Arlington, VA

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.

If the County Manager follows recent practice, he soon will propose how to spend any budget surplus remaining after closing out Arlington’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2019, which ended June 30.

What percentage of this “close-out surplus” will the Manager propose to spend immediately?

What’s been happening

Typically, 47% of surplus dollars are automatically allocated to APS under a revenue-sharing agreement. Most of the remaining surplus is often allocated to “commitments already made by the Board.” Missing is a clear, written statement explaining how, when and why such “commitments” were made. Also missing is a written, publicly available policy clearly defining a “one-time” expenditure, and why “one-time” surplus funds are frequently spent on recurring needs.

Recently, the County Manager has reduced the close-out-surplus amount somewhat from previous years — when annual close-out surpluses ran as large as $36 million. But neither the Manager nor the County Board has fully adopted a key reform proposal recommended by the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed):

In 2016, Civ Fed passed a resolution urging “the Arlington County Board to annually consider setting aside a fair and reasonable amount of any surplus for the reduction of real estate taxes.”

Because the Board has allowed the Manager to allocate, or spend, almost all surplus cash at closeout without waiting until the following Spring when needs or shortfalls in the coming fiscal year are known with greater certainty, decisions on how millions of dollars are spent remain largely beyond taxpayers’ scrutiny.

Beyond the “close-out surplus”

What the Manager and the public generally call the “close-out surplus” reflects only a small part of the County’s overall surplus cash on hand. Once allocated, surplus funds end up in what is called the County’s “Fund Balance,” similar to what we would think of as a savings account. With these huge cash surpluses accruing year after year (some of which remain allocated but unspent for long periods of time), the size of Arlington’s Fund Balance has grown very large.

For example, as of June 30, 2018, the County reported combined fund cash balances of $634.8 million.

Do you know if, when, where, and how Arlington plans to spend the current Fund Balance?

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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.

On September 23, APS posted the latest version of its Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP plan”). This 78-page plan is based on APS’ latest estimates of enrollment growth.

Highlights of the AFSAP plan include huge projected seat deficits at the elementary and middle school levels over the next Capital Improvement Plan time horizon. There are no specifics about exactly where many of these needed new seats will be located nor how they will be financed.

Elementary school seat deficit

The elementary school seat deficit is particularly troubling.

The 10-year projections establish a need for nearly 2,500 more permanent elementary school seats county wide in Fall 2028-29.

Initial social media commentary on the AFSAP plan criticized APS for not being more creative about design options:

“WHY IS KEY ELEMENTARY 2 STORIES? Seriously, though, we own property practically beside the Metro, in the shadow of 10+ story buildings. Build up! (And I’m a Key parent-the lot could host Key and a neighborhood school).”

APS certainly needs a design makeover: up not out; preservation of mature trees and green space right at design outset; provide only facilities critical to instruction. But the core problem the AFSAP plan exposes is the glacial pace of County and School Board members in producing a long-range plan locating new school seats at specific sites–four years (!) after the Community Facilities Study Group’s recommendations.

Amazon

Amazon’s new HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into providing the missing plans.

In a late 2018 interview, then County Board Chair Katie Cristol tried to downplay Amazon’s impact on our schools:

“[T]he increasing tax base coming from [Amazon]…will more than supplement [the increase in student population attributable to new Amazon employees living here].”

But Cristol didn’t address whether these incremental revenues would be more than offset on net by increased costs attributable to new residents (both Amazon employees and others).

Moreover, APS won’t be the only public claimant for the incremental revenues we hope Amazon will generate. There will be enormous other public claims on those revenues. Arlington is dragging its feet by failing to produce a long-range public facilities financing plan that resolves these competing claims in a site-specific way.

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including, but not limited to, schools)

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), schools, parks, fire stations, affordable housing and other public investments that will be required? Will we have such bond capacity under several different, but all plausible, alternative economic scenarios? Note: as taxes increase to meet these added costs, those tax increases will inflate the costs of many other items, including “affordable” housing. Are there one-time alternatives to bond financing, e.g., the County’s huge surplus cash reserves

When asked to choose among needing more new school seats, new acres of park open space, and new units of affordable housing, we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices because the community hasn’t been asked.

