Updates from Letty – March 8, 2019

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council 

Dear Friends,

Whew, what a week! This has definitely been one of those weeks reaffirming my belief in the importance and wide impact of local government. In work session, our topics were meaningful and weighty, spanning all parts of our everyday lives: the next round of the demographics study, exotic animal laws (find out if you have an illegal pet!), the library project, and senior tax relief. Warning – this week’s post is lengthy, but definitely something for everyone and I hope you find it as fascinating as I did!

And if you missed it, we had an assortment of opening events for various big projects: the opening of the joint police training center/firing range, the Mt. Daniel community open house, and the ceremonial groundbreaking for Founders Row. And the first three of the board and commission meetings about the West Falls Church campus project occurred, with three more opportunities next week for you to attend.

The FY20 budget season kicks into high gear next week with the presentation of the proposed budget. Then we roll up our sleeves and get to work before we adopt a budget and set a tax rate on 4/22.

Read on, and keep the good questions and feedback coming – you can email or see me in person at my next office hours on 3/25.



What Happened This Week:

(1) Work Session Topics

(a) Demographics Study – Part 2

As I wrote about last November when we reviewed our population trends (looking backwards), a demographics study for Falls Church has been underway. There were a few surprises that you may remember:

  • 1 in 3 total households are single person households, likely due to the city having more units of housing in multifamily buildings (2669) than single family homes (2260). The majority of those units of multifamily housing are smaller housing stock – studios and one bedrooms, which has been a deliberate policy choice to better balance previous demographic trends and the tax base in the city.
  • Seemingly paradoxical increase in the number of school-age children but a decrease in the number of households with children – likely attributed to homeowner families having more than 2 kids (“3 is the new 2” phenomenon).
  • Also, we have a greater percentage of 55+ residents than neighboring counties (1 out of 4 residents are 55+); we are likely retaining baby boomers and seniors who are aging in place.
  • One of the least diverse in the region.

We looked at part 2 of the study this week, the demographic projections (looking ahead). Here are my key takeaways:

  • At approximately 14K residents currently, various methodologies project we will hit 20K residents around 2045.
  • With regional job growth expected, there are also projections of the commensurate housing demand. It is expected the DC region will need 122K new housing units between 2020-2025, 120K new housing units between 2025-2030, etc – with the City of Falls Church’s share being 732 additional housing units in 2020-2025.
  • Amazon effect? You might wonder if or how incoming Amazon HQ2 affects housing stock and prices. (The leading regional economist, Stephen Fuller, believes the overall regional impact will be gradual and dispersed.) For Falls Church, instead of 732 units, our demographers believe the Amazon impact will increase demand for housing units to 892 in years 2020-2025. The implication is that with Amazon, we will gain about 160 more households in Falls Church than we otherwise will gain. The good news is that current development plans should meet that increase in housing demand. (see pages 22-23 for more detail on projections beyond 2025).
  • One of the most policy-impacting projections is comparing the future demand for housing vs incomes. The projection is that we will have more expensive homes vs demand and not enough stock of “missing middle” or lower income housing (see page 25 for more detail)

Letty’s thoughts: Demographics information is most useful when we do something about the trends and projections. How should the population composition guide our budget decisions and capital investments? For example – while the schools continue to be an important part of the community, with more single person households and 55+, how should city facilities and services meet those populations? Are we building enough housing and the right types of housing? Do we have the right infrastructure to support 20K residents by 2045? The next phase of the demographics study will focus on questions like these and implications of the trends.

(b) Exotic Animal Laws

Current Falls Church animal laws prohibit pets except for dogs, cats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, and birds purchased through a pet store, gold fish and aquarium fish; nonpoisonous snakes, less than eight feet in length; and domestic rabbits, mice and rats bred in captivity. Did you know that “exotic animals” such as chinchillas, hedgehogs, hermit crabs – and even turtles, lizards – are illegal in Falls Church despite them being more commonplace and domesticated pets in recent times? Since 2015, the city has received citizen comments to revise our exotic animal ordinance, ramping up recently since both Arlington County in 2017 and Fairfax County in 2019 revised their animal ordinances to allow for these pets.

Like most any proposed law changes, there are pros and cons. I found the argument to make our law consistent with our neighbors (especially ones with more resources than we have and spent considerable time hearing from experts about this topic) especially compelling. Our staff report includes the recent Fairfax County staff report that details their research efforts and recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to make the change, which they did in Jan 2019.

More to come as I asked staff to work on proposed language for a future vote. If you already to have one of these pets, are thinking of adding one to your family, or have opposing thoughts about their legalization – I’d like to hear from you!

(c) Library Renovation & Expansion Project

From fluffy animals, we then turned our attention to more sobering news about the library renovation and expansion project. At 35% design completion (with construction planned to start later this year), we were told the project has a $1.25M shortfall due to costs coming in higher than planned. Recall the library bond referendum was approved in 2016 for $8.7M, so the additional $1.25M request would put the project at $9.7M.

We discussed the use of Founders Row voluntary concession money to plug $300K of the $1.25M gap and other strategies to de-scope and value engineer the project. Unfortunately those measures would impact LEED certification (a standard for environmental certification) and streetscape standards and wouldn’t fully cover the shortfall.

Letty’s thoughts: despite the good desire to alleviate some of the cost overruns, those cost-cutting measures are pretty unpalatable to me. I believe we should hold an equally high bar on sustainability and streetscape for our own municipal projects as we do with our other city buildings and our commercial projects. If we expect private developers to meet those standards, we should lead by example in our public buildings. Long time readers also know by now that it’s not the first time we’ve received such news about higher than expected costs.  I am also concerned that this won’t be the only time we hear that the project will cost more money, especially when we are only at 35% design and months away from negotiating a GMP (guaranteed maximum price). Even after using the $300K in Founders Row money, in order to close the gap on the remaining $900K shortfall, we would require additional bonds and debt service that City Council needs to approve.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a solution, so stay tuned.

(d) Senior Tax Relief 

As you may recall from last year’s budget decision where we increased the budget to provide more property tax relief to low income senior citizens, a task force has been underway to look at options to revamp the tax relief program. The intent is to help more people and look at neighboring jurisdictions’ programs for learnings. Last year, the program helped 54 households with about $210K in total taxes relieved.

Letty’s thoughts: I’ll be honest – the program is quite complex to understand! I am grateful to the task force for their diligence and hard work to assess and revise our program to help more people. While 54 households and $210K  (0.41% of the total taxes) is a pretty small number of people we’re helping, it is not much lower than everyone else’s. The tax relief amount a citizen is granted depends on their income, amount of assets, property value and the task force considered various program options changing each of those factors. Two key recommendations are 1) lower the asset limit from $540K to $400K and 2) allow deferrals (vs relief) without interest for the higher income brackets, which would make it more appealing than current policy which charges interest. Conceptually, tax deferrals are a more equitable benefit for all other taxpayers, as the deferred back taxes could be collected later if the house is sold. More to come when the task force finalizes a recommendation to us.

(2) Founders Row Groundbreaking

While Founders Row was one of my first votes in 2016 after I was sworn in (and took several more twists and turns after), you may be surprised that the project long predates me – all the way back to 2012! Construction will continue the next 2 years and everyone’s patience is much appreciated. We look forward to a vibrant new corner in the western part of the city, bringing new jobs, residents, and visitors to Falls Church by summer 2021. For a recap of the details of the project, see my August 2018 post (TL;DR version: $1.7-$2.1M net fiscal impact and additional $2.3M in other financial contributions – such as the $300K to the library (see above), multi-screen movie theater, restaurants, housing, public plaza, and transportation improvements).


(3) Other Capital Projects – long time readers know we’ve undertaken a large backlog of capital projects and reinvestment in facilities across the city. The first of these are now coming online…

  • New Police Training Center/ Firing Range – as I wrote about in Jan 2017, the city has had a long-standing relationship with the City of Fairfax in a joint training center/firing range. (A good example of smaller police forces working together to achieve something we wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford solo). A new building for the police forces of Falls Church, Fairfax, and George Mason University – located in the City of Fairfax – was recently completed, with our financial share being $1.2M,
  • Mt Daniel Community Open House – it was great to see past, present, and future FCCPS families, including some long graduated neighbors, attend the Mt. Daniel open house last weekend. Now that it’s complete – besides the new educational spaces, it adds much needed school parking at the top of Oak St so we can be considerate neighbors and alleviates capacity issues in the elementary schools as we turn our focus to the GMHS/MEH campus. For those who aren’t aware, first graders have moved out of trailers back into the new wing of MD, second grade will move from TJ Elementary to MD next school year, providing room to grow at both elementary schools for years to come. The original $15.6M bond referendum was approved back in 2014, with an additional $2M appropriated in 2017 after costs came in higher.

What’s Coming Up:

Below are the Board and Commissions who are reviewing the West Falls Church Economic Development Project (aka WFCEDP – the 10 acres adjacent to the high school). If you’re interested in learning and commenting, you have three opportunities next week. Join the public meetings for Groups 4-6 in the schedule below. Online videos of the most recent town halls and links are also available.

Boards/Commission GroupingDate & TimeLocation
Group 13/5/20197:00 PMViget Conference Room
Economic Development Authority
Chamber of Commerce
Human Services Advisory Council
105 W. Broad St, 4th Floor
Falls Church, VA 22046
Group 23/6/20197:00 PMCommunity Center Art Room
Recreation & Parks Advisory Council
Arts and Humanities Council
Village Preservation & Improvement Society
223 Little Falls St
Falls Church, VA 22046
Group 33/7/20197:30 PMCommunity Center Teen Room
Historical Commission
Historic Architectural Advisory Board
223 Little Falls St
Falls Church, VA 22046
Group 43/11/20197:00 PMMEH Cafetorium
Housing Commission
Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation
Library Board of Trustees
7130 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22046
Group 53/12/20197:00 PMSchool Board Conference Room
School Board800 W. Broad St #203
Falls Church, VA 22046
Group 63/13/20197:30 PMCommunity Center Teen Room
Planning Commission
Architectural Advisory Board
Tree Commission
Environmental Sustainability Council
223 Little Falls St
Falls Church, VA 220
  • Monday, March 11 – City Council Meeting (FY20 budget presentation)
  • Monday, March 18 – City Council Work Session (budget worksession #1)
  • Sunday, March 24 – Sunday Series Town Hall (2 pm)
  • Monday, March 25 – Letty’s Office Hours (9 am, Northside Social)