Reston, VA

The Town of Herndon has officially closed on its transfer of 4.7 acres of town-owned land to Comstock Holding Companies, a move that sets the redevelopment of downtown Herndon into motion.

The public-private partnership between the town of Comstock will create “the centerpiece of Herndon’s revitalization plan for its historic downtown,” according to a recent press release.

“We are excited to have completed this important part of the process and look forward to redeveloping this key piece of downtown Herndon into a vibrant mixed-use development,” said Christopher Clemente, CEO of Comstock.

The mixed-use project was officially approved by the Herndon Historic District Review Board but had been delayed by nearly a year to a number of issues, including ongoing negotiations between the town and the real estate development company.

Once completed, the new mixed-use development, which is next to Herndon’s Old Town Hall, will include 273 residential apartments, 17,300 square feet of retail and cafe space, a new arts center, three public plazas, and a 726-space parking garage.

Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel, who is ending her eight-year term this month, noted that the closing was the “culmination of years of careful planning.”

“Dynamic living spaces, retail, restaurants, the arts – all will come alive in downtown Herndon as a result of our collaboration with Comstock,” she said.

The town will pitch in $3.6 million over the course of the project while the company will be able to take advantage of $2.5 million in tax breaks through a recently established ordinance. The land was transferred at no-cost but under rules governed by a comprehensive agreement signed by both parties. The town will receive public amenities and infrastructure as part of the project. 

Photo via Town of Herndon

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The Town of Herndon and Comstock Companies are set to close on the redevelopment of downtown Herndon on Dec. 15, bringing a long-anticipated project mired by nearly a year of delays to fruition.

In a memo to the Herndon Town Council, which will discuss the matter on a Nov. 10 work session, staff attributed delays to a “significant rise in labor and material costs” in the DC construction market since 2016, an issue that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This week is a lesson in patience for Americans….  and for Herndon patience is paying off,” said Mayor Lisa Merkel, whose eight-year time as mayor has revolved around the redevelopment project.

The Town of Herndon will sell 4.7 acres of town-owned land for $10 million to Comstock, which will develop the area into a mixed-use neighborhood with 273 apartments, a 787-space parking garage, an  18,000-square-foot arts center, and 17,000 square feet of retail space.  The town purchased the land for $5.8 million and will pitch an additional $3.6 million for the project to cover the following:

  • Environmental remediation:  $500,000
  • Transitional public parking: $500,000
  • Arts center relocation: $250,000
  • Culvert repair: $100,000

The Herndon Town Council will consider the matter at a work session on Nov. 10.

To close, both parties negotiated a new comprehensive agreement that was finalized after months of deliberation and few answers on why the project was stalled. The previous agreement was signed by the town in 2017. The council will vote on the proposed agreement.

In the interest of the continued forward movement of the project the Town and Comstock now desire to amend the Comprehensive Agreement in order to better address the changes in the market, unforeseen effects of COVID-19 and to provide both parties maximum advantage,” the memo states.

Per the agreement, Comstock must begin construction of the project by Dec. 31 of 2021 after a closing date of Dec. 15. The company will also pitch in $10 million instead of $5 million to cover costs associated with the arts center and parking. Among other changes, appropriation for the project will be required before closing and Comstock will be allowed to pause construction due to market conditions and other delays caused by the pandemic.

Additionally, Comstock will receive several tax breaks, which were recently established by the Herndon Town Council.

The company will have to pay $2.5 million less in fees for water, sewer, and building permits than typically allowed. At the time, the town declined to indicate if the recently-passed tax rebates were designed for the redevelopment project in downtown Herndon.

So far, the town says that it’s very confident the agreement will result in a big return for the town.

All together the financial investment plus development incentives for the project are approximately $16 million and the town anticipates the value of its capital return on the project to be over $16.6 million,” according to a memo by town manager Bill Ashton and town attorney Lesa Yeatts.

Image via Comstock

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Herndon will welcome a new mayor-elect on Tuesday to follow Lisa Merkel’s eight years as the town’s mayor.