Conclusion

The APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) prepared an excellent 2018 report on future school facilities needs. But many of that report’s recommendations have not progressed due to the lack of an appropriate sense of urgency by the County and School Boards.

Successful long-range facilities planning must follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Arlington lacks such a long-range plan today because it has failed to follow these principles.

A highly credentialed and knowledgeable APS activist provided me with this assessment of the new AFSAP plan:

“What’s not discussed here is that we need to create 3,347 additional seats over the last CIP. That roughly translates to another $250M (not including land acquisition costs) over the [last] CIP.”

When, where, and how soon will the missing plans be provided?

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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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

The July 8, 2019 flash flooding incident devastated Donaldson Run’s Tributary, exposing the flaws in Donaldson Run’s Tributary B restoration design. The County also is now on a path to use that same fundamentally flawed approach at Gulf Branch.

Killing a Stream to “Restore” a Stream 

So-called “stream restorations” frequently kill streams by increasing water temperature and reducing oxygen. Cutting down trees and existing vegetation and using excavators to disturb the land in or near a streambed simply compound the problem and unleash invasive plants that also negatively impact stream ecology.

Studies show that the underlying cause for urban stream syndrome — the trigger for these “restoration” projects in the first place — is the growing volume and speed of stormwater runoff that results from the proliferation of impervious surfaces:

The ultimate mechanisms by which urbanization degrades streams are manifold but can usually be attributed to a small number of landscape-scale land-use practices for which alternative management approaches are available….

Our analyses reveal urban stormwater as a new class of environmental flow problem: one that requires reduction of a large excess volume of water to maintain riverine ecological integrity

County government disregards climate science

Instead of addressing the underlying problem, Arlington continues to spend millions on outdated, cookie-cutter “restoration” plans that produce counterproductive outcomes. The Donaldson Run Tributary A project is a prime example:

[A] large number of stream restoration projects focus primarily on physical channel characteristics. We show that this is not a wise investment if ecological recovery is the goal. Managers should critically diagnose the stressors impacting an impaired stream and invest resources first in repairing those problems most likely to limit restoration.

Since 2011, scientists and others have shown that the types of “restoration” projects conducted here in Arlington and elsewhere fail to achieve basic ecological and water quality goals.

Many streams are chosen for restoration simply because they are the “low hanging fruit.” This occurs when engineers–rather than ecologists, naturalists and conservation biologists–control a project. After the damage is done, those tasked with protecting natural resources are given the impossible task of trying to restore a semblance of life, natural
functionality, and ecological balance to a seriously degraded, post-construction landscape.

Streams will try to restore themselves (for example, trees falling into the water provide resistance and can slow water down). But to truly restore a stream, you must first reduce the inputs (the volume and speed of the runoff entering the stream). Otherwise, any benefits from so-called restoration efforts will be quickly nullified, as the Baltimore Sun reported:

[S]ome scientists say controlling erosion[‘s] … benefits don’t last if nothing else is done to reduce runoff from development before it pours into the stream.

“You can’t ask a stream to do everything an entire watershed should do,” said Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland scientist who’s researched restoration ecology. She’s published studies finding “no consistent evidence” that restored streams reduce nitrogen, another key pollutant fouling the bay.

And while stabilizing stream channels may reduce erosion at first, she said, the benefit is likely to decrease over time.

In addition to the ecological impacts, misguided stream “restoration” efforts can also exacerbate flash flooding. By continuing to dump greater and greater volumes of water into the stream system — a system not designed to receive all that water so rapidly — County government ensures that erosion and other problems plaguing the streambed will continue. Widening the channel will do little to alter these dynamics.

Conclusion

County government is poised to repeat past mistakes by replicating them at Donaldson Run Tributary B and at Gulf Branch. Papering over development and land-use problems by merely adjusting stream channels to manage greater volumes of runoff won’t work. Both these “restoration” projects should be halted until a revised, ecologically sound design is adopted.

County government must accept current climate science and directly address the stormwater runoff problems before attempting expensive stream restoration projects. County government must redesign these projects to fit within a sustainable environmental footprint.

Working harder to preserve Arlington’s remaining mature tree canopy, reducing the quantity of impervious/built surfaces, and focusing greater attention on conservation of our natural resources are the keys to cost-effective stormwater management.

