Falls Church City Hall Harry E. Wells Building sign (via City of Falls Church Government/Facebook)

When it comes to municipal spending, $18 million in two years seems like pocket change, but for a smaller locality like the City of Falls Church, it represents a rare opportunity to address critical needs outside the constraints of a limited budget.

That’s how much money Falls Church has been allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the COVID-19 relief package signed into law on March 11. The city received a first installment of $9 million in June and anticipates getting the other $9 million around this time next year.

Now, the Falls Church City Council must decide how to use the federal funding, which must be allotted by December 2024 and spent by December 2026, city staff told the council during a work session last Monday (July 19).

“Just in terms of engaging the public, this is a really important process for the city,” Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields said. “One of our goals is to act quickly on some immediate things that we need to put funding for, but also take a reasonable amount of time to think about the big picture and make sure we’ve considered all options before we start allocating big chunks of the dollars.”

The U.S. Treasury allows Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars from ARPA to be spent in four ways:

  • To address the COVID-19 public health emergency and related economic fallout
  • To give eligible public workers additional pay
  • To replace lost revenue needed to provide government services
  • To support water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure

In preliminary discussions before the work session, Falls Church City staff identified sewer infrastructure projects and public space improvements as top priorities based on their anticipated long-term impact and social equity considerations, according to a memo to the council.

Financing existing stormwater and sanitary sewer projects was easily the highest-scored option on staff’s list of funding priorities, followed by increasing broadband access for underserved populations and rebuilding the city’s property yard to accommodate an emergency operations center.

The proposed improvements to public spaces include upgrades at Berman Park, which is on the Fiscal Year 2022-2027 Capital Improvements Program for new play equipment, and a permanent stage for the barn in Cherry Hill Park. The list also suggests creating large outdoor classrooms with roofs and supporting dog parks, citing their mental health benefits.

Councilmember Letty Hardi suggested that the city consider how to add more public space in addition to improving existing spaces.

“If nothing else, we’ve learned from the public health crisis that being outdoors is good for everybody’s health, so it’s not just improving it, but how do we add spaces?” she said. “How do we add more green space to the city, and how do we use ARPA dollars to do that?”

She also expressed support for using federal relief money to help schools open full-time this fall, provide more one-on-one COVID-19 vaccination outreach, enhance childcare services, and enable businesses to operate permanent outdoor spaces. Read More

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Morning Notes

Vienna ambulance behind Cedar Park at start of Virginia State Little League Majors Tournament Parade of Champions (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

McLean Drivers: Expect Delays on Georgetown Pike Starting Monday — “Georgetown Pike (Route 193) between Swinks Mill Road and I-495 (Capital Beltway) will have one lane of alternating traffic in each direction via flagging, weather permitting, Monday, July 26 through Wednesday, July 28 between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day to replace a stormwater pipe at the Saigon Road intersection, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.” [VDOT]

Founders Row II Proposal Modified — Developer Mill Creek presented revised plans for a second phase of its Founders Row project to the Falls Church City Council on Monday (July 19). Changes since it was first proposed in March include reductions of the height and number of rental residential units and the addition of “more street-level retail and amenities to please its neighbors.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Former Container Store to Host Tysons Block Party — The Celebrate Fairfax! Festival has been canceled for a second consecutive year, but the nonprofit that organizes it is returning next Friday (July 30) with a block party to kick off its 40th Anniversary Series. The event will go from 3-7 p.m. outside the former Container Store at 8508 Leesburg Pike with live entertainment, refreshments from Caboose Brewing Company, and more. [Celebrate Fairfax/Facebook]

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Editor’s note — The candidate bios below come from their responses to requests for comment from Tysons Reporter. Any candidate who wishes to add to their entry can email [email protected]

The Falls Church City Council and School Board races will have crowded fields for limited openings this November.

After the filing deadline closed earlier this week, the city council has six candidates for four seats, and the school board has nine candidates for four seats. Terms for each are for four years.

One question hovering over the general election, which is set for Nov. 2, is whether early voting returns will be similar to the jump in 2020 or return to pre-pandemic levels, Falls Church City General Registrar and Director of Elections David Bjerke wrote in an email when contacted by Tysons Reporter.

