MAN ABOUT TOWN: Why Falls Church Needs Arlington

man-about-townWhen the little girl who is now my wife was 3 years old she said something remembered ever since. The occasion was the family’s move from the City of St. Louis out to the suburbs of St. Louis County. This was explained to her, and as she rode in the car to her new home, her little 3-year-old mind struggled to understand what it meant to move from the city to the county. Eventually she reached a conclusion and chanted for the rest of the trip:

“Sit in the city, count in the county.”

And that, coincidentally, serves as a prophetic judgment on Falls Church. Incorporated as a city for 61 years, our time is running out. We can sit in the City in denial, or we can count on the county.

Some quick nomenclature: The 2.2 square-mile area of the City of Falls Church is not associated with any county. For statistical purposes, Falls Church City is considered its own county. Meanwhile, next door, although we think of Arlington as a city, it’s actually a county.

Falls Church City is no longer economically sustainable. You won’t read that anywhere else because other media have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. But despite the desperate measures being pursued by City officials, we are approaching an insoluble fiscal crisis. Ironically, to forestall the inevitable, the City has launched a massive residential/commercial development that would diminish the very village atmosphere that attracts residents to the City in the first place.

The warning signs have long been here:

  • A city that cannot afford to build schools within its boundaries is failing (3 out of 4 Falls Church schools are outside City limits).
  • A city that depends on new development to balance current budgets is following the business model of Bernie Madoff.
  • A city that maintains separate schools, police, sheriff, courts, public housing, recreation, library, bus service, etc., for 11,000 people will always be less efficient than its larger neighbors, requiring residents to pay more for less.
  • A city that depends on selling water to non-residents to help balance its budget can find itself over its head if deprived of that income (read our Water War reports).

How did the City manage for so long? What’s different now? I only know that bureaucracies and institutions have limited lifespans. Things work for a period of time and then they don’t.

For example, some time before I was born in Greensboro, NC, that city did something similar to what Falls Church did in 1948 – it started its own school system. In both Greensboro and Falls Church, residents were dissatisfied with the county schools so they pulled out, raised teacher salaries, and ran a superior city school system. It worked for decades, but I was surprised to learn during a visit home last year that the city school system has now rejoined the county. With the urbanization of the whole area and few remaining economic differences between city and county residents it no longer made economic sense to duplicate services.

So here’s the proposal:

Be like Vienna. We can still have our own name, our own boundaries, and our own elected officials (who could still make decisions on things like whether to allow a high-rise condo or a strip club inside City limits). But we need to affiliate with a county for the big, expensive things – especially schools. Vienna is part of Fairfax County, and Falls Church should be part of Arlington County.

Now the wailing and gnashing of teeth: “You want to destroy our wonderful schools! You want to sacrifice local control!” No, I don’t. Maintaining the status quo is what will destroy our wonderful schools, because we are increasingly unable to raise teacher salaries to match surrounding districts. I taught for several years and I know that a high teacher turnover is a danger sign. Teacher turnover in Falls Church is already too high. As for local control, an active PTA is more important than any political boundary.

Arlington public schools are excellent and have resources we can’t afford. When the Falls Church Times interviewed School Superintendent Lois Berlin, she said that we’re in third place, behind Arlington and Alexandria, in terms of attracting teachers. She also noted that larger school systems have an economy of scale we don’t enjoy.

So why not join the best? Our children would continue attending the same schools they do now.

Property taxes in Arlington are 86.5 cents per $100 assessed value. In Falls Church it’s $1.07, or almost 25 percent higher. Next year the difference will almost surely be even greater. Our tax model is unsustainable, while Arlington’s, with its business proximity to Washington, is enviable.

Our mistake is in trying to emulate Alexandria instead of Vienna. Alexandria is an independent city, same as Falls Church. The big difference is that Alexandria’s population is 130,000 – more than 10 times the size of Falls Church. The tax rate in Alexandria is 84.5 cents.

That said, I’ll note before someone else does that in Vienna, residents pay $1.04 to Fairfax County and another 23 cents to the town, for a total rate of $1.27, or higher than Falls Church. My response is 1) go with Arlington County, not Fairfax; and 2) our City’s fiscal woes are just beginning — it won’t be long before our tax rate will exceed Vienna’s. [NOTE: I have corrected the tax rate shown for Fairfax County. Originally I used a lower, incorrect rate which appears on the Fairfax County EDA website.] 

But why would Arlington County be interested in incorporating Falls Church? What’s in it for them? Well, this I know: bureaucracies want to expand. It’s their life blood. Arlington would take in Falls Church in a heartbeat because it would make the county that much bigger and that much more important. We are, after all, a very desirable community. And we’re already linked with Arlington: we use their courts (I had to serve jury duty in Arlington); we use their fire and law enforcement services as needed (the investigation of the fire at Whittier Park was done by Arlington); we use their transportation service to run GEORGE bus; etc.

