Citizens for a Better City: A History

Citizens for a Better City has been at the center of local political life in Falls Church for a half century. This article, first of three, is excerpted from a history of the organization prepared for CBC’s 50th anniversary celebration. It is based on an earlier CBC history by the late Wayne Dexter, updated by a CBC History Committee – Betty Blystone, Pete Behr, Carol DeLong, Sally Phillips, Edie Smolinski and Ed Strait.

Falls Church, a quiet crossroads village of 2,576 in 1940, was notable mainly for its historic Falls Church and the two major highways that intersect at its heart. Though  English settlement began in 1699, it was not incorporated as a town until 1875. At the beginning of World War II, the town was in Fairfax County and its schools were part of the Fairfax County system. The county was controlled politically by the then-dominant Byrd organization.

Burgeoning population – it almost tripled during the 1940s – placed heavy burdens on the town’s schools, streets and roads, drainage, garbage collection, and other city services. Newcomers drawn to the city during the war generally demanded higher quality educational and municipal services than was customary in rural Virginia. They were willing to pay the taxes and float the bonds necessary to finance them. This was strongly opposed by many of the native residents long used to low taxes, minimum services, and pay-as-you-go fiscal policies.

Along with better schools, the new residents felt an equally compelling need for more control over the city’s future growth than was possible under a town form of government. Many had come to Falls Church because of its “village atmosphere.” They were resolved to keep it that way. 

These two motives – better schools and more control over the community’s destiny – were major drivers behind the successful effort to obtain city status  from the Virginia General Assembly in 1948. But Falls Church was badly short-changed by the court settlement that divided school facilities between Fairfax County and the new city. The city was left with no high school; old, inadequate elementary schools, and a rapidly rising school population. It had no city hall, library, recreation center, virtually no park land, and a water system dependent on wells within the city.

Following incorporation as a city Falls Church remained limited to its current land area of 2.2 square miles, much of it already occupied by homes and businesses. Two attempts to annex additional land were rejected by the courts. 

The city’s first elected council approved a bond issue for a new high school and for renovation of Madison and Jefferson schools. Land for George Mason Junior-Senior high school and the Mt. Daniel elementary school was purchased in the county, since suitable land in the city was not available. 

Opposition to these actions was immediate, vigorous, and persistent, however. The school projects proceeded, but the opponents won control of the council and at one point, all but one of the appointed school board members resigned to protest council actions. This conflict was resolved when supporters of the school board regained control of council in 1953.

Zoning ranked alongside the schools as a subject of political battles. In the early 1950s, some property owners sought to rezone a narrow band of land on both sides of West Broad Street for commercial development. The Planning Commission rejected the proposal but was reversed by the council in 1952. As the planning commission had predicted, the strip zoning of West Broad Street effectively prevented block zoning which could have permitted creation of a more desirable central business district and more sensible traffic management.

A second school crisis erupted in the late 1950s. Those critical of the system regained control of the council in 1957. The new council majority rejected a school board request for a bond issue for expansion of the high school, despite a petition signed by 1,200 residents. The council then replaced members of the school board who had recommended the bond issue.

Taking the lesson to heart, A group of citizens, many of whom had been active in city politics since the time when Falls Church was still a town, launched a nonpartisan campaign in February, 1959 to elect candidates in the following year’s June council election. They described themselves as representing “all areas of the city and a broad range of views – Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, government workers and private business,” united by a determination “to bring back good municipal government to Falls Church.”  The group, calling itself Citizens for a Better Council, was the forerunner of the present Citizens for a Better City.

The group charged that “our schools — once a major attraction of this community and a source of justified pride — are now being driven into mediocrity.” The statement cited delayed construction, crowding, lowering of standards, reductions in budgets, and teacher pay scales below area standards

CBC also stressed zoning for public interest, open debate on major matters of policy, and appointments to city boards and commissions of qualified persons. An overwhelming victory in the council election capped the campaign. 

It was now apparent that the school crises reflected the ephemeral nature of the political efforts of supporters of the system during the first decade of the city’s existence. Citizens favoring good schools, low density zoning, and better municipal administration would band together on an ad hoc basis to win an election. Once in power, they would let the organization wither away and as a result, lose the next election. An editorial in the Washington Post pinpointed the difficulty:

“The lesson is clear.  Hard work built a good school system in Falls Church, but political apathy brought neglect of the vigilance at the polls necessary to insure its continuation.”

Taking that lesson to heart, CBC leaders called a meeting of the members on November 16, 1959, and created a permanent organization styled Citizens for a Better City with a formal structure and bylaws.  This was the founding date of the CBC that continues uneil today.

CBC’s efforts brought national attention to Falls Church in 1962 when the city received an All-American City award from Look magazine and the National Municipal League because “It got better government and better schools through nonpartisan political action.”

CBC stands on a foundation of principles and policies set by its founders in a time of political struggles that gripped the entire city. CBC is committed to:  

open, non-partisan nominating conventions to select candidates for local office high quality schools and services, supported by equitable taxation at the lowest possible rates development policies seeking business growth compatible with the city’s neighborhoods protection of the city’s natural endowments.  
CBC presents no political platform on particular issues. Indeed, the City Council and School Board representatives elected with CBC support have had to find their own answers to constantly evolving challenges posed by growth, transportation congestion, growing school populations and pressures on tax revenues. 

Next: Political battles over the decades