Post #534: Sell the Robinson property; use the money to build sidewalks

The title of this post is somewhat more than just a cheap attention-getting trick.  But you’ll have to skip to the end to get to that.  Possibly, this post will explain why I found the discussion of sidewalks at the last Town Council meeting so irritating.

In logical order, then:


The purchase of the Robinson house

At the end of 2019, the Town bought 124 Courthouse Rd SW, the house of the late Maud Robinson and former mayor Charles Robinson.  Details of the purchase are on this Town of Vienna web page.  The name on the transaction per Fairfax County appears to be the name of the executor of the Robinson estate.

The Town paid $1.37M for it, as noted on the reference above, plus some fees, bringing the total purchase price to the $1.44M shown above.  It was bought via an “online auction”.  The auction site snapshot included with the Town’s documentation lists 160 bids, so that has to be presumed to be at or above a market-clearing price.

My point being that the Town didn’t somehow get a deal.  It paid market value, maybe more than market value, for the property.

More than market value?  As an aside, every other estimate I can find for the value of that property is substantially less than what Vienna paid.  How the Town knew to set a not-to-exceed limit at that high a level is beyond me. Must have had a really savvy real estate agent advising them.  Just for the record, as of today, here’s what various sources give as an estimated value for 124 Courthouse Rd SW:

  • Fairfax County Tax Assessment: .. $700K
  • Redfin: …………………………………………  $919K
  • Smartzip: ………………………………. $807K – $831K
  • Epraisal: ………………………………… $821K – $1,111K
  • Zillow: ……………………………………………$872K

Likely, though, those apps just don’t look at that site as two home sites.  Which is surely what that will be if redeveloped.

The Town has no particular purpose in mind for that property.  As described on the website, for now they are treating it as if it were parkland, but they are open to other ideas.  They renamed Northside park in Maud Robinson’s honor, but they haven’t done anything with this property.

Aside from the historical interest, it’s an odd choice for a Town purchase.  It’s adjacent to the sound wall behind the Taco Bamba (former Magruder’s) parking lot.  And, well … it’s a typical suburban lot.  It has a house, garage, and sheds on it.  It’s on a large lot (just under three-quarters of an acre), but it still just a high-end suburban house.  Located adjacent to a commercial parking lot, one block off Maple, on Courthouse, which itself is a busy street.  So it’s a nice suburban house, on a large lot, in a less-than-idea location.  Now owned by the Town of Vienna.

Above:  Former Robinson house, center.  Taco Bamba (former Magruder’s) shopping center would be to the left of this picture.

I should also note that this wasn’t in the Town’s financial plan.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the Town hasn’t paid for the property yet.  They had to add this as a separate line item to the FY 2020 Capital Improvement Plan.  Thanks to this and other changes, they only finalized the CIP two days ago, at the Town Council meeting. They won’t get the money to pay for this, until they issue their record-breading $35M in bonds this fall.  So the Town committed to purchasing this, then made the decision to borrow the money to pay for it, borrowing to occur in fall of 2020.

Source:  Town of Vienna February 2020 Town Council meeting, Capital Improvement Plan presentation.


What made this purchase so attractive?

Just to recap the last section, the Town appears to have paid top dollar, for a high-end suburban house in a not-so-great location, with no particular purpose in mind.  Now, officially, the Town billed that as a sentimental purchase.  It’s to be retained as Town land in honor of the two individuals who lived there who played such key roles in shaping modern Vienna.

I’m an economist.  And I’m now going to help show why economics is called the dismal science.

It seems like $1.4M is a lot of sentiment.  Couldn’t you just, like, put the Robinson name on the Town Council chambers?  Or on a park, maybe?  That’s plenty sentimental, but the only cost is for the signage.

But was that really a $1.4M expense by the Town of Vienna?  Was that really $1.4M worth of sentiment?

And now we find out that a (the?) primary beneficiary of the Robinson estate is … the Town of Vienna.  Maud Robinson left (some?) money to the Town, for the purpose of building sidewalks.

But … that house was part of the estate, wasn’t it?  And the main beneficiary of the estate was … the Town of Vienna.  So did Vienna, in effect, pay that money to itself?  I think that’s right.  Or, at least, that’s a pretty ready explanation for what is otherwise a rather expensive gesture on the part of the Town.  No expense at all, to speak of, if whatever Vienna paid for that house, less fees, would come back to it in the form of funds in the Robinson estate.

If that’s true, then, in effect, the house was free, to the Town of Vienna.  (There’s that four-letter word again.)  The Town didn’t much have to care what it paid for the house, because whatever it paid, it would get back from the estate, for use in constructing sidewalks.  Basically, the Town got the house, then got its money back (less fees) from the estate.

So maybe that’s a driver here.  Sentiment, sure.  But economics is a pretty good driver for a lot of decisions.  Maybe this wasn’t a purely sentimental decision after all.


Which brings us back to sidewalks.

Well, not so fast.  The Town gets back the money it paid for the Robinson house, as long as it uses all the money at its disposal from the Robinson estate.

And that means the Town has to find $7M worth of new sidewalks to build, in the next five years.  They have to be new, because apparently the bequest has a standard (and typically in effective) maintenance-of-effort clause in it.  They Town can’t just use this money to free up other money it would have normally spent on sidewalks.  Instead, this has to be for new projects that were not already in the works (e.g., not already part of a current or historical Capital Improvement Plan).  And the offer runs out five years from now.  Any money left over goes to the residual legatee of that trust, whomever that might be.*

* Edit courtesy of my wife, who, after considerable discussion, convinced me that the pronoun in this case is best construed as the subject of dependent clause, or predicate nominative if you prefer.  Or something. She’s a lot better at grammar than I am.

