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 stories recently chronicled testimony at the July 14 County Board meeting by representatives from the Arlington Tree Action Group (ATAG). ATAG works to preserve and grow Arlington’s urban forest to keep Arlington green, fulfilling the vision in Arlington County’s Urban Forest Master Plan (2004).
In one story,”Our Man In Arlington” columnist Charlie Clark cast ATAG’s testimony as presenting the Board with “tough choices between the pursuit of green (as in money) and the pursuit of green (as in environmentalism).”
In the other story, Arlington Sun-Gazette reporter and editor Scott McCaffrey noted:
“Arlington County Board members on July 14 took significant flak — yet again — from tree-preservation advocates. And as has been the case in the past, the board’s collective response has been: Don’t blame us; we don’t make the rules.”
Arlington should exercise its existing powers to preserve more mature trees
County Board members are correct that Virginia’s Dillon Rule limits Arlington’s legal powers to preserve trees in some circumstances. However, ATAG and Arlington activists like Suzanne Sundburg also are correct that there are other things that Arlington currently isn’t doing, but that Arlington has the legal power to do, to preserve trees.
Here are just a few of many examples:
- “Build up, under and over rather than out” on public sites to minimize land disturbance, tree loss and the proliferation of hardscape and impervious surfaces, as recommended by the Community Facilities Study Group (at p. 12).
- Strengthen enforcement of existing permitting rules on public as well as private sites. Don’t give APS or County Government a free pass on adhering to permit requirements, as the county did when APS cut down more trees than permitted on the Ashlawn school site, and the County Board simply changed the permit instead of imposing penalties.
- Identify and nominate more “specimen” trees on public land. Out of the 11.6 sq. mi. of public land, there must be more than the current 10 specimen trees worth saving. (On the 14.4 sq. mi. of private land, there currently are 16 specimen trees.)
- Integrate stormwater management/impervious surface reduction principles into lot coverage restrictions, and apply lot coverage restrictions to all housing, not just to single-family properties.
- Adopt a tree preservation ordinance (as Fairfax County already has) based on an existing Virginia Code provision that grants the authority. (This provision relates to conservation of trees during the land-development process in localities belonging to a nonattainment area for air quality standards.)
- Fully fund land acquisition for public natural space. The draft Public Open Spaces Master Plan (POPS) states (at p. 24) that acquiring 204 additional natural acres is needed to serve Arlington’s growing population. But, the Board and manager have delayed funding and acquisition of these lands until 2025 or 2035 (at p. C-7). There is no guarantee that any such parcels will still exist in 2025 or 2035.
The County Board should embrace publicly this comment (by Gavrilo2014) to last week’s Salt Dome column:
“Healthy mature trees should not be destroyed unless there’s absolutely no alternative.”
Arlington County government can make the rules to save mature trees.
Lots more mature trees could be saved if Arlington County only would exercise the powers it already has.
The County Board should instruct the manager to ask this question: have I saved a tree today?
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 July 18, the County Board set September public hearings on a “short-term North Arlington salt storage plan” to address a rusting salt storage tank (aka the “Salt Dome”) located at 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive.
Having acknowledged their failure to plan for the Salt Dome’s replacement — despite obvious, long-standing rust problems — county staff publicly declared an emergency last month, dumping the problem into the County Board’s lap while pleading for:
- an emergency rezoning of portions of this site from S-3A to P-S;
- construction of a temporary, new storage structure on a different portion of this site.
Not all of N. Arlington’s road salt must be stored at the Salt Dome site, making this emergency rezoning request unnecessary
County Board Chair Katie Cristol stated: “Board members agree that Arlington County must be prepared to efficiently and effectively handle snow and ice to keep our roads and residents safe this winter.”
But there is a cheaper, more efficient solution to achieve the Board’s goal. Staff’s proposed solution seemingly involves taking three weeks to empty the dome and trucking the site’s stored salt up to Baltimore. Instead:
- a portion of existing salt reserves can remain on the Salt Dome site without removing trees and paving over green space to construct a new, temporary structure there;
- the balance of N. Arlington’s salt reserves can be stored temporarily on the Buck site (which is already zoned for this use) or on another N. Arlington site; and
- once the Salt Dome is empty, its demolition and replacement can begin.
As resident Rob MacKichan recounted in his July 17 Board testimony (at 4:18:58), county staff executive George May has confirmed Arlington’s road salt inventory:
– 2,500 tons of salt now inside the Salt Dome;
– 1,500 tons of salt under a tarp next to the Salt Dome;
– 3,500 tons of salt in S. Arlington.
Thus, of the 8,000 tons the Manager’s FY19 budget says we need for the coming winter, the county already has roughly 7,500 tons of salt on hand.
The simplest solution is to transfer the salt now stored in the Salt Dome to an industrially zoned, centrally located, temporary site in N. Arlington. The Buck site is one existing alternative that meets these criteria. As the Manager has indefinitely delayed long-term planning for the Buck site, temporarily storing salt there won’t delay or alter the site’s ultimate redevelopment.
