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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
All these new and ongoing measures provide safeguards to strengthen the financial controls and accountability of our County government.
Properly translated, arrivederci means “until I see you again.” The Arlington County government should say arrivederci to the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola.
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?
Until Metro is fixed, the Arlington County government should stop spending any significant further Arlington taxpayer dollars on the Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola.
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 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The County Board should direct the Manager to reconsider his current recommendations by applying the guiding principles discussed above.
Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
At its October 15 meeting, the County Board approved a County staff recommendation to advertise draft regulations relating to Airbnb.
It’s important for health, safety and other reasons to appropriately regulate Airbnb, similar service providers and Arlington homeowners who use these services. Pursuing a robust public-engagement process with respect to draft regulations can be a constructive way in which to improve a draft.
However, the County staff’s proposed December 10 deadline for the County Board’s final adoption of appropriate regulations is problematic due to:
- The exclusion of certain related issues either from the draft regulations and/or from public engagement regarding the draft regulations, and
- Virginia’s ongoing work to enact a state law to cover many of the same areas.
Arlington County staff proposal
The staff proposal:
- Defines a new home occupation use called “accessory homestay,”
- Establishes standards for this use,
- Acknowledges that many related areas have been excluded from advertisement of the proposed regulations, citizen engagement and/or final action on December 10.
Among the many areas that have been EXCLUDED are:
- Requirement of owner-occupancy of the unit,
- No more than one contract for an overnight stay.
Exclusion of any area in the advertisement means that, no matter what any affected party might say, no changes can be made without re-advertising and providing a new thirty-day review period. But, based on public feedback, re-advertising may be the wisest course.
The staff proposal also:
- States that staff “does not know what the 2017 General Assembly will do” regarding the state legislation, but
- Hopes that “implementing regulations in Arlington now could help inform the state’s decision.”
Virginia state legislative status
Legislation regulating Airbnb and similar service providers almost passed in the 2016 Virginia state legislative session. That legislation would have established the Limited Residential Lodging Act (the Act), and would have allowed property owners to rent out their homes or portions thereof for periods of less than 30 consecutive days, or do so through a hosting platform.
The hosting platform could have chosen to register with the Virginia Department of Taxation, in which case the hosting platform would have been responsible for the collection and remittance of all applicable taxes on behalf of the property owner.
Although this legislation did not pass, the Virginia Housing Commission was directed to convene a work group with representation from the hotel industry, hosting platform providers, local governments, state and local tax officials, property owners and other interested parties to explore issues related to expansion of the framework set forth in the draft legislation.
The group was ordered to complete its work by December 1, 2016, with the goal of developing draft legislation for consideration by the 2017 session of the General Assembly.
Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, there is a significant risk that state legislation in 2017 could preempt Arlington’s regulations adopted in 2016. If such state preemption were to occur, it could be seriously disruptive because it could significantly change one or more key substantive provisions in Arlington’s regulations.
Arlington should seriously consider deferring final approval of appropriate regulations until after the 2017 state legislative session. Is there a compelling reason why the final regulations must be enacted in December 2016?
The School Board has begun the process of revising high school attendance boundaries in order to balance enrollment and better utilize spaces at Arlington’s three comprehensive high schools. These boundary changes will be effective September 2017, apply to current eighth grade students who will be entering high school next fall and to each freshman class in the next three school years.
The final revised high school boundary plan is scheduled to be voted upon at the School Board’s December 1 meeting. Further information is available here.
On October 6, the School Board voted to waive its Policy 25-2.2 on enrollment and transfers for middle and high schools. In waiving the policy, the Board offers parents an individual choice to help reduce over-capacity at Gunston, Swanson, and Williamsburg middle schools and Washington-Lee High School.
The School Board should emphasize socioeconomic status in its boundary decisions
Redistricting is going to be our new reality in Arlington as enrollment growth — and the extensive new school facilities needed — ripples through every level of schooling. With Arlington projecting 75,400 new residents by 2040, the school district of today cannot be a promise for tomorrow.
Although the number of students to be transferred this fall is likely to be relatively small, emphasizing socioeconomic status should be a “guiding principle” not only for the inevitable, greater boundary changes to come, but even for this fall’s revisions.
Decades of research justifies emphasizing socioeconomic status
Decades of research shows that socioeconomic integration is an important component to reducing achievement gaps and improving instructional outcomes for all students. Low family income correlates highly with low achievement. See also: “From All Walks of Life” by Richard D. Kahlenberg; “Integrated Education and Mathematics Outcomes: A Synthesis of Social Science Research” by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson and Martha Bottia; and research briefs from The National Coalition on School Diversity.