Merkel announced in January that she would not run for a fifth term as the town’s mayor. She will spend the next few months with her husband and two kids while she decides on her next steps, though she says she has “no intention” of running for higher office right now.

“Several people have pitched some ideas my way, and I’d like to still volunteer,” Merkel told Reston Now in a recent interview.

“We’ll be doing college visits hopefully with my son. And I’m going to take at least a few months to just sort of settle in and figure out what’s next. But I’m not going anywhere. I live in downtown Herndon. I still love it just as much as the day we moved here.”

On Nov. 3, a successor will be elected to the role Merkel has maintained since she won a three-way race for mayor in 2012 by just 38 votes.

Sheila Olem, Herndon’s current vice mayor, and Roland Taylor are running to be the town’s next mayor. Merkel is not endorsing a candidate for the election cycle, but she did have some words of wisdom for the candidate that will take the reins as mayor.

“When I came into the office, I was a mom and a teacher. I was not a land use expert or lawyer or never studied political science,” Merkel said.

“I truly was a citizen that managed to get herself elected mayor. So there was a lot I did not know, and I think it’s important that when you don’t know something, find an expert and listen and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

She also advised the next mayor to focus on the jurisdiction that they can control in the town and not to focus on national policy issues. She specifically advises a focus on public works, land use, and building planning while helping cultivate the community.

Merkel says focusing on the town helped her move into policies and successfully secure a town council seat in 2010. That same year, she was elected vice major. It is also what continued her motivation when she was voted in as the town’s first elected female mayor in 2012 and the subsequent three elections after.

During her time as mayor, Merkel helped implement large-scale plans for the Metrorail Expansion Project, negotiate a deal with Comstock Partners for the ongoing downtown project and working with the Chamber of Commerce to establish an Economic Development Department.

She can also tout a number of projects such as approving the installation of lights along the portion of the W&OD Trail that runs through Herndon and installing gateway signs at each of the entrances to town.

Merkel recognizes that there have been challenges along the way. Among them have been getting the news of plans for the town out to the community effectively, and ensuring that Herndon retains its sense of community and the core of downtown while growing into a more urban area.

“It took several election cycles, but I’ve knocked on doors on every single street in Herndon,” Merkel said.

“It’s one thing to drive around town, another to walk up and down the street or ride your bike, but to walk up to people’s doors, you really get a glimpse for how people are living, and we have a very diverse town with a lot of needs. I’m really glad that I’ve gotten the chance to experience that.”

Photo courtesy Lisa Merkel

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In July last year, the Town of Herndon announced potential plans to begin the redevelopment of downtown Herndon with real estate company and partner Comstock later that year.

But more than a year later, residents and local elected officials are still awaiting the long-anticipated groundbreaking of the $85 million redevelopment project, which would transform nearly 4.7 acres of land in downtown Herndon into a vibrant mixed-use district.

Both parties have not yet closed on a deal to begin the project. In recent public statements, details explaining reasons for the delays have been scant.

“It is incredibly frustrating to not be able to share information,” wrote Town of Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel on social media. “To maintain the town’s negotiation power and protect our taxpayers’ interest, we must remain silent until the deal is closed.”

Merkel said she feels “very confident” in the success of the project.

Town officials noted that a formal groundbreaking date has been anticipated but was never formally scheduled.

“We on Town Council all wish we could say more but we can’t,” wrote Signe Friedrichs in a social media statement.

At a town council meeting on Oct. 13, Town of Herndon resident Donielle Scherff expressed strong support for the project. Scherff manages a Facebook group with more than 500 members dedicated to the redevelopment project.

“There is more than a little frustration that our public/private partnership has yet to break ground,” Scherff said. “And I will echo the previous speaker that we crave more information.”

Residents saw some activity in the area when signage offering a peek into the project went up on a fence in front of the former Subaru dealership on 770 Elden Street in May.

The project includes 273 residential units, a new arts center, public space, an eight-level parking garage, and 18,000 square feet of boutique, restaurant, and retail space.