What came out clearly at Monday’s (2/24/2020) Town Council meeting is that the estate lawyer has adopted a strict interpretation of the terms of the estate.  (I had mentioned that some months back in a post about the Transportation Safety Commission.)  The estate will pay for sidewalks, period.  No curb, no gutter, and no stormwater management.  (And, separately, no trails.)  And, as I noted in my post on that meeting, the sidewalk itself is the smallest part of the expense.

And, for whatever reason, the Town appears unwilling to spend its own money on building (e.g.) curb and gutter.   Discussion at Monday’s meeting was highly confused about that point, but that was my takeaway.  For reasons that I found completely unfathomable, in a meeting where they were modifying the 2020 Capital Improvement Plan, they were absolutely unwilling even to discuss modifying it further.

So now it gets truly weird.

First, just to get this one out of the way, the Town literally let the Robinson estate trustee pick the streets to get the first sidewalks.  (I am almost 100% sure that’s illegal, not just because it should be, but because the Town’s lawyer immediately set out to contradict that statement.  He was unsuccessful.  The head of DPW unambiguously stated that the streets were chosen by the Robinson estate trustee.)

But second, between the Robinson estate trustee’s straightjacket (she won’t pay for curb and gutter), and the Town’s arbitrarily self-imposed straightjacket (we won’t pay for curb and gutter), … nobody will pay for curb and gutter or anything else that I would describe as “incident to” sidewalk construction. Which you more-or-less need in order to put in a sidewalk.

Which means that, third, instead of prioritizing sidewalks based on where there is apparent need, the Town (as of now) is only considering putting these Robinson sidewalks in on streets that already have curb and gutter.  Pedestrian master plan?  Kiss that off.

And, fourth, although there is no public list of such areas, nor is there any map (public or private) of such areas, it seems a good guess that the Town cannot possibly spend $7M on sidewalks, given both of those straightjackets.  You can see my quick back-of-the-envelope in my recent post on the Town Council meeting.

Which means, finally, if you’ve followed this so far, in hindsight, the Town’s purchase of the Robinson house wasn’t free after all.  If the Town can’t spend down the funds, in five years, that money walks away.  It goes to the residual legatees of the Robinson estate, whomever they may be.*  The Town won’t get its money back, in the form of sidewalks, if it can’t build the sidewalks.

* Again, edit courtesy of my wife.  I could have gone either way on this one.

Discussion

I hope this has provided some perspective on why the sidewalk discussion of the last Town Council meeting left me kind of upset.  It’s not like I have any skin in the game, but I really hate to see good intentions going awry.

Now I will ask a few questions and leave it at that.

First, is this outcome really what anyone intended?  Mainly, does anyone think that something like this was intended by the decedents whose money forms the basis for this bequest?  Do we really think that the intent was to entice the Town into paying full market value (and then some) for the decedents’ house, by dangling a large bequest in front of the Town, only to prevent the Town from making use of those bequest funds, by so constricting their interpretation as to bar the Town from building more than a token amount of sidewalk mileage?

Nah.  I know nothing about the Robinsons but what I have read, and I wouldn’t believe that in a million years.  This is the road to hell being paved with good intentions.  This is a screw-up.  And screw-ups can be fixed.  The Town needs to stop sitting on its hands and get this fixed in some fashion.

One road forward would be to get the lawyer for the Robinson trust to see reason.  He or she made a decision, essentially, an interpretation of the intent of the decedent.  But that was likely made in a vacuum, not knowing what the consequences would be.  And now we know.   To a first approximation, his or her strict interpretation of the conditions of the bequest is serving as a barrier to the creation of new sidewalks under that bequest.

The “sidewalks only” clause, along with the maintenance-of-effort clause, were probably intended to get the largest possible mileage of sidewalks built under this bequest.

But as of right now, that appears to have backfired.  Right now, that is serving to limit the total sidewalk mileage built to some very small total that can be fit into streets with existing curb and gutter.  As long as the Town of Vienna remains butt-headed about spending our tax dollars to build those portions of the new sidewalks, those new sidewalks won’t get built.

Further, given any reasonable estimate of cost per foot of (just-plain) sidewalk, its now fairly clear that the Town is unlikely to be able to use most of that bequest under any circumstances, if the bequest will only pay for the sidewalk (and not curb/gutter/drain incident to the sidewalk.)  At $30 per linear foot (which is what the Commonwealth uses for its own estimation purposes), the Town would have to build something like 44 miles of new sidewalk to use up that trust money.  (See post on the February Town Council meeting for slightly more detail).  I don’t think there aren’t even close to that many miles of Town streets that lack sidewalks.

The other side of the coin, of course, is for the Town to quit being such buttheads about not spending our tax dollars on sidewalks.  (Which — you never know — might be the reason the bequest was written as it was written in the first place.)  Nothing bars the Town from reshuffling some priorities and freeing up some capital improvement money for this.  Surely, given the glacial pace at which the Town is tackling the lack of sidewalks, it really should not let $7M walk out the door under any circumstances.  If it has to spend some money out of its own pocket, so be it.

If we can afford a $3M cost overrun on super-sizing the Community Center, and spend $15M plus on super-sizing the Police Station, I think the Town should be able to cough up some spare change for sidewalks.  And if this Robinson bequest gets them to do that, then I’m all for it.

Plus, when you get right down to it, if they don’t manage to spend the money, then, after the fact, we’ve paid $1.44M for an awkwardly-situated suburban home with some local historical appeal.  You’d think that, just to avoid the embarrassment, the Town would get on the stick.

Which gets me to the title of the article.  One way or the other, The Town needs to develop a comprehensive plan to see that the Robinson bequest is fully spent, and the Town’s sidewalks maximally expanded due to her generosity.  I think that outcome — far more than any piece of property — would be a fitting way to honor an individual who so strongly shaped the town we live in.