David Tarter, in his fourth term as mayor of the City of Falls Church, recently took time to speak with the News-Press and reflect on this past year in what has become an annual August tradition updating his views on the “state of the city.” This time he touched on topics like City developments and infrastructure, education and community involvement.
The following is a Q&A with Mayor Tarter.
Q: This past year has displayed several instances of both conflict and togetherness. What is your assessment of how the City as a whole responds to serious, often polarizing issues?
A: I think the rest of the country can learn a thing or two from Falls Church. In the past few years, our community has dealt with a number of serious, difficult issues, yet we have managed to do so in a thoughtful, respectful manner. Almost uniformly, I have found our discourse to be civil and folks courteous and tolerant of differing opinions. Our citizens are involved, informed and understanding.
We in local government have sought to foster transparency and openness by having town halls, walking tours and community forums on issues of interest and importance. Having a local newspaper like the News Press provide in-depth coverage of community issues is invaluable for informed discourse.
Q:. What can you say about the City’s resilience as a community and the many examples of the residents coming together to make a public celebration or fundraising or charity event a reality?
A: As terrible as the Covid crisis has been, it has brought out the best in many people and showed the strength and spirit of our community. We saw numerous acts of generosity, neighbor helping neighbor…shuttered businesses making masks for health care workers and local restaurants providing food to first responders.
Q: 2022 has seen many development plans move forward in the City, such as Founders Row and the Great Street plan. With new construction and the eventual influx of cars, how has the City been addressing residents’ worries regarding traffic congestion and safety?
A: We all know that traffic in Northern Virginia can be a mess, but the City is working hard to relieve congestion and promote safety. For new developments, the City requires traffic studies, and usually developer-funded traffic improvements as a part of each new proposal. With these improvements, most new projects maintain or even improve pre-existing traffic throughput.
More broadly, sidewalks, traffic calming and pedestrian and bike safety continue to be major priorities throughout the City. To reduce the burden of expensive capital improvements, we continue to seek and obtain grant funding for these projects…streetscape improvements to South Washington Street are nearly complete and are a major boost to this commercial area. The upgrades include wider sidewalks, street trees and lights, crosswalks, utility undergrounding and new markers telling the City’s history. The cost was paid by state and federal grants.
Q: In terms of City infrastructure, what is your impression of how Falls Church has been addressing climate change, environmental sustainability and related policy?
A: Environmental sustainability is a top priority for this Council and we continue to make important strides in combating climate change. Almost a decade ago, Falls Church became Virginia’s first EPA Green Power community and we have been building on that commitment ever since.
Recent successes include completion of Meridian High School, the City’s first Net-Zero ready facility. Solar panels will be coming soon to it and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School. The schools will also be adding new electric school buses to their fleet. Likewise, the police and City have begun their transition to clean energy with recent purchases of electric vehicles. We are also in the midst of preparing our Community Energy Plan, which will provide a City roadmap to implementing the goals of the Paris Accord. Even our urban planning is informed by climate change with the West Falls project, the City’s largest and densest one, located near the West Falls Church Metro Station.
Q: In the City, biking, electric vehicles and sustainable gardening are among some of the top areas of interest for residents; do you think the City has overall continued on the right path when it comes to being environmentally responsible?
A: I think so. Climate change is one of the defining issues of the modern era. We have made major strides in just the past few years but we can’t let up. There is so much more yet to be done. I am particularly proud that our students and young people have been leading the charge for action.
Q: Although Covid-19 is still a consistent part of our lives, Northern Virginia in general has seen improvements in terms of people getting vaccinated as well as the amount of cases appearing to decrease. However, with Governor Youngkin’s stance on masking and vaccinations, does the City have a rough plan for dealing with another possible surge?
A: The City will be ready in the event of another Covid surge. We continue to carefully monitor Covid infection rates, hospitalizations and other metrics, and to work with the Fairfax Health Department, our health partner, to ensure that we are ready to take action if need be. Through much of Covid, I was chair of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and saw first-hand how the region came together and coordinated its efforts, adopted best practices and spoke with one voice. New vaccine boosters should be available this fall offering broader protection and will hopefully reduce the chances of further outbreaks. I am confident that we can deal with any further surges, should they come.
Q: Mandates have been a tricky topic the past few years and have unfortunately been politicized across the country, but do you foresee any special challenges in getting City residents to comply with health mandates if those should be brought back?
A: I don’t anticipate that masking or social distancing mandates will return. If it were to become necessary, however, I am confident that our community will continue to behave as they have done in a prudent and responsible manner. The vast majority of our residents and businesses heeded the advice of our medical experts, took proper precautions and were considerate of others.
Q: Falls Church City Public Schools have gone through a lot in the past few years. However, in light of all the work put in by FCCPS, it seems like the school year will be off to an auspicious start. Would you say that this impression is correct?
A: The schools have had a challenging few years, yet I have been impressed with the thoughtful and considered approach they have taken to these tough issues. My wife is the health aide at one of our schools, and I have seen first-hand how hard our teachers and staff have worked to keep our kids safe and progressing with their studies. It looks like this year is off to a great start.
Q: Recently the School Board hired a new principal to lead Oak Street Elementary and, for example, if Meridian’s graduation has shown anything, Falls Church is a place that knows how to bounce back during difficult times. I’d love to hear your input on this.
A: I agree. This community and particularly our schools and students are resourceful and resilient. Our schools are the cornerstone of our community and it is good to see them back in full stride.
Q: Going back to the theme of the community coming together, what do you most look forward to when it comes to the upcoming Falls Church Festival?
A: Other than the great food — seeing the community come together. The Fall Festival, like Memorial Day, is a quintessential Falls Church event and one that I look forward to all year long. It is so nice to see so many families, friends, kids and local businesses gathered together. It’s one of those days that make Falls Church special.
Q: Do you think this “small town” sensibility is a special thing?
A: Absolutely. I am from Northern Virginia but didn’t find the place that I really felt at home until I landed in Falls Church. It’s wonderful to be a stone’s throw from one of the great American cities with all of its opportunities and yet still be able to walk your kids to school. Falls Church has, hands down, the best quality of life of anywhere I have lived. The City has a small town feel and a great sense of community that is hard to come by in this day and age, especially in this area.
Q: To conclude, do you have any final thoughts or remarks?
A: Just this: I am optimistic about the future of Falls Church. We have come through much together these past few years. New development has brought new vitality and business to our downtown and increased tax revenue that in turn has allowed us to lower our tax rate for the second year in a row. We continue to invest in ourselves and our future with City infrastructure like the renovated City Hall and Library and new pedestrian and traffic calming infrastructure. I see bright days ahead.
My colleagues on the City Council, Marybeth Connelly, Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi, Debbie Hiscott, Caroline Lian, Dave Snyder and I are honored to serve and be a part of this great community.