Given that research shows that social composition of the student body is the most influential school factor for student achievement, shouldn’t we expect our school system to address this question?
The School Board’s own rules require promotion of demographic diversity
Promoting demographic diversity already is one of the criteria (Policy 30-2.2) that the School Board explicitly must consider in revising school boundaries. While APS could utilize a variety of available data to determine demographic characteristics for purposes of school boundary revisions, one comprehensive measure definitely available is current student participation in the Free or Reduced-Price Meals Program (FARM). As of October 2015, the percentage of students participating in this program at our three comprehensive high schools was:
- Wakefield (46%)
- Washington-Lee (31%)
- Yorktown (14%)
There are much more marked disparities in FARM participation in elementary and middle schools. In 2015, FARM participation at the elementary level ranged from Jamestown (2.46%) to Carlin Springs (81.8%). In middle school, FARM participation ranged from Williamsburg (9.16%) to Kenmore (51.57%). The county-wide average proportion of students who qualified for FARM in 2015 was 30.13%.
The instruction offered at all three of our comprehensive high schools is excellent. The difference lies in the socioeconomic status of their cohorts of students. That difference impacts the student experience and overall achievement. Exposure to people who are different provides a vital opportunity to learn life skills including conflict resolution, resilience and critical thinking.
Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
In last week’s column, I outlined some of Arlington’s self-imposed limitations in utilizing “community benefits” as conditions for approving developer site plan requests for additional density. See also my Sept. 22 column recommending preparation of integrated, project-specific fiscal impact statements.
The most critically-necessary community benefits’ reforms include:
Consider fiscal impact statements at each special exception/site plan hearing
Arlington should take advantage of this planning tool routinely utilized for years by other Northern Virginia jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun. Both use project-specific fiscal impact statements as part of their review processes. Even though those jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than Arlington’s special exception/site-plan system, the advantages to policy-makers and the public of utilizing this tool are common to all of our jurisdictions.
Falls Church has utilized fiscal impact statements since 2003.
Arlington should expedite the adoption of its own fiscal impact model to be considered at each special exception/site plan hearing. Any impacts and equitably allocated offsetting community benefits need to be measured from the applicable base by-right zoning.
Assess the impact on schools of incremental enrollment
The fiscal impact model Arlington ultimately adopts should explicitly consider incremental school enrollment impacts.
In Falls Church, voluntary school capital contributions have been a staple of past agreements with developers of mixed-use projects.
The Fairfax fiscal impact model has explicitly considered school impacts since 2003.
Fairfax determines a per-student generation factor by housing type, and estimates how many students are anticipated from the particular mix of housing units in each proposed development. Fairfax then computes a per-student cost for each project, which when multiplied times the number of students anticipated from the project, yields the total incremental enrollment cost that forms the basis for negotiations with the developer.
Important updates to the Fairfax model (effective July 1, 2016) are discussed below.
Assess the impact on parks of incremental usage
Under the updated Fairfax impact model, benefits for incremental school or park usage negotiated with a developer do NOT have to be limited to creation of, or refurbishments to, a school or park within the boundaries of the site of the proposed project — so long as those benefits are “reasonable” in amount and address impacts that are “specifically attributable” to the “residential use component” of the project.
Parks include “playgrounds and other recreational facilities.” Such off-site benefits must provide a “direct and material benefit” to residents of the proposed project. Both on-site and off-site benefits for schools or parks can include cash.
Allow citizens to speak publicly at SPRC site plan meetings
By the time a Site Plan Review Committee (SPRC) site plan meeting is scheduled with respect to any particular developer proposal to obtain additional density, the principal features of such a proposal, including any corresponding community benefits, have already been negotiated in private between the developer and the county. To provide a fair balance at site plan meetings, the SPRC process should be revised to specifically permit individual citizens and citizen groups to speak publicly at the meetings.
Although the pace of site plan proposals declined after the Great Recession, that pace is now increasing rapidly. The County Board should initiate an appropriate public process to consider the reforms discussed here and others, with a direction to report back in six months.
This is the first of two columns.
Today, I’ll discuss some of Arlington County’s self-imposed limitations on site plan conditions for “community benefits.” These are benefits that Arlington receives in exchange for granting developers additional density and other zoning changes.
Next week, I’ll recommend appropriate planning and policy reforms.
