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
Arlington County and APS face extraordinary challenges because of COVID-19.
COVID-19 must become the catalyst for County government and APS completely to reorganize and integrate their operating and capital planning now.
County Board July 7 special election
Independent candidate Susan Cunningham appropriately devotes an entire press release to many helpful suggestions for accelerating County/APS collaboration, including:
“The County Board, School Board, County Manager, and new Superintendent should sit down together immediately to prioritize what’s essential for our school community and the entire Arlington community.”
Democratic nominee Takis Karantonis astutely concludes:
“I am a strong supporter of the work done by the 2015 Community Facilities Study group [“CFSG”]. I have been frustrated by a seeming lack of support among School and County Board members for the thoughtful recommendations in that study.”
Republican nominee Bob Cambridge correctly confirms that “effective management requires initiatives such as cost-benefit analyses.”
School Board November 3 general election
Symone Walker, the Independent candidate:
“[I]t is time … to better manage and direct Arlington’s growth in a more paced and modulated manner. I favor the approach to retrofit and repurpose existing APS and county facilities as has been done in Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria. I favor this approach as practical, more efficient and environmentally friendly, and the most cost-effective.”
The two ACDC-endorsed candidates:
Cristina Diaz-Torres has “long supported APS and the County engaging in more robust cost-benefit analysis procedures for construction. This is particularly important given the current economic crisis and the likely drop in both tax revenue and (potentially) bond capacity.”
David Priddy states “for years we have had conversations around facilities owned by the county and facilities owned by APS. The two were not in agreement. That meant we did not have the full picture when properly planning for future growth.” Read More
A new report by the Civic Federation (CivFed report) analyzes Arlington’s recent historical spending on park and recreation investments funded with Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) bond dollars.
The CivFed report’s results are summarized in a table on page 1. Roughly 86% of all bond funds were dedicated to recreational uses. By contrast, less than 5% was spent on land acquisition and less than 2% was invested in open space and natural habitat.
Resource allocation mismatch
This funding allocation history is inconsistent with the public’s stated priorities for outdoor park and recreation investments, as determined by the County’s 2016 “statistically valid” survey, which ranked investments in trails, natural areas, and wildlife habitat as top priorities to satisfy unmet or partially unmet needs in our community.
In three of the last four park and recreation bond referenda appearing on November ballots, land acquisition was offered as a rationale for borrowing the funds. Yet, CivFed’s report notes a consistent shortfall in the County’s acquisition of new public land — just 1.82 total acres acquired since 2015, well below the annual 3-acre per year target in the 2019 Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP).
Although the County has made significant investments in trail modernization and expansion through various funding mechanisms (including transportation funding), the same cannot be said for land acquisition or for investment in natural areas and wildlife habitat.
Beyond the 2016 community survey priorities, the County has set aggressive goals in its plans for stormwater management and flood resilience, as well as energy-use reduction coupled with urban heat island mitigation. See the 2014 Stormwater Master Plan and the 2019 Community Energy Plan.
Acquiring land to preserve and harness natural County infrastructure is essential for meeting these goals while simultaneously allowing the County to satisfy previously identified unmet or partially met needs for natural open space supporting human health as well as wildlife.
On May 19, the CivFed voted overwhelmingly (63-5-1) to approve an important resolution making three recommendations to guide future park and recreation investments:
- The County should balance its capital investments to “fund passive park features (including wildlife habitat and open space), trails, and parkland acquisition on a more equitable basis with respect to its recreational investments.”
- The County should “demonstrate more forward-thinking and commitment to land acquisition for passive park use,” especially through the purchase of land identified as a “Generational and Unique Opportunity” in the PSMP.
- The County should “consider as a high priority dual-purpose sites that can be used for flood mitigation and Open Space-Natural Habitat,” as described in the 2014 Stormwater Master Plan.
Planning for Arlington’s future during a pandemic
On May 19, in response to uncertainty prompted by the pandemic, the County Manager proposed a scaled-back, one-year CIP just for 2021, rather than the traditional 10-year plan.
Stormwater management/flood resilience continues to be included as a funding priority in this one-year CIP. This priority is consistent with CivFed’s third recommendation to acquire land that serves a dual purpose.
The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority (NOVAParks) owns and operates Arlington’s primarily natural Potomac Overlook, Upton Hill and W&OD Trail regional parks.
But NOVAParks seems to have lost the trail outlined in its own Mission Statement which emphasizes (at p.7) enriching our lives “through the conservation of regional natural and cultural resources.”
