The County’s Shell Game: How to “add” more parks, while residents simultaneously lose access to green space.
On September 16, Arlnow had a comment by a frequent contributor:
$4 Million to Heirs Annually • 7 hours ago The Bankruptcy Trustee has a filed a motion to dismiss Dorsey’s bankruptcy case for his failure to file a modified proposed plan. A previous Court order required Dorsey to file a modified proposed plan that would include $5,893 owed to his mortgage company for failure to pay his May and June 2020 mortgage payments. A hearing is scheduled for October 8th.
Background: Dorsey refinanced his mortgage after filing for bankruptcy but then failed to make at least four payments (Feb., March, May, and June 2020) although the bankruptcy repayment plan that Dorsey submitted to the Court stated that Dorsey would pay his monthly mortgage payments. His mortgage holder filed a motion to start foreclosure. To avoid foreclosure proceedings, Dorsey and the mortgage company filed a consent order (approved by the Court) stating that Dorsey would filed a new proposed plan that would include $5,893 that Dorsey had failed to pay for his mortgage. Dorsey never filed the new proposed plan required in the Court’s order. On February 25, 2020, Dorsey loaned his campaign $4,300.
How does this happen? Christian Dorsey voted just last night in the recessed County Board Meeting for a $3.5M design of an ART bus barn, authorized the sale of $172.32 General Obligation Public Improvement Bonds and $31 million of Industrial Development Authority (IDA) Revenue Bonds. This was just one night. Even when community members provided plenty of feedback on why not to move forward with all three of these decisions, Dorsey joined the unanimous votes.
As a reminder, Dorsey did vote himself a pay raise this year of $89,851 for his part time government job. It just feels weird to have someone who can’t pay their bills, spending tax payer money with such flagrant abandon.
Unfortunately, until he is up for reelection, it seems like Dorsey is safely ensconced in Arlington power.
On Friday September 11, we showed up at Doctor’s Run Park and there were three Arlington County maintenance vehicles pulled onto the grass. The team was busy mowing and blowing and edging. Our park is very well used and we tend to have a lot of garbage from the local 7-11 and lack of garbage cans in the area. We love this park; it is where our neighborhood children get out of one of the many garden apartments and can run after a day of virtual learning. It is a meeting point for many different cultures with usually 5-6 different languages being spoken at any one time and the kids often translating and building bridges for the adults.
The next morning, Saturday, September 12, we showed up at the park with our donuts. All of the “ground maintenance” work done yesterday was strewn across the park. Is this really considered acceptable? When we go to the North Arlington parks for play dates, we don’t see this.
In “Knock Down the House” candidates took a critical look at what was happening in their Democratic districts and said, “this is messed up and our communities are not being served fully. “Knock Down the House” articulates what is happening in Arlington.
Continuing to push a program like the car free diet during this COVID health emergency is completely tone deaf.
As the Pandemic continues, Arlington Elected Officials Drift into Opaqueness, Closed Door Sessions, and Lack of Public Review.
The County Board’s preference is simply to have the ability to vote unanimously on anything that the County Staff put before them, regardless of what the community wants or needs. Sounds distinctly Trumpist, no?
The Arlington County government has enacted a “Continuity of Government” ordinance to help it address the emergency presented by the COVID-19 epidemic.
All levels of American government need and have emergency powers. How, when and where government exercises those powers is a test of leadership. Will the government overreach, underreach, or get it right?
The Arlington County government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic has displayed all three types of responses. There are many respects in which our government has gotten it right during this emergency. Expanded efforts to provide food to the hungry and deferral of the opening and operation of the Aquatics Center and Lubber Run Community Center are two examples. The Manager’s decision to postpone until 2021 the adoption of a 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is another good decision.
But, in a number of other respects, our government has either overreached or underreached.
A conspicuous example of overreach was the hastily-retracted effort by County government to use its consent agenda to try to enact an ordinance amendment that would have shut down several important aspects of Arlington’s long-range planning functions. As the Arlington Sun-Gazette explained, several eagle-eyed citizens and groups like the Urban Forestry Commission and Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future spotted the proposed amendment, raised an outcry, and forced the amendment to be deleted:
“But concerns indeed were raised, largely over a provision that potentially would have shunted aside the county government’s Long-Range Planning Committee and various review committees that consider the implications of new development.
“‘Proposing such overreach, especially opportunistically so during a deep public-health and economic crisis, favors those who most profit from land development above the public’s interest and fairness and transparency in government operations,’ local resident Rod Simmons said in an e-mail to County Board Chairman Libby Garvey. ‘It would effectively disenfranchise meaningful and required public participation in guiding land-use decisions… .’
“County officials got the message, removing that proposal from the emergency-powers declaration as it moved toward a final vote on May 19.”
