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Election Day in Arlington (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

On Election Day, a majority of Arlingtonians approved six bond measures, worth $510 million, that will fund a variety of projects throughout the county.

The biggest expenses for the next 10 years include upgrades to its Water Pollution Control Plant, where local sewage goes, and funding to build a new Arlington Career Center campus.

Arlington County finances these big-ticket projects by selling bonds, mostly to institutional investors like Travelers, State Farm and Blackrock, but also — to an extent — to retail investors and residents. It uses bonds, in the aggregate, to pay for smaller-ticket items: new park playground equipment or upgraded HVAC units, lighting and kitchens and new, more secure entrances in Arlington Public Schools.

But earlier this month the bond market took a huge hit, falling more in one day than it had in a decade, the Wall Street Journal reports. Investors had sold off government bonds — normally seen as an “ultrasafe” investment for companies and retirement accounts — in response to higher interest rates, which the Federal Reserve raised to tackle inflation.

That might mean a new type of investor buying Arlington’s bonds.

“With the historically low interest rates over the past decade, smaller retail investors have not been as big a presence, however with recent rate increases their participation may increase,” county spokesman Ryan Hudson said.

A list of top bond holders from 2020 (via Arlington County)

But for Chris Edwards, a researcher with the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, the current market is more of a reason why wealthy jurisdictions like Arlington should not be using bonds to pay for projects.

“There’s more of an argument for a government to issue debt when interest rates are near zero, which they were a few years ago,” he tells ARLnow. “The era of historically low interest rates for last 10 years is over. It seems we’ll have inflation for a number of years now and that means Arlington’s borrowing costs are going to be higher. It’s the same reason now is not a good time to buy a house with a 30-year mortgage.”

For the county, bonds are a “generational equity issue,” Hudson said.

“The use of municipal bonds spreads payments over ten or twenty years, which more closely aligns with the useful life of County projects and requires future residents to bear some of the burden of paying for the costs of projects from which they directly benefit,” Hudson said.

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair or financially feasible for current residents to fully fund multi-year capital projects, like the $48 million issued for the Lubber Run Community Center, in one year.

Support for county bond referenda has plateaued since the 1980s, after climbing from an average passage rate of 58% from 1951 to 1979 to an average rate of 75% from 1980 to 2021, Edwards wrote in a blog post discussing bond passage margins in Arlington since the 1950s.

Bond support in Arlington since the 1950s (courtesy of Chris Edwards/Cato Institute)

While the 2022 bond referenda all passed, registered voters were marginally more supportive of wastewater plant updates (85% approval) and stormwater improvements (80% approval) — perhaps in response to recent flooding events — than they were for renovations to county buildings (72%), parks (79%) and schools (77%), according to results from the Virginia Dept. of Elections.

Although three-quarters of Arlington residents generally vote for bonds, there is some criticism about the method for funding projects as well as to the kind of projects it is applied.

“I think, especially a place like Arlington, I don’t see an advantage in using debt,” Edwards tells ARLnow. “If the County Board thinks it needs a new library or high school, they should make the case to raise property taxes to fund the things they want. In my view, that would be more transparent.”

Voters tend to reject tax increases but they tend to support bonds, he said. That dissonance, he concludes, is the result of “a case of misinformation.”

“Bonds increase taxes in the future because the government is going to have to pay the interest on those bonds,” he said. “Who are we, today, to impose interest costs on Arlingtonians 10-20 years down the road?”

He said he is not against debt for big projects with long-lasting benefits, such as D.C.’s bonds to fund sewage improvements. But smaller things, like school improvement projects, should not be bond-funded.

There is also concern from some that the county is close to maxing out some of the limits that it self-imposes in order to regulate how many bonds it issues. These limits exist to ensure Arlington maintains its triple-A bond rating, given by credit agencies that have determined the county has an excellent track record of paying back its debts.

The county tries to keep how much debt is paying off to 10% of its general expenditures. Over the next 10 years, the ratio is expected to peak at 9.85%.

Ratio of tax-supported debt service to general expenditures (via Arlington County)

Another ratio that the county is close to maxing out is the ratio of debt per person to income per person, which cannot exceed 6% and over the next 10 years could range from 4.5-5.9%.

