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Peter’s Take: Cancel the Science Focus-Key Swap

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 October, I explained why the Arlington Public Schools superintendent was placing the cart before the horse by proposing to swap the buildings currently housing the Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) and Key Elementary Schools.

On Nov. 16, APS staff posted a new FAQ document that continues to dodge these major questions:

  • does the swap make sense?
  • should the School Board leave that decision to APS staff?

The School Board should direct the Superintendent to cancel the ASFS-Key building swap

APS’s premise that the Superintendent can approve this swap because it only entails swapping programs is incorrect. Further, given the major level of disruption that a swap would cause, the School Board should step-up and own any swap decision as a matter of community accountability.

An APS memorandum (“memo”) discussed at an August 28th School Board meeting offered six reasons for the swap. None of those reasons justify a swap:

  1. The memo states that ASFS is the only neighborhood school that sits outside its attendance boundary. It proposes the swap to fix this without thoughtful consideration of what a new boundary could offer. APS created this problem via its Options and Transfer Policy. APS should fix it by drawing a revised attendance boundary around ASFS.
  2. The memo states that the Key building can accommodate all 680 ASFS K-5 current students through use of trailers. However, if APS intends to move the ASFS program to the Key building, APS also needs to move the associated equipment to Key, reducing the Key building capacity to 605 students. Meanwhile immersion students will be crammed into a building that is 19 percent smaller.
  3. The memo states that a swap offers more flexibility than boundary changes. APS guarantees that once a student is admitted to an option school or accepts a transfer to a neighborhood school, enrollment is continuous until there is a boundary change. Since the School Board plans to revisit all boundaries in 2020, APS should maximize its flexibility by waiting for the next boundary process to determine if option and neighborhood schools should be moved. If a program move is needed (such as moving an elementary immersion program), a county-wide analysis should first be published and discussed with the community to determine the optimum locations of elementary immersion programs and to locate neighborhood schools in places where all the seats will be filled.
  4. The memo claims the swap would minimize the number of students needing to be reassigned to different schools. But as demonstrated repeatedly during the just-concluded South Arlington boundary process, parents deserve to be highly skeptical of such APS assurances. Rather than make an impetuous decision, APS should wait until the 2020 boundary process to determine if program moves are needed and all APS sites should be considered.
  5. The memo claims the swap would reduce transportation time for students, incorrectly comparing the 46 percent of students who could walk to Key to the 18 percent of students APS says can walk to ASFS. But the superintendent did not do a comparative analysis of crossing guards and walkability. Others have. Their analysis shows that drawing a boundary around ASFS and adding a crossing guard at N. Kirkwood Road enables more walkers than Key. The Key crossing guard enables 62 students to walk, while one at Kirkwood will enable 184 more ASFS students to walk. ASFS’s ½-mile and 1-mile walkability rates are 40 percent and 51 percent respectively, while Key’s are 28 percent and 46 percent. Drawing a reasonable boundary around ASFS yields the greatest reduction in the number of busses and reduces transportation time for many students who have one of the longest bus rides in APS (to Ashlawn Elementary) even though they live within ½-mile of ASFS. During a $43 million APS budget shortfall, this fiscally responsible path forward has no “TBD”-program-move costs and reduces overall transportation costs.
  6. Finally, the memo notes that the current constrained ASFS walk zone is not diverse. But, for diversity purposes, APS should be comparing attendance boundaries not walk zones. The families who live within 1-mile of ASFS are diverse. Moreover, APS overlooks major developments that will provide diversity like the 100 percent committed affordable housing American Legion redevelopment in the same planning unit as ASFS.

Conclusion

Even to the casual observer, the Superintendent’s proposed ASFS-Key building swap exposes a lack of basic long-range planning. For that reason alone, the School Board should cancel the swap and work to regain the public trust.

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Peter’s Take: Arlington Must Jump Start Long-Range Schools 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.

Amazon’s new Arlington HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into planning for all the new public schools Arlington will need over the next 15 years.

