ANALYSIS: A Sterner Turnout Test is Two Years Away

November 7, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

By George Bromley
Special to the Falls Church Times

November 7, 2013

As expected, the city’s first November election of municipal officers saw a significantly higher turnout than was achieved in recent May elections.  According to unofficial totals, 54.6% of the registered voters turned out last Tuesday, slightly more than double the percentage reached in May 2012.

However, as a substantial number of people did not vote for city council or school board candidates, the actual city election turnout was somewhat lower.  Furthermore, given previous results, it seems unlikely that anywhere near half of the registered voters will stroll to the polls in the next city election in November 2015.

Although nearly 5,000 people voted on Tuesday the best showing by a non-partisan candidate was by Marybeth Connelly, who won 3,515 votes.  This was far short of the number that voted for any of the Democrats running for constitutional offices or that voted on the referendum to sell the water system.

The other four candidates running for council averaged around 2,800 votes.  Since voters could vote for more than one candidate it is impossible to determine exactly how many people cast votes for council.  If Ms. Connelly attracted 7 of 8 council voters, then the rough city turnout would be around 4,000 or 44%, a percentage below that reached in several May elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Odd year November elections always have lower turnout rates than those held in even years, especially in the years not featuring a gubernatorial contest.  City turnout in such elections has been declining since the mid-1990s.

In November 1995 over 2,900 residents voted in the November races for Virginia delegate and senator, a turnout of about 50%.  Turnout in such elections then began to fall, declining to around 47% in 1999 and to 42% in 2003.

In November 2007 only 28% turned out, a number below that for some of the contested May elections held since 2000.  The turnout in 2011 was only 31%, even with the controversial referendum to move local elections from May to November on the ballot.

These trends indicate that the level of turnout in 2015 probably will much lower than Tuesday’s and perhaps only several points higher than the 26% of May 2012.  Without a hotly contested gubernatorial race to lure them to the polls, most local voters may again choose to ignore the municipal election.

Homeowners Voice Concerns About H-T Project

December 1, 2012 by · 44 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

December 1, 2012

Winter Hill homeowners were out in force last Thursday evening to hear a briefing on the proposed Harris-Teeter store and apartment complex at 301 W. Broad St.   Many in the standing-room-only crowd did not like what they heard.

The six story building, which would replace Anthony’s Restaurant and the old post office property, may provide a significant tax windfall for the city.  However, given the residents’ strong objections, the project clearly will face a struggle when it comes before the Planning Commission and City Council.

Ten Winter Hill townhouses are adjacent to the site and many others are in close proximity.  Owners of some of those homes and many other area residents objected to several features of the project’s design and how it will impact the neighborhood.

Many of their objections concerned the location of the access route for trucks and the loading docks for the grocery store and the apartments.  As designed, this alley will parallel the property line on the west side of the building.  Residents felt that it would be better to shift these features to the opposite side of the complex, where the noise and air pollution generated by vehicles would be away from their homes.

The residents noted that the building also would cast extensive shadows over their properties much of the day.   As proposed, the structure will be 83 feet high, which is 8 feet over the standard city limit.  This will require a special exception, which already has been filed.

Residents also were concerned that the combination of a supermarket and an apartment building would significantly increase traffic in the area and contribute to the neighborhood’s parking problem, long severe due to the lack of space in Winter Hill lots.  Attendees’ suggestions included a traffic signal at the intersection of Gundry Drive and Annandale Road and a special parking district with spaces reserved for area residents.

The city projects that the apartments will add only 34 additional pupils to its crowded schools, but some people were skeptical of this estimate.  Thirty percent of the apartments will be two bedroom units.  This is a much lower ratio than found in Pearson Square (401 S. Maple Ave.), which includes 133 two bedroom and 25 three bedroom apartments.

As now designed, the project’s ground level includes the 60,800 square feet Harris-Teeter store and an additional 3,110 of retail space.  Five upper floors will offer 294 multi-family rental apartments.  There will be 30 studio apartments, 176 one bedroom, and 88 two bedroom units.

The development also will include a three level underground parking  garage which will provide 586 spaces.  Parking on the first level  will be reserved for shoppers.  The residential parking ratio will be 1.33 spaces per unit.

Architect Doug Carter of Davis, Carter, Scott and Patrick Kearney of Rushmark Properties responded to the homeowners’ questions and concerns.  Carter, who was the architect of the Byron (513 W. Broad St.), welcomed the comments and stressed that the project process is in a very early stage.  Mayor Nader Baroukh, a Winter Hill resident, and Council member Johannah Barry attended the meeting but did not speak.

