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Face-Off Sharpens Contrast Between CBC Slate, Others

In the first of two faceoffs before the May 6 City of Falls Church municipal election, six candidates vying to fill three seats on the City Council debated the best pathways to a sustainable future last night.

The sharpest divide came on the final question of the hour-and-a-half-long televised debate in front of a packed house in the City Hall’s Council chambers. It dealt with the referendum question that will be on the May ballot that would, if passed, alter the City charter to mandate a stiff residential development restriction in the City’s commercially zoned areas.

The two incumbents on the City Council seeking election to third terms, Mayor Robin Gardner and Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry, spoke strongly in opposition to the referendum, saying it would stifle the City’s ability to welcome new market-driven development and negotiate effectively in the City’s best interest. They were joined by Lawrence Webb, who shares “slate” status with them as candidates endorsed by the City’s venerable civic organization, the Citizens for a Better City. Independent candidate Patrice Lepczyk opposed it as well.

Two independent candidates said they favored passage of the referendum, Nader Baroukh and Margaret Housen. Baroukh said that the City Council is now inclined to “approve almost any” mixed use project, and a charter change would provide it with “guidance” and “a leveraging tool.”

Gardner contended that such a charter change would restrict the Council’s ability to leverage deals, citing her consultation with a Virginia Municipal League official who said that charter changes are normally used to give jurisdictions more, and not less, flexibility.

 Housen said that “what has been done hasn’t been working,” but Webb noted the referendum, if passed, would “remove from the City its long-standing tradition of citizen participation,” reverting development matters to legal mandate rather than flexible community-wide deliberation.

A seventh candidate on the May ballot, Ed Hillegass, told the event organizers in advance he would not be able to attend. The Falls Church League of Women Voters and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society co-sponsored the faceoff.

Next Tuesday, a second and final debate will be sponsored by the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, slated for 7:30 p.m. at the Community Center.

All six candidates participating in last night’s debate rejected the notion in one written question from the audience that the City’s schools ought to cut expenses. Two candidates call the City schools the City’s “crown jewels,” and all not only praised their excellence, but said they should get the funding they need.

But on the question of mixed-use development and the City’s use of the special exception ordinance, the candidates differed sharply, all arguing for their versions of how to achieve what Hockenberry coined as the “sustainability of our independent City with smart growth.”

Baroukh said that the City “should drive the market, instead of letting the market drive us.”

Gardner rejoined that “development necessarily is market driven,” as evidenced by the fact that, before devising the “special exception” negotiating tool in 2000, the City “waited and waited” decades for commercial development that never came.

On issues of traffic and the claim of residential “overbuilding,” the candidates also disagreed. Residential is needed to create “critical mass” to bring in more commercial, Hockenberry said. Webb said that bringing more people in proximity with where they work will reduce CO2 emissions. Baroukh said there is a residential “glut” that will impact traffic. Lepczyk blasted “bureaucratic ineptitude” at City Hall, and Housen assailed the City’s high business license tax.

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