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F.C. Council Votes 5-2 to Advance Innovative Senior Cottage Cluster

PARTNERS IN THE development of the plan for a senior cottage cluster on Railroad Avenue commiserated with supporters following the vote at the City Council meeting Monday to move the plan forward. (Photo: News-Press)

By a 5-2 vote (Mayor David Tarter and David Snyder dissenting) the Falls Church City Council moved forward the proposal for an innovative “middle housing” option for the City, a cluster of 10 senior cottage units on Railroad Avenue, despite heated opposition from neighbors to the plan, late Monday night.

Strong views, both pro and con, came before the Council during the petition period, from those who contended the whole matter was the result of “bias and favored treatment” and based on a “conflict of interest” by Council members who’d received campaign contributions from the developer in question, Robert Young, to a strong contingent of citizens, such as Bill and Renee Andrews, who said the prospect of the cottage community is precisely what their aging parents need.

Council members and City Attorney Carol McCoskie took turns dismantling the claims by the projects’ opponents that a “nefarious” conflict of interest had something to do with the proposal. From Councilman Dan Sze’s angry renunciation of the charge to Vice Mayor Mary Beth Connelly’s beat down of the idea, augmented by the assertion from McCoskie that receipt of a campaign contribution from any single person does not count as a conflict of interest if a matter pertaining to that person’s interests later come into play, the notion was thoroughly repudiated.

Sze called the charge “sad form” by the accusers, Connelly said she was “horrified” such a charge would arise, calling it “inherently brazen,” and Snyder angrily asserted he’s never taken campaign money from any developer.

Yet, an opponent to the plan even threatened the Council with an FOIA request to learn of who contributed to the Council members’ campaigns and claimed that a legal counsel representing her interest was observing in the room. But McCoskie reminded everyone that complete campaign funding reports are readily available on the Virginia Department of Elections website at any time.

Still, concerns for the impact on the neighbors to the proposed project led Mayor Tarter and Snyder to vote no, and others said that without some better relations developing between the neighbors and the developers, they might wind up voting against it when it is due to come back for a final vote next month.

The 1.25-acre cottage project, the first of its kind in the City since an ordinance was passed earlier this year making such a plan feasible, was hailed as a national and regional demonstration for providing housing that addresses the need of seniors seeking to move out of more expensive housing but not wanting to transition more dramatically into an apartment condo.

By clustering the 10 homes together, with a “common house” that serves as a social center for the cluster, seniors will feel more integrated into a community and not isolated or lonely, its proponents argued.

Developer Bob Young reported on a informational meeting at the local Hilton Garden Inn held Sunday night, when he said most of those attending were prospective buyers of the units. Not all but most of them, he said, were single women in their 60s or 70s.

In his presentation Monday night, Young counterposed the impact of the cottages project to their likely alternative, namely, the construction of four single family homes on the same site.

The four single family homes, he argued, would likely to attract about three school-aged children apiece, and with the established cost of educating a child in the Falls Church schools being about $17,000 apiece annually, 12 new kids would represent a net loss of revenue to the City of $150,000 a year for every year the children are in the system.

By contrast, Young said, deed restrictions that the law permits to be placed on the proposed cottages will stipulate that no person under age 18 will be allowed to live there and the project would provide a net positive fiscal impact of $73,000 to $75,000 per year.

Supporters of the project spoke to the introduction of a new level of diversity into the City and the prospect of a better mixing of the generations in the community, overall.

One noted that everyone, even opponents to the project, said they favored the idea of cottage clusters “but just not in this location.” He said the universal support for the concept should form the basis for a constructive dialogue.

Council member Karen Oliver said that “something is going to go into that location, so let’s make it great.”

Mayor Tarter said “there is a lot to like about this,” adding that it is “environmentally impressive,” but said his “no” vote Monday was based on “too many unresolved issues.”

With Monday’s 5-2 favorable vote, the proposal will now go to a wide array of City board and commissions for review, comment and recommendations.