Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
As Arlington grows and urbanizes rapidly, conflicts are increasing among different users of our parks.
Arlington should give higher priority to open, un-programmed and natural parkland
The county government continues to demonstrate that it is not giving fair, transparent and due weight to the wishes of those who desire access to multi-use, un-programmed, open or natural spaces.
Instead, the percentage of open green space in existing parks is declining, while:
- dedicated, programmed space is increasing despite usage data not being publicly available for a transparent analysis
- uses of existing programmed space are intensifying through paving, turf, lighting, fencing, expansion, pay-per-use only and access restrictions
- not enough parkland is being acquired to accommodate residents’ needs
Some examples of prioritizing organized recreational use over other needs include:
- refusal even to consider community proposals to convert existing softball fields to un-programmed space at Virginia Highlands Park
- initial proposal to fence off entirely the diamond at Bluemont Park
- more dedicated playground space at Nelly Custis Park
- proposals to install new lights at Discovery Elementary School/Williamsburg Middle School
- a request to buy more land for open green space in Alcova Heights denied because the proposed acquisition in part was too small “which limits recreational opportunities”
These decisions are at odds with the results of the county’s 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey. That survey established that natural areas and wildlife habitats — as well as hiking trails — were two of the three most important outdoor facilities that Arlington residents want.
Best practices elsewhere do give higher priority to open green space
The best city park planning is based on the principle of the most uses for most of the community. Travel and Leisure magazine listed the World’s Most Beautiful City Parks where “for city dwellers and tourists alike, an urban park becomes a shared backyard.”
In New York City, many playgrounds and basketball courts are designed into urban space, e.g. on rooftops or located between buildings, and not into natural parkland.
New York is enormously more populated and denser than Arlington, but the principles of giving sufficient priority to natural, un-programmed spaces can and should be similar. Current efforts in Arlington appear to be designed to provide enough paved sports courts, playgrounds, and playing fields to accommodate every league, paying user and sports type – all occupying a larger percentage of our limited public parks.
In contrast, cities around the world place a high priority on their parks’ function as natural spaces interspersed and accessible throughout city landscapes: e.g., Atlanta’s BeltLine project and an excellent report from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority on sustainability and parks planning.
The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan. The Parks and Recreation Commission should propose, and the POPS Group should be directed now, to develop principles giving due weight to open green space based on best practices elsewhere.
Pending adoption of such principles, the County Board should direct the Manager to report how to prevent open green space from being short-changed.
Continued shoehorning of single-use sports fields into our limited park space guarantees increasing conflict. Applying reasonable principles of equitable expectations of use, while simultaneously expanding our parkland to keep pace with population growth, are the correct solutions for a rapidly growing county.
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.
Last week, ARLnow.com reported that the Neighborhood Advisory Conservation Committee voted to suspend its spring funding round.
NC’s financial crisis provides yet another occasion to reconsider the program. The safety of pedestrians and need for safe, walkable streets continues to grow more acute in our urbanizing neighborhoods.
As I have written previously, the NC program should be phased out entirely.
NC has problems in at least three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.
Equity. NC’s principal inequities arise because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are denied timely and critical neighborhood infrastructure improvements and access to the NC Program’s roughly $12 million bi-annual budget because they are:
- Living in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association.
- Required to have a County-Board approved NC Plan documenting all potential projects.
- Lacking consistent NC volunteer representatives to complete projects.
Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive volunteer requirements, including monthly meeting attendance — often for years — to gain “funding points,” and outreach and notification efforts, mean a complete NC project “process” can take anywhere from five to 10 years. If an association’s volunteer NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.
Project engineering, always in short supply, further delays project funding. A recent status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.
Cost. As I mentioned previously, project delays and unnecessary add-ons like street lights (which Dominion will install at no charge) and components like curbs, gutters and sidewalks (which sometimes are unnecessary), make projects more expensive.
Many commenters on last week’s ARLnow.com article on NC offered horror stories about how improperly functioning civic associations cripple the NC program. But, Arlington cannot mandate that any — let alone every — civic association function properly. Nor can Arlington mandate that residents volunteer for any activity, including the NC. Thus, the NC program cannot be fixed.
The County should not allocate further bonding authority to the NC program. Instead, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely over the next two years, and re-allocate current NC Program bond funding.
In 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. Revised and updated NIPs can provide the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding. We cannot leave this job to NC’s volunteer patchwork quilt.
A revised and updated Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient for street-related infrastructure.
An alternative to the current NC process could include:
- High priority areas, schools and urban Metro corridors could be addressed by engineers and County staff first.
- For missing links, neighborhoods could propose sidewalks directly to staff for analysis and priority.
For park beautification:
A reformed department of parks and recreation could allocate small sums annually and equitably so that neighborhoods could spend on their parks as they decide. Neighborhoods could request to withdraw funds for small improvements like flowers or trees, accumulate for a small amenity, or bundle their allocated share to apply to one neighborhood park in need of the most attention.
