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Falls Church Development, Referendums & the Future

Citizens for a Better City has been at the center of local political life in Falls Church for a half century. This article, third of three, is excerpted from a history of the organization prepared for CBC’s 50th anniversary celebration. It is based on an earlier CBC history by the late Wayne Dexter, updated by Betty Blystone.

In the past 20 years, the long-held views of the city residents and CBC toward residential development evolved. The expansion of the Washington Metro system led to a surge of condominiums and mixed-use residential and commercial buildings in Arlington County.

Some in CBC and the wider community felt that such developments in Falls Church would threaten the residential character of the city. Others in CBC and in the city argued that such development was essential to expand the commercial tax base for the support of schools and city services.

 

The new Smart Growth theories of community development, expounded at the Street Works workshops early in the new century, led to revisions in the zoning code. The new ordinances permitted a mixture of retail and other commercial and residential uses in one development at the discretion of the council. They also included the possibility of greater height and density than “by-right” zoning previously allowed in commercial areas.

While the initial City Center proposal resulting from those workshops seemed to be well received, first uses of the new ordinances were not for the center of the city, but further along West Broad Street and South Maple Avenue, with the construction of the Broadway, Byron, Spectrum and Pearson Square buildings. Other mixed-use projects have been proposed for North Washington Street, but the controversial City Center South development approved by council had not gone forward as 2009 drew to a close.

Council members nominated by CBC generally supported these applications and welcomed the resulting revenues as a means of financing essential city services and the full budget requests of the school board.

Strong concern about the ratio of residential versus commercial construction in commercially-zoned areas led to two citizen-initiated referendums in the early 2000s.

In 2002, a proposed City Charter amendment to curtail new residential structures on commercially-zoned property if such construction would increase the city’s population by more than one percent was subject to referendum.  The council would have had to seek voter approval by referendum if it did not meet the curtailed limitations. The vote failed, with 63 percent of voters voting “No”.

In May, 2008, a similarly initiated referendum sought approval of a proposed charter amendment to limit square footage devoted to residential uses to 40 percent of the total square footage of a mixed-use project. This time 57 percent of the voters rejected the charter change. The timing of this referendum was a result of the proposed City Center South application, then very much a subject of discussion.

A comprehensive review of the city’s zoning regulations for neighborhoods and commercial areas was launched by the council in 2007 with participation by a citizens’ panel. Proposals are due at the end of 2009 and in 2010, creating an opportunity to seek a new consensus on how to balance neighborhood preservation and development of a vital commercial center to strengthen the tax base.

As part of an effort to attract and keep valued city and school employees, to conserve resources and to provide shorter commutes for some public service employees, affordable housing units were included as part of the negotiating process for major condominium and townhouse development within the city. In several cases, affordable units were offered first to city public employees.

In seeking these goals, CBC councils have adopted an Affordable Housing Policy and established an Affordable Housing Fund with revenue from developers’ proffers. The councils have also provided financial support to the Falls Church Housing Corporation, established under the auspices of the 1981 CBC council to act as a cooperating agent to provide additional affordable housing units.

In 1993, a newly enacted state law allowed localities the option to select school board members by election rather than by appointment of the governing body. In response to a petition drive, a referendum was placed on the ballot in November 1993. Sixty-two percent of those voting favored elected school boards. Falls Church held its first school board election in May 1994.

In the early years of the new century, a distinct rise in student population resulted in overcrowding in the schools. This was concurrent with condominium and townhouse development and a general population increase and partly a result of program changes.  In November 2003, an overwhelming 77 percent margin of voters supported a $25 million school bond referendum to construct a new middle school separate from the high school, and to renovate Mt. Daniel elementary school.  The CBC executive committee supported the referendum. 

Over the past 50 years, CBC’s opponents have often raised concerns about the organization’s central role in the city’s political life and the de facto single party system that has prevailed in most years. The critics ignore the fact that CBC creates a process–not a program or a partisan platform–a process for encouraging civic-minded candidates to serve on the City Council and School Board. CBC has played a vital part by supporting those candidates, chosen by citizens at the open CBC conventions, as they conduct their campaigns. This will continue to be a primary CBC function.

Falls Church faces grave economic circumstances in common with many other state and local governments. The need has seldom been greater for constructive dialogue and debate about the path Falls Church should follow.

CBC’s encouragement of residents to seek appointments to boards and commissions will continue to be an important step in helping prospective council and school board candidates gain knowledge and experience within the Falls Church City government structure. It will foster a willingness and readiness to become a larger part of the democratic process in the city. As we celebrate 50 years of leadership by Citizens for a Better City, and 60 years of Falls Church City Public Schools, we pledge to continue the vigilance and participation necessary to maintain quality schools and open, participatory government as we strive to make Falls Church a Better City.

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