65°Rain

by Peter Rousselot — September 29, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

This is the first of two columns.

Today, I’ll discuss some of Arlington County’s self-imposed limitations on site plan conditions for “community benefits.” These are benefits that Arlington receives in exchange for granting developers additional density and other zoning changes.

Next week, I’ll recommend appropriate planning and policy reforms.

Discussion

Arlington lists the County’s standard site plan conditions, noting that they are designed to:

Ameliorate a project’s impacts on surrounding property, as well as any additional height and/or density or other bonuses that may be approved or modifications to Zoning Ordinance standards proposed by a developer… Increased density, height or other modifications can have an impact on the surrounding community and site plan conditions help to mitigate these impacts.

Arlington’s administrative regulation also enumerates (pp. 63-64) “standard site plan conditions” that are “typically necessary,” while acknowledging that other conditions (not enumerated) might be appropriate for individual projects.

The County’s community benefits’ conditions have failed to adequately address the impact of development

Increased student enrollments and crowded parks are two important impacts of many development projects. There is no state law or County ordinance that prohibits the County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these particular kinds of impacts on schools or parks. Yet, the County has:

  • failed entirely to request cash or in-kind schools’ contribution conditions, and
  • asked only occasionally for contribution conditions relating to parkland and open space.

Efforts to discuss development’s impact have been hamstrung by lack of awareness of other jurisdictions that routinely assess those impacts (including on schools and parks), and perform related cost/benefit analyses. George Rovder, a Bluemont Civic Association past President, provided me with this first-person account of what transpired during the course of the Site Plan Review Committee’s (SPRC) recent consideration of site plan conditions for 491 new housing units to be constructed on the former Mazda Ballston site:

The applicant (developer) stated how much more tax revenue the proposed project would bring in vs. the amount currently being collected (from the Mazda dealership and the small strip of retail stores), stressing that this increased tax revenue was a key reason the community should support the project. I asked that the applicant or staff also provide figures for the costs associated with schools and other community services and infrastructure. I was advised by the SPRC Chair that there “are no costs” associated with these projects, as we already have water and sewer and the like in place. The Chair further observed that neither staff nor the applicant could possibly calculate the infrastructure and community services costs associated with the project.

The County has further failed to adequately track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions

Citizens, the Arlington County Civic Federation, and at least one County commission have complained about County staff’s failure to track, monitor and enforce community benefits’ conditions.

Their strong complaints led Arlington’s independent auditor to place this issue at the top of the independent audit priority list. However, the Board’s new independent auditor has since resigned, leaving this audit in limbo.

Conclusion

Properly reformed and enforced, community benefits’ conditions included in site plans can materially improve the fiscal and functional sustainability of new development. Next week, I’ll propose planning and policy reforms needed to better fulfill those goals.

by Peter Rousselot — September 22, 2016 at 12:30 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 Community Facilities Study Group’s (CFSG) Final Report contained this recommendation:

Add an economic and fiscal impact section to private development (special exception/site plan and Form Based Code) project staff reports to provide information on the costs (e.g. the projected service demands and other costs to the community) and benefits (e.g. the taxes and other economic benefits) likely to be generated by a proposed project.

Discussion

As I wrote in June, Arlington must continuously plan and explain to the public how it expects to pay for the new public infrastructure and services required to serve the 75,400 people Arlington currently projects to add by 2040. But, the county government has yet to do so.

Why are project-specific impact assessments important?

Quantifying incremental county services and infrastructure that a proposed special exception/site plan project necessitates will inject vital, objective input into the county’s short- and long-term planning and budgeting processes (e.g., budgeting for and implementing additional required school capacity, open space, public safety resources). Collecting this data for each project will, in turn, enable the county to more accurately determine geographically specific, cumulative impacts and time-specific scheduling based on project completion.

Project-specific impact analyses–as recommended by the CFSG — should be prepared for each development project in a timely manner because they provide critical facts needed to determine in advance whether we can afford to approve a project, must add conditions, or should deny the request.

What kinds of project-specific impact analyses should Arlington perform?

The county should perform an integrated fiscal impact analysis for each special exception/site plan development project. Each analysis should compare by-right development for the site with the developer’s site-plan proposal that includes any changes to the General Land Use Plan (GLUP), up zoning and/or bonus density. The goal is to determine the degree to which a developer’s cash contributions and other specific community benefits will offset the county’s cost to provide additional services and infrastructure over the life of the development.

More accurate and reliable forecasting is particularly vital now that large commercial tracts of land without any students on them are being replaced with dense, multifamily housing. Independent, third-party studies have concluded that residential projects almost always generate more net costs than benefits.

Other Virginia jurisdictions routinely utilize impact analyses.

Neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun counties use some form of project-specific impact assessments as part of their review processes. Even though these jurisdictions use a proffer system rather than a special exception/site-plan system, the benefits to policy-makers and the public of having project-specific impact assessments are common to all.

Falls Church City has utilized fiscal impact analyses for years. See a detailed description of its model here.