It is possible for the county to max out on how many bonds it can issue, Hudson said. But when asked if Arlington County could still issue bonds in the next 10 years, Hudson said “the short answer is yes.”

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Arlington County Mark Schwartz (file photo by Jay Westcott)

Predicting a potential $35-million deficit in the 2023-24 fiscal year, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz recommends putting nearly all of the unspent funds from last fiscal year toward balancing that budget.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the Arlington County Board approved the close of the 2021-22 budget with nearly $26.9 million in unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds leftover. In the same meeting, county staff briefed the Board on its grim predictions for the 2023-24 budget, planning for which is already underway.

The county attributes the $26.9 million surplus to a better-than-projected tax year and fewer expenses than anticipated.

“This was primarily the result of a slowdown in departmental operations due to COVID coupled with retention and staff hiring challenges,” per a county report. “In addition, Countywide health care costs were less than anticipated.”

The 2022 closeout funds represent 2.4% of the county budget (excluding Arlington Public Schools expenditures) and mark an increase from last year, when the county ended the 2021 fiscal year with $20.4 million — or 2.2% of the budget — leftover.

Those closeout funds, coupled with federal funding, went to pandemic recovery, childcare, criminal justice reform and other equity initiatives. But now, Schwartz says the county needs the 2022 closeout funds for balancing the budget.

“Given the pressures that we’re facing in fiscal year ’24… my recommendation is that the discretionary balance of [$26.9] million that is available in closeout be set aside so that the board can consider it for potential use as part of the fiscal ’24 budget process,” Schwartz said on Tuesday afternoon during an Arlington County Board meeting.

Arlington County Budget Director Richard Stephenson said the projections are not uniformly bad news.

“It’s a good news, and not-so-good news, story,” he said. “County revenue that we’re projecting for 2024 is positive. Unfortunately, as we’re looking ahead, the expenditure side of the equation is going to outpace the revenue growth we’re projecting.”

Total tax growth is projected to be up 3.4% before sharing revenue with Arlington Public Schools. That is driven by increases in real estate assessments as well as taxes on personal property, Business, Professional and Occupational Licenses, sales and meals.

Budget assumptions for 2023-24 (via Arlington County)

Another bright spot, Stephenson said, is that sales and meals taxes have not only bounced back from the pandemic, but they have also surpassed pre-pandemic levels. He said the county expects the hotel tax will eventually catch up, too.

Sales and meals taxes have bounced back from the pandemic, and hotel taxes are not far behind (via Arlington County)

Still, Stephenson said, said the county has a number of “self-evident” concerns at the start of budget planning for the 2023-24 budget: inflation and wage growth, the transition from one-time federal funding — from sources such as the American Rescue Plan — to ongoing local funding for some projects, and the impact of interest rates.

Climbing interest rates and office vacancy rates, however, are threatening a “significant portion” of Arlington’s General Fund budget, or revenue from commercial real estate tax, Stephenson says.

Climbing interest rates and office vacancy rates comprise two hits to tax revenue (via Arlington County)

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said this information “gives a good bit of context” to Schwartz’s recommendation to lean on unspent, unencumbered “closeout” funds next year.

“For my part, I do think this is an easy decision to carry the fiscal ’22 closeout to fiscal ’24, and that may be the last time the term ‘easy decision’ is used in the same sentence as ‘fiscal ’24 budget,'” she said.

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Flags outside Arlington County government headquarters in Courthouse (photo courtesy Arlington County)

Well in advance of Tax Day, Arlington County is telling business owners they can no longer file their business tax returns via mail.

Arlington’s Commissioner of Revenue says the office is getting rid of the option and will now require people to file their taxes through an online payment portal.

On Oct. 13, the office mailed out postcards telling business customers that they will not receive Business License, Business Tangible or Custodial tax forms in 2023. Until now, the commissioner’s office has mailed out pre-printed business tax returns annually on Jan. 1, according to Susan Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Commissioner of Revenue’s office.

Instead, the office’s Business Division is encouraging customers to review and update their Customer Assessment and Payment Portal (CAPP) accounts or sign up for the portal no later than Dec. 31 of this year so they can receive courtesy reminders leading up to filing deadlines and file on time in 2023, she said.

“Our office also plans to send other courtesy reminders about the paperless initiative to customers before the end of this year,” said Anderson.

