F.C. Council, Planners Warm to Senior Project & Its Plans to Pay More Taxes

ED NOVAK (gesturing) with development partner Harley Cook to his left, explains a point to a joint F.C. City Council and Planning Commission work session prior to the Planning Commission formally recommending approval of the project 5-0 Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)
ED NOVAK (gesturing) with development partner Harley Cook to his left, explains a point to a joint F.C. City Council and Planning Commission work session prior to the Planning Commission formally recommending approval of the project 5-0 Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)

How often to do you encounter a situation where a developer wants to pay more taxes than the law allows? Isn’t the key to success in business always supposed to be the opposite, to play the system with the benefit of expensive lawyers and lobbyists to pay the least possible amount?

So perhaps it was no wonder that it’s taken the Falls Church City Council and its advisory Planning Commission over a year to finally begin to “get it” when it came to the plan to build a first-rate, 88-unit, five story senior assisted living facility on the W. Broad St. lot that is currently home to a Burger King.

Developers Ed Novak of Nova-Habitat and his business partner, Harley Cook of Kensington Senior Homes, have been urging the approval of the project for over a year, and have patiently been willing to extend their tentative contract on the property in question in hopes it would eventually be approved.

After many re-workings and the increasingly emphatic support from the City staff, beginning with City Manager Wyatt Shields, at Monday’s marathon joint Council and Planning Commission work session, it seemed like light bulbs began going off in all sorts of heads, and the net result was a unanimous 5-0 vote to recommend approval of the project by the Planners somewhere around 11:20 p.m.

Final approval still awaits a City Council vote, which seems now likely to come sooner rather than later. The Council gave a preliminary OK to the plan in March, but in the minds of most of them did so only to allow further discussion. Now the Council seems poised to approve it.

An almost four-hour long sequence of meetings at City Hall Monday night culminated with the unanimous vote by the Planning Commission to recommend approval of the project. The Planners’ recommendation of approval was a key step to getting final approval from the Falls Church City Council, which sat with the Planners through the first nearly three hours of a work session deliberation Monday.

Following the joint work session, the Planners went into formal session in the Council chambers awaiting some last-minute clarification language on the 18 proffers offered by Novak and Cook, and when they were hammered out, and signed off on by the developers, it then did not take long for the Planners to finish the night’s work with their unanimous vote.

The key to overcoming concerns by some on both the Council and Planning Commission that persisted to Monday had to do with additional language added to the Kensington’s proffer package that served to insure the project would yield significant new revenues to the City annually.

Notwithstanding that the change was more semantic than substantive, it worked to make it clear the project is not seeking some sort of special subsidy, but on the contrary is willing to make “supplemental payments” on its tax obligations to, as City Manager Wyatt Shields said, “pay its fair share of taxes.”

The “supplemental payments” offer was to counter the precedent set by another assisted living facility in the City which pays a fraction of “a fair share.”

In an effort to underscore this, the project developers were willing to submit to a tax payment schedule annually equal to a basket, as it was characterized, of comparable average tax payments of the 10 highest-taxed commercial entities in the City in any given year going forward.

As a result of this commitment, the project’s .78 acres will rank as the second highest in the entire City in terms of “estimated net annual revenue per acre,” bringing to the City a net-net positive of $403,794 per acre, second only to the soon-to-be-completed Hilton Garden Inn next door, estimated to bring in $460,000 per acre on its 1.12 acres.

As Councilman Phil Duncan pointed out, the “net net” yield from the project would be even higher in comparison to other parcels in the City but for the fact it would be replacing a going concern in the Burger King, whose own annual revenues were contributing to the City, if nowhere near the level projected for The Kensington.

With this newly affirmed commitment, the Kensington “is now a purely commercial facility,” commented Councilman Dan Sze during the work session, indicating he was willing to move ahead with it.

In addition, the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce also “got it” last week, dropping its earlier reticence to emphatically endorse the project. That news also played well at Monday’s work session.

Novak told the joint session that he and Cook have met with neighbors to the site, specifically residents of condominiums at The Broadway, the City’s first new mixed-use project that came on line in 2003. Novak said that none of The Broadway residents objected to losing the Burger King on the site, but were mostly concerned that there would not be provision for sufficient parking there.

Novak explained that few if any of the residents of the assisted living building would be using cars, and that the main access by emergency vehicles would be inside the interior parking on lanes wide and high enough to accommodate them comfortably. He also said that “first responders” to medical emergencies in the project would be the staff on duty, limiting the need for frequent arrival of ambulances.

A new proffer added Monday night prohibited personnel working at the facility from parking on the street, requiring them to park inside the project, although everyone agreed that when they were not on duty, they’d be welcomed to park anywhere to spend their hard-earned dollars at City establishments.

Novak said he’d particularly welcome them to park near Mad Fox, where he has a financial stake. Novak has long been an important player in the economic development of Falls Church, working on projects that resulted in The Broadway and The Byron, among others.