Updates from Letty – September 1, 2023

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,

Happy end of summer! City Council returns from our summer recess next week, so while we had no city business this week – there is enough to catch up on that I thought it would be worthwhile for a post. (Incidentally, I had never counted til now, but this is my 320th post!) We are back with a work session next Tuesday (agenda here). Three things this week:

  • Student enrollment / where students live – In August, we welcomed back students to our schools, and I wish them a successful and healthy school year. There have been some headlines about an unexpected increase in enrollment and while more work needs to be done on the data of the “where” and “why”, I’ll share more about how we’ve historically projected and planned for enrollment and capacity planning due to great partnership between City Hall and the schools. For newcomers and new readers, I hope this gives you insight into the process and allays concern until we have more data.
  • School zone speed cameras – with school back in session, it’s timely that we’ll be starting our speed camera program, with our first location near St James. Cameras or not, please take special care with students at bus stops, sidewalks, and intersections!
  • Sierra Club questionnaire – as campaign season is kicking off this weekend, the candidate questionnaires, forums, events, etc are also picking up. For the sake of transparency and efficiency, I’ll share my responses as I write them – this week, I’ll share some of my responses to the Sierra Club’s questionnaire with my positions on the environment, which is a key part of our vision to be a more sustainable city.

Finally, I look forward to seeing you at my campaign kickoff on Sunday morning (a free event although donations gratefully accepted) and you can request a yard sign to show your support, which will be delivered this weekend. Early voting starts in 3 weeks, on Friday, September 22.

Take care,

What Happened:

(1) School Enrollment, Capacity Planning, etc

School enrollment this year is higher than last year (93 more students than last year, which is 75 more than the annual projections by the schools). While the data is still out on why we have higher than expected growth and where students are originating, it’s important context to know how we’ve historically planned and coordinated for school growth.

For long time readers, you’ll know this is a popular topic and one that I cover every year because it’s one of the top FAQs and misconceptions I’ve fielded for 8 years. You can find past posts by doing a search of “where students live” in my blog. I wrote about last year’s analysis in December 2022 with an excerpt below. A few specifics on the process:

  • Due to the great partnership between City Hall and the schools, we have an annual process that happens every fall *and* with every development project proposal.
  • Annual process: after numbers settle down at the beginning of the year, September 30 student enrollment has historically been the “official” numbers we use. The schools also monitor and report out on enrollment monthly – here is the last report to the School Board from the end of the school year (June 2023) where you’ll see fluctuation month to month over the course of the year as well.
  • Modeling by unit type and size: every year, we track where students live by specific type of dwelling so we can develop ratios used to project and plan for growth based on upcoming development. It’s all anonymous, of course. Over time, these ratios have been refined and are quite accurate such that we can apply those ratios to a proposed mixed use building – down to the unit type and size – which is then incorporated into the fiscal analysis the city conducts for each project. (A fiscal analysis is the projected revenues minus the costs, which includes services like schools, police, etc.) With the exception of Pearson Square as the outlier – which was converted from condos to apartments during the Great Recession – the actual school enrollment for the other 8 mixed use buildings has been on target, if not a little lower, than the original projections.
  • School capacity: the most notable school capacity expansion is the completion of the new Meridian High School, built for 1200 (flexible to 1500). Per the last FCCPS capital improvements plan from the past budget cycle, here is the enrollment vs capacity across our 5 schools.

From the 2022 -2023 “where students live” report (this year’s will come out this fall/winter):

  • The majority of students (62%) in our city continue to live in single family homes and 10% live in newer mixed use development, which is where we’ve concentrated the growth of new housing stock the past 20 years. The remaining 28% of students live in an assortment of older housing – condos, apartments, and townhomes.
  • The good news is that for our latest project to open, Founders Row, which is now 88% occupied (note: 88% was as of December 2022, they are now fully occupied) – the actual number of students came in line with our projections.

Letty’s Thoughts: school enrollment and capacity planning is important. It’s also quite familiar to me and was a major focus of the 2016-2018 years when I was newly elected on the City Council. We had a backlog of infrastructure projects and wanted to ensure our schools and other capital needs reflected city and regional growth trends. And also important to me is that we plan it in a way that a small city with a small tax base could afford.

Finally, it’s important to note that infrastructure planning can only be done well if it’s based on good projections. We are committed to ensuring city services, housing stock, and other infrastructure meet our current and future population’s needs – whether it’s students, seniors, families, young professionals, etc. Across the US, we have new phenomena like declining birth rates, return to work trends, and Covid school impacts (where many school systems, including ours, saw a decline in enrollment) in addition to expected regional growth (TL;DR: the DC region is still expected to add 1.5M people and 1M jobs between now and 2050, despite some demographic changes and post-Covid challenges).

We have funded an updated demography study now underway for Falls Church. More to come!

(2) Speed Cameras

From my December 2022 post when we discussed the plan for speed cameras, as one of many tools we deploy to improve safety on our streets – along with neighborhood traffic calming, enforcement, and engineering solutions like road re-design. The draft ordinance will be up for discussion at our Tuesday work session.

From December: the General Assembly last year granted localities the ability to use speed cameras in school and construction zones during school hours/days.

  • Out of the school zones in the city assessed by speed camera vendor, the staff recommendation is to deploy cameras on both sides of the 800 block of Broad St, as it would best meet the criteria and has the most traffic and pedestrian volume.
  • Based on the study and traffic count, the vendor estimated that approximately 10K speed violations per year would result from speed cameras in this corridor (with 20-40% not being able to be ultimately ticketed due license plate illegibility, etc).
  • For comparison, we see about 2K red light violations and 800 school bus stop arm violations per year, which are the other automated enforcement* tools deployed in Falls Church.

