flights directly over Rosslyn, moving planes further away from Georgetown and restricted airspace around the National Mall.

The problem LAZIR B created

The region has had a growing problem with noise caused in part by recent changes to the regional airspace mandated by the FAA’s NextGen program. In October 2015, a Community Noise Working Group was established with appointees representing communities in Virginia, DC and Maryland. In December 2015, the group recommended the LAZIR B departure procedure to maximize flight time over the Potomac.

How Don Beyer helped

Following the working group’s recommendation, Rep. Beyer wrote a letter to the FAA asking for a more thorough analysis of the noise impacts, and telephoned the FAA Administrator to voice his concerns with the proposed flight path.

Rep. Beyer also was a leader in the effort to find new ways for Arlington citizens to provide feedback directly to the FAA about the increased noise levels they were experiencing. He helped facilitate communication between airport area neighborhoods, local government, and the FAA.

As part of this new community engagement process, the FAA held a September 2016 workshop at Washington-Lee High School to listen to Arlington citizens. At the workshop, Arlingtonians explained their frustrations. Some questioned why Arlington should be subject to more noise so that D.C. residents could have more peace and quiet.

How Arlington County Board members helped

Rep. Beyer certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for the FAA scrapping LAZIR B. The Arlington County Board also deserves credit. Board members Libby Garvey, Katie Cristol, and John Vihstadt attended the community meeting at W-L, and Garvey wrote a letter to the FAA on behalf of the County Board, expressing concerns about aircraft noise in Arlington:

Arlington County firmly believes that improvements for both those on the ground and the flying public are possible and necessary,” the letter says. However, “it does not seem reasonable to the County that local communities, who are not experts on the needs, constraints and opportunities with regards to aviation, should be tasked with solving this problem.

Rep. Beyer and his regional colleagues in Congress worked collaboratively with the County Board to make FAA more responsive to community concerns.

The flaws exposed in NextGen

All this heightened public scrutiny of NextGen exposed a serious problem. Although its goal for NextGen was to improve efficiency, the FAA used what many consider to be a flawed procedure to estimate the likely noise impacts of the flight-path changes NextGen produced. While the FAA did perform an environmental review of the new flight path, noise impact testing was done through modeling, rather than through in-field testing, without using an agreed upon established baseline noise level.

Conclusion

A much more extensive review of Rep. Beyer’s leadership on these issues can be found here.

As is evident from its decision to scrap LAZIR B, FAA now is listening to and considering community input. This would not have happened without Rep. Beyer’s leadership. Moving forward, the FAA working group will continue to evaluate proposed changes.

by Peter Rousselot — January 19, 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. 

The start of the 2017 Virginia legislative session has brought with it a batch of proposed bills relating to voting rights.

Many of these bills address issues that have been raised in the recent past, and have — rightly or wrongly — provoked hyper-partisan arguments between Democratic and Republican legislators and governors. Well-known examples include bills on voter ID requirements and re-enfranchisement of convicted felons who have served their sentences.

After the passionate arguments on both sides have been made, it won’t be surprising if the current law on issues like those specified above remains the same after the 2017 Virginia legislative session ends.

Both Democrats and Republicans should support no excuse absentee voting

No excuse absentee voting has been enacted by a majority of U.S. states — both “red states” and “blue states.” You can see which states have adopted no excuse absentee voting here.

Like other voting rights issues, Arlington voters could only obtain the right to no excuse absentee voting if that right is enacted at the state level because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state.

Current law

Virginia has developed a series of 15 narrowly-defined “excuses” that entitle voters to vote absentee. Unless your reason for wanting to vote absentee fits squarely within one or more of the 15 categories on the authorized list, you can’t vote absentee. Review the 15 categories here.

No excuse absentee voting is good for Virginia

Virginia’s current system should be changed. It should be replaced by a system that permits any qualified voter to vote absentee without first having to provide any excuses.

The bedrock reason why the current system should be changed is that experience in other states has demonstrated that no excuse absentee voting offers a greater number of qualified voters the opportunity to choose their elected officials. The broader the base on which our political leadership rests, the more likely that decisions made by our leaders will be respected.

Opponents of the no excuse system have argued that it encourages too many voters to vote too early, thereby foreclosing their opportunity to vote based on late-breaking developments in a political campaign. There is no question that some voters experience such regrets some of the time. Weighing this risk against the depression of voter turnout under the current system, the benefits of providing greater opportunities to vote outweigh the risks that some voters might regret that they voted too early.

Virginia 2017 legislative status

Del. Betsy Carr of Richmond is sponsoring HB 1935, to establish no-excuse, in-person absentee voting in Virginia. However, at least at this writing, no legislation has been introduced to establish no excuse, absentee voting by mail.

The Virginia ACLU properly has pointed out the reasons why no excuse, absentee voting by mail also should be approved for Virginia’s voters:

If Virginia law limits no-excuse absentee voting to in-person only, qualified voters may be excluded from participating based upon a lack of readily accessible transportation, geography, income status, physical disabilities, and the constraints of modern-day individuals and families.

Conclusion

No excuse absentee voting should be a subject on which Virginia Republicans and Democrats can agree. No excuse absentee voting will enable more Virginians to vote. The patchwork quilt of 15 authorized excuses that we have now should be replaced by: no excuses necessary.

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.

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