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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.

Earlier this month, ARLnow.com posted a story highlighting a spate of restaurant closures on the west side of Glebe Road:Restaurateurs along the west side of Glebe Road almost unanimously agreed that the biggest challenges for local businesses all stem from traffic issues. …[I]t can be difficult for visitors to find the right places to park.”

But some sources held out hope for west side restaurants:

“[T]here’s some light at the end of the tunnel with a massive mixed-use building called The Waycroft — which includes 491 residential units as well as a Target and Silver Diner — expected to open at 750 N. Glebe Road sometime in the first quarter of 2020.”

One other massive new Ballston residential project is the redevelopment of the Harris Teeter site at 600 N. Glebe Road (732 residential units, 965 parking spaces). This project envisions the creation of a tiny new privately-owned “park.” Over 100 mature trees will be destroyed.

Other substantial Ballston residential projects completed or in the pipeline include :

The belief that adding density is the right solution doesn’t end at Glebe Road. Discussions continue about adding more and more density in the Bluemont residential neighborhood, and expanding the western boundaries of the Ballston BID to include portions of Bluemont.

Show us the money and the green — Part 1

While many of the residents in these new Ballston projects may become customers of restaurants on the west side of Glebe Road, our County government has yet to demonstrate that it has fiscally and environmentally sustainable long-term plans to accommodate them plus all the other new residents in other parts of the County.

Fiscal Sustainability

In his analysis of the likely impacts on Arlington’s budget of Amazon’s arrival, prominent regional economist Stephen Fuller prepared a report estimating (at p. 11) that each new Arlington resident will have a net negative impact on Arlington’s budget of over $800. It’s net negative because the likely new infrastructure costs, including schools, fire stations, and road improvements, exceed the likely new tax revenues from higher real estate assessments.

The County has yet to explain what its long-term plans are to finance these new infrastructure costs.

Environmental Sustainability

Portions of the Ballston/Bluemont area are part of the Lubber Run watershed. As outlined in a recent column, County development and construction policies and practices in this area exacerbated the July 8 flooding damage to Lubber Run Park.

Also, County government has failed to develop appropriate long-term plans to upgrade our stormwater infrastructure serving Ballston/Bluemont and other areas of the County to accommodate all the new residents in our climate change era.

Show us the money and the green — Part 2

County leaders have sent multiple signals that they favor new plans to enable a lot more density on top of that already authorized.

For example, in a story earlier this year, County Board members were quoted as believing that Arlington housing would be made more affordable by up-zoning to substantially increase housing supply. (Up-zoning = approving more dense development than permitted by current zoning.)

Another ARLnow.com story (“Arlington Must Open Up Single-Family-Neighborhoods To Different Housing Options, Advocates Argue”) further described such suggestions.

Conclusion

It makes no sense to plunge ahead and enable for the first time such large increases in new residential density without first preparing and discussing with the community a long-term strategic plan demonstrating that we have fiscally and environmentally sustainable solutions for the density and population growth we have already authorized.

Therefore, I concur with Eric Harold’s suggestion in a recent Progressive Voice column:

“[T]he County Board should lead a transparent public process to rethink how growth is managed and develop better tools for managing the County’s growth for the next 50 years.”

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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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.

On May 31, a gunman killed 12 people and injured 6 more in a Virginia Beach municipal building. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam subsequently called the Virginia legislature back for a July 9 special session to act on a series of gun safety bills. Most of the bills had been under consideration for years.

The Republicans who control our legislature–on a party line vote–successfully passed a motion to adjourn that special session without voting on a single bill:

“Republican leaders adjourned … after only 90 minutes, referring some 60 bills to the state Crime Commission for further study. The legislature is scheduled to reconvene to take the matter back up on Nov. 18 — nearly two weeks after this fall’s elections.”

The Crime Commission is meeting this week.

On July 28, a gunman in Gilroy, California, killed 3 people, wounded at least 15, and then killed himself. On August 3, a gunman in El Paso, Texas killed 22 and wounded 25 more. On August 4, another gunman in Dayton, Ohio killed 9 and wounded 27 in just 32 seconds before he was fatally shot by police .