Arlington lists the County’s standard site plan conditions, noting that they are designed to:
Ameliorate a project’s impacts on surrounding property, as well as any additional height and/or density or other bonuses that may be approved or modifications to Zoning Ordinance standards proposed by a developer… Increased density, height or other modifications can have an impact on the surrounding community and site plan conditions help to mitigate these impacts.
Arlington’s administrative regulation also enumerates (pp. 63-64) “standard site plan conditions” that are “typically necessary,” while acknowledging that other conditions (not enumerated) might be appropriate for individual projects.
The County’s community benefits’ conditions have failed to adequately address the impact of development
Increased student enrollments and crowded parks are two important impacts of many development projects. There is no state law or County ordinance that prohibits the County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these particular kinds of impacts on schools or parks. Yet, the County has:
- failed entirely to request cash or in-kind schools’ contribution conditions, and
- asked only occasionally for contribution conditions relating to parkland and open space.
Efforts to discuss development’s impact have been hamstrung by lack of awareness of other jurisdictions that routinely assess those impacts (including on schools and parks), and perform related cost/benefit analyses. George Rovder, a Bluemont Civic Association past President, provided me with this first-person account of what transpired during the course of the Site Plan Review Committee’s (SPRC) recent consideration of site plan conditions for 491 new housing units to be constructed on the former Mazda Ballston site:
The applicant (developer) stated how much more tax revenue the proposed project would bring in vs. the amount currently being collected (from the Mazda dealership and the small strip of retail stores), stressing that this increased tax revenue was a key reason the community should support the project. I asked that the applicant or staff also provide figures for the costs associated with schools and other community services and infrastructure. I was advised by the SPRC Chair that there “are no costs” associated with these projects, as we already have water and sewer and the like in place. The Chair further observed that neither staff nor the applicant could possibly calculate the infrastructure and community services costs associated with the project.
The County has further failed to adequately track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions
Their strong complaints led Arlington’s independent auditor to place this issue at the top of the independent audit priority list. However, the Board’s new independent auditor has since resigned, leaving this audit in limbo.
Properly reformed and enforced, community benefits’ conditions included in site plans can materially improve the fiscal and functional sustainability of new development. Next week, I’ll propose planning and policy reforms needed to better fulfill those goals.
The Community Facilities Study Group’s (CFSG) Final Report contained this recommendation:
Add an economic and fiscal impact section to private development (special exception/site plan and Form Based Code) project staff reports to provide information on the costs (e.g. the projected service demands and other costs to the community) and benefits (e.g. the taxes and other economic benefits) likely to be generated by a proposed project.
As I wrote in June, Arlington must continuously plan and explain to the public how it expects to pay for the new public infrastructure and services required to serve the 75,400 people Arlington currently projects to add by 2040. But, the county government has yet to do so.
Why are project-specific impact assessments important?
Quantifying incremental county services and infrastructure that a proposed special exception/site plan project necessitates will inject vital, objective input into the county’s short- and long-term planning and budgeting processes (e.g., budgeting for and implementing additional required school capacity, open space, public safety resources). Collecting this data for each project will, in turn, enable the county to more accurately determine geographically specific, cumulative impacts and time-specific scheduling based on project completion.
Project-specific impact analyses–as recommended by the CFSG — should be prepared for each development project in a timely manner because they provide critical facts needed to determine in advance whether we can afford to approve a project, must add conditions, or should deny the request.
What kinds of project-specific impact analyses should Arlington perform?
The county should perform an integrated fiscal impact analysis for each special exception/site plan development project. Each analysis should compare by-right development for the site with the developer’s site-plan proposal that includes any changes to the General Land Use Plan (GLUP), up zoning and/or bonus density. The goal is to determine the degree to which a developer’s cash contributions and other specific community benefits will offset the county’s cost to provide additional services and infrastructure over the life of the development.
More accurate and reliable forecasting is particularly vital now that large commercial tracts of land without any students on them are being replaced with dense, multifamily housing. Independent, third-party studies have concluded that residential projects almost always generate more net costs than benefits.
Other Virginia jurisdictions routinely utilize impact analyses.
Neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun counties use some form of project-specific impact assessments as part of their review processes. Even though these jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than a special exception/site-plan system, the benefits to policy-makers and the public of having project-specific impact assessments are common to all.
Falls Church City has utilized fiscal impact analyses for years. See a detailed description of its model here.