Staff claims that temporarily storing salt (in a canvas teepee) on the Buck site would “break faith with the community.” Unexplained is why a temporary use consistent with current zoning constitutes “breaking faith” with Buck site neighbors, whereas summarily rezoning public parkland and converting it into paved industrial space does not constitute “breaking faith” with Salt Dome neighbors.
County staff must be held accountable
Arlington residents deserve answers to these questions:
- Why didn’t this “conversation” take place last year, as the County Manager acknowledged it should have?
- Which specific steps will the County take to prevent staff from–in County Board member Libby Garvey’s words –“doing this to us or our community again”?
It’s tough to understand why such a disruptive “emergency” solution is required when a simpler, cheaper, more efficient alternative is readily available. Temporarily storing some salt on the Buck site during the new dome’s construction still allows for appropriate long-term planning.
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 Master Plan will modernize the plant’s solids treatment capabilities over the next decade. The old system and equipment will be replaced with equipment to perform thermal hydrolysis and anaerobic digestion.
Full implementation of the SMP’s “facility plan” phase will include the production, periodic flaring and storage of methane gas and will increase the plant’s air pollution emissions
On July 17, residents and activists alerted County Board members to serious air pollution risks, particularly for increases in dangerous ozone (O3) levels.
In a joint statement delivered by Paul Guttridge, a civil engineer specializing in wastewater projects, the Aurora Highlands, Long Branch Creek and Arlington Ridge Civic associations asked for a two year delay in the facility plan phase to evaluate risks and consider alternatives.
After explaining the risks of the SMP’s facility plan phase, Guttridge noted:
Even exposure to relatively low levels of O3 endangers public health, which prompted the federal government’s recent reduction in ozone limits to just 70 parts per billion (ppb) over eight hours. The nearby Aurora Hills’ EPA air-quality monitoring station frequently records O3 levels above 70 ppb.
Children and babies are especially at risk and studies indicate that each 20-ppb increase of ozone is associated with a 63-percent increase in the rate of school absence for illness and a 0.5 percent increase in adult mortality…
Arlington activist Suzanne Sundburg also cited extensive data illustrating the increased health and mortality risks of O3 pollution:
[T]he county fails to estimate post-upgrade increases in ozone levels resulting from plant operations even though Arlington already fails to meet the federal 70-ppb limit and receives [an] F grade from the American Lung Association…
Without supporting data, staff characterizes future plant ozone increases as “minor.” But recent research tells us that an increase of just 1 ppb in daily ozone levels over the summer can trigger 250 extra deaths per year nationwide.
Prior to the “facility plan” phase’s implementation, Arlington must fully explore an alternative regional solution
Although the County Board declined the request to delay the SMP framework’s approval, the Board directed the County Manager to:
[P]resent an evaluation of alternatives, including an update on regional options with DC Water, to the Board and civic associations surrounding the pollution control plant before finalizing the facility plan (two to three years from now), and awarding a construction contract.
Guttridge’s statement cogently summarized one alternative regional solution that must be fully explored:
[T]ransport the residual solids to DC Water Blue Plains Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant in southeast DC, where it would be treated in a state-of the art facility that currently has excess capacity. Other regional partners may be available.
Before spending $139 million in the “facility plan” phase of the SMP, Arlington needs to fully weigh all costs, risks and benefits associated with staff’s currently preferred plant upgrades against other options.
For example, DC Water’s nearby Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, located across the Potomac River (on an industrial waterfront site where emissions more readily disperse) has existing excess capacity to process Arlington’s waste. The scale of the Blue Plains plant (10 times the size of Arlington’s plant) makes DC Water’s treatment process a cost-effective alternative worthy of serious consideration.
ARLnow.com reported last week that Arlington County plans a pilot program for dockless vehicles.
Spokesperson Eric Baillet “told ARLnow that officials are planning to unveil a ‘pilot demonstration project’ to test all manner of dockless vehicles this fall.” Baillet believes this will help to “provide structure to the deployment, operation and use of scooters and dockless bikes within the county… and gauge the impacts of these mobility devices.”
Baillet says county government plans to present a framework for County Board review in September.
Board member John Vihstadt is quoted as saying he’d be “broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.”
A pilot program for dockless vehicles
Dockless vehicles present some of the same and some different challenges for municipalities compared to earlier iterations of the mobility sharing economy like Uber and Lyft. (Uber and Lyft now also are in the dockless vehicle business.)
What can Arlington learn from other municipalities?
Pilot programs for dockless vehicles in other municipalities
Other municipalities already have pilot programs. They include:
DC’s pilot program was launched in September 2017 and was recently extended through August 2018, WTOP reports:
Seven private companies are currently operating dockless bike and electric scooters in the District. The bike companies are Jump, Spin, ofo and Mobike. Waybots and Bird operate electric scooters. LimeBike has both scooters and bikes.
Complaints since the pilot program began have been largely about where the bikes and scooters are being left — often in the middle of sidewalks or on private property.
San Francisco (SF) has established a 12-month pilot program under which up to five permits may be granted. For the first six months, a total of 1,250 scooters may be permitted. If the first six months go well, the total may increase to 2,500 in months seven through 12. The increase is tied to how well permitted operators meet the standards set out in their permits.
Under the SF pilot program, per the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency:
[SF] is looking to the companies themselves to develop robust user education so that their customers know how to properly ride and park the scooters.
The goals of the just-launched pilot program in Denver are described here.
Virginia state law on dockless vehicles
Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Arlington will need to determine the scope of its existing power to adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework).
One relevant existing state law is § 46.2-908.1 of the Virginia Code which enables local governments like Arlington to regulate some aspects of dockless vehicle operations.
Is every desirable aspect of the pilot program (and regulatory framework) Arlington might like to adopt currently authorized under Virginia state law?
A carefully-designed pilot program (and regulatory framework) for dockless vehicles is a good idea.
Dockless vehicles have great potential, but also pose significant risks.
Arlington should adopt a pilot program (and regulatory framework) that maximizes the potential and minimizes the risks.
As ARLnow.com reported, the County Board is scheduled to vote on July 14 on changes to a program that provides real estate tax relief to low-income seniors. This RETR program has been in effect since 1991.
According to a county staff report:
The RETR program provides an exemption and/or deferral of real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners who are age 65 or older, or who are permanently and totally disabled. The current… program provides an exemption and/or deferral of real estate taxes for qualified Arlington homeowners whose annual household income is at or below $99,472, and whose household assets (excluding the value of their Arlington home) are at or below $340,000… In calendar year 2017, [the county] approved 915 households for RETR, resulting in $4,139,872 in foregone revenue.
$3,744,588 (90 percent) of that $4,139,872 of foregone tax revenue was for exemptions.
The ARLnow.com story explains that the County Board has been asked to make these changes to the program (among others):
- increase the asset limit to $400,000… and allow the County to adjust that amount annually as property values and the area’s median income level changes
- For the very top earners… — households making anywhere from $80,000 to $99,472 per year — restrict them to only applying for a deferral from the taxes, not a full exemption
County Board Chair Katie Cristol is quoted as saying:
“The goal is to tighten it and make it more effective as a program, not lower obstacles for participation. This is not a large-scale policy change.“
The county should convert this program as rapidly as possible into a 100 percent deferral program
It is inequitable and unfair to Arlington taxpayers to provide the heirs of low-income Arlington seniors with the permanent windfall those heirs now are receiving from the exemption component of the current program.
In a convincing recent letter to the Sun-Gazette, Arlington activist Kathryn Scruggs captured some of these inequities:
Many other cities and towns throughout the country offer programs that freeze real-estate taxes for qualifying elder households so that they still pay taxes, but with no annual increase. That way they continue to provide revenue for the jurisdiction… The community is desperate for more schools and will need more teachers, resources and staff. Yet the county government was forced to cut staff positions and programs for [the] upcoming fiscal year because it did not have enough money.
In his most-up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com story, Arlington activist Dave Schutz similarly was spot-on when he stated:
I am absolutely unconvinced that we should be exempting ANYONE from property taxes under this program. Deferral is just fine, and it lets granny stay in her vine covered cottage, that’s an absolutely generous and appropriate thing to do. Then the taxes come [to] the county at the end… But exempting simply bumps up the inheritance for her kids in Chillicothe after she dies — why do we have any interest in doing that?
The exemption component of the current program cannot be justified out of concern for mortgage lenders
An extensive report from an RETR working group noted (Recommendation 6) that some mortgage lenders object to a deferral program, claiming it threatens their creditors’ rights. Arlington taxpayers should not be held hostage to such objections.
Arlington’s RETR program needs a swift, large-scale, prospective policy change: no more exemptions.
In my June 21 column I recommended that the County Board cancel the aquatics center, freeing up capital for other legally permissible uses such as purchasing new park land:
the Manager’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) contains $0 for acquisition of new park land over the next 10 years even though Arlington’s population is expected to grow by over 30,000 during that period.
Arlington continues to fall behind other jurisdictions and Arlington’s own prior practices in providing access to park land
A comprehensive 2016 report from the Civic Federation Parks and Recreation Committee (“Civ Fed report”) documents how Arlington has continued to fall behind other jurisdictions and Arlington’s own prior practices regarding:
- ratio of park land to population
- dollars devoted to new park land acquisition
The Civ Fed report explains (PDF p.5):
As of 2015, Arlington County had 1,784 acres of park land within its borders. Of those 1,784 acres, 949 acres were owned by Arlington County, 700 acres were owned by the National Park Service (most of which is Arlington Cemetery), and 135 acres were owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
In 1995, Arlington County had 10.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. By 2014 the County’s population had grown by over 43,000 residents, and the park land to population ratio had declined to 7.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
By contrast, Washington, DC, has 13.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and Fairfax County has 28.3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
The Civ Fed report also traces the history of Arlington’s declining investment in acquiring new parkland (PDF p.3):
between 1995 and 2008, funding for park land acquisition per two-year bond cycle was between $4.0 and $8.5 million, with most cycles at $8.5 million. Since then… there has been a decline… Over the six years between 2008 and 2014, land acquisition bond funding totaled only $3.0 million, but [was] supplemented by a total of $5.47 million in pay-as-you go (PAYGO) annual budget allocations. Yet, the total funds of $8.47 million available for land acquisition during the latter six-year period was still far less than the $8.5 million that was typical for each two-year cycle between 1996 and 2004 (an eight-year period).
County government lacks a financing plan to acquire new park land
The Civ Fed report recommended that Arlington adopt a financing plan to acquire three acres of new park land per year for the next 10 years. My fellow ARLnow.com columnist, Eli Tucker, has documented that the cost of land across Arlington averaged $94 per square foot, equal to over $4 million per acre. That means it could cost an average of over $12 million per year fully to implement the Civ Fed report recommendation.
But, the County Manager’s latest proposed CIP contains zero capital dollars for acquiring new park land between 2019-2028. Therefore, our county government must answer these community questions:
- How many acres of new parkland is Arlington planning to acquire over the next 10 years using other kinds of funding?
- What other kinds of funding and how much of it?
Arlington needs a financing plan to acquire new park land. Cancelling the aquatics center is Arlington’s best source of capital funding for this purpose in our tight budget times.
If our county government insists on moving forward with the aquatics center, it needs to engage transparently with our residents regarding its long-term financial plan for new park land acquisition.
Serving the independent audit function, Horton prepares performance audits, and reports directly to the County Board (not the County Manager) with guidance from the Audit Committee. The Audit Committee — comprising two County Board members, the County Manager, the Deptartment of Management and Finance Director plus three citizen-volunteers –oversees Horton’s work.
County Board member John Vihstadt played a leadership role in establishing the County Auditor position. He and Erik Gutshall serve as the current Board liaisons to the Audit Committee.
Off to a strong start
Horton’s latest report analyzes overtime payments at Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC). This audit makes important recommendations to improve efficiencies, and underscores the value and usefulness of performance audits.
Differences between the County Auditor and other auditors
The County Manager’s internal auditors look only for technical problems in the County’s financial and control systems:
- Are things being accounted for and entered into financial systems correctly?
- Are internal control systems operating to catch errors and irregularities?
Even the county’s external auditor issues only periodic, boilerplate opinion letters that reinforce the limited scope of its review.
Reporting responsibility outside of the normal management lines of authority provides an important check on our financial systems. See: “How should the audit committee be structured?”
County Auditor needs more resources
Horton’s Work Plan contains a series of hierarchical audit tiers, totaling approximately 18 potential audits. Based upon Horton’s own comments before the Board and logic, Horton, operating alone, probably will be able to prepare and publish only three, comprehensive audit reports between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019.
Thus, it would take Horton — operating alone — about 6 years to complete all 18 of the potential audits. Obviously, there are more than just these 18 audits that could yield significant dollar savings and efficiencies.
Nonpublic information I obtained from an Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) member confirms that an organization similar to Arlington County, with a $1.3 billion annual operating budget, should be devoting more than one, full-time, qualified auditor to the independent audit function.
Auditor/inspector general staffs that report directly to elected officials — if adequately funded — can identify savings that would more than cover their operating costs. Fairfax’s Office of Auditor of the Board has three auditors (including the Auditor of the Board). With three full-time auditors, you can see how much work it is possible to accomplish.
With Horton’s current constraints (e.g., no staff, a very limited budget, etc.), the county is underutilizing this important resource at the very moment it is needed most.
This is a concern. See “Why Government Watchdogs Are Worried”:
ALGA deals with these concerns all the time. When performance auditors rile mayors and department heads with negative audits, retaliation can come in the form of budget cuts, slow action on personnel requests or even suggestions that auditor functions be eliminated. David Jones, Seattle city auditor and chair of ALGA’s advocacy committee, says, “We frequently find that local government auditors are under attack.”
To get the best bang from our finite bucks, Arlington must add at least one (and eventually two) full-time, qualified assistant auditors to support the County Auditor and increase the annual performance audit output.
In presenting his proposed new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to the County Board last month, County Manager Mark Schwartz appropriately stressed fiscal prudence and making tough choices among competing priorities.
The Manager also correctly noted the incremental needs in capital spending that have arisen since Arlington’s last CIP was adopted two years ago, including for:
- Other transportation and core community infrastructure
But, as ARLnow.com reported, the Manager tried to defend moving forward with the construction of a $60 million aquatics center at Long Bridge Park. He argued that it would be a “breach of faith” to cancel it. He also claimed:
“If we back out… nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years… We’d probably… be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company]… and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”
The benefits of cancelling the aquatics center substantially outweigh the costs
The Manager’s conclusions about the contracting community and protracted litigation are alarmist. Contractors will continue vigorously bidding against each other for our business. We can reach a fair settlement with the construction company. At a minimum, county government should produce a redacted version of the construction contract so that it can be evaluated by disinterested, independent experts.
As for the “breach of faith,” we must weigh the great disappointment of aquatics center advocates if this project is cancelled against the lasting opportunity costs to the entire Arlington community of proceeding forward.
I share most of the sentiments expressed in the most up-voted comment to the ARLnow.com news story:
“The aquatics center is a boondoggle that should be stopped immediately. Just because it has been worked on for a few months does not mean we should continue to throw good money after bad… Arlington taxpayers will be on the hook for the deficit forever.”
I don’t agree this project is a boondoggle, but I do agree with the rest of this comment.
While school enrollment is growing at the equivalent of one new elementary school per year, and our vital Metro system still needs more funding, we should take pressure off our CIP’s 10 percent debt service limits by cancelling the aquatics center project. The costs to service our bonded indebtedness are already rising too close to those limits.
The Manager estimates net taxpayer support for aquatics center operations at something north of $1.1 million annually. This estimate is highly speculative because County government has never operated such a facility. The actual annual operating deficit could be much higher.
The net savings from cancelling the aquatics center should be re-directed toward other legally permissible uses
The Manager has confirmed that the County Board legally could reprogram the approved bond monies for the aquatics center to other park and recreation priorities. These include:
- land acquisition for new parkland (the Manager’s CIP contains $0 for acquisition of new parkland over the next 10 years even though Arlington’s population is expected to grow by over 30,000 during that period)
- park infrastructure (including a smaller community pool) at Long Bridge or elsewhere
County government has cancelled the 4thof July celebration at Long Bridge Park due to “budget constraints” while insisting that the aquatics center be built despite budget constraints. Each of those decisions should be reversed.
As ARLnow.com reported last week, severe flooding struck Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood again on May 22.
Garages and basements flooded, and automobiles were inundated or swept away. Many thousands of dollars in damages were suffered.
Two videos capture the severity of this Waverly Hills flooding:
The Manager’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) reflects a continuing lack of sufficient investment in stormwater management.
Six years ago, in the FY2013-FY2022 CIP, the county included at least three projects designed to mitigate flooding risks in Waverly Hills:
- Spout Run – 18th Street between Utah & Upton scheduled from FY 2013 – FY 2014
- Spout Run – 16th Street & Taylor to 19th Road scheduled from FY 2013 – FY 2016
- Spout Run – 19th Street & Upton to 20th Street scheduled from FY 2016 – FY 2017
The Spout Run – 18th Street project would have constructed approximately 2900 linear feet of 72-inch storm sewer with associated manholes and catch basins between the intersection of 15th Street and Stafford Street and the intersection of 19th Street and Upton Street.
The Spout Run – 16th Street project would have constructed approximately 1700 linear feet of large diameter storm sewer along Taylor Street between 16th Street and 19th Street.
The Spout Run – 19th Street project would have constructed approximately 2000 linear feet of large diameter storm sewer between the intersection of 19th Street and Upton Street and the intersection of 20th Street and 21st Street.
As ARLnow reported, none of these projects has ever been built. When contacted about this by ARLnow.com, a county spokeswoman stated that the county is “still pursuing” those projects, yet noted that “technical challenges and funding remain an issue.”
Arlington County government lacks a comprehensive strategy for effective investment in stormwater management.
An excellent 2017 report, prepared by activist Suzanne Sundburg for the Arlington County Civic Federation (see pp. 4-6), provides important background information regarding Arlington County’s rising flood risks in this era of climate change:
“According to the 2010 Northern Virginia Hazard Mitigation Plan … Update (adopted in 2012), flooding is the single most costly hazard for Arlington County, with FEMA’s HAZUSMH estimating the loss due to flooding alone as more than $3.5 million on an annualized basis.”
A 2015 analysis using Beyond Floods (a flood-risk app) concluded: “Roughly one out of every four U.S. properties subject to flood determination for a loan origination are at risk for flooding even though they lie outside established FEMA floodplains.”
Mark Schwartz was not County Manager when these Waverly Hills stormwater mitigation projects were dropped from the CIP. (Were any from your neighborhood also dropped?)
But since Schwartz became Manager, county government has failed to:
- develop a comprehensive stormwater mitigation strategy
- allocate needed investments to mitigate stormwater flooding
Arlington’s stormwater management webpage contains some high-minded goals, but Arlington sorely lacks an effective comprehensive plan to back them up.
The Manager continues to insist that we can “maintain” our infrastructure in “good repair” with the CIP he has proposed, even as he concurrently acknowledges that our stormwater infrastructure is failing and underfunded.
