Abandoned shopping cart (via David Clarke/Unsplash)

Abandoned shopping carts can create problems and even be left in streams, but a new state law seems to provide little help, Fairfax County supervisors say.

During a land use policy committee meeting yesterday (Tuesday), the Board of Supervisors reexamined a Virginia law intended to discourage people from taking shopping carts away from businesses, worrying that introducing a local ordinance might just add an exhaustive and ineffective process.

“What we’re asking of our investigators is extraordinarily time-consuming and fruitless,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said of the draft abandoned shopping cart ordinance.

A leading concern is that adding an ordinance may take up time and put an unnecessary administrative burden on county staff, who could, for example, document the same incident twice since the state law dictates that a cart’s owner get a 15-day notification period before it can be removed.

Currently, if a cart is blocking a road or a group is cleaning up a stream, there is no restriction on removing it.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in 2020 to allow counties to pass legislation to:

  • Fine people with a civil penalty up to $500 for removing shopping carts from stores’ premises and parking lots
  • Make stores liable for returning or disposing of abandoned carts, including paying up to $300 per cart that the county removes

The land use policy committee discussed the issue in December, though staff advised against adopting an ordinance and board members were skeptical. During the meeting, Chairman Jeff McKay voiced opposition to fining people trying to get groceries home.

The draft ordinance that the county presented on Tuesday only referenced fines for businesses — not individuals.

Even before the 2020 state law, the Commonwealth made removing shopping carts from store premises and parking lots a misdemeanor, with the potential for a fine up to $500.

“My problem with this is…it provides absolutely no incentive for people to stop stealing carts,” said Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, who also wondered if certain areas or customers might be disproportionately affected. “This is kind of outside the businesses’ control.”

Photo via David Clarke/Unsplash

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Fairfax County Public Schools is planning to launch an esports program later this year (via Axville/Unsplash)

Some Fairfax County student athletes won’t be headed to courts or fields this winter, but instead, to computer labs, as the 10th largest school district in the country prepares to launch an esports program.

The Fairfax County Public Schools athletic director detailed the new initiative to Tysons Reporter, saying the new program will connect students in high schools through a popular, soccer-like game — in which players drive futuristic cars — called Rocket League.

“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for our students,” said Bill Curran, director of the FCPS Office of Student Activities and Athletics, noting how students will have another way to fit in. “I think we’re going to have 25 highly competitive schools in the esports realm.”

While concerns about students’ screen time have persisted, even as the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to adopt virtual learning, competitive online gaming has become increasingly popular, with both high schools and colleges getting in on the esports action.

The market research firm Newzoo reported in March that esports viewership increased from nearly 398 million people globally in 2019 to nearly 436 million in 2020 and could potentially reach 474 million this year.

The NCAA governing board voted in April 2019 against bringing esports under its purview, even as the association noted the rapid growth of esports on NCAA campuses.

“You’re going to see this ball roll faster and faster,” Curran said.

ESPN launched a new initiative to cover esports in 2016, though it shut the division down last year. In 2018, it became the first TV network to air a professional gaming contest in prime time for the cartoon-style multiplayer online battle game League of Legends.

YouTube and Twitch have also streamed content that’s worth billions of dollars and expected to grow annually, though that’s just a small slice of the video game industry.

The Virginia High School League, which governs sports, activities, and competitions in public schools throughout the Commonwealth, introduced esports as a pilot program in 2019 before approving it as an “emerging activity” for the 2020-2021 school year that could become sanctioned as an official VHSL activity.

Fairfax County Public Schools is currently looking for coaches to participate in its esports program, which has been in the works for more than two years and will operate under its Activities and Athletics office. Some teachers have already shown interest in helping, according to Curran.

Students will have to pay a $64 fee each season through a startup company PlayVS, which provides computer games and requires students to maintain eligibility through grades and attendance. FCPS is looking at ways to prevent the fee from becoming a barrier to participation.

With schools expected to open for in-person learning five days a week this fall, FCPS plans to have students participate in existing computer labs, rather than remotely. Like a traditional sports team, Curran says Fairfax County’s esports teams will likely have jerseys.

“Our kids, you know, they’re already playing the games,” Curran said. “They’re ready to go, and they’re eager for us to start this.”

Photo via Axville/Unsplash

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A map of a power outage in McLean, caused by a tree that fell on utility wires on Spring Hill Road (via Dominion Energy)

(Updated at 11:35 a.m.) 302 people in McLean are without power after a tree fell and took out some utility wires on Spring Hill Road overnight.

