I grew up in Alexandria, VA and have lived here the vast majority of my life. I graduated from Edison High School in 2012, and will graduate from George Mason University this December. I am a Democrat and I oppose the Fairfax County Meals Tax. Here is why.
First and foremost, I understand that enrollment in schools has risen, and that teachers are severely underpaid. I understand the important role public education plays in America, ensuring that every child that works hard has the opportunity to succeed. What I do not understand is a Meals Tax.
Attending school at Edison, I had a number of friends that were growing up without parents in their household. No, the parents had not left them. They were working from early in the morning, sometimes before school started, to late at night, sometimes long after their children had slept.
Take my friend, we’ll call him Josh, his parents would drop him off long before school began, and he would walk home in the afternoon because his parents were working. For food, he was on the free-and-reduced meals program, and his parents would give him $5 for dinner since there was no time for them to cook during the week.
Josh’s story is typical. According to a report by the Commonwealth Institute, 8 percent of school-age children are growing up in poverty and 28 percent are on the free-and-reduced meals program.
Some are growing up in single-parent homes, or homes where both parents work and often times are required to eat out. Many families do not have the luxury of having a “stay home parent” anymore that can ensure that a home cooked meal is prepared for dinner. But families do have hard-working parents, who labor many hours a day, doing everything possible to ensure that their children are taken care of.
This is the reality for many residents in the county, but is ignored because Fairfax is labeled affluent. That label ignores the wealth gap. According to the 2010 Census, the per capita income of Fairfax County was $36,888, but the per capita income of McLean, one of the wealthiest areas, was $87,073. However, on the other side of the county, in Hybla Valley, the per capita income is $32,486.
It is important to note that the definition of poverty is uniform across the United States, while the cost of living is not. This means that while there are only 65,000 people living in poverty, half of which are children, that the number of people struggling to make a living is significantly higher.
Most Americans would agree that the government spends wastefully at all levels (how much is up for debate), however people already struggling to make a living do not have money to spend wastefully. For some, a meals tax would not increase the cost of food, but decrease the amount of food on their plates.
If the county is as desperate for money as they claim, there are other ways to increase revenue. According to a report by the Commonwealth institute, a one-cent increase in the property tax rate can raise nearly 22 million dollars. Not only would it generate revenue and affect all residents evenly, but it could also be written off in Federal taxes, negating the increase for some. Nobody should go hungry, but that would be the tough reality for some if this tax were to pass.
I am writing in support of the Meals Tax. My parents risked their lives to come to this country. They had nothing when they arrived, but they worked long hours at low wages to provide my family with opportunities that are not available in other countries. We made Fairfax County our home, but because of the rhetoric surrounding the Meals Tax, we do not feel welcome here anymore.
In conversations and online comments, there is a consistent emphasis on the burden imposed by kids who are not white and wealthy. One commenter on FCPS School Board member Pat Hynes’ recent op-ed stated that “the outputs of English language learners, special education students, emotionally challenged students, and less financially advantaged students is incommensurate with the financial input” — in other words, it is supposedly a waste of money to educate immigrant kids, kids with special needs, and poor kids.
It is indisputable that our county has changed over the past 20 years — we are more diverse in every sense. According to the FCPS FY17 budget, approximately 13 percent of FCPS students are receiving special education services, about 17 percent are receiving ESOL services, and nearly 25 percent of FCPS students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.
I challenge opponents of the Meals Tax to view this diversity as a strength rather than a weakness. You speak about costs, but I speak about opportunities.
The world has come to Fairfax County. FCPS students come from most of the countries in the world and speak nearly 200 languages. As of September 2015, nearly 50 percent of FCPS elementary students speak a language other than English at home.
Let us build on this foundation of diversity to grow new businesses and connections with other countries, to increase exports of physical and online products and services to foreign markets, and to recruit global companies to locate in Fairfax County, where they can find employees with the linguistic skills and cultural knowledge required to succeed in the modern global economy.
But we cannot succeed if we allow the quality of our public schools to decline. As Americans, we celebrate the Horatio Alger paragon of the person who rises from nothing to achieve great success. Every kid deserves the same chance to succeed, so it follows that every kid deserves a quality education.
It is time to set aside the rhetoric, and focus on our shared values and objectives. I ask you to vote YES for the Meals Tax on Nov. 8, so we can provide our public schools with the necessary resources to get the job done — to transform a multilingual and multicultural student body into the next generation of entrepreneurs and employees, to build the future even as we cherish and celebrate the past.
This is an op-ed by Tony Shivers, Vice President of Advocacy for the
Fairfax County Council of PTAs (FCCPTA). It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
For just a few pennies more:
- A 4-percent tax on prepared meals will generate $100 million for schools and county services, with $28 million being paid by tourists and visitors to Fairfax;
- FCPS will receive 70 percent of those revenues to help stem the loss of our best teachers and address classroom size;
- County services will receive 30 percent of net revenues to address unmet public safety needs and those of our libraries and parks;
- Fairfax County can diversify its tax base and relieve property tax pressure on homeowners while maintaining its AAA bond rating; and capture revenue from travelers and non-resident workers that utilize County programs and services.
Why a meals tax, rather than a tax on cigarettes or alcohol? The answer is simple. Virginia state law strictly limits the taxing authority of its counties — a meals tax is the only option at this level of government.
Why not pursue state funding? The short answer is that our children will be grown by the time state funding is brought to an appropriate level for Fairfax County. The state continues to push more of the cost of K-12 education back to localities. Fairfax County estimates that the shortfall in state funding for K-12 education has climbed to more than $1 billion annually since 2009.
In fact, the reliability of the state money promised to education is now in question. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently advised the state legislature that that Commonwealth may experience as much as a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall in its two-year budget.
Historically, PTA is an advocacy organization, and the efforts of parents have resulted in immunizations, school lunches, child labor laws, among other accomplishments. PTAs do not promote candidates for election, but they do promote issues which benefit children.
Virginia PTA supports any meals tax where 50 percent of the revenue goes to public schools. Here in Fairfax the proposed meals tax would do far more.
The PTA’s motto is “Every Child. One Voice.” All Fairfax County children need the best education our community can deliver. Parents, please vote yes for your children. Vote yes for the meals tax.
