Citizens for a Better City has been at the center of local political life in Falls Church for a half century. This article, second 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 Betty Blystone.
Unable to win at the polls as the 1950s decade closed, CBC’s opposition — led by development interests — resorted to the courts.
After a hard fought campaign, voters approved a referendum in 1960 on a $1.2 million bond issue to enlarge George Mason, modernize Madison elementary, and improve storm drains and streets. Alleging irregularities, the Falls Church Taxpayers League asked the Fairfax County Circuit Court to invalidate the result. The court found the bond issue legal, a decision affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Issues involving business development and zoning moved to the forefront. By the end of the decade, these focused on the proposed development of the First Virginia Bank property at the intersection of Broad and Washington streets, opposite Brown’s Hardware.
The bank proposed to construct an office building that exceeded the city’s seven story height limit. Many residents feared this project would open Falls Church to high rise development similar to that of Rosslyn. Others saw the bank’s proposal as key to the long-sought creation of a central business district. They were willing to raise the height limit to achieve this goal. The controversy divided CBC as well as citizens generally
Following protracted negotiations, the bank proposed a building within the height limitation, which was approved by the planning commission. Later, however, the bank withdrew its proposal. The bank gave no public explanation, but it may have been responding to a recently enacted state law that would have limited branch operations in Arlington and Fairfax counties had the bank remained headquartered in the city. The bank later constructed two high rise buildings just outside the city, in the Seven Corners area.
CBC LOSES COUNCIL MAJORITY
In the 1969 council campaign, a major effort by real estate interests and dissension within CBC over the bank issue resulted in CBC’s loss of a council majority. An immediate after effect was another zoning issue, as divisive as the strip zoning of Broad Street in the 1950s and the First Virginia Bank’s proposal.
The council adopted a Planned Unit Development ordinance which was supported by CBC members as a useful device for planning and development of the commercial areas of the city. The PUD ordinance did not control density; this was to be done by assigning Land Use Intensity ratings (LUIs) to various areas.
The night it was passed, after most of the audience had gone home, without public notice or hearing the council majority adopted a resolution which assigned interim LUIs for most of the city, residential as well as business. The effect would have been to open certain areas to highly intensive development. For example, maximum ratings were assigned to Tyler Gardens (now Winter Hill) and the tract now occupied by the Oakwood Apartments.
Public outrage forced the council to modify these actions and was largely responsible for CBC regaining its council majority in the 1974 election. Political strife then eased markedly. In the four elections from 1980 through 1986 council candidates supported by CBC were uncontested.
The party continued to function. Membership drives were conducted, funds solicited, literature prepared and distributed, and the campaign organization maintained. CBC nominees campaigned actively, helping inform citizens of the organization’s principles, activities and goals.
Interest in local politics revived dramatically after the 1986 election. In 1988, CBC faced opposition for the first time from a new party, the Falls Church Citizens Organization (FCCO.) Preceding its organization, several issues of an anonymously written broadside entitled “Blur” were distributed. It attacked not only CBC council persons but also the schools and the city’s professional staff. This disturbing development violated the city’s tradition of open political debate.
The new party campaigned vigorously, charging that CBC policies had resulted in “runaway taxes.” The three candidates supported by CBC were defeated, but four elected in 1986 remained in office. In the next two years, political debate was warm and often rancorous. CBC won all four of the contested seats in 1990 and all three in 1992.
The 1998 election resulted in the loss of a CBC-supported council majority for the second time in the organization’s history: the new council consisted of four FCCO representatives and three CBC representatives and the mayor and vice mayor were from FCCO. For the next two years, FCCO initiatives prevailed. However, the base of the FCCO organization was growing smaller and in 2000 three CBC candidates defeated three FCCO/Independent candidates. FCCO as an organization died out, and in subsequent elections opposition candidates ran as independents. In 2006, four CBC candidates faced no opposition, but in 2008, three CBC candidates faced opposition from four independents, one of whom was elected. CBC candidates for School Board have faced opposition from FCCO or independent candidates only three times since 1994.
For twelve years, from 1991 to 2003, City residents could find weekly columns in the Falls Church News-Press, in the Point-Counter Point column, written by representatives of each nonpartisan party, CBC and FCCO. The contrast between CBC and FCCO columns could often be noted. In March 1991, for example, the first CBC column focused on outreach to business, while the FCCO column topic was sustaining the village atmosphere. Phased out in February 2003, the columns had provoked interest and provided visibility for both parties.
Next: Changing views on development