Dominion Energy spokesperson Peggy Fox says the fallen tree broke one pole and two cross-arms, bringing down four spans of wire.

Spring Hill Road has been closed between Georgetown Pike and Old Dominion Drive so that crews can work to address the downed pole and restore power, WTOP reported.

According to Dominion’s outage map, a crew is currently assessing the damage caused by the tree, and the estimated time of restoration is between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., a timeframe confirmed by Fox.

The Spring Hill Recreation Center (1239 Spring Hill Road) is temporarily closed due to the ongoing power outage, according to the Fairfax County Park Authority.

“Summer camps have been relocated to the school next door,” the park authority said on social media. “Indoor classes are temporarily canceled. Outdoor classes are being held as scheduled, but check with your instructor.”

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The third Wednesday of July has arrived, and that means it is officially National Hot Dog Day.

Once again, Vienna Inn will celebrate the occasion by offering a slight discount on its signature hot dogs. Starting at 10 a.m. today, customers can buy a hot dog for $2, and chili dogs are also available at an additional cost.

The typical price of a hot dog from the longstanding Vienna restaurant ranges from $2.45 to $2.75, depending on whether it’s served with cheese, chili, onions, and other toppings.

“We have customers stop in from all over the country to try one of our dogs,” Vienna Inn owner Marty Volk said in a press release that says the restaurant still serves more than 10,000 hot dogs a month even with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

National Hot Dog Day is an annual event cooked up by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, a trade organization established by the American Meat Institute, but the promotion carries a bit more weight this year for small businesses like Vienna Inn that could use the boost after over a year of navigating the pandemic.

At this time last year, Vienna Inn was only able to provide a limited amount of indoor seating, relying instead on contact-free curbside pickups and outdoor dining under a newly installed tent in its parking lot at 120 Maple Avenue E.

Dubbed the Outside Inn, the tent accommodates over 60 diners and has been outfitted with large-screen televisions to replicate the sports bar experience that’s as much a part of the establishment’s appeal as its chili dogs and wood-paneled furnishings.

Volk says the addition of the outdoor tent has been critical for getting Vienna Inn through the past year.

The tent was made possible by an emergency ordinance that the Town of Vienna has had in place since June 2020, allowing commercial activities on sidewalks and in parking lots due to COVID-19 health concerns. The ordinance has been extended five times, most recently on June 7, and is now scheduled to expire on Dec. 7.

“The last year was a challenge,” Volk said by email. “Without the addition of the Outside Inn (our tent which allowed for outdoor dining) and the loyalty of our customers who raised money to buy meals for first responders and hospital workers and found any excuse to order take-out, we may not be here today.”

Earlier this year, Vienna Inn commemorated its 61st anniversary with celebrity guest hot dog tenders and a challenge to customers to purchase 1,960 meals for first responders and other front-line workers by the end of February. The restaurant exceeded its goal by selling 2,176 meals that month, according to its website.

Vienna Inn says it has seen “a large increase” in dine-in customers since Virginia lifted all capacity and social distancing restrictions on May 28.

The restaurant is now preparing for an influx of new faces with the Virginia State Little League Majors Little League Tournament rolling into town tomorrow (Thursday).

“It’s been nice getting back to somewhat normal,” Volk said. “Seeing familiar faces, sports teams and families back in the restaurant has been a great feeling.”

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Morning Notes

Vienna Metro station across I-66 (photo by John Lee/Twitter)

Vienna Contractor Settles Federal Lawsuit — IT company Sage Consulting Group, Inc. agreed to pay $4.8 million to settle allegations that the company and its owner Robert Pleghardt paid kickbacks to obtain subcontracts on set-aside contracts intended for small businesses owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged citizens. The settlement was announced yesterday (Tuesday) by Acting U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh for the Eastern District of Virginia. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Capital One Plans Technologist Hiring Surge — “Amid cloud growth, banking giant Capital One plans to add 3,000 new roles for technologists by the end of 2021…Almost 75% of the hires will be in engineering roles, focusing on machine learning, software development and data work to advance the company’s natural language processing.  Capital One said ‘hundreds’ of positions will be open at the company’s headquarters in McLean, Virginia, with others will be at locations across the country.” [Technical.ly]