Finally, it’s important that the County commit to a robust, thoroughly updated civic engagement process for all projects across all departments.
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.
A grudging admission by a representative of the county’s department of parks and recreation at a civic association meeting last week underscores that DPR still has a very long way to go to improve its civic engagement practices.
In February 2016, the Aurora Highlands Civic Association developed a proposal to restore the west end of Virginia Highlands Park. The proposal was designed “to replace the exclusive softball fields on the west side with a different sort of community park.”
The 16-page AHCA proposal identified a problem and proposed a solution:
Problem: VHP is a popular and heavily used recreational facility that today is dominated by athletic space. The Pentagon City area, including Aurora Highlands, has insufficient park space to accommodate the broad constituency represented in our diverse and rapidly growing population.
Solution: To restore a balance to VHP by transforming the west side into a vibrant public park with creatively designed open green space that complements the existing recreational facilities on the east side.
The full proposal contains a detailed explanation why the softball fields should be eliminated.
Later that month, AHCA voted 35-0 to send a letter to the County Board requesting in part that the Board:
Direct DPR to begin a community-wide planning process to update the west side of VHP with the objective of achieving multi-use open green space that serves a broad cross section of Arlington County residents and a goal of updating the west side of VHP to include multi-use open green space within the next five years.
AHCA and Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks, which submitted a comparable redesign proposal, requested follow-up information earlier this year about the “scope, constraints, limitations, and any charges.” No DPR replies included any charge or limitation mentioning the softball fields.
Fourteen months after AHCA’s Proposal submission — on April 12, 2017 — DPR made a presentation to AHCA about elaborate (and apparently costly) plans DPR had to engage with the community about a VHP redesign. DPR representative Scott McPartlin repeatedly acknowledged that various community groups requested “civic lawns, green space, gardens, more trees…” He then asserted that was all very possible through the “transparent,” informative grand envisioning process he had just described.
After the presentation, Natasha Atkins, AHCA President, asked if the softball fields were then removable.
McPartlin’s response: “No. That is not our intention…The facilities are needed.”
Regardless of the merits of DPR’s just-revealed conclusion that the softball fields could not be eliminated, DPR’s fourteen-month delay in responding to AHCA’s proposal to eliminate those fields, particularly with the off-hand acknowledgement finally extracted, is an inexcusable failure of civic engagement.
The centerpiece of AHCA’s 2016 proposal was the softball fields’ elimination and their transformation largely into open green space. AHCA reasonably expected a timely, open, and transparent public process in which:
- AHCA could make its case,
- Softball field proponents and any other interests could make their cases,
- Sufficient data would be made available for informed discussion, and then
- DPR would reach a transparent conclusion for or against retaining the softball fields with a reasoned explanation.
If DPR thought that the softball fields could not be eliminated, it should have responded to that effect within 30 to 60 days of receiving AHCA’s 2016 proposal. Otherwise, DPR should have launched a transparent public process specifically including the possible elimination of those fields.
ARLnow.com reported last week that one local resident has filed a request with Arlington’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board to designate the site on which the Ed Center and Planetarium are located as a “historic district.”
The HALRB, the School Board, the County Board and all candidates for seats on the School and County boards should oppose historic-district status for this site.
In her request to the HALRB for historic-district status, this one local resident argues that such a status is justified because “these structures are literally visual landmarks of our shared history.”
By this standard, every public building on publicly-owned property in Arlington should be preserved forever. That would be an abuse of the legitimate role for historic-district status in appropriate circumstances.
With the best available projections showing that APS’ enrollment will grow from 26,000 today to 40,000 by 2032, this one resident’s suggestion to impose such a standard should be quickly repudiated.
These reactions of an APS parent on social media accurately reflect how this historic preservation proposal should be evaluated:
This person’s wish (or even a number of people’s wish) to consider this building “historic” needs to take a much, much lower priority under the needs of our kids. Save the historical designations for buildings that really ARE significant, and leave our school system alone otherwise, please. Hamstringing our school system from using its own property for school uses sets a horrible precedent and is unacceptable, regardless of the effect it might have on this particular process, so regardless of whether you’re a fan of using the Ed Center for HS seat needs. …
Preserving the genuine historical significance of Stratford was one thing, and had some importance to all of Arlington’s history. I agreed that the events there were momentous and worthy of commemoration, even while I felt that the reaction disallowing any of the more sensible renovations, and forcing more expensive and less useful design, plus the extra time required for the whole process, amounted to overreaction. But THIS is too much.
Anyone who has attended meetings inside the Ed Center is aware of the age and limitations of this building. APS already has made plans to move its administrative staff out of this building and into office space at another site. Regardless of what any one person might think about the quality, beauty, utility, or continued functionality of this building, APS should not be burdened by having it designated as part of a historic district. APS should be able to use this site for another school use.