Turnout for the election could also be affected going forward by the introduction of a permanent absentee ballot by-mail request form, a new option that will be available in Virginia starting July 1, according to Bjerke.

“So if you want your ballots mailed to you for all elections, you fill out that form and we’ll mail the ballot to you,” he wrote. “As voters opt into that program, they will be informed of the election earlier and may well vote earlier. If they choose to vote in-person, that request gets canceled and they have to opt in again for future elections.”

In addition to the city council and school board candidates below, the general election ballot will include races for commissioner of the revenue, treasurer, and sheriff, according to the City of Falls Church.

City Council

The top four vote-getters will earn seats.

Mayor David Tarter’s term runs to the end of 2023. After the November election, the newly elected council will vote for vice mayor and mayor, whose positions are in place for two years. Other council members whose terms also run until then are Phil Duncan and Letty Hardi.

Names are ordered as they will appear on ballots.

  • David F. Snyder is seeking another term. Snyder, a former mayor and vice mayor, was first elected to council in 1994.
  • Debora “Debbie” Schantz-Hiscott is seeking her first full term after winning a special election last November after Councilmember Dan Sze died of cancer.
  • Marybeth D. Connelly is seeking another term. She’s been the vice mayor since 2016 and was first elected in 2014.
  • Stuart M. Whitaker
  • Caroline S. Lian
  • Scott C. Diaz

School Board

The top four vote-getters will land seats.

The openings come from the seats of board members Shannon Litton (the chair), Greg Anderson, and appointees Sonia Ruiz-Bolaños and Edwin Henderson II, who filled partial terms this year due to vacancies.

Terms for board members Laura Downs, Susan Dimock and Phil Reitinger last until 2023.

Names are ordered as they will appear on ballots.

Read More

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The City of Falls Church government is grappling with whether to let restrictions eased on businesses over the last year stay permanent, be reverted entirely, or somewhere in between.

At a work session yesterday (Monday), Planning Director Paul Stoddard walked the city council through the options that are currently being considered.

“[The recommendation] is to keep temporary allowances in place until the business community at large has more time to understand how business is going to resume as the economy comes out of the pandemic and things get back to the new usual,” Stoddard said. “Is it going to look like things were before the pandemic? During the pandemic? Some blend of the two?”

Three of the biggest temporary changes that went into effect last year are:

  • Allowing for additional signs and banners to support carry-out operations
  • Permitting carry-out orders where not otherwise allowed
  • Repurposing surface parking spaces to be used as outdoor dining areas

According to Stoddard, there are three longer-term solutions being considered.

The first is a “No Build” option where the city would revert back to pre-pandemic restrictions, though Stoddard said he thought it unlikely that city leadership would see that as the right approach.

The other extreme is by-right allowance, which would allow businesses taking advantage of the loosened restrictions to continue to do so in perpetuity.

Stoddard says this could bring its own problems, though, potentially complicating the city’s parking minimums and raising questions about how the by-right allowances would exist alongside new and proposed uses.

The third option — and the one Stoddard said staff is likely to recommend — is utilizing special use permits (SUPs). Stoddard said SUPs are already used for a variety of unconventional uses, and the application process gives the city the right to approve them on a case-by-case basis, with potential for staff to implement site-specific measures.

For now, city staff recommends that the current lax provisions be extended through January 2022, allowing businesses to take full advantage of outdoor seating through the fall and without any legislative change getting lost in the muddled holiday schedules in November and December.

Stoddard said the extra time will also help the city figure out what the long-term economic situation will look like for local businesses as more people get vaccinated.

Councilmember Debbie Hiscott agreed, saying that the city’s economic recovery is not up to a healthy level just yet.

“Business revenue is going in the right direction, but it’s not there yet,” Hiscott said.