Caveats: Other jurisdictions’ models often don’t include capital costs or assess environmental impacts or quantify a value for natural space. A new branch of economics — environmental economics — provides new models that help to establish a monetary value for open space and the natural infrastructure.
Arlington County should adopt and implement CFSG recommendation 12. Arlington should expedite a public examination and discussion of alternative fiscal impact models to select one that will result in greater objectivity, better informed decision-making and enhanced planning to meet the infrastructure and service needs of our rapidly-growing population.
As my fellow columnist Mark Kelly and I both have previously advocated, it’s time to overhaul the seriously-flawed process Arlington County government has been using to allocate any surplus funds left over at the close of the County’s fiscal year.
Both Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools (APS) have fiscal years that end on June 30. Both the County and APS are required by law to adopt a balanced budget. In many years, Arlington County has closed its fiscal year with substantial surpluses. Since APS receives the lion’s share of its revenues from the County under a revenue-sharing arrangement, APS automatically receives its defined pro-rata share of any locally-generated Arlington County revenue surpluses.
However, in past years, each Board has utilized sharply-contrasting processes for deciding what to do with any such surpluses.
School Board’s Current Close-out Process
The School Board first receives, posts on its website, and discusses in a public meeting its staff’s recommendations regarding how to allocate any surplus funds. But, the School Board does not vote on its staff’s proposal until the following month. This process allows the School Board to:
- discuss the initial APS staff recommendations at a public meeting, and
- receive a public report from the APS Budget Advisory Committee, and
- wait a month to get further input from the general public, before finally
- adopting the final allocation of any APS surplus funds.
County Board’s Current Close-out Process
The County Board’s current close-out process is seriously flawed because it fails to provide the extra month for input from the general public that the School Board’s process provides. For example, last November, the County Board approved $21.8 million in new spending from surplus funds without providing that extra 30-day public review and comment period.
In 2015, the general public was denied a reasonable opportunity to discuss and comment about the Acting County Manager’s recommendation that this was the very best way to allocate last year’s $21.8 million revenue surplus:
- $1 million for economic development, including incentives to attract new businesses to Arlington
- $7.8 million for land purchases and other capital investment, including schools
- $0.8 million for a “larger than anticipated” class of fire recruits
- $11.2 million to maintain investments in the Affordable Housing Investment Fund and housing grants
- $1 million for any unexpected needs or issues that may arise next year
Many activists allege that County staff deliberately overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues in the operating budget the County adopts each spring. These activists claim that staff does this so that during the following fall’s fiscal year close-out, the County government can take advantage of a public review and comment period that bears little resemblance to the far more lengthy spring review and comment period that the full operating budget annually receives.
County staff have indignantly countered that any such suggestions are false because the County’s spring budgeting approach simply demonstrates prudent financial planning for which the staff should be praised not criticized.
It isn’t necessary to resolve this continued annual debate over motive, because there is a far better process available to guard against the possibility that the staff’s motives might be suspect.
Starting this fall, the County Board should adopt a new fiscal year close-out process similar to the process long utilized by the School Board.
Among the reasons:
The County’s Open Government Program … was lauded for creating more accessible and transparent interactions with departments and services. Key elements of the program include the Open Data Portal, expanding civic engagement through webcasting of commission meetings, and launch of the My Arlington app for mobile users.
But, where should Arlington go from here?
Arlington already has held a panel discussion on next steps. The panel included private sector and Arlington County government participants.
In two videos, the panel discussed how digitization is likely to change Arlington substantially between now and 2050. While the issues are complex and overlapping, one useful way to look at them is to consider how digitization is likely to:
- Change how private individuals and firms function, and why those private sector changes will require major changes in Arlington government policies and operations.
- Enable the Arlington government to interact more transparently and productively with its citizens.
Private sector change
In general, the pace of transformative change driven by private sector digitization means that the county should avoid adopting overly-prescriptive master plans that could inadvertently stifle future private sector innovation.
While consumers currently make about 7 percent of their purchases online, panel participants predicted that by 2050, this percentage will rise to 40-60 percent. The obvious result: retailers’ needs for brick and mortar stores will decline substantially. For future planning purposes, the county should avoid policies that will incentivize excessive retail brick and mortar store growth.
The commercial office market will continue to be transformed by increasing demand for flexible working and living arrangements like WeWork and WeLive. The county should be appropriately flexible in adjusting its zoning and land use policies to enable this increased demand — especially when such adjustments will facilitate rental of existing vacant office space.
