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F.C.-Fairfax Swap Editorial Stirs Controversy

An editorial in last week’s News-Press proposing a swap of assets and real estate between the City of Falls Church and Fairfax County drew strong reactions this week from quarters on both sides of the jurisdictional boundaries.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” was the response from Fairfax’s Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross, devoting her weekly column, published on Page 13 in this edition, in the News-Press to the editorial.

Falls Church’s Mayor Robin Gardner reacted differently. “It is an interesting concept,” she said.

A Brookings Institution analyst chimed in that the editorial’s “premise is exactly right.”

The editorial, entitled, “A Modest Proposal,” suggested hypothetically that Falls Church offer Fairfax County its highly-prized water system and valuable real estate it owns adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station. In exchange, Falls Church would be able to annex a portion of Fairfax’s Mason District, susceptible to dense commercial development in order to expand and diversify its tax base beyond its current residentially-dominated 2.2 square miles.

In a letter to the editor, published in today’s edition of the News-Press, Falls Church Planning Commissioner and Brookings Institution analyst Robert Puentes wrote that while the “thought-provoking” editorial “is fraught with concerns,” its “premise is exactly right.”

Puentes wrote that he participated in a Brookings Institution study which “found that a city’s ability to annex land from its surrounding county is a primary determinant of its fiscal health, more important to a city’s bond rating (a sign of fiscal health) than poverty levels or household income.”

“Instead of hand wringing over the details of the proposal, let’s look at the big picture: we are the little fish in a pond filled with a lot of really big fish. When we consider Falls Church’s future, we need to keep this in mind before bold ideas like this are brushed off the table.”

Supervisor Gross, in her column, focused on the particularities of the proposal as spelled out in the editorial, which she wrote, “did just what editorials are supposed to do: encourage thought and debate.”

She raised questions about the editorial’s proposal of Falls Church annexing “two-thirds of the Mason District,” which would be about 71,000 people and 12 square miles, and of its suggesting that she, as the district supervisor, be made mayor of the newly-configured City of Falls Church for four years.

Gross told the News-Press by phone that she’d received a number of inquiries from constituents about the editorial, prompting her response in her column. It comes in the context, for her, of a campaign for re-election in November.

For its part, the News-Press has published a follow-on editorial on Page 2 of this edition entitled, “Swap of the Century?”

Falls Church’s Mayor Gardner said the editorial “is interesting to think about.”

“We continually want to find out what we’re worth (as a city), and this is a proposal to expand our borders with a trade off,” she added. “It would involve taking the good with the bad, Lake Barcroft and Route 7 on the one hand, and the social needs of the area, on the other. This certainly does involve ‘thinking outside the box.’”

Gardner, in a lengthy “State of the City” interview with the News-Press, also elsewhere in this edition, commented on the tight fiscal realities facing the City of Falls Church in the context of the negative regional and national housing trends.

Falls Church City Councilman Hal Lippman, in comments to the News-Press while attending the monthly luncheon of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, said he found the editorial “very intriguing.”

“I, for one, believe we need to do a lot more thinking like this,” he said.

Another positive reaction to the editorial came from Carol Jackson of the Falls Church Housing Corporation. “The idea to incorporate the Route 7 corridor between Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads corresponds to our mission in greater Falls Church to create and manage permanently-affordable rental units priced for those who are not now able to easily live where they work in our community,” she said in a statement to the News-Press.