In an interview striving to minimize Amazon’s impact on our schools, County Board Chair Katie Cristol observed:

A job doesn’t create students. A housing unit or a family generates students. Our highest estimates are that 15 to 20 percent (4,000 to 5,000) of these Amazon employees will live in Arlington County. [W]e anticipate that’s between 80 and 100 more students (from pre-K to 12th grade) per year, and that’s at the high peak…

I think the most important thing for our schools is that the increasing tax base coming from [Amazon] could bring up to $360 million over 16 years, of which 46 percent will go to our schools. [E]ven under the most extreme scenarios [that additional revenue] will more than supplement [the increase in student population].

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including schools)

Arlington prides itself on its comprehensive planning:

But neither APS nor fiscal considerations have been appropriately integrated into any of those long-range plans.

Since Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community supported, long-range financing plan for all the new public facilities Arlington will need over the next 15 years, we cannot evaluate fully Chair Cristol’s hopes about Amazon’s minimal impact on our schools.

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), affordable housing, schools, parks, fire stations 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.

When asked to choose among:

  • “X” more needed new school seats
  • “Y” more needed new acres of park open space
  • “Z” more needed new units of affordable housing

we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices.

And, it is certain that such choices will be required.

Arlington’s failure to plan appropriately for the impact on APS enrollment of new, large multi-unit housing developments undermines Chair Cristol’s optimism. The county and APS continue to promote the fantasy that new elevator apartments don’t present significant challenges for APS because such apartments generate only 0.08 students per unit. However, the principal challenge we confront isn’t the per-unit generation rate but rather the absolute number of students generated when:

  • thousands of these units are being built every year
  • these units are not evenly distributed across the county

Conclusion

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

Successful long-range (15 years) 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
  • clear understanding of who is responsible for meeting those goals and timetables

Arlington lacks an appropriate long-range facilities plan now because it has failed to follow these principles.

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Peter’s Take: Latest ‘POPS’ Plan’s Other Serious Flaws

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 a November 8 column, I discussed some serious flaws in Arlington County’s latest draft of its proposed Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP) or POPS plan. That column discussed errors in the quantitative estimates of present and future demand for sports fields prepared by the staff of the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).

Today’s column identifies additional weaknesses in the latest PSMP/POPS draft.

Impact of Amazon’s Arlington Headquarters

On November 13, Arlington County announced the new Amazon HQ2 facility to be located in Crystal City. In welcoming Amazon, Congressman Don Beyer also expressed caution:

“We all know that success presents its own challenges:

  • Ensuring that the quality of life — parks and open spaces, safe neighborhoods, well-educated children — keeps pace with rising wealth.”

Amazon’s arrival underscores the urgency of correcting the PSMP draft’s substantive flaws to ensure the most efficient and effective possible use of Arlington’s limited land and financial resources.

Statistically valid evidence of community priorities omitted

A 2016 public survey’s statistically valid results appear to have been omitted from this PSMP draft. These data were used to produce Fig. 17 in a previous PSMP draft. Fig. 17 displayed the respondents’ top priority investments for outdoor spaces and public parks, with the overwhelming majority of residents choosing hiking trails, natural areas & wildlife habitats, and paved multiuse trails as their highest priorities.

As documented in the survey graphic below, Arlington residents are not prioritizing the continuing development of public parkland with lots of expensive “amenities.” But, Arlington County’s DPR staff is pushing for expensive, new outdoor infrastructure that will deplete our constrained financial resources.

DPR’s spending priorities conflict with Arlington residents’ priorities.

Virtually no new funding for open space acquisition

The latest PSMP draft calls for acquiring 30 more acres of park/open space. Unfortunately, this is an empty promise. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) adopted by the County Board in July 2018 contains NO new park/open space acquisition funding for the next 10 years:   

“With no new funding scheduled from bond funds over the next ten years, the Program will focus on utilizing remaining Bond and PAYG balances (approximately $3.5 M) to fund high priority opportunities that arise.” Adopted FY2019-FY2028 CIP, p. C-51.

(Note: Roughly half of this $3.5 million is earmarked to purchase the WETA building in the Four Mile Run Valley, where County staff intends to create an “arts district.”)

With little to no new park/open space acquisition in the foreseeable future, it becomes imperative for us to preserve, not pave over, the limited natural space we still have.

Conclusion

Because the POPS plan guides all Arlington park and recreational planning decisions for the next 20 years, we must get it right.

