Local Commentary

Editorial: Referendum ‘A Very Bad Idea’

Opponents to the ill-conceived referendum on the May 4 ballot in the City of Falls Church received strong support from a nationally-prominent expert in municipal policy this week.

Long-time City of Falls Church resident and former Planning Commissioner Bob Burnett interviewed Charles Royer, a former mayor of Seattle, Washington, recently, asking him to comment after reading the text of the charter-change referendum that will be on the Falls Church ballot on May 4. Royer served three terms as mayor of Seattle and is a past president of the National League of Cities. He’s been director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and a lecturer at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Burnett published the transcript of the interview on the local political blog, Blueweeds, this week, and the words of this accomplished public servant speak as well as anything we’ve tried to express on this subject, ourselves. The referendum is a very bad idea and should be defeated.

Placed by petition on the ballot by citizen opponents to the recent Falls Church City Council approval of the $317 million City Center project in February, the referendum calls for a charter change to strictly limit future development in the commercially-zoned corridors of the City to a maximum of 40% residential.

“It is not good public policy to put these kinds of things in a City Charter,” Royer said. “Zoning and business code issues belong in zoning and building codes where they can be adjusted according to changing circumstances.”

“If this were to pass,” he added, “It would send a very bad signal to folks who might do development you very much want to have.”

Royer then said, “The policy itself is not very smart…it even conflicts with the Falls Church ‘Vision and Strategic Plan’ which I saw on the City’s website.” (That plan calls for “a harmonious mix of residential, commercial and retail venues due to the community’s focus on smart design, walkability and human scale”).

“I think you accomplish that vision,” Royer said, “By permitting compact, walkable, people-friendly development, which to me means residential, small business, great streetscapes and an emphasis on the pedestrian environment. All commercial, or a preponderance of commercial development, equals a nine to five downtown that is pretty much dead at night.”

Royer said he’s been to downtown Falls Church, and recalled that “some traffic calming, such as on-street parking, further street beautification and people living in the center would really help.”

He concluded the interview by remarking, “Even to an outsider, this referendum looks like a very bad idea for Falls Church.”

Falls Church citizens should take heed of this expert analysis.