Vice President of Advocacy
This is an Op-Ed from Pat Hynes, Fairfax County Public School Board’s Hunter Mill representative, about the Meals Tax referendum that will put to county voters on Nov. 8. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
If you had told me, when I was running for school board five years ago, that I would spend so much time talking about money and taxes, I might have been a little discouraged. But advocating for revenue is part of the job — the people of this community expect excellent schools with world-class curricular and extracurricular programs, and we’re smart enough to know that you get what you pay for in this life.
I learned early on that school funding in Virginia has some serious structural challenges — we send at least three times as much revenue down to Richmond as we get back for our schools and other critical public services. And then Richmond ties our hands when it comes to raising revenue locally for local needs.
A meals tax is one of very few options available to local governments, which is why two-thirds of Virginia counties — and most towns and cities — have adopted a meals tax to help balance their reliance on property taxes.
Local revenue since 2008 has not kept pace with growing population and rising costs. That is certainly true for the school system. Between 2008 and 2015, the gap between revenue and needs was so wide that by fiscal year 2015 the school system was spending $1000 less per child — in real dollars — than in 2008. We got there by freezing teacher pay and raising class sizes several times, and annual cuts to central office.
Being lean is a good thing — we are stewards of the public’s resources and we take that responsibility seriously. In 2013, the state paid for a comprehensive efficiency study of FCPS by Gibson Consulting. The Gibson report found just $10 million in potential savings, all of which the school system implemented in the first year. According to the Washington Area Boards of Education comparison guide, FCPS has far and away the leanest central office in the region, which includes other large systems with similar economies of scale.
We also, unfortunately, have one of the lowest teacher salary scales in the region — $5-10,000 a year lower than market average and as much as $20,000 a year lower than neighboring Arlington County. And our elementary class sizes are some of the highest in the region.
Last year, this community advocated loud and clear for the school system, and the BOS responded with a shot in the arm that has allowed us to make some important reinvestments, including bringing our teacher salary scale halfway to market average. That was great news, but we have further to go — and the 4-cent property tax increase that paid for that extra revenue is simply not a sustainable approach going forward.
Most surrounding jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have a meals tax. When we eat in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Vienna or Herndon, we are helping those communities pay for their important public services and high quality of life. If we want to keep our great teachers — and the families and companies who choose Fairfax County for its great schools — it’s time for Fairfax County to get up to speed and implement a modest meals tax.
Finally, I have heard the claims about a meals tax being regressive. With 65,000 Fairfax students living in poverty, you can be sure that the school system is on the front lines daily attending to their educational and personal needs. The extent to which a lower-income family pays a small tax on prepared meals strengthens our ability to serve their children effectively. Those pennies on the dollar are repaid to them many times over.
Photo: Pat Hynes/FCPS
During the regularly scheduled Reston Association Board meeting on Sept. 22, RA CEO Cate Fulkerson presented items for the board to consider as they prepare RA’s 2017 “draft” budget. According to the presentation, members’ annual assessments may increase from $657 to $712 next year.
There are numerous problems with this, the least of which is the assessment increase. Let’s take these one at a time.
There is no such thing as a “draft budget” in the second year of a biennial budget. The board passed the 2017 budget in November 2015. Once the Board approves the biennial budget, the budget is final. By creating a 2017 draft budget at this stage, the budget process is morphing into an annual budget review and approval process in clear violation of the governing documents, which specify a biennial budget process.
Budget information is not presented to the Board in an organized and intelligible manner. The latest budget presentation by CEO Cate Fulkerson and Board Treasurer Danielle LaRosa is a good example. It starts out well with a “Back to Basics” slide that should tie the budget items back to RA’s mission statement, but this never happens. Instead, the presentation includes a confusing and incoherent array of tables and graphs.
It presents CEO goals, comments about the percent that RA programs and facilities pay for themselves, and compares RA assessments with other similar entities. The assessment comparison cannot be checked as the sources used for the comparison are not provided.
The comparison does, of course, show RA’s assessment is the lowest, but there is no detail provided on the other HOAs to make this convoluted viewgraph meaningful. The presentation concludes with a recommendation that the RA Board adopt the recommended 2017 assessment rates.
The Board is obviously confused about the budgeting process. It was painfully obvious from the discussion that followed the budget presentation that a number of the Board members were as confused as I was by this exercise in bureaucratic obfuscation. Just to provide a perspective on how confused the RA Board is, consider the following. Directors Sanio and LaRosa believe that instead of doing a budget, the Board should set an arbitrary assessment and tell Ms. Fulkerson to manage the association to the revenue generated. This is pretty close to dereliction of duty.
Budget items are never related back to RA’s core mission of promoting “the peace, health, comfort, safety, and general welfare of the Members.” What is called a draft budget is a wish list that is disconnected from RA’s mission. Neither Fulkerson’s presentation nor the discussion during the Board meeting provide anything that could be remotely considered as a meaningful rationale for monies spent.
Here are some examples: Three planners are to be added to the staff at an annual cost of $255,000. There is $233,000 for merit increases for the staff. There are least four capital projects for $112,000. Finally, there is about $700,000 in even more renovations cost for the Tetra project. No justification for any of these expenditures is provided and several of them pre-judge the ongoing work of the independent Tetra audit of RA overspending.
The Board is over-withholding reserves. Treasurer LaRosa pointed out the association has increased reserves to about $7 million (a $1 million increase) annually, when RA’s own hand-picked consultant indicated last year that $5 million was more than sufficient.
One has to ask why RA needs a reserve level of nearly half of total annual expenditures for any other reason than to fund RA’s horrendous track record of managing existing capital project costs. The Board has a history of forging ahead with spending on numerous capital projects in spite of obvious problems in controlling project costs as evidenced by from the Tetra project.
The Board does not seem to recognize that it has a fiduciary responsibility to its members to manage within its means and spend the members’ money in the interest of all its members. To accomplish that, the RA Board must understand why and how the money is being spent and how it supports RA’s core mission.
There is only one way out of this mess. The Board should cut the “draft” 2017 budget. Start with the Tetra project and stop any further work. Cancel the merit increases; certainly none have been earned by any RA staffer who contributed to the Tetra debacle. Cancel any added staff positions. Cancel all proposed capital projects, including those currently suspended due to the Tetra cost overruns.