*It’s important to note that while speed cameras are “automated enforcement”, the legislation requires manual review by sworn officers behind the scenes that we will need to resource.

Photo: WTOP

(3) Sierra Club Candidate Questionnaire

Q1: List your top three environmental priorities for Falls Church and describe what specific measures you will take to achieve them if elected. Are these priorities and proposed measures being highlighted as part of your campaign?

A1: As transportation and buildings are the top contributors to greenhouse gases (GHGs), I support a pragmatic approach in Falls Church’s environmental priorities that is weighted towards those areas as reflected in the now adopted Government Operations Energy Action Plan (GOEAP) and the underway Community Energy Action Plan (CEAP). I will continue to highlight the city’s responsibility to be a good environment steward and change agent for the environment as key priorities in my campaign – not just in policies but also past budget decisions and votes I’ve cast. A sustainable city is a core part of my vision for Falls Church and my top 3 environmental priorities are:

  1. Reduce energy use and support energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources in buildings and transportation – specifically, retrofit existing buildings, set standards for new buildings, and shift mode share by continuing to invest in bike and ped infrastructure.
    • While municipal buildings/transportation make up only 3% of the city’s GHGs, I am proud to
      have a hand in our new high school which is net zero ready (and more with the addition of solar
      panels soon) and City Hall and Library renovated to be LEED Silver several years ago. We should look to retrofit other city buildings as renovation/modernization of systems are scheduled and continue the green fleet transition.
    • Our Environmental Sustainability Council (ESC) also has recommendations for us around RECs
      and PPAs to move the city to more renewable energy which I’d support.
    • For the private sector, while we’ve set a new high bar of LEED Gold in new commercial/mixed
      use buildings, we have the opportunity to adopt green building standards for new commercial
      buildings. We’ve begun by negotiating for electric only appliances in the most recent special
      exception approval and green building standards are in the current City Council work plan. We can encourage private homeowners to “green” their homes via energy audits, improving energy efficiency, electrifying systems, weatherization, etc.
    • On the transportation front, the city has a role in providing options and infrastructure that make it easier for residents and visitors to be less auto-centric – investing in sidewalks, bikeshare, bike lanes, transit and first/last mile connections, and lowering the barrier for adoption of EVs via ideas like more charging stations – all of which we’ve increased funding in our budgets, have been in our work plans over the past 6-8 years, and as a result we’ve delivered on projects like Dual Trails of the W&OD, Capital Bikeshare, new sidewalks, crosswalks, ADA ramps, bus shelters.I also take pride in specifically advocating for sidewalk-specific funding in our operating budgets and efforts to reduce “missing links” in our sidewalk network, which are now a standing item that is funded every year. Yet there remains more to do as the transition from a car-centric 1950s suburb to a more walkable/bikeable city is slow and costly.
  1. Improve the city’s resilience to climate change – as we are already dealing with the effects of stronger and more frequent extreme weather events, continuing to invest in upgrading our stormwater infrastructure and protecting and expanding our tree canopy will help the city improve resilience to climate events.
    • While the City Council has funded and prioritized the “Big 6” gray infrastructure projects
      underway with bigger and newer storm pipes, I believe green infrastructure projects that slow
      down/reduce runoff and improve water quality merit attention as well. I look forward to seeing
      the first green infrastructure plans in the Greening of Lincoln project.
    • I’d also love to see stronger upfront policy changes for residential redevelopment. On an annual
      basis, by-right residential redevelopment impacts far more land (as small single family homes are replaced with larger homes) than changes in our commercial corridor. While we already have adopted the most stringent residential tree canopy requirements allowed in Virginia (20%
      canopy in 10 years), I’d love to see a more progressive policy that slows down the increase of
      impervious surfaces in our neighborhoods and reduces clear cutting of mature trees, as mature
      trees help reduce runoff. For example, our neighbors next door in Arlington County have
      adopted a 3” of stormwater retention requirement for residential redevelopment and I’ve
      advocated for our city staff to consider a similar ordinance in the current City Council work plan.
    • Urban forest – we are proud that we have one of the highest tree canopies in the region at 46%
      and our leafy tree lined streets are a defining feature of Falls Church. Our best measurement of
      tree canopy also shows that it’s actually held steady if not grown, contrary to common belief,
      even with new development in our commercial and residential neighborhoods. That said, we
      shouldn’t rest on our laurels. As the liaison to the Urban Forestry Commission since 2021, I’ve
      encouraged that board to recommend the city adopt tree canopy and green space % standards
      for new commercial developments so we set an appropriately high bar for future projects vs rely on negotiations via the Special Exception process. That work is now underway by the UFC.
  2. “Smart Growth” – a loaded and buzzy term, but early on, I’ve learned that one of the best things we can do to support the environment is to encourage appropriate density and transit-oriented development where there is existing infrastructure, transportation, jobs, good and services in order to reduce exurban sprawl and traffic congestion – which in turn reduces GHGs. As Falls Church is designated as a regional activity center, we have a continued responsibility to welcome good development and housing growth for the region. I would support this kind of growth in future comprehensive plan updates, small area plan updates, infrastructure planning, and City Council work plans.

What’s Coming Up:

Sunday, September 3 – Letty’s Campaign Kickoff

Tuesday, September 5 – City Council Meeting*

Wednesday, September 6 – Ask the Council Office Hours (City Hall, 9 am)

Monday, September 11 – City Council Meeting*

Tuesday, September 26 – City Council Meeting*

*Mondays (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings