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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mason District residents air gripes at Penny Gross' Town Hall meeting

The Town Hall Meeting convened by Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross Monday evening was supposed to be about the Fairfax County budget, but much of the session was devoted to citizens’ concerns about a variety of other issues—from traffic to wasteful spending, and from lack of zoning oversight to neglect of constituents.

The meeting, at Bren Mark Park Elementary School, began with an overview of the advertised budget for 2012 by County Executive Anthony Griffin. With the county facing a $50 million deficit, the proposed budget does not include funding for new programs and does not raise employee pay—for the third year in a row.

Griffin says the Board of Supervisors is likely to reject the Fairfax County Public Schools’ request to transfer an additional $42 million (an increase of about 3 percent over 2011 funds) to the schools. And that means FCPS employees likely won’t get raises either.

The budget would retain this year’s real estate tax rate of $1.09 (per $100 of assessed valuation) but because of rising assessments, the average homeowner’s tax bill would increase by about $110.

“We’ve essentially hit bottom” in terms of revenue losses due to the economic downturn, and now “real estate values are stabilizing,” Griffin said. Commercial real estate values are up more than 3 percent from last year, and residential real estate is up over 2 percent. The county still has about 800 foreclosures a month, but there had been about 2,500 a month during the height of the recession.

Griffin said about $30 million in the budget has not been allocated, which will give the Board of Supervisors some flexibility. The board could use those funds for a variety of purposes, such as increasing transfers to the schools, but he said it is more likely to reduce the tax rate.

During the question and answer period, Don Calvert, who lives on Hershey Lane in the Bren Mar Park neighborhood, wondered whether the budget for zoning inspectors had been cut last year, because, he said, “I don’t see them, and they never do anything.” He complained about “cars parked on his street without licenses for years” and a neighbor with a sofa in his front yard for the past three months.

According to Gross, the reorganization of the Code Compliance Department last summer has expedited the investigation of complaints. The strike teams have been replaced with a more efficient, “much more robust” system, Gross said. She urged people to call the department (703/324-1300) if they want to file a complaint.

Former Fairfax County School Board chair Mary Anne Lecos, who now works with Annandale Christian Community for Action (ACCA), said she is pleased that the advertised budget would increase funds for non-profit organizations that help the needy, but raised concerns about the impact of federal budget cuts.

Several residents of the Jefferson Green Condominium, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, complained about a new development in their backyards involving the construction of 146 garden-style units.

Bob Shepler, president of the homeowner association board, said the developer of Monticello Mews built a fence Shepler’s his property and cut down a lot of trees in violation of the plan that had been approved for the project. Another Jefferson Green resident said the developer knocked down some lights and left piles of dirt with dust blowing all over the place.

Several residents criticized Gross for not doing more to protect their community. At the least, they felt they  should have been informed before the developer started carrying out work that affected their community. Shepler asked Gross whether “the drive for increased revenue is leading to lax oversight.”

Gross said problems with the developer should be taken up with the Department of Public Works. She said  she had been able to block the project for eight years, but ran out of legal recourse. She also said that at one point, she threw the developer out of her office. “I can’t put myself in front of a bulldozer; maybe that’s where you’d like to see me,” she said.

In response to Gross’ contention that a county inspector had been assigned to be on project site every day, Shepler countered, that inspector “should have seen it was an incursion on our property. . . . Who is accountable?”

Griffin stepped in, saying, “You can deal directly with me,” noting that he is in charge of the Public Works Department. But since Virginia is a property rights state, he said, the county has limited control over development.

Another Jefferson Green resident, Andre Newman, complained about trash piling up along Interstate 395 and the grass not being cut regularly in the public right of way. Gross said it is VDOT’s responsibility and called the lack of maintenance a consequence of “the state’s failure to find a dedicated source of funding for transportation.” The state used to mow six times a year and has cut back to three, Griffin added.

Earl Sutter of the Lake Barcroft neighborhood asked why there is such a dramatic increase proposed for the sewer service charge—from $4.50 (per 1,000 gallons) in 2010 to $5.27 in 2011 and to a proposed rate of $6.01 in 2012.

Griffin said the increase is needed to pay for higher treatment costs stemming from a federal mandate to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Griffin said he doesn’t disagree with the objective but is “seriously concerned with how we are going to pay for it.”

Sutter also questioned why the county needs to spend $7 million or $8 million to replace the Bailey’s Crossroads fire station instead of repairing it. The building’s roof collapsed during the February 2010 snowstorm. Gross said the building is outdated; it isn’t big enough for modern fire trucks and doesn’t have sleeping space for women firefighters.

Jim Kelly, of Bailey’s Crossroads, expressed concern “with all the debt we’re incurring,” citing a proposal for a $280 million bond on top of the $250 million school bond passed by voters a few years ago. “Are we relying on bonds to fund the budget?” he asked.

“We take on and retire debt at an equal rate,” Griffin responded. “If a bond is not passed, projects won’t get done.” He said the county uses bonds only for capital improvements, not for operating costs. And “the county’s Triple A bond rating means our interest rates are low,” Gross added.

Kelly also asked about the status of the Mark Center project. Gross called the decision to let the Department of Defense build a huge new facility (BRAC-133) at the intersection of Seminary Road and I-395 without considering the impact on traffic “a huge mistake.” The new buildings, to open Sept. 15, will have 6,400 employees.

Since the property is in the city of Alexandria, she said, “Fairfax County was not a party to this.” Gross has set up a task force to work on traffic and parking issues in the Fairfax County neighborhoods closest to the Mark Center.

The state of Virginia has proposed a new ramp from I-395 to the BRAC facility, but it won’t be finished until 2015. “It may or not work,” Gross said. Meanwhile, she requested traffic surveys for other roads in the county likely to face more congestion, including Route 7, Route 236, and Esdall Road.

Finally, Gross said two of the worst roads in Mason District—Backlick and Sleepy Hollow—will be fixed within the next few months.


  1. Its so funny how Ms. Gross always says that it is the fault of some other agency when residents complain or ask for help with things in their neighborhoods. Her standard answers are she can't do anything because of the State’s Dillon Law, Department of Public Works, or the Federal Government’s fault, never hers. It is time she stood in front of a bulldozer to stand up for constituents!

  2. Ask Supervisor Gross if she kicked the developer out of her office that is trying to overdevelop 3236 Peace Valley Lane into a high-density quagmire?

    Not only did she not kick him out, she met with him numerous times, took his campaign donations, and supports a zoning law change to allow him to cram as many houses into a small plot in an already overly developed area, against the wishes of all surrounding neighbors.

  3. Another example of overdevelopment in Mason District is the cluster subdivision that has been approved by the county at the south end of Skyview Terrace (off of Valley Brook Dr which intersects Sleepy Hollow Rd at the bottom of the hill near the swim clubs). The site plan approved by the county allows the developer to cram too many large single family homes onto a 3 acre parcel surrounded by community residences. To achieve this density of development the county allowed a number of variances to county standards and codes, including requirements for stormwater management. The Board of Supervisors should reduce the latitude that they have given county staff in the Dept of Public Works to grant waivers and variances to county standards. This would better assure that developments comply with county regulations. What's the point of having standards controlling development if county staff can so easily grant waivers and variances in private meetings with developers??