Some residents continue to have justifiable concerns about the ordinance as it stands after that final vote. For example, local civic activist Suzanne Sundburg wrote to the County Board on May 19, noting in part:
“The overly broad language
of the ordinance makes it very difficult for the public to know precisely how
broadly the County Manager may interpret his new powers to “temporarily suspend enforcement of existing provisions of County
ordinances and conditions in use permits and special exception site plans” and to “temporarily modify or suspend application
of administrative processes and procedures and other requirements. …
“Moreover, there appears to be no meaningful process or mechanism for the public to dispute or appeal the County Manager’s decisions in a timely fashion, even though the manager may be forced to grant relief that is unwarranted in certain cases simply because it falls into the same category as a decision legitimately made in another case.”
Other examples of County government overreach during the pandemic include the now retracted decisions to:
- prevent County residents even from entering and passively using County parks
- banning open-air farmer’s markets entirely
“The phrase ‘Alphonse-and-Gaston routine,’ or ‘Alphonse-Gaston Syndrome,’ indicates a situation wherein one party refuses to act until another party acts first.”
One of the glaring examples of underreach in governmental use of its emergency powers relates to mandating the use of masks. In this instance, the federal, Virginia, and Arlington County governments all have been too halting and too timid.
At the federal level, it took the CDC far too long to develop its guidelines on the use of masks. But once the CDC finally did so in early April, both Governor Northam and the Arlington County government ought to have immediately seized the initiative and exercised their existing emergency powers to promulgate carefully tailored guidelines for when, where and how to mandate the use of masks. Both Virginia and Arlington bungled this leadership test.
Almost two months (!) after the CDC acted, Virginia finally announced on May 26 that it was going to mandate the use of masks effective May 29:
“The governor announced Tuesday that masks will be made mandatory in indoor public spaces, including businesses, starting Friday. The state’s mask requirement will have some exceptions, including for eating, children under 10, and those with health conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.”
Better late than never for Governor Northam, I suppose. But Arlington could have issued a similar mandate in mid-April. Why did Libby Garvey play Alphonse to Ralph Northam’s Gaston? We may never know for sure, but one likely explanation is poor legal advice from the Arlington County Attorney based on his erroneous belief that the Dillon Rule prevented Arlington from acting on its own. If that is the reason, it’s wrong. In a health emergency like the present one, Arlington could have acted in April to enact an ordinance mandating mask usage under circumstances similar to those Northam has now belatedly enumerated. And if the poor legal advice from the County Attorney is not the reason for Arlington’s inaction, then Arlington’s failure to act lies solely in the laps of the County Board.
All the County Board did in the meantime was to decide to offer free masks. Board member Katie Cristol said “the idea … was to encourage rather than mandate mask usage—a carrot vs. stick approach.” That approach was wrong. The Board in April should have offered both a carrot and a stick approach to wearing masks.
Arlington holds itself out as making “world class” decisions. In the overreach and underreach examples described above, Arlington has failed to meet its own self-proclaimed standard of excellence.
When you think of a park, what do you think of? Arlington is one of the top five richest counties in the country. An award will not replace having spaces to play and relax for all ages.
Arlington County was just ranked as #4 best park in the U.S. by the Trust for Public Land. Let’s set aside the fact that in this instance Arlington is considered a city, that the calculation includes federal park land that would not be considered accessible (i.e., the median of the GW parkway or the Arlington Cemetery, which is not conducive to sports, relaxation or get togethers) or that the TPL does not take into consideration the number of the people expected to use the size of the park (TPL does not use parkland per capita and instead uses access “walkability” to park where tens of thousands of people have access to a park which could be smaller than most backyards). Let’s just focus on what a park in Arlington currently is.
In Arlington, a school is tabulated as a park— all of the school land, including the buildings and parking lots are included in the park calculation. The schools don’t have the funding to take care of the “park” so you will notice the neglect due to the high-volume traffic and lack of maintenance.
In Arlington, a park could be a privately owned space, like the Market Commons or the new Selina Gray Square Park. These spaces exist at the whim of the landowner and may have been added so that the owner could get additional density or some other benefit from the county. Most of these spaces are maintained by the county but when the owner decides that they want to rebuild, that space is theirs.
In 2017, the Market Common was almost destroyed for more retail-friendly outside space. It was only after protests that the plan was sunset and the trees and the “park” remain. However, the residents lucked out because the Market Common is owned by the developer, not the county and it could have gone a very different direction.
In Arlington, a park is highly likely to be closed based on the excuse that either the park itself or some other nearby area needs to be renovated. This has been especially ugly during the COVID times as neighbors seek out green open space. Jennie Dean Park, Green Valley Town Center, Mosaic Park, and Henry Clay Park are all currently fenced off for renovations, renovations that will take years to complete. So, while we have thousands of people within walking distance to a park, they certainly won’t be using these beauties.
