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Vienna Town Council candidates discuss COVID recovery, stormwater improvements, and…mulch?

One of the fun aspects of local elections is the interesting intersection of national issues — like helping businesses recover from the pandemic — with hyperlocal problems, such as a too-loud mulch machine.

In a forum earlier this month, the four candidates running for Vienna Town Council met virtually to discuss top issues of importance, the first being the industrial mulching operation on Beulah Road. Candidates were asked whether they support removing the facility over the next two years.

David Patariu, a lawyer who was appointed to the Planning Commission in October 2019, came out swinging against the mulch operation.

“Two years is too long,” Patariu said. “It should have been removed last year.”

Patariu said with students learning from home in nearby residences, the 89-decibel operation sounds like a jet engine running in their neighbors’ back yard.

“We have to get rid of that right now,” Patariu said. “This is not a financial issue, it’s a moral issue. Residents in that part of town have suffered long enough.”

The other three candidates — incumbents Nisha Patel, Steve Potter, and Howard Springsteen — recognized the operation’s nuisance but said more work needs to be done to study the impact of shutting it down.

“Leaf collection is an important service, but mulching has raised concerns,” Patel said. “I’m hoping to get more information when we get a report from a consultant later this month. If leaf mulching is not cost effective, I would prefer to remove this aspect.”

Similarly, Springsteen said there’s more to consider that comes along with shutting down mulching.

“Do we buy or lease a new site, eliminate leaf collection, and transfer responsibility to residents, truck leaves for disposal, or leave as is?” Springsteen said. “I want us to look at the numbers. I know we’ve reduced [the noise] and that’s a step in the right direction.”

Potter said that for all its challenges, it’s important to recognize some of the benefits to local residents of leaf mulching.

“Leaf collection has been around for about 30 years now and a lot of citizens appreciate the service,” Potter said. “We must come up with a solution that is economical, ecologically sound, and move from there.”

Another issue facing Vienna is the continued need for improved water infrastructure. All four town council candidates said improving the town’s stormwater sewer infrastructure has to stay the top priority — along with traffic improvmeent.

“Getting water and sewer infrastructure organized is very important, but I also think traffic along Maple Avenue is another issue that needs to be dealt with,” Patel said. “[We’re] looking at infrastructure to be able to support [smart lights].”

Patel said the town is currently working on a project to synchronize lights on Maple Avenue, which could help improve traffic on the busy street.

“As far as water pipes are concerned, we need to replace the water pipes,” Patel said. “They were built in the  ’50s and ’60s. We can’t continue to have water main breaks like we’ve been having.”

Because the pipes are so old, Springstreen said Fairfax County had no interest in taking over Vienna’s water infrastructure, so the town will have to handle it themselves.

“This system is not supported by taxes, but by user fees,” Springsteen said. “We need to replace our pipes. We have 63 miles of pipes, and we need to replace them as a pretty progressive rate. We need to make sure we don’t turn ourselves into Texas.”

Potter agreed, saying the town is following up on a 2018 study to ensure funding is available for flood prevention and to keep the town in line with state and federal regulations.

As part of his campaign, Patariu has been pushing to prevent an escalation of the water fees charged to town residents, but he said that doesn’t mean he isn’t in favor of improving stormwater infrastructure. Instead, he argued the town needs to take a close look at the budget to ensure it’s being handled in a cost-effective manner.

“People conflate relief from water rate increase with not replacing pipes — but how is Fairfax County doing it with almost half what our water rates are?” Patariu said. “What’s going on there? How can we do this better?”

Patariu also said he’s looking forward to seeing a hydrology report on the new police station to ensure it doesn’t see the same cost overruns the town faced with the community center.

The candidates also varied on what they saw as priorities for COVID-19 recovery, one of the biggest issues for many Vienna residents and business owners. Incumbents Springsteen and Patel said the town needs to keep looser restrictions on businesses in place, but noted that those have an expiration date.

“We need to continually allow businesses to use parking spaces for outdoor seating,” Springsteen said. “We need to continue that for the next six months. I think we should channel COVID funding into small businesses to help them survive. We need to work closely with the economic manager to see what the need is for [the] business community and where we can help them.”

Patel said that outdoor spacing can be used for more than just restaurants, and the town should keep encouraging more businesses to take advantage of the eased restrictions while they last.

“[We’re] allowing businesses to remain outdoors, but for a limited amount of time,” Patel said. “It’s an option not just for restaurants, but salons and exercise facilities. Whoever can conduct business outside should be able to at this point.”

For Patariu, COVID recovery for local businesses still goes back to traffic improvement.

“Businesses are competing with things like Amazon, and it’s going to get tough to get people to go out to eat again,” Patariu said. “Traffic is a big thing…getting traffic timing fixed. [We] heard about this a lot two years ago but here we are today.”

Early voting in the election is currently underway, and in-person voting will take place from 6 a.m.-7 p.m. on May 4 at the Vienna Community Center.

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