Language Barriers Challenge Those Seeking Unemployment Benefits — “Many non-English speakers who lost their jobs during the pandemic had to rely on their children, family or friends to help them file unemployment insurance claims with the [Virginia Employment Commission]. The state agency does not provide claimants with any language translation options other than English and Spanish on its website.” [Inside NoVA]

Wolf Trap Adds More Summer Concerts — Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts has added five more shows to its 50th anniversary season lineup, including singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, “Star Wars: A New Hope” in concert with the National Symphony Orchestra, and a “Broadway in the Park” musical theater showcase featuring “Hamilton” star RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry and Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell. [Patch]

Photo by John Lee/Twitter

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McLean Central Park redesign concept plan (via Fairfax County)

A plan to overhaul McLean Central Park has won over the support of the McLean Community Center (MCC), but the organization recommends Fairfax County make a few changes to help alleviate safety concerns raised by some locals.

The MCC is a county-run and taxpayer-financed program that offers activities, classes, shows and more for McLean adults and children.

In a letter to the Fairfax County Park Authority, the 11-member MCC Governing Board highlighted three parts of the plan that will help improve programming at the park: an amphitheater, an accessible drop off point, and public art.

In its letter, the MCC says it currently utilizes the park for several activities, including a Sunday Summer Concert Series that brings music and performances to the park gazebo, but the gazebo is too small to fit the kind of programming that it wants to provide.

“While the MCC regularly provides programming at the current park gazebo, this facility is small and does not provide scalable space for current and future programming,” the MCC said. “The MCC Board supports the development of a sustainable amphitheater space furnished with technical equipment, public seating, and accessible and environmentally sustainable restroom facilities.”

The MCC says there are an average of 150-275 participants in the free Sunday Concert Sessions, though sometimes that has been as high at 450 people. The board requests that the amphitheater be designed with that capacity in mind.

The existing gazebo also has no technical infrastructure and inadequate electricity, the MCC says, which causes the organization to incur a $2,000 cost in labor per-event. The MCC also has a modular sound system valued at $87,000 that needs replacing every five to seven years.

The MCC says the overhaul proposed by the county would help the park better serve as a community gathering place.

“The lack of accessible outdoor performance and cultural space in the McLean area limits the nature of cultural exchange and dialogue,” the MCC said. “The countywide Strategic Plan prioritizes cultural and recreational opportunities. The improvements to the [McLean Central Park], including the Amphitheater, support these goals and the ability to bring all generations together.

The McLean Citizens Association (MCA) had shared earlier concerns that turning the park into an attraction could create problems for nearby residential neighborhoods. The MCA also expressed skepticism that there is a need for a large ampitheater.

In a June letter to the park authority, MCA President Rob Jackson cited possible pedestrian safety issues, suggesting the county should study traffic impact and mitigation alternatives and have a professional conduct a parking study.

In its letter, the MCC Board recommends “expedited” construction of a pedestrian bridge across Dolly Madison Boulevard “to provide safe and sustainable pedestrian access and reduce traffic and congestion.”

“A bridge would serve as a physical connector and embody the vision of the McLean Central Business District expressed by the version of the McLean Community Business Center Plan approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on June 22, 2021,” the MCC said.

The public comment period for the McLean Central Park plan has been extended to July 30.

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Fairfax County’s logo on the government center (via Machvee/Flickr)

Fairfax County could send over $24.4 million in federal money to small businesses recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic through its PIVOT grant program.

The money, which doesn’t have to be repaid, is intended to help economic recovery efforts. After an application period ran from June 23 to July 9, county officials gave updates on the program to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors during an economic initiatives committee meeting this morning (Tuesday), stressing the timing and scope of the support.

“Our retail services and amusements businesses really did need this funding,” said Theresa Benincasa, economic mobility manager with the county’s Department of Economic Initiatives. “They stepped up and requested it in large numbers.”

Nearly 1,600 applicants for Fairfax County’s small business PIVOT grant program are eligible to get the money based on an initial eligibility check, while 921 applicants are ineligible, county staff reported.

During the meeting, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay asked if the county had flexibility on an eligibility requirement that a business have a commercial storefront. He said two businesses approached him about the issue, one of which was a catering business tied to a closed office building.

Benincasa said officials could work with him on that issue.

Most of the applicants that were ineligible didn’t meet the threshold for economic injury. Over 300 didn’t have a commercial storefront, and nearly 200 secured a Small Business Administration Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant, which provided $283,000 on average, according to the county.