The paperless switch began in 2019 with monthly custodial tax return filings, including meals tax and transient occupancy tax, she said.

“Every year since, we have transitioned other tax types to the initiative, such as the annual business license and tangible property taxes, by phasing out the printing and mailing of pre-printed returns to customers who were already recurring online filers,” Anderson said.

Many businesses have already made the shift.

“During the pandemic, we experienced a record high of new online filings and successfully provided all business tax services electronically via phone, email and CAPP,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to aid any remaining customers without a CAPP profile to effectively manage their business tax accounts online for continued quality customer service.”

She says the paperless initiative aims to reduce recurring issues with processing business tax returns on time, such as invalid addresses and multiple submissions of the same tax filing. Messy handwriting, incomplete forms, missing or illegible postmarks, and third-party versions with inaccurate information also delay processing.

According to the Commissioner of Revenue’s office, there are a number of benefits to filing online. For taxpayers, she said it offers:

  • Fast, secure, and convenient online submission with immediate confirmation
  • The ability to file up to midnight EST on the due date
  • One-stop access to all business documents and records
  • No risk of returns lost in the mail or placed in the wrong mailbox
  • No risk of delayed postal mailings and receipt of correspondence
  • Safe and contactless correspondence
  • Reduced clutter and paper to be stored, shredded, or discarded

In addition, by going paperless, the office is able to continue its services during events “beyond our control” and saves printing, postage and labor costs that can be spent in other ways, Anderson said.

The Business Tax team at the Commission of Revenue’s office is available to assist customers with their online filings via phone at (703) 228-3060 or in-person at the customer service window 208, located at county government headquarters in Courthouse (2100 Clarendon Blvd).

“In the near future, self-service kiosks will also be available,” Anderson said.

A mailer from the county announcing mandatory paperless business tax returns (staff photo)
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An Amazon delivery worker delivers packages in Ballston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Feeling the pressure to respond to its soaring office vacancy rate, Arlington County is looking to fill empty buildings quickly.

One option for adding tenants and knocking down the 20.8% vacancy rate would be to permit companies to set up small warehouses, or micro-fulfillment centers, inside of office buildings that are struggling to attract new tenants — especially as remote work appears here to stay.

The proposed solution is part of a new initiative to modernize and add flexibility to the county’s zoning approval process. In addition to micro-fulfillment centers, this plan suggests a few other non-traditional uses for office buildings, from breweries to urban farms. It also provides an expedited public process with shallower community engagement so that the Arlington County Board can sign off more quickly.

“The goal of this different approach for new or amended uses is to have them ready for board consideration more quickly than other typical zoning studies,” said Jill Hunger from the Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development (CPHD). “This is the first application of the county manager’s strategy to ensure commercial market resiliency.”

After a discussion that called out county staff for not engaging enough with the community, all but one member of the Planning Commission voted to send the amendment to the Arlington County Board for approval on Monday. Commissioner Stephen Hughes abstained.

The proposed zoning change limits each micro-fulfillment center to 10,000 square feet, reflecting industry best practices and staff discussions with center operators, Hunger said. If the center is in a ground-floor space and opens onto an active street, it must provide a walk-in customer sales area.

Staff recommend that no fewer than 10% of deliveries should be made by a delivery worker on foot or on a bicycle.

“It’s anticipated that quite truthfully after the initial startup, and if more than one micro-fulfillment center operates in Arlington, this modal split may actually increase,” Hunger said.

While Planning Commission members ultimately voted in favor of permitting micro-fulfillment centers, a number criticized the plan for not talking to the civic associations that could be impacted.

According to a draft county document, the county placed public notice ads with the Washington Times for the Planning Commission and County Board meetings, updated its webpages for zoning studies and its response to office vacancies, and briefed the Planning Commission and the Economic Development Commission.

“We feel we have done the outreach that’s consistent with many zoning text amendments,” Hunger said.

But without asking residents for their input, Commissioner James Schroll said he has a hard time believing the County Board can approve the change without additional public hearings. The Board is expected to take up the matter at its Saturday, Oct. 15 meeting.

“How we do what we do matters,” he said. “I get that you want to move quickly and I support that and I also want staff to be engaging with broad stakeholders as you do that.”

He said he’ll be reticent to support future amendments to consider permitting breweries and urban farms in office spaces, for instance, if there isn’t more stakeholder outreach.

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Troop 167 member Griffin Crouch addresses the Arlington County Board during its meeting on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 (via Arlington County)

A local scouting troop says it has been blindsided by a $3,000 personal property tax bill on its vans.

So a scout decided to seek relief from the bill — which would take a big chunk of its $21,000 budget — by going to the Arlington County Board.

“These vans take scouts on campouts and hikes, and to once in a lifetime adventures, backpacking in New Mexico and scuba diving in Florida,” Griffin Crouch told the Board on Saturday. “A lot of members are first-generation immigrants and the vans help us ensure that every scout gets to participate in practicing leadership and serving the community and have fun doing it — regardless of their families’ income.”

He told the County Board he hopes Arlington can find a way for the troop to remain tax-exempt, like Arlington’s other scout troops and youth organizations, before taxes are due.

More than 50 boys and girls who make up Troop 167 meet at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church (1500 N. Glebe Road), near Ballston. Up until last year, he said, the church officially sponsored the troop.

But this summer, the United Methodist Church, the largest supporter of scouting troops, told local churches to stop officially sponsoring local troops. Troops can still use their facilities, however.

The decision came the Boy Scouts of America declared bankruptcy following numerous legal battles over child sexual-abuse and dwindling participation due to the pandemic. As part of the BSA’s sexual-abuse bankruptcy and settlement plan, United Methodist Church paid $30 million to victims.

So Troop 167 decided to incorporate a nonprofit to sponsor the troop, Crouch said.

What the troop didn’t realize was that getting 501(c)(3) status and federal tax-exempt status did not protect it from state tax code or Arlington’s personal property tax.

“We have discussed the matter with our Commissioner of Revenue (COR), and although we are prohibited under state law from discussing the details of a particular taxpayer’s liability, the COR has confirmed that as a general matter, personal property belonging to a federally income-tax-exempt 501(c)(3) entity is subject to the personal property tax in Arlington with a few limited exceptions,” Arlington County spokeswoman Jessica Baxter told ARLnow.

Boy Scout troops are not a mentioned in the list of entities whose property is tax exempt: churches, museums, the YMCA and similar religious groups, for example.

“It seems wrong a scout troop has to pay that because it’s being sponsored by a non-religious nonprofit rather than a church,” Crouch said. “We still help the church and it considers us a part of its social justice ministries.”

Board Chair Katie Cristol praised Crouch for demonstrating “the best of the values of scouting: community organization, leadership and critical thinking and analysis.”

“I know some of my colleagues have started this conversation with you all, and will continue it,” she said. “The principle that’s at stake here is one of fairness. We don’t exempt nonprofits in general from personal property taxes, and so exceptions we would make we would need to understand in context of, or have a framework for how we can be fair across nonprofits.”

Cristol said she will follow-up personally regarding next steps.

“I think you have done a great job of summarizing how it’s been a complicated series of events to get the troop here,” she said. “I wonder if there may be some opportunities for us to figure out your incorporation status, and if there are ways we can help in that regard.”

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Arlington County Board candidates Adam Theo, Matt de Ferranti and Audrey Clement at a Chamber of Commerce debate (courtesy of Arlington Chamber of Commerce)

A record-high office vacancy rate plus burdensome taxes and permit processes are just some hurdles for local businesses that Arlington County Board hopefuls are pledging to tackle.

During a debate hosted by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce last night (Wednesday), incumbent Matt de Ferranti (D) and his two independent opponents, Audrey Clement and Adam Theo, explained to a 30-person audience how they would extend a helping hand toward area businesses.

Clement emphasized office-to-residential conversions as a way of reducing the office vacancy rate, which reached 20.8% in the last quarter, and “deal with our housing crisis at the same time.”

“Office-to-residential conversion is a smart approach that both Alexandria and the District of Columbia are implementing,” she said. “There are many reasons this is a sensible strategy, and Arlington’s Missing Middle is not.”

Office buildings are readily available, have more parking than most new apartment buildings and are close to Metro, she said.

“I don’t believe honestly there’s disagreement that we should do office to residential. It’s how we do it,” de Ferranti said. “We are already working on that, but we need to move more quickly.”

Seeing as empty offices are spread throughout buildings, Theo said “conversions are not a silver bullet” and suggested filling these vacancies with schools.