Photo via handout/Comstock

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Several Reston and Herndon’s local officials came together virtually yesterday (Monday) to discuss the possibilities of what the retail industry will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce hosts “Metro Monday” on the last Monday of each month. This month Herndon’s Mayor Lisa Merkel, Fairfax County’s Director of Economic Initiatives Rebecca Moudry and other local business owners were present to talk about the future of retail in Reston and Herndon.

The possibilities of the future of retail include promoting more online ordering for food, creating new digital ways for businesses to interact with its customers, and merging more restaurant and retail places together.

Merkel believes “restaurants are becoming anchors for retail centers which promotes social engagements and draws in the office crowd during lunch hours.”

Although many local businesses received grants to help with its loss of income, Moudry said the coronavirus pandemic has particularly affected the retail system.

RISE grants have been awarded. We mailed postcards to every single business for local and federal grant programs,” Moudry said. “Economic Recovery Framework was recently launched to confront the economic shifts. That is the current task at hand.”

Job access and workforce development are essential factors in the framework. Moudry said the framework will work with the local transit system to improve both.

“The Reston bus plan will significantly improve bus transit and people’s access to jobs, as well as more opportunities for retail and people to come in and out,” Moudry said.

Tony Stafford, owner of Ford’s Fish Shack, said many businesses have had to take steps they thought they would never do.

“A lot of businesses had to reinvent themselves. We’ve seen a loss of lunch business because people aren’t going to work,” Stafford said. “This time last year, our takeout business was 7 p ercent of our overall sales, this year its 43 percent. of our overall sales. People are now comfortable ordering their meals off computer screens.”

Omar Aru, the owner of Escape Room Herndon, said setbacks posed by the pandemic have been significant, despite grants from the federal government and local assistance.

“There used to be a 15-minute wait period between each visit, but now it’s a 30-minute to an hour wait period between each visit to allow more time for proper cleaning and for rooms to air out,” Aur. said. “This means that we’re getting fewer games in and less people because we’re taking longer to clean.”

Photo courtesy of Omar Aru

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The roster of candidates for Herndon Town Council and mayor have been finalized for the Nov. 3 election.

Sheila Olem, the town’s current vice mayor, is running against Roland Taylor for mayor. Longtime mayor Lisa Merkel said she no will not seek reelection earlier this year. Merkel, the town’s first female mayor, was elected to the position in 2012.

A total of ten candidates are seeking six seats for the 2021-2022 term, including incumbents Cesar del Aguila, Pradip Dhakal, and Signe Friedrichs. The new candidates are Clark Hedrick, Syed Iftikhar, Sean Reagon, Naila Alam, Bessie Denton, Stevan Porter, and Jasbinder Singh.

Election Day is on Nov. 3. Polling locations for town council elections overlap with locations for the national election.

Stay tuned for op-eds from each of the candidates in the coming weeks.

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Thursday Morning Notes

New Tip Line Number for County Schools — Fairfax County Public Schools officially have a new text number: 888-777. All information is treated as anonymous and confidential. [Fairfax County Public Schools]

Reston Association Board Meets Tonight — The Board of Directors will meet tonight at 6:30 p.m. in RA headquarters. The meeting will be live-streamed online. [Reston Association]

Outdoor Lighting Standards Changed — “Fairfax County is updating our outdoor lighting standards to reduce glare and excessive illumination and match the expanded use of LED lights, which can improve the quality of life for county residents.” [Fairfax County Government]

Herndon Mayor Endorses Pete Buttigieg for President — Mayor Lisa Merkel announced her endorsement of the presidential candidate ahead of his town hall on Sunday, Feb. 23. In a press release, she says he’s committed to “bringing the local executive leadership to Washington and making Washington look more like best-run cities and towns.”

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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As Lisa Merkel wraps up her final term as the Town of Herndon’s mayor, she took a moment to reflect and talk to Reston Now about her experiences in office.

Merkel made town history as the first woman elected into the position in 2012 after serving as Herndon’s vice mayor during the 2010-2012 term.

According to Merkel, her decision to not seek re-election wasn’t based on any specific motive, besides a wish to spend time with her family and dedicate more time to volunteering around the community.

“I still plan on being involved in the town,” she told Reston Now.

Merkel told Reston Now her accomplishments include implementation of the Metrorail Expansion Project, the ongoing development of downtown Herndon and the establishment of the Economic Development Department.

“I’m really proud we’ve embraced the business community,” Merkel said, adding that — due to her efforts — the tax rate is now split evenly between residential and commercial incomes.

Many of the local businesses even give back to the community by acting as sponsors for official events like the annual holiday parade, which Merkel said is the largest event of the year.

In a press release, Merkel said her other key achievements include marking June as LGBTQ Pride Month, adding Circulator buses to Herndon Station, providing online and on-demand Town Council meeting access and approving construction plans for a new fire station.

“Sometimes it’s really the smaller things that get attention,” Merkel told Reston Now, adding that small projects make a huge difference in the town and help to develop a sense of place.

She gave examples of adding tables and umbrellas to the Town Square, lights on the W&OD Trail and gateway signs to announce entry into the town. The tables and umbrellas, especially, gave people a fun and welcoming place to gather, she said.

Merkel has faced some roadblocks, though, during her time in office.

She said she had trouble communicating with the public that development projects in the town won’t threaten the small community feel, which she said is at the heart of Herndon’s identity.

“There was a fear that if we started building like that at the Metro station, it would trickle into downtown,” Merkel said. “We had to reassure people that Herndon won’t be a bunch of highrises.”

During her final months in office, Merkel said she hopes to oversee the groundbreaking on the downtown Herndon project and continue to work on installing underground utilities around town.

Going forward, Merkel said she won’t endorse any particular candidate for the upcoming election. But she hopes the next mayor will be an effective listener, willing to consider other perspectives on topics and won’t be afraid to seek counsel on issues they aren’t familiar with.

She encourages anyone passionate about their community to run, regardless of their political experience.

“Don’t mix national policy issues with town issues because we don’t have jurisdiction over those things,” Merkel said. “You don’t want to alienate any of your constituents with issues that don’t relate to the job. That’s been my philosophy.”

Photo via Lisa Merkel

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After serving her fourth term in the Town of Herndon, Mayor Lisa Merkel announced she doesn’t plan to seek reelection in 2020.

Merkel holds the title as Herndon’s first female mayor after she was elected to the position in 2012 during a three-way contested race, according to a press release.

She said in a video published this morning (Jan. 2) that she is pleased with everything accomplished during her time in office and that she is proud of her role in Herndon’s development.

She said her accomplishments included the announcement of June as LGBTQ Pride month, introduction of circulator buses to Herndon Station, the implementation of online and on-demand council meeting access, approval of construction plans for a new fire station and the establishment of the Economic Development Department, according to the press release.

“I’m anxious to see the next generation of leaders step up to serve,” Merkel said. “Fresh faces and new perspectives are what make a town like ours thrive.”

Going forward, Merkel said she plans to spend more time with her children and family.

Photo via Facebook

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For the first time ever in Herndon, the Herndon WinterMarkt will let community members gather and take part in European holiday festivities.

The event offers food, crafts, drinks, shopping opportunities and entertainment from noon to 8 p.m. at the Herndon Depot Museum (717 Lynn Street) this Saturday (Dec. 14).

This is the first time the event has been held in Herndon, and Mayor Lisa Merkel said it will become an annual tradition to celebrate German and Austrian culture, which is prevalent in the Herndon area.

German Ambassador Niels von Redecker will be in attendance, according to Merkel’s Facebook page.

All ages are welcome to attend this free event. Though many vendors take Venmo and credit cards, the event page suggested that people also bring cash.

“I’m kicking it off at 12:30 [p.m.] with a big toast and German band, so see ya there,” Merkel said in a Facebook video.

Photo via Herndon WinterMarkt/Facebook

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The Town of Herndon has a number of openings for local advisory committees, boards, and commissions.

Town residents are encouraged to apply to open positions in the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) — which aims to promote safe walking and bicycling in the town — and the Fairfax County Athletic Council. One resident will represent the town on the athletic council, which is an advisory body that sets policies and priorities to improve sports programs in the county.