Caveats: Other jurisdictions’ models often don’t include capital costs or assess environmental impacts or quantify a value for natural space. A new branch of economics — environmental economics — provides new models that help to establish a monetary value for open space and the natural infrastructure.

Conclusion

Arlington County should adopt and implement CFSG recommendation 12. Arlington should expedite a public examination and discussion of alternative fiscal impact models to select one that will result in greater objectivity, better informed decision-making and enhanced planning to meet the infrastructure and service needs of our rapidly-growing population.

by Peter Rousselot — September 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 my fellow columnist Mark Kelly and I both have previously advocated, it’s time to overhaul the seriously-flawed process Arlington County government has been using to allocate any surplus funds left over at the close of the County’s fiscal year.

Discussion

Both Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools (APS) have fiscal years that end on June 30. Both the County and APS are required by law to adopt a balanced budget. In many years, Arlington County has closed its fiscal year with substantial surpluses. Since APS receives the lion’s share of its revenues from the County under a revenue-sharing arrangement, APS automatically receives its defined pro-rata share of any locally-generated Arlington County revenue surpluses.

However, in past years, each Board has utilized sharply-contrasting processes for deciding what to do with any such surpluses.

School Board’s Current Close-out Process

The School Board first receives, posts on its website, and discusses in a public meeting its staff’s recommendations regarding how to allocate any surplus funds. But, the School Board does not vote on its staff’s proposal until the following month. This process allows the School Board to:

  • discuss the initial APS staff recommendations at a public meeting, and
  • receive a public report from the APS Budget Advisory Committee, and
  • wait a month to get further input from the general public, before finally
  • adopting the final allocation of any APS surplus funds.

County Board’s Current Close-out Process

The County Board’s current close-out process is seriously flawed because it fails to provide the extra month for input from the general public that the School Board’s process provides. For example, last November, the County Board approved $21.8 million in new spending from surplus funds without providing that extra 30-day public review and comment period.

In 2015, the general public was denied a reasonable opportunity to discuss and comment about the Acting County Manager’s recommendation that this was the very best way to allocate last year’s $21.8 million revenue surplus:

  • $1 million for economic development, including incentives to attract new businesses to Arlington
  • $7.8 million for land purchases and other capital investment, including schools
  • $0.8 million for a “larger than anticipated” class of fire recruits
  • $11.2 million to maintain investments in the Affordable Housing Investment Fund and housing grants
  • $1 million for any unexpected needs or issues that may arise next year

Many activists allege that County staff deliberately overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues in the operating budget the County adopts each spring. These activists claim that staff does this so that during the following fall’s fiscal year close-out, the County government can take advantage of a public review and comment period that bears little resemblance to the far more lengthy spring review and comment period that the full operating budget annually receives.

County staff have indignantly countered that any such suggestions are false because the County’s spring budgeting approach simply demonstrates prudent financial planning for which the staff should be praised not criticized.

It isn’t necessary to resolve this continued annual debate over motive, because there is a far better process available to guard against the possibility that the staff’s motives might be suspect.

Conclusion

Starting this fall, the County Board should adopt a new fiscal year close-out process similar to the process long utilized by the School Board.

by Peter Rousselot — September 8, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 July, Arlington received an award as the top digital county in the nation for its population size (150,000-249,999).

Among the reasons:

The County’s Open Government Program … was lauded for creating more accessible and transparent interactions with departments and services. Key elements of the program include the Open Data Portal, expanding civic engagement through webcasting of commission meetings, and launch of the My Arlington app for mobile users.

But, where should Arlington go from here?

Arlington already has held a panel discussion on next steps. The panel included private sector and Arlington County government participants.

In two videos, the panel discussed how digitization is likely to change Arlington substantially between now and 2050. While the issues are complex and overlapping, one useful way to look at them is to consider how digitization is likely to:

  • Change how private individuals and firms function, and why those private sector changes will require major changes in Arlington government policies and operations.
  • Enable the Arlington government to interact more transparently and productively with its citizens.

Private sector change

In general, the pace of transformative change driven by private sector digitization means that the county should avoid adopting overly-prescriptive master plans that could inadvertently stifle future private sector innovation.

Retail

While consumers currently make about 7 percent of their purchases online, panel participants predicted that by 2050, this percentage will rise to 40-60 percent. The obvious result: retailers’ needs for brick and mortar stores will decline substantially. For future planning purposes, the county should avoid policies that will incentivize excessive retail brick and mortar store growth.

Office

The commercial office market will continue to be transformed by increasing demand for flexible working and living arrangements like WeWork and WeLive. The county should be appropriately flexible in adjusting its zoning and land use policies to enable this increased demand — especially when such adjustments will facilitate rental of existing vacant office space.

Transportation

Ride sharing will continue to transform transportation, and self-driving vehicles are likely to do so soon as well. The county should adjust its transportation, transit, parking and all other relevant policies to take advantage of these changes.