The latest PSMP draft should be amended to

  • reinsert the 2016 statistically valid needs survey data showing community priorities for investments in parks and recreational facilities,
  • use these survey data to set priorities,
  • acknowledge the lack of funding for the next decade to acquire new open spaces, and
  • place a greater emphasis on sustainability–including the preservation and restoration of existing parkland and natural spaces by reducing existing facilities’ footprints, by trimming nonpriority new facilities, and by converting dedicated fields and sport courts into multiuse facilities that serve the greatest number of people and needs.
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Peter’s Take: Parks Countywide Planning Document is Still Seriously Flawed

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 Oct. 24, Arlington County posted on its website the latest draft of its proposed Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP), or POPS plan (Plan for Our Places and Spaces).

The POPS plan will guide all Arlington park and recreational planning decisions for the next 20 years.

The latest POPS draft incorporates highly inflated quantitative estimates of present and future demand for sports fields.

After the 2017 POPS draft was posted, Arlington residents sought information to understand the plan. The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) refused to provide many kinds of data and answers, so residents launched a series of FOIA requests in December 2017.

By late Spring 2018, DPR had produced a lot, but not all, of its data regarding field supply and demand. Those data demonstrate that a remarkable amount of inefficiency and mismanagement have resulted in a very large amount of unused field capacity. Further details are available here.

Despite the large discrepancy between DPR’s own supply/demand data and the public POPS recommendations, DPR continues to defend to the public, to the POPS Advisory Committee, and to the County Board that the POPS recommendations are valid because DPR is using a valid methodology which DPR has called a “Population Based LOS.” (LOS = Level of Service.)

While a properly performed estimate of Population Based LOS is indeed one methodology used to estimate park needs, DPR’s own expert consultants state that a properly performed LOS should be based on current and future supply/demand data. Their methodology statement was provided to DPR but was not made part of the POPS document.

Not only did DPR fail to incorporate that necessary data, it failed to tell the public that it had not done so. Further details are available here.

Approving erroneous supply/demand estimates is destined to misallocate land and tens of millions of Arlington taxpayer dollars

The POPS plan is intended to guide quantitative park and recreational decisions for 20 years. Therefore, basing that final plan on the erroneous and incomplete LOS recommendations will result in the misallocation of tens of millions of tax dollars and hamper efforts to meet residents’ needs.

That misallocation is destined to occur because in any subsequent proceedings, e.g., to develop an individual park’s master plan or whether to make investments (e.g., add synthetic turf or lights), it is inevitable that DPR and advocates for such investments will rely on the erroneous POPS quantitative estimates to justify those decisions.

In response to the concerns raised, some County Board members have suggested that subsequent individual park planning could consider a single facility’s usage to determine its need or new investment. However, county-wide demand needs to be determined in a county-wide proceeding.

It is completely impractical for any large park facility decision to be developed solely within its own park boundaries, ignoring the capacity of nearby and county-wide facilities (e.g., a decision to add synthetic turf to one field, while another field that could be used has enough excess capacity). Further details are available here http://parks4everyone.org/population-based-level-of-service/.

Conclusion

The best solution to the present situation is to:

  • remove the erroneous quantitative estimates for sports field demand from the final POPS plan
  • commence a new, independent and transparent process to:
  1. develop new quantitative estimates of county-wide supply/demand for sports fields
  2. replace the county’s current field scheduling system with a real-time, web-based system
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Peter’s Take: Re-Elect Independent John Vihstadt to the County Board

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.

Like thousands of other Arlington Democrats, I support independent John Vihstadt for re-election to the County Board.

Having an independent as one of the five Board members provides oversight, accountability, checks and balances.

John helped redirect the Board’s priorities

The Board is now more focused on core services:

  • Ended or scaled back many extravagant projects, like the streetcar, the aquatics center, the Artisphere, $1.6 million dog parks and million-dollar bus stops.
  • Prioritized funding for schools’ capacity and Metro while improving roads, parks, and public safety.

John’s community-centered vision for the future

Arlington’s population is forecast to continue to grow. That growth is a sign that we are considered a desirable place to live.

John commutes to work daily via public transit. He is the only County Board candidate who put children through Arlington Public Schools.

John has the many years of community experience necessary to implement his vision for Arlington’s future by properly managing growth.

Here’s how:

Developer contributions for schools and parks

John already has led the way to get the county soon to begin conducting development impact studies. John wants to reform developer contributions received in return for added density so that more money can go towards public facilities such as schools and parks.

Better coordination with our public schools

John is working to bring down Arlington’s high cost of school construction, to deliver new seats more quickly, and to help ensure educational equity for all Arlington communities through sound planning and adequate funding.

Community engagement from the start

John believes development impacts are better addressed when the full range of residents and stakeholders are made part of the discussion from the start, not as an afterthought.

Lowering the office vacancy rate

Free-market macroeconomic forces beyond county government’s control are a significant factor in our office vacancy rate. But, it’s still imperative that we lower that rate to hold down the tax burden on residents. John believes we must make the business environment more attractive through carefully structured economic incentives and minimizing red tape such as further reforming our permitting systems.

Improved environmental management

John believes we must do everything within our legal powers to address the negative effects of increased impervious surfaces on water run-off, our green space, and our tree canopy.

Stronger fiscal discipline

Continued funding pressures from needed school capacity and Metro repairs means it’s more essential than ever to spend our limited tax dollars wisely on core services – not extravagant projects. John is leading reforms to our approaches to end-of-year budget surpluses and to neighborhood infrastructure improvements.

Conclusion

Tribal partisanship has no place in local government decisions.

Extravagant projects like streetcars, a hyped-up aquatics center, million-dollar bus stops and fancy dog parks are not core Democratic Party values. Yet such projects sprung from group-think on a five-person Democratic County Board.

John has brought together voters from across the political spectrum, striving to take partisanship out of local issues. He has rightly questioned “the way we’ve always done things”.

We need a reliably fiscally conservative voice on the Board to evaluate the serious budget challenges coming next year and in following years.

You can read about John’s years of community service, more details on the issues on which he is running, and his support from across the political spectrum here.

Independent John Vihstadt should be re-elected on Nov. 6.

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Peter’s Take: Science Focus-Key Swap — Cart Before the Horse

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 ARLnow.com reported again last week, Arlington Public Schools (APS) is pursuing a highly controversial plan to swap the building currently providing the Spanish immersion program at Key Elementary with the building currently providing the science-focused program at Arlington Science Focus (ASFS) Elementary.

According to APS Spokesman Frank Bellavia:

  • It remains unclear just how the process of swapping the buildings actually will work
  • APS has yet to work up a cost estimate for the process
  • Questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019

The School Board must own or disown this proposed swap

The proposed decision to swap these two school buildings was publicized in these comments by APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy at an August 28 School Board meeting:

” ‘This decision is a wise decision because we’re a growing school division, we’re adding capacity, and we really have come to this point,’ Murphy told the Board….He added that he doesn’t see any need for the Board to formally sign off on the plan…but the Board will get to help APS decide when the move happens.”

Really?

Large segments of the community are, and should be, upset by this casual description of a decision of this magnitude. The community now has witnessed elected School Board members being told by the APS Superintendent that the School Board only will “get to help APS decide when the move happens.”

This shouldn’t work this way.

School Board members themselves were taken aback on August 28:

Board Chair Reid Goldstein pointed out, “That’s going to create problems if and when boundaries are drawn.”

“If the Arlington Science Focus building is smaller and the immersion program is bigger, we’re not going to be able to grow [the] immersion program,” said Vice Chair Tannia Talento.

This is an unacceptable process.

The School Board itself should decide IF the move should happen at all. The School Board’s decision should be based upon transparent long-term strategic planning for all of APS’s programming and facilities’ needs. The School Board owes the community an extensive discussion regarding how all these plans fit together:

  • what is APS’s 15-year school facilities plan?
  • what is Arlington County’s 15-year county facilities plan?
  • what is APS’s 15-year instructional plan?
  • where do the programs now offered at Key and ASFS fit into these 15-year plans?
  • what other options besides the current proposed building swap were considered?
  • why is the proposed building swap the best available option?

The School Board must engage the community on whether this proposed swap makes sense

According to Frank Bellavia, “questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019.”

Yet again APS is proposing to engage the community on the wrong question. The right question is whether the swap makes sense in the first place. Only after that question is posed to, and thoroughly discussed with the community, should the discussion proceed to the mechanics of how any swap should occur.

Conclusion

In one of the most famous scenes in Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts, over Alice’s protests, proclaims: “Sentence First, Verdict Afterword.”

