The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) refers to “thinking regionally and acting locally” at the beginning of its draft regional transportation priorities plan. Based on that, a good description of how we can best provide for the kind of future we want for the City of Falls Church might be summed up as “building our future by thinking and acting locally and regionally.”
Our small, independent City’s future, including its municipal services – schools, public safety, transportation, parks and library, must be planned and funded within our two square miles. So, we must think and act locally. But we also exist in the larger contexts of the Northern Virginia (NOVA) and the Washington metropolitan region, which can assist us or impede us. So, we must also think and act regionally.
Our local thinking and acting can be divided among financial priorities, public facilities, public services, planning and development, and transportation. Meanwhile, our regional interests also span a wide range, including transportation, safety, education, public health, and environmental concerns.
Financially, Falls Church is sound with more than the prescribed reserves. But whether we like it or not, every jurisdiction in NOVA is in competition for jobs and commercial activity, in part because the Commonwealth of Virginia takes so much revenue from NOVA and returns so little (20 cents on the dollar) for support of education and other critical functions. Cities, in particular, have been singled out for less than fair treatment, in that they are denied the ability to annex land that cities in other states have. At the same time, the much larger counties in Virginia have built-in advantages in terms of developable land, direct and indirect federal subsidies, and generally stronger advocacy in Richmond.
The other piece of the financial picture is our tax burden. While roughly equivalent to that of other NOVA jurisdictions our size, the tax burden in Falls Church is increasingly putting a short-term liquidity squeeze on many taxpayers even as our higher taxes support the growth in the value of their long-term assets through increasing home prices.
Meanwhile, there is significant pent-up demand for major investments in public facilities that include one or more new schools and technology to keep up with increasing enrollments, a new library, storm system improvements, parking capacity, and even perhaps a new city hall. Moving forward with careful deliberation and ample community dialogue will be critical to addressing these needs. We need to engage financial planning and construction expertise as well as committees of officials and citizens to help prioritize, organize, and oversee such major work.
The cost of school and City services will go up if we are to maintain services at their present levels and meet the legitimate demands of ever more citizens. In fact, funding for parks and public safety, in particular, may need to be increased to keep up with growing demand.
Planning and development are critical to providing the desired commercial activity and commercial tax revenues that will help pay for public facilities and services. With the recent growth of Tysons Corner and Merrifield, this element becomes even more challenging for our City.
In summary form, the central planning question facing us is this: How can we build on our strengths – our people, our more than 300-year history, our unique small businesses, our sense of a real community, our central location, and our cultural assets – to be that unique place where people want to come to in the decades ahead?
Transportation can play a supporting role in achieving success in all of these areas. From its very beginning, this City has been a crossroads and still is today, so transportation deserves its own priority consideration. Moving people through attractive alternatives to motor vehicles is key to a successful future. Our plans must include more transit, bicycles and walking amenities, and adequate parking capacity for those who drive.
The City’s local issues can be influenced negatively or positively by regional developments. Understanding that, the City’s leadership has accordingly played an important role in regional transportation, environmental, public safety, planning, and human services initiatives. The most obvious examples are our participation in the Metro transit system and in a host of NOVA and MWCOG committees. In addition, we share the costs of providing a wide range of services, from court services to higher education to fire protection.
With the apparent end of the “water wars,” we hope for a better relationship with Fairfax County. For example, there could be regular meetings with their leadership and cooperative planning and development around our high school in addition to Seven Corners and along routes 7 and 29. We might also consider better coordinating with our Fairfax County neighbors in Pimmit Hills, Holmes Run, and McLean to assure that our communities don’t simply become places through which to pass to get to Tysons Corner and Merrifield. On the Arlington side, the area surrounding the East Falls Church Metro station could best be planned and developed with full collaboration between the City and Arlington County.
In conclusion, Falls Church is an independent City, so we must build our future largely through our own plans and actions. But we also exist in a larger regional context, and engagement there, too, must remain a high priority if we are to thrive.
David Snyder is the Vice Mayor of the City of Falls Church.