The same reasoning that applies to the Ed Center also applies to the Planetarium.
But, there is an added issue that is unique to the Planetarium. Only a few years ago, APS entered into an arrangement with a private organization, Friends of Arlington’s Planetarium. This organization contributed nearly $500,000 toward the $900,000 cost to replace outmoded Planetarium equipment.
My understanding is that this equipment could be moved to another site. APS should be free from historic-district restrictions to decide whether to:
- continue to use the current Planetarium site for a Planetarium, or
- for another school use,
taking into consideration the equities arising from APS’ arrangement with this Friends organization.
Historic-district status for the Ed Center/Planetarium site should be rejected.
On March 27, Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that he was renewing his call for Virginia to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act:
“The state is losing out on $6.6 million a day in federal money by not expanding Medicaid eligibility to roughly 400,000 low-income adults. McAuliffe has proposed a budget amendment that would give him power to expand Medicaid, saying the issue had gained new urgency after Trump’s defeat … in repealing the Affordable Care Act.”
The Virginia Republican legislative leadership quickly replied:
“They said they would reject McAuliffe’s proposed budget amendment when the General Assembly returns to Richmond in April.”
Terry McAuliffe is right that Medicaid should be expanded. Virginia Republican legislative leaders should work with him to find a bipartisan solution.
Under the ACA, states can choose whether to expand Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,640 for an individual. The federal government currently picks up almost all the cost, although that percentage is scheduled to decline to a 90 percent federal share by 2020. About half of the 31 states that have chosen the Medicaid expansion have Republican governors.
One of those Republican governors is John Kasich of Ohio. Kasich has forcefully criticized Donald Trump’s failed efforts to gut the Medicaid expansion program:
That is a very, very bad idea, because we cannot turn our back on the most vulnerable. We can give them the coverage, reform the program, save some money, and make sure that we live in a country where people are going to say, ‘at least somebody’s looking out for me,'” he said. “It’s not a giveaway program — it’s one that addresses the basic needs of people in our country.
Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed, touting “Michigan’s embrace of the Medicaid expansion, which has covered 642,000 people in the state.”
Virginia’s Republican legislative leaders can pick and choose from a whole host of Medicaid expansion options pioneered by Republican leaders in other states. Besides Ohio and Michigan, Virginia’s Republican leaders can look to other states like Arkansas or Pennsylvania.
So far, Virginia’s Republican leaders have offered a variety of excuses for not following the example set by Republican leaders in any of these other states. They have argued that Virginia cannot afford the 10 percent share of the costs that the federal government ultimately will not cover. But, Virginia’s hospitals have offered to cover the state’s share.
Virginia Republicans also have argued, and continue to argue, that the ACA is going to be repealed. Why risk expanding Medicaid under the ACA, and then have the coverage taken away? But Republicans like Kasich and Snyder have had the courage to fight successfully for their covered residents.
Finally, Virginia Republicans have argued that there is fraud and abuse in Virginia’s existing Medicaid program. While it is true that some fraud and abuse has been identified, there is a detailed roadmap for fixing the problems. There is no reason not to simultaneously implement the identified safeguards and expand Medicaid.
Regardless of what happens with Gov. McAuliffe’s latest budget amendment, Virginia Republican and Democratic leaders should work together to reach a bipartisan solution to expand Medicaid. It’s the right thing to do. The benefits substantially outweigh the costs.
In a March 9 column, I analyzed County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million to close a gap in the FY 2018 operating budget.
According to the Manager, that gap is attributable to an “unanticipated” increased funding requirement from Metro and a supplemental funding request from Arlington Public Schools. The APS request exceeded the monies otherwise available to APS under the County-APS revenue sharing allocation formula.
As I noted in that column:
Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlington‘s property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.
On March 15, at the direction of the County Board, the Manager proposed cuts to the County budget to offset 1 cent of the proposed 2-cent tax rate increase.
The Manager’s proposed cuts are just the latest illustration that unless fundamental reforms are implemented, we will be confronted year after year for the foreseeable future with:
- increasing property tax rates (further decreasing the affordability of Arlington for new and existing residents), and/or
- crowding out of core County services.
The fundamental reforms should include:
APS operating model
As indicated by the latest APS supplemental funding request, there is a justified basis for concern that APS will not be able to support its dramatically increasing enrollment under its existing operating model within APS’ fixed budget allocation. The solution cannot be either to continue routinely to increase APS’ share of the budget (because that would crowd out core County services) or to increase the tax rate (because that would make Arlington less and less affordable).
The School Board should launch a broad community process, including engaging residents outside the schools’ community, to review APS’ operating model to determine how to maintain school quality while permitting APS to continue operating within a reasonable budget share. For example, this new petition offers compelling reasons why every APS elementary student does not need a taxpayer-funded iPad.
APS Construction Costs
As I wrote in December, the County and School Boards should adopt appropriate revisions to the design standards, construction processes, and community review processes for constructing future new schools, with a specific percentage numerical target for per-seat cost-cutting. Both APS and County projects need off the shelf designs, increased competitive bidding, and benchmarks from multiple similar jurisdictions.
Increased County Board Engagement Regarding APS Fiscal Matters
The last several years have seen a welcome and dramatic increase in cooperation between the County and School Boards, including work sessions, the Joint Facilities Study and now the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission. However, the fixed budget allocation between the County and APS should not continue to be an unqualified delegation of decision-making from the County to APS.
New initiatives should be undertaken to enable the County Board to increase its oversight and input into APS’ utilization of capital and operating monies provided by the County.
As I also wrote in December, the County Board should develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least 3 assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The Board should publish the results and the assumptions, invite community input and publicize what the community says.
Stop pretending we are confronting “unanticipated” circumstances. Start enacting fundamental reforms to anticipate our recurring circumstances.
Last week, Donald Trump presented his first budget blueprint.
Regardless of its prospects, this blueprint is important because it offers the most detail to date regarding what the President wants to see happen. It exposes Trump’s values and priorities.
Trump’s budget is a moral failure
Although numerous other examples are discussed, one illustration of Trump’s budget’s moral failure is his proposal to cut funding upon which the Meals on Wheels program depends. CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump’s Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, whether the budget was hard-hearted:
“No, I don’t think so,” Mulvaney replied. “I think it’s probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.”
“To cut programs that help the elderly and kids?” Acosta asked, incredulously.
“We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place,” Mulvaney explained. “And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.'”
WRONG. There’s not an ounce of compassion here. That single mom in Detroit, a New York billionaire in Trump’s cabinet and all other federal taxpayers should continue to share the responsibility to use their hard-earned money to help fund Meals on Wheels — and many other programs from which Trump’s budget would cut funding.
Asked what she would say to Trump, one Trump voter responded: “What if it was your mama?”
Trump’s budget hurts Virginia
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has prepared a lengthy fact sheet listing Trump’s budget cuts that would hurt Virginia. A small fraction of those cuts are:
$2.6 billion cut to the Environmental Protection Agency could jeopardize:
- The Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Program, which would be cut entirely under Trump’s budget. The program has reduced pollution, bolstered oyster and crab populations, and driven tourism and outdoor recreation.
- The Clean Power Plan and climate change research, which is critical to combatting sea level rise in Hampton Roads and climate effects across Virginia.
$2.4 billion cut to the Department of Transportation could jeopardize:
- Metro capital investment, which helps Metro reduce its maintenance backlog.
Proposed cuts in the Department of Homeland Security could jeopardize:
- The budget proposes cutting FEMA preparedness grants for state and local entities by $667 million. In 2016, Virginia received more than $18 million in FEMA preparedness grants for counterterrorism efforts including local law enforcement equipment and training and transit security.
- The TSA’s VIPR program, which conducts targeted operations at transportation hubs including Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, and Virginia metro stations.
$100 Million cut to NASA could jeopardize:
- STEM Education in Virginia. Trump’s budget would eliminate NASA’s Office of Education ($115 million), which has supported scholarships and educational opportunities for thousands of Virginia students, particularly minorities and women. (Moving Virginia backward toward the Hidden Figures SAD.)
Trump’s budget hurts Virginia Trump voters
Voters in Appalachian areas of Virginia would be particularly hurt by Trump’s proposal to completely defund the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Of the 420 counties served by ARC, 399 voted for Trump. You can review the ARC Virginia programs that would be defunded.
Trump’s budget is mean-spirited, harmful, and counterproductive.
At its January organizational meeting, the County Board approved a new policy governing its consent agenda.
At any County Board meeting, all consent agenda items — representing as much as 80 percent to 90 percent of the Board’s entire agenda — are passed as a group by a single Board vote and without any further review or public discussion.
In describing that change, the Arlington Sun-Gazette reported:
No longer will members of the public be able to remove any item from the County Board’s “consent agenda” for a full airing. While they will still be able to seek full discussion of items that are subject to Virginia’s public-hearing rules, in other cases members of the public will need to convince at least one board member to pull the item for discussion.
Under the current consent agenda policy, new items can be added (or changes to existing items made) and posted online less than 24 hours prior to a meeting’s start time — leaving the public and Board members with little opportunity to review new materials or changes and leaving citizens with insufficient time to ask a County Board member to pull any item now categorized as a “nonpublic” consent agenda item.
Significantly, consent agenda items may be added to the Board’s agenda in an incomplete form — for example, items may lack staff reports or essential supporting documents and information, may contain material omissions or errors of fact, or may not have met the Board’s guidelines for a full public process or review.
