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Mouse Roars: Tiny F.C. Sues Mighty Fairfax Co. On Water

Mayor Gardner: Fairfax Moving Into F.C. Territory a ‘Hostile Act’

Mayor Robin Gardner of the City of Falls Church this week declared the recent decision by Fairfax County to cross over age-worn boundaries separating the county’s water system from parts of Falls Church’s that operate in the county a “very hostile act.”

Her comment came in response to reports that high-level officials in the county used the same term to describe the lawsuit filed by Falls Church in federal court to compel the county to cease and desist.

Fairfax County Board chair Gerry Connolly said Tuesday he was “surprised and saddened” by news of the suit, although he did not deny that the county has decided to cross over the border and compete for providing water services to customers in the historic Falls Church area. He spoke at a Falls Church Lions Club meeting Tuesday.

The tiny City of Falls Church, with all the resources its 11,000 residents can muster, is now squared off against giant Fairfax County, with over a million people and the fifth largest accumulation of business and commercial office space in the nation.

The dispute is over the City’s water system, which is much larger than the 2.2-square mile city, covering 38 square miles and 120,000 customers mostly in the Merrifield, Dunn Loring, Tysons Corner, McLean and Langley sections of Fairfax County. At stake is millions of dollars of water hook-up fees in areas primed for major new commercial and dense residential development.

While Falls Church’s cost of water, per 1,000 gallons, is double that of Fairfax County, it is about average for the region as a whole. The difference from Fairfax for the average residential consumer is only about $8 a month.

But at the same time, Falls Church’s hook-up fees are significantly less than the county, and Falls Church officials consider that a significant benefit to the county as an incentive to attract new development.

Hooking up for a large commercial project now costs a developer from $30,400 to $47,950 more using Fairfax water instead of Falls Church’s.

 As for residential units, the hook-up fee per unit is $2,200 in the Falls Church system and $2,800 in the Fairfax system. That means, in the case of a new 500-unit condo or rental project, hooking up would cost $1,100,000 in the Falls Church system, while in the Fairfax system it would cost $1,400,000, a difference of $300,000.

Those numbers indicate the scale of what’s at stake for each jurisdiction financially. It is also the case that should Fairfax take away a significant amount of Falls Church business, the impact would be to pressure Falls Church to raise its rates even further for its Fairfax County-based customers. Therefore, the new Fairfax water policy would not benefit, but would harm those county residents.

The suit was filed last Thursday in the federal district court in Alexandria. Falls Church, the plaintiff, argues that the federal government has a stake in the case because the City’s water system has a debt obligation to the U.S. Treasury Department that could be jeopardized by Fairfax County’s actions.

That’s because the City buys its water from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Dalcarlia reservoir and treatment plant in Washington, D.C. The Corps had to borrow money from the Treasury Department to comply with new Environmental Protection Agency Potomac River clean up mandates, and each of its customers (the District, Arlington and Falls Church) are required to help repay the debt.

           

 “We have provided quality service and have worked diligently with Fairfax County for 50 years. Their policy change came suddenly and we were not notified in advance,” Mayor Gardner said.

An original water boundary agreement was formalized between the two jurisdictions’ water systems in 1959 and although it formally expired in 1989, the jurisdictions continued a demonstrable pattern of maintaining the same terms cooperatively until last fall.

 “Fairfax will argue that it is only engaging in competition. I am for competition, too, if it’s fair. The situation now is not a level playing field. Fairfax holds all the cards in the process,” Gardner said.

Responding to the charge that the City takes a return off its water fund to transfer to its operating budget, Gardner said the City has “never raised its rates to its county customers to take an industry-accepted return on investment.”

Falls Church has assiduously avoided the policy adopted in Loudoun County, where the Town of Leesburg charges one rate for its customers in its town boundary and double that rate for customers outside its boundary in the county, she noted.

So far, there has been only one known case where a new development in Falls Church water’s area was approached by Fairfax water offering to provide service. But in a phone conversation with Connolly recently, Gardner said, it was made clear that the historic policy of Fairfax forwarding rezoning requests in the Falls Church water area to Falls Church for arranging water services will cease entirely.

In an interview with the News-Press yesterday, Falls Church’s Director of Public Utilities Robert J. Etris said that the county stopped forwarding such requests, customarily at the rate of two or three a month, last fall.

Falls Church did not react immediately, but when it did, it was told in December that the rezoning requests would no longer come to Falls Church as a matter of a new Fairfax County policy.

Falls Church did not hesitate to act. Meeting in closed session with its legal counsel, the Falls Church City Council voted to file the suit within two weeks after concrete evidence of the new Fairfax policy was confirmed.    

Etris, the head of the Falls Church Water System for the last five years, came to Falls Church in 2001 after 20 years’ experience working for the Fairfax Water System. He said he his now “totally loyal” to Falls Church and said that based on his professional assessment, including his years of experience in Fairfax, that Falls Church “is in the right in this case, and Fairfax is in the wrong.”