“That is something that’s much easier to renovate for than residential and it helps to tackle our school overcrowding that we’ll be facing over the next decade or two,” and makes more opportunities available to young families in urban areas, he said.

Currently, the county is exploring more flexible zoning in offices to allow for “light industrial” uses such as delivery staging areas, urban farms, breweries and small warehouses.

All three, meanwhile, say they would change how businesses are taxed.

“I am concerned about excessive taxation, particularly real estate taxes, but if you can start with shaving off some of those business taxes, that would be just fine with me,” Clement said.

Theo called for removing the business tangible tax, a tax levied on property used in business that requires maintaining records of nearly every item of value that a business owns.

Personal property tax revenue in Arlington over the last decade (via Arlington County)

Business tangible tax assessments are expected to increase by 16% this fiscal year, according to the 2022-23 budget. But Theo said the $40 million it netted last year is not worth squeezing support businesses with thin margins.

“The county sneezes and it spends $40 million,” he quipped.

De Ferranti advocated for increasing the threshold for Business, Professional and Occupational License (BPOL) tax, which comprises about 5% of the county’s revenue for this fiscal year, and has been steadily rising over the last decade.

Under the tax — which has long had critics both on the right and the left — businesses with revenue of less than $10,000 owe nothing, while those grossing up to $50,000 pay $30 and those grossing up to $100,000 pay $50. Beyond that, most businesses pay $0.36 per $100 in gross receipts, regardless of whether the business is profitable or not. Some businesses, like stores and restaurants, pay a lower rate while others, like printed newspapers, are exempt.

The rising revenue Arlington nets from the BPOL tax (via Arlington County)

De Ferranti, however, balked at other tax cut suggestions.

“But broad statements like, ‘We should cut’ — first, our real estate tax rate is the lowest in the region,” de Ferranti said. “Our property values are so high, so that’s why our total bills are higher than some other localities. We have to keep investing when there’s a challenge in our economy.”

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Morning Notes

Sunset along Columbia Pike near the Air Force Memorial (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

County Fair Starts Today — “The Arlington County Fair will take place from August 17 – 21 at Thomas Jefferson Community Center located at 3501 2nd Street S. The Arlington County Police Department will conduct the following road closure to accommodate the event: From approximately 8:00 a.m. on August 17 to 11:00 p.m. on August 21… 2nd Street S. closed between S. Jackson Street and S. Irving Street.” [ACPD]

Fewer Car Tax Notices — “Arlington County Board members as part of their annual budget process eliminated the $33-per-vehicle decal fee… About 20,000 vehicles will thus have nothing owed on them, and the treasurer’s office has decided not to send notices to them. An additional 30,000 county residents who own two or more vehicles under the same name will see their billing information consolidated into a single mailing in order to achieve ‘significant savings on paper and postage,’ Treasurer Carla de la Pava said in an Aug. 15 letter.” [Sun Gazette]

Senators Hail New Law — “U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) released the following statement after President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law: ‘We’re proud that this law will lower the price of prescription drugs, reduce the deficit, bring down energy bills and fight climate change… We will continue to look for ways to support the health and well-being of our communities, decrease inflation, and lower costs for Virginians.'” [Sen. Mark Warner]

Opera Making a Comeback? — “Supporters of Northern Virginia’s opera scene are hoping to reanimate the dormant Opera Guild of Northern Virginia, which through the years has raised funds and provided other support to opera organizations as well as promoting fellowships among those who appreciate the art form and introducing children to the unique and inclusive nature of opera.” [Sun Gazette]

It’s Wednesday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 81 and low of 65. Sunrise at 6:26 am and sunset at 8:02 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Pentagon City mall and S. Hayes Street (file photo)

Virginia’s annual back-to-school tax holiday is coming up this weekend and one local shopping center is using the occasion to hold a donation drive.

This year’s statewide sales tax holiday is taking place from Friday through Sunday (Aug. 5-7). Those shopping in Virginia can rack up tax savings on eligible products, including back-to-school clothing and supplies, emergency preparedness items, and certain energy- and water-efficient home appliances and fixtures.

More from the state’s website:

What items are eligible?

Detailed lists of qualifying items and more information for retailers can be found in the Sales Tax Holiday Guidelines.

