ARLnow.com reported last week that the County Board is planning to vote at a public hearing in December to allow the creation of “Housing Conservation Districts.”
The currently-proposed districts are bordered in yellow on this map accompanying that ARLnow story:
The vote the Board should cast this month is to send the entire Housing Conservation District proposal back to the drawing board.
There are far too many serious:
- policy questions that require months’ more study, analysis, and civic engagement
- legal issues, including possible Fifth Amendment regulatory takings
Some of these concerns were highlighted by speakers at the recessed County Board meeting on November 27.
These concerns cannot be resolved appropriately this month.
It makes no sense to vote on the advertised Phase I without a full understanding of all the implications of Phase II (or any other subsequent phases).
Some of the things we don’t know about Phase II include:
- Property rights of existing owners: The owners’ value/rights might be enhanced by adding more development options, or might be diminished because the committed affordable (CAF) requirements and other things extracted in exchange for added density are too high to make it worth it. Favorable details would reduce law suit risks for the County (regulatory takings); unfavorable details would enhance such risks. Significantly, on November 27, major developer and ownership interests appeared, expressed willingness to work transparently on the details with the County and its residents, but strongly opposed a vote in December on the phased process envisioned in the advertisement.
- Effects on affordable housing: If the policy on net tilts towards allowing new building options, vs being focused on restricting redevelopment, this might prompt the addition of a lot more units. But, details are critical. How many market rate units would be added (helping put downward pressure on price in that segment) vs how many are CAFs, adding to supply in that segment? If the burdens placed/number of extractions demanded for this new development are too high, then we essentially rope off prime land.
- Budgetary implications: Who knows, and how can it be prudent to proceed without knowing? One staff slide had a line on it, “funding source needs to be identified.” Is this going to be a new public expenditure/a tax exemption? Is this going to be another transfer/extraction from developers, which could further push up market rate rents? What are the impacts on school funding, etc., etc.?
- Neighborhood interests: How much density will be added and where will it be added? Will the added options still have to conform to the current height and dwelling unit restrictions? Is it just about making infill easier within current limits, or is this about true up-zoning? For properties like these which are not in the Metro corridors, traffic and parking impacts do become great concerns, but since critical details are unknown, the neighbors, the public and the County Board are all left clueless.
Arlington’s Economic Development Commission has voted unanimously against this way of proceeding. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, various other business groups, and the Lee Highway Alliance oppose the process and timeline envisioned by the advertisement.
What’s the rush?
Don’t vote on Phase I until the Arlington community fully understands all the implications of all the phases.
In the last segment of its November 28 work session, the School Board discussed a proposed “Framework” for its forthcoming FY 2019-28 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). APS will begin formal planning for its new CIP in January.
Given competing demands on Arlington County’s budget, APS’ leadership must adopt a much more cost-conscious approach at every stage of its capital budgeting processes. New enrollment growth projections are now expected in mid-December.
There have been some glimmers of hope.
At an Board meeting earlier this year, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy acknowledged that he was “hearing from the community some concern about the CIP,” and that for future new school construction projects “there will be three flavors of budgets: Low, Medium and High.” (See video between 1:37:30 and 1:40:25.)
Murphy’s new approach needs to be very closely scrutinized to be sure that the 3 flavors of budgets are not “high, higher, and highest.”
Another glimmer of hope arises from the decision by the School Board’s internal auditor to examine how APS’ school construction costs compare to those in other jurisdictions. But, the auditor’s work product also will need close scrutiny, as the Sun-Gazette recently editorialized:
We’re hopeful that the auditor’s report on construction provides a true window into reality, not a whitewashed look by focusing on a narrow cadre of school districts with similar spending mentalities.
There are several things we must do together as a community to ensure that APS:
- does provide the best fiscally-prudent new seats for our students, but
- does not continue to spend money on capital projects “like the spigot would never run dry”
First, the County Board needs to be clear regarding how much capital spending will be available to APS in each of the ten years in the next CIP.
Second, as construction costs rise, School Board members must become much more proactive with their own staff by insisting upon cost-consciousness and new strategies in building construction and renovation.
Third, we need reformed civic engagement processes in which the public can weigh in early enough concerning a manageable number of budget-driving alternative options. We cannot continue with processes in which citizens or staff are enabled to add one feature after another, never being told what the costs of doing so are nor that APS can afford X or Y but not both.
Recently, a very savvy schools’ activist shared with me her kitchen-table solution for the problems with APS’ past approach to school construction and renovation:
For our home renovation, my husband and I decided on our total budget for the renovation FIRST, then as we were designing the house with the architect, we kept insisting on getting some high-level price estimates so we could decide if we wanted to continue going down [that] path.
With APS, they do have some high-level planning with the CIP to set some general parameters for budget, but it’s my perception that it’s been the norm to involve the public through various engagement processes, like Building Level Planning Committees, completely disassociating it with any cost estimates/total budget, and of course, very few people are making cost-conscious suggestions when it’s treated as Wish Lists with open checkbooks.
In the past, School Board members too frequently have rationalized high construction and renovation costs.
Now they need a new attitude: we can do more for less money.
At its November 18 meeting, the County Board is scheduled to vote on new policies relating to parking requirements for certain new residential construction projects in Metro corridors.
The proposed policies include the following features (among others):
- Lower parking minimums closer to Metro station entrances than for areas farther from those entrances
- Allowances for developers to substitute bike parking, carsharing, or investments in Capital Bikeshare for fewer parking spaces
- Lower dedicated visitor parking minimums
When this column was submitted, the County Manager’s Report and Recommendation on this agenda item 47 had not yet been posted on the website.
In last month’s ARLnow.com story about these proposed new policies, one of the most up-voted comments (25 up-votes) was:
The staff proposes “Minimum parking requirements for market-rate units ranging from 0.2 to 0.6 spaces per unit depending on distance from the nearest Metro station entrance (ranging from 1/8 to 3/4 of a mile).” But if you look at the staff’s own study (page 8), parking demand ranges from 0.6 to 1.2 spaces per unit depending on distance from the nearest Metro station entrance (ranging from 1/8 to 3/4 of a mile).
In another comment, Chris Slatt, chair of the Transportation Commission, countered:
- If you never let anyone try a parking ratio below 1.0, then you never get data on what occupancy rate you end up with below 1.0.
- It’s a minimum. Nobody [is] forcing anyone to build 0.3 spaces per unit.
- If the alternatives are properly managed…then people with cars will self-select to the buildings that provide more parking.
Some Rosslyn-Ballston corridor civic associations sided with the skeptics. The Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association opposed (letter, 11/13/17) any new mandatory minimum standards, arguing for lower limits only on a case-by-case basis.
The Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association suggested (letter, 11/07/17) that the Board amend the staff’s proposal by setting all minimum parking ratios to be at least 0.5 spaces/unit.
There may be a case within all (or portions) of either or both Metro corridors (Rosslyn-Ballston and Crystal City) for reduced mandatory minimum residential parking requirements. But, it is unclear on the current record whether lower uniform minimums make sense for all projects, or what offsets (e.g. bike share or mass transit investments) should be adopted in any specific case.
If the County Board decides to enact lower specific numerical mandatory minimums within either or both Metro corridors, residents close to new developments may suffer from an incremental increase in street parkers near their homes (thus denying them proximate parking).
Such residents should be shielded in an appropriate way, for example by stricter non-permit parking limits. These might allow non-permit visitors to park only for four hours duration, after which tickets would be issued.
Finally, the County Board should explicitly state that any decisions it might make regarding the two Metro corridors do not set any precedent for other locations, such as the Lee Highway corridor, that lack comparable proximity to Metro and have completely different traffic patterns.
The county should enact any new mandatory minimums on an experimental basis, with the presumption of approval only on a case-by-case basis for individual projects.
The county should not enact any policies that would drive existing home owners out of vehicles by making it difficult for them to park near their homes.
Staff recommended to defer until the summer of 2018 after APS develops its new Strategic Plan.
APS expects 500-600 high school students to enroll at the Ed Center site by September 2022.
The top four (Slide 11) are:
- STEAM High School*
- Creative and Performing Arts High School*
- Early College*
- Expansion of Washington-Lee (W-L) to include additional International Baccalaureate (IB) seats**
* Stand-alone, new county-wide program requiring self-selecting demand and common spaces in the facility. Expected to limit the number of available seats to 500.
** Such an expansion of W-L can leverage already existing common spaces, thereby providing 600 available seats.
The first two options will require much more extensive internal building conversion changes than the second two.
The viability of the first three options depends critically on the willingness of students voluntarily to enroll in a new APS specialized program. Because of the capacity crunch, the School Board should select an option that will fully utilize all available seats as soon as the building is open to relieve anticipated high school overcrowding elsewhere.
STEAM High School
STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student critical thinking (Slide 12).
Would this new program cannibalize Arlington Tech? Would the best site for a STEAM high school be at the Career Center?
Creative and Performing Arts High School
A Creative and Performing Arts High school specializes in teaching performing and visual arts, combined with academics, preparing students for a career in the arts or conservatory study as well as a pursuit of higher education (Slide 13).
How would implementing such a new program affect the performing and visual arts departments at the current comprehensive high schools?
Early College High School provides an opportunity for students to earn both a high school degree and a two-year associate’s degree (or up to two years of college credits) in four years (Slide 14).
Arlington Tech already offers students Early College Credit. Would there be sufficient demand to maintain full enrollment capacity at both programs?
Expansion of W-L to include additional IB seats
This is the only one of the four options that doesn’t rely 100 percent on students self-selecting a new specialized program. By leveraging common-area spaces in the main W-L building, the Ed Center space could be designed to accommodate 600 seats as opposed to only the 500 seats anticipated with the other three options.