Arlington’s statistically valid resident park survey (at p. 4) found that our community’s three most desired park features are multi-use trails, hiking trails, and natural areas & wildlife habitats. Yet NOVAParks is now single-mindedly pursuing funding for a project to dramatically widen the W&OD trail to create an environmentally damaging commuter thoroughfare.
NOVAParks’ W&OD trail widening project
NOVAParks proposes replacing the two-mile-long, 10-12 foot-wide segment of the trail paralleling Four Mile Run between N. Roosevelt St. and North Carlin Springs Road. In many areas the new trail will be two parallel paved trails — a 12-foot-wide bike trail, an 8-foot-wide pedestrian trail, a 2-foot median and outside buffers — for a total width of at least 26 feet, equal to some residential streets! Elsewhere, the trail will be widened to 16 feet with outside buffers for a total width of at least 20 feet.
This project should be withdrawn
This project will destroy almost two acres of green space while adding almost two acres of impermeable paved surface, including within Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas (RPA’s) and flood plain along Four Mile Run, threatening increased flooding in Arlington’s BonAir and Bluemont parks. NOVAParks has failed to conduct an “alternatives assessment” of less expensive and environmentally destructive solutions. Finally, NOVAParks has failed to conduct any safety assessment of whether its proposed wider trail, with potentially higher bicycle speeds and volume, will actually increase bicycle speeds, and therefore the frequency and severity of accidents.
The Rouse property is a 9-acre parcel of privately-owned land, located in the Dominion Hills neighborhood at 6407 Wilson Boulevard (corner of N. McKinley Road). On March 4, ARLnow.com reported this property might be for sale for “around $30 million” (roughly double the current assessed value):
“The property is listed as a ‘generational’ site in the county’s Parks Master Plan (page 162).”
Columnist Charlie Clark reported on April 27 that the owner is evaluating a serious offer. If the County loses the strategic opportunity to acquire this unique property, that represents a serious leadership failure.
Declining parkland to population ratio
Arlington comprises only 26 square miles, significant portions of which are controlled by the federal government. We are the smallest U.S. county.
As approved in April 2019, the Parks Master Plan included a public commitment to acquire 3 acres of open space per year for the next 10 years. Honoring this commitment is vital because of the continuing decline in Arlington’s ratio of parkland to population.
A comprehensive 2016 report by the Arlington Civic Federation (“Civ Fed report”) documents this decline (at p. 5):
“As of 2015, Arlington County had 1,784 acres of parkland within its borders. Of those 1,784 acres, 949 acres were owned by Arlington County, 700 acres were owned by the National Park Service (most of which is Arlington Cemetery), and 135 acres were owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
“In 1995, Arlington County had 10.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. By 2014 the County’s population had grown by over 43,000 residents, and the parkland to population ratio had declined to 7.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
“By contrast, Washington, DC, has 13.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and Fairfax County has 28.3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.”
Arlington’s ratio of parkland to population certainly has continued to decline since 2016, as Arlington’s population has surged, enabled by repeated County government decisions to accelerate development and to authorize even more density.
An Arlington Profile 2019 report projects that Arlington’s population will rise by about 50,000 people by 2040. Without adding more parkland inventory, our ratio of parkland to population will continue to degrade.
As explained by my colleagues at Arlingtonians for our Sustainable Future (ASF), many public uses for this land — if not developed for market-rate residential housing — include parkland, flood maintenance and/or a community land trust for affordable housing (e.g., see here) If the last, some affordable housing units could be built, carefully blended into the parkland setting.
Despite the Parks Master Plan’s commitment to acquire 30 acres of open space over the next 10 years, the County’s current (pre-COVID-19) Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) contains zero dollars to acquire open space. Acquiring the uniquely large Rouse property, and devoting all or significant portions of it to parkland, would be a major down payment on this commitment.
Even in these challenging budget times, the County still could afford to make this acquisition because of the flexibility provided by the County’s ample cash reserves.
While the governmental path forward to minimize coronavirus deaths remains uncertain, Virginia has passed a significant number of new common-sense gun safety laws this year. These new laws will help substantially to lower our gun violence death toll from what it would have been without them.
Last week marked the 13th anniversary of the death of 32 students and faculty shot at Virginia Tech.
In 2020, the new Democratic majority in the legislature supported a package of eight major gun-safety laws.
Seven of these narrowly targeted new laws will become effective on July 1. Congratulations to Arlington Delegate Patrick Hope (HD 47) for his leadership on this legislation.
Earlier this month, Virginia enacted these five laws strengthening gun safety:
SB 70 requires a background check for any firearm sale. This new law eliminates a prior provision that made background checks of prospective purchasers at firearms shows voluntary (the gun-show loophole).
The vast majority of the American public support laws requiring background checks on all firearms purchases. More than 90% of both gun owners and non-gun owners support this policy. Strong support for background-check laws also has been measured among NRA members, with at least 69% supporting comprehensive background checks.
Red flag provisions
SB 240 creates a legal mechanism enabling law enforcement temporarily to separate a person from their firearms when they represent a danger to themselves or others. Virginia is now among 19 other states and the District of Columbia to enact this type of law.
One handgun a month
SB 69 reinstates Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law to help curb stockpiling of firearms and trafficking. Laws limiting the number of firearms an individual can purchase per month help reduce the number of guns that end up at the scene of a crime. Virginia used to have a one-gun-a-month law, but repealed that law in 2012 at the request of the NRA.
Lost or stolen firearms
Virginia HB 9 requires gun owners to report their lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours or face a civil penalty.
Children’s access to firearms
Virginia HB 1083 further decreases the chances of children accessing firearms by increasing the penalty for recklessly leaving firearms in their presence.
APS teachers, parents, students, and staff have responded heroically to the shock to their routines presented by the Governor’s decision to end classroom learning for the current academic year. Our community is very fortunate to have educational leaders who have created these full-time distance learning options until in-school instruction can resume.
However, for a variety of reasons — all of which were apparent prior to the coronavirus crisis — APS must transition to revised ways of delivering its educational services. APS’s existing instruction and construction models cannot be sustained long-term.
The Arlington County government also must step up right now and play a proactive role in helping APS plan this essential long-term transition.
Current instruction (operating budget)
On April 6, the County Manager released his revised FY 2021 operating budget, estimating that the revenue available to APS under its revenue-sharing agreement with the County will be $21.6 million lower than estimated in February. This leaves APS with a current $48.6 million operating budget deficit.
But, the balanced operating budget the County Board finally approved last year illustrates why APS’s current instructional model is fiscally unsustainable. In that pre-coronavirus budget year, APS received 75% of the revenue from a 2-cent tax rate increase even though APS currently is only entitled to 47% of locally generated tax revenues.
The County Board unsuccessfully tried to rationalize last year’s decision by pointing to those APS expenses attributable to opening new schools, implying that 2019 was a one-time thing. However, because of very large projected increases in APS enrollment throughout the next decade, APS will have to provide new seats for new students throughout that decade.
Based on last year’s APS enrollment projections, budget, tax rate, and real estate assessments, I explained why Arlington would have to raise its real estate tax rate by about 17 cents over 10 years simply to pay to educate the new students (6,000+) arriving solely due to enrollment growth.
Because APS enrollment is growing even more rapidly than Arlington’s overall population, that means more students per taxpayer, which means higher taxes if there are no significant changes in the ways in which APS operates its schools.
The University of Virginia (UVA) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) have used their status and political power to prevent the Virginia General Assembly from taking action to enable the use of by far the most effective reading readiness screening test (RAN).
Instead, Virginia’s children are being tested using a much less effective test (PALS) from which UVA-associated individuals and organizations derive financial benefits. The Virginia General Assembly will be investigating those financial benefits this year.
The VDOE – UVA literacy screening partnership
Since 1997, Virginia has been using the state-endorsed Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test (PALS), created by UVA, to identify students experiencing or at-risk for reading difficulties. UVA and the VDOE worked in tandem to support and sponsor PALS.
PALS’ questionable effectiveness for identifying dyslexia and other reading disabilities
According to the International Dyslexia Association, “perhaps as many as 15-20% of the population as a whole–have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words.”
Despite Virginia’s screening and intervention processes having been in place since 1997, children continue to be identified after 3rd grade as being dyslexic, when remediation is more intensive and costly to be effective. How many of these students could/should have received more effective K-3 reading interventions based on a timely identification, perhaps obviating their need for special education or remain unidentified and struggling in the general education system?
Despite over five years of multiple contacts with County government, residents in the Arlington Forest and Bluemont neighborhoods are justifiably frustrated by the County’s lack of progress in protecting pedestrians crossing Carlin Springs Road.
The County has failed these neighborhoods in two respects. First, it has failed to take the decisive actions needed to protect pedestrians at several dangerous intersections. Second, it has failed to give sufficient weight to the views and knowledge of neighborhood associations and residents who offered highly relevant on-the-ground observations, surveys, and data.
For years, residents have been collecting their own survey data and examples of children and families being struck or nearly struck by vehicles.
Neighbors see a number of ingredients that contribute to dangerous risks for pedestrians including:
- Increasing traffic from commercial and residential development in Ballston.
- Lack of traffic signals that alert and stop traffic to allow safe crossing, paired with poor sightlines.
- A history of lack of enforcement of the rules of the road
Carlin Springs Road background
In 2016, the Arlington Forest Citizens Association (AFCA) President spoke to the County Board about pedestrian safety concerns from Ballston to Route 50. At that time, former Board member John Vihstadt was assigned as the Board liaison to AFCA.
In 2016 and 2017, AFCA sent letters detailing accounts of children and families nearly getting struck by oncoming traffic. For example, Lara Doyle witnessed a pedestrian near-miss incident she described as a Kenmore Middle School student dodging cars — like the video game Frogger — while attempting to cross the road as yellow pedestrian lights were flashing. The Arlington Forest and Bluemont Civic Associations have formed pedestrian safety committees and have 40+ pages of emails, meeting notes, and formal letters documenting their direct engagement activity with the County.
In the summer of 2018, ARLnow reported on an accident in which a neighbor was struck by a vehicle while commuting to Metro. Neighbors at the time voiced public concerns:
“Yet [Lora] Strine says the area lacks clearly marked crosswalks or traffic calming measures to slow drivers, particularly on such a wide road, and she can’t understand why it’s taken the county so long to address the issue. ‘This accident is not really an accident,” Strine told ARLnow. “It’s really been years in the making.”
Eric Larsen, the accident victim, advocated before the County Board in a statement urging the County to protect pedestrians.
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
Despite mounting evidence that Arlington County government’s past designs for stream “restorations” are fundamentally flawed, the County persists in moving forward with these flawed designs at Donaldson Run Tributary B (“Trib B”), Gulf Branch and elsewhere.
In columns last year, I outlined concerns about the County’s stream restoration designs generally and at Donaldson Run. More recently, I highlighted the County government’s failures to prioritize mature tree preservation on County-or-APS-owned property, e.g., at Ashlawn Elementary.
In December 2019, the County took the extraordinary step of issuing a press release characterizing criticisms of its stream restoration designs as “myths.” To the contrary, these County designs continue to be flawed.
County plan for Trib B stream restoration
The County’s latest stream restoration plan for Trib B would remove 86 large mature trees and plant 332 new trees (from 1-4 inches in diameter) which would have to withstand floods and deer destruction with unlikely high survival rates.
The County asserts many mature trees will simply fall over if restoration does not occur and sediment in the water flow must be arrested to protect the Potomac and Chesapeake. However, the sediment caught in step pools and low areas to moderate this flow will also contain pollutants that will stay in the local environment.
Why the County’s Trib B plan is flawed
The persistent flaws in the County’s stream restorations include:
- The stream bed may be physically restored, but the stream still will be ecologically damaged. “You can’t ask a stream to do everything an entire watershed should do,” said Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland scientist who’s researched stream restoration ecology.
- Damage to the stream’s watershed cannot be rectified without taking a much more environmentally pro-active approach to the impacts of climate change, development, and loss of mature trees.
- Because the era of the “100-year” flood has been left far behind due to climate change, and rectifying the watershed will take many years, the work–and great expense–of physically restoring the stream bed may be washed away in a very short time. Therefore, the next major flood after Trib B is “restored” could ravage the stream bed, require significant rebuilding, and do so without the natural water absorption protection of the major mature trees which the County currently plans to remove.
Planting even hundreds of new trees is no subsitute for the removal of the mature ones. The relative benefits of mature trees vs. small ones are staggeringly in favor of the mature trees as regards CO2 absorption, water absorption, property value and other metrics.
Regionally, in the absence of empirical evidence on the efficacy of stream restoration projects, the issue of tree removal in pursuit of Chesapeake Bay Conservancy credits and to “remediate” stream erosion has elicited widespread recent concern.
In dense urban environments like Arlington, experts caution against the types of stream restoration techniques advocated by the County.
What can be done at Trib B
Some things can and should be done now at Trib B in view of the ravages of recent floods and the County’s lack of any meaningful maintenance of the stream. Some sewer lines may be subject to damage and should be rerouted (e.g., San Diego) or protected. Water pipes should be protected (using any of a wide variety of methods such as stacked stone walls and repairing stormwater discharge pipes) that would not require the heavy equipment the County currently proposes for the “restoration.” And, a relatively few mature trees would have their roots so exposed that they might have to be removed before they fall. CIP funds should be made available for all the above work.