“During a time of high inflation and gas prices, Virginians will receive some needed tax relief this weekend as they support local businesses across the Commonwealth,” Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said this afternoon in a statement. “Lowering the cost of living remains a top priority for my administration as we work together to make Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family.”

Locals taking advantage of tax-free shopping at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, meanwhile, are being asked to bring their used denim with them. Denim clothing can be donated at the mall between Aug. 5-14.

“Fashion Centre at Pentagon City encourages shoppers to bring any type of denim apparel items to the Do Good With Denim drive,” mall operator Simon said in a press release. “Shoppers can recycle their used denim at various bins throughout the center. Stations will be located throughout the center for shoppers to custom embroider their denim. Donations will be given to the Salvation Army.”

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Morning Notes

Sunset along Columbia Pike at the Arlington National Cemetery expansion site (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington Resident Moving to San Diego — Baseball superstar Juan Soto, who recently moved to Arlington, has been traded by the Nats to the San Diego Padres. He’ll presumably take with him some photos and art that were framed at a Clarendon frame store. [MLB]

Fairfax Barricade EndsUpdated at 9:25 a.m. — A man reportedly barricaded in a condo with a rifle near Lake Barcroft has been taken into custody. The barricade situation prompted a Fairfax County police helicopter to circle over parts of Arlington for hours. [FFXnow, Twitter]

County Getting Part of Opioid Settlement — “It’s not a princely sum, but cash is cash and the Arlington County government is set to receive its share of a new payment based on a legal settlement with a number of opioid distributors… Of the first settlement payout, about $9.94 million will go to the state government’s Opioid Abatement Authority and about $4.07 million will be distributed to localities. Arlington is entitled to 1.378 percent of that latter figure, which works out to $56,034.” [Sun Gazette]

Ballston Quarter Gets Small Tax Break — “Owners of the Ballston Quarter retail-restaurant-and-entertainment complex came away from a recent Board of Equalization hearing with a very partial victory, as that body reduced the property’s assessed valuation but not nearly as much as its owners had sought. On a unanimous vote, Board of Equalization members on July 13 voted to reduce the assessment rate – which is used to calculate the property’s annual tax bill – from $91.1 million as determined by staff to $86.7 million.” [Sun Gazette]

Va. Sens. Celebrate Vets Bill — “Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine celebrated Senate passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 following obstruction efforts by Senate Republicans last week. This legislation will expand health care and benefits for toxic-exposed veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs.” [Sen. Mark Warner]

YHS Grads Makes Youth National Team — “Yorktown High School graduate Lauren Flynn was named to the U.S. Under-20 Women’s Youth National Team soccer roster for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica from Aug. 10-28.” [Sun Gazette]

Feedback Sought for Eco Plan — “Arlington County would like your input on the draft Forestry and Natural Resources Plan. To assure future generations of Arlingtonians enjoy the benefits of nature, the County must identify what needs are urgent, what are aspirational, and how each can be addressed through both long-term initiatives, incremental change and immediate action.” [Arlington County]

Crash in D.C. Shut Down Chain Bridge — From WTOP’s Dave Dildine: “Chain Bridge closed both ways along with Canal Road and Clara Barton Parkway at the bridge. A crash occurred when traffic signals were malfunctioning. Witnesses say an officer was struck under the malfunctioning signals. These lights fall out of phase frequently.” [Twitter]

It’s Wednesday — Another hot and humid day. High of 90 and low of 71. Sunrise at 6:13 am and sunset at 8:19 pm. [Weather.gov]

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As commercial and office vacancy rates continue to soar, the county is looking to food delivery staging areas, urban farms, breweries, and small warehouses as potential solutions.

At last week’s Planning Committee meeting, county officials expanded upon a County Manager initiative first announced in April to modernize, simplify, and add flexibility to the county’s zoning approval process. The efforts are being called “commercial market resiliency.”

The last two plus years have seen a lot of change in terms of how commercial space is used, said Jill Hunger from the Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development (CPHD).

“We are experiencing rapid shifts, a lot of it was accelerated [due] to Covid,” Hunger said. “Where and how we work have changed as well as general consumer behavior and expectations.”

This has led the county to consider less traditional uses of spaces that could be approved quickly, like micro fulfillment centers (small-scale warehouses), maker spaces, data centers, animal boarding, urban agriculture, and breweries.

