Shields Credits Mediator With Big Role Making Water Deal Happen

The George Mason High School and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School location is one of the two areas involved in the proposed land and water system swap between the City of Falls Church and Fairfax County. (Source: Google Maps)

Agreement Hailed By Everybody on F.C. City Council

What changed? For five and a half years through last summer, Fairfax County and its water authority and the City of Falls Church were at each other’s throats resolved to fight to the death, or until one side exhausted all legal options or resources.

Then, all of a sudden, over the course of this past month, something happened, and the two adversaries were each voting unanimously to approve the same document and issue the same press release about it. The “win-win” mantra was being echoed all around.

An historic water-for-land swap was ratified (though still awaiting a public referendum to confirm) that hands over the Falls Church water system, with its 34,000 accounts serving 140,000 people, to Fairfax, in exchange for Fairfax agreeing to a “boundary adjustment” with the City that will extend the City limits into some real estate with very high economic development potential.

It wasn’t just fatigue or the desire to be welcomed at all the region’s holiday parties that caused the agreement. Preparing to fight on, Falls Church had set aside an additional $600,000 from the surplus in the last fiscal year’s revenues for projected legal costs after efforts in July and August by the two entities to sit down in a civil manner to work things out fell completely flat.

So, on October 23, it was announced that the warring parties agreed to an effort at mediation,

approaching the District Court in Alexandria and Magistrate Judge Carroll Buchanan, who authorized a formal mediation. Expectations remained low because the process was entirely voluntary and non-binding and given the enmity that had built up between the parties since January 2007, no one was optimistic the mediation would work.

But it turned out the mediation, which took place over a six hour period behind closed doors at the Alexandria federal court on Nov. 8, was handled by Judge Buchanan herself, who had made herself abundantly familiar with the issues in dispute.

While vows of silence remained in place following the mediation, Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields, who was a participant, was able to tell the News-Press last week that Judge Buchanan deserved an enormous amount of credit for shaping the participants’ willingness in finding a “win-win” compromise.

For one thing, the News-Press learned from a separate source, Fairfax had adopted a rigid posture of refusing any uses other than education for the 39.5-acre land parcel that Falls Church wanted brought within its borders that is currently home to George Mason High School and Henderson Middle School.

Gordons Road is the other one of two areas involved in the proposed land and water system swap between the City of Falls Church and Fairfax County. (Source: Google Maps)

The final deal signed off on unanimously by all parties last week specifies that only 70 percent of that land be dedicated to educational purposes for 50 years. That leaves about 11.8 acres available immediately to any kind of use by Falls Church, and being as the land is located right next to the West Falls Church Metro Station, it could be an economic bonanza for the City.

In the early 1990s, then Falls Church City Manager David Lasso called the land “the most valuable real estate on the eastern seaboard” for its pristine yet enormous potential for development.

The City also won another 2.5 acres at the intersection of Gordons Road and Shreve Road that brings its property yard into the City limits, but also opening the area to the potential for dense new economic development, something the adjacent Don Beyer Volvo company has had in dust-gathered plans dating back to the 1980s.

Of course, the agreement also stays all pending legal and legislative actions in the dispute, with all cases to be dropped once the terms are approved by the general referendum that voters in the City of Falls Church will weigh in on next November, and only the lawyers for the respective sides could be unhappy with that.

Shields outlined the terms of the agreement at Monday’s Falls Church City Council meeting with a power-point presentation that can be viewed in full on the City’s website.

Councilman Ira Kaylin credited Vice Mayor David Snyder with proposing the mediation process after direct talks failed over the summer.

Mayor Nader Baroukh said “this is the end of a very long process” that is “very favorable to both jurisdictions,” adding, “I am very excited to put this chapter of Falls Church behind us.”

Councilman Phil Duncan said “We’re at a very good point,” calling the deal “a win-win.”

The conflict between the jurisdictions began in January 2007, when Fairfax Water broke a long-standing understanding of service boundary areas with Falls Church by making overtures to provide service to a new development in Merrifield.

The City of Falls Church sued to prevent that, but wound up taking a beating in the Fairfax District court, not only losing all its motions, but being counter-sued and ordered to cease taking a reasonable return-on-investment (ROI) from its operation of its system, including having to pay back to its water fund for two such ROIs cycles.

Then, last December the Fairfax Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that empowered it to review and reject water rates charged its citizens by non-county water providers. To go into effect on July 1, the law was stayed pending a negotiation to sell the Falls Church system since, without the benefit of an ROI, it became practically of no benefit, other than pride, for the City to continue running the system.