Middle and high school students can also serve on the Herndon Youth Advisory Council, which advises the council on issues and decisions relevant to youth. Students who either live in the Town of Herndon or attend Herndon Middle and Herndon High schools are encouraged to apply.

Town of Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel said the youth council is a critical way to engage Herndon’s youth, especially as the town’s population increases in number and diversity.

“This is a great way for middle and high school students to develop lifelong habits of community activism,” Merkel said. “The voices of our young people are important and need to be heard.”

Applications are available online and at the clerk’s office in the Herndon Municipal Center (777 Lynn Street).

Image via Town of Herndon

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It’s official: the Herndon Metro Station is nearly complete.

This week, a sign marking the station was installed by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials.

Town of Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel met with WMATA officials on Monday, August 5 as part of a Silver Line bus tour.

The station is expected to open in July next year.

The town is working with the county to determine new bus routes with the Fairfax Connector once Metro trains are up and running.

Photo via Town of Herndon/Facebook

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The Town of Herndon’s 1.25 percent increase in its meal tax has generated some backlash from local residents — prompting Town of Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel to clarify why the tax was increased from 2.5 to 3.75 percent last week.

In a statement on Saturday (April 27), Merkel said the increase was necessary to cover an unexpected $1 million shortfall in revenue from business professional occupancy license taxes. The estimated price tag for several capital projects also spiked, she said.

The increase could bring around $900,000 in revenue to cover funding for road projects, hiring an assistant town attorney, parks and recreation events, and connecting crosswalks that are unsafe and not ADA-compliant, Merkel said.

“I know raising taxes isn’t popular and it is not a vote that I took lightly,” she said. “If you go back and look at all the discussions, staff reports and PowerPoints, you will that it was not a flippant decision.”

Merkel said her nine years of experience on the council demonstrates that raising taxes is not a go-to approach. Ultimately, the move could generate cost savings, Merkel said. The town currently outsources legal work that the town attorney cannot take on at a high rate, she said.

“With Metro and the growth we are facing in the area the town is dealing with many more complicated legal issues than in decades past when we were a much sleepier little town,” she said.

Merkel’s entire statement is below:

Tuesday night the Council voted to pass our FY2020 budget. For the first time in many years the council raised the meals tax by 1.25%. I understand that many do not favor this decision and I want you to know that I certainly did not make the decision lightly. I think my record on council for the past nine years demonstrates that I am not someone who looks immediately to raising taxes whenever there’s a tough budget before us, so I hope you’ll read along to see my reasoning for my vote supporting this increase.

The additional revenue generated will be funding road projects for the most part. The town suffered a very unexpected $1million shortfall in BPOL (Business Professional Occupancy License taxes) revenue this budget cycle, and several road projects that have been in the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) for years have had a significant increase in their estimated costs. After a lot of grappling our Town Manager suggested a 1 cent meals tax increase to offset the difference (1 cent meals tax is approximately $900k of revenue.) BPOL is paid mostly by people who do not reside in the town (it is business professional occupancy license fees and is based on gross receipts of the business, the larger the business, the larger the fee. Most of our Herndon businesses are 10 employees or fewer, so you can surmise that a very large company is the reason behind this loss of BPOL revenue) Meals tax is also paid mostly by people who do not live in the town, but use our roads, police, etc. Herndon is an employment center where more than 17,000 people come to work every day, and the biggest portion of our meals tax comes from the M-F lunch crowd.

It was NOT an easy decision for me. The additional .25 that was added was a result of trying to cover some unfunded priorities that were important to the town – some parks and rec events related to the farmers market and family fun days and connecting some sidewalks and completing crosswalks that are currently unsafe and some that are not ADA compliant.

It will also allow us to hire an assistant town attorney which will ultimately save the town money because now we are outsourcing some legal work that the Town Attorney cannot take on, and that is at a MUCH higher hourly rate. With Metro and the growth we are facing in the area the town is dealing with many more complicated legal issues than in decades past when we were a much sleepier little town.

I know raising taxes isn’t popular and it is not a vote that I took lightly. If you go back and look at all the discussions, staff reports and PowerPoints you will see that it was not a flippant decision. Honestly, without the $1million dollar BPOL shortfall I would have likely voted against this increase, because it wouldn’t have been necessary. And I do support the projects these monies will fund. Which is ultimately why I decided to support it.

I understand that not everyone is happy with the meals tax increase; that’s just how these things go. I will still be supporting our local Herndon restaurants because this is home, and I love our local restaurant scene. Did you know that restaurants receive a 6% rebate for remitting the meals taxes they collect on our behalf on time? (This is a fairly typical practice in the commonwealth) and the large majority take advantage of this.

Please remember that since 2010 Herndon’s real estate tax RATE has not increased. In fact we decreased it once in 2011. Every single surrounding jurisdiction has raised their RE rate multiple times during that time frame, even as assessments have increased. I am proud of the fact that Herndon has worked to not put our property owners in that situation.

If you’ve read this entire post, Thank you. If you would like additional information on the discussions and reasons behind this difficult decision I’d be happy to hear from you and share more of my perspective. Thanks again for joining me in caring about our hometown. 

Photo via Town of Herndon

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The Herndon Town Council adopted a $53.9 million budget this week for fiscal year 2020, representing a 10.4 percent decrease over last year’s budget.

Although real estate taxes were unchanged this year, the town’s meals tax increased from 2.5 to 3.75 percent — a move that town officials said was necessary to fund capital improvements, the Herndon Police Department’s operations, an assistant town attorney position, and restoration of parks and recreation programs.

Fiscal year 2020’s recurring expenditures increased by 2.2 percent over last year from $35.2 million to $36.3 million. Overall, expenditures increased nearly 3 percent over last year.

Other taxes like the cigarette tax and business professional and occupational license tax remained unchanged. The water service rate increased from $5.87 in FY 2019 to $6.19 per 1,000 gallons of water consumption in FY 2020.

Recycling fees doubled from $16 to $32 per year. Personnel costs also increased by $805,359 over last year, totaling nearly $28.1 million of the overall budget.

Town officials said that this year’s budget continues to prioritize Metro planning, downtown redevelopment, the efficiency of town operations and capital improvements.

“We appreciate everyone who called, emailed, and provided in-person comments throughout the budget deliberation process,” said Mayor Lisa Merkel. “The newly-adopted budget funds the programs and service our citizens have told us are important to them.”

The next fiscal year runs from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2020.

Photo via Town of Herndon

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Restaurant-goers in the Town of Herndon will likely see their total bill go up this year after the Herndon Town Council approved an increase in the town’s meals tax Tuesday night.

In a 5-2 vote, the council increased the meals tax — which covers all meal purchases at food establishments — from 2.5 to 3.75 percent. Town officials said the hike is necessary to meet a revenue shortfall for capital improvement projects in the town. Councilmembers Bill McKenna and Jennifer Baker voted against the increase.

Some business owners and Town of Herndon residents criticized the measure for putting local businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Others said the tax unfairly singles out one industry and could regressively impact people with low incomes who rely on prepared meals.

Kristen Murphy, the general manager of the Washington Dulles Marriott Suites in Herdon, said her business was being “unfairly signaled out again.” She said she has lost business because clients looking to book the hotel have expressed concerns about the town’s occupancy and meals taxes.

Although the decision was tough, Mayor Lisa Merkel said the increase was the best way to boost revenue by minimizing the impact on Town of Herndon residents and property owners. The tax would apply to anyone who purchases meals in the Town of Herndon — including the 17,000 people who visit the town.  Meals taxes are also a “predictable and stable source of revenue,” Merkel said.

“I don’t anticipate its something that will become a trend,” Merkel said, noting that other towns and cities in Virginia also levy meals taxes.

The meals tax has not gained traction in Fairfax County. Voters rejected a referendum to institute a meals tax in 2016.

Photo by Melissa Walker Horn/Unsplash

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