Arlington should adopt a plan similar to the one in Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use 552-page manual, which covers the following topics (among many others):
- flooding causes and their relationship to development
- comprehensive and watershed planning
- successful floodplain management tools
In the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) he unveiled last week, County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting the funding of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC) from $60 million in the last CIP to $36 million in the new CIP.
The NC program should be ended because it cannot be reformed.
Why the NC program should be ended
The safety of pedestrians and need for safe, walkable streets continues to grow more acute in our neighborhoods, but the NC program cannot meet these critical needs. The NC program has insoluble problems in at least two key areas: equity and timeliness.
NC’s principal inequities arise because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are denied critical neighborhood infrastructure improvements 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
But, Arlington cannot mandate that any — let alone every — civic association function properly.
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.
A former member described her NC experience to me this way:
“[I]t is a crazy incentive system where the only way you can even get your project considered — even if you have an organized civic association (CA) — is to attend and get points for attending every meeting… Then the arguments were literally a well-organized CA with a plan that took a couple of years to do with dedicated resources from the county… vs. a couple of neighbors who don’t want a sidewalk… or a sign or a light or a something. There is no framework… to guide the conversations prior to it getting to the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee (NCAC), so the NCAC becomes the breeding ground for chaos.”
But, Arlington cannot mandate that residents volunteer for any activity, including the NC process.
What should replace the NC program
In 2007-2008, county staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) 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.
A revised and updated 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 or benches.
Arlington County should take complete control from the NC over the new construction or restoration of neighborhood infrastructure.
The county then should proceed to use its new extensive public engagement process to deal directly and fairly with neighborhood residents regarding neighborhood conservation projects.
In a column last month, I recommended that everyone ought to keep an open mind regarding the instructional focus of an APS high school at the Career Center.
The premise of that column was that fiscal and physical constraints might combine to make it infeasible to locate a high school at the Career Center with all the onsite amenities that Wakefield, W-L and Yorktown have.
Developments over the past month make it clear what the costs and tradeoffs would be to replicate at the Career Center site all the onsite amenities available at the other three existing comprehensive high schools. In a May 7 APS CIP Work Session, it was shown that a “Full Build Out” for a high school at the Career Center site would cost $247.60 million in 2019 dollars.
This high cost, more than double what APS has ever spent on a school, would also mean that there would be far too little room available in our bonding capacity for other APS seat needs and other County priorities. A full Career Center build out could result in over 1,000 fewer seats for elementary and middle schools. Those students would need to be accommodated indefinitely in relocatable classrooms.
Montgomery County offers an attractive alternative
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) offers high school choice within the Northeast and Downcounty Consortia, two clusters of roughly five high schools each, that offer unique programs. Each cluster also has provided students with specialized and attractive programs typically not found in traditional neighborhood high schools.
The lottery system used for admissions helps the district ensure that school enrollment among the high schools remains balanced, and that no school is over or undersubscribed. Rising ninth grade students rank the high schools in the consortia based on interest, and are guaranteed a spot at the school geographically closest to their place of residence only if they choose that school.
Academy and application-only programs include communication arts, the science, math and computer science magnet, International Baccalaureate and visual and performing arts, to name a few.
One high school campus in the Consortia houses both a comprehensive high school with various specialized programs (Wheaton) and a career/technology school (Edison). Wheaton partners with academic institutions like the University of Maryland, utilizes the latest design software technology and includes professional internships.
Edison, not unlike the current instructional focus at our Career Center, offers career and technology education programs and is open to upperclassmen at all MCPS schools.
For Arlington’s Career Center site, the current instructional focus could be enhanced to create a STEAM high school that fully integrates with the Career Center. As other districts have demonstrated, the demand for such a technologically enhanced career and college prep program would quickly grow.
Arlington, with its denser housing patterns, smaller geography, better public transportation and the participation of all its high schools, is in a better position to implement this or a similar model at a lower transportation cost than Montgomery County.
As in Montgomery, Arlington should consider participation in the Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) program as one of many factors that guide the student assignment process. This will enable Arlington to provide greater possibilities for socio-economic integration at the high school level than exist today.
Arlington should adopt the Montgomery County model.
“A former slave, Dean … was a skilled fund-raiser, securing money from African American and white donors in Virginia and in northern cities to support her plan to open a school that would teach skilled trades to young African Americans.”
As part of the Four Mile Run Valley planning process, the County Board has been asked to choose this month between two alternative concept design options for Jennie Dean Park.
Options 1 (PDF pp. 13-14) and 2 (PDF pp. 15-16) are portrayed in a County staff report.
If the Board must decide between these two options this month, the Board should choose Option 2.
Principles for decision
The most reliable evidence of Arlington residents’ county-wide preferences for parks and recreation improvements is captured in the cross-tabs of the statistically-valid ETC survey. Every age group, as well as every geographic group, even households with children, had the same top two choices for improving our park and recreation system:
- Preserve trees and natural areas
- Acquire new parkland for passive — as opposed to active — uses
Option 2 more accurately reflects Arlington residents’ preferences
As explained in a recent letter to the editor, the Nauck Civic Association, via its President Portia Clark, unanimously supports Option 2 because:
“[T]he front of Jennie Dean Park, the portion fronting the neighborhood at Four Mile Run Drive [FMRD], will be left open for casual use. We want this area to be a gateway for the community to enter the Park. We want it to be green. We want it to be landscaped. We want it to have flowers and trees and open space.”