With this proposed school swap, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy threatens to displace the Queen of Hearts.

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Peter’s Take: The Way Forward on the APS One-to-One Device Program

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 Public Schools (APS) is in the early stages of what is currently envisioned as a very small-scale and limited evaluation of its justifiably controversial 1:1 digital device program.

At the same time:

  • There is accumulating evidence regarding the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and developmental risks of these devices, particularly in the elementary years
  • Superintendent Murphy has announced that APS currently is projecting a $43 million operating deficit in FY 2020.

The latest evidence of the health, safety, questionable educational effectiveness, and childhood developmental risks of these devices is disturbing

The fact that children’s use of digital devices (aka “screen time”) can be harmful isn’t news. We are bombarded almost weekly with mounting evidence that the more time children spend using electronic devices, the greater the risk of physical, psychological and developmental harm.

This evidence may explain why:

  • Silicon Valley parents are raising their children tech-free
  • China’s Department of Education has begun to regulate the sale and use of digital devices marketed to children for noneducational purposes in an attempt to prevent myopia (nearsightedness)

A 2015 study reviewing school IT programs in over 36 countries worldwide (not in the United States) concluded that less is better when it comes to using technology, both for reading scores and particularly for math scores.

A 2017 study used MRI scanning technology to compare functional brain connectivity patterns when children were using screen-based media versus reading a book. It concluded: “brain connectivity is increased by the time children spend reading and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.”

The combination of the questionable educational effectiveness and the costs of the 1:1 program require a thorough and extensive review

Both Arlington County and APS are currently reviewing their budgets to identify potential cuts that will help plug significant budgetary shortfalls. APS should be completely transparent about the total costs and per-pupil costs associated with these devices, including insurance, maintenance and administrative costs. This information is critical to enable Arlington taxpayers to evaluate costs vs benefits.

The public is entitled to a comprehensive and transparent program review to determine the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of 1:1. This is the only way for the public to make informed choices regarding our priorities regarding expenditures that provide the best return on our investment.

For example, APS should prepare and seek public feedback on the costs and benefits of transitioning to a:

The currently envisioned APS 1:1 program evaluation should be modified in significant ways to produce a meaningful analysis that can lead to major reforms

It appears that APS has no current plans to seek data or input from parents — and even more to the point, from education and health experts who rely on the most current data and research — to evaluate the efficiency, educational effectiveness and safety of the 1:1 digital device rollout to children as young as 7-8 years old.

Conclusion

APS needs to conduct and share with parents and the entire Arlington community a thorough, complete and objective evaluation of all the costs as well as the benefits of its current 1:1 program. All options must be on the table.

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Peter’s Take: Putting the ‘Community’ Back in Community Infrastructure

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.

One of the four bond referenda on the November 6 ballot is the so-called “community infrastructure” bond valued at roughly $37 million.

What’s in this bond?

This bond is a grab bag containing a wide variety of seemingly unrelated projects.

The largest dollar components are:

  • $14 million for construction of Fire Station 8,
  • $8 million for facilities maintenance capital improvements (including design and construction of roofs, electrical and heating/cooling systems and other facilities infrastructure) in county libraries, community and recreation centers, and other county buildings.

This bond’s proceeds also will fund:

  • the Nauck Town Square project,
  • assessments, renovations & improvements to other government facilities,
  • Neighborhood Conservation projects and other County infrastructure projects. (The Neighborhood Conservation Program provides funding for a variety of neighborhood-identified capital improvement projects including street improvements (sidewalk, curb and gutter, drainage, paving), traffic management and pedestrian enhancements, park improvements, street lighting, recreational facilities, landscaping, and beautification.)

Enhancing the community’s role

I plan to vote for this bond.

But, the next time around, the County needs a new approach that enhances the role of the community in deciding what community infrastructure investments to make.

Community infrastructure investments should be designed to benefit the community. The community, not the County government, should have the greater say in deciding which community infrastructure investments to make. The community should be extensively consulted at every important stage as to what its priorities are for spending our limited tax dollars.

Discussing how much money is available to spend

Community consultation should begin by sharing and discussing with the community important long-term financial planning information that will determine the total dollars available for all kinds of investments including community infrastructure.

The Arlington County government should develop multi-year financial projections for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The results and assumptions should be published and shared with the community.