Ride sharing will continue to transform transportation, and self-driving vehicles are likely to do so soon as well. The county should adjust its transportation, transit, parking and all other relevant policies to take advantage of these changes.
In general, new digitization tools enable new ways in which county government and its citizens can interact. The most important advice from panel participants: use these tools to find out what citizens prefer rather than just telling citizens what the government has decided. This often should be done by accurately defining all options, together with the costs and benefits of each, and asking residents for their preferences using statistically-valid survey techniques.
For some, citizen-government interactions can be entirely in cyberspace. How about virtual “Open Door Mondays“? For others, a physical space (like community centers and libraries) will continue to be important.
Big Data is transforming the way a local government like Arlington can improve the quality of life for its citizens.
One way you can participate in discussing these issues is to attend a meeting on Tuesday, October 11, from 7 to 8:30 pm in the Shirlington Library auditorium. The meeting will feature a presentation by Shawn DuBravac. Shawn was one of the panel participants, and is the author of “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate.”
Metro can’t be fixed unless its Board and senior management have sufficient freedom to hire and fire.
I agree with both David and Mark.
David framed the issue as Metro’s badly needing a culture change:
“Metro’s culture, clearly, is lacking. Many employees, whether front-line or managers, don’t take responsibilities seriously. If employees falsify reports, and their managers encourage them to, and other departments hang up on them without solving a problem, something is very wrong not just with a few people or a department, but a culture.”
Mark focused on the need for Metro to have sufficient flexibility under its union contract:
“The union contract has long appeared to be a substantial impediment to Metro’s ability to move forward. Not only has the union locked in pay scales and overtime provisions, but also makes it extremely difficult to make necessary workforce adjustments as Metro faces ongoing financial strain. Or in this case, seemingly is making it next to impossible to fire employees for cause.”
Metro’s culture can’t be changed without sufficient freedom to hire and fire
Metro’s senior management has no hope of changing Metro’s culture without sufficient freedom to hire and fire its unionized workforce. The most important union in this case is Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). “ATU Local 689 covers 8,576 workers, or about 82 percent of the unionized workforce, including train operators, maintenance crews, and other employees.”
Metro’s contract with ATU Local 689 is currently being re-negotiated. If the ultimate outcome of these negotiations is a voluntary agreement between management and ATU Local 689 that gives Metro’s senior management sufficient freedom to hire and fire, then there will be a reasonable prospect that Metro’s culture can be changed. These negotiations must not drag out too long.
Metro shouldn’t get a new dedicated revenue stream without first demonstrating that it has changed its culture
Metro critically needs to get a new dedicated revenue stream sufficiently large to enable it to:
- replace its existing capital assets at the end of their useful lives, and
- gradually expand the Metro system over the coming decades.
A dedicated revenue stream is usually defined as money that flows from a source–like an earmarked sales or gas tax–that isn’t subject to an annual appropriations process.
Metro is the only major transit system in the United States without such a dedicated revenue stream. While the need for such a revenue stream is critical, this new revenue cannot be provided without:
- unanimous agreement by Virginia, Maryland and DC on what that new funding source is–and the specific terms and conditions under which funding will be provided, plus
- federal government approval of that tri-jurisdictional compact.
It is both imprudent and politically impossible for such agreements and approvals to occur without a prior demonstration by Metro that it has changed its culture sufficiently to justify this substantial new investment.
Metro can be fixed if it is able to change its culture enough and in time. If it can’t, the three jurisdictions and the federal government will have to agree upon and enable a new organization to operate this vital transit system.
So my South Arlington taxes will be used to chauffeur the 1% from North Arlington?
Let them snarlingtonians ride in old crowded buses. We want our mini limos!
The county government subsequently issued a media advisory clarifying the nature of the county’s ride-sharing study. The clarification included a denial that a decision had been made to subsidize ride sharing.
According to the media advisory:
The new service is being analyzed for the following neighborhoods, where bus ridership does not meet our productivity standards (at least 15 passengers per hour):
- Rock Spring, Williamsburg Middle School, and Dominion Hills
- Chain Bridge Forest, Rivercrest, Bellevue Forest, Gulf Branch, and Stafford-Albermarle-Glebe
- Douglas Park, Nauck, and Arlington Village
The proposed service could connect these areas to a transit center, such as the Ballston or East Falls Church Metrorail stations, or to a transit corridor, such as Columbia Pike
Very low ridership on Arlington’s ART Bus 53 led to suggestions to cancel that route. Some commenters supported outright cancellation (“save the money; refund it to the taxpayers”). For now, this route has been saved, and a study of ride sharing as a substitute has begun.