Information on the complex is available in five files at the city’s website.  Architectural elevations and conceptual floor and parking level plans are in Part 4.  Project specifications and a preliminary fiscal impact analysis are in Part 5.

This effort is the latest attempt to restart the City Center project, originally proposed in 2007 but set aside during the recession.  Attempts to approve a senior citizens apartment house at 350 S. Washington St. and an adjacent office and retail building failed in 2010.

In October 2012, the  City Council approved the sale of two city-owned lots in the 200 and 300 blocks of West Broad Street to a development company called Falls Church Development Partners, LLC, of which Rushmark is a member.   One lot, adjacent to the Burke and Herbert Bank, is technically owned by the City’s Economic Development Authority.  Together, the city is selling them for $4,322,000, a value arrived at in an appraisal done for the city earlier this year.

However, other issues must be resolved before the project can begin.  The developer won’t be able to close on the land until it applies for and receives a building permit.  The city also is including a performance requirement that would allow officials to buy the land back if the project is not started in 12 months or completed in 24 months of the sale.

Also, the city’s suit flied last year against City Center developer Atlantic Realty must be resolved.  Falls Church  sent a “notice of default” to Atlantic on March 2, 2011, arguing that the developer “failed to perform its obligations under the agreement” between the city and the developer.  Until the court declares that project null and void, the city cannot proceed in other directions with the land.

Lawn Signs Reflect Voters’ Wide Choice of “Tickets”

April 27, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff
April 28, 2012

For the first time in at least 50 years a Falls Church City municipal election will not feature a ticket or slate of candidates.  The venerable Citizens for a Better City (CBC) has stepped aside and no alternative organization has stepped forward to offer a list of their own.  Every candidate for City Council now is a true independent, free to run his campaign as he sees fit and take positions without consulting his running mates.

However, many unofficial slates of candidates have emerged via the signs sprouting on many local lawns.  Tickets of two, three, or even four contenders have been spotted, the last perhaps reflecting some discord in the residences, as voters may chose only three of the seven candidates.

Excluding unrealistic quartets, 56 different Council ticket combinations are possible:  21 duos and 35 trios.  Each candidate has 15 potential matches with his six opponents, either as a pairing or as one-third of a trio.

Yard signs may not be an accurate reflection of wider voter preferences, but in the absence of any formal poll data they provide the only indication of popular sentiments in the City.  Over the past week the Times has surveyed the signs while driving or more often walking through most streets and every neighborhood.

Some blocks are bereft of signs, but on others there are more signs in bloom than azaleas.  As a general rule, the closer one comes to a candidate’s home the more likely one will see more of his signs.  City-wide, signs endorsing Mayor Nader Baroukh, Phil Duncan, and Dave Tarter appear to be the most common, though not necessarily in that order.

The majority of lawns host single signs, but at least 20 full or partial Council tickets also are on display.  While Baroukh, Duncan, and Tarter are more frequently found on these tickets, all seven candidates appear to have at least one running mate.

On Tollgate Way, going for Henneberg, Baroukh and Tarter

The multiple signs on many lawns reflect that voters no longer have the “straight ticket” option, which CBC always provided in the past and, given CBC’s historic success, proved very tempting.  Now every voter, like every candidate, is an independent.

On Lincoln, the "Lawrence Ticket" – Lawrence Webb and John Lawrence.

How will the voters respond?  The field is an unusually strong one, leaving them with difficult choices.  Will they create full slates of their own or be more discriminating and vote for only one or two candidates?   The choices they make and the City’s future are in their hands next Tuesday.

On Columbia, neighbors crowding in signs for Duncan, Baroukh, Handly, Tarter, and Webb.

Council Keeps City Tax Rates Steady

April 23, 2012 by · 20 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

April 23, 2012

The Falls Church City Council voted this evening to hold tax rates at their current levels.  The real estate tax will remain at $1.27, the personal property tax will stay at $4.84, each rate for every $100.00 of assessed value.

Prior to the vote Vice Mayor Dave Snyder introduced a motion to reduce the tax rate to $1.26, calling the higher rate a tax increase.   Snyder advocated reducing reserves and removing all proposed non public safety related positions from the budget, achieving a net estimated savings of $560,000.  “I don’t believe in holding the tax rate today artificially high to make it easier for politicians in the future to pass on taxes,” he said.

Councilman Ira Kaylin, who had seconded the motion, then spoke in opposition.  “The only thing I agree with is that the tax assessment increases are tax rate increases,” he said.  Earlier Kaylin warned that the City’s finances are still fragile and projected a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year, which could result in a tax rate of $1.33.

