MAN ABOUT TOWN: ‘Little City’ vs. ‘Small Town’

Falls Church Times Columnist

November 29, 2010

The Citizens for a Better City held their annual meeting last week, and I got the impression from President Sally Ekfelt’s email to the Falls Church Times that, even though I’m not a member, I would have been welcome to attend. But I didn’t go, and now I’m kicking myself.

That’s because, according to the News-Press, the CBC membership debated a proposal to change wording in their by-laws from “small town character” to “Little City.”

This goes to the core of why I moved to Falls Church, and why I write this column. For me, it’s all about the “small town character,” a.k.a. “village atmosphere,” a.k.a. “Mayberry.”

According to the News-Press, the motion to change “small town” to “Little City” lost 20-17. That says something right there – the once powerful and mighty CBC mustered only 37 voting members at its annual meeting (which included food).

I wanted to read more about the CBC’s take on “small town character,” so I researched their website. Strangely enough, I couldn’t find a word about it in their by-laws. The closest I could come was a reference to “policies to assure that residential and business development will be compatible with the predominantly single-family residential, low-skyline character of Falls Church city.”

That line alone was almost enough to entice me to join the CBC. But according to another by-law, I’m not eligible: Members must pledge “to sustain Falls Church’s status as an independent city.” Since I’m convinced that our future as an independent city is unsustainable, I couldn’t make that pledge.

Worse, still according to the News-Press, members voted to delete the by-law language about the City’s “single-family residential, low-skyline character.”

While reading the CBC website I discovered a goldmine of information by Wayne Dexter, who charts the City’s formation from 1948, illustrating in the process that there’s nothing new under the sun. As a fairly recent émigré (eight years), I’ve been thinking that the City’s current political and financial turmoil is unprecedented. But Dexter’s history documents that it’s only par for the course – Falls Church has experienced life-threatening episodes almost since its formation in 1948.

Especially interesting is Dexter’s description of the “strip zoning of West Broad” in the early 1950s. The Planning Commission opposed strip zoning because it “effectively prevented block zoning which could have permitted creation of a more desirable central business district and more sensible traffic management.” But the City Council overrode the Planning Commission, and we got the stick-like business district of today – one mile long and one block wide. Contrast that with the charming business district grid in Old Town Alexandria, or even Leesburg – they’re both historic and highly walkable.

Dexter also tells about the proposal in the late 1960s by First Virginia Bank to build a high-rise office building at the corner of Broad and Washington. At the time, the City had a seven-story height restriction, and some residents feared that allowing the bank building could lead to a Falls Church that resembled Rosslyn. Others, however, saw the bank building as “an essential key to the long-sought creation of a central business district.” In the end, the bank withdrew its proposal, and ultimately built the twin black towers at Seven Corners, just outside City limits.

But the real story of the City, as documented by Dexter, is the schools. With the City’s 1948 formation, the first elected City Council approved what must have been a substantial bond issue to build a new high school and renovate other schools. ”Opposition was immediate, vigorous, and persistent,” Dexter writes. In the next election, opponents gained control of City Council, and the entire School Board resigned. But in 1953, supporters of the school system regained control, and construction began.

As 2011 approaches, the City is at that same old crossroad: Dare we raise taxes enough to sufficiently fund the schools? The City’s patriarch, Lou Olom, has seen it all before, and in a letter elsewhere on this page he urges taxpayers to stay the course.

What might such a course cost? During the baby boom years, Falls Church had a larger student population than it does today, but education expenses have risen exponentially over the last couple of decades. The City shouldered the cost then, but can it now?

I continue to maintain that the cost to the taxpayer to run a “boutique” city and a “boutique” school system is far higher than we are presently paying.  Last year, City Council approved a $1.24 tax rate, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Now we’re living on borrowed time, with little provision for maintenance, repairs, or improvements to the City’s infrastructure.

Perhaps you’ve read that next year’s tax increase could be as low as 4 cents. Don’t believe it. Any such action could lead to another School Board resignation en masse.

So what’s to become of us? I don’t know – but it looks to me as if 2011 will be another year for the history books. Get ready, Mr. Dexter – there’s going to be a lot to write.

November 29, 2010 


8 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: ‘Little City’ vs. ‘Small Town’”

  1. Mike Smith, Falls Church on November 29th, 2010 11:12 am


    While I disagree with your belief that the City is not viable I do agree that the upcoming years will be one of, if not the most, challenging period in the Little City’s history. There is no way that we can pay for what the Schools have hinted will be their needs plus all the other stuff going on with a mere four cent tax increase.