The November 2 meeting concluded without persuasive answers to these questions:
- Why the decision to wait until after the completion of the Strategic Plan wasn’t made in the summer of 2017
- How much worthwhile building conversion planning can be done before the final instructional focus decision is made
The School Board should provide a more complete explanation why deferral is the best way to proceed.
The 5-year budget forecast projects ballooning deficits in the out years.
Past Practices and Policies
Based on past County Board actions and policies, the County Manager historically has allocated the majority of any close-out surplus either to a spending category or, if needed, to keep the County’s reserves at the current required minimum (5 percent of operating expenditures).
The Manager also typically has identified a small remaining portion of the surplus (the available balance) that has not yet been allocated to any purpose. Over a seven-year period, this unallocated surplus has ranged from $36.1 million (FY 2012) to $11.1 million (FY 2017). Every penny of surplus revenue exceeding the dedicated 5 percent minimum operating reserve gets allocated to spending.
Last week, I posed this question:
Does County government commit or earmark too much surplus revenue for spending rather than beefing up reserves or offsetting tax or fee increases?
The answer is: yes. Therefore, the County Board should act this November to change or clarify the County’s policies regarding both allocated (particularly the “assigned” or earmarked portion) and unallocated close-out surplus funds. This transition might take more than one year because organizations and individuals have planned based on the County’s current seriously-flawed approach.
Because the County holds a large balance of earmarked/assigned funds in its GF Fund Balance ($51,946,981 million in FY2016), it has argued that it has sufficient flexibility, and doesn’t need more than a 5 percent operating reserve.
The credit/bond rating agencies (Fitch, S&P and Moody’s), however, view this earmarked money as being of questionable availability to pay debts. So, they recommend that the County raise its dedicated operating reserve toward 10 percent.
Offsetting Tax Increases
In 2016, the Civic Federation passed a resolution asking the County Board to use a “fair and reasonable” portion of the close-out surplus to offset tax increases.
Why? Because the cumulative impact of successive real estate tax increases (a combination of assessment and/or tax-rate increases) has become burdensome for many County residents and businesses, as The Washington Post has documented:
These cumulative increases — assessment or tax rate, or both — make housing less affordable for all Arlingtonians, and render our expensive commercial office space less competitive (as tax increases are passed along to tenants by property owners).
Real estate tax increases disproportionately harm residents living in the County’s committed “affordable” housing units — undermining the housing subsidies the County provides — as well as those lower/middle-income and fixed-income residents who receive no County housing subsidy.
The County Board should act this November to change or clarify Arlington County’s current seriously-flawed approach to allocating close-out surplus funds. This is a major issue that extends far beyond the unallocated surplus (this year: $11.1 million).
Whether the County Board chooses to lessen the impact of tax increases in the upcoming fiscal year, add to dedicated reserves or simply stash the cash in a flexible “unassigned” category, Arlington County’s current approach of spending or earmarking every penny of surplus revenue isn’t in our community’s best interests.
The current “budget roundtables” could be strengthened substantially if the public were offered a manageable number of choices, each of which would eliminate the ballooning five-year deficits forecast by the Manager.
In September, I explained why county government should temporarily defer until the following spring allocating any annual close-out surplus.
Here’s that column’s most up-voted comment (24 up votes):
Spend a $17.8M surplus one year, then raise taxes the next year by $11.1M. I don’t care who you are…this single fact should make smoke spurt out of your ears.
Today, I pose a related question: does County government commit or earmark too much surplus revenue for spending rather than beefing up reserves or offsetting tax or fee increases? (The final 2017 close out report was not available when this column was submitted.)
An October 3 Arlington County Civic Federation report (drafted by former Deputy Arlington County Treasurer John Tuohy) analyzes the County’s FY 2016 General Fund (GF) Fund Balance, an account that receives surplus close-out funds (collected revenues minus budgeted expenditures) at the end of the June 30 fiscal year.
Below, you can see how money in the GF Fund Balance is allocated:
What Portion of the Fund Balance Is Reserves?
Of this $191,243,859 in the GF Fund Balance, the County Board sets aside a “no-touch” operating reserve of $59,885,262 — or about 5.16% of budgeted revenues — for the County AND Arlington Public Schools. Board policy restricts use of these reserves to unforeseen emergencies (e.g., natural disasters, economic emergencies).
There is an additional $5 million self-insurance reserve and a small, separate “economic stabilization” contingency reserve within the GF Fund Balance.
Experts, including bond rating agencies, set 5 percent as the minimum operating reserve, but many recommend reserve levels as high as 10 percent of operating expenses. (Even when the percentage remains constant, the bigger the budget, the more you must set aside for reserves.)
Committed Vs. Assigned
By County Board action or policy, the rest — $131,358,597 — is committed or assigned (earmarked) for spending. Committed funds (approved by Board action) cannot be reallocated without a new Board action. Assigned funds (earmarked by the County Manager based on Board policy) can be reallocated.