Mayor Nader Baroukh said that to get the rate down would impact critical initiatives such as storm water management and could have consequences on the City’s borrowing capacity.  “As much as I’d like to do a one time reduction in the tax rate I don’t think it would be prudent or in the long term interests of the City,” said Baroukh.

Snyder’s motion was voted down, 6-1.  The Council then approved the tax rates and the FY 2013 budget, with the vice mayor dissenting.  The Capital Improvements Program (CIP) for FY 2013-17 was approved, 7-0.

In a statement to the Times the mayor said that the budget and the CIP are the product of a great deal of discussion and work and meet the critical needs of the City in these
difficult financial times.  “This budget and CIP strikes a healthy balance between the City’s fund balance and the needs of City employees, schools, and services.  And it meets the Council’s policy objectives including strengthening economic development, providing greater resources for infrastructure improvements to address items such as school facilities and stormwater managemen,” the mayor said.

Earlier the Council voted unanimously to withdraw the controversial “Ped Plan”, deferring further action until at least June 25.  Many residents spoke against the plan, particularly its proposal to eliminate street parking on Hillwood Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, and West Street.

In his report to Council, City Manager Wyatt Shields advised that representatives of six prospective bidders for the City’s water system attended an informational meeting today that included a tour of the system.

Fairfax Water Proposes Merger With Falls Church

February 29, 2012 by · 14 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 29, 2012

Fairfax Water has proposed that the City of Falls Church agree to merge its water system with Fairfax County’s.  Submitted in response to the City’s recent request for expressions of interest (REI) in its water and sewer systems, the proposal suggests that a merger would result in significantly lower water costs, provide robust system backup, and offer tens of millions of dollars in savings for Falls Church’s capital improvements program.  The City also would have a seat on Fairfax Water’s ten member Board.

Fairfax Water also lists three reasons why it would be inadvisable for the City to attempt to sell the system to the highest private bidder.  Falls Church would forego the additional reliability gained through joining Fairfax and its customers would pay considerably more for water.  The City also would likely face major regulatory hurdles, including approval of the sale by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Falls Church officials had little immediate reaction to the proposal.  “We look forward to reviewing it along with the other responses that we receive, as the City Council evaluates preferred options for the future of the City’s water and sanitary sewer systems,” said city manager Wyatt Shields.

In the proposal’s text, Fairfax Water’s general manager Charles Murray states “In short, the benefits of merging our two systems would be extraordinary.  Not only would your existing customers pay significantly less for their water but our joint water system – with two independent water treatment plants in Virginia and one in the District of Columbia – would be the most robust and reliable in the world.”

Falls Church issued the REI on February 14.  Responses are due by Friday, March 2.  Sale of the water system to a public or private utility would require citizen approval via referendum.  However, a merger with Fairfax Water might only require a majority vote by the City Council.

Falls Church’s system services around 34,000 accounts and 140,000 customers.  Most of its customers reside in Fairfax County.  Fairfax Water services 234,000 accounts and 835,000 customers.  It currently has six wholesale customers.  The City has one.

The full text of Fairfax Water’s response to the REI is available here.

INTERVIEW: City Manager Discusses Water System Sale

February 20, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

February 20, 2012

Five days after the Falls Church City Council unanimously approved the release of a request for expressions of interest (REI) in the City’s water and sewer systems, City Manager Wyatt Shields sat down with the Falls Church Times on Friday to discuss the complex and weighty subject.

The Feb. 13 vote (with Robin Gardner absent) may rank as the most significant since the City’s founding in 1948. The water system is older than the City, dating to the 1930s.  It serves over 120,000 customers, primarily in Fairfax County.  For many years, it provided Falls Church with a significant return on investment, but a 2010 Fairfax Circuit Court decision prohibited the City from transferring the system’s profits to its general fund, effectively making it a non-performing asset.

During the interview, Mr. Shields said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the water and sewer systems will be sold for a good price, but he reminded reporters, residents, and interested parties that the City won’t automatically sell the system if the offers received are inadequate. Read more

WATER WAR: Fairfax Board Approves Exclusive Service Area, Maximum Allowable Rates, Fees, & Charges

December 6, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

December 6, 2011

Late this afternoon the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance which amends the County Code to require that developers hook up with Fairfax Water’s system, even in cases where new lines must be built to reach sites having access to existing Falls Church City, Vienna Town, or Fairfax City lines.  This exclusive service area would apply to both new development and redevelopment.

The measure also allows the Board to fix rates and charges for water service provided to customers located in Fairfax County so that no County customer of the City of Falls Church water system will be charged rates and charges that exceed those of Fairfax Water, unless the City can demonstrate the need for higher rates and charges to the County’s satisfaction.

