Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: City of Falls Church is the Ultimate Base Camp

On the date this commentary is published, I will be climbing Mount Rainier around Camp Muir (10,080 ft) in Washington State. In a few days, I plan to arrive at the 14,410 ft summit after a somewhat indirect route over the Cowlitz Glacier and around Disappointment Cleaver. The mountain tests physical and internal fortitude, and requires climbers to pass over wide crevasses, scale slippery ice, and keep an axe at the ready.

The terrain of a mountain, the climb, and the preparation to succeed is surprisingly analogous to the challenges before our Little City. As evidenced by the recent budget process and subsequent tax increase, the City has quite a peak to scale. Plans and policies to spur additional commercial development in order to maintain our independence must be adopted. Long term, funding of the budget must be a more equal mix between homeowners and commercial entities.

The first step in any mountain climb and our City’s expedition is planning an achievable route based on the prevailing conditions and best available information. The “summit” is a sustainable budget that provides the quality of life, great schools, and services our community has come to expect.

As a Planning Commissioner, my colleagues and I have several tools at the ready. In addition to reviewing development proposals, some of the most effective tools used to achieve this goal are: 1) preparing and revising the City’s Comprehensive Plan, 2) setting local land use regulations, such as the Zoning Code, and 3) advising and forming a recommendation to Council on the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Waiting for the perfect commercial project could be a costly mistake and ruin our chance at the summit

According to the latest 2005 version, “The purpose of the Comprehensive Plan is to guide the City’s physical, economic, and social development and redevelopment in a planned, coordinated manner that reflects the needs, resources, and future aspirations of its residents and businesses.” This document, which is soon to undergo its mandatory five year review, provides essential guidance on numerous topics including transportation, open space, and economic development.

To help spur commercial growth, the economic development section of the Comprehensive Plan should be enhanced. We must work to establish clear and better standards for development through “area plans”. The City will need to enhance density within commercial corridors through a creative mix of development. While fully commercial development that is on a manageable and human scale is a strong preference, the marketplace requires the City to be flexible and open to projects that make financial sense. ┬áConcentrated commercial development is the most direct path up the mountain, but expeditions often need to take a more circuitous path based on the actual terrain. In this instance, waiting for the perfect commercial project could be a costly mistake and ruin our chance at the summit. While I too would like to avoid Disappointment Cleaver on this journey, sometimes that route ultimately provides the best chance of success.

Economic development will also be significantly impacted by the Zoning Code re-write. This desperately needed update is expected to provide clear rules and procedures for developers (and residents). Clarity will create certainty and reduce risks for developers. Together, a well written and coordinated Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code will effectively indicate that the City of Falls Church is “open for business.”

Another tool that will allow the Planning Commission to make the climb more effectively is to reform and revise the Capital Improvement Plan process. Recent frustrations have stemmed from the City’s poor financial situation, but long term, the CIP itself is too divorced from the budget process. This year the City forwent long term capital improvement needs to address the short term crises – an unsustainable route. Furthermore, the five year CIP plan has ceased being a meaningful planning document. Each year, every funding category becomes completely re-evaluated with no real pressure to hold to a deadline. Funding for large projects is widely recognized as mere placeholders with only marginal effort made to accurately reflect costs. Instead of placing meaningful cost projections in the CIP, the document is “managed” to be in compliance with debt and fund balance ratios. These are important objectives to be sure, but such constraints skew the true level of future obligations. This undermines the CIP’s effectiveness and should be re-evaluated before the next budget cycle.

The City of Falls Church is the ultimate base camp. It provides the shelter, safety and community foundation required to make life’s many summit attempts. The current Planning Commission is well suited to help get us to the top, but we can’t get there without citizen input. The public needs to play a large and critical role in helping plan our route up this daunting “mountain.” There has never been a better time to help shape the vision of our Little City. Join us – I am confident the view from the top will be worth it.