Allocating Unallocated Close-Out Funds
During the close-out process, the Manager has historically identified a modest amount of surplus funds that are not yet allocated for spending or reserves:
Using County Board policy guidelines, the County Manager recommends how these unallocated surplus funds could be allocated.
By policy and practice, the County Manager does not recommend allocating a portion of the unallocated close-out surplus to offset increases in taxes or fees for the coming fiscal year. (Each 1-cent increase in the real estate tax rate currently generates roughly $7.4 million in ongoing revenue.)
Should the County Board take a different approach next month? Should the county allocate less for spending and more for reserves or to offset tax/fee increases?
I will discuss these questions further in next week’s column.
The Arlington County Board must act now to enable the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to perform its primary long-term planning role with respect to two large parcels of land on Carlin Springs Road: the Kenmore Middle School site and the Urgent Care site.
JFAC recently has been asked to dedicate some of its attention to helping Arlington Public Schools and the county with a phased facility and site development plan for the Career Center site.
While this is an important short-term assignment, it’s vital that both boards — particularly the County Board — take appropriate actions now to enable JFAC to produce a long-term facilities plan for these two large Carlin Springs parcels.
Long-term planning is vital
The County Board must recognize the need to address more comprehensively the challenges of future growth and development by focusing JFAC’s work primarily on the job of coordinating long-term County and APS facility needs, including APS capacity needs, for the next 15 years.
Unfortunately, over the first nine months of JFAC’s existence, the County and School Boards have kept assigning JFAC a series of short-term facilities planning tasks. The two boards need to cut down on using JFAC for these short-term planning assignments.
The Kenmore and Urgent Care sites are critical
The best currently-available, multi-year APS enrollment projections are in a consultant study prepared last fall. A related joint county-APS study, presented at a joint County Board-School Board meeting this past January, concluded (at p23) that Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030.
The multi-year projections in this joint study correctly led both APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy and the leadership of JFAC to conclude that Arlington will need yet another new high school up and running no later than 2032.
Resolving where that new high school ought to be located cannot be decided without first determining the highest and best uses for the Kenmore and Urgent Care sites.
At 32.5 acres, the Kenmore Middle School site is by far the largest piece of land currently owned by APS that could become the site for a new high school. If a high school were located there, one option could be to move the middle school to the Urgent Care site.
To enable JFAC to evaluate these options, the County Board needs to lead now on a series of issues, especially issues relating to paralyzing traffic problems which inhibit any further identification for uses at either Kenmore or the Urgent Care property.
For example, the County Board needs to engage now with:
- Virginia Department of Transportation and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then set aside funding to improve the intersection between Carlin Springs Road and Route 50
- Fairfax County regarding additional egress on Arlington County land onto the Arlington County portion of Manchester Street at Route 50
- APS regarding the creation of a possible new turn lane along Carlin Springs Road to Kenmore
- APS regarding possible additional turn lanes between Campbell Elementary School and the Nature Center entrance to the current VHC Urgent Care site
- APS regarding wider pedestrian walks along Carlin Springs Road
- APS regarding a possible pedestrian overpass on Carlin Springs Road
The County Board needs to take the lead to enable JFAC to do its comprehensive long-term planning job as it relates to both of these large sites on Carlin Springs Road.
Last week, County government added an item to the County Board’s agenda for its October 21 meeting.
This item seeks Board approval of a resolution authorizing:
- an offer to purchase certain properties on Shirlington Road
- the transmittal of an agreement of sale to the owner
- the acquisition of the properties for public purposes and by eminent domain, if purchase negotiations are ineffectual or unsuccessful
A subsequent notice from the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) stated that the Shirlington properties “would be used for public transit facilities and related uses.”
Acquiring the Shirlington properties outright is a much better choice than swapping those properties for a portion of the more valuable land at the “Buck” site on N. Quincy Street.
Abandon Arcland’s land swap proposal
For far too long, the County has been considering a proposal from an entity called Arcland to swap properties Arcland owns on Shirlington Road in exchange for a portion of the Buck property. Arcland wants the right to use a portion of the Buck property to build and operate a private, self-storage facility. My June 1 column sharply criticized this proposal.
It has been apparent for months that adopting Arcland’s proposal would severely restrict the County’s potential uses of the Buck property. It would:
- result in the permanent loss of 38% of the Buck property’s acreage
- limit short and long-term flexibility in County use of the property
- diminish the potential to expand adjacent park space
The Buck property’s central location, size and flexibility are too unique and valuable to be compromised by a swap with Arcland for low-lying land that may contain hazardous waste.
Decide how best to use Shirlington Road properties
Arlington should organize an open, transparent public process to identify the best uses for the Shirlington Road parcels to be acquired.
JFAC has received a briefing (pp. 18-19) regarding storage issues related to ART and APS buses. The briefing specifically cited the Shirlington Road properties. However, JFAC must promptly turn its attention to long-term,
countywide facilities planning. The detailed public review of alternative uses of these Shirlington Road properties ought not to be assigned to JFAC.
