Court Filing Stay Seen as 1st Step To Serious Talks
The first solid evidence of a thaw in the five-year frigid and contentious relationship between the City of Falls Church and its mighty Fairfax County neighbor over water services surfaced last Friday, when a stay was ordered against Fairfax’s latest anti-Falls Church move in court.
It amounted to a stay against enforcement as of July 1 of Fairfax’s ordinance to monitor and prohibit Falls Church, and other water systems, from charging county customers more for its water than the County Board of Supervisors would consider reasonable.
Such a veto power over what Falls Church charges its 120,000-plus customers in Fairfax for its water services would quickly bankrupt the Falls Church system, but not only did Falls Church, but Fairfax County and the Fairfax Water Authority agreed to the 90-day stay.
It is hoped by all parties that in the three-month window, enough progress can be made toward a “win-win” outcome to the current dispute that no need to enforce the ordinance will be necessary, at all.
However, while the agreed-upon stay marked the first collaborative effort by the contesting parties in over five years on this issue, Falls Church officials have made it clear this is no guarantee a happy accord will come out of it all.
According to Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder, in a telephone interview with the News-Press Wednesday, the deal to agree to the court stay was hammered out by the attorneys on the different sides, and did not involve any direct negotiations between City and county political leaders. The stay applies not only to the Fairfax ordinance’s impact on Falls Church, but on the water systems of the City of Fairfax, Town of Vienna and Town of Herndon, all with customers in Fairfax County.
But in a written statement issued yesterday, Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields said that “City staff have been in contact with the staff from the County and Fairfax Water,” adding, “We expect that meetings will be arranged after the new (Falls Church) City Council is inducted (on July 2—ed.).”
Snyder concurred that nothing has happened yet to put relevant leaders in the same room with each other (Snyder was out of town, but due back today).
Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh did not return a phone call from the News-Press, but e-mailed over a written statement saying the following:
“I am pleased that the County and Fairfax Water joined the City in requesting this stay. Given the importance and value of the City’s water service, these will not be easy discussions. The City will be strongly protective of the interests of its water customers, taxpayers and utility employees.”
The wording was the identical statement attributed to him in a press release issued last Friday by the City when U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady issued the stay.
Similarly, while Shields responded to a News-Press request for interview this week with only a short written statement yesterday, he seconded Baroukh’s sentiment by repeating his words almost exactly, saying “(Falls Church) City officials will be strongly protective of the best interests of the City’s taxpayers, employees and water customers.”
Snyder told the News-Press in his telephone interview, “For the first time conditions are ripe for a full and constructive dialogue. The agreement to suspend litigation for the time being is a confidence-building measure for both sides.”
He added, “There is a stand-down from litigation for the time being to see what comes out of a dialogue, to determine if there is an opportunity for a win-win.”
“We are not starting in the same place, and a lot of discussion will need to occur,” he added. “I don’t know if the ground between us can be closed until we meet.”
But, he added, “It will never get resolved unless we sit down and talk, and we need to see if we can pursue the interests of both parties. Falls Church’s concern will be to see if the value built up by our citizens over time in our water system will be recognized.”
Snyder, who serves as Falls Church’s representative on three different regional government bodies, lamented the “break from the way jurisdictions in Northern Virginia look at each other” that the Fairfax-Falls Church water dispute the last five years has represented. “We need to get back to dialogue and constructive approaches,” he said.