And there’s no way Arlington County could resist an offer that included controlling the huge Falls Church water system.

So – will we continue to “sit in the City” while taxes increase, services decline, and our village character diminishes? Or will we “count on the county” to bring us lower taxes, even better schools, and stop the destruction of our little “Mayberry”?

September 21, 2009 


18 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Why Falls Church Needs Arlington”

  1. Andy Rankin on September 21st, 2009 1:12 am

    It will be interesting to see how many comments you get on this article. I have a few thoughts myself but here are some quick ones.

    Your first warning sign – about the schools being located outside of the City – hasn’t that been the case for a long, long time? I guess those are early warning signs.

    I’m not so sure that all City residents would attend the same schools should we become part of Arlington County. If this could somehow be guaranteed then I think you might be on to something.

    I don’t think joining Arlington County would have any impact on development in Falls Church. I think Falls Church will continue to evolve and if we’re smart about it we’ll be able to keep the charm (look around – there’s no way a chunk of land inside the beltway can stay “Mayberry” forever).

  2. John on September 21st, 2009 6:52 am

    You might want to review the situation in Clifton Forge, VA. I believe that the city reverted to town status in 2001. The city/town’s experiences would be interesting to add to this discussion.

    Just some food for thought…

  3. Dreamingin22046 on September 21st, 2009 7:53 am

    I grew up in Arlington County. If I wanted to live there, I’d live there, it’s not hard. I don’t want to.

    People move here for the schools. In general, they are willing to pay more for that. Maybe the answer is to contract all the other services with Arlington, but not the schools.

  4. John Bennett on September 21st, 2009 8:40 am

    Shortly after we moved to FC City from Arlington in 2004, my wife and I came to the realization that FC is not economically viable and that it should become part of Arlington for the same reasons stated in Mr. Southern’s article.
    Arlington is better in almost every way – services, tax rate, government structure, schools, accessibility, responsiveness, ability to attract employees, economies of scale, diversity, strategic planning and more. We know this from first hand experience. This is not to say FC isn’t a great place – we love the larger lots, walkability and accessibility to transit. FC’s downtown as well as the EFC area both have enormous potential, but that potential is not being tapped effectively by FC. Arlington has a much more mature land use planning and development process. The result is national and international acclaim as a leader in creating vibrant, economically viable urban centers within the county.
    I agree that Arlington would take in FC in a heartbeat. In fact, for many of the 15 years we lived in the County, I worked closely with the board members on various projects through the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee. One day shortly after moving to FC we saw Paul Ferguson, long time board member, at Trader Joe’s and I posed the question of FC annexation to him. He said that Arlington would love to have Falls Church. Ever since then this idea has been percolating in my mind.
    Knowing how political machines work in this area, I have no doubt that a serious attempt at annexation would be a tough battle fraught with posturing, false assertions and potential legal battles. Still, I wonder what it would take to actually come up with a viable jurisdictional combination that would benefit the greater good. I have yet to hear any solid rationale for maintaining the city as an independent entity, yet I wonder what mechanism exists to move forward in positive manner. Will it take a grass roots effort and how would that work?. The sooner this issue is publicly addressed and debated, the sooner Falls Church residents will benefit.

    John Bennett

  5. MWJ on September 21st, 2009 9:17 am

    The issue raised is a good one. However, before leaping to the conclusion that we should join Arlington, there should be a more complete evaluation to see what the impact would truly be on our schools, city services and our tax rate.

  6. David Chavern on September 21st, 2009 9:56 am

    I have been talking about the potential of this for a long time — and I wouldn’t be automatically opposed to joining Arlington. It certainly would be better for us than rejoining Fairfax County.

    That being said, the smacks against development — and the Bernie Madoff thing — are very much misplaced. The City gets 20-25% of its tax revenue from commercial sources. Arlington gets about 50% from commercial sources, precisely because of its extraordinarily dense development around Rosslyn, Ballston and Clarendon. They jumped into the mixed use world with both feet — it is just that they had more room to spread it out.

    The City’s core problem is the strip zoning that was done in the 1940’s and 50’s that lead to insufficiently large (particularly not deep) commercial zones. There is not enough room to build truly dense development here (as Arlington has done) without people freaking out.

    One big challenge to joining Arlington is GMHS. It needs to be replaced to the tune of probably $75 million — and I doubt that the taxpayers of Arlington would want to rush to pick-up that tab. Particularly after they just spent $100+ million on Washington and Lee HS.

