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Fairfax Should Remain a County

Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin’s trial balloon, that the county should be re-chartered as a city, has only one apparent advantage – the ability of the Board of Supervisors to raise more taxes.

That balloon should never get off the ground.

According a column in Washington Examiner, Fairfax County property assessments increased 178 percent between 2000 and 2007. County spending increased two times faster – and school spending three times faster – than increases in population, inflation and enrollment, said the Examiner, according to calculations of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance. According to the Thomas Jefferson Institute, County spending increased by $1 billion more than the increase in inflation and population growth from 2000 to 2006.

Fairfax needs more spending control, not taxing authority.

The idea of an urban Fairfax – a city rather than a county – is anathema to longstanding goals, policies and practices that have made Fairfax one of the most desirable places to live and work in the nation. From a land use and development standpoint, changing Fairfax from a county to a city would so radically alter the character and quality of life as to make it unrecognizable in the future.

By law, Fairfax is required to develop and maintain a Comprehensive Plan.  Consider for a moment the following goal that underpins the plan:

The County’s land use policies should maintain an attractive and pleasant quality of life for its residents; provide for orderly and coordinated development for both public and private uses while sustaining the economic and social well-being of the County; provide for an adequate level of public services and facilities, including a system of transportation facilities, to sustain a high quality of life; and ensure sound environmental practices in the development and redevelopment of land resources. Growth should take place in accordance with criteria and standards designed to preserve, enhance, and protect an orderly and aesthetic mix of residential, commercial/industrial facilities, and open space without compromising existing residential development. The Comprehensive Land Use Plan should set forth long-range recommendations and implementation techniques to ensure the envisioned coordination of harmonious development, while still achieving our economic goals. Densities and heights in excess of those compatible with these goals should be discouraged …

As one who was intimately involved in the development and implementation of the current plan as a Planning Commissioner from 1993 to 2002, and as chairman of the committee responsible for the process of reviewing and amending the plan, I find the idea of urbanizing Fairfax counter to everything the county is and has meant to be.

Do the citizens of Fairfax, many of whom migrated from the District, Arlington and Alexandria, want further urbanization? For people who enjoy suburban living, is a move to Loudoun, Prince William or beyond the only answer?

As an example, a look at a map of the comprehensive plan, beginning at the Potomac River in Great Falls in the north, shows a large swath of yellow, designating low-density residential development. The swath continues through the Difficult Run watershed all the way to Oakton. The swath is part of a plan, created some 30 years ago as a vision for the county and maintained ever since, that has resulted in stable, attractive residential neighborhoods and two of the most dynamic and powerful business centers in the world — Tysons Corner and Reston, which the swath separates.

For decades, two fundamental planning principles governed this part of the county. The comprehensive plan has long envisioned urban employment centers in Reston and Tysons Corner, with a low-density residential buffer in between. Moreover, from the time of Robert E. Simon’s original plan for Reston, there has always been a greenbelt preserved around that planned community. Reston’s highest density is in the Town Center, and development is tiered or scaled down toward its outer edge. On the north, east, south and southwest boundaries of Reston, there is low-density residential development — homes on large lots. (The exception, the Town of Herndon to the west, is governed by its own land use, not Fairfax’s.)

Urbanization violates both principles. Such an action would change the character of Fairfax forever.

Adding higher density development – commercial or residential – would add thousands of vehicles per day to roads that cannot handle today’s demand. Rail and other forms of mass transit would offer little relief, as these low density potions of the county are miles from the existing or proposed “silver line” stations – a distances no one would walk. Moreover, 65 percent of vehicle trips are non-commuting; they are trips to the grocery store, soccer practice, church and other destinations for which rail is not an option. Bus service would be prohibitively expensive, as would the right of way and constructive costs for miles of new roads.

Schools serving these areas are already at or near capacity and cannot handle additional density. A change in the plan would not only tip the first of many land-use planning dominoes, but it would trigger expensive demands for parks, police, fire and other public services.

Is this the future that the citizens of Fairfax County want? How do the citizens want to transform the county? How should we deal with affordable housing, infill development, parks, schools and congestion? It is time for the Board of Supervisors to convene a countywide dialogue to create a consensus on issues related to future growth and development. But the cost, in taxes and quality of life, or becoming a city, is an option that should be immediately taken off the table.

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