Recipients had to have at least a 15% loss in annual revenue. Eligible applicants averaged a 46% reduction in revenue and 25% reduction in employees, according to county data.

Benincasa noted that applications are still moving through a three-step process to obtain the money. The first step involved using a web portal to determine initial eligibility, and the remaining steps could last from August to November.

The grants are being funded with $25 million that the county received from the American Rescue Plan Act. If demand surpassed that threshold, the county had prepared to prioritize funding to hotels and then create a lottery system for other applicants, but because it didn’t, that randomization element will be scrapped, the county said Tuesday.

The breakdown of awards is projected to be the following:

  • $14.1 million to 1,178 applicants with an average of four employees in the areas of retail, services, and amusements
  • $5.4 million to 309 applicants with an average of eight employees in the food service sector
  • Nearly $4.5 million to 61 applicants with an average of 25 employees in the lodging sector
  • $415,000 to 49 applicants with an average of four employees in the areas of arts organizations, museums, and historical sites.

The awards range from $1,500 to $18,000 per business, which all had to have 500 employees or fewer.

Hotels could receive $400 per room if they had 10 rooms or more. In January, the American Hotel and Lodging Association released a report on the “sharp and sustained” drop in travel due to COVID-19 in 2020 and projected that the travel industry won’t fully recover until 2024.

Benincasa said that most of the hotels in the county are getting PIVOT money, but that didn’t include all of them, possibly because of the 500-employee cap.

“The need is immediate,” said Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, who chairs the economic initiatives committee, noting the county’s work isn’t finished in helping small businesses.

Photo via Machvee/Flickr

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A group of parents submitted over 5,000 signatures yesterday (Monday) to the Fairfax County Clerk of Court in a petition to recall Fairfax County School Board member Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District, over school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Open FCPS Coalition formed in the fall to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and has been campaigning to recall Tholen and two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen.

“I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support as we prepare to welcome all students in person five days per week,” Tholen said in a statement. “As a former classroom educator and now a school board member, I have always worked for my students’ well-being and to help them reach their utmost potential. I will continue to put our students’ best interests first.”

Recall supporters have a different perspective.

The petitions that citizens signed argue that, in supporting an all-virtual start to the most recent school year, the school board was not acting in children’s best interests. The petitions also allege the school board violated state and local laws and regulations guaranteeing students with disabilities a free, appropriate education.

“Just how far behind are our students? How will these deficits be met?” Zia Tompkins, a coalition board member and former school board candidate, said, raising questions about staffing and other issues. “Parents have been left in the dark about these issues and…as such have real doubts as to whether the Fairfax County school system is even serious about opening full-time in-person for the fall.”

The group met outside the Fairfax County Courthouse before a dozen supporters and leaders went inside to deliver the signatures.

While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, its largest funding contributions have come from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.

The coalition’s largest expenditure has been for signature collection services from a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm, Blitz Canvassing LLC, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The group hopes a judge will review the signatures as part of a trial that could ultimately lead to Tholen being removed from her position.

Open FCPS Coalition says only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority. But only three school board members were chosen for recall efforts because of the group’s limited resources.

Coalition board member Nellie Rhodes said Monday that work to recall Cohen and Omeish continues.

The coalition’s website says it has over two-thirds of the 4,000 signatures needed to recall Cohen, which if obtained, would represent over 10% of the total number of people who voted in her election — the threshold required for a recall to be considered in Virginia.

After shifting entirely to virtual learning on March 13, 2020, FCPS began phasing in some in-person learning in October, but the process was put on hold when COVID-19 cases started to surge around Thanksgiving.

Students began 2021 in remote settings before the school board approved the return of a hybrid model — where students could opt for two days of in-person classes or to remain all-virtual — starting on Feb. 16. FCPS expanded its in-person offerings to four days for some students in April.

Open FCPS Coalition board member and Vienna resident Hemang Nagar says he ended up taking his daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, out of school in the fall because of the distress virtual classes caused her. He said she used to love school but would cry whenever he opened the computer.

“Virtual learning was an utter disaster for her and so many like her,” he said.

His daughter, who is now 10, returned to her elementary school when in-person classes restarted in February.

“They pretend to care but never put their words into action that does any good for any students,” Nagar said of the school board members that the coalition is targeting for recalls.

FCPS plans to resume a five-day in-person week for students this fall.

