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News Analysis: F.C.’s Good Year Of ‘12 Foretells a Good `13, Too

All things considered, 2012 was a good year for the City of Falls Church, mostly based on the much sunnier prospects for the future based on this year’s events.

The biggest development was the deal that was struck in November between the City and its two former adversaries, Fairfax County and Fairfax’s Water Authority, ending five years of angry legal fights over the disposition of the Falls Church Water System in a way that brought about a surprisingly-favorable outcome for Falls Church.

According to Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields, in comments made last month, a lot of credit goes to Eastern District Court magistrate judge Caroll Buchanan who mediated the agreement.

But the lion’s share of credit also goes to the leaders of the mighty-mouse Little City, who fought tenaciously against their much bigger and very intimidating neighbor. It was a modern-day David and Goliath mismatch, and in that tradition, the spunk and tenacity of the little guy paid off.

So, even though Falls Church bore the brunt of a series of legal setbacks in the process, its leaders made it clear to all that they had not intention of rolling over and giving up.

Fairfax took a predatory approach against the considerable role the Falls Church water system had played since the 1930s in the areas of their county where enormous new growth is now expected.

Had Falls Church not fought back, the county most likely would have simply eroded the role of the Falls Church system over time to create conditions for a veritable confiscation.

As it turned out, despite all the pain, Falls Church now holds its head high with a negotiated settlement – subject to approval by City voters next November – that should help ensure a bright and sustainable future. It provides the City with title to a dozen acres right away and eventually 40 acres of enormously valuable, developable real estate adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station.

While the City has owned the land (where George Mason High and Henderson Middle School and their athletic facilities sit), it has had no hope of developing it to take advantage of its prime location as long as it was within the county limits.

Often coveted by local officials as “one of the most potentially valuable plots of undeveloped real estate on the eastern seaboard,” it will now be susceptible to the kind of dense development at that Metro station that has been achieved in Arlington and will be as Metro’s new Silver Line is extended through Tysons Corner.

While that signal outcome was the biggest and best for Falls Church over the long haul, it also became apparent during 2012 that, as the effects of the Great Recession began to thaw, Falls Church is now again increasingly being coveted as a go-to location for medium-sized mixed use development.

2012 finally saw the shovel into the soil for the construction of the long-awaited Hilton Garden Inn on W. Broad St., and while Hekemian’s under-construction Northgate project rises out of the ground on N. Washington, two more major projects are queued up for launches in the coming year: the Rushmark Properties’ Harris Teeter project on W. Broad St. and the Lincoln Properties’ “Reserve and Tinner Hill” project on S. Maple Ave.

Both will be subject to considerable government scrutiny and modifications before being approved for the “special exceptions” that both require. There is also growing concern from neighbors the Harris Teeter project about its size.

However, combined those two projects will bring almost a million annually in new revenue to the City’s coffers, and any downsizing will only diminish that potential. Given the tight fiscal situation the City faces, it would be a major shock if the City Council failed to eventually approve them both on terms agreeable to the developers.

What these developments also achieve is an appetite for more, and 2013 promises to see still more new and lucrative developments, including some that may represent clearly “outside the box” thinking, such as new municipal facilities built into a commercial project, such as we’ve seen in Arlington, that will also open new possibilities for upgraded school facilities.

Finally, 2013 will bring the City’s first-ever November City Council election, based on a landslide referendum victory for switching from May to that date in 2011. This will make a big difference in the City over time, if not right away, because small special interest groups that could generate a lot of influence among the relatively small turnouts that historically came to the polls for May elections will have a much harder time doing that when size of the November election turnouts will be doubled.

This will mean that so-called “NIMBY” (“Not in My Back Yard”) influences in Falls Church politics will be diminished in favor of voters looking for the overall beneficial effects of development on taxes and other community benefits.

It will tend to make the City that much more “business friendly,” and that new reputation will accelerate the development process further.

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