Post #676: I paid my taxes yesterday

Which would not ordinarily be a thing to blog about.  So it’s an odd commentary on the times when doing my taxes was a pleasant change in routine.

I owed a bunch of money to the Commonwealth this year.  I figured that the Governor would appreciate receiving it in a timely fashion, all things considered.  So I did my taxes yesterday.

The deadline for Virginia is June 1 this year.  The Commonwealth says that if you pay by June 1, no penalties or interest are due.  (My tax software said differently, so I’m not sure what the deal is.)

The Federal deadline, by contrast, is July 15.

So this year your Virginia income tax is due before your Federal.  But you have to fill out your Federal forms first, anyway, in order to do the Virginia form.  In terms of the time and hassle cost, tax day here in the Commonwealth is effectively June 1, no matter what the Feds say.

This was my first tax year in pure retiree mode, and boy was it an eye-opener. 

I ran my own little business here in Vienna until August 2018.  And I paid full freight, tax-wise.  As a self-employed person, you start off by paying both halves of Social Security and Medicare.  So that’s about 16% off the top.  (You get a bit of that back, as a deduction.)  And then you pay the rest.  The Town got its slice (Gross Receipts tax), then the Commonwealth, then the Feds.

To a pretty close approximation, my combined marginal tax rate used to be above 50%, and my average tax rate was about 33%.  That’s with stuffing as much as I legally could in an SEP-IRA.

To which my daughter would say, first-world problem.  Because it meant that I had a good job and my business wasn’t going bust.

But now?  No wage income means no social security.  Investment income means many of those lovely tax dodges set up for rich people now apply to me.  Add in some reduction in income, toss with progressive tax rates.  And voila:  I ended paying an average Federal rate of about 9%, and a marginal rate just slightly higher than that.

Which is, oddly enough, how I ended up owing so much to the state.  Back in the day (meaning, when I was working), Virginia taxes weren’t exactly rounding error, but compared to the Federal bite, they looked pretty darned reasonable.

And so, when I figured total taxes for withholding, I did my Federal, and used a rule-of-thumb for State.  Which is now wrong, because I now get all the geezer-related tax breaks from the Feds, but nothing like that from the Commonwealth.

Weirdly, the Commonwealth’s tax bite is the same as it always ways.  But now that my Federal rate is so ludicrously low, I’m kind of resenting the Virginia rate.

In the end, good sense prevails.  I’ve always thought I got excellent value for my Virginia tax dollar.  I’m not going to change my mind on that, now that I’m retired.  As stated, I suspect that the Commonwealth needs my money right about now.  So I got ’em done.

 

Post #614: The sky is blue

 

White Clouds in Blue Sky ca. 1996

Source:  Clipart-library.com

No, really.  Stick with me here.  What I mean is, have you noticed that the sky is unnaturally blue.

This is Virginia, for crying out loud.  The spring/summer sky should be, at best, pale blue, edging toward fish-belly white.  But day after day, it’s like we’re living at high altitude in the Rockies.  Perfect beautiful blue sky.

Did you know that if we shut down all industrial activity and fossil-fuel use, the impact would be to raise the earth’s temperature significantly?  In the short run.  And only in the short run.  True fact.  That’s because we release both C02 and particulates/aerosols.  C02 warms the earth, but aerosols cool it.  The C02 is very stable, remains in the air for a enormously long time.  Most particulates and aerosols would rain out/fall out in a matter of weeks to months.

Basically, the longer the shutdown, the better the sky should look.

But apparently this is perception of better air in the DC area is purely in my head.  Because empirically, somehow, the air quality index for DC is … no different than it normally is.  Per this web page.

So I’m a little perplexed.  You’d think, from the traffic reduction alone, you’d see better air quality.  But … no.  I think I’ll keep looking around to see if anyone can explain this.  Or maybe the Air Quality Index doesn’t quite measure what I think it measures.

Post #606: US Census: If you’ve gotten “the postcard”, you’re being unhelpful

Look familiar?  If so, you’re being a bad person.

We have all gotten our notices in the mail by now requesting that we get on-line and fill in the US Census.  I’ve neglected mine.  Which is kind of horrifying, considering that I’ve actually done a bit of survey work professionally. And used the Census data professionally.

When I finally got “the postcard”, I knew I was being a bad actor.  Assuming that Census does this in a standard manner, getting “the postcard” is a mark of shame.  So it was time to fill in the Census.  Which I have now done.

I timed it.  It took me 10 minutes, for the four people in my household.  Which is typical.  But I messed something up, so I thought I might mention that.