Citizen-government interactions

In general, new digitization tools enable new ways in which county government and its citizens can interact. The most important advice from panel participants: use these tools to find out what citizens prefer rather than just telling citizens what the government has decided. This often should be done by accurately defining all options, together with the costs and benefits of each, and asking residents for their preferences using statistically-valid survey techniques.

For some, citizen-government interactions can be entirely in cyberspace. How about virtual “Open Door Mondays“? For others, a physical space (like community centers and libraries) will continue to be important.
Big Data is transforming the way a local government like Arlington can improve the quality of life for its citizens.

Conclusion

One way you can participate in discussing these issues is to attend a meeting on Tuesday, October 11, from 7 to 8:30 pm in the Shirlington Library auditorium. The meeting will feature a presentation by Shawn DuBravac. Shawn was one of the panel participants, and is the author of “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate.”

by Peter Rousselot — September 1, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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, Mark Kelly, my fellow columnist at ARLnow.com, and David Alpert over at Greater Greater Washington each posted a column about fixing Metro. Both arrived at essentially this conclusion:   

Metro can’t be fixed unless its Board and senior management have sufficient freedom to hire and fire.

Discussion

I agree with both David and Mark.

David framed the issue as Metro’s badly needing a culture change:

“Metro’s culture, clearly, is lacking. Many employees, whether front-line or managers, don’t take responsibilities seriously. If employees falsify reports, and their managers encourage them to, and other departments hang up on them without solving a problem, something is very wrong not just with a few people or a department, but a culture.”

Mark focused on the need for Metro to have sufficient flexibility under its union contract:

“The union contract has long appeared to be a substantial impediment to Metro’s ability to move forward. Not only has the union locked in pay scales and overtime provisions, but also makes it extremely difficult to make necessary workforce adjustments as Metro faces ongoing financial strain. Or in this case, seemingly is making it next to impossible to fire employees for cause.”

Metro’s culture can’t be changed without sufficient freedom to hire and fire

Metro’s senior management has no hope of changing Metro’s culture without sufficient freedom to hire and fire its unionized workforce. The most important union in this case is Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). “ATU Local 689 covers 8,576 workers, or about 82 percent of the unionized workforce, including train operators, maintenance crews, and other employees.”

Metro’s contract with ATU Local 689 is currently being re-negotiated. If the ultimate outcome of these negotiations is a voluntary agreement between management and ATU Local 689 that gives Metro’s senior management sufficient freedom to hire and fire, then there will be a reasonable prospect that Metro’s culture can be changed. These negotiations must not drag out too long.

Metro shouldn’t get a new dedicated revenue stream without first demonstrating that it has changed its culture

Metro critically needs to get a new dedicated revenue stream sufficiently large to enable it to:

  • replace its existing capital assets at the end of their useful lives, and
  • gradually expand the Metro system over the coming decades.

A dedicated revenue stream is usually defined as money that flows from a source–like an earmarked sales or gas tax–that isn’t subject to an annual appropriations process.

Metro is the only major transit system in the United States without such a dedicated revenue stream. While the need for such a revenue stream is critical, this new revenue cannot be provided without:

  • unanimous agreement by Virginia, Maryland and DC on what that new funding source is–and the specific terms and conditions under which funding will be provided, plus
  • federal government approval of that tri-jurisdictional compact.

It is both imprudent and politically impossible for such agreements and approvals to occur without a prior demonstration by Metro that it has changed its culture sufficiently to justify this substantial new investment.

Conclusion

Metro can be fixed if it is able to change its culture enough and in time. If it can’t, the three jurisdictions and the federal government will have to agree upon and enable a new organization to operate this vital transit system.

by Peter Rousselot — August 25, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

A recent article (“Arlington Studying A Plan That Would Pay for your Uber to Metro”) in The Washington Post triggered feverish comments on its website, ARLnow.com and social media, like:

So my South Arlington taxes will be used to chauffeur the 1% from North Arlington?

Let them snarlingtonians ride in old crowded buses. We want our mini limos!

The county government subsequently issued a media advisory clarifying the nature of the county’s ride-sharing study. The clarification included a denial that a decision had been made to subsidize ride sharing.

According to the media advisory:

The new service is being analyzed for the following neighborhoods, where bus ridership does not meet our productivity standards (at least 15 passengers per hour):

  • Rock Spring, Williamsburg Middle School, and Dominion Hills
  • Chain Bridge Forest, Rivercrest, Bellevue Forest, Gulf Branch, and Stafford-Albermarle-Glebe
  • Douglas Park, Nauck, and Arlington Village

The proposed service could connect these areas to a transit center, such as the Ballston or East Falls Church Metrorail stations, or to a transit corridor, such as Columbia Pike

Discussion

Very low ridership on Arlington’s ART Bus 53 led to suggestions to cancel that route. Some commenters supported outright cancellation (“save the money; refund it to the taxpayers”). For now, this route has been saved, and a study of ride sharing as a substitute has begun.

I agree that ride sharing is worth studying.