Falls Church repeatedly asked Fairfax County to defer a vote on the ordinance, most recently via a December 1 letter from City Manager Wyatt Shields to County Executive Anthony Griffin.  Local leaders were quick to criticize the Board’s action.

Mayor Nader Baroukh said the City had sought a deferral to allow time to respond to its serious concerns and create a mutually beneficial outcome that ensures the safety and reliability of the City water system and reflects the value of that system.  “Instead, the Board chose to rush to enact an ordinance that is anti-competitive and not in the best interests of our County water customers” said the mayor.

Vice Mayor Dave Snyder also voiced dismay. “Over the years, the City has taken on significant risk so that Seven Corners, McLean, Merrifield, and Tysons Corner—the economic engine of the County—could develop. Today’s action by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is a blow for regional cooperation” Snyder said.

Councilman Lawrence Webb, a member of the City’s Public Utilities Commission also was critical.  “It is unfortunate that the County Board rushed to enact this ordinance.  The effect of the new regulations will be to increase water costs for County residents, create an expensive new County bureaucracy,  [and] invite litigation” he said.  “[The action] will force County developers to construct new water mains that overlap the existing system in order to hook-up to Fairfax Water, an enormous unnecessary cost that could stop Tysons and Merrifield redevelopment effort in its tracks.”

Although the vote was unanimous, Supervisors Pat Herrity (Springfield) and John Cook (Braddock) expressed some reservations.  Herrity observed that he didn’t see how dual infrastructure would save anyone any money and said he didn’t think this was how the County should be doing business with its partners.  Cook warned of possible unintended consequences and referenced Senator Petersen’s recent suggestion that he would introduce legislation in the General Assembly to override the Board’s vote.

Representatives of several Fairfax neighborhood associations, who spoke against the City’s rate increase at Council sessions last summer, spoke today in favor of the ordinance.  All reiterated their view that County residents serviced by the City’s water system are subjected to an unconstitutional tax due to their having no means of voting in Falls Church elections.

About 92% of the Falls Church’s customers reside in the County.  However, the City does not impose a rate differential between its City and County customers.  Its water rates are lower than average for water utilities in the region, and in the lowest quartile statewide.

Over the past five years the City invested $20 million in upgrades in the Tysons, Merrifield, and Dunn Loring areas, keeping water rates flat until an 8% increase in 2011.  Fairfax Water has increased water rates by 33% since 2005.  The County has raised sewer rates 80% since then.

Background on the Board’s actioin is available here at Page 611.

CBC Shifting Focus From Elections to Voter Education

November 16, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

November 16, 2011

The Citizens for a Better City’s Executive Committee has voted to suspend its Nominating Convention, the election of CBC candidates, and the CBC campaign, and to turn the organization’s primary focus to community and voter education.

In a November 12 letter to members, CBC president Sally Ekfelt termed the Committee’s vote “decisive.”  Entitled “A New Way Forward”, the letter states that the organization’s primary objective now will be to inform the electorate and vigorously promote civic engagement.

The Committee will convene a working group to create an action plan for 2012.  Among its first actions will be a town hall meeting or forum in February which will showcase all candidates running for elective office in May.  CBC will continue to promote and encourage citizen participation on City and School Committees and Commissions and to scout for effective leaders.

Suspending the Nominating Convention requires a change in CBC’s bylaws.  Members will vote on the revision at the annual meeting on Sunday, November 20, at the Winter Hill Senior Center. 

For 52 years CBC has fielded candidates for Falls Church City Council and, since 1994, for School Board.  Its decision to leave the election process creates a new playing field for the May 2012 election.

Unless a new group suddenly emerges to field a slate, all candidates for three Council seats and three School Board seats at stake will be running as independents.   There will be no “brand” available and voters will have to focus more on the individual candidates, rather than voting a straight ticket.

CBC has dominated Falls Church politics for decades.  From 1974 to 1986 it won every Council seat.  More recently CBC won 14 of the 17 seats at stake from 2000 to 2008.

However, in 2010 only one of its four candidates for Council was elected.  One candidate appeared to break with the slate in the final days of the campaign, issuing his own flyers.

Of the seven current Council members, four were elected as independents and three on CBC tickets.  Vice Mayor Dave Snyder has been elected on past CBC slates but ran as an independent in 2010.   All seven members of the present School Board were elected on CBC tickets. 

The May 2012 election will be the final one held in that month, as voters last Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a referendum to move the polling to November, beginning in 2013.  CBC’s decision to leave the field ensures that next spring’s campaign will be one of the most interesting in many years.

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