The plain language of the Census form says to count all individuals who were staying in your house on April 1.  But that’s not correct.  If you have a child who was supposed to be away at college on April 1, you are NOT supposed to report them as living in your household in April 1.  Even though they were.  They will be counted as they usually are, in their respective college towns.

Here’s a link go the US Census page on that.

Unsurprisingly, the last question specifically addresses that.  Census gives you the opportunity to flag that college student, so that Census can (somehow) identify them based on some college reporting them.  Presumably, because Census will find a person with my daughter’s exact name and date of birth, at some college near to my home, they’ll take her off of the count for my household, and retain it on the count for the college.

Now let me explain the postcard of shame.  I’m assuming Census uses standard survey protocols.  Typically, in a mail survey, you’ll get a first notice in the form of a full letter.  If you don’t fill it in, there will be a followup in the form of a short letter, saying, in effect, please read the prior letter.

But only the truly uncooperative get the postcard.  The postcard is typically used for the second followup.  The practical reason for using a postcard for second followup is that, by that time, you’re not worth the price of a first-class stamp.  If you’ve been enough of a jerk as to ignore the first and second notices to do what you are legally obligated to do, chances are you aren’t going to cooperate no matter what.

In other words, by the time you get to second followup, the likely yield is so low that you’re practically just not worth bothering with.  But it’s still cheaper than having to send out the paper-copy Census form.

And vastly cheaper than having in-person followup, which I’m not even sure they are going to be able to do this time.  Census taker was always a somewhat hazardous occupation.  Now, it’s not even clear they are or should send people door-to-door, to deal with the least-cooperative people among us.

The upshot is that the US Census is among the many things that COVID-19 has scrambled.  It’s a pretty good guess that a lot of people are not going to be counted.  Do your part to fix that.  Get on line and fill out your Census form today.

Getting our fair share of Federal, state, and local government money — not to mention our seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — all depend on that Census count.  The information they ask for is minimal.  Name, date of birth, sex and race/national origin for every person in the household.  And do you own or rent the place where you live.  That’s it.  Get it done.

 

Post #541: A couple of corrections: Beulah Road Park; $9M parking garage.

Here are a couple of non-correction corrections.  The first is fact, the second is speculation/reason/guesswork.

Fact is that the Town referred to its 8-acre Beulah Road property as a park for decades before it decided to use it for mulching (Post #526).   The documentary evidence for that is overwhelming (see first section below).

Speculation/reason/guesswork is that the town roughly doubled the estimated cost of the Patrick Henry Parking Garage, out of nowhere (Post #531), as a ploy to get somebody else to pay the full cost of the garage.  Funding agencies will want to see the Town pay half the cost.  But the Town wants somebody else to pay for all of it.  So, just claim that it costs twice as much as it actually does.  That’s a fraud, but so is the claim that this garage will serve large numbers of Vienna Metro commuters, which is how the Town justifies asking for regional traffic congestion relief funds for this.

Continue reading Post #541: A couple of corrections: Beulah Road Park; $9M parking garage.

Post #538: Maple Avenue streetlights

Image Source:  Linked from the Dominion Power outdoor lighting website.

This is a brief followup to Post #503.

At the time I wrote that post, roughly one streetlight in seven along Maple was burnt out.  My contention was that … well, nobody cared.  Nobody noticed, and nobody really had to care about it.  Just looked a little sloppy is all.

As I was driving down Maple last night, something seemed different.  I’ll have to double-check this, but I believe that a) all the burnt-out bulbs have now been replaced and b) some of the poles themselves seem to be undergoing repairs.  I’m pretty sure I saw at least one with wires sticking out where the “acorn” light globe should have been.

Edit:  Drove down there by the light of day this afternoon and, sure enough,  there are headless light poles scattered along much of the length of Maple.  So some sort of maintenance operation appears to be underway.

I’m not sure whether to thank the Town, or VEPCO, no Virginia Power, no Dominion Resources, nope maybe it’s Dominion Power?  I have the vague feeling that all the streetlights belong to Dominion?

You can get part of the story on streetlights and streetlight outages on this Town of Vienna web page.  Briefly, we pay a streetlight maintenance fee to Fairfax County, which in turn pays that fee to Dominion, which owns and services the streetlights.

That’s why streetlight outages are be reported to Dominion, not to the Town.

Unfortunately, the links to Fairfax and Dominion websites on that TOV web page are broken.  The County’s explanation of streetlights is given on this page of the Fairfax County websiteThe Fairfax County instructions for reporting a streetlight outage are given on this page, which in turn links to an interactive map.  (FWIW, the interactive map totally and completely failed to work for me.)