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Morning Notes

Fairfax County Updates COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard — The Fairfax County Health Department launched an updated version of its vaccine dashboard yesterday (Tuesday) with data on administered doses, how many people have gotten vaccinated, demographic breakdowns, and other information. [FCHD]

Fairfax County Indoor Ski Facility Could Be First of Many — Alpine-X, developers of the planned Fairfax Peak indoor ski and snowboarding facility in Lorton, hopes to expand the concept to more than 20 other locations around the U.S. and Canada. The Fairfax County facility will be the flagship with a luxury hotel, a gravity-powered mountain coaster, zip lines, and food and beverage outlets planned for the area. [Patch]

Bike Lanes Proposed on Chain Bridge Road — The Fairfax County Department of Transportation will hold a virtual meeting at 6:30 p.m. on June 8 to discuss striping changes that would create bicycle lanes on several roads. Among the proposals is the addition of bicycle lanes “where space allows” on Chain Bridge Road from Colonial Lane to Great Falls Street in McLean. [FCDOT]

Falls Church Councilmember Won’t Seek Reelection — Ross Litkenhous, who is serving his first term on the Falls Church City Council, announced on Monday (May 24) that he will not run for a second term when four seats are on the ballot in November. He cited a need to focus on a new company that he recently launched, but he plans to stay involved by applying for the city’s economic development authority or planning commission after his term ends. [Falls Church News-Press]

Del. Simon Addresses Greater Merrifield Business Association — Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) highlighted the Virginia General Assembly’s work to address the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated $500 million budget surplus, and bills that dealt with eviction prevention, stormwater management funding, and electric vehicle rebates in a recent presentation to the GMBA. [Sun Gazette]

Falls Church Hires New Public Works Superintendent — “The City of Falls Church welcomes Herb Holmes as the new Superintendent of Public Works. Throughout April, Holmes shadowed the incumbent, Robert Goff, who will retire on July 1 after 40 years of service…Holmes most recently served as the Superintendent of Streets for the City of Alexandria, Virginia.” [City of Falls Church]

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Falls Church is looking to set up a new governing authority to handle some of the finances for its ambitious West Falls Church Economic Development Project — a new mixed-use development the city hopes can rival the nearby Mosaic District in Merrifield.

The new Community Development Authority (CDA) will be financially-focused, aimed at administering the bonds and debt service for local projects, as well as imposing special taxes on businesses within its zone.

The West Falls CDA will be the first of its kind created in Falls Church, though similar CDAs are in place in Ballston Quarter in Arlington and for the Mosaic District in Fairfax.

“A CDA can finance such projects by issuing bonds and then requesting that the locality impose special taxes or a special assessment on properties in the district to pay the debt service on such bonds,” city staff said in a report. “This ordinance is before City Council for creation of the CDA only, and bond issuance will require further Council approval down the road.”

Staff presented an overview of the proposal to the Falls Church City Council during its work session on Monday (May 17).

City Manager Wyatt Shields explained that community development authorities result from property owners petitioning their local government to create the organization, generally so that they can “gain public improvements” within the specific district where they are located.

In the case of the potential West Falls CDA, the petitioners are the future leaseholders of the site, which is currently owned by the City of Falls Church. That includes Falls Church Gateway Partners, the developer group comprised of EYA and Hoffman & Associates.

“There would be a special assessment paid only by those who live in that special district to pay for those public improvements,” Shields said. “There is no tax impact for taxpayers who live outside the district.”

The plan for the West Falls Church Economic Development Project is to create a sprawling mixed-use area with a residential component as well as 123,000 square feet of retail anchored by a grocery store, office space, and a hotel.

The report says the intent is for the CDA to issue $12 to $15 million in bonds that would kickstart some of the planned infrastructure improvements and fund under-grounding utilities.

The CDA will be managed by a five-member board appointed by the city.

The proposal is scheduled to go to a public hearing on Monday (May 24) before returning to the city council for final approval on June 28. If approved, the CDA would start meeting in July, with bond sales beginning February 2022.

Image via City of Falls Church

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The City of Falls Church is keeping some of the relaxed restrictions on noise levels for businesses put into effect during the pandemic, but it isn’t going as far as some on the city council have wanted.

The Falls Church City Council voted 6-1 on Monday (May 10) to accept city staff’s recommendation to adopt a new noise ordinance that codifies the extension of what is considered “daytime hours” for noise levels up to 10 p.m.

The change was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to help local businesses. However, a suggestion to extend the definition of daytime hours to 10:30 p.m. was not approved.

A proposal to increase the maximum decibel levels was also struck down after staff gathered city council members in a field to hear what different decibels sounded like. The current level for commercial districts of 65 decibels will stay intact.