I agree that ride sharing is worth studying.
One knowledgeable commenter observed that, when he last checked, “ART Bus 53 carried only 11 people per revenue hour and recovered only 12% of its cost.” Regardless of the actual numbers, the principle is certainly valid: if ridership on any ART bus route anywhere in the county drops too low, some action — whether outright cancellation, consolidation with another ART bus route, or ride sharing — are all potentially valid responses.
Standards for a ride-sharing subsidy
Arlington County should study a variety of standards for a ride-sharing subsidy, including:
- Limiting the trip only to certain origins/destinations, like home to a Metro or bus stop or return home from one.
- Having a maximum personal individual income ceiling for any participant.
- Having an over-all dollar cap on program utilization in any particular defined area. (Use a lottery if the program is over-subscribed.)
- Ending the ride-sharing program, and resuming/substituting ART bus service, if demand rises to a point above a pre-determined level of ART bus service viability (like the current 15 passengers per hour or some higher number).
Types of ride-sharing options
In addition to Uber and Lyft, the county should explore the costs and benefits of partnering with a transit provider like Bridj . Bridj currently offers limited pop-up bus service in D.C. Bridj is considered by some as the best hope to bring urban transportation into the 21st century.
County residents with disabilities should be offered the widest possible range of ADA-compliant transit options at the lowest possible cost. The county should study these ride-sharing recommendations from a metropolitan Boston report.
Fortunately, Arlington isn’t grappling with these transit policy questions in a vacuum. Other communities across America are doing so as well. The American Public Transportation Association sees ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft as complementary to traditional transportation options.
Let’s find the best options for Arlington.
The Virginia Association of Counties recently granted an achievement award to Arlington County’s Startup Arlington program.
Startup Arlington is an innovative program. It has generated valuable information about factors that might motivate tech startups to move to Arlington or launch here.
Arlington must continue to bring down its 20.2 percent office vacancy rate. Each one percent in that vacancy rate translates into $3.4 million in lost tax revenue. A continued vacancy rate in the 20 percent range threatens to shift about $800 a year in property taxes onto the average Arlington homeowner.
Startup Arlington Concept
When it began in 2015, Startup Arlington was a competition organized by Arlington Economic Development (AED) to “encourage startups or potential startups on the cusp of finding their first office space to consider Arlington for that first office.” A local extended stay hotel agreed to provide the competition winner with complimentary hotel space for three months, and a local co-working space agreed to provide office accommodations. A local law practice agreed to offer ten hours of legal counseling for the winner, and transportation partners provided access to public transit.
The only costs for the County were those on taxes paid on the hotel lodging and nominal advertising fees, approximately $3,500. The entire value of the program was estimated at $15,450.
The existence of the program was publicized via a variety of media, including social media channels estimated to reach more than 180,000 users. A total of 78 companies from 14 states and 13 different technology industries submitted completed applications. Applicants were judged based on criteria ranging from how the company would benefit from locating in Arlington to growth potential and business plans.
To be eligible, applicants had to be (1) from outside the greater DC metropolitan area (thereby avoiding poaching regional companies) and (2) a founder and/or CEO of a technology-based company.
The program produced one winning applicant. That winner was Montana-based Oppleo. This company offers a cloud-based software called Sikernes that helps defend against cyber-attacks. Oppleo’s founders relocated to Arlington in November 2015. The company still remains in the area.
Various real estate companies and residential complexes have contacted AED seeking more details regarding how AED marketed the program to potential applicants. They expressed an interest in marketing their properties/area to the same entrepreneurial audience Startup Arlington reached.
AED’s business development group cultivated several leads regarding companies that are being tracked to understand when they grow to the point of needing commercial space. AED sees Startup Arlington as an ongoing program providing ways to reach out to company founders who previously may have been unaware of Arlington’s resources and opportunities. The program also can serve as a catalyst to form new collaborations with Arlington’s existing business and hospitality communities.
An important report by the 2030 Group identified seven private sector clusters (including cybersecurity) that are the most likely to generate the most significant future regional economic growth, and therefore be most likely to generate new demand for office space.
AED can help Arlington showcase its strengths in this highly competitive regional economy by continuing to analyze, publicize and exchange information obtained from worthwhile experiments like Startup Arlington. Repeating the Startup Arlington competition should remain an option.