I understand that County staff previously presented possible development options for these Shirlington Road parcels at a meeting of the Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) Working Group. Because Arlington has been “temporarily” parking vehicles/buses at Jennie Dean Park, a 4MRV Working Group member suggested using the Shirlington Road land to build a structured parking garage for County vehicles and APS buses. However, staff countered that it would be “too expensive.”
Staff also claimed that there is a federal security prohibition against co-locating buses and certain other uses too close to each other. Staff should be required to document the precise terms of any such prohibition during the public hearing process.
The County Board should declare publicly that it has abandoned the Arcland land swap in favor of acquiring the Shirlington Road properties outright. Hopefully, this acquisition will be the start of a new commitment to close a serious gap in available public land for critical County services.
Any development of the Shirlington properties will be expensive — and the County is already renting space there to park buses. Therefore, the costs vs. benefits of the structured parking garage option should be fully evaluated rather than rejected out of hand.
In an earlier column, I summarized efforts by Arlington’s civic and elected leaders, including Rep. Don Beyer (D-8) and County Board members Katie Cristol, John Vihstadt and Libby Garvey, to identify solutions to address the problem of increasing aircraft noise in Arlington.
Since 2015, the region has had a growing problem with aircraft noise caused in part by changes to the regional airspace enabled by the FAA’s precise NextGen program.
Arlington civic leaders continue to collaborate on this problem. County Board liaisons Vihstadt and Garvey, together with Arlington Civic Association leaders and staff of Representative Beyer, convened at a September 12 meeting chaired by Vihstadt, to discuss these topics:
- Citizen complaints as the FAA continues to route flights directly over Arlington neighborhoods, with no consensus on remedies within the designated regional noise working group. (Past FAA plans for quieter flights over the Potomac River, were rebuffed by Rosslyn interests, among others.)
- Senior Maryland officials’ letter to the FAA complaining about noise over Montgomery County neighborhoods, requesting that pre-NextGen flight paths be restored. The FAA rejected this request, and Gov. Larry Hogan has directed his Attorney General to sue the FAA.
- Phoenix, Ariz. sued the FAA for failing to collaborate with Phoenix before implementing their NextGen flight paths. On August 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. ruled for Phoenix. A concurring judge noted that the FAA should avoid historically-designated neighborhoods and parks in determining flight paths. (Potomac Overlook Park in Arlington is directly under the current flight paths.)
- Georgetown is suing the FAA to push flight paths away from their location, and thus further towards Arlington.
- Continued efforts by Beyer to successfully hold the line on number and length of flights, while seeking results from a 65dB noise study, which would use actual data from FAA monitors at noise levels below those currently allowed at night at DCA.
The group that convened on September 12 recognized the difficulty of seeking changes at Reagan National Airport (DCA) in view of powerful airline interests that would oppose some of the ideas discussed, but nevertheless advocated that some or all the following ideas be pursued:
- Increasing the fines paid by airlines violating the current nighttime noise limits at DCA, and indexing the fines to future inflation. The current maximum $5,000 fine was established more than 30 years ago, and the total fines paid in 2016 were an extremely modest $140,000. Fine revenue could be used to compensate Dulles airport for lowering its relatively high fees on any flights from within the DCA perimeter of allowed flight distances, thus encouraging Dulles use and decreasing DCA use — an existing goal of Virginia.
- Requiring aircraft to fly at higher altitudes on departure and arrival.
- Allocating the slots at DCA first to the quietest aircraft and last to the noisiest, thus encouraging the earlier adoption of quieter Level 5 engine technology.
- Seeking a letter comparable to the Maryland letter from our U.S. Senators and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to complement Rep. Beyer’s efforts. This letter might request that FAA employ more naturally-dispersed flight paths by using precise NextGen navigation.
- Designating DCA as a model airport to validate the most useful noise abatement concepts for potential adoption in other urbanized areas.
The next meeting of the group that met on September 12 is scheduled to occur in mid-November.
At its September 16 meeting, the County Board rejected a staff proposal to light two synthetic turf fields at Williamsburg Middle School.
In rejecting staff’s ill-considered WMS field-lighting proposal, the Board, led by members John Vihstadt and Christian Dorsey, wisely relied on advice the Board received from the Planning Commission, Parks Commission, Williamsburg Fields Site Evaluation Workgroup, Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, and hundreds of citizens from all across Arlington.
County staff’s efforts to install field lights at WMS got off on the wrong foot and stayed there. As the Board acknowledged in 2013, WMS neighborhood residents were “ambushed” by County staff.
Four years of misguided staff efforts reveal deficiencies in civic engagement, policy, and management. These deficiencies (e.g., reliance on a sole-source lighting vendor, mandating lights at every synthetic turf field) are documented in the commission reports.
