Five former mayors of the City of Falls Church, in two letters to the News-Press published in this edition, joined six members of the current City Council, including the current mayor, to urge voters to vote “No” on the charter-change referendum on the City’s municipal election ballot Tuesday.
This overwhelming demonstration of opposition to the ballot measure by some of the City’s most respected and venerable leaders came as evidence of last-minute mailings and heated appeals escalated from both sides in the days leading up to the May 6 election.
Focus on the referendum is rivaling the attention paid to the seven candidates seeking to fill three open City Council seats who are on the ballot Tuesday, and four candidates seeking to fill three School Board seats.
Incumbents Mayor Robin Gardner and Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry are seeking re-election to third City Council terms. The four other candidates are Lawrence Webb, aligned with the incumbents as backed by the Citizens for a Better City (CBC), along with Nader Baroukh, Ed Hillegas, Margaret Housen and Patrice Lepczyk.
For the School Board, Incumbent Joan Wodiska is aligned with fellow CBC-backed candidates Charlotte Hyland and Kim Maller, while Incumbent Kieran Sharpe, running as an independent this time after winning CBC backing in previous elections, is the fourth candidate.
The reason for the importance placed on the referendum is because, according to its opponents, its impact if passed will be to bring to a grinding halt the kind of new mixed-use development projects that have already begun to alleviate the fiscal pressures on City taxpayers. Case in point for them is the just-adopted new budget that fully funds the Schools while actually costing the average residential taxpayer less than a year ago. Taxes from the new developments made a major difference (see story, elsewhere this edition).
If passed, the referendum would call for a change in the city charter to strictly limit mixed-use development to a minimum of 60 percent commercial and a maximum of 40 percent residential, subject to ratification by the state legislature next year. According to experts, there is no other jurisdiction in the region that has such a rigid limitation in its charter.
Support for the referendum, which was placed on the ballot with 500 signatures in March, received a boost this week from venerable City activist Lou Olom, who reversed his adamant opposition to a similar referendum in 2002 to issue a widely-circulated letter addressed to “Parents of Falls Church Public School Children” supporting its passage this time. It was similar to a letter submitted to the News-Press published in last week’s edition.
But the claim made in the Olom letter, that supporting the referendum would help ensure a smaller school system, was challenged by School Board chair Craig Cheney in comments to the News-Press yesterday.
“No matter what happens with enrollment growth, we need new facilities either way and will be able to accommodate any new growth without difficulty as a result,” Cheney said. “We are already preparing for that, including new facilities and demographic studies to assess our future needs.”
To date, he noted, enrollment growth has come almost entirely from single family homes and not from new mixed-use projects in the City’s commercial corridors.
Olom had a very different slant on all this in 2002, when he opposed a similar anti-mixed use ballot referendum in a column in the October 24 edition of the News-Press that year. Olom opposed the referendum then in defense of the school system. He wrote, “Interrupting this process by political appeals to the state legislature is not, in my opinion, the Falls Church Way. There are plenty of available resources for dissatisfied citizens to promote their views publicly without embroiling the legislature in local issues.” He called for the referendum then to be “crushed.”
Reacting to Olom’s current letter, Ira Jekowsky, president of Falls Church Citizens for a Prosperous Tomorrow, told the News-Press, “With all due respect to Mr. Olom, it seems clear to me that the best thing we can do to make sure our citizens’ voices
are heard and to ensure funding of our schools is to vote ‘no’ on the referendum.”
In their letter, Former Falls Church Mayors Carol DeLong (who served as mayor from 1980-1988), Betty Blystone (1988-1990), Brian O’Connor (1992-1994) and Jeff Tarbert (1994-1996) argue that the referendum, if passed, “would restrict the ability of citizens and their elected representatives to make decisions,” imposing “an arbitrary ratio, developed not through open discussion or formal actions taken in public sessions, but a figure plucked out of the air by a few people.”
In a separate letter from Former Mayor Dan Gardner (2000-2006), says that the referendum, if passed, “Will prevent future market opportunities and according to urban planning experts, likely eliminate any future development offers.”
Current Mayor Robin Gardner (2006-present) joined City Council colleagues Hockenberry, Dan Maller, Hal Lippman and David Chavern to pass a resolution Monday opposing the referendum, while Councilman Dan Sze called the referendum “totally junk” and urged a “no” vote, even as he abstained from the formal vote, and only David Snyder voted the other way.
Polls in Falls Church will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 6.