One knowledgeable commenter observed that, when he last checked, “ART Bus 53 carried only 11 people per revenue hour and recovered only 12% of its cost.” Regardless of the actual numbers, the principle is certainly valid: if ridership on any ART bus route anywhere in the county drops too low, some action — whether outright cancellation, consolidation with another ART bus route, or ride sharing — are all potentially valid responses.

Standards for a ride-sharing subsidy

Arlington County should study a variety of standards for a ride-sharing subsidy, including:

  • Limiting the trip only to certain origins/destinations, like home to a Metro or bus stop or return home from one.
  • Having a maximum personal individual income ceiling for any participant.
  • Having an over-all dollar cap on program utilization in any particular defined area. (Use a lottery if the program is over-subscribed.)
  • Ending the ride-sharing program, and resuming/substituting ART bus service, if demand rises to a point above a pre-determined level of ART bus service viability (like the current 15 passengers per hour or some higher number).

Types of ride-sharing options

In addition to Uber and Lyft, the county should explore the costs and benefits of partnering with a transit provider like Bridj . Bridj currently offers limited pop-up bus service in D.C. Bridj is considered by some as the best hope to bring urban transportation into the 21st century.

Paratransit policy

County residents with disabilities should be offered the widest possible range of ADA-compliant transit options at the lowest possible cost. The county should study these ride-sharing recommendations from a metropolitan Boston report.

Conclusion

Fortunately, Arlington isn’t grappling with these transit policy questions in a vacuum. Other communities across America are doing so as well. The American Public Transportation Association sees ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft as complementary to traditional transportation options.

Let’s find the best options for Arlington.

by Peter Rousselot — August 18, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 Virginia Association of Counties recently granted an achievement award to Arlington County’s Startup Arlington program.

Discussion

Startup Arlington is an innovative program. It has generated valuable information about factors that might motivate tech startups to move to Arlington or launch here.

Arlington must continue to bring down its 20.2 percent office vacancy rate. Each one percent in that vacancy rate translates into $3.4 million in lost tax revenue. A continued vacancy rate in the 20 percent range threatens to shift about $800 a year in property taxes onto the average Arlington homeowner.

Startup Arlington Concept

When it began in 2015, Startup Arlington was a competition organized by Arlington Economic Development (AED) to “encourage startups or potential startups on the cusp of finding their first office space to consider Arlington for that first office.” A local extended stay hotel agreed to provide the competition winner with complimentary hotel space for three months, and a local co-working space agreed to provide office accommodations. A local law practice agreed to offer ten hours of legal counseling for the winner, and transportation partners provided access to public transit.

The only costs for the County were those on taxes paid on the hotel lodging and nominal advertising fees, approximately $3,500. The entire value of the program was estimated at $15,450.

Publicity

The existence of the program was publicized via a variety of media, including social media channels estimated to reach more than 180,000 users. A total of 78 companies from 14 states and 13 different technology industries submitted completed applications. Applicants were judged based on criteria ranging from how the company would benefit from locating in Arlington to growth potential and business plans.

To be eligible, applicants had to be (1) from outside the greater DC metropolitan area (thereby avoiding poaching regional companies) and (2) a founder and/or CEO of a technology-based company.

Winning Applicant

The program produced one winning applicant. That winner was Montana-based Oppleo. This company offers a cloud-based software called Sikernes that helps defend against cyber-attacks. Oppleo’s founders relocated to Arlington in November 2015. The company still remains in the area.

Lessons Learned

Various real estate companies and residential complexes have contacted AED seeking more details regarding how AED marketed the program to potential applicants. They expressed an interest in marketing their properties/area to the same entrepreneurial audience Startup Arlington reached.

AED’s business development group cultivated several leads regarding companies that are being tracked to understand when they grow to the point of needing commercial space. AED sees Startup Arlington as an ongoing program providing ways to reach out to company founders who previously may have been unaware of Arlington’s resources and opportunities.  The program also can serve as a catalyst to form new collaborations with Arlington’s existing business and hospitality communities.

Conclusion

An important report by the 2030 Group identified seven private sector clusters (including cybersecurity) that are the most likely to generate the most significant future regional economic growth, and therefore be most likely to generate new demand for office space.

AED can help Arlington showcase its strengths in this highly competitive regional economy by continuing to analyze, publicize and exchange information obtained from worthwhile experiments like Startup Arlington. Repeating the Startup Arlington competition should remain an option.

by Peter Rousselot — August 11, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that the state of Virginia is in “very serious negotiations” with the Washington Redskins to help the team build a new stadium in Virginia.

Governor McAuliffe explained how he plans to negotiate:

“What I always say is it’s got to make sense for the taxpayers of Virginia. We’ve got to negotiate a deal — my job as governor is to get economic activity — but you’ve also got to protect the taxpayer dollars. And we’ve got to be creative with this thing, so we’re protecting the taxpayers, it’s in the taxpayers’ best interests, and it’s a win-win for the Redskins.”

Discussion

The evidence is overwhelming that subsidizing the construction of a proposed new Redskins stadium will never be in the best interests of Virginia taxpayers.

Sports stadiums do not spur significant economic growth

Independent experts (like Roger Noll, a Stanford professor emeritus of economics and specialist on sports economics) repeatedly have concluded that sports stadiums do not spur significant economic growth:

“By comparison, other billion dollar facilities–like a major shopping center or large manufacturing plant–will employ many more people and generate substantially more revenue and taxes.”

These conclusions by independent experts contradict the rosy publicity bankrolled by self-interested owners or any government partners they can recruit.

The direct costs far outweigh the benefits

A very extensive study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that a typical stadium costs taxpayers more than four times more than any long-term benefits from jobs and tax revenues. Or, as this study diplomatically put it:

“Proponents of using public funds to finance stadium construction argue that the benefits from increased economic activity and increased tax revenue collection exceed the public outlays. But independent economic studies universally find such benefits to be much smaller than claimed.”

The opportunity costs further tilt the balance against taxpayer funding

The costs of a new Virginia stadium for the Redskins are even higher when you factor in the opportunity costs. Money spent on such a stadium is money that could have been spent:

  • on a new dedicated funding stream for Metro’s capital replacement program, or
  • to redress some of the critical deficiencies in Virginia’s mental health facilities, or
  • for additional job retraining in areas of persistently high Virginia unemployment.

And, these are only three of hundreds of far more deserving uses of our Virginia taxpayer funds.

Dan Snyder doesn’t need the money

Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder is a billionaire who doesn’t need a public hand out. Public subsidies for a new Redskins stadium in Virginia will go directly into Dan Snyder’s pockets and into the pockets of already highly-compensated Redskins football players. A 2003 study by a member of the University of Texas economics department documented that a new stadium increases:

  • team profits by an average of $13 million annually,
  • payroll salaries by $14 million annually, and
  • team book value by $90 million.

All these numbers are likely to be much higher in 2016 and into the future.

Conclusion

I admire Governor McAuliffe tremendously for all of the excellent work he has done to promote Virginia as a place to do business. In this particular case, he should hand the ball back to Dan Snyder.

by Peter Rousselot — August 4, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 month, the Arlington County Board unanimously voted to approve the wording of four bond referenda totaling $315.7 million.

These four referenda will be on the November 8, 2016 general election ballot:

Peters Take Aug 4 Table

Taking into account factors such as the large sums of money involved, the number and complexity of the projects in each category, the opportunities for public comment on all of the projects, and the opportunities for comment on this year’s entire 10-year capital improvement plan (CIP) , the County Board arrived at a fair and reasonable determination regarding the degree of specificity of the ballot wording of each of these four categories.

Discussion

Under Virginia state law, any time a local government proposes to use general obligation bond financing to pay for capital projects, such proposals must be submitted to the voters for approval. The law grants the County Board the right to determine the wording and dollar amounts of such bond proposals.

This year’s wording represents a substantial improvement over recent prior practice. For example:

While in 2014 a typical ballot question sought $105.8 million in bonds to “fund the design and construction of various school facility projects including new elementary schools, building additions for additional classroom space and maintenance capital projects,” a question on the ballot this fall for $138.8 million in school construction will spell out five specific schools or projects, with costs attached to each.

This year’s push to provide more ballot detail also is a welcome response by current County Board members to a 2012 County Board decision regarding a Parks bond proposal. In that earlier case, the ballot wording of a $50.5 million Parks bond failed to disclose that 80% of the funds were earmarked for the construction of the original grandiose design of the proposed Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park. Voters in 2012 easily could have thought they were voting simply to acquire critically necessary new parkland.

Criticism of the vagueness of the wording of the 2012 Parks bond was a major issue properly raised by independent John Vihstadt in his successful 2014 campaign for County Board. The wording of that bond also led to passage of a 2015 resolution by the Arlington County Republican Committee urging that any individual capital project involving general obligation bond spending of more than $25 million be listed separately on the general election ballot–rather than aggregated into a broader generic category.

The Arlington GOP’s resolution raises reasonable issues for continuing community discussion. The resolution poses legitimate questions regarding:

Singling out a large project for a separate vote (how expensive should it be to deserve separate treatment?), and

Bundling proposed capital expenditures into larger generic categories (how many generic categories should be chosen?).

Conclusion

During the period of public comment on the merits of future capital projects involving general obligation bond financing, it could become clear that the dollar amount of any particular project is so large, or the community is so divided on the project’s merits, that the project deserves a separate line item on the ballot. None of this year’s individual projects deserved such separate treatment.

by Peter Rousselot — July 28, 2016 at 12:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 dust-up at last week’s County Board meeting at which the Board voted (4 to 1) to purchase an art truck highlighted the importance of answering more basic questions:

  • Why is Arlington County taking so long to develop a new strategic plan for the arts?
  • What are some of the critical issues such a plan ought to address?