Option 2 would ensure that both sports fields are more distant and face away from homes in Nauck. Jennie Dean Park is entirely (100 percent) located within the boundaries of the Nauck Civic Association.
Option 1 less accurately reflects Arlington residents’ preferences
The Shirlington & Douglas Park Civic Associations support Option 1. In an online petition these two civic associations argue that choosing Option 1 “will say a lot about whether [Arlington] is a progressive community interested in planning for the future of families in Arlington.” But, neither Option 1 nor Option 2 is more “progressive” or “family-friendly” than the other option.
Some organized sports groups also believe that Option 1 is preferable because Arlington ultimately may not be able to acquire the current WETA site to incorporate into Jennie Dean Park. But, interestingly, the only option that removes playing space is Option 1. Option 2 retains all of the amenities currently there with notable upgrades in Phase 1.
Finally, the impact of new high Kelvin LED lights on the Nauck neighborhood has been glossed over. The proposed smaller lighted youth softball field 75 feet from 4MRD would become the dominant feature of the park facing Nauck after sundown under Option 1. This option would still result in unacceptable light pollution affecting park users, including Nauck residents.
Although no data about the costs of either option have been presented to the County Board, there appears to be a belief that if Arlington doesn’t spend or commit the money by the end of this fiscal year it will be gone forever. That seems an odd assumption, but if it is correct, then the Board should choose Option 2.
As our County Board Chair, Katie Cristol, said in an eloquent personal statement last month (after Arlington approved its Fiscal 2019 operating budget), the current rate of growth in our expenditures for the many things we value is no longer sustainable.
Our Chair elaborated:
“We can’t grow per-pupil annual increases in the transfer to Schools when the number of pupils are growing at the rates we’ve seen. We can’t increase the general fund contributions to Affordable Housing Investment [AHIF] fast enough to support every compelling affordable housing project, when projects a decade ago required $5 or $6 million in gap financing and current projects need $20 million.”
To enable our community to participate effectively in the hard budget decisions that lie immediately ahead, Arlington needs new approaches to quantify both the short-term and the long-term fiscal impacts of the population growth Arlington expects.
Short-term fiscal impacts
We need project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each discretionary development project. New, large multi-unit residential projects do not pay for themselves. They produce more new costs than new revenues.
A recent “cost of community services” peer-reviewed survey of 125 jurisdictions nationwide found that the mean ratio was $1.18 of incremental costs incurred compared to every $1.00 of incremental revenues generated.
Project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements were among the key recommendations of the 2015 Community Facilities Study Group (CSFG), chaired by former County Board member John Milliken. Such statements are important because they will inject vital, new, objective input into the County’s planning and budgeting.
Kinds of project-specific impact analyses
Most of our Northern Virginia neighbors already are using these tools. Examples include Stafford County, Loudoun County, Fauquier County and the City of Falls Church.
The noted regional economist, Dr. Stephen Fuller, prepared an analysis for Stafford County, and confirmed that residential development does not pay for itself. His analysis also informed an Urban Development Area presentation.
These kinds of analyses are ones that Arlington County staff could and should do internally. Advanced software is available that can be tailored to Arlington’s circumstances.
Arlington’s first steps toward fiscal impact analyses
At its April 21 meeting, under the leadership of John Vihstadt, the County Board took some first steps in the direction of fiscal impact analyses.
As part of its budget guidance, the Board directed the County Manager to develop for Board review by the end of this calendar year a plan for preparing and making public periodic, retroactive cost-benefit analyses of new residential and commercial developments on an aggregate rather than a project-specific basis.
But, greater progress is being blocked once again by the Arlington County attorney’s resistance to the CFSG recommendation for prospective, project-specific fiscal impact analyses. He is unwilling to publish his detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.
Longer-term fiscal impacts
The County and APS should collaborate to develop financial projections out to 2035 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case, optimistic case(s), pessimistic case(s).
The results of these projections, together with the major assumptions underlying them, should be published and shared for discussion with the community.
The County Board needs to deploy new approaches to the fiscal impacts of development. This will enable Arlington residents to weigh in knowledgeably on how much we should spend on each thing we value.
When a developer requests a zoning change to increase allowable density, Arlington County has a set of rules under which the County can approve of such a request contingent on the developer’s willingness to agree to one or more conditions.
The County maintains a list of these “community benefits” conditions, noting in part that they are intended to:
- “Ameliorate a project’s impacts on surrounding property, as well as any additional height and/or density or other bonuses that may be approved or modifications to Zoning Ordinance standards proposed by a developer, or”
- “Are in exchange for bonuses and other benefits approved as part of the project.”