The community should help to set priorities, including the total amount of money the community would like to spend on community infrastructure.

Capital vs. operating funding

Best municipal financing practices suggest that it is inappropriate to use bond financing to pay for assets with expected useful lives that are significantly shorter than the repayment schedules of the bond proceeds used to purchase those assets. Yet, with respect to a substantial number of the community infrastructure assets that form part of this bond, the assets proposed for purchase have much shorter useful lives than the related bond repayment schedules.

Next time around, we should use operating not capital dollars to pay for assets with these shorter useful lives.

Example of flood mitigation

In several recent columns, I have explained why the county government needs to increase its investments in community infrastructure designed to protect its residents against flood damage.

In Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood, three flood mitigation projects previously included in earlier versions of Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan were dropped from that plan due to lack of funds.

The community should be given an opportunity to weigh in on whether to increase expenditures for flood mitigation and, if necessary, what other community infrastructure projects should be cut to enable such an increase. 

Conclusion

The community should have a greater say regarding community infrastructure spending. The community should be provided with more of the information it needs to make informed decisions.

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Peter’s Take: Arlington Needs a More Aggressive Water Main Replacement Program

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.

ARLnow reported last Thursday that “South Arlington Water Main Breaks Cut Off Service for Thousands Overnight“:

“The problems started around 7 p.m. yesterday (Wednesday), when the county’s Department of Environmental Services received word of pipe problems near the intersection of Columbia Pike and S. Frederick Street… . By 10 p.m., they reported several other water main breaks along the pike … and determined that the S. Park Drive problem was “related” to the previous breaks.”

In a tweet last week, the County’s Department of Environmental Services (DES) attempted to explain by saying:

“Arlington has some 500 miles of mains bringing water to homes, schools and businesses. As in most urban American towns, a lot of those mains have been in the ground and working non-stop since before World War II.

Arlington needs to replace its World War II water mains faster

It’s not as if the county government hasn’t seen this coming.

In January 2018, ARLnow reported that “County Crews Have Repaired Dozens of Water Main Breaks Since Mid-December.”

At that time, DES pointed the finger at freezing temperatures:

“When ground temperatures drop to the water main depth, the pipe material gets cold, but the water temp drops at a slower rate due to its movement…”

In May 2016, ARLnow reported that DES had boasted it had fixed “217 water main breaks in the past year.”

In January 2014, ARLnow posted another story about water main breaks. That story also highlighted the fact that “Arlington has 500 miles of water mains, 60 percent of which are 55 years or older,” with the oldest dating to 1927.

county video accompanying the January 2014 story struck the same ironic tone as last week’s DES tweet. That 2014 video proceeded from the faulty premise that water main breaks are always “unavoidable.” The video’s message: learn to live with them. The video explains why old water mains break. Surprise: it’s because they’re old and decaying!

Conclusion

Freezing weather did not cause last week’s water main breaks along Columbia Pike.

Arlington County needs a more aggressive program of water main replacement, not the “Que Será, Será” attitude consistently displayed in Arlington County’s 2014 video right on through last week’s DES tweet.

The county government is simply devoting too few of our finite taxpayer dollars to replacing World War II water mains, while devoting too many of those finite dollars to projects like a new $60 million Aquatics Center.

We can and should do better in setting priorities for how our county government spends our tax dollars.

Arlington is facing this situation (at p. 25):

“[W]ater-main failure rates generally increase exponentially over time (Kleiner, 2002). One could envision a rapid increase in break rates in the future… If a break rate doubles, the economic impact is significant; one would need to double the number [of] personnel repairing the breaks.”

The county government should prepare and share for discussion with its residents a Life Cycle Replacement Cost analysis of Arlington’s water mains as recommended (at p. 44) by Dr. Sunil Sinha, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) Center at Virginia Tech:

“[T]o meet the important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the planning, design, construction, and management of water pipeline infrastructure is required.”

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Peter’s Take: Arlington Flooding — Planning for the ‘Unexpected’

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

Last week, the Washington Post reported record rainfall statistics for communities all around the DC region:

“It has not been a friendly rain, either. Flash flooding continues to occur somewhere in our area with almost every passing wave.”