Future community hopes regarding civic engagement rest on Assistant County Manager Bryna Helfer’s team developing and implementing new approaches to rectify these past staff failures.
Issues relating to policy and management are summarized in the Planning Commission’s letter to the Board. For example, in explaining why she could not vote for lighting the WMS fields now, commissioner Nancy Iacomini noted:
“[T]he County does not have siting principles for lighted fields nor does it have implementation criteria about how the lighting would be achieved. …There is nothing the community can look to for direction on where fields should be lit and how they should be lit.”
Commission chair Erik Gutshall concurred, observing that:
“He cannot find how lighting the fields and the intensity of use into the night will not impact the neighborhood. However, it is irresponsible for the County to not find field space somewhere and the POPS process should outline specific decision criteria for siting and implementation and mitigation for field lighting. He would support lights at this site in the future if a deliberate process determined this is the best site for lights. He believes other options will be found.”
Even commissioner Stephen Hughes — the only one out of 10 Planning Commissioners who voted in favor of lighting now — agreed that “the processes — both the County’s and APS’ — were wrong and broken.”
WMS neighbors are not selfish NIMBY fanatics. They simply chose to live in an area in which it’s currently quiet and dark at night, and in which some of their homes are located less than 100 feet from the WMS fields. Wildlife abound.
As “Green Space Fan” noted in a comment to last week’s ARLnow.com lighting story:
“15-20 times as much playing time can be added by installing safe synthetic turf and less polluting lights at Kenmore, installing synthetic turf on lighted grass fields at TJ, Quincy & Gunston and building a new lighted field at Long Bridge without starting a war between the sports community & folks who live in all parts of the County, including apartments, townhouses & single-family homes.”
As both Gutshall and “Green Space Fan” have suggested, the County now transparently must adopt:
- proper lighting criteria
- with a county-wide focus
- balancing sports use with neighborhood character
That ought to result in lighting some other fields throughout Arlington, but not lighting fields at WMS.
Finally, the County Board must take the lead in enacting reforms to correct the numerous policy and management failures documented in the commission reports.
Last year, responding to years of community pressure, the county government finally adopted a new review process in which the County Manager’s close-out surplus recommendations were first proposed in October, but not voted upon until November.
I strongly recommended last fall that almost all of last year’s $17.8 million close-out surplus be kept in reserve until the FY 2018 budget was approved.
Despite support from Board member John Vihstadt for such a reserve, the Board voted last fall to spend most of the surplus. When it came time to approve the FY 2018 budget this spring, the Board approved a tax rate increase of 1.5 cents, estimated to produce $11.1 million.
Arlington should follow certain principles to guide its decisions in allocating any close-out surplus.
- A fair and reasonable percentage (i.e., a percentage higher than 0 percent) 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 any FY 2017 close-out surplus would be earmarked for property tax rate moderation in calendar-year 2018. Adopting this principle would not necessarily mean that the calendar-year 2018 property tax rate would fall, rise or remain the same.
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 any remaining surplus.
Similarly, we should consider using some percentage of any close-out surplus for early debt retirement when that makes financial sense. Retiring debt early will help free up more bond capacity in addition to reducing interest expense.
- The remainder of any close-out surplus (after setting aside a percentage for tax rate moderation and any debt reduction) should next be considered to address any emergency that requires funding before final adoption of the FY 2019 operating budget
An “emergency” expenditure is one that simply cannot be deferred until the FY 2019 operating budget is approved in April 2018. Reasons for not waiting until April 2018 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, before using surplus close-out funds, the county should first determine whether it already has an appropriate reserve fund set aside which it could tap to cover the emergency.
- All other proposed uses of any close-out surplus automatically should be deferred, and the remaining funds’ allocation should be decided in conjunction with the FY2019 budget process
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).
In its final FY 2018 budget guidance adopted this spring, the County Board directed the Manager “to provide an option for County Board consideration that would direct all carryover funds to consideration in the FY 2019 budget process, except for what the Manager deems to be emergency or unanticipated needs that, in his best judgment, require immediate allocation or appropriation.”
At a minimum, the Board should adopt that option this fall.
In an article last week, ARLnow.com highlighted comments by the CEO of the Ballston Business Improvement District about the NSF departure. Tina Leone struck a note of reassurance:
Leone said the neighborhood is going to be just fine without a federal tenant [NSF] and its more than 2,000 employees, even though she said it will add about 1 percent to Arlington’s office vacancy rate … Leone said the reason for her optimism lies in the major development projects underway…
Ms. Leone is doing her job to promote Ballston. But from a long-term fiscal perspective, the “major development projects underway” do not justify her optimism.
New Ballston development projects are likely to be a fiscal net negative
As one commenter on last week’s Ballston story aptly summarized:
All of the new buildings in Ballston are residential or educational. The developers of approved (but unbuilt) commercial buildings in Ballston (including one in Liberty Center) are in the process of or have received approval of site plan amendments that permit them to construct residential buildings on their sites.