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.

Post #527: W&OD bridge?

Two of the W&OD road crossings in the Town of Vienna will be updated, based on suggestions in the Town’s Maple Avenue Multimodal etc. study.  The W&OD road crossings at Park Street and Church Street will get raised crosswalks, turning them more-or-less into speed humps.  And they’ll get new signs.

It’s tough to say why, of all the things in that study, the Town decided that those two W&OD road crossings were a priority.  For sure, there was no formal cost-benefit or risk analysis done.  I think they just sort of liked the idea, and it was cheap to do.  So they’re going to do that, and that’ll be the tangible outcome of that study, along with filling in a right-turn lane where Mill and Church intersect.

This seems to have stirred up some interest in a W&OD bridge for the Mape Avenue/W&OD crossing in the Town of Vienna.  To be clear, we’re not getting a bridge there, and nobody is talking about paying for a bridge.  And in this post, I’m briefly going to explain why that is — why this was ignored in the Town’s Multimodal study, and will it will likely remain a low-priority issue.  My conclusion is that the stoplight we have now for the W&OD Maple Avenue crossing is probably good enough, given the size and cost of a bridge.

 


But other crossings have bridges …

Sure, but those crossings tended to be ones with significant problems and traffic, often where a new traffic light would not work, or where there are problems, despite a light, due to heavy traffic.

The closest large dedicated bridge on the W&OD is the Citizens’ Bridge in the People’s Republic of Falls Church.  This is where the W&OD trail crosses Route 7/Broad Street.  This bridge dates to 1992 or so.  Falls Church citizens agitated for a bridge because bicyclists and pedestrians were crossing Broad Street there, rather than walk/bike to the stoplight-controlled intersection at West Street.

That bridge is an object lesson in the nature of bicycle and pedestrian traffic.  At the time, the bridge was lauded as an example of effective small-town government.  But one could just as easily say it’s there because various bicyclist and pedestrian scofflaws routinely jaywalked rather than walk an extra 200 feet to cross with the light (while getting their exercise along the W&OD trail.)

More recently, the influx of new tax and toll monies means that all kinds of marginal and low-value projects are now being funded, as long as they plausibly help people get around without a car.  This includes a spate of new bridges for the W&OD.  These tend to be for intersections where the road crossings were an annoyance to bicyclists and/or motor vehicles, though not particularly dangerous (at least in my opinion).

There’s a bridge going up for the Route 29 crossing just east of Falls Church, and a bridge is planned for where the W&OD crosses Wiehle Avenue in Reston.  Neither of these is a particularly difficult crossing now, although Weihle is awkward because it’s so close to a stoplight with no place to stop in the median.  Both of these crossings, though, apparently have fairly high automobile accident rates, as cars stopping for bicyclists get rear-ended with some frequency.

Above:  Route 29 W&OD crossing just east of Falls Church, and Weihle Road crossing in Reston.

In essence, right now, these are just crosswalks used by a lot of bikes.  Not unlike the W&OD crossings in Vienna.  But soon those simple crosswalks will be replaced by some fairly large and obtrusive bridge structures.  Here’s a “before and after” view of Weihle Avenue where it crosses the W&OD trail.

Above:  Wiehle Road crossing now, and Wiehle Road showing artist’s conception of bridge.  (Orient by trees in background).  Source for Weihle bridge:  FCDOT via restonnow.com


So why not Maple Avenue in Vienna?

It boils down to need, cost, and size.  And all of these argue against a similar structure at the W&OD crossing on Maple Avenue.
First, the existing light-controlled crossing works well.  We have the occasional bicycle scofflaw crossing against the light.  But in my experience, those are few and far between.   And that’s because that current path is in fact the shortest distance.  So we do not have the problem that Falls Church had, with a constant stream of jaywalkers who were unwilling to walk to the nearest light-controlled intersection.
Second, a bridge there would necessarily be fairly large.  And it’s not that you need a massive structure to move the bicycles.  It’s that VDOT requires a minimum 17.5′ clearance (I just looked that up), and bike paths are never supposed to have more than a 5% slope if that can be avoided.  When you combine those two (17.5′ tall, 5′ slope) you realize the bridge would have to span Maple Avenue and 350′ on either side of Maple.
The upshot is that the entire bridge structure (including earthworks at either end) would have to span about 750′ (350′ + 350′ plus the width of Maple).  No coincidence, this is roughly the length of the Citizens’ Bridge in Falls Church.  So, if you look at that (above), that’s more-or-less the minimum size of structure that you can get away with.  Not due to the load of the bicycles, but due to the combination of clearance and slope limits on the structure.
So the very smallest it could be, built to those standards, would be a span from almost Church Street at one end, to almost the end of the Whole Foods market at the other.   This would cut Maple Street off from the trail and make trail access difficult.  (In fact, some of the opposition to the Falls Church Citizens’ Bridge came from local merchants who saw the bridge as discouraging bicyclists from stopping (and spending money) in Falls Church.  See the newspaper article cited above.)
It will also cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6M to $12M.  Or so.
 