Do not approve any additional funds for anything until the independent audit by Mediaworld is completed, its recommendations understood and the appropriate ones implemented.
This is an op-ed by Pat Hynes, Fairfax County Public Schools Board member representing the Hunter Mill District. She is speaking for herself and not the entire school board in this post, which also does not represent the opinion of Reston Now.
If you’ve ever participated in a “Dining for Dollars” event for your local school, you know how important the relationships between school PTAs and neighborhood restaurants are.
That’s why when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently voted to put a meals tax referendum on the November ballot, they were careful to signal that some of the revenue — about $3 million annually — would go back to restaurants to pay the costs of collecting the tax. As we diversify and stabilize our community’s revenue base for important needs like the school system, local businesses must be supported as well.
Counties in Virginia have very little flexibility or authority when it comes to generating revenue, and a meals tax is one of those few options.
Nearly every surrounding jurisdiction currently uses a meals tax to help diversify its revenue base, including the Towns of Vienna and Herndon, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Arlington and Alexandria. The revenue from the proposed 4-percent Fairfax County meals tax is estimated to bring in almost $100 million to the County’s annual operating budget. After approximately $3 million of that annual revenue goes back to restaurants to pay their costs, 70 percent of the remaining revenue would go to the schools.
After almost 10 years of austerity, FCPS is spending $1,000 less per child, in real dollars, than in 2009. Those savings have come from years of frozen teacher pay, class size increases and deep cuts in administration. Thanks to our county and state funders, fiscal year 2017 is looking brighter, with an increase in funding that will allow us to lower elementary class size caps and push FCPS teacher pay halfway to the regional market average.
Full recovery for the school system will require at least a few more years of sustained reinvestment, however, and annual property tax increases cannot be the answer. The annual boost from a meals tax would provide that marginal difference we need to continue investing in our teachers and our kids as we recover, without going back to homeowners for higher property taxes every year.
Stabilizing the county’s revenue base with a meals tax helps not only the schools, of course. Fairfax County is a great place to live because of all the important public services we rely on. Police and firefighters keep us safe, accessible parks and recreation facilities keep us healthy, libraries are important centers of community life, and human services support all of us throughout the stages of our lives. A stronger revenue base would help make all of this possible and provide some relief to property owners.
For restaurant owners and workers who are worried about what a meals tax might mean for them, I encourage them to look at our neighboring jurisdictions that have had a meals tax for many years. Every time I drive through the Town of Vienna, for example, a new restaurant has opened up and very few ever seem to close. The experience in surrounding jurisdictions is that restaurants continue to thrive, along with those great partnerships between neighborhood eateries and neighborhood schools. When we all do our part for kids, everyone wins.
The Nov. 8 meals tax referendum will be an important opportunity for the community to weigh in on our priorities. Vote YES to the meals tax!
Hunter Mill representative on the Fairfax County School Board
Photo: Pat Hynes/file photo
I used to lead the RestonDogs organization and don’t usually make posts about issues related to the dog park in public forums. However I felt like I needed to provide a few comments about the Reston Association (RA) recommendations for Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) about the Reston Dog Park or Reston Off Leash Dog Area (OLDA).
First of all, the decision on the location of the Reston Dog Park has already been litigated and decided by the court system, the case was dismissed without being heard; the case was very weak on any factual data.
The primary question I have is why is the RA taking this on as an issue. Do they feel some urgent need to tell FCPA how to do their job and does RA have a specialty in noise, or park/dog park management? With few exceptions, dog park users are extremely happy with the support we get from FCPA. Let’s not make FCPA the problem, FCPA is not the problem, and everyone at the park will agree on that.
Even those individuals that were a part of the task force will say the only reason why they joined the RA task force is to make sure the Reston Dog Park had an equal voice on the perceived noise issue, that was what this task force was initially created to address, the task force was not initially to point out landscaping issues we usually work with FCPA to address unless they were related to noise reduction.
If RA is taking on Reston Dog Park landscaping issues are we to go to them in the future, who should we contact? We’re just not sure what RA is thinking. Maybe it has something to do Michael Sanio, the Vice President of the Reston Association, being a member of Longwood Grove as we all found out after the task force completed. He is openly voicing agreement with the five families who brought the lawsuit, but that would also be a huge conflict of interest and it would seem like we should have known he was a member of Longwood Grove while making spending recommendations.
What is, and always has been, lacking in these perceived “too much noise” allegations are facts. We have never treated this subject lightly but there comes a point when you need to have something more than the claim “it’s really bad.”
In all honesty, we at the dog park don’t hear any type of noise along the lines of what is being claimed. It seems highly exaggerated to us, statements saying dogs are barking non-stop from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., creating life-altering noise.
Well, everyone’s initial reaction when they hear something like that, including my own would be, “that’s awful, something needs to be done!” Yet when I go to the dog park at 5:30 to witness this issue first hand, I find not a noisy soul around for a period of over a month, the month of June, one of the longest of the year. This was prior to FCPA changing the opening time of the park which is 7 a.m. (8 a.m. on weekends).
Here is another example. As everyone was aware, RA created a task force and that task force did attend the dog park during a typically busy time on a Friday afternoon as part of their Dog Park Task Force Activity. While there, the RA officials remarked at how quiet the dog park was as compared to claims (this comment didn’t make it to the final report). The neighbor’s response was the dog park folks staged this meeting and loaded the park up with “good” people just for this meeting.
Understand, it was the neighbors that picked the date and time for the meeting and we don’t have any control over who comes/goes from the dog park, there was no broadcast message sent out to 1,500 people saying “all you ‘bad people’ stay away.”
At that same meeting, one of the neighbors said “you should have been here at 7:00 this morning and you would have heard what it’s normally like, there was a huge dog fight and unbelievable noise at 7:00 in the morning.”
Unfortunately and unknown to the neighbor making the claim one of the dog owners and fellow member of the task force standing across from him actually happened to be at the dog park at 7:00 and the whole morning that day, he corrected the resident on his non-factual claim, there was no fight or disruption as the neighbor stated, the neighbor stopped telling his story after laying that egg and walked away.
