Fairfax Co. Supervisors Clear Away Competition for New Water Service

Mandating All New Development Link to Fairfax Water, Only

By a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a two-part plan to grab control of all water services provided to citizens and businesses in the county. But the move promises to run afoul of stiff opposition both in the courts and in the Virginia State Legislature, where State Sen. Chap Petersen has vowed to introduce a bill next month to block the move.

The first part of the plan approved by the Supervisors Tuesday, which went into effect immediately, stipulates that all new development and redevelopment efforts in the county must hook up with the Fairfax County Water System, even if new lines must be constructed to reach locations that already have access to existing water lines of the systems of either the City of Falls Church, City of Fairfax or Town of Vienna.

A spokesman for the Lerner Group, developers of the Tysons 2 Center in Tysons Corner, with plans for massive new growth in the area, strongly protested the measure, saying it could cause “substantial economic harm” to its interests because it acted on 1985 agreement to build 12 inch water mains that hooked into the Falls Church water system, and any new growth now would require altogether new construction to hook up with the county’s system.

Also strongly objecting was the Mayor Jane Seeman of the Town of Vienna, with most members of her Town Council present, which resolved unanimously to oppose “any attempt to inferfere with our rate setting.” No spokesmen of the City of Falls Church or City of Fairfax spoke at the hearing that preceded the vote.

It was the Town of Vienna that recently approached Sen. Petersen about a bill to block the move. Petersen told the News-Press last weekend that he believes “it can’t be legal” for the county to usurp operations of other jurisdictions.

While prepared to be “hit like a ton of bricks” from the county for his plans, Sen. Petersen noted his bill would also benefit Falls Church, although he’d not been in contact with anyone from the City by last weekend.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Petersen emailed the News-Press saying, “I am disappointed by the heavy-handed action of the County board. They have no legal right to interfere with other peoples’ contracts. Virginia already has strict requirements on ‘cost-based’ service for utilities like water and sewer. Therefore, the County’s new ordinance will not lower anybody’s water bill. Instead, it will have a chilling effect on independent water authorities and localities, which provide competition to Fairfax Water.”

Although not present at the County Board meeting Tuesday, City of Falls Church leader weighed in swiftly after the unanimous vote was taken. In a statement released from the City’s public information office, Mayor Nader Baroukh said the City had asked the county to defer action, allowing time for a City response.

An “alternate path is a mutually beneficial outcome that ensures the safety and reliability of the City water system and relects the best value of that system,” Baroukh stated. “Instead, the Board chose to rush to enact an ordinance that is anti-competitive and not in the best interests of our County water customers.”

F.C. Vice Mayor David Snyder also chimed in. “Over the years, the City of Falls Church has taken on significant risk so that Seven Corners, McLean, Merrifield and Tysons Corner – the economic engine of the County – could develop. The City has provided reliable and safe water at rates that are below the average for the region,” he said, noting the Supervisors’ action “is a blow to regional cooperation.”

Falls Church Councilman and member of the Council’s Public Utilities Commission, Lawrence Webb, added, “The effect of the new regulations will be to increase water costs for County residents, create an expensive new County bureaucracy, invite litigation and force County developers to construct new water mains that overlap the existing system in order to hook up to Fairfax Water, an enormous, unnecessary cost.”

Speaking in support of the county board’s move Tuesday were spokesmen from the Falls Hills Civic Association, the McLean Citizens Association, the Eudora Civic Association, the Tall Oaks Neighborhood, the Highland View Homeowners Association, all representing populations residing in the county having to pay higher rates charged by Fairfax City, Vienna or Falls Church.

A second part of the ordinance passed Tuesday establishes a county mechanism effective next July 1 that will review rates charged by all jurisdictions providing water to country residents to establish that the rates they charge are “fair and reasonable.” Supervisor John Cook contended that “most of the energy behind this” comes from the “Falls Church situation,” through an amendment to exempt Fairfax City and Vienna that he and Supervisor Pat Herrity supported failed.

Fairfax County Public Works Director James Patterson pointed out that criteria for “fair and reasonable” will include concern for jurisdictions that use water fees to subsidize new development hook up charges and new capital improvement projects (CIP) that zeroed in on accusations against the Falls Church system.

When asked if he felt that current rates charged by the jurisdictions in question were “fair and reasonable” as existing state law requires, Patterson smirked and the answer to that question will require further review.

Disregarding concerns expressed by Supervisor Cook that forcing a significant reduction in rates charged by other jurisdictions such that those jurisdictions “may not be able to remain in existence,” Supervisor John Foust stressed that as a result of the process, “I certainly expect that Falls Church’s rates will be lower.”

Cook also cited comments by State Sen. Petersen that he will introduce legislation in Richmond to counter today’s vote, and threats of litigation, saying that acting as quickly as the board chose to today will result in significant additional costs to counter such moves, and ultimately leave the decision “in the hand of others.”