The County Board should reconsider its January decision
Until January 3, any member of the public could pull any County Board consent agenda item for any reason, thereby shifting that item to the regular agenda and providing an opportunity for public comment and Board discussion. To pull an item, a citizen needed only to be physically present on Saturday morning to submit a request prior to the Board’s vote on the consent agenda.
The Board changed the consent agenda policy to prevent what it considered abuse by a small number of citizen-activists. However, its new policy provides too few safeguards and too little transparency in limiting or eliminating all citizens’ ability to comment on certain items before a vote is taken.
The Board failed to seek public input or feedback before passing this significant procedural change. Had it done so, it would have been reminded of multiple historical examples documenting how important public policy matters initially placed on the consent agenda subsequently proved to merit a full Board hearing or deferral based on citizen-supplied comments or questions.
On March 7, the Arlington County Civic Federation unanimously passed a resolution asking the County Board to reconsider its new consent agenda policy. The ACCF resolution:
asks the Board to seek input and suggestions from the public and civic groups to create an alternative policy that allows the Board to conduct orderly meetings within a reasonable timeframe while also meeting the Board’s stated goals of improving government transparency and encouraging greater public participation in Arlington County government.
I agree. The Board should seek citizen feedback on its current consent agenda policy. Possible adjustments to this policy include limiting citizens to pulling only one item per speaker per meeting.
ARLnow.com reported last week that the County Board has approved the County Manager’s request to advertise a property tax rate for 2017 up to 2 cents higher than the current rate and potentially the highest tax rate since 2001:
County Manager Mark Schwartz said the hike would pay for what he described as the “extraordinary circumstances” facing the board in increasing costs for APS and Metro.
Failing to Carry Over Last Fall’s Close-Out Surplus
The Manager’s proposed FY 2018 budget is supposedly driven by “extraordinary circumstances” attributable to increased funding demands from APS and Metro. To close this “gap,” the Manager’s proposed budget incorporates a 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million.
The Manager fully highlighted these “extraordinary circumstances” last fall, but he and the County Board failed to act then to address that potential budget gap.
Metro is critical to Arlington and our entire region, and our critically-important schools are experiencing dramatic enrollment increases. Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlington’s property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.
However, any need to increase that rate in 2017 is entirely attributable to Arlington’s failure to follow recommendations that John Vihstadt, the Civic Federation, I and others made regarding last fall’s $17.8 million “close-out” surplus.
In a column last October, I proposed that the Board defer almost all of the proposed expenditures that the Manager recommended for that $17.8 million surplus, and hold in reserve virtually all those funds for first-priority use to bridge any budget gap for FY 2018. Instead, the Board approved spending almost all that surplus. That was a mistake that should not be repeated.
Necessary Changes at APS
As John Vihstadt noted at the County Board’s February 25 meeting to advertise a 2017 tax rate, APS’ exploding enrollment will require substantially increased funding over time, but APS should no longer be permitted to rely on a blank check from the County to provide funds for APS enrollment growth just because our schools are — and we want them to continue to be — top ranked.
Instead, the time has come for the County Board to condition increased funding on APS’ willingness to implement changes — particularly with respect to new school construction — to reduce substantially the per-student cost of new seats.
Current APS practices regarding per seat construction costs for new schools are neither necessary to sustain excellent schools nor fiscally sustainable unless other core County services are to be “crowded out” and/or we are to incur successive annual property tax rate increases that further degrade affordability for all Arlington residents.
Necessary Changes at Metro
Arlington should go on record now in support of fundamental reforms of Metro funding and governance at the interstate compact level, such as those recommended by the Federal City Council.
Before the FY 2018 budget review process ends this April, the County Board should:
- direct the Manager to reserve almost all of any fall 2017 close-out surplus to lessen upward pressures on the 2018 tax rate,
- condition any increased APS funding on APS implementation this year of reforms to lower per-seat construction costs substantially, and
- express support for Metro reforms at the interstate compact level.
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.
Arlington County is proposing to rely on private funds raised by a sports lobbying group to install an additional artificial turf field at Gunston Middle School.
Arlington should not rely on private funding raised by a sports lobbying group to install artificial turf. Taking such funding is contrary to the overriding interest of Arlington citizens to receive from their local government an unbiased and transparent assessment of the health and safety risks of using artificial turf.
Just as it faces explosive growth of APS student enrollment, Arlington also faces exploding demand for sports use of field space. The allure of private dollars to help fund the installation of more artificial turf is strong.
Arlington should resist this temptation.
Health and safety risks of artificial turf
As I wrote last year, the newest, most credible evidence suggests that artificial turf fields utilizing crumb rubber are unsafe and unhealthy. The evidence is carefully summarized in an online petition currently signed by 325 supporters and available here.
Montgomery County, MD passed a unanimous Council vote to ban crumb rubber and implement the use of plant-based alternatives such as coconut fiber, cork and rice husk blend. Hartford, CT, Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York City Parks Departments already have banned the use of crumb rubber.
