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‘85 Archive Clipping Confirms Long History of Water Fight

Fairfax County was engaged in what was interpreted by the Falls Church city manager as an “unfriendly takeover attempt of the Falls Church Water System” more than 30 years ago, a prominent Falls Church citizen’s search of his personal archives has revealed. A newspaper article in the spring of 1985 cited the Fairfax Board of Supervisors’ publicly stated interest in acquiring the Falls Church water system was made in December 1984, followed by a formal endorsement of a buy-out in April 1985.

Digging through his extensive archives of documents pertaining to the City of Falls Church without looking for anything in particular, long-time City resident, architect and Chamber of Commerce activist Paul Barkley came across an astonishing Spring 1985 Washington Post article, just over 30 years old, that sets the recent sale of the City’s water system to Fairfax County in a whole new light.

Back then, it was reported, Fairfax County offered the City of Falls Church the whopping sum of $5.7 million, total. The deal for the sale that was struck in January 2014 was for $40 million, plus almost 40 acres of extremely valuable (undeveloped and adjacent a Metro station) real estate.

Although the current water system sale by Falls Church to Fairfax County was completed in January 2014, following its approval by a City referendum the previous November, issues surrounding the deal remain very much in the forefront of the Falls Church city government, including most importantly now, what to do with the almost 40 acres that was transferred to City jurisdictional control where the City’s high school and middle school sit.

Now comes Barkley’s article retrieved from his archives about what happened in 1985. It was six years before the News-Press arrived onto the scene in a lengthy era when there was no newspaper covering Falls Church and much less public access to the doings of the local government. Barkley, who designed the Broaddale Shopping Center in Falls Church and much more, has been a long time proponent of new development for the City. He was president of the Falls Church Chamber in 1976.

Such an “institutional memory” of the City as his has been sorely lacking. As it turns out, the City fathers of that era came under unwarranted criticism from today’s generation of leaders for failing to renew a formal understanding between the City and County that had been in effect since the 1930s.
That official agreement had set the parameters for the City’s ability to establish policies and control its water system that extended deep into county territory, with over 120,000 county customers through Tysons Corner, Merrifield, McLean and even Langley. When that lapsed in the late 1980s, the policy continued but was no longer protected by a formal agreement.

So, when the county began to violate the terms of that former agreement in 2006, the City came under fire for failing to have protected itself with a new agreement.

Following years of bitter litigation that prevailed against the City at almost every juncture, it turned out to be a veritable miracle that the City, with the negotiations in mediation in November 2012, wound up with such a favorable outcome in the lucrative terms of the sale.

It is now evident, with the surfacing of Barkley’s archive, that the reason the formal terms were not renewed was because the Fairfax Water Authority was already on the track of what the Falls Church City Manager at the time called, “An unfriendly takeover attempt.”

Ironically enough, the Falls Church City Manager at that time quoted in the Post article, was Anthony Griffin, who left his job in the City in 1990, and eventually became the County Executive of Fairfax, a mammoth jurisdiction at over one million residents, compared to 13,500 for Falls Church.

When the Post article first appeared in April 1985, Falls Church City officials said they had no knowledge of any such proposal, and in fact, the article concluded by stating the plan had yet to be approved by the Fairfax County Water Board “which is expected to approve it overwhelmingly” prior to being transmitted to Falls Church officials.

At the time, Falls Church public utilities director Joseph Livinski said, “The City has no interest in such an arrangement.”

The slant in the article focused on the better service and rates that users of Falls Church system would get if Fairfax bought it. There was no mention of the extraordinary windfall of revenues that would come once the area became susceptible to the kind of development boom that is still in its early stages 30 years later.

In 1985, then Falls Church City manager Griffin is quoted in the article saying, “We would give serious consideration to a proposal which matched the benefits we get from the system now. But they (Fairfax) have never come to us and said, ‘What would it take for you to give up your water system.’”

In the final analysis, given the events of the last nine years, the county chose the path of egregious encroachment on the long standing Fairfax/Falls Church system’s geographical, if informal, accord and followed it up with a ferocious legal offensive that put Falls Church’s overall finances into jeopardy until the deal for the sale of the Falls Church system was eventually consummated.

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