Virginia Republican legislators are playing Russian roulette with our lives

Our elected officials are elected to solve problems. Our tax dollars pay their salaries. We are entitled to a full public discussion, followed by up-or-down votes, on proposed key gun safety legislation because gun violence can kill any one of us at any time.

This doesn’t mean that all the 60 some bills that were sent to the Crime Commission for further “study” should have been passed on July 9 nor that any single bill sponsored by Democrats was perfect as filed. Of course not. But where is the Republican sense of urgency? Where is the Republican leadership to negotiate some compromises to enable meaningful action?

Sadly, what we see too often from Virginia Republican legislative leaders after every new mass shooting is a parade of excuses like:

  • “this particular bill wouldn’t have prevented that particular shooting”
  • “it’s too early to be talking about legislation while people are grieving”
  • “a determined shooter can’t be stopped”
  • “let’s wait to see what the federal government does”

No, now is the time for Virginia to act.

Some examples of Virginia gun safety legislation that should be enacted now

  • Expanded local options to prohibit guns in public buildings: Virginia localities like Arlington have very limited powers to regulate the use of guns. An analysis of the current law is here. Virginia law should be amended to give localities the option to limit the possession of guns in public buildings to only certain categories of owners (e.g., police officers).
  • Universal background checks: Private sellers of guns in Virginia are not required to conduct universal background checks. This loophole should be closed. Virginia law should be amended to require private sellers to conduct background checks through a central law enforcement agency that has access to federal and state databases of prohibited purchasers;to maintain records of all firearms transfers for a lengthy period;and to report all transfers to state and local law enforcement.
  • Red flag law: A red flag law permits police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to themselves or others. Even Donald Trump has endorsed red flag laws. Virginia House of Delegates member Rip Sullivan (D. 48), who represents major portions of Arlington, has repeatedly introduced a red-flag bill. Unlike 17 other states, Virginia doesn’t have a red flag law. Virginia law should be amended to include one.
  • One-a-month limits: Laws limiting the number of firearms an individual can purchase per month help reduce the number of guns that end up at the scene of a crime. For that reason, Virginia used to have a one-gun-a-month law. But Virginia repealed that law in 2012 at the request of the NRA. That law should be re-enacted.

Conclusion

These and other excellent examples and legislative recommendations are discussed here (Testimony of Leanne Fox, gun owner, Crozet, Virginia). All these key gun safety measures should be enacted in Virginia now.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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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.

Two months beforethe July 8 flooding, a catastrophic and expensive sewer failure occurred not far from Amazon’s new HQ.

That May 5 sewer failure, combined with the multiple July 8 sewer failures, graphically illustrate Arlington’s lack of integrated long-range planning and investment in Arlington’s below ground infrastructure (e.g., sewer, storm water, water mains) even as new development continues to get a green light.

Arlington needs to provide its unsuspecting residents with a direct warning that theyare going to bear the costs of this situation until Arlington gets its act together.

May 5 sewer failure

Miriam Gennari and her husband own a rental property in South Arlington in 22202. That property is near Restaurant Row on 23rd St., and across from the Crystal Houses at 1900 S. Eads where building owners currently are petitioning the County to build 4-6 new buildings and add 798 new units, significantly increasing density.

Late on the evening of May 5, Gennari’s renters reported water in the basement. When Gennari arrived, she discovered 8 inches or more of raw sewage which filled the main basement area and utility room.

Recognizing this was not a backed-up toilet issue, Gennari called Arlington Waste Management’s emergency number (703-228-6555). County personnel arrived with equipment in less than an hour and a half. As shown in the photo below, they snaked the main sewer line.

Then, the liquid drained from the property, leaving a blanket of decaying grime all over the renters’ personal possessions, the interior structure and the mechanical systems of the home.

An Arlington County government representative gave Gennari and her husband a card acknowledging that the sewer discharge into this rental property was caused by a sewer main line back up. The discharge might well have been prevented by more frequent maintenance of trouble and grease spots.

The Gennaris first called their home insurance provider who denied their claim because that provider does not offer sewer-line backup coverage on rental properties.

“Our homeowners insurance carrier at the time told us that they do not even carry an option for such coverage on rental properties; if we had known, we would have found an insurance company that did. If County leaders only had explained how serious our infrastructure weaknesses were, many residents would be better prepared for system failures and the implications of climate change,” Gennari said.