Opinions expressed by opponents and supporters of the art truck were based on diametrically opposed assumptions about Arlington County’s proper role in supporting the arts. Just among supporters, there were fundamental differences about the proper scope of that role. The absence of an up-to-date strategic plan for the arts was painfully evident.

A sampling of comments on the initial ARLnow.com art truck story illustrates the point:

  • “How many musical instruments for our schools could this $70k to $100k get us?”
  • “When will all the speed bumps, gateway speed reducers, and painted-faux-brick crosswalks receive basic maintenance so that these traffic calming objects are functional again?”
  • “The County is spending a small amount of arts money that it already has, albeit in a new and innovative way.”
  • “How about they spend the money on one of the already established arts organizations the county bankrolls, perhaps you can name a few? I know I can.”
  • “This is actually a common, and inexpensive, thing that many local governments have.”
  • “It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but if they let the people who ran Artisphere be in charge of it (and most of them now work for Cultural Affairs), I don’t give it much of a chance of being either good or successful.”

Against this background of conflicting opinions, County Board member John Vihstadt asked County staff to answer the following questions prior to the Board vote on the art truck:

Summarize the “ongoing Cultural Affairs Strategic Planning Process” that informed this proposal and provide a window into the overall status and timing of such process more broadly across Cultural Affairs. Will this process result in a formal report to the County Board and, if so, when? Are there any tentative outcomes that staff is comfortable sharing at this time?

Regrettably, Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten was unable to answer Vihstadt’s questions. Mitten explained that she couldn’t provide any predictions on timing because of “difficulties in getting everyone together,” and warned the Board that “we are going to need guidance from you.”

Arlington’s current arts policy was approved in 1990. Among other reasons, it was the lack of a clear arts policy that doomed the Artisphere.

To avoid more fiascos like the Artisphere and the Signature Theatre bailout, we need a new strategy for public support for the arts.

Conclusion

The County Board, Manager and staff all need to develop a greater sense of urgency regarding adoption of a 21st century arts strategy. There are models and other external resources available to help them. For example, Boulder, San Francisco and Boston have plans that our government should examine. Those plans provide strategies and ideas regarding many of the challenges that an Arlington strategic plan for the arts should address.

It’s time to speed up development of a strategic plan for public support for the arts in Arlington.

by Peter Rousselot — July 21, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 19, the County Board approved another extension of the Neighborhood Conservation Program (NC Program). But, this program no longer can function effectively.

Arlington’s NC Program had a noble objective:

When the program was created in 1964, the goal was to empower residents by having them come together to discuss and share ideas for improving their neighborhoods.

Though nothing could sound more idyllic or representative of the “Arlington Way,” the way NC actually works in practice undermines its lofty goals. NC has problems in three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.

Discussion

Equity. NC’s principal inequity — a crippling one — arises because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are being denied timely neighborhood infrastructure improvements since they live in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association. (Belonging to a civic association is an NC requirement.)

Many civic associations have modest memberships, representing just a fraction of the community’s population. Most are operated by a handful of volunteers. Quite a few lack functioning, updated websites, and still fewer are capable of producing anything approaching a newsletter. Newsletters distributed to the highest possible percentage of community members are the surest means of effective communication.

Simply put, too few civic associations are truly functional. Many are run by a few people with little knowledge of or consent from those living within the association’s boundaries. Arlington County cannot mandate that every civic association function properly.

Residents without a fully functioning civic association are barred from tapping the NC Program’s roughly $12 million annual budget.

Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive requirements, which include monthly meeting attendance–often for years–to gain “funding points,” and repeated outreach and notification efforts, mean the complete NC “process” can take anywhere from 5 to 10 years. If an association’s NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.

Project engineering, always in short supply, further delays project funding. The current status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.

Cost. Typically, delays make projects more expensive. Earlier this decade, the cap for NC projects was $250,000. Then, it grew to $500,000. In the most recent funding round, improvements to Nelly Custis Park clocked in at almost $800,000.

NC rules also add to costs. For example, NC street projects must contain curb, gutter and sidewalk components, whether or not a sidewalk is needed or desired. With flexible spending caps, expensive add-ons like lighting are common–even though Dominion will install new lights at no charge.

It’s time to provide a more equitable, timely and cost-effective way to provide critical infrastructure to neighborhoods. Back in 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans (NIPs) to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. County staff has the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding.

Conclusion

Over the next two years, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely and re-allocate current NC Program funds.

The Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient. A more flexible Missing Links Program could be another.

The goal should be to fund critical infrastructure equitably, efficiently and in a way far superior to what is possible under the NC Program.

by Peter Rousselot — July 14, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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, my fellow ARLnow.com columnist, Mark Kelly, posted a column that said that living with aircraft and helicopter noise in Arlington was the price we pay for the economic benefits generated by National Airport (DCA) and the Pentagon. In response, Chris Slatt posted this most up-voted comment:

One can fully support the airport and the Pentagon as necessary and integral parts of Arlington while simultaneously questioning whether reasonable measures are being taken to minimize their impact on quality of life.

