August 20 Town Council Meeting Review

Posted on September 4, 2018




The agenda and meeting materials are now available here, as of 11:30 AM 8/16/2018.

My initial take on this is that the Town is setting this up for approval.  They are (e.g.) introducing materials never before presented, all of which support passing this proposal.  For example, there’s a fiscal analysis, a re-analysis of the traffic situation and so on.

CORRECTION:  Initially, I saw no mention of postponing the vote.   But now, clear as day, that definitely is mentioned as a option.  So they may or may not vote on it.    The rest of this stands as written.  They are presenting the materials to provide them cover.  In particular, they are going to argue that this is better than a by-right (C1 zoning building).  And now, if they have to votes to pass it, they will.  And if not, presumably, they will defer to a later date.  I note that the Town materials do not mention the possibility of not approving the application.

I had not intended to provide any analysis of content here.   But after looking over the materials, I think they are fairly informative.  Just maybe not in the way the Town intended.

First, they emphasize how fair and even-handed the Town is not.  The Town provides a comparison of what the developer could build “by right”, under the current (C1) zoning, compared to the 444 Maple West proposal.

Putting aside the fact that they appear to ignore the R1 portion of the lot, let me ask what an even-handed analysis would do.

First, what is the single great advantage of a “C1” building, based on current zoning, from the standpoint of the neighbors?  It’s vastly smaller than the 444 Maple West proposal.  And the Town’s analysis of the C1 building mentions that … nowhere.  Second, an advantage vis-a-vis the schools and other infrastructure is that the C1 building adds no new town residents.  And that is mentioned … nowhere.  And apparently the C1 building, with about twice as much retail space as 444 Maple West proposal, nevertheless cannot have a restaurant anywhere near the size of what (they assume) will got into the 444 Maple West building because … I can only assume that would not give them the revenue comparison they wanted to see.

To me, this certainly has the earmarks of a reinforcing the conclusion they want, not providing an even-handed assessment of realistic alternatives.  Take a look at their  financial analysis of the by-right (built under commercial C1 zoning) versus MAC buildings (.pdf).  Notice anything odd about it?  Let me clue you in:  Look at the assessed value.

They assumed that, to build the C1 building, the builder would destroy the current setup worth $6.2M in order to build a grocery store worth $5M.  

As an economist, might I suggest that any scenario based on the assumption that the developer will knock down a building and replace it with something less valuable is … well … not a good business model.

In other words, their financial analysis is an analysis of a building that would never get built.  If the only choices were to keep it as is, or build that grocery store, the developer would keep it as is.

So this looks to me like they’ve agreed to pass it.   If they are putting things like that in black-and-white, pretty clearly they’re not making some good-faith effort to explore the realistic possibilities.  Or do an even-handed analysis.  They have spent their time not in addressing citizen concerns, but in making sure they have cover when they dismiss those concerns.

Any notion that this e.g. sets a standard for further development,  that the traffic assessment needs to be cumulative and consider all likely development, … nah.  Nothing like that.  As far as the Town is concerned, this is a one-and-done, and has no further repercussions.

Just for grins, can we think of any other plausible way to guess what a 35,000 square foot shopping center might actually be worth, in that neighborhood?  Hey, why not look a block or so up Maple?  There we find Jades, at about 18,000 square feet, valued at $6.3M, and Vienna Plaza, around 16,000 square feet, valued at about $5.6M Or, in total, 34,000 square feet of shopping, about two blocks away, valued at just under $12M.

Golly.  And it took me all of 90 seconds to find that on the Fairfax County tax maps.  I think that adequately shows the level of due diligence the Town put into this.  This isn’t about a fair and realistic assessment of the situation.  This is about putting alternatives other than the preferred alternative in the worst possible light.

And just to underscore the level of realism in the Town’s financial analysis, how could we possibly guess what a 35,000 square foot grocery store would be worth, here in the Town of Vienna?  By looking it up?  Why not.  Another well-spent 60 seconds with the Fairfax County tax maps shows us that Whole Foods is roughly that size, and is valued at just under $12M.  That’s a nice little robustness check.

(And the longer I look at that table, the less I understand it.  But, possibly, I simply do not understand local taxes.  Based on Virginia statute, I thought that Towns and Counties shared the 1% local sales tax .  I must be mistaken, because while I see the 3% meals tax, and a gross receipts tax, I don’t see any Town share of sales tax revenues on the projected $40M/year in grocery sales.)

Secondarily,  they appear ready to add a density limit to MAC.  They went out of their way to, as far as I can tell, simply assert that a dwelling-unit density limit would not apply to an assisted-living facility.  They would not have bothered to make that up on the fly unless they were determined to add a density limit to MAC.  And then ignore it for the assisted living facility that has been invited to build downtown.  And, given the general tenor of this, my bet would be that any density limit will be as favorable to developers as possible.

Please show up to the meeting, if you can.  You have no voice, as the Town Council closed the public debate on this at the last meeting.  But you can at least make them see you as they vote to pass it.

Correction:  Initially I said that the discussion of delays, below, was moot.  It is not.  I still can find no support for delaying this in Virginia statute.  According to the Commonwealth, they have 100 days, period.  At some  point, I hope someone can point out where Commonwealth law allows for extending the deadline.  I sure can’t find it.

Separately, A 7 PM work session prior to the meeting will be used to discuss a proposed Sunrise assisted living facility at Maple and Center.  (Work sessions are open to the public but there is no opportunity for public comment.).

Please see this page for my explanation of what may be at stake at this Town Council meeting.

This page will hold updates on the August 20, 2018 meeting of the Vienna Town Council.  As soon as the Town Council posts the agenda, I will post the link here.  Even with that, we may not know whether or not 444 Maple West will come to a vote at that meeting.

In theory, the Town Council must vote on the 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande proposal at this Town Council meeting.  Otherwise, if they have not voted on it by August 31, 2018, the proposal is deemed to have been accepted.  That’s the way Commonwealth of Virginia law reads.  I do not think they could legally schedule and hold an additional meeting between 8/20/2019 and 8/31/2018.

But two other things could happen that could delay that vote.

The builder might withdraw the proposal.  At that point, discussion of this proposal is finished.  The builder would be free to re-submit a proposal in the near future.

The builder might amend the proposal, in which case the Town Council could vote to extend the public comment period.  In that case, I’m not sure how long this process could continue.  It would extend it for at least one month, but possibly longer.  The Town has to advertise the public hearing for additional comments, then hold that public hearing.

If the proposal is voted down, the builder has to wait one year before resubmitting plans.