These types of uses would require, according to a presentation by CPHD, only “minor tweaks” to already-approved zoning uses and, in some cases, are already allowed in neighboring jurisdictions. Another advantage is that these types of uses could also be approved within six months, which is considered a quick timeframe.

By more quickly approving a larger variety of commercial uses, it could help bring down commercial and office vacancy rates that have hit nearly 21%.

“We are still facing tremendous headwinds, especially with commercial office vacancy,” said Marc McCauley, Arlington Economic Development’s (AED) director of real estate development. “[There’s] uncertainty of when people are returning to the office and how they are going to use the space differently.”

Nearly half of Arlington’s local property tax base comes from commercial properties, which helps to keep taxes on residential properties lower than would otherwise be needed to provide the current level of local government services.

AED told ARLnow earlier this week that the department is continuing to work on reducing commercial and office vacancies.

As was noted several times during the Planning Commission meeting, the proposed changes would be similar to those that were approved for Columbia Pike late last year.

In November, the County Board approved changes allowing for more retail variety on the ground floors of buildings along Columbia Pike. This might lead to businesses more often seen in industrial districts, like a brewery, distillery, or a shared commercial kitchen opening on the Pike.

“We started out hearing that Columbia Pike was unique but what we heard from a lot of [people], including this commission, ‘why isn’t this good for everywhere?'” said Marc McCauley of AED.

To this end, CPHD is looking to institute a pilot program that would allow micro-fulfillment centers, where all deliveries would be by bike or foot, to quickly move into these commercial spaces.

The hope is to go through the approval process in four months, starting with a request to advertise this month, so that this pilot would come before the Planning Commission and County Board for final approvals in October.

As the county, region, and nation continue to grapple with how the pandemic impacted office vacancies and changed the economy, officials are realizing the old ways of approving commercial uses may no longer work.

“What we are trying to achieve is… when we are building spaces and suggesting different uses that we are not precluding anything,” said Hunger. “We are trying to be more inclusive and not exclusive about what can and can not go in.”

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Flags outside county government headquarters in Courthouse (photo courtesy Arlington County)

(Updated at 3:45 p.m.) A printing vendor accidentally mailed tens of thousands of duplicate property tax bills to Arlington property owners, the county said today.

ARLnow started getting reports from readers earlier this week about the rogue mailings.

“We received a duplicate real estate tax bill today and contacted a couple of friends who also don’t have mortgages and they did too,” said one reader. “All of us have already paid and, in any case, the taxes aren’t due until 6/15.”

“Isn’t this a terrible waste of time and postage expense of our tax dollars by the county?” the reader added.

In each case, the readers said they countacted the county, which confirmed that they had in fact paid and the mailings were sent in error.

Arlington County Treasurer Carla de la Pava tells ARLnow that her office is not at fault and taxpayers won’t bear the extra expense, though she apologized for the confusion the letters caused.

The county treasurer’s office is issuing the following statement this afternoon.

The Arlington County Treasurer’s Office discovered yesterday, May 31, 2022, that an error made by our external print vendor resulted in the printing and mailing of approximately 26,000 duplicate letters to our taxpayers.  The vast majority of these duplicate letters were real estate tax bills, and we regret the confusion and inconvenience that this error has caused our customers.

The Treasurer’s Office routinely sends test files to our outside print vendor before major billings like the recent billing for 1st installment real estate taxes.  Although our office followed established procedures, unfortunately our external print vendor did not. A print vendor employee mistakenly printed and mailed letters from the test environment, and Arlington County customers began to receive the letters last weekend.

Arlington County taxpayers will not bear any of the cost of printing and postage resulting from this error. In addition, we will work with our print vendor to improve their internal control procedures to prevent errors like this from occurring in the future.  If you are concerned about a particular bill, please email us at [email protected] or call 703-228-3702.

De la Pava estimated the total cost of the mailing, had the county been on the hook for it, at around $14,000.

A similar incident involving a “significant number” of duplicate tax bills happened in 2016. It was blamed on “a glitch” in sending data to the printing contractor.

“We are currently having conversations with [the contractor] to find out what processes and procedures they have in place, or can put in place, to stop duplicate files from being printed and mailed,” de la Pava told the Sun Gazette at the time.

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