It’s easy to make claims like this, and, as in this case meant to sound bad, but where’s the beef?
Yet another example that occurred in early June, the neighbors called the police to report someone in the park and making noise prior to the opening time of 7 a.m., the police arrived to find two dog owners with their dogs in their cars waiting for the opening time prior to entering. Claims are easy to make but facts are extremely hard to come by, and now the police are also going to get dragged into these frivolous claims.
Also, a couple months ago when this all started I sent RA a copy of the survey RestonDogs did a couple years ago where 1,500 people signed a petition in support of the Reston Dog Park, yet all I see on the RA final report is a mention of a petition of 45 members of Longwood Grove, why is this?
On its final report, RA recommends dues are collected prior to enter the park and round-the-clock paid monitors be provided by FCPA and paid for by the county (I assume). FCPA is already in the process of creating a volunteer monitor oversight of the park similar to what was in place before the neighbors sued the sponsoring volunteer organization RestonDogs only under the direct oversight of FCPA. In the past this has been one of the best sources of rules enforcement and keeping any perceived noisy periods to a minimum.
Does RA realize recommendations like full-time paid monitors and collecting dues cost taxpayers money? We’re probably looking at 3-4 full time paid FCPA employees to stay at the park around the clock, with another 2-3 full-time FCPA employees to collect dues.
Over a five-year period this will amount to several million dollars when you include benefits, bathrooms and shelter for the employees to be installed at the park, etc. And what benefit is gained? What are they going to speak some special paid monitor language to get better results? This seems like a reckless recommendation. Is having a paid monitor and dues collectors going to make any difference or add a benefit that is worth the cost millions of dollars?
It seems like what might be needed is for FCPA to assemble a task force to resolve issues with how RA does cost/benefit analysis prior to making spending recommendations. That way we can have every agency in Fairfax and Reston government poking around in one-another’s business (Could someone please post the RA cost-benefit analysis if it exists?) If RA and the Longwood Grove neighbors feel an urgent need for full-time, paid monitors and dues collectors then maybe they should fund them.
The neighbors have previously had an injunction denied by the courts, and a lawsuit dismissed without being heard, this exercise with RA was actually a third significant setback for the Longwood Grove neighbors as throughout this exercise Longwood Grove kept pressing for their primary motive at every meeting, a recommendation coming from RA to “relocate the dog park,” but that did not occur.
As I said above RA officials themselves remarked at how quiet the dog park was compared to claims when they visited the park. I encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to do that. Unlike the neighbors, I’m not making a statement and asking you to believe me, I’m asking you to not believe me, visit the dog park yourself and form your own opinion.
The neighbors will point to a noise study they did that shows a steady 65dB, that’s about the amount of noise coming from a normal conversation, so it actually does show some noise, however what they fail to say is that study also includes the street noise, and in that area there is a significant amount of street noise.
All one needs to do is walk on the sidewalk outside the dog park, the only thing you’ll notice is you’ll need to yell at the person next to you to be heard over the street noise, and it’s so overwhelmingly loud that you don’t even think about noise coming from the dog park which is a very distant sound. And just let a motorcycle, ambulance, or large truck roll by and even yelling won’t help.
One thing I can assure everyone reading this is this is not over, the Longwood Grove neighbors will continue to pursue this with nothing more than a set of hearsay issues until they find another agency that will say, “that’s awful, someone needs to do something.” And “the dog park will be relocated.”
And if you don’t believe me, stay tuned.
Fairfax County government officials are gearing up for an election year battle. Granted, they’re not up for election, but there’s a high-stakes question on the Nov. 8 ballot that will impact our county in far-reaching ways.
It’s meals tax proposal by the County Board of Supervisors that would impose an additional 4-percent tax on all prepared foods and meals in our county — on top of the existing 6 percent sales tax already in effect.
The meals tax would raise an estimated $100 million per year in new tax revenue, and comes on top of the $100 million increase in real estate taxes imposed on county property owners in just last year.
Calling it a “meals tax” is misleading. Besides adding another 4 percent on top of the 6 percent (for a total of 10 percent) already levied on every meal served at every restaurant in our county, from fast food to fine dining establishments, it doesn’t stop there.
The new tax would also be imposed on anything considered a “meal” — from beverages served with a meal to prepared foods — any ready-to-eat food you buy from a restaurant, deli, cafeteria, lunchroom, bar, push cart, food truck, hot dog stand, convenience store, gas station, grocery store or hotel banquet costs would be taxed an additional 4 percent for a total of 10 percent.
For people at any income level, that’s a significant portion of the food they buy and, while it’s not a tax on groceries, it’s about as close as you can get.
The claim is that 70 percent of the new taxes would go to fund the county’s schools, with the remaining 30 percent dedicated to county services, capital improvements, and property tax relief.
(It’s interesting to note that while they just raised taxes on homeowners they now want to provide “relief” by asking those same people to pay more for prepared meals! It’s asking property owners to pay again for their own “relief.”)
So, why is this a bad idea and why should voters reject it?
First, our county budget has increased by almost $1 BILLION since 2012. County leaders need to understand that the solution to any perceived problems shouldn’t be to demand more money from county residents and visitors. Our leaders need to do their jobs and spend our money wisely by placing the emphasis on frugality, efficiency, and good management, not just more money.
We’re not undertaxed … but that doesn’t mean more taxes are a good option or solution. Rather, we need to control our spending, and spend wisely.
Second, it’s not just a restaurant tax. It’s a regressive tax on every hot dog, deli sandwich, or grocery store chicken we buy. While it’s not a grocery tax, it’s reasonable to say that this tax will find its way to some of the food on most dinner tables in our homes every day.
Third, this tax will make us less competitive by raising the cost of living and visiting here. We will lose our advantage with tourists, conferences, and other events vis-a-vis surrounding jurisdictions. And by passing the second major tax increase in a single year, we will be signaling to businesses to think again before locating in Fairfax County.
And, fourth, this tax unfairly targets a single industry. In doing that it will hit small, neighborhood bars and restaurants and the people who work there hardest of all. There are tens of thousands of people working in county restaurants who will see their profits squeezed and gratuities decreased as the taxes on a customer’s bill pile up on top of the cost of the meal.