Chris is right to question whether reasonable measures are being taken. Many measures are.

How the FAA has contributed to increased noise

The increased noise results both from increased numbers of flights at DCA and changes to flight paths.

Last year was DCA’s sixth straight year of record-high passenger traffic. DCA now serves more passengers than Dulles–an airport 14 times its size.

The changes to flight paths are a result of NextGen – the FAA’s modernization initiative for the U.S. air traffic system designed to maximize efficiency.

Congressman Don Beyer has spearheaded initiatives to address DCA aircraft noise

Congressman Beyer:

  • Is an original co-sponsor of HR 3965, the FAA Community Accountability Act. This bill would require FAA to take into account negative impacts on the human environment near airports when considering flight path changes related to NextGen. Currently, FAA is required primarily to consider only safety and efficiency;
  • Sent a May 5, 2015 letter from the Virginia and DC Congressional delegations to Transportation Committee members stating their opposition to changes to DCA slot and perimeter rules;
  • Encouraged FAA to include the DC region in a multiyear study of the relationship between aircraft noise exposure and its effects on communities around airports.

Congressman Beyer also has spearheaded initiatives to address helicopter noise

Congressman Beyer’s office has received complaints related to military helicopter noise since he joined the Congress. These complaints overwhelmingly have related to frequent overflights from the V-22 Osprey, an 85-foot-wide tiltrotor aircraft.

Beyer successfully added an amendment to the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the DOD to work with the FAA to study noise mitigation solutions to military helicopter noise.  He spearheaded a National Capital Region letter to DOD Secretary Ash Carter and the FAA Administrator offering to facilitate DOD/FAA outreach to communities impacted by military helicopter noise.

Beyer’s initiatives have not attempted to seek an outright ban on military helicopter flights, but he believes it is irresponsible to ignore his constituents and not seek some mitigation solutions. Beyer has not succumbed to the reasoning in Mark Kelly’s column that nothing can be done simply because the “Pentagon was here first.” Instead, Beyer has proceeded on the premise that homeowners in Arlington and elsewhere should not be forced to anticipate the Department of Defense developing and then routinely flying an Osprey over their homes.

Conclusion

Noise mitigation measures may include federal legislative or regulatory actions that actually will lower the aircraft noise levels we are experiencing today. At least with respect to DCA air traffic growth, it is hard to envision how this will be realistically possible unless the DCA air traffic share is lowered and the Dulles share is raised.

Preferably, DOD and FAA will adhere to good neighbor policies that will quiet the skies.

by Peter Rousselot — July 7, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal criminal bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts observed:

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” Roberts wrote. “It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

Heeding the advice of former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, I’m not going to discuss whether the Court’s decision in the McDonnell case was wise because, as Jackson said, “we are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” Nor am I going to predict whether the federal government will attempt to re-try McDonnell or whether Congress will attempt to amend the federal bribery laws.

Instead, let’s focus on the implications of the McDonnell decision for further Virginia ethics reform.

Bob McDonnell’s 2014 bribery conviction spurred grudging reforms to Virginia’s ethics laws in the next Virginia legislative session. One of the key arguments for the 2015 reforms was that McDonnell’s conduct was then legal under Virginia state law. However, several leading Virginia legislators made it clear in 2015 that they were only supporting the reforms because of media pressure. The highlight of the law passed in 2015 was the creation of a $100 annual limit on gifts from lobbyists and some others to any single public official.

Perversely, now that the Supreme Court has ruled that McDonnell’s conduct did not violate federal criminal law, some of the same Virginia legislators who never wanted to reform Virginia’s ethical practices in the first place have started dropping hints that they would like to loosen things up again. That would be a grave mistake.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the McDonnell case makes it clear that the states retain the power to decide whether politicians who do what Bob McDonnell did should be:

  • excused for having done something that is just part of the normal political process (“they all do it”), or
  • subject to significant penalties for doing something that the public has decided is wrong.

Virginia Democratic Delegate Marcus Simon recently drew the correct lesson, “the fact that he didn’t break any laws doesn’t mean that our ethics laws aren’t broken.”

In the 2017 Virginia legislative session, the 2015 ethics reforms should be further strengthened not weakened. Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, its Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:

  • A civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the conflict of interest law or the financial disclosure law, and
  • A maximum civil penalty of $25,000 for bribery.

Conclusion

They all shouldn’t do it. Virginia should strengthen significantly its penalties for conduct like Bob McDonnell’s. Our legislators should be able to find a model for Virginia that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.

by Peter Rousselot — June 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 recent Progressive Voice column, Larry Roberts presented the case for Yes in My Backyard (or “YIMBY”) development as a better alternative than NIMBY. However, many issues relating to future development in Arlington will not present a clear YIMBY or NIMBY choice. The best initial answer will be MIMBY (Maybe in My Backyard).

Discussion

Arlington is forecasting, and our Comprehensive Plan now enables (often on a by-right basis), an estimated additional 75,400 people living here by 2040.