Mosaic Park was once full of life with people literally just hanging out, running their dogs and escaping the cement caverns of Ballston. What is clear is that it is a lot of cement and while trees have just been added, they aren’t set up to grow very tall in their tree coffins.
Henry Clay Park is slated to be closed for at least a year with $1.4 million allocated to renovate “the basketball court, the playground, the picnic shelter, fences, and landscaping, among other upgrades.” What is most noticeable as you drive by Henry Clay Park is that they have killed almost all of the trees and added huge swaths of cement on a much loved community park.
But in Arlington, a park is most likely to be a “tree preservation” zone. What this means is that the developer has made a commitment to save some of the trees. The trees won’t be saved though as the construction crew decimates the land under the guise of burying lines and pipes and having no incentive to keep anything alive. The trees and sod will be replanted but not watered, the weeds will begin to grow and the area will be used however is most convenient be it a dirt bike ramp or a dump truck play area.
The exception would be Oakland Park where they removed the trees around the new features resulting in people having places to sit by themselves in the full blaring sun.
All in all, a park in Arlington probably isn’t what I think of when I think of a park, but there is certainly the opportunity to strive for a more inclusive, equitable version of a park as we move forward.
“A society grows great, when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” – Greek Proverb
A neighbor shared an email with me this week that was discussing the merits of removing a significant number of trees for a county project. There were three lines of particular interest
- Infrastructure investments will improve storm water runoff and reduce flooding
- Tree preservation is a priority of [NOVA/Arlington parks] so they will work to make sure that there isn’t a loss of trees.
- The opposition [AKA those who are trying to save the trees] is well meaning but not in the interest of our region.
I’ve heard these three lines a lot in the last few years and they are said by three primary groups: the schools advocates, the sports advocates, and the developers, which, let’s face it, includes the housing advocates. Thus, the County Board and the School Board take these comments and perpetuate these short sighted opinions without taking any responsibility for their roles in positioning the county for the future. And, thus, Arlington has been left with a wholesale slaughter of not just green space, but trees in general.
The Tree People (TTP) have been playing by the rules with overly civil and agreeable tactics including writing letters, hosting meetings with the elected officials and trying to use facts and data to build a case. They are the receivers of sympathetic looks and phrasing like “we agree with you, but our project is more important to the youth.” The irony is that the small group of TTP are largely childfree and making the case that saving the trees will benefit kids in both the short term (asthma, air quality, etc) as well as the long term (infrastructure and long term planning).
TTP are super nice people, they aren’t zealots, they aren’t anti growth, anti development, anti schools or anti sports. TTP are pro-planning for a better Arlington. The data reveals that mature trees are critical in storm water run off and that while infrastructure like tiling and terraces can mitigate the damage caused by overdevelopment, it is the mature trees that will soak up the most water and have the largest impact. When you cut down a healthy mature tree, Arlington needs to spend a lot of money to move that water down to the Potomac and the water that we are sending down is coated in all of the grime that is on our streets. A rain garden or three young trees will not take the place of a mature tree.
Tree preservation is not a priority of Arlington or NVPA. The county officials say it is, but their actions do not align with their words. If you plant seven new trees for every one old tree that you take down, but only one new tree survives beyond three months, trees are not a priority. When every project that comes into the Arlington development docket outlines clear cutting mature trees, tree preservation is not a priority. When every project that has been retooled to save some trees damages the remaining trees’ root system and they die, tree preservation is not a priority. Take a moment: can you find any project in Arlington and identify tree preservation and then demonstrate in the final product that there indeed was tree preservation?
TTP should not be condescendingly labeled, “well meaning,” they are thinking long term, strategically and for the betterment of everyone. Quite frankly, they are thinking bigger than themselves and their immediate families and their immediate wants. The schools advocates are filled with parents worried about their kids right now and not necessarily what their kids will need in ten, twenty or even thirty years. The sports advocates are filled with parents who want their kids to play their preferred sports right now and adults like me who want to be able to regularly play our leagues or hop on a trail without having to drive far. It is about what we want, right now, not about the long term viability of playing in the future. And the developers and housing advocates are in it for the money right now. How to create revenue or ease housing costs right at this moment, not about the long term thinking necessary for people to live a healthy life or the quality of the surroundings. The sports advocates, schools advocates, affordable housing advocates, developers, and the County Board are thinking too short term, just about the right now.
Saving a tree isn’t well meaning. Saving a tree is recognizing that growing a mature tree takes a long time and is beneficial to everyone, especially the youth and the active. It is acknowledging that a mature tree is good for the air, for the water, and for the animals. Saving a tree is being strategic, data driven, and justified.