On Nov. 8, the meals tax is the last item on the county ballot. Voters should vote their choice for President, for Congress, and then cast a vote for themselves by saying NO to the last question, the meals tax.
Clyde’s Restaurant Group, Director of Operations
Something on your mind? Reston Now welcomes letters to the editors. We reserve the right to edit for clarity or decline to post if it violates our terms of service.
In the next few months, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors plans to approve a “one size fits all” zoning ordinance amendment that would guide redevelopment throughout the urbanizing areas of the county for decades.
It wouldn’t be too bad if the one size were a “medium” or “large,” but the board — increasingly desperate for new tax revenues from more development — has chosen to go for XXL. Specifically, the County’s draft zoning ordinance amendment proposes that all the county’s 20 transit station areas (TSAs), community redevelopment districts (CRDs), and commercial business centers (CBCs) be allowed a floor-area ratio (FAR) of up to 5.0.
So what does FAR 5.0 really mean? Literally, it means that a developer can build structures with floor space that is five times greater than the area of the parcel on which they sit. In the real world, it means that developers can build up these Fairfax County areas to a density that is greater than any that exists anywhere in northern Virginia. Even the massively developed Rosslyn Metro core only has a density of FAR 3.6 according to Arlington County (including twin towers above the Rosslyn station at FAR 10.0), about two-thirds of what Fairfax County is proposing to make available in communities and neighborhoods areas across the county.
In general, the FAR 5.0 density zoning ordinance may be appropriate for some locations, such as a part of one of Reston’s transit station areas. Reston’s new master plan calls for allowing FAR 4.0 (plus a bonus of FAR 0.5) for the small area immediately north of Reston’s Town Center Metro station. But the draft amendment makes no distinction in allowable density at the station and at the half-mile perimeter of the station area where it should taper substantially.
Moreover, Reston’s other two station areas and virtually every other Metro station area in the County, such as the West Falls Church and Van Dorn station areas, are neither planned for nor could they reasonably accommodate density anywhere approaching FAR 5.0. Unlike Reston’s Town Center (and Tysons), these places have no planned aspirations to become regional economic centers with huge population and employment increases — many tens of thousands — envisioned.
Even worse is the notion of redeveloping the County’s CBCs and CRDs at a density of up to FAR 5.0. The redevelopment of these areas is almost exclusively meant to revitalize their community economic viability, not to have broader County or regional impact. Most importantly, these areas have no walking access to Metrorail which is the key ingredient in allowing high density in TSAs. At best, they will have bus service to link them with Metro, and they certainly can’t absorb the tens of thousands of additional autos on their local streets without massive and costly improvements.
Worse yet, the residents of all these areas will probably have to pay a share of the cost for the new transportation improvements this intense development will create through new local taxes, so called “transportation tax service districts.” These needs will include a new internal “grid of streets,” improvements to existing roads, and better bus transit.
Reston is facing this situation now as the County is proposing an added local real estate tax of $.025 to $.035 per $100 valuation. One version extends the tax district to all of Reston although only about one-quarter of Reston along the Dulles Corridor is in the TSAs where the road work and development would occur. Elsewhere, in southern Fairfax County, for example, a comparable proposal could be a Richmond Highway-long tax district from Alexandria to Ft. Belvoir for roads built or improved only in the six small CRD areas designated for redevelopment along that route. There is no reason the County wouldn’t apply this warped you-pay-for-it reasoning everywhere in these redevelopment zones.
Tysons already has such a transportation tax district. The tax rate there started at $.04 per $100 valuation in 2013, but increased to $.05 per $100 valuation the following year. No doubt Tysons’ rate will continue to rise (in addition to the increased taxes from higher valuations on property there) and the proposed Reston “teaser rate” will almost certainly increase quickly soon after the Board of Supervisors approves it.
The insult to local communities is that the County’s explicit intent is to increase traffic congestion in these redeveloped areas. Yes, the County’s plan for all this transportation tax spending is to increase congestion explicitly to discourage people from driving in, out, or through these areas. The goal for these “urbanizing” areas is to increase driving delays at each intersection by up to 50 seconds from current County standards under its new “urban guidelines.” Four traffic lights will mean more than three minutes of added delay, even for people just passing through these areas, during the rush period whether on Reston Parkway or Richmond Highway.
Adding injury to insult, all these funds would be used to subsidize the profits of the local corporate developers who need the new and improved transportation capabilities to make ever larger profits on their new development. Residents would not receive one dollar in financial or any other benefit from these new taxes.
By our calculation, the developers in Reston’s TSAs will likely make more than $50 billion in profits in 2016 dollars over the 40 year plan timeframe and yet Reston residents are being asked to contribute about one-seventh of the $2.6 billion needed for roadway improvements using county costing assumptions. That translates into more than $8,800 per household over 40 years with moderate inflation. Alternatively, the developers could pay for all these roadway improvements from their $50 billion in profits and still — by our calculation — their return on investment for their $34 billion in new development would be 20 percent. We would anticipate comparable results elsewhere in the county.
The county’s response to the above analysis is that the zoning ordinance amendment proposes to limit the allowable zoning density to the level allowed in the district’s plan and “other recommendations in the adopted comprehensive plan, in furtherance of the purpose and intent of this district.”
What could be wrong with that?
First, “other recommendations” is a good sized hole through which to drive higher development density; it has been done routinely with less of a legal loophole.
Second, some of the area plans affected by this zoning proposal do not have a FAR density limit at all. They are “form based” plans that describe what the redeveloped area should look like. The only out from a FAR 5.0 zoning is the “other recommendations” phraseology, which means little constraint at all.
Third, Virginia’s “Dillon Rule” law prohibits any reduction in zoning authority once given; that density becomes a “by right” authority of the landowners. So an overly ambitious zoning decision mistake once made cannot be undone. The opportunity is all for the developers; the risk is all for the residents.
Most importantly, with the County’s new “Fairfax Forward” Comprehensive Plan amendment process–which may be better called “Fast Forward”–the barriers to increasing an area or project plan’s density are virtually non-existent. The state-mandated Comprehensive Plan, which covers all areas of the County in some depth, provides only a vision and guide to each area’s development that, unlike the zoning ordinance, is a policy document and not legally binding.
