Post #507: Last night’s Town Council meeting

Posted on January 7, 2020

The 1/6/2019 meeting was largely uneventful.  In this post I summarize a handful of items from that meeting in not-quite-chronological order.

You can find the meeting materials on this page.  You can find my audio recording of the meeting (taken from the Town’s streaming of the meeting) at this Google Drive link.  My .xls “index file” to show you where to find items on the tape can be found at this Google Drive link.

For your reference, here’s the agenda:

2020 01 06 Town Council meeting agenda


A pig flew past the window, chasing after a lead balloon.

About two and a half minutes into the meeting, my wife got up and asked Town Council voluntarily to comply with both the Virginia Campaign Finance Disclosure Act (CFDA) and the Stand by Your Ad act.

The reception to this request was less than enthusiastic.

You can see my CFDA discussion in Post #340.  Currently, no campaign finance laws apply in Town of Vienna elections.  Anyone can give any amount of money to any Town of Vienna candidate.  There is no requirement that any such contribution be publicly reported.  And anyone may post ads trying to influence the outcome of the election without revealing who they are.

My wife is asking the Town to change this situation by voluntarily placing town  elections under the CFDA, as the Town of Herndon did earlier this decade.  They aren’t going to do that.  Not much I can do except to say, please remember this (and the Noah’s Ark meeting) the next time Town Council starts blathering about how much they favor transparency in government. 

Candidates for Mayor

Council members Colbert and Springsteen announced that they would be running for Mayor.  Colbert stressed her strong association with (and blessing from?) the current Mayor.  Springsteen emphasized both his long-standing service and his understanding of Vienna citizens’ desire to maintain “small town” Vienna.  You can hear their speeches starting around 1:01:00 (just over one hour) into my tape of the meeting.

Apparently it is Vienna tradition that anyone on Council who intends to run for Mayor should makes that announcement at the first meeting of the new year.  (I wasn’t aware of this but others assure me that’s the case.)  The inference — but clearly not a hard-and-fast rule — is that nobody else on Council is running for Mayor.

If that’s the full list of candidates, then from my myopic lens of reducing the size and extent of redevelopment, that gives me an obvious choice of Springsteen over Colbert.  This, notwithstanding the recent vote to commingle the MAC rewrite with the rewrite of all the zoning in Vienna, and to develop the ground rules for doing that in secret (Post #495).

Level of service standards for Maple

This one turned out to be a huge disappointment for me.

You can read my just-prior post for the background, but, briefly, the issue is whether to adopt some goal for reasonable traffic flow down Maple as part of the Town’s comprehensive plan. That goal would be expressed as a “level of service” on Maple, graded from A (free flow of traffic) to F (gridlock).  Fairfax County has a county-wide standard of no less than a “D” level of service, but accepts level “E” in some congested areas.  Currently, Maple Avenue as a whole appears to score as level “D”.

Why was I disappointed?  First, this appears to have been initiated by Town staff, not Town Council.  (Councilmen Noble, asked, in effect, “did we ask for this”?).  Second, apparently Town staff intend to use this in the narrowest possible way, by looking at the additional traffic from one development project at a time, and if that traffic pushes Maple Avenue below the acceptable level of service, requiring that project to adopt “mitigation measures” to maintain the level of service.  Third, Councilman Majdi brought up the issue of integrating such a standard into an overall redevelopment plan for Vienna, he got (what I heard) as a bunch of evasion and double-speak.  To me, at least, it was not at all clear how this fits into the overall rewrite of all the zoning in the Town of Vienna, if at all.

On that last one, I’ve seen that sort of purposeful ambiguity enough times to realize what that means.   Town staff aren’t going to do that, but they aren’t going to say that they aren’t going to do that.  So if there is any overall concept of “please do not develop Maple to the point where traffic cannot move”, that’s going to have to come from Town Council, and will likely be opposed in the usual manner by Town staff.

So that’s the crux of my disappointment.  I thought that Town Council would use this to act like real planners, and use it to shape the overall scope of allowable Maple Avenue redevelopment.  As in, if we forbid any expansion of Maple Avenue itself to handle more cars (which is unspoken but appears to be true), then let’s estimate how much additional development we can afford on Maple before we drive the level-of-service below level “D” (or “E”, or whatever they adopt as the standard).  And then structure the new zoning regulations to give us no more than that limit.

I.e., I thought they intended to do some actual forward-looking planning, acknowledging the key role that traffic congestion plays in qualify-of-life in Vienna.  But if they did that, it would probably limit the overall extent of development on Maple.  So that sort of proposal certainly isn’t going to come out of our strongly pro-development Town staff.  Any such thinking would have to come out of Town Council.  And I’m not hearing any such thinking, yet.

The other disappointment is that, if used as proposed by staff, this is a traffic-control placebo.  Staff can point to it and say that they’ve addressed the impact of development on traffic, when they have done no such thing.

Why?  Traffic congestion is the cumulative effect of a lot of little decisions.  Traffic congestion can rarely be attributed to any one point source or any one development.   In all likelihood, any “level of service” goal will never be binding on one individual development.  (With the possible exception of the redevelopment of Giant Food, which could pour on-order-of a thousand cars onto Maple each morning, at that one location (Post #479).)

It’s all about the difference between “development” and “a development”.  If you’re serious about not screwing up Maple Avenue traffic any further, what we need is some overall limit on (the totality of) redevelopment on Maple.  (If such a limit is warranted by objective analysis.)  Absent action by Town Council, what we are going to get from Town staff is a rule that addresses “a development”, meaning one individual project along Maple Avenue.

Not only is that not going to address the issue, it’ll let people dodge around the fact that the true issue hasn’t been addressed.  It’s the traffic analog of the completely ineffective open-space requirement.  Look, MAC is designed to give you parks and plazas!  It says so right in the law.  Now take a close look at the size and quality of the open space MAC has brought thus far.  That’s how much traffic congestion control via a one-development-at-a-time approach to level-of-service will likely bring.

Vacating alleyways

Again, read my last post for details.  This ended up being deferred.

My takeaways from this are the following.  First, I don’t really understand the law here.

Second, virtually nobody else other than the Town attorney understands the law here.  Not the people asking for the Town to vacate the alleyway right-of-way, not Town Council, and so on.  Based on what the Town Attorney said, in most cases, the Town can’t sell the right to the alleyway, it has to revert to one or the other of the adjacent property owners, depending on how the alley was created in the first place.  And that requires researching the original title to the land.)

Third, the Town has no systematic plan for addressing these requests.  I think Councilman Noble emphasized that.

Fourth, there doesn’t seem to be any systematic plan for addressing a lot of issues with the Town right-of-way.  This is what Councilman Majdi had tried to get a handle on at the last meeting, but got shot down in favor of having the Town Manager do an “after action” (followup) report on the Wawa tree cutting, and how the Town could prevent such mishaps in the future.

On that last point, I thought the Town Council was mixing apples and oranges, but maybe not.  Today they were addressing the narrow issue of disposing of Town alleyway rights-of-way that serve no public purpose.  Majdi’s point, from last time, was far broader, and included things like oversight of treatment of Town right-of-way during redevelopment.

Councilman Springsteen was disinclined to consider any requests for vacating alleyway rights-of-way at the moment, in light of what happened with Wawa.  His position is that we needed to keep these a buffers between business and residential areas.

When all was said and done, this issue was tabled until the Town Manager comes back with his “after action” report on the Wawa incident.