The Arlington County government referred the Gennari’s damages claim to its third-party processor, PMA Companies. Gennari knew they were in deep trouble when the first question the PMA representative asked was “what was the cause of the clog,” signifying that any claim might depend on evidence that already had been washed down the drain.

Ultimately, PMA denied Gennari’s claim in a letter with two short paragraphs. PMA asserted that the claim had been denied based on the County’s sovereign immunity and lack of notice, and Gennari’s case had been closed. Gennari and her husband have been left to pay almost $20,000 in damages to repair and restore the premises. Gennari’s tenants similarly received only an apology for their losses.

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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.

Two recent columns discussing Arlington’s July 8 countywide flooding and Donaldson Run’s pollution and flood damage explained how the County’s development and construction policies and practices have increased impervious surfaces and resulted in the loss of mature trees. Combined, these factors have almost certainly heightened our flood risk and intensified the damage.

Today, I focus on the July 8 flood impacts on Lubber Run Park.

Lubber Run suffered severe flood damage on July 8

An Arlington resident captured the severe July 8 flood damage to Lubber Run and its park in a series of dramatic videos. This video depicts the destruction of one of the park’s pedestrian bridges, not far from the amphitheater.

Other videos capturing the July 8 flood’s ferocity are here, here, here, and here.

Traveling upstream, the videographer documents the severity of damage to the trail after the flood.

Several factors almost certainly compounded Lubber Run’s intense flooding on July 8.

  • Community Center construction: As part of the new Lubber Run Community Center’s construction, the County removed over 100 mature trees. Some of these trees were located on a steep grade and were within Lubber Run’s Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area (RPA). Toward the end of 2018, every tree and every other living thing were removed from within the areas outlined in red (see image below) reproduced from Google maps:
  • Bridge replacement and sanitary sewer installation: At around the same time, the County replaced and widened the spans of the Carlin Springs bridge crossing George Mason Drive and installed new sanitary sewer infrastructure nearby. Both projects involved soil excavation and land disturbance in or near Lubber Run’s RPA. And the significant land disturbance associated with these projects likely exacerbated the stormwater runoff and flood damage to Lubber Run Park on July 8.
  • Ballston Pond “rehabilitation”: Further contributing to July 8’s flood intensity along Lubber Run is the still-incomplete restoration of the Ballston “Beaver” Pond (no beavers are in residence)–a project that has dragged on for years after this stormwater detention pond silted up and could no longer hold and filter large amounts of water. As part of the County’s plans to “retrofit” the pond, many trees and much of the existingvegetation will be removed and the sediment from the pond excavated. Since the pond no longer functions as designed, all the stormwater runoff from 300 urban and suburban acres flows directly downstream into Lubber Run without slowing down to settle out sediment or to filter contaminants from the water.

How the County fails to exercise regulatory powers it already possesses

The Arlington County Board’s repeated claims of powerlessness to take action to protect our environment ring hollow. Here is just one example of those claims.

While it is indeed true that some “rules” on some issues can only be made in Richmond, existing rules often permit adjustments to be made right here in Arlington–but only if County Board members are willing to seize these opportunities.

Stormwater management legislation offers a prime example. Arlington could do a lot more to protect our environment simply by exercising its existing regulatory authority under § 62.1-44.15:33 of the Virginia Code . This section grants Arlington powers to adopt more stringent regulations governing “existing water pollution including nutrient and sediment loadings, stream channel erosion, depleted groundwater resources, or excessive localized flooding within the watershed.”

Conclusion

Development, construction, increases in impervious surfaces, and the ongoing loss of mature tree canopy all exacerbate Arlington’s risk of severe flooding. As further discussed in July’s two columns, Arlington already possesses untapped powers to control each of these contributing factors.

Yet despite the tremendous damage that occurred on July 8, elected officials and staff continue to trot out “Act of God” or “flood of the century” arguments that inspire little confidence in local government.

Had Arlington fully exercised its existing regulatory powers, the damage to Lubber Run Park and other public and private assets almost certainly would have been far less.
Arlington was lucky that no lives were lost on July 8. Next time, there’s no guarantee.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

Image via Google Maps

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Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In his column last week, Mark Kelly discussed the recent unfortunate Supreme Court decision (5-4) concluding that federal courts could not provide relief from partisan gerrymandering.

In her persuasive dissent in that case, Justice Kagan concluded:

“In the face of grievous harm to democratic governance and flagrant infringements on individuals’ rights — in the face of escalating partisan manipulation whose compatibility with this nation’s values and law no one defends — the majority declines to provide any remedy.”

Despite this Supreme Court decision, Virginia is on its way to less partisan redistricting

Like many other states, Virginia currently has a partisan redistricting system.

For at least twenty years–up until early this year, Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates fought non-partisan redistricting. They wanted to retain their control and saw partisan redistricting as the best way to do it.

Many Democrats believed they would do better with non-partisan redistricting. But that did not stop some Democratic legislative leaders, like 28-year incumbent Democratic Senator “Dominion Dick” Saslaw, from spearheading the disastrous 2011 legislative deal under which Virginia Senate Democratic leaders gave Virginia House Republican leaders free reign to draw partisan Delegate lines while Virginia Senate Democratic leaders received free reign to draw partisan Senate lines.

Partisan redistricting has served us poorly. The reasons were explained convincingly by a group of 20 business leaders from Virginia, Maryland and DC in this January 2019 statement:

“The endemic dysfunction in our government stems from incentives in politics that promote ideological purity over pragmatic problem solving and cooperation. … We believe anti-gerrymandering measures are the logical starting point for reform, and they are urgently needed in both Maryland and Virginia. A system in which politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around, is inherently wrong and dysfunctional. Partisan gerrymandering is a protection racket for incumbent politicians….”

Sweeping gains by Democrats in the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates elections, combined with the prospect that Republicans might lose control of one or both legislative houses in the 2019 general election, finally led the Virginia Republican House leadership to support a form of non-partisan redistricting.

With strong bi-partisan support, Virginia enacted a 2019 law that will lead to a less partisan redistricting system.

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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 residents try to cope with the increasing frequency and severity of flooding, as outlined in last week’s column, a combination of code violations by Washington Golf & Country Club (WGCC), together with County errors and budget shortfalls, has polluted Donaldson Run and wreaked havoc on Zachary Taylor Park.

A WGCC course-redesign project has caused repeated, serious flows of mud and chemicals into Donaldson Run.

For months, mud and project-related chemicals from a WGCC course redesign project have run into Tributary A downstream of the bridge and into Donaldson Run. This Run flows under Military Road and becomes the stream flowing through the Potomac Overlook Regional Park (POP). (See December videos of Tributary C effluent from WGCC here and here and photo of mud ingress to clean Tributary A here.) POP is a 66-acre natural park with a Nature Center, streams and pathways for walking and hiking. Contamination of the streams poses a health risk to people and pets crossing the stream.

First observed by residents in June 2018, the matter was investigated by the VA Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) and deemed worthy of further oversight and penalties under Virginia law.

VADEQ then turned the matter over to Arlington County. According to sources at the Donaldson Run Civic Association, as of mid-July 2019, the County has identified six or seven serious violations, with fines against WGCC totaling somewhere between $11,000 and $15,000.

To its credit, the County has ordered that any golf course work related to renovating the course for purposes of play be suspended until the water flow in Tributary C has been stabilized. This is a consequential demand given the importance of the golf course to members.

On the other hand, the total financial penalties imposed as of this date are a pittance and are based on a staff interpretation of County codes limiting a fine for any “event” to $2,500. By contrast, if a private civil suit were to be initiated, the Virginia state code under which VADEQ operates states (at p.5) that “ultimately, civil charges and civil penalties cannot exceed the statutory maximum, usually $32,500 per day for each violation.”

To provide a real deterrent to future malfeasance, County code penalties for these kinds of environmental infractions should be increased substantially and scaled with inflation. Those revised, much higher penalties, also should be applied to destruction of important trees, currently limited to $2,500 per tree (County Code §67-8).

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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’s massive July 8 flash flooding — vividly captured by ARLnow.com in videos and photos — exposes yet again Arlington’s failed approach to stormwater planning. That is the emergency Arlington also should have declared last week.