The County Board’s goal in the Fairfax Forward process is to expedite the amendment of existing local plans with high-density plan amendment proposals, which means limiting and controlling community input. There will be no more time consuming task forces, charrettes, workshops, endless public meetings, and other such community input mechanisms that the County has used previously in its Area Plan Reviews to re-vamp community-wide plans. And the approval of project-specific plan amendments will be even more tightly controlled.
Still, the Fairfax Forward process documentation reads like a civics lesson in public participation, including an extensive “Public Participation Toolkit” no less, but public participation is schedule-driven, mechanistic, and generally ignored.
Once the plan amendment has been approved, the ensuing legally binding high-density zoning approval by the same actors will soon follow. Suddenly a TSA, CBC, or CRD area or project originally planned at FAR 3.0 through the old process becomes planned at FAR 5.0 even if no mass transit is anywhere around, its related zoning amendment application approved, and construction is underway.
We strongly urge all of the county’s citizens associations, homeowners associations, neighborhood civic groups, and any local entities that might remotely be affected by this proposed zoning ordinance amendment to communicate with their supervisor their disapproval of this one-size-fits-all approach to zoning. It will only increase local congestion, environmental damage, and taxes while disrupting viable neighborhoods and communities, and provide billions in County tax welfare to already highly profitable development corporations.
And please take the time to testify at the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings on this zoning proposal, now scheduled for 8:15 p.m., May 25, and 4 p.m. June 21, respectively at the Fairfax County government center.
Terry Maynard, Co-Chairman
Reston 20/20 Committee
This is an op-ed by Reston resident Terry Maynard. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now. Something on your mind? Send a letter to [email protected]
Restonians are once again faced with the prospect of the burden of an added local “tax service district that could add hundreds of dollars to their annual property tax bill every year. The one we already have, Small Tax District 5, supports our Reston Community Center in providing cultural and educational activities for the community. The proposed new one would solely subsidize developer profits while increasing county tax revenues.
As this discussion continues, Reston Association has shared a questionnaire online with its weekly RA NewsLine (click on “Transportation Tax Survey) for residents to provide feedback on the Reston special transportation tax district idea. I urge all Restonians to vote “NO.” The following provides an explanation why.
The basis for the proposal lies in planned development in Reston’s station areas, growth that will exclusively benefit Reston’s station area landowners. Assuming that all Reston developers are as successful as Boston Properties per its 2015 annual report, their likely profit will total more than $53 billion over 40 years after building costs. That includes more than $9 billion from their future development as well as more than one billion dollars per year from their existing Reston holdings. That is an average of $1.3 billion per year!
Yet these same developers, backed by the County, want Reston homeowners to pick up as much as half of the $2.6 billion tab — about $65 million per year — for needed station area road improvement even though their total cost will be less than three percent of their profit from their Reston properties over the next 40 years.
The forecast annual road improvement cost is less than five percent of the future annual profits of the Reston station area landowners and can be easily absorbed as part of their investment in offsetting the impact of their development, but the County is proposing that residents pay some of the road costs.
One of the transportation tax options the County has proposed is that all Reston homeowners pay $.025/$100 residential property valuation to help defray the road improvement costs. Today, with the average Reston home valued at $428,000, the added cost of that Reston special tax would be $107 per year to start. This special tax would be in addition to the average $202 Restonians already pay to operate the Reston Community Center, a County public facility committed primarily to Restonians’ use.
With 3 percent annual appreciation in the value of a family home and/or general inflation, the average added transportation tax cost would be more than $200 per year per household over the next 40 years for an average-priced home — assuming the mix of home values remains constant (and it is more likely to increase with thousands of new high-priced condos in the station areas). On a community-wide basis, that three percent annual growth in assessments would mean the average Reston homeowner would pay more than $8,800 and the total residential community tax contribution would be more than $350 million over 40 years. And that is without any shift in housing mix or tax rate increases by the Board of Supervisors.
The Board is driving the transportation tax idea because it believes that by encouraging the growth of taxable real estate values, it can solve its budget problem. Another Reston special tax district at $.025/$100 valuation Reston-wide tax rate would bring in about $4.4 million in new revenues in the first year — and grow every year thereafter — even if there is no development. Moreover, from the Board’s perspective, to the extent these taxes encourage developers to build sooner because of lower investment costs, it will create even more high-tax value high-density real estate. It’s a win-win situation from a Board perspective: More tax revenue through subsidized corporate development.
And all of that special Reston tax money would go to Reston’s station area landowners in defraying the road infrastructure costs of their for-profit development. Specifically, the taxes would be used to improve roads that go to, from, within, and through the station areas to serve developer properties that would be required for their profitable high-density development. Yet–
- If the developers believe they will earn an adequate return on their investment, they will build the roads needed to help make their new construction profitable anyway without a special Reston residential tax subsidy.
- If they choose not to build for whatever reason, then Reston won’t need improved roadways (except to meet existing standards) and, therefore, we won’t need any added transportation taxes.
If the transportation tax is approved, Restonians would have no special access or other benefit to anything in the station areas despite paying a significant sum for these new or improve roads, even free parking. People from all over the county, the state, even beyond Virginia, including most of the 60,000-plus Reston station area employees who commute here daily, will use the station area roads for free while Restonians pay for them. Even those Restonians who choose not to go to the station areas (or go there rarely) such as retirees on fixed incomes and younger, less affluent Restonians will still have to pay the full transportation tax.
The ultimate irony of this road “improvement” tax proposal is that the County literally promises worse congestion as a desirable traffic “goal.” So Restonians will be taxed to experience worse congestion, even those who only drive through the station areas, say, on Wiehle to/from the Dulles Toll Road, with no intention of visiting them.
The bottom line is that the transportation tax proposal completely detaches who pays the tax from who benefits from it. Residents pay more for less usable roadways; developers pay less and profit more. It is unfair and inequitable to Restonians by any measure.
The idea that taxing Reston homeowners, whether they live in the station areas or beyond, because they will garner some unidentified, much less quantifiable, “benefit” from the development there is a deceptive scheme and the County knows it. The proposed County transportation tax is, in fact, nothing more than grotesque corporate welfare, the Reston property owner paying more taxes so major Reston developers can increase their profits and the County can increase its tax revenues.
