Local Commentary

Editorial: A Regrettable Referendum

The referendum that has qualified for the May 6 ballot in the City of Falls Church will kill the economic development momentum that has already produced tax revenues sufficient to maintain the quality of the Falls Church school system, without a net increase in residential taxes.

It must be made plain: the referendum, if it passes, will grind to a halt the development process that has helped the City escape some of the worst consequences of the national housing crisis in ways that many of its neighboring jurisdictions have not.

The referendum calls for a charter change to limit the residential component of any new mixed-use project approved on the City’s commercially-zoned corridors to 40%.

To date, most of the projects that have been approved, including the completed Broadway, Byron and Read buildings, the nearly-completed Spectrum and Pearson Square projects, and the authorized Hekemian North Washington and Atlantic Realty City Center plans, involve a significantly higher residential component than 40%. In other words, had the referendum’s proposed charter change been in effect in 2000, not a single one of these projects would have been approved or built.

The reason is simple: the market did not, and does not, dictate the viability of more commercially-intensive projects.

There is a flaw in the thinking of many proponents of the referendum to the effect that the City can tell, or mandate, developers to build something that will not pass muster with investors, whose money they require. These citizens think it is just a matter of playing hardball with the developers, and they will come around, sooner or later.

They could not be more wrong. That was the prevailing thinking in Falls Church for decades, and the result was no new commercial development, period. It was not until wiser heads began to appreciate what goes into a major development that they moved to embrace new approaches to draw in the first new development in decades.

That development is pulling the City’s fiscal chestnuts out of the fire already, and will do so even more significantly in years to come.

But proponents of the referendum are not just those who are wrong-headed on how to get better development for the City. We suspect there are enough of them smart enough to realize that its passage will kill the development momentum altogether, and that’s what they want.

We can’t assume anyone’s motives for wanting this. But there are powerful interests across the City’s borders who look with great envy and covetousness upon the resources the City has, its water system and its prime location, who fancy they’d benefit mightily if the City could no longer afford to maintain its independence, so they could come in to run roughshod over it. Killing the development momentum in Falls Church would certainly be something they’d derive great benefit from.

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