For analytical purposes, it is helpful to subdivide the potential for new Comprehensive Plan development into at least two broad categories: (1) by-right development and (2) development that can only occur via affirmative government action to change existing zoning.

By-right development

A local government like Arlington has limited legal power to constrain plans by a private land owner to develop land according to existing zoning as provided in Arlington’s General Land Use Plan (“GLUP”). Arlington thus lacks the legal power to impose a moratorium on such development just because it might negatively impact schools, parks, or other public infrastructure. If marketplace conditions are right, this kind of development will take place in your backyard or someone else’s whether you like it or not.

What Arlington should be doing right now is to utilize the best available forecasts of population growth to estimate quantitatively where and when this development is likely to occur throughout Arlington. (Recently revised Sector Plans for Rosslyn and Crystal City exemplify plans that substantially increased authorized density under the GLUP.) Next, Arlington should use the best available financial modeling tools to estimate and make public the incremental extent and associated costs of all new public infrastructure (e.g., schools, fire stations, roads, parks) that will be required to serve the forecasted population growth.

Development that can only occur via affirmative government action

Armed with this baseline information, Arlington will have the best available database to determine the impact on the community each time Arlington is asked to take affirmative action to enable new development that exceeds applicable by-right zoning, whether that development is confined to a single site, a localized region around a site, or an entire sector. The proposed increase in density currently envisioned in the Lee Highway corridor is a good example.

Before any kind of new up-zoning is approved, Arlington should make available to the public an estimate of both (1) the incremental public infrastructure costs that would be incurred if the requested zoning change is authorized compared to the public infrastructure costs that would be incurred if the land were developed in accordance with existing zoning and (2) comparable estimates of incremental tax revenues. Loudoun County and many other jurisdictions routinely perform and publicize these project-by-project impact analyses.

If the net incremental public infrastructure costs of approving the up-zoning substantially exceed the net incremental tax revenues, Arlington could choose among a number of different options, including conditioning approval on an agreement by the private developer to pay a portion of the net incremental public infrastructure costs. If this really is not legally possible (which is dubious), more outright denials of requested zoning changes may be the only responsible option.

Conclusion

Arlington and its citizens need to understand the incremental cost and revenue impacts well before the County Board votes on any future up-zoning request. With that information, the community is best positioned to approve or reject discretionary development.

by Peter Rousselot — June 16, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Donald Trump’s campaign has suffered severe damage over the last several weeks.

Four out of ten GOP party insiders are seriously exploring ways to dump Trump as the GOP nominee, but a majority of GOP insiders still believe that would be disastrous because it would flout the will of the people who voted for Trump.

Refusing to be part of any Dump Trump movement, however, is nowhere near the same thing as the type of solid party support that is typical this many weeks after clinching the nomination. As Virginia GOP insiders put it:

“Republicans can’t do anything to hurt Trump now without knee-capping our other GOP candidates up and down the ballot. … It would be like Coca-Cola admitting that Coke Classic is toxic and expecting it not to hurt the sales of Diet Coke. For better or worse, we’re all in this together now. … Let him have it. But Republicans should have nothing to do with him or his campaign. Walk away. Let him lose, in spectacular fashion, on his own.”

Prominent Virginia Republicans, like 10th Congressional District Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, have been highly critical of Trump, describing him as:

“A casino owner who bankrupted casinos … Daddy gave him his money. He played with it … He doesn’t know anything about the economy … I don’t think he believes in anything aside from himself.”

Representative Comstock has returned a $3,000 contribution Trump made to her campaign, but still hasn’t definitively ruled out the possibility that she might endorse him for President.
Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli admitted to NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood that unconvinced Virginia conservatives might just stay home in November, and longtime Northern Virginia conservative activist and former GOP member of the House of Delegates, David Ramadan, said he has suspended his party membership because of Trump’s candidacy.
Signs of serious trouble for the Trump campaign in Virginia already were evident back in April when a Virginia poll found that:

[R]oughly 30% of likely Republican voters in Virginia are unsure whether they would vote for GOP front-runner Donald Trump in the general election if he is their party’s nominee. In contrast, 90% of Virginia Democrats polled said they would support Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the general election, even if they are currently Bernie Sanders supporters.

An examination of voter turnout patterns in the March Virginia Republican Presidential primary confirms that Trump’s likely support in voter-rich areas such as Northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs will be sustantially weaker than Mitt Romney’s was in 2012 when Romney lost Virginia to Obama. For example, John Kasich received a substantial percentage of the vote in the Republican primary in Northern Virginia, including 23 percent each in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church. Given his recent performance on the national stage, Trump’s appeal to those Kasich voters is likely to be significantly lower today than it was in March.
Mitt Romney himself has stated he will neither support nor vote for Trump because a Trump Presidency would be characterized by “trickle down racism,” “trickle down bigotry,” and “trickle down misogyny.”

Conclusion:

The Trump brand is toxic. The Trump brand sure isn’t Coke Classic. It’s New Coke.

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