F.C. Council Candidates Face Off; Mixed Use Development Dominates

Photo: News-Press
Photo: News-Press

Five candidates running to fill three contested seats on the Falls Church City Council in the upcoming Nov. 3 election held forth on the same podium for the first time in this campaign Thursday night in front of a packed house at the Council chambers of City Hall. Hosted by the Falls Church League of Women Voters and the F.C. Village Preservation and Improvement Society, the format saw the candidates pulling the questions they were asked by the event organizers and the public alike out of a hat to make remove any targeting of questions to a particular candidate.

However, this did not prevent a bulk of questions being on the subject of mixed use development in the Little City, whether it is good for the City or not. Most of the candidates responded with relatively nuanced answers, identifying the pluses (revenue) and minuses (crowding) as factors to be weighed.

On the dais were candidates Johannah Barry, Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi, Sam Mabry and David Tarter. Of the five, only Hardi, a longtime City resident but a millenial parent of three young boys in the school system, had never run or served on the City Council before. She said she became motivated to run to offset the “doom and gloom” she heard from some quarters during the budget negotiations last spring when she began to take a keen interest in local politics. All the others, including current Council members Phil Duncan and Mayor Tarter, have served before, Barry for three years ending 2013 and Mabry in two separate stints in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including as vice mayor.

When asked the question of the “biggest challenge to the City” in the early going, Duncan summed up the position taken by most, to a greater or lesser degree, when he said it was “retain a sense of community and closeness as we evolve.” Mabry called it “maintaining our identity in the face of the population growth accompanying mixed use development. Although Mabry called, like Barry, for a “moratorium” on the approval of new mixed use projects until ones now under construction are completed and evaluated, he conceded that “there are some benefits from mixed use” that are offset by “a lot of obligations.”

As the current mayor, Tarter stressed the need for “a vibrant downtown” and cited the $600,000 that has been set aside to help achieve that with new lighting, sidewalks, crossing walks and benches. Barry said the City could take a leadership role in the region on “the ways we move through the City” with pedestrian, biking and transit alternatives to cars.

Hardi said that new development achieves funding of the City schools, low taxes and a more livable city work so “we can live, work and play in a city of smart growth.” Mabry said he wants to “rewrite the special exception ordinance” to redress the current situation that ultimately leaves mixed use decisions in the hands of a four-vote majority on the City Council. On the controversial proposed Mason Row project, Duncan said that what’s proposed would bring far more revenue to the City than what’s there now, but that by the time the vote comes to approve it or not, “there won’t be another project more vetted than this one.”

A written question from the audience that was troubling to most asked if apartment and condominium dwellers can be considered “full fledged citizens of Falls Church or not.” The question fell to Hardi, whose short answer was “yes,” and mixed use development has saved eight to nine cents on the real estate tax rate so far, and that the Rushmark (Harris Teeter) and Lincoln at Tinner Hill projects now under construction include $2.6 million in upfront proffers that will go to the schools.

Duncan said that mixed use “brings great potential for the City'” and when asked about the development of the 34.6 acres of land transferred into the City as part of the sale of the City’s water system to Fairfax County last year, he said “this Upper West Side Land” offers the prospect for both first-class schools and major economic development. “20 years from now, we will see it better for the potential it now represents,” he said.

Barry cautioned about the lack of transparency that crafting of the RFP and the public private partnership aspects of the development provide the public. “All residents must understand what’s involved,” she said.

Two more opportunities for all the candidates to appear together are slated later this month, once at a forum on Thursday, Oct. 8, at the American Legion Hall on N. Oak, when the School Board candidates will also appear, and again at the monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce on Oct,.13..