See also this Mount Sinai children’s health study.
Don’t wait for Trump EPA study
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in partnership with other federal agencies like the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is still studying the health risks of artificial turf fields that use re-cycled crumb rubber. Arlington has heavily relied on the lack of a definitive EPA conclusion to this long-ongoing study to justify Arlington’s continued use of artificial turf fields. Arlington’s reliance on the ABSENCE of such a conclusion is misplaced.
Sports lobbying groups like those upon whom Arlington is proposing to rely to help fund the Gunston project are also active at the federal level. At that level, these lobbyists are also seeking to promote artificial turf against claims of health risks:
The principal information the CPSC uses to assess the health effects of synthetic turf is supplied by industry lobbyists, according to internal records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Emails and other records obtained by PEER in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit detail how these lobbyists are allowed closed-door briefings and other direct contacts with key CPSC staff assigned to investigate their products.
Arlington need not and should not wait for the final conclusions of this joint federal government study–now led by the Trump administration. Instead, Arlington should follow the lead of Montgomery County and other local jurisdictions by committing now to replace all its artificial turf fields that currently use re-cycled crumb rubber when the useful lives of those fields end.
Other Gunston Considerations
Gunston already has the indoor “bubble” synthetic turf field plus an additional outdoor synthetic turf field.
The artificial turf industry lobby knows how to privately market its product to local municipalities. Given the children’s health and safety risks of artificial turf, Arlington should:
- reject private money,
- appoint a new citizen-led task force to re-examine where Arlington should go from here.
The FAC report discusses the pros and cons of many alternative locations and scenarios to enable APS to add 1,300 new high school seats by 2022. The School Board (SB) has stated that it would like to make a final decision by June 2017.
The 37-page FAC report itself, together with the scores of comments submitted to the ARLnow.com story, illustrate the complexity and importance of this 1300-seat decision.
To allow adequate time for full public discussion of the alternatives, and to maximize the ability to get the best possible advice from the new Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC), the SB should modify its schedule to narrow the field to three currently-APS-owned sites by June, and select the final location and scenario by December.
Comprehensive or Option High School
SB members continue to deny publicly the persistent rumor that APS already has decided that the 1300 seats will be for an option high school on the Ed Center site at W-L. It would be very unwise for the SB to make any final decision without extensive community feedback.
At least one unscientific poll I have read, and many community conversations I have had, suggest that there is much stronger parent support for a comprehensive high school.
Indeed, the top-voted comment to last week’s ARLnow.com story (from “Reality Check”) supported a comprehensive high school, noting:
APS should plan for a full-size 2,000 student high school to cover the needs of 2022 and the decade after that. By the time they build this school, they will already need to start planning for another school or additional expansions. … APS should be proactive and look at this as an opportunity to create a long-term solution that will set aside the high school issue for years to come.
While there is only enough money in the current (2017-2026) CIP to pay for 1300 seats by 2022, I agree with the commenter that APS needs to plan now for the decade after 2022. For reasons I explained earlier, by 2032 APS will need to have two more high schools than it has today.
To take greatest advantage of public input on the pros and cons of whether the first 1.300 new seats belong in a comprehensive or option high school, the SB should select as its June finalists 3 school sites each of which could serve as a location for either a comprehensive or an option high school (e.g., Kenmore, W-L, Career Center).
Numerous activists have wondered why JFAC shouldn’t be given the time to fit this 1300-seat decision into a much longer-range land-use plan. One veteran activist phrased it this way in a social media post:
The underlying problem is indeed the time frames, in that the student population has grown so quickly that every response is presented as immediately necessary with decisions to be made tomorrow based on options available right now. That is not comprehensive planning.
A six-month delay to give time for more JFAC input (and learn more info about the status of sites like the VHC site on Carlin Springs Road) is warranted.
A decision this important merits a thorough and thoughtful public review.
In January, I discussed 10 steps that the County Board should take in 2017 to improve Arlington’s model of civic engagement. I noted that the goal should be to reach the broadest possible consensus and ensure a legitimate, fact-based process to inform real-time decision-making.
To achieve this goal, the County Board should adopt an additional reform often called the “72-hour rule.”
During their 2015 election campaigns, County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol and County Board member Christian Dorsey each expressed support for the 72-hour rule. In January 2017, County Board member John Vihstadt supported an alternative version he described as the 48-hour rule.
The County Board should formally adopt the 72-hour rule for all significant Board votes.
Under this rule, all critical supporting documents underlying any agenda item for which a significant Board vote is scheduled must be sent to all Board members and posted on the County website at least 72 hours before the meeting at which the vote is scheduled.
At a minimum, a “significant Board vote” should include votes on any of the following:
- Approval of any contract, agreement, appropriation, grant, plan, project or budget committing $1 million or more of taxpayer funds,
- Site plans/amendments review,
- Ordinances, plans and policies, and
- Acquisition of private property or the sale/vacation of public property.
At a minimum, “critical supporting documents” should include all information, reports, presentations and recommendations from County staff, consultants, advisory bodies or applicants. Any history of previous Board votes on the item should be included.
Once approved and if County staff fails to comply with the 72-hour rule, then postponement of the Board’s vote on the item would be required unless at least four Board members vote to waive the 72-hour requirement in case of emergency.
Why should the Board adopt the new rule?
Arlington citizens, taxpayers and Board members themselves have a right to receive transparent, complete and timely information before significant government decisions are made and actions are taken. Without timely access to complete information, the public lacks a reasonable opportunity to communicate with elected officials before a vote is taken.
Seventy-two hours permits elected officials sufficient time to review all supporting agenda documentation–running anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pages–for final and last-minute changes before making decisions. Based on past experience, significant Board votes almost always rely upon very extensive and complex documentation.
Likely arguments against the new rule lack merit.
The County Manager, County Attorney and staff might oppose the new rule, arguing that it might require extra work. Such arguments lack merit. No extra work will be required. The same work simply needs to be completed earlier. If that is not feasible in a particular case, then the vote should be postponed.
Though the Manager and staff also might argue that Board members already receive briefings much earlier than the 72-hour rule would require, this argument misses at least two critical points:
- Even if such briefings occur, without this rule the public lacks the 72-hour minimum access to review the underlying documentation, and
- Last-minute, substantive changes in the underlying documentation often deny Board members sufficient access.
Adopting the new 72-hour rule offers far greater benefits–transparency and accountability–than any costs it might entail.
APS needs independent professional help on enrollment forecasts (and closely-related issues like per-seat construction costs). Since literally tens of millions of our tax dollars are at stake, properly designed consultant studies can produce benefits that far exceed the costs. As a community, we need a fully-transparent conversation on these issues.
December’s HS boundary decision
The period leading up to APS’ December decision to adjust the boundaries for Arlington’s three current comprehensive high schools (Yorktown, W-L, Wakefield) was plagued by many enrollment data errors that savvy parents identified and called out. Doubts justifiably were cast on the competence and credibility of APS staff who prepared the data.
Last week’s Discovery Elementary meeting
Last week, the Discovery Elementary PTA hosted an important meeting to discuss policy issues surrounding APS’ booming enrollment. Over 100 people attended. Once again, savvy and engaged parents were quick to spot new errors and inconsistencies in some of the APS slides presented at the meeting.
Discussing her reactions on social media, one parent captured the sentiments of many when she observed:
I hope parents will push for full transparency in the projections going forward. While it’s ridiculous that parents have to be the ones to catch the mistakes, it’s even worse when APS hides the numbers and the methodology so that no one can even see the errors. During the boundary process, many of us thought that Yorktown’s projections looked way too low, and it appeared that APS was making wacky assumptions as to how many kids would transfer out of YHS in order to make their numbers “work.” But APS wouldn’t release their transfer projections and they still won’t. If they had released them during the boundary process, perhaps this mistake could have been fixed before they voted to change boundaries.
January’s consultant study
The best enrollment forecast study prepared to date is a consultant study presented at a joint County Board-School Board meeting in January. A related joint study presented at that meeting concluded (at p. 23) that Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030.
The County and APS should continue to refine the methodologies and conclusions of January’s consultant study as we move forward.
As I discussed last week, the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) has an important role to play with respect to county-wide facilities planning decisions. JFAC should play a leadership role in fostering continuing updates and improvements to January’s consultant study.
Arlington needs to make the best possible policy decisions regarding what new schools, parks, and other public infrastructure we will need, and when and where we will need them. To do that requires us to have the best possible forecast data for these purposes.
As I noted in December, Arlington must demonstrate to the public that it has fiscally-sustainable plans to accommodate the substantial development and population growth that Arlington says will occur between now and 2040.
It is neither prudent, realistic nor fair to fail to plan for this growth because some people think or hope that it might not occur. Instead, we must plan now for the consequences of our most accurate forecasts.
ARLnow.com reported last week that local developer James Burch proposes to “build a 325-foot Space-Needle-like tourist destination, dubbed the Spirit of America Tower, in Rosslyn.”
The tower would be built on currently open-space, VDOT-owned land. In one of more than 25 comments he personally posted to that story, Burch (using the last name “Bureh”) revealed “we have been working on this, quietly, for about a year and a half.”
After ARLnow broke the story, Washington Business Journal (WBJ) reached out to a VDOT spokesman who acknowledged VDOT had met with Burch, but denied VDOT had made any commitments. And, County Board Chair Jay Fisette described Burch’s proposal as a “fantasy”.