A internet search shows the cost of steel pedestrian bridges runs about $2000/linear foot for a prefab steel footbridge such as the Falls Church one. Of the 700′ length, the Falls Church Citizen’s Bridge is roughly 400′ of steel bridge, and the rest earthworks.  At that price, the steel bridge alone would cost about $8M.   So call it $10M or so, based on that.  
A second data point comes from the bridge slated for Weihle Avenue in Reston, which has a preliminary cost estimate of $11.4M, per the newspaper article cited above. 
 
A third data point is a reported cost of about $6M for what looks like a roughly-similarly-sized intersection (W&OD crossing four lanes of traffic).
Caveat:  The reported cost of the Falls Church Citizens’ Bridge, just under $1M, is vastly less than $10M after accounting for inflation.  Adjusting that circa-1992 cost for the Consumer Price Index change to 2020 yields about $2M in today’s money.  On the other hand, that initial cost estimate may have been in error, as the $11.4M Weihle Avenue bridge was originally supposed to cost under $3M.
So, maybe not exactly $10M, but somewhere in that ballpark seems likely.
In summary:  The current Maple Avenue W&OD crossing appears safe, appears to have relatively few bicyclist scofflaws, and in general provides easy on/off access to the W&OD in the heart of Vienna.  Any bridge there would necessarily be large and fairly expensive.  It’s easy enough to see why other intersections have gotten bridges before anyone would think of funding a bridge for the Maple Avenue W&OD crossing.

Post #526: Our assets become our liabilities, part 4: Beulah Road Park Industrial Zone

File this one under “aren’t you glad you don’t live there”.  Or maybe under “don’t get in the way of the Town bureaucracy.”  But certainly under “nobody else does this, and hey, I bet there’s a reason for that.”


First, walk a mile in their shoes.

Suppose you’d lived in a home in Vienna since the 1960s.  Or bought one of our many ’60’s-era houses.  Like the one pictured above.  It’s in a nice, quiet neighborhood with mature shade trees.  And all the land for half-a-mile in every direction is zone RS-12.5, for single-family houses on modest lots.

But there’s a problem.  There’s a large piece of vacant property abutting your back yard.  Historically, some Town of Vienna documents marked that tract as park land.  So you may have been foolish enough to consider that vacant land a real asset in your neighborhood.

Then, surprise:  An industrial waste processing facility moves in and takes over that lot.  This facility runs noisy machinery for hours a day.  At various time of the year, streams of diesel dump trucks move onto and off of the property, unloading and loading the materials to be recycled.  In years past, the property was littered with construction debris, until you complained to the Town about it.  And the recycling operation generates large mounds of pungent rotting organic matter.

Well, complain to the Town, you might say.  Nobody has the right to operate an industrial facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Nice thought.  Except that it’s the Town’s industrial facility.  Welcome to what the Town of Vienna refers to as the Beulah Road Mulch Yard.

While it’s (almost) inconceivable that the Town would grant someone else the right to use property in that location that way, the Town granted itself a conditional use permit for that mulching operation back in 2004.  You can read some of the contemporary press coverage in this link, or this link, and by following the links at the bottom of those stories.

Member of the Northeast Vienna Citizens’ Association (NEVCA) did their research on this when the issue first came up in 2003.  That’s the year the Town bought a large (and loud) tub grinder for grinding up leaves, and roughly the time the Town moved mulching operations to the current site.  Here’s their timeline for how that property was classified and used by the Town of Vienna, from the November 2003 NEVCA Notes:

Source:  NEVCA Notes, November 2003.


Why bring this up now?

OK, so that neighborhood took a beating in 2004, and has been taking that beating ever since.  Why bring that old news up now?

You may or may not recall that the Town bought a house on Beulah Road, back in 2018.  The house was directly adjacent to the Town’s Beulah Road property.  And, at the time, the official line of the Town government was that they bought it with no purpose in mind.  Even at the time, that was pretty clearly a prevarication.  That was almost surely bought with the construction of the new police station in mind, as I documented in this post, with a link to a news article by Brian Trompeter.