Some councilmembers worried this could set up problems for some businesses down the road. In particular, Councilmember Ross Litkenhous said he was concerned about entertainment venues struggling to come back, like the State Theater.

“I’m not convinced that, for a weekend night, for a venue that wants to play music, that 65 decibels is the appropriate level,” Litkenhous said. “Is it 75? I don’t know, but keeping it at 65 decibels is setting those businesses up for controversy.”

Litkenhous was the sole vote against the approval of staff’s recommendation for the ordinance.

Photo via Google Maps

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(Updated at 2:40 p.m.) The Falls Church City Council approved a real estate tax rate reduction on Monday (April 26) in what councilmembers called a testament to the hard work and planning of the city staff — especially amid a pandemic that devastated the national economy.

Overall, the three-and-a-half-cent tax rate decrease comes despite a 2.3% growth in the city’s operating budget, which totals $41.3 million.

“The adopted budget includes a real estate tax of $1.32 for every $100 of assessed value, which is a decrease of $0.035 from the previous year,” the city said in a press release. “The general government operating budget is approved at $41.3 million, which is 2.3 percent growth over the previous year.”

The Falls Church City Public Schools budget was fully funded at $43.9 million — a 2.5% growth over the previous year.

“The last time we even contemplated lowering the tax rate was 2005,” City Councilmember Letty Hardi said. “It’s a pretty remarkable achievement.”

The city says the tax rate decrease was made possible through a combination of eliminating a contingency fund, cutting $340,000 in capital projects, and using $460,000 in funding from the Founder’s Row development as a downpayment on the city’s high school construction debt.

The city said the reasoning behind the capital project cuts is that many are expected to be eligible for federal grant funding starting next year.

It’s not all good news on the bill front, though. The stormwater utility rate is increasing by 2% — an average $5 increase for the average homeowner:

The Council also set a new stormwater utility billing rate of $18.72 per 200 square feet of impervious surface, an increase of 2 percent from the current rate. The increase would result in an approximate $5 increase for the average homeowner. The stormwater utility rate increase is needed to address increased investment in repairs and maintenance of the system. The Stormwater Task Force, convened by City Council in 2019, identified six major flood mitigation projects, which are in final engineering now. A financing plan to pay for these major projects will be finalized in the coming year.

Other items of note in the budget include $100,000 for the Affordable Housing Fund and body-worn cameras for police officers.

“The City Council understands that this has been a difficult year for a lot of people, including our taxpayers,” Mayor David Tarter said. “I am happy that we were able to lower our tax rate and ease the burden on our residents while maintaining our schools and critical City services. We are grateful to our community for helping us get through challenging time.”

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The Falls Church City Council has set in stone its commitment to public art in the Little City.

City council members voted unanimously on Monday (April 12) to amend Falls Church’s comprehensive plan by adding a section supporting public art and establishing a public arts district. Now, staff will turn their attention to hammering out the details needed to carry out this committment.

The vote culminates about a year of work that involved various city groups that reviewed the policy and consultants from the University of Virginia who helped craft it, city planner Emily Bazemore said.

The proposed arts and cultural district will include commercial areas, public facilities, parks, and houses of worship, but it will not apply to residences. The map below shows where permanent and temporary art installations could be located.

Funding remains an open question for now.

Falls Church City already has a Arts & Humanities Grant Program that receives $44,000 in contributions from the city and $4,500 from the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

The program mostly funds operational expenses and programming, but nonprofit groups can apply for grants, city spokeswoman Susan Finarelli says. The grants are capped at $5,000 and conferred with the understanding that projects must be completed within the fiscal year.

“This is probably too small an amount for public art projects,” Finarelli said, adding that one fiscal year is “a quick turnaround time for public art.”

Councilmember Letty Hardi, who sits on the Arts and Humanities Council of Falls Church, said the city should consider whether it wants to use this grant program or seek out a different funding source. The program has not contributed to many installations, according to Hardi, who has raised questions about funding mechanisms in the past.

“If we want to implement these recommendations, we’re going to have to think about dollars against it too,” she said.

The comprehensive plan amendment recommends that the city devote annual funding from its operating or capital improvements budget to commissioning art or paying for arts-related festivals and events. It also has language for working with the private sector to include public art in development projects or provide monetary contributions to a public art fund.