    Our leadership needs to start leading right now. We don’t need another last minute patchwork budget job like last year.

  2. Ted White, Falls Church City on November 29th, 2010 2:46 pm

    Your information is badly flawed. You say that “in 1953, supporters of the school system regained control, and construction [of a new high school] began.”

    Funny thing about that. Because in 1952 I began my freshman year in high school at George Mason High School, the first year the newly constructed school was open.

    Obviously, construction began no less than a year earlier (in 8th grade I went to the final year of the Jefferson Institute, a Civil War era building on North Cherry St, and Falls Church high-schoolers went to Falls Church High on South Cherry St & Hillwood Avenue).

    So you need to find a better source of information. Wayne Dexter is clearly wrong.

    GEORGE SOUTHERN REPLIES: Thanks for sharing your personal experience of those days. I think there’s a misunderstanding caused by trying to condense a lot into one or two sentences. Your words in brackets are not what Mr. Dexter or I wrote. He said: “. . . supporters of the school system regained control of the council in 1953 and appointed new members to the school board. Work went forward with additions to George Mason and Mt. Daniel and the renovation of Madison. The Thomas Jefferson school was purchased from Fairfax County.” I didn’t make it as clear as I might if I had unlimited space, but the link is there for anyone who wishes to read the history.

  3. Joyce Galovich – Falls Church City on November 29th, 2010 6:10 pm

    At one time, our small town was referred to as a village. Quaint at the time. Now, little town versus little city. It is the City of Falls Church and/or Falls Church City. If CBC wants to rewrite their by-laws so be it. Not all citizens of Falls Church City are members of CBC. Probably more single residential dwellings but now a large number of townhouses and condos, so understand deletion of single residential and low-skyline character. Some how or other, little city does not sound right. Perhaps, these members could make better use of their time to lobby state reps to give upstate schools/districts a fairer return on revenues sent south.

  4. Paul Freedman on November 29th, 2010 7:42 pm

    Are subsidized pensions a major bite for Falls Church teacher and school administrator costs or are pensions either an insignificant bite of the education budget and/or self-financing?

  5. Sally Ekfelt on November 29th, 2010 11:28 pm

    Dear George,

    Thanks for the ink and the interest in our bylaws. The proposed bylaw revisions approved Sunday, Nov 21, were the result of nearly two years of diligent, thoughtful work. It is always challenging to revise a governing document and achieve respectful consensus within a group framework. But, we did. The newly revised CBC bylaws will soon be proudly posted on our website.

    Sorry you couldn’t make it to our meeting – you would have been most welcome.

    Sorry too that you don’t share CBC’s optimism and commitment to sustain Falls Church as an independent city. We think independence is worth fighting for . . .

    Sally Ekfelt
    President CBC

  6. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on November 30th, 2010 8:31 pm

    George, if you had to guess, what tax rate would we need to keep running the City and schools as they’ve been running?

    GEORGE REPLIES: Andy — and here I thought you were a regular reader! I “had to guess” last week when I wrote: “I certainly don’t claim to have an answer how to fund the Little City – short of just raising the tax rate as needed. I think 26 cents would be a good start, which would give us a nice round rate of $1.50. Then you could restore the fund balance, pay for the schools, and start providing again for capital improvements.”

  7. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on November 30th, 2010 11:11 pm

    Ah yes, now I remember reading that! If the tax rate was $1.50 what would happen?

    The premise that the City isn’t sustainable ultimately means that there is a tax rate where the property values start to decrease (triggering a chain reaction of plummeting tax revenue). Or there’s a rate that causes more people to vote for a Council that would reduce the rate/spending (or push for merging with a neighboring county) than people who would vote for a Council to sustain the rate (and spending).

    I wonder what $1.50 would do? Lots of people would complain. Some people would move out. Would property values decrease? Would it take longer to sell a house in the City? Would enough people come out to vote against council members who supported that rate?

  8. Terence Kuch, Falls Church on December 2nd, 2010 5:30 pm

    George, Do you have a preferred alternative if the City ceases to be an independent city? What are reasons for (and against) this alternative? What would it take to make the alternative happen (bill in the Virginia legislature? vote of City residents? etc.)

    Possibilities are (a) Become a town in Fairfax County, like Vienna or Herndon; (b) Become a town in Arlington County; (c) Become a legally-indistinct part of Fairfax County; (d) Become a legally-indistinct part of Arlington County.

    Or — there is a type of government for an area, within a county, called a ‘tier-city’, which is like a town but not like a town (see Code of Virginia). Think outside the … boundaries?

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