Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our sainted community has long drawn national publicity as a model for this and that.

Take Life magazine’s hailing of our school system in the early 1950s and the 2009 documentary “Arlington’s Smart Growth Journey” on creation of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

My recent search of two state and local government news outlets found that Arlington since was mentioned 235 times since 2011 in the online publication Governing and 16 times since 2015 in the online Route Fifty.

Alan Ehrenhalt, the Lyon Village resident who has edited Governing, told me “Arlington gets more national attention than you might expect for a place its size. Some of it may trace to its `good government’ ethos, but a lot of it is Arlington’s hybrid status — part urban, part suburban,” he said. “Suburbs that want to create a more urban culture and demographic look to Arlington as one of the first that did it successfully. “

The spring issue of the quarterly National Civic Review contains a spicy essay on civic engagement “The Arlington Way” by former county manager Ron Carlee.

It is packed with hometown references, wit and earnest paeans to democracy.

Carlee braves a definition of the famous Arlington Way. “In its most positive framing” it means “engaging with the public on issues of importance or concern (not always the same) in an effort to reach community consensus or, in the lack of consensus, a shared understanding and an opportunity for everyone to be heard,” he writes. “In its negative framing” the phrase has been “derided as a way to talk everything to death so that ideas are killed or that people are so worn-down that by the end, they do not care what happens as long as it is just over.”

Carlee, a budget specialist who worked here 30 years and now teaches at Old Dominion University, touts an Arlington transformation. Beginning in the 1960s as a car-dependent “dying suburb” lined by struggling shopping malls, it evolved into a high-density array of “thriving urban villages” linked by public transit alongside protected residential placidity.

Achieving it wasn’t easy. Endless hearings by the county board, Planning Commission and citizen commissions was “an expensive process for developers and a time-consuming process for all involved, especially the citizen volunteers who sit on the various commissions” and for county staff, he says.

Carlee credits Arlington’s wonkiness. A surprising number of residents are conversant in the General Land Use Plan (affectionately called the GLUP).

He describes Arlington’s struggle to preserve affordable housing without a central housing authority to boss developers. He details the 2006 urban stream restoration on Donaldson Run, which “ran through a park and a relatively high-income neighborhood” and required “removal of numerous trees and replanting native and appropriate vegetation.”

Carlee praises the Neighborhood Conservation Program in which members of the public take an active role in setting spending priorities for their own neck of the woods. “It requires self-confidence on the part of local officials and a high trust level with the public,” writes Carlee, who went on to serve as city manager for Charlotte, N.C.

“The most inspiring engagement has not been that which I led, but was that which I experienced as an observer,” he concludes. “Each encounter leaves me with a deeper understanding and commitment to the ideal of government of, for, and by the people.”

Good contrast in the packed May 8 debate by candidates for commonwealth’s attorney at the Arlington Committee of 100. The June 11 primary that affects both Arlington and Falls Church pits newcomer Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, legal director for the Innocence Project, against eight-year incumbent Theo Stamos.

Dehghani-Tafti criticized Stamos for over-trusting police and avoiding avant-garde prosecutorial positions. Her best line described going into neighborhoods and seeing a sign saying, “Due to the rising cost of ammunition, warning shots will not be fired.”

Stamos, highlighting her experience and adherence to statutes, said most Arlingtonians feel safe. When she campaigns door to door, “almost every one of those doors are unlocked.”