The transportation tax idea should be opposed vigorously by the Reston community, the RA Board of Directors and other community leaders and organizations, the County-appointed RNAG advisory group examining Reston’s transportation options, and ultimately the Board of Supervisors itself. Do what you can now:
- Vote “NO” to the transportation tax in RA’s online survey
- Attend Supervisor Hudgins’ “Reston . . . Blueprint for the Future” Open House this Wednesday, April 20, 6-8:30 p.m., South Lakes High School, and tell county officials and developers what you think.
- Let Reston’s leaders know of your disapproval of this dishonest and unfair proposal.
Reston traffic file photo
It seems like you can’t open your computer or turn on your TV these days without hearing about this year’s presidential election. If you follow the news at all, you’ve been bombarded with stories about the candidates and their plans for the country.
But there’s another election going on right now, one that has a direct impact on our community, and you’ve probably barely heard about it at all. I’m referring to the Reston Association Board of Directors’ election taking place this month.
They say that decisions are made by the people who show up. And when it comes to deciding who’s on the RA board, far too few Restonians are showing up with their vote.
Even though the ballot and electronic information are mailed or emailed right to you, and even though voting online or by mail takes just a couple of minutes, turnout in these elections usually hovers in the 15-percent to 20-percent range.
It seems that a lot of Restonians don’t know about the election or think it’s important enough to vote. That’s a shame, because who represents us on the RA board matters a great deal to the future of our community.
There are countless ways in which the RA board affects the future of Reston, but today I’ll focus on one: the development and redevelopment of our community.
For better or for worse, Reston is changing. The Silver Line is a reality now, and every time you drive past the Wiehle-Reston East station or over by the Reston International Center, you can see that change is underway.
The new development sparked by the Silver Line will bring a lot of opportunities and challenges here in Reston. On the positive side, it will bring new jobs, an influx of younger residents, and exciting new shops and restaurants. On the other hand, it will also bring more traffic, more pollution, and more demands on our facilities, our infrastructure, our open space.
How are we going to ensure that the new development is consistent with founder Bob Simon’s vision? How are we going to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of our bigger, more urban, more connected community without losing the qualities that make Reston special? Who is going to represent us, the citizens, with the developers and local government to make sure that our interests are considering during all this change? The RA board, that’s who.
In recent years, RA has really stepped up its game. They recognized how important this development and redevelopment is to Reston’s future. They’ve worked hard to strengthen their relationships with the development community and with our elected officials in order to make sure Reston’s citizens have a seat at the table when redevelopment proposals are considered. They’ve gotten better informed about the changes coming to our community, so that they can make sure Restonians stay informed as well.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the issues surrounding redevelopment and the challenges we have to address as a community aren’t easy. We’re going to have to work hard to protect our open space, our environmental resources and our natural beauty.
We’re going to have to get creative to provide recreational facilities for our new residents while dealing with the reality that money and land aren’t limitless.
We’re going to have to find a way to maintain, refresh, and renew our aging infrastructure without driving assessments through the roof. We’re going to have to adapt the principles of Reston to meet the realities of the next 50 years.
If we’re going to do all this, it’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s going to take smart, dedicated, principled, and capable people representing us on the RA board and its committees. And the only way we’re going to make sure we have a Board that truly represents the community is if we take the time to vote.
So when you receive that election packet in the mail or in your inbox, don’t toss it in the trash. Take a few minutes and read it. Take the time to learn about the candidates and their plans for the community’s future. And then cast your vote.
If you’re feeling election fatigue these days, I don’t blame you. But this is one election that requires your attention, and your vote. The future of our community depends on it.
Colin Mills/file photo
I have several major concerns about the proposed RA purchase of the Tetra Property. These include: The price for the property based on the appraisal report and RA’s rush to purchase without full information being made available to members and the RA approach on this matter.
The appraisal is said to be the source of the price of $2.65 million for the Tetra Property. The report actually has three different appraisal prices, using two different appraisal methodologies.
The $2.65 million price assumes the so-called highest-and best-use (retail, commercial) and further assumes that a restaurant of some 6,900 square feet would be built over a portion of the property that is under Lake Newport.
These assumptions favor the seller, not the buyer.There is no basis offered in the appraisal to support the feasibility of such assumptions.The basis for the restaurant assumption is the carefully phrased statement: “Building plans were prepared in 1981 indicating that it was possible to extend out into the lake further construction of a restaurant building.”(Report, p. 13)
While it may have been possible in 1981, it is not legally possible today. The proposed area of restaurant construction is within the Resource Protection Area under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act, where nothing can be built. (See the corresponding map of the site, Report Appendix.)
So, how can this approach serve as a basis for the price? The use of this assumption as a basis for the $2.65 million in the face of these facts in my opinion is outrageous.
Other statements are presented in an effort to bolster the $2.65 million price. One is that the seller will not accept less than $2.7 million.Another is that the present owner claims two restaurants looked at the property as a possible location. What is not stated clearly is that they both walked away.Moreover, there is no claim that a restaurant is currently considering the property.
Also not noted in the report is that at one time in the past, a restaurant was
proposed to be built at the same spot and the Lake Newport residents successfully defeated it in court.
The appraisal considered the property as if vacant (no restaurant, but projecting use as a retail commercial center with the highest density possible) using the sales comparison approach and the income approach. The first of these yielded a value of $1.45 million. The second produced an estimated value of $1.09 million. Fairfax County’s assessed value for the property for 2014 was $1.25 million.
One should keep in mind that the RA has an easement over the property for parking and there are some 93 parking spots located on the property. Thus, the RA does not need to spend one penny to avail itself of the parking. Since the parking easement covers a very large portion of the property, that portion cannot be otherwise developed. Additionally, part of the property is under water.
Finally, the spillway for the dam of Lake Newport runs across the property and covers just about all of the property, except for the building itself. Nothing can be built within the path of the spillway. These factors do not appear to have been taken into account with the $2.65 million value or any other appraised value and no negative monetary value was assigned to these factors.
Thus, the development of the property to its highest possible retail commercial value is also, in my opinion, a complete fiction.
Other concerns related to the deteriorated state of the building, including a conference room at the center of the building which “exhibited a musty odor” (Report, p. 11) are not considered in the appraisal valuation.
There is no justification that I can see for the $2.65 million price. In fact, there appears to be overwhelming justification for a considerably lower price. The report’s even lower range of $1.09 million to $1.45 million is questionable.
While the County assessment of $1.25 million, which by law is required to be 100 percent valuation, may be reasonable for some potential buyers, for RA the price should be lower, because it already has the use of the parking spaces and should not have to pay for them again. So why has the RA agreed to pay $2.65 million? I can see no basis whatsoever for RA to pay this price.
Why has the RA rushed to have a referendum on the purchase, while preventing members from seeing the appraisal and contract? Why did RA not release those until after public hearings were concluded?
RA may argue that they were in negotiations and sharing this information would have impaired the negotiations. I think they would have impaired the negotiations, but not by giving the seller information it did not already have. The seller already knew of the condition of the building and also was well aware of the impediments to the development of the property. The
appraisal does not disfavor the seller.
The contract, of course, was well known to the seller. Had members been allowed to see the Appraisal Report before the two public hearings, undoubtedly they would have raised the questions I raise above, as well as others, and would have pressured the RA to stop the deal from going forward.
The simple facts of the manner in which the RA has gone about pushing through this deal should raise questions. The proposed acquisition was dropped into the laps of the RA Board (the majority of whom were unaware of the consideration of the matter before then) on Jan. 22. At that time, they were presented with a sales pitch as to why this was a good deal, without any
time for reflection, and asked to vote on a schedule for presentation of the project to the membership, along with a schedule for a referendum.
Although the vote was unanimously in favor of the schedule, many stated that they wanted more information and were clear that they were not thereby expressing their final approval. Even the subsequent vote on the Letter of Intent (LOI), without having all of the documentation available, was based, at least in part, on the fact that the LOI was not binding.
That the facts have not been clear and disclosed up front, is a further indication of the rush with which this proposed deal has been carried forward.
Finally, the so-called RA fact sheet on the Tetra Purchase is now in its 11th version. This seems to
be an evolving project, not well thought out with regard to the presentation of the purchase itself or the end use of the property. The fact of the rush and the lack of a clear plan presented at the beginning of the affair with all of the information does not engender a high level of trust and confidence that this is something on which the RA should spend $2.65 million of your
dollars, plus the financing charges and building maintenance and repair costs.
At this date, with the contract signed, there are two options remaining. Under the contract, RA can terminate the contract at any time up through April 25, 2015, without penalty and with the return of its deposit, upon its determination, in its sole discretion, that the property (including the improvements) and the personal property are not suitable for RA’s intended use. (See, Paragraph 3 of the Agreement.) It should do this without further ado. This will save the expense of holding the referendum — not insignificant — and avoid the disaster of overpaying for a property it does not need and for which it has no real plan.
The second opportunity is the referendum. This is obviously a more uncertain method for stopping the purchase. However, every person who reads the appraisal and the contract can arrive at no other conclusion than that the proposed purchase should be defeated and that he/she should vote against it.
Something on your mind? Send an op-ed to [email protected] Reston Now reserves the right to edit letters for style, spelling and other editorial purposes.
As was properly described by the first commentator to last week’s letter on Reston Association’s planned purchase of the Tetra building, the RA Board is speculating in land.
A definition of speculation is: “to form a theory or conjecture about a subject with no firm evidence.”
The first reason listed in President Ken Knueven’s powerpoint to justify borrowing $2.65 million is essentially “something bad might happen.” How? What? When? At best, we get vague answers.
Another definition of speculation is: to invest in property with the hope of gain but the risk of loss. We all know what the risk of loss is: at least $2.65 million. What is the quantifiable gain that the RA Board is hoping for?
But wait there’s more.
The second bullet on the powerpoint is that RA would revegetate the property, i.e., plant trees. Except Fairfax County will not allow vegetation to be place in the emergency spillway which covers most of the property because vegetation would block the floodwaters and force the flood levels in Lake Newport and upstream even higher.
The whole point of an emergency spillway is to give the floodwaters from very large storms a way to escape Lake Newport without blowing out the dam as happened to Lake Ilsa (now Audubon) in 1972 during Hurricane Agnes. That’s why the property is covered mostly by parking lot.
But to top it all off (pun intended), there’s this:
I hear our leaders have already secured a loan to buy the land! That’s right, before the referendum even opens for voting in April, someone at RA has been out shopping for a loan. And they got one. From whom? That’s a secret. At what interest rate? That too is a secret. But one term is known and should send shivers down the back of every RA member.
First, the principal and interest payment will equal 8-9 percent of the $15 million budget. That means either our assessment will increase or the services and programs offered by RA will have to be cut. How many life guards camp counselors and grounds maintenance people does this sum represent?
It’s not a mortgage on the property. It’s a pledge of our assessment payments.
What that means is, if there were to be a default, the lender doesn’t take the land and building, they take our RA assessments payments. This is significant on four counts.
First, RA is planning to buy the land on the equivalent of a credit card. The loan is secured by RA’s income, just like your credit card issuer decides the limit on your credit card based, in part, on your income. Would you buy stocks or your house on your credit card?
Second, the lender apparently doesn’t believe the property is adequate security for the loan. Translation: even the lender doesn’t think the land and building is worth $2.6 million.
Third, the amount of money available to pay for lifeguards and cut the grass in the medians will be reduced because the lender will get paid out of our assessments first.
Fourth, RA’s credit capacity will be reduced by the full amount of the $2.6 million, thus reducing borrowing capacity that might be used for other essential capital expenses like replacing a dam or spillway at one of Reston’s lakes or buying the Reston National Golf Course.
It’s like taking your kid’s college savings account and buying Yugoslavian war bonds.
I asked Knueven at the first District/Community Meeting at North Point if someone at RA knew what RA’s borrowing capacity was. They didn’t know and haven’t answered that question in the two weeks since that meeting. Maybe that’s why no questions were taken during the next District/Community Meeting at Lake Anne.
How does any of this make any sense? Who or what is the driving force behind this scheme? I’ve been asking everyone I can find since I first heard about this idea and it too is a closely guarded secret.
Something on your mind? Email an op-ed to [email protected]. Reston Now reserves the right to edit all submissions.