Preliminary County government stormwater-damage estimates set repair costs for public infrastructure, particularly bridges in local parks, at $4.1 million. Actual costs are likely to be much higher. Flood damage to private property will add millions more.

Climate change and sea level rise are here. Wake up, Arlington!

Arlington is in a floodplain

Make Arlington’s flood-prevention approach proactive

Arlington residents are suffering:

“Alexandra Lettow was near tears as she described the losses her family suffered from Monday’s flooding to neighbors and county officials gathered at a home in Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood….

“She and other residents say the county government has taken far too long to study the problem without making any fixes, especially in an era where climate change is triggering more intense and frequent storms….

“Five years ago, several projects to fix Arlington’s aged storm drain system were on the capital improvements program list, only to quietly fall off without explanation. The repairs would have addressed Spout Run stream overflows in Waverly Hills.

Implement mitigation strategies now

County government has chosen not to exercise legal powers that Arlington already possesses to reduce our rapidly growing environmental threats.

Arlington’s land use and development practices — which the County Board controls — exacerbate increases in the speed and volume of stormwater runoff. Whether or not flooded areas lie in FEMA-designated floodplains is immaterial. Board members must acknowledge nature’s latest wake-up call by strengthening County codes and planning to address increasingly unsafe conditions in Arlington.

Slow dramatic increases in impervious surfaces

As Arlington redevelops and adds density, one statistic stands out: between 2001 and 2017, the percentage of impervious surfaces covering Arlington has grown from an estimated 40% to 45%, with 3% of that increase occurring within the past 4 years.

According to County staff, the pace and intensity of redevelopment adds nearly 9 acres of impervious surface area each year–about 29 acres every three to four years, equal to the size of the Pentagon’s footprint.

“Preserving undisturbed vegetative cover during land development is a much more cost- effective approach than destroying these features and having to construct new stormwater management practices to replace the functions they originally provided,” says the Center for Watershed Protection.

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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.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s conviction for having violated a federal bribery law spurred some small reforms to Virginia’s ethics laws, including a $100 cap on gifts to state legislators.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court, on somewhat narrow and technical grounds, overturned McDonnell’s conviction, ruling that his conduct didn’t violate the applicable federal bribery law.

However, even after the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision, states like Virginia retained the power to enact state ethics laws. Virginia can decide whether politicians who do things like McDonnell did should be:

  • excused for doing something that is just part of the old-school “Virginia way,” or
  • subject to significant penalties for doing something that the community and a new legislative majority now believes is a conflict of interest or corrupt

We need further, more significant campaign finance and ethics reforms, but efforts to get them have failed so far. In the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions, when Democrats held only 34 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates (HOD), no such reforms were passed. And, even in the wake of the major Democratic HOD legislative gains in 2017, more significant reforms have been blocked by slim Republican majorities.

Democrats will need to take control of both legislative chambers this year to enable significant reforms to pass in 2020.

Campaign Finance Reform

In the recently concluded Democratic primaries for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Arlington and Fairfax counties, a PAC funded by George Soros contributed nearly $1 million dollars to the successful challengers. These contributions were legal under Virginia’s current campaign finance laws.
Our laws contain no campaign contribution limits.

Virginia’s campaign finance laws have been ranked 47th out of 50 in America, and received a grade of “F” from a State Integrity Investigation.

Three Democratic legislators (including Arlington Delegate Patrick Hope (D-47)) recently announced that they intend to introduce new legislation in the 2020 session substantially to reform these laws.

Their legislation will be modeled after an unsuccessful bill introduced in the 2019 session, and would “prohibit individuals and political action committees from making any single contribution, or any combination of contributions, that exceeds $10,000 to any one candidate” for statewide, General Assembly, or local offices, “of which no more than $5,000 may be contributed for the primary or other nominating event for the office the candidate is seeking.”

But wouldn’t such contribution limits violate the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision? Maybe not. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to review a Court of Appeals ruling upholding Montana’s state campaign contribution limits. The Court of Appeals rejected a claim that Montana’s campaign contribution limits violated Citizens United.

The proposed new Virginia legislation co-sponsored by Delegate Hope would be a significant and desirable reform. But it is unlikely to pass unless Democrats take control of both legislative chambers this November.

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