The Town just recently moved to reclassify that small parcel of land on which that house sites as land for “government use”, in the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.  That zoning — for government use — is not something you can see on the Town’s zoning map.  (We don’t have a zone for that.)  It’s only something that exists as a land use category in the Town’s strategic plan.

But apparently that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.  Exactly what the whole story is, it’s kind of hard to tell.  But that building and the Beulah Road property will now be used as part of the building of the new police station.  As I understand it, the Town needs somewhere to park the fleet of 20-some police vehicles, and apparently that unimproved Beulah Road property is the place they’ve chosen to do that?  Tough to say, as all I am running on at this point is rumors.

The point is, this has opened up an old wound for residents of this neighborhood.  It’s not enough to have the Town’s leaf mulching facility in their back yards.  Now, in addition, that’s going to become parking for the police fleet? which I would guess entails some use of sirens at some point?  And so, graveling or paving enough of that lot to allow for such parking?  And, maybe, as in the past, storage of the odd bit of construction debris and such, as the Town apparently did when it redid the sidewalks along Maple?

Who knows?  And that’s pretty much the point.  At one point, the Town apparently considered that to be a neighborhood park.  But over the  years, they have slowly peeled back part of the tree cover as they turned it to various other uses.  The Town turned a deaf ear to the residents of that neighborhood when it decided to use as more-or-less an industrial site, mulching all of Vienna’s fall leaf litter there.  And now, in addition, it’s to become a police vehicle parking lot, and it’s not clear what else.

If I lived there, given the history, I’d be a little worried too.  Makes my problem with cut-through traffic from 444 Maple West seem like small potatoes.


Does anyone else do this?

This, being, get their fall leaf litter converted to mulch or otherwise disposed of?  This turns out to be a fairly difficult question to answer.  But near as I can tell, nobody in this area runs an industrial-scale leaf mulching operation in the middle of a residential area.  Except the Town of Vienna.

City of Alexandria.  They maintain a leaf mulch site at 4215 Eisenhower Avenue.  This is in an industrial area, adjacent to (e.g.) self-storage facilities, ball fields, and similar.

Fairfax County:  From the look of it, my guess is that Fairfax does its mulching (for this part of the county) at the Ox Road solid waste transfer facility.  That’s in the heart of a large industrial/governmental use area.  But I could not find documentation to prove that.

Town of Herndon.  Some earlier work by NEVCA suggests that Herndon does not perform these operations within its Town limits, but I could not verify that (on-line) using current information.  (Historically, they filled roll-off containers with leaves, then trucked those out for composting.)  Herndon also does not appear to offer free mulch to residents (as Vienna does).  Presumably, Herndon residents would have to rely on Fairfax County free mulch.

City of Fairfax:  Fairfax City directs residents to the County’s free mulch, which suggests (but does not prove) that Fairfax City doesn’t do its own mulching.

City of Falls Church.  They offer residents free locally-produced leaf mulch, but provide no clue on their website as to where they produce that mulch.

 


Is this a good use of scarce land?

Fairfax County currently values that 8-acre tract at about $2.5M, but it’s not clear what, exactly, that valuation reflects.  Certainly not the value of the land for use as housing.  But that’s roughly the same value that Fairfax puts on the 11-acre Glyndon Street park.

Putting aside the impact on the neighbors, it seems to me like running a mulch pile is a fairly low-valued use of a scarce resource such as Town of Vienna land.  You have to wonder if this practice started back in the days before Fairfax County itself became so invested in recycling.  I can’t help but wonder what it would cost the Town to turn that tract of land into another useful Town park, instead of using it for what amounts to refuse collection (and, going forward, vehicle parking).

Finally, I should make it clear that a) as a homeowner, you don’t have to participate in the Town’s leaf mulching operation and b) current environmental thinking actually discourages you from doing that.  The point being that the heat generated by mulching on an industrial scale kills off eggs of beneficial insects that might otherwise overwinter on your leaf mulch, such as various species of butterflies.  If you have the room and the inclination, mulching your own leaves probably makes more environmental sense than having the Town mulch them for you.

Post #521: The cost of sidewalks

Source:  Google maps.

The point of this post is pretty simple:  The cost of installing new concrete sidewalks various enormously.   And the cost of the sidewalk itself — i.e., the 5′-wide ribbon of concrete — is the least of it.  The bulk of the cost is in everything else that has to be done — curb, gutter, curb cuts, ramps, and, most importantly, drainage including storm sewers.

To make this point, I identified four sidewalk projects in the Town of Vienna, and estimated cost per linear foot.  (Detail given below.  This is a “sample of convenience”, