Last-Minute Deal De-Fangs Bill Threatening F.C. Water

New Richmond Measure Could Have Dealt Blow

Attorneys representing the City of Falls Church performed an 11th-hour intervention in Richmond yesterday, preventing the passage of legislation that would have given Fairfax County the power to mandate customers to use its water system and not that of the Falls Church system.

Senate Bill 1160, which was slated for final passage in the House of Delegates Thursday after it sailed 40-0 through the Senate, generated massive amounts of heartburn at City Hall in Falls Church when its potential consequences came to light just Monday.

Introduced among thousands of other bills on January 12 by State Sen. Frederick Quayle of Suffolk, the measure escaped notice by the City until it was almost too late.

But in Wednesday’s conference that included State Del. Jim Scott, who represents Falls Church and State Del. Barbara Comstock, who represents areas of Fairfax County served by the Falls Church system, new language was added to the bill which should prevent the outcome feared by Falls Church.

The language confirmed that the terms of the January 2010 consent decree issued by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Ney in the legal tussle between Fairfax and Falls Church would not be overridden by this bill. Those terms affirmed the ability of both water systems to compete freely for customers in the area of Fairfax County traditionally served by Falls Church.

The vast majority of Falls Church’s 120,000 customers are in Fairfax County, including in the areas of Tysons Corner and Merrifield that are scheduled for massive new development in the coming years.

In the original language of SB 1160, were it to become law, the bill would mandate new users to hook up with a water system that operates “with concurrence” with the jurisdiction “in which the land is located.”

On Monday, it was almost by accident that it came to the attention just this week of Richmond lobbyist Bill Thomas, father of attorney Sandy Thomas who has represented Falls Church against Fairfax County’s Water Authority in earlier litigation.

Bill Thomas represented Falls Church’s interests in the conference yesterday morning where the bill was being prepared for “cross-over” to the House of Delegates.
The bill would have legalized what Fairfax County first attempted to do in 2009 when it made signing up for county water services a condition of a zoning variance for a developer in the Dunn Loring area. When the action became the subject of a legal challenge from Falls Church, the condition was withdrawn.

Were this new legislation passed and signed into law without the modifications made yesterday, then as of July 1 the county would have had the full authority to insist that any new development, or new owner of an existing property on county soil can be mandated to hook up to the county’s water system.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields said late yesterday that the City has no objection to the passage of SB1160 in its modified form.

This came after a statement on SB1160 from Barbara Gordon, director of communications for the City of Falls Church, that was issued prior to yesterday morning’s conference. It said, “We are concerned that the bill would allow any county water authority at any time to force businesses, manufacturers or any large customer to immediately hook up with the county system – and pay millions in connection fees – even if they are already served by their own private system, a municipal system or their own well.”

She added, “The bill will result in huge costs on business throughout the state. It also would leave smaller private or municipally-owned systems with huge stranded costs, which means higher rates for the remainder of their customers.”

But Del. Scott, in comments to the News-Press late Wednesday, said that with the last-minute modifications, “There is now peace in the valley.”
He said that the formal language, inserted at Line 53 of the legislation, was hammered out by attorneys representing both the county’s and the City’s interest to their mutual satisfaction.

But with all the last-minute changes, both Del. Scott and Falls Church’s Gordon expressed a certain tentativeness about how the new law might actually be interpreted once passed and signed into law.

Gordon noted the fact that Falls Church water rates are higher than Fairfax’s has fueled some of the antipathy toward Falls Church that has played a role in driving this legislation. However, Falls Church officials noted the following facts:

• Among 17 water providers in the Washington, D.C. region, 12 have rates higher than Falls Church’s.

• The City of Falls Church water rate is lower than two-thirds of the public water utilities in Virginia.

• The City’s water rate, which is the same for both Falls Church City and Fairfax County residents, has remained the same for years.