The County’s current community benefits conditions have failed to adequately address some developmental impacts
Rapidly increasing student enrollment rates and increasingly crowded parks are two important impacts of many discretionary development projects, particularly those involving new large multi-unit residential buildings. But, the County has:
- failed entirely to request cash or in-kind schools’ contribution conditions
- asked only occasionally for contribution conditions relating to park land and open space
Other Virginia jurisdictions routinely quantify impacts on schools and parks, and those jurisdictions impose conditions to ameliorate such impacts in appropriate circumstances.
Impact on schools of incremental enrollment
In Falls Church, voluntary school capital contributions have been a staple of past agreements with developers of mixed-use projects.
The Fairfax fiscal impact model has explicitly considered school impacts since 2003.
Fairfax determines a per-student generation factor by housing type, and estimates how many students are anticipated from the particular mix of housing units in each proposed development. Fairfax then computes a per-student cost for each project, which when multiplied times the number of students anticipated from the project, yields the total incremental enrollment cost that forms the basis for negotiations with the developer.
Important updates to the Fairfax model (effective July 1, 2016) are discussed below.
Impact on schools and parks of incremental usage
Under the updated Fairfax development impact model, benefits for incremental school or park usage negotiated with a developer do not have to be limited to creation or refurbishment of a school or park within the boundaries of the site of the proposed project — so long as those benefits are reasonable in amount and address impacts that are specifically attributable to the residential use component of the project.
Parks include playgrounds and other recreational facilities. Such off-site benefits must provide a direct and material benefit to residents of the proposed project. Both on-site and off-site benefits for schools or parks can include cash.
Neither the Dillon Rule, nor any Virginia state law, nor any Arlington ordinance expressly prohibit Arlington County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these kinds of schools and parks impacts.
Nevertheless, the Arlington County attorney insists that Arlington is not legally authorized to condition discretionary development projects to address such impacts. However, our County Attorney is unwilling to provide a detailed public explanation so that independent legal experts can examine his reasoning.
Our County Attorney’s refusal to provide such an explanation is unreasonable. If his opinion is correct, Arlington could seek legal changes in Richmond to enable us to do what other Virginia jurisdictions already do. If his opinion is wrong, Arlington should adjust its rules to enable reasonable schools and parks conditions in appropriate discretionary development projects.
Arlington Public Schools (APS) currently plans to add more than 800 high school seats at the Career Center site between 2022-2024.
Late last year, APS and the County appointed a joint working group to consider alternative options for the future development of this site.
In parallel, APS is considering what the instructional focus of this high school should be and what it will cost to build it.
The charge provided to the Career Center Working Group affirms that both the County Board and the School Board are committed to “a process to analyze, evaluate, and plan how to optimize the site in the long term within the context of existing Arlington Public Schools (APS) high schools and the broader Arlington community.”
How to decide
The final decision regarding what kind of high school should be located at the Career Center site must be made with a full understanding of the long-term fiscal implications for the broader Arlington community of APS’ seat needs at every grade level (K-12).
Any decision to commit too many financial resources to any one kind of school at any one site will mean that there may not be adequate funding for future seat needs.
Neighborhood Comprehensive High School
One of several possible high school instructional options at the Career Center site is a neighborhood comprehensive high school with multiple on-site amenities. There appears to be significant support for this option in the surrounding neighborhood. Other communities are beginning to weigh in with a mix of perspectives.
STEAM Option High School, with neighborhood enrollment preference
A STEAM option high school, with neighborhood enrollment preference, might be a better option at the Career Center site if the direct and opportunity costs of a neighborhood comprehensive high school with multiple on-site amenities — field space, aquatic center, performing arts facilities — prove too high.
Imagine a high school with a focus on project-based learning that could utilize the existing specialized Career Technical Education (CTE) facilities and enhance them with new state-of-the-art classrooms and academic programs.
An expanded program of studies could offer AP courses, fine arts electives and classes that span diverse subject areas, in addition to the existing Dual Enrollment classes for high school and college credit at Arlington Tech and the Career Center.
Arlington has a unique opportunity to build upon its strong and growing CTE programs which align very well with Virginia’s evolving “Profile of a Graduate.”
As a specialized option high school open to all students, with a broad base of course offerings, it could have a small attendance zone to encourage walkability and neighborhood support, much like a neighborhood high school.
It also could have a broad selection of sports and extracurriculars–either Virginia High School League sponsored sports or intramural sports and activities. Rooftop field space should be studied as part of the design for this unique, multistory, urban campus.
Ideally, students from the other Arlington high schools and programs could still take CTE classes at the Career Center. This STEAM high school could be a valuable resource for all Arlington families and a forward-looking civic landmark for the communities along Columbia Pike.
No final decision regarding the nature of the kind of high school to be located at the Career Center site should be made without a full, transparent, county-wide discussion regarding the direct and opportunity costs of each alternative compared to other alternatives.