County government is poised to repeat past mistakes by replicating them at Donaldson Run Trib B costing $1.45M for stream work alone (not infrastructure repair). Refusing to address development and land-use problems by merely adjusting stream channels to manage greater volumes of runoff won’t work against climate-change-era floods. Aggressively maintaining Trib B to handle both moderate and truly major floods, possible rerouting of water pipes out of the stream bed, and focusing greater attention on conservation of our natural resources are the keys to a cost-effective Trib B approach.
Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.
Arlington County recently conducted a study asking residents to select and rate a series of values that should be the foundation for setting the County’s water utility rate structure.
The values: Simplicity, Affordability, Conservation, Economic Development, Cost Equity, and Financial Sustainability.
The first three values are straightforward.
Under “Simplicity,” every resident would be charged the same rate for water and sewer. Under “Affordability,” the first 12,000 gallons of water used each year would be priced at a lower rate while usage above that amount would be priced at a higher rate. Under “Conservation,” the structure would look much like the structure under “Affordability,” but there would be three pricing tiers instead of only two.
A case can be made for any of these three scenarios, although none encourages environmental stewardship by providing incentives for residents to use water to protect their trees, bushes, and gardens.
The last three values are far more problematic. Under “Cost Equity,” customers would be charged based on the cost of how they use water and wastewater services. It costs the utility more to deliver water to or collect wastewater from some neighborhoods than it does from others or, as the study indicated, “it may cost more on a per capita basis to pipe water to one family in a single family home than to one family living in a multifamily building.”
Would developers of large apartment complexes receive a price break? Would residents of wealthy North Arlington pay less because they live closest to the aqueduct that brings water to the County?
Our County Board has adopted a resolution defining equity as “all populations having access to community conditions and opportunities needed to reach their full potential and to experience optimal well-being.” But dividing residents based on housing hardly seems equitable. As one study participant noted, “once we start breaking people into different economic groups and discriminating against some, the end result will be confusion and enmity.”
Another participant observed that this approach could well result in higher rates for low income families further from the main water supply.
Under “Economic Development,” the utility rate structure would be the reverse of the utility rate structure under “Conservation.” Big water users (i.e., businesses) would pay a high price for the first million gallons of water; a lower price for the second million gallons; and an even lower price for all additional gallons.
According to latest available U.S. Census data, the professional, scientific, and technical services sector comprises almost 30% of private workplaces and employs more than one quarter of all who work in the Arlington private sector. This sector is not a large water user.
Delegate Patrick Hope (D-47) has introduced a bill: HB 817 to guide digital device use in Virginia public schools.
In Maryland, a landmark bill was unanimously passed to create the nation’s 1st health and safety guidelines on school-issued devices, and the Baltimore superintendent was imprisoned for accepting money from the powerful EdTech industry lobby.
Such legislation should be enacted in Virginia because of the impact of digital devices:
In Arlington, the School Health Advisory Board (SHAB) approved the formation of the Screen Use in Schools Subcommittee (SUS) to advise APS regarding policy implementation for APS-issued devices.
During its research, SHAB discovered that some APS staff were on the advisory board of CoSN (The Consortium of School Networks). Such membership raised serious concerns about undue influence and conflicts of interest regarding what’s best for academic outcomes and the health and well-being of APS students. CoSN membership boasts some of the biggest tech companies in the world, including Microsoft and Amazon Web Services.
While APS parents correctly focus on the total daily time their children spend looking at APS-issued device screens (school and home), CoSN advocates that school screen use is different. See Screens and Kids:
“Shift the conversation. The debate today should not be about “screen time” which made historical sense around the consumption of older, passive technologies, such as television) but “learning time.” When used appropriately technology increases student engagement, helps educators and students accelerate learning, expands opportunities beyond the classroom and enriches the educational environment.”
APS’s screen use policies and practices
APS’s view of screen use simply adopts CoSN’s position:
The phrase “screen time,” as used by academics, refers to using digital media for “entertainment purposes.” Using a digital device for learning is not considered “screen time.”
APS’s view defies common sense. SUS correctly has contested APS’s notion that school screen use should not count in the total daily digital diet of children, just as the food they consume at school counts in their daily caloric intake. SUS’s position finds strong support in an analysis from the National Education Policy Center.