The long-term fiscal impact of each of these new, large Ballston residential buildings is likely to be a net negative for Arlington’s budget. The total costs of new school seats, parks, and all other public infrastructure required to serve the added residential population in each building are likely to exceed substantially the new tax revenues that each project and its new residents will generate.
Examples of studies elsewhere that document this likely net-negative outcome include:
- Counting the Costs of Growth (Albemarle County/Charlottesville)
- The Fiscal and Economic Impacts of Stafford County’s Proposed 2008 and 2010 Comprehensive Plans
- A Meta-Analysis of Cost of Community Service Studies (“We find clear support for the common perception that residential land uses tend to have ratios greater than one, while commercial/industrial and agricultural/open-space land uses tend to have ratios less than one.”)
Unlike its neighbors, Arlington fails to prepare short-term and long-term fiscal impact analyses of projects like those approved for Ballston
Neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun counties use some form of project-specific fiscal 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 fiscal impact assessments are common to all of us.
Falls Church City has utilized fiscal impact analyses for years, and has a detailed description of its model.
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.
Arlington should adopt project-specific fiscal impact statements
The Community Facilities Study Group’s (CFSG) Final Report contained this Recommendation No. 12:
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.
Why hasn’t Arlington County adopted CFSG Recommendation No. 12?
Both short-term and long-term planning must include a fiscal component.
Arlington should adopt fiscal planning tools like those long-since used by its neighbors.
In an article last week, ARLnow.com chronicled inspection delays plaguing the opening of the new BrickHaus beer garden.
Last week’s article cross-referenced a 2016 ARLnow story detailing complaints by former Virginia Del. Rob Krupicka. He vented about navigating Arlington’s permitting and inspection process to open a donut shop.
This spring, the permitting process for home remodeling was slammed in Arlington Magazine.
I interviewed someone who recently opened a small professional services firm in Arlington.
I called this person’s attention to Krupicka’s experience. Was their own more recent experience similar? Answer: yes.
To recap, this is some of what Krupicka said:
- “Payments have to be made by mail or in person rather than online and for some things you can’t move forward without payment, so that means waiting in line in the planning office for hours.”
- “Planning, Zoning, Health, etc. don’t talk to each other and it appears they don’t understand where each other fits in the process. The process actually seems to assume the small business person will force that communication and coordination. …The big guys just hire lawyers. Small businesses should not have to.”
- “Many permits need to be applied for in person. You can’t just submit them online. … I have spent days waiting in the county offices. I have overheard a lot of very unhappy individuals and business people.”
- “There is an online system for some things, but … it was very cumbersome. I spent hours working with tech support to get it to work.”
Next, I asked my source to summarize their own experience:
- “There are often complaints of conflicting and differing interpretations of code requirements. For one business I know, they installed the door system according to their approved plans. The first inspector told them it wasn’t approvable, and that they had to replace it with an entirely different system. They made the substitution at great expense. The second inspector told them the re-worked door system was not approvable, and he would only accept the door system that matched their approved building permit plan set. The tenant then had to re-construct the door system for the third time.”
- “The inspectors use clip boards and then have to go back to the office and enter the data into a desktop. That doubles the effort that the inspectors have to make for each site. Arlington County needs to update from clipboards to a hand-held data management system.”
- “Technology updating could improve communication with customers/contractors. The data is then instantly reviewable by supervisors and those in other related departments with open permits dependent upon sequential and related inspections.”
Arlington correctly preaches that continually attracting small businesses is vital to our economic future. But, Arlington’s permitting and inspection practices badly undermine its sermons.
Arlington County is still trying to compete using paper in a digital world. Meanwhile, APS is giving iPads to every elementary school student in grades 2-5.
Legendary N.Y. Yankees Manager Casey Stengel proved himself a world-class baseball manager in the 1950’s. In 1962, Casey was hired as the manager to help launch the expansion N.Y. Mets. Expressing his frustration over the Mets’ team performance, Casey famously asked, “can’t anyone here play this game?”
When will someone be held accountable for the long-standing deficiencies in permitting and inspection? Why can’t Arlington County play this game?
You should read the current two-page draft plan outline, and submit comments by September 13 using the comment form.
Just last year, the County Manager created the new Office of Communication and Public Engagement. The office was created in the wake of multiple civic engagement fiascos (e.g. WRAPS process, Fire Station 8, Bluemont Park baseball field). Bryna Helfer was appointed an Assistant County Manager to lead the office.
Over the past four to six months, Bryna and her team have been actively meeting with community leaders to gather insights about how they viewed public engagement, particularly for capital projects. The team has held meetings with government planners, engineers, county leadership and County Board members.
The team believes four key themes emerged:
- Engagement Opportunities
- Communication Practice
- Diversity of Views and Participants
- Lack of Capacity
The resulting draft plan raises many issues, some mentioned, some not.
Strategies for different projects and policies
The County plans to use the development of next year’s Capital Improvement Plan as a pilot to test improved strategies for civic engagement concerning new capital projects. This makes sense. However, there should be other distinct civic engagement models for other types of major county decisions (e.g., significant new policies, major capital maintenance, ranking among priorities based on overall budget constraints) — each with clear explanations for community engagement.
Staff must disclose up front all current assumptions and restrictions for all projects and policies. If necessary, neutral facilitators should be employed to conduct civic engagement.
Arlington’s civic associations, ranging from the many superbly-managed ones all the way to some non-existent ones, always will display a spectrum of effectiveness because these are volunteer groups. The county government, NOT civic associations, must assume primary responsibility and accountability for civic engagement with respect to taxpayer-funded projects and policies.
The County should maintain a separate, interactive webpage with all information, data, assumptions, civic engagement results (favor, oppose) and FAQs about the projects or policies subject to civic engagement.
Project and policy definitions
If the county only asks, “where shall we put the basketball court?”, and never asks, “do you want a basketball court?”, the county and its citizens are in serious trouble.
Weight of community opinions
The weight to be given community opinions depends on knowledgeable expertise. In siting a new school, a community’s opinion about whether to build “up or out” should be entitled to a lot more deference than whether a foundation can bear the weight load.
Limits of civic engagement
Even the best civic engagement practices cannot prevent fiascos caused by other factors such as:
- wrong policies
- lack of proper staff training
- needs changing
- lack of accountability
If the policy is wrong, change it. If staff lacks training, train them. If needs change, then processes need to be flexible. If staff members are never disciplined, transferred, nor fired for repeated mistakes, civic engagement cannot fix that fundamental management failure.
No outreach, survey, tool, process or plan is perfect. However, because Arlington properly relies so heavily on its numerous and talented citizen volunteers, the County must ensure that it is delivering the best possible opportunities for fair, transparent and inclusive civic engagement.
The May & June 2017 Friends of Aurora Highlands Park Newsletter contains excellent additional civic engagement suggestions.
On July 11, Arlington posted a “Preliminary Draft” of its new Public Spaces Master Plan. This draft reflects considerable thought and effort. I encourage you to provide your comments by the newly-extended August 31 deadline.
The PSMP (p. 2) seeks to provide the foundation for:
a network of publicly- and privately-owned public spaces that connect the County‘s established neighborhoods and growing corridors to natural areas, protect valuable natural resources, provide opportunities for structured and casual recreation, and ensure access to the Potomac River, Four Mile Run, and their tributaries.
Today’s column discusses only a small number of issues raised by this 272-page draft.
I have highlighted previously the urgency of preserving and materially increasing Arlington’s inadequate park and recreation resources to address dramatically increasing demands from the projected county population growth of 63,000 people (29 percent) by 2040.
The PSMP core “Strategic Direction 1 – Public Spaces” seeks to “ensure equitable access to spaces for recreation, play and enjoying nature by adding and improving public spaces.”
These proposed changes can help reach this goal:
The PSMP states (p. 44): “Arlington has over 2000 acres of parkland, both County and non-County owned…” However, without greater clarity as to what is being counted as “parkland” (e.g., possibly all APS facilities and “unusable” portions of the federally-owned GW Parkway are included), this global number appears inflated and misleading.
The relevant issue is the amount of additional parkland needed in Arlington to meet present and future demand. See the “Population-Based Standards” chart (p. 90).
New “Public Space”
Proposed “Action” 1.1 (p. 70) states: “Add at least 30 acres of new public space over the next 10 years.” Inclusion of this land acquisition goal is critical and has widespread community support.
However, “Natural Areas and Wildlife Habitats” ranked as the second highest outdoor need on the statistically valid 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey, and county citizens are consistently calling for more natural green space: “We want natural grass, trees, and a place to relax.”
This goal should be clearly focused on the county acquiring more “green parkland” or it will be “fulfilled” in large part by more hardscape plazas and/or synthetic turf in our urban corridors.
The PSMP should also incorporate the three separate sub-categories of “natural lands”, “unstructured” (or “casual use”) areas, and “structured” areas, i.e. athletic fields and courts I previously recommended. This should also provide explicit prohibitions on any loss of natural lands and “casual use” areas.
New Land Acquisition Policy
While hopefully facilitating parkland acquisition, this policy needs revisions to avoid filtering out critical present and potential “natural lands” and “casual use” areas. Higher points must be awarded to such “natural lands” that don’t have “special features.” Criteria affording points to such “casual use” areas need to be added. Points should also be reallocated from existing plans where parcels may already have been developed to parcels with strong community support identified on an “ad hoc” basis.
The PSMP is a new step forward for Arlington’s park and recreation resources. Although creative mechanisms to acquire more parkland are identified, our critical need for preserving and increasing our parkland — particularly our “green parkland” — can only be met with a strong commitment by the County Board in our budgets and CIPs for the foreseeable future.