  7. Cynthia Smith on September 21st, 2009 11:53 am

    I completely agree with this article. Having lived in the City for 38 years, I can tell you that Falls Church has not been economically feasible for a long, long time. Becoming the “Town of Falls Church” in Arlington County (which is what Vienna is in Fairfax) makes a lot of sense.

    On the schools issue, if you travel around much in Arlington you will know that it has rebuilt/renovated many of its schools (W and L is just one) over the past several years and is continuing to do so. It is able to do this because it made the decision to foster dense commercial development and use the taxes generated towards these projects. Falls Church is not big enough to do that.

    I hope the idea of joining Arlington County will move forward, although I fear the Falls Church “powers that be” would vehemently resist it.

  8. Stan Fendley on September 21st, 2009 1:06 pm

    I don’t normally comment on the stories of other Falls Church Times contributors, but I will on this one because it’s a very important topic.

    I disagree with the idea of affirmatively joining Arlington or any larger jurisdiction at this time. Ultimately, our fiscal affairs may force us to, but I would go there as a last resort. The reason is small schools. I think there is tremendous value in keeping in our schools small, our classes small. In a small school, students know each other and their teachers, they don’t get lost in the crowds, they have an opportunity to participate in extracurriculars, etc. I think our schools are sized well and I would not want to see them grow significantly. I would expect that one of the first things Arlington (or Fairfax County) would do upon absorbing Falls Church would be to send more students to our schools in order to equalize them with others. In my view, that would be a distinct loss for Falls Church.

    Clearly, large schools offer advantages of their own — more specialized classes, robust Gifted and Talented programs, perhaps more targeted special needs programs. But there should be ways for Falls Church to achieve those goals without merging with another jurisdiction.

    So I agree with Dreaming22046 — if I wanted to live in Arlington, I would move to Arlington. My wife and I moved here from Alexandria so our kids could attend Falls Church City schools. I’m not ready to give that up yet.

    If ultimately we have to go there, we should try our best to win an agreement that Arlington (or Fairfax County) won’t flood our schools with additional students. That would make any merger a lot more palatable.

  9. Gordon Theisz on September 21st, 2009 9:43 pm

    There is only one place in the entire metro area where a single citizen can have his or her voice heard loudly, and that is Falls Church. If you want something to change anywhere else, you have to have a chorus of voices. This takes political movement and will. In Falls Church, you can just say it and people will hear you.

    I respect George’s well thought out arguments, but I knew what I got when I moved here and I was willing to pay for it. I still am. If it takes higher taxes, then that’s what it takes – but there had better be a well thought out reasoning behind it. No one wants to pay more in tax, but given the choice of joining Arlington or Fairfax, or staying here with our independence, I’d bet people will continue pay to stay.

  10. Teddy Rutledge on September 22nd, 2009 3:05 am

    What say our City Manager? Does he have the best of both worlds…lives in the County of Arlington and manages the City of Falls Church! IS the grass greener on the other side, Mr. Shields?

    (EDITOR’S RESPONSE: Our understanding is that our City Manager has recently relocated inside the City, in conformity with his job requirement.)

  11. Sara Fitzgerald on September 22nd, 2009 10:00 am

    I am a former Arlington County resident who moved to Falls Church City in 2004, choosing to move from our close-in home to a condo in one of the new mixed-use developments in the city. One of the things that amused me early on was to hear residents of Falls Church City talk about “the Falls Church way” the same way people in Arlington County talk about “the Arlington way.”

    We would have likely stayed in Arlington if we had been able to find the kind of condo we were seeking in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, but, at least during the time we were looking, we could not. Having made the move to Falls Church, we greatly appreciate its small-town character in terms of ability to walk to things we need, access to mass transit, etc. It’s a good place for an active retiree to live.

    We can appreciate that the smaller schools of Falls Church are a positive for many people. Because we are now empty-nesters, this is not as important to us as it once was, though we can appreciate the role of good schools in keeping property values strong.

    I think it’s an interesting issue worthy of more discussion and analysis.

  12. Tom Black on September 22nd, 2009 12:52 pm

    The merger of Falls Church with Arlington County along with the completion of the Dulles metro rail line would increase both the feasibility and probability of major redevelopment of the area around East Falls Church Metro. Think about it-direct rail and freeway access to downtown DC, two major airports, and Tyson’s Corner, one of the region’s largest suburban retail and office centers. Such development is likely to be controversial and is something to be considered in making a decision on consolidation with Arlington.