While Burch’s proposal deserves scorn, his quiet pursuit of it highlights the need for a long-range (out to 2040) strategic plan, prepared jointly with VDOT and other interested stakeholders, regarding how best to utilize the air rights throughout the I-66 corridor. That plan should include the VDOT parcel in Rosslyn with respect to which Burch currently seeks a long-term lease.
I-66 Air Rights
If we allow piecemeal, scavenger development of important individual parcels to occur in the absence of such a long-range plan, by the time we get around to it, the plan that’s best for Arlington will be hopelessly compromised.
This past October, WBJ reported that both Arlington and VDOT temporarily had suspended such planning, but that both sides still were open to it:
[A] VDOT spokeswoman … said Arlington has chosen not to pursue air rights development “to date,” but VDOT “would continue to work on any requests to explore other opportunities and locations.” …
I-66, from Falls Church through Rosslyn, acts as a “gash through part of our community,” said Arlington Board Chair Libby Garvey. Filling it in, she said, is a “long-term thing,” but the discussion is worth having, whether in Rosslyn or East Falls Church (where Garvey envisions a deck with parking below and a field above).
There may well have been good reasons for the temporary suspension of talks, but Arlington County now needs to work hard to:
- quickly resolve any remaining obstacles,
- further develop its own long-range land-use vision and negotiating strategy, and
- then resume the conversations with VDOT.
JFAC Community Facilities Plan
JFAC’s overall mission importantly includes a directive from the County and School Boards to:
Place a special emphasis on long range planning for future County and APS facility needs…. Big picture, visionary thinking is encouraged, and the Commission should be a forum where fresh and creative ideas can be discussed freely.
Arlington County and JFAC should indeed engage in “big picture, visionary thinking” by carefully exploring all opportunities for Arlington to acquire new land either via air rights from VDOT, a land swap with VDOT, or some combination. The long-range plan for air rights in the I-66 corridor should be made available to JFAC.
Burch commented last week that “with our proposal, it is not costing the state or the county anything, and the project provides millions of dollars in tax income.” Despite such siren songs from Burch — or anyone else — Arlington should complete the two long-range planning studies described above, and discuss them thoroughly with the community, before making any deals that could undermine our long-range best interests in the I-66 corridor.
As ARLnow.com previously reported, Representative Don Beyer’s office announced earlier this month that the FAA had scrapped a proposal to transition to a new departure procedure for northbound planes leaving National Airport. The proposed path, known as “LAZIR B,” would direct flights directly over Rosslyn, moving planes further away from Georgetown and restricted airspace around the National Mall.
The problem LAZIR B created
The region has had a growing problem with noise caused in part by recent changes to the regional airspace mandated by the FAA’s NextGen program. In October 2015, a Community Noise Working Group was established with appointees representing communities in Virginia, DC and Maryland. In December 2015, the group recommended the LAZIR B departure procedure to maximize flight time over the Potomac.
How Don Beyer helped
Following the working group’s recommendation, Rep. Beyer wrote a letter to the FAA asking for a more thorough analysis of the noise impacts, and telephoned the FAA Administrator to voice his concerns with the proposed flight path.
Rep. Beyer also was a leader in the effort to find new ways for Arlington citizens to provide feedback directly to the FAA about the increased noise levels they were experiencing. He helped facilitate communication between airport area neighborhoods, local government, and the FAA.
As part of this new community engagement process, the FAA held a September 2016 workshop at Washington-Lee High School to listen to Arlington citizens. At the workshop, Arlingtonians explained their frustrations. Some questioned why Arlington should be subject to more noise so that D.C. residents could have more peace and quiet.
How Arlington County Board members helped
Rep. Beyer certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for the FAA scrapping LAZIR B. The Arlington County Board also deserves credit. Board members Libby Garvey, Katie Cristol, and John Vihstadt attended the community meeting at W-L, and Garvey wrote a letter to the FAA on behalf of the County Board, expressing concerns about aircraft noise in Arlington:
Arlington County firmly believes that improvements for both those on the ground and the flying public are possible and necessary,” the letter says. However, “it does not seem reasonable to the County that local communities, who are not experts on the needs, constraints and opportunities with regards to aviation, should be tasked with solving this problem.
Rep. Beyer and his regional colleagues in Congress worked collaboratively with the County Board to make FAA more responsive to community concerns.
The flaws exposed in NextGen
All this heightened public scrutiny of NextGen exposed a serious problem. Although its goal for NextGen was to improve efficiency, the FAA used what many consider to be a flawed procedure to estimate the likely noise impacts of the flight-path changes NextGen produced. While the FAA did perform an environmental review of the new flight path, noise impact testing was done through modeling, rather than through in-field testing, without using an agreed upon established baseline noise level.
A much more extensive review of Rep. Beyer’s leadership on these issues can be found here.
As is evident from its decision to scrap LAZIR B, FAA now is listening to and considering community input. This would not have happened without Rep. Beyer’s leadership. Moving forward, the FAA working group will continue to evaluate proposed changes.