Damage from flooding in Arlington has been severe and widespread

Just a few examples illustrate the severity of the flooding Arlington residents have experienced from the unfriendly 2018 rain storms:

  • Donaldson Run

In the Donaldson Run area, erosion and significant losses of mature trees  due to a county remediation project have led to discussion and controversy among Donaldson Run-area residents and between those residents and county government.

This situation was profiled in a February 2018 story in the Donaldson Run Civic Association newsletter (at p. 5). Two more major flooding washouts occurred in May-June 2018.

The county government’s design of the stream restoration project remains very controversial. The county has not explained publicly how it plans to pay to remediate the effects of the 2018 Donaldson Run washouts nor all the other county-wide flooding incidents.

  • Lubber Run

As ARLnow.com reported on August 7:

“A bridge for walkers and cyclists in Lubber Run Park is now closed, at least temporarily. An alert on the county’s website says the bridge, closest to N. George Mason Drive as a trail runs over Lubber Run itself, will be closed “until further notice.'”

According to a county spokesperson, this bridge was closed because a DPR crew “was concerned with the bridge, but they aren’t bridge experts.”

Residents report what appears to be significant erosion damage to various areas of the park near the Lubber Run stream bed. Quite a few mature trees along that stream bed appear to be endangered by excessive soil loss. The foundations of trail segments and existing stream-side borders appear undermined.

The bridge closure alert remains in effect. No plans have been announced publicly to reopen the bridge or to remediate the other apparent storm damage.

  • Long Branch Creek

As an apparent result of the recent severe rainstorms, residents of Arlington’s Long Branch Creek neighborhood report recent erosion damage to areas along the Long Branch Creek stream bed between the Long Branch Nature Center and Four Mile Run.

  • Waverly Hills

In a June column, I featured two graphic videos that capture the effects of severe flooding occurring in portions of the Waverly Hills neighborhood during a May 2018 storm. Another severe storm in July 2018 caused renewed severe flooding in Waverly Hills.

Three flooding mitigation projects previously were planned for Waverly Hills but were dropped from Arlington’s Capital Improvement Plan due to lack of funds.

Conclusion

In my Waverly Hills column, I recommended that Arlington adopt a new plan similar to Westchester County’s (NY) Flooding and Land Use manual.

One commenter asked why Arlington’s 2014 Stormwater Master Plan isn’t sufficient?

Answers to that commenter’s question include:

The 2014 Plan isn’t working.

Arlington needs new approaches to development and stormwater planning that are:

The “unexpected” is now the new normal.

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Peter’s Take: More Thoughts on Arlington’s Dockless Vehicle Pilot

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 my dockless vehicle column last month, I noted that Arlington County Transportation spokesperson Eric Baillet had told ARLnow that “county government plans a [dockless vehicle pilot] framework for County Board review in September.” Board member John Vihstadt stated he’d be “broadly receptive to clearing the way for more dockless vehicles to become available around Arlington.”

I then suggested that Arlington familiarize itself with the details of the dockless vehicle pilot programs already begun or completed in other localities, citing Washington D.C., and Denver as examples.

Although I don’t agree with all its features, the Denver dockless vehicle pilot program has addressed many of the issues that Arlington is likely to face. Arlington should focus particularly on how Denver has handled those issues.

Arlington’s dockless vehicle pilot program should adopt these features

Each dockless vehicle permit holder should be required to:

  • provide indemnification, liability, and insurance coverages similar to Denver’s
  • provide a unique vehicle identifier on each vehicle
  • adopt an equity program, as in Denver, by submitting a plan outlining how its services will be available to those without smart phones
  • have each user sign a form providing critical information (e.g., “rules of the road”, including “do’s and don’ts” regarding where and where not to operate the dockless vehicle, and where and where not to leave the dockless vehicle after the user finishes)

Note that the Denver rules of the road prohibit the use of E-scooters in bike lanes. I believe that all dockless vehicles, including E-scooters, should be permitted to use bike lanes.

  • share certain categories of data with Arlington

The Denver data-sharing requirements include but are not limited to: utilization rates; total downloads, active users & repeat user information; total trips by day of week, time of day; origin & destination information for all trips; trips per bike by day of week, time of day; average trip distance; incidents of bike theft and vandalism; complaints; accident/crash information.