“The funding will be considered later,” Finarelli said. “That may come in the form of a new grant program, or perhaps change the existing Arts and Humanities grant program. City staff will consider options and make a proposal to City Council. We do not yet have a timeline on that.”

In the meantime, projects like the West Falls development have committed to supporting public art in those spaces.

As part of the new public arts policy, the city will also launch a registry of local artists. This yet-t0-exist registry could live on the Arts and Humanities Council website, which would be responsible for updating it, Bazemore suggested.

“It’s a long-term strategy,” the city planner said. “It would track different artists who submit interest in working with the city from Northern Virginia or the D.C. area.”

Councilmember Marybeth Connelly had a number of questions about the registry and how it would be maintained but indicated an interest in the concept.

“I do appreciate the direction this is going, and I’m glad that we are going to move forward and be able to identify this arts and cultural district,” she said.

Images via City of Falls Church

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The Falls Church City Council will get a staff briefing and presentation during its work session tonight (Monday) on a proposed One City Center mixed-use development just across the street from the still-pending Broad and Washington project.

The discussion is slated for 9:30 p.m., according to the meeting agenda.

Atlantic Realty Companies is proposing an extensive mixed-use apartment building with space for a grocery store and other retail space, as well as commercial and office spaces. The plan includes creating a new traffic circle at the intersection of S. Maple Avenue and W. Annandale Road and designing a Dutch-style “living street” called a “woonerf.”

According to a Falls Church City staff report, Atlantic is proposing to build a development over 4.6 acres at the intersection of W. Broad and S. Washington Streets that features:

  • About 17,500 square feet of ground-floor retail
  • A 26,500-square foot grocery store at the corner of Maple Avenue and Broad Street
  • 13,365 square feet of retail and commercial space on the mezzanine level
  • 43,000 square feet of office space
  • 246 apartment units across six stories, 15 of which will be set aside for affordable housing
  • 9-10 levels of structured parking with 969 spaces

About 75% of the complex will be dedicated to apartment living, leaving 10% for office space and 15% for retail. Atlantic is seeking a special exception from the council to have apartment units in the complex and allow for a 40-foot height bonus, which would bring the building to a maximum of 115 feet.

Atlantic currently owns and manages all the affected properties: the George Mason Square office complex and two-story parking garage, a BB&T Bank, Matt’s Tailor & Bridal Boutique on W. Broad Street, a vacant parcel at the corner of W. Broad Street and S. Maple Ave., and a five-story office building with a surface parking lot.

Atlantic’s commercial program is based on the need for flexibility to help drive foot traffic to the property, Andrew Painter, the developer’s legal representation, said in a letter to the city.

“Traditional format retail has been challenged in recent years by the rise in e-commerce, and COVID-19 has greatly accelerated this trend,” he wrote. “Similarly, the recent increase in virtual meeting services and the escalated pace of technology adoption is having deleterious repercussions on office demand.”

The existing George Mason Square arcade will be removed and replaced with a pedestrian plaza lined with new fast-casual eateries, retailers, and a pedestrian-oriented “woonerf” between the existing and proposed new buildings that may be periodically closed for special events and fairs, according to Painter’s letter.

This “woonerf” will have “high-quality pavers, overhead accent lighting, landscaping, hardscape treatments, and parallel parking for adjacent retailers,” he said.

Painter wrote that these changes will “anchor the project’s eastern entry, activate George Mason Square’s ground floor area, and provide an updated, modern signature asset to the City’s rapidly evolving downtown.”

He noted that Atlantic is proposing a 30 by 40-foot exterior visual screen, which can be used for “screen on the green” events or coverage of live city events.

Painter added that it “will also keep the George Mason Square development competitive from an aesthetic perspective which, in turn, will energize the Applicant’s leasing program and drive tenant demand.”

The grocery store, he said, will be “a new entrant to the City’s grocery store market.”

As for transportation, the project will include a proposed mid-block crossing and a high-intensity activated crosswalk signal on W. Broad Street.

Painter said the proposed traffic circle will “provide a safer intersection for pedestrians and will, in conjunction with the new public park on the Triangle Parking Lot, transform the intersection into a more attractive urban gateway.”

Photos via Falls Church City 

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