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Southbound vehicles on the Capital Beltway in Merrifield travel on regular and express lanes

Virginia is reconsidering the future of funding for transportation infrastructure, as the rise of electric and more fuel-efficient vehicles has cut into the gas tax revenue that helps pay for those projects.

One option the Commonwealth has started pursuing is a “mileage-based user fee” that drivers would pay depending on how much or little they travel. Drivers could opt into the voluntary system in lieu of paying a mandatory highway use fee that first took effect on July 1, 2020.

State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd District) says the highway use fee — which applies to cars that average at least 25 miles per gallon and is calculated based on the fuels tax at the time of a vehicle’s registration and the average number of miles it travels in the state — is a precursor to Virginia’s planned mileage-based user fee program.

“For most of the past decade, Virginia, like the rest of the country, has been wrestling with the challenge of identifying the best approach to generating sufficient revenues to support transportation investments,” she said in a statement. “As cars have become more fuel efficient and electric vehicle adoption increases, it is increasingly difficult to strike the right balance of raising adequate revenues from traditional sources and adhering to a usage-based philosophy of highway financing.”

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is currently fielding requests from private contractors to operate the program, which it anticipates rolling out in July 2022. Led by the DMV, a workgroup tasked with developing the program is slated to deliver an interim report to the Commonwealth this December.

The working group is identifying all requirements to Virginia’s mileage-based user fee program with “a priority on consumer privacy protection and equity,” DMV spokesperson Jessica Cowardin said in a statement.

Seeking new ways to fund road repairs and transit projects, Virginia established the mileage-based fee program in April 2020 when the General Assembly adopted a major transportation bill that also established the highway use fee and raised gas taxes for the first time in more than three decades.

The bill also lowered vehicle registration fees by $10 and repealed an annual $64 fee for electric and alternative fuel vehicles.

The changes, which include tying the gas tax rate to the Consumer Price Index to keep up with inflation starting next year, will help Virginia diversify its funding sources to offset stagnant or declining gas tax revenue, state legislators say.

The consultant KPMG previously estimated that Virginia would lose nearly 33% of its gas tax revenues by 2030 due to fuel efficiency, or approximately $260 million.

“Neither the [Highway Use Fee] nor the EV Registration fee are intended to suppress the sales of fuel efficient or electric vehicles, but simply recapture the average annual revenue from the foregone gas taxes,” Howell said.

The idea of taxing drivers based on how much they travel instead of the fuel they use has been gaining traction throughout the U.S. over the past decade.

Despite inflation, the federal gas tax rate has been locked in at 18.4 cents per gallon since it went up from 14.1 cents in 1993, meaning there’s less money to fund highway improvements.

“Many cars are not using gas at all, such as electric, so that system of highway finance has been coming apart for a long time,” said Jonathan Gifford, director of George Mason University’s Center for Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy in Arlington.

If Virginia wants to encourage a transition to clean energy and electric vehicles, which “is absolutely essential to addressing climate change, we will need to look to other options” to pay for transportation projects, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance President Jason Stanford says. Read More

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Morning Notes

Fairfax County Police Officer Shoots Woman — A woman was taken to the hospital in critical condition yesterday (Monday) after a Fairfax County police officer fired their weapon and shot her during a confrontation at a group home in Springfield. Police say they responded to the 8000 block of Gosport Lane by a disturbance call about a woman reportedly assaulting people. [The Washington Post]

Bijan Ghaisar’s Family Protests Park Police Task Force Appointment — “The parents of Bijan Ghaisar, a 25-year-old resident of McLean who was shot and killed by U.S. Park Police in November 2017, are protesting Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s decision to appoint former U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean to head a new task force reviewing law enforcement policies…in the wake of the police’s violent crackdown in Lafayette Park in 2020 during the presidency of Donald Trump.” [Patch]

Falls Church City Seeks School Supplies — “The City of Falls Church Housing and Human Services (HHS) team will help local families with free school supplies. Donations for all ages — and especially middle and high school students — can be delivered to City Hall (300 Park Ave.) through Friday, August 13.” [City of Falls Church]

Falls Church Startup Proposes Automating Tax Appeals — A startup co-founded by Falls Church City Councilmember Ross Litkenhous is looking to raise $2 million to fund a software platform that they say will simplify the property tax appeals process. Launched in February, Calvary Real Estate Advisors would help users fill out the assessment appeal, find ways to save money, and send the form to the right place. [Washington Business Journal]

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