  • pay a dockless vehicle permit fee

The Denver dockless vehicle permit fee schedule seems fair and reasonable:

  1. Bicycles/E-Bicycles: application fee: $150 per permit application; permit fee: $15,000; performance bond: $20 per vehicle deployed
  2. E-scooters/Other Approved Dockless Vehicles: application fee: $150 per permit application; permit fee: $15,000; performance bond: $30 per vehicle deployed

In any event, the permit fee schedule that Arlington adopts for its pilot program should represent Arlington County’s best estimate of amounts sufficient fully to recapture all costs which the County might incur to retrieve dockless vehicles left in locations that are prohibited on the form that each user has to sign.

Conclusion

Quite a few of the other pilot programs include regulatory features that I believe Arlington should reject — at least when it comes to choosing the final regulatory framework after the pilot program ends.

For example, for that final regulatory framework, Arlington County staff should not be picking, choosing, or limiting to any arbitrary number:

  • how many dockless vehicle permit holders there are
  • how many bikes and/or scooters each dockless vehicle permit holder can operate
  • how many total bikes and/or scooters all dockless vehicle permit holders can operate

The marketplace should sort that out over time.

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.

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Peter’s Take: APS Should Further Increase Elementary Recess Time

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 recently reported in the Washington Post, under a new state law, local school districts in Virginia (including APS) have been granted added flexibility to increase recess time at the elementary level.

Local school boards now may devote up to 15 percent of state-mandated instructional time to recess under a law that took effect July 1.

What the new law provides

The new law allows up to 15 percent of the required 5.5 hours of daily instructional time to be used for recess (roughly 50 minutes). The new law also reduces the minimum instructional hours that must be spent teaching only English, math, science and social studies/history from roughly four hours and eight minutes per day to roughly three hours and 47 minutes per day.

These are newly-authorized changes to state-mandated minimums. But, before these changes can be implemented, each local school district (including APS) must take affirmative steps to incorporate the changes into its own policies. Each local school district (including APS) must decide how much of the newly-authorized time that district wishes to shift to recess.

Benefits of more elementary recess

A large body of educational research has documented the benefits of more recess time. Among the chief benefits are these:

  • Brain Development–Physically active children are better at paying attention, have faster cognitive processing, and perform better on standardized tests. Breaks allow children time to encode classroom learning into memory.
  • Social & Emotional Skills–The American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that children learn negotiation, cooperation, and problem-solving skills at recess.
  • Executive Functions–During unstructured playtime at recess, children learn to plan their own activities, switch between tasks, and set their own goals. These skills increase success in school and even in adulthood.

Increases in elementary recess time already approved in other NOVA districts

Other Northern Virginia school districts already have announced plans to take advantage of the new Virginia state law, as the Washington Post reported:

Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties have opted to mandate at least 30 minutes of recess, which the law defines as “unstructured recreational time that is intended to develop teamwork, social skills, and overall physical fitness.” In Loudoun, kindergarten students must get at least 40 minutes. In some schools, the increased time will double students’ daily unstructured play.

APS response

On August 15, APS sent its first formal communication about the new law to elementary school parents. APS stated:

  • Many APS schools already provide at least 30 minutes of recess
  • APS policies will be updated to reflect the 30 minute per day recess minimum for elementary students

Conclusion

Our schools are all overcrowded. Almost all elementary schools have lost field space to trailers. APS parents are dealing with this reality.

APS can’t fix the overcrowding or the lack of open space overnight, but APS has appropriately recognized that it should take advantage of the new law now.

Yesterday’s APS announcement is a welcome step. However, as more and more academic pressure has been applied at younger and younger ages, APS should do still more given the critical importance of recess to young children’s development.

APS’ current recess policies (at pp. 5-6) do not contain any minimum daily recess requirement.

APS should revise these policies to mandate a daily minimum of:

  • 35 minutes of recess in grades 1-5 at every elementary school
  • 45 minutes of recess at every kindergarten
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Peter’s Take: Can This Tree Be Saved?

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.

Conclusion

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?

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Peter’s Take: Salt Dome Fiasco — There’s a Better Way

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”?

Conclusion

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.

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Peter’s Take: Water Pollution Control Plan Raises Air Pollution Risks

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 ARLnow.com reported last week, the County Board has approved a Solids Master Plan (SMP) for Arlington’s Water Pollution Control Plant:

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.

Conclusion

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.

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