  13. Dan Maller on September 25th, 2009 11:22 pm

    Great post George, and some very thoughtful comments, but while Arlington is admirable for all of the reasons you state, being a town would probably increase our taxes while decreasing the elements of local control that make our City/town special. Vienna is a great place to live, but as you point out their taxes are not low, and Fairfax County is facing almost exactly the same fiscal woes as we are, with the same % of commercial tax base so Vienna’s taxes will likely remain higher than ours. There are many alternative models, and I would suggest Fairfax City is an interesting one, but personally I am not willing to give up on this little experiment in self-government just yet.

    We have tremendous assets (I suppose I’d better say “including without limitation”): a unique and attractive location, fifty acres of land at the WFC Metro, our water system, and a culture of devotion to education that continues to support world class schools. Our greatest asset may be the people who continue to be attracted to what this City has to offer, and while the challenges are significant, my money is on our ability to overcome them.

  14. Andy Rankin on September 27th, 2009 9:10 pm

    Is Mr. Maller up for re-election next year or what? Anyway, I agree with his sentiments. I’d like to know more about this 50 acres of land around the WFC Metro – which land are you talking about exactly?

  15. Barry Buschow on September 28th, 2009 7:25 pm

    Lets see, it was 1939 when the eastern part of Falls Church near East FC Metro decided that taxes were too high and broke off and joined Arlington. Not as easy to do today. My only question is, will anybody these days be able to retire in FC and afford it?? Dan makes good sense but we have some large tax issues to survive in order to maintain our “quality of life”.

  16. Suzanne Fauber on October 1st, 2009 12:29 pm

    I’m all for it. Having worked for a planner for many years with Arlington, Fairfax and Falls Church. I believe we do not have the resources here on all levels to sustain the quality of life, schools and economic development necessary to be economically viable. People fear if Arlington gets their hands on us they will make us like the R-B [Rosslyn-Ballston] Corridor development in Arlington. Have no fear, Arlington is much more focused on their targeted Metro Station with very defined walk sheds. They would, however, bring incredible insight to how the City Center development could be reconfigured and planned to be more sensitive to adjacent residents, provide a balanced residential and employment base and bring adequate amenities that would make us all want to hang out there in a scale in keeping with our town.

    It would also assist us in having a better quality school system that would offer a wider diversity of classes and activities for the students who need more competition and choice in the arts, sports, languages and sciences.

    I know everyone thinks I’m biased and I am. I love living here. I love our scale, but the reality is we are inefficient, expensive to run, and politically ineffective. Criticise me if you must. I can take it. I would be happy to discuss with anyone.

  17. Barry Buschow on October 2nd, 2009 9:24 am

    A well thought out statement Suzanne. I believe one day this notion will be more thoroughly explored. Especially when we need new a $75M+ School…..

  18. Arlington ex-pat on October 22nd, 2009 11:31 am

    Your argument that Arlington would leap at the chance to incorporate Falls Church is astonishingly weak. What’s in it for Arlington?

    You wrote that “bureaucracies want to expand. It’s their life blood.” Not really an argument at all, is it?

    You wrote that “it would make the county that much bigger and that much more important.” How much more important? Falls Church’s population makes up just 0.14% of Virginia. Arlington’s population would increase by just 5.5% if it conglomerated Falls Church, and its statewide representation would be unlikely to change in any meaningful way.

    You wrote that Falls Church is “a very desirable community.” This is all relative; a person living off Foxhall Road might not find Falls Church “desirable” in the least. And of course we’re talking not about where people choose to live in this discussion, which is what this “desirable” adjective usually describes. We’re talking about whether swallowing the entire municipality makes sense.

    You wrote “we’re already linked with Arlington: we use their courts… we use their fire and law enforcement services… we use their transportation service to run GEORGE bus; etc.” None of which are reasons why Arlington should seek to incorporate Falls Church. In fact, these are good reasons why Arlington should seek to preserve the status quo, as I’d be surprised if the County were not compensated by Falls Church for these services.

    Your list actually has but one element: water. But Arlington gets its water from the same place Falls Church does – the Washington Aqueduct. So why would Arlington covet Falls Church’s water? Unless there’s a controversy about shares coming from the aqueduct (a la the Colorado River), this factor – Falls Church’s big attraction – is immaterial to Arlington.

    The more specific question is: how would such a combination benefit Arlington’s voters?

    GEORGE SOUTHERN RESPONDS: I would refer the writer to the earlier comment by John Bennett (above) which references strong support for this concept from Paul Ferguson, currently the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, and who was a member of the Arlington County Board for 11 years, during which he was Chairman of the Board several times, most recently in 2007.

    And please — these dialogues are so much more meaningful when people identify themselves!

    Comments on this article are now closed.

    POSTSCRIPT: Readers have let me know I was wrong to close the comments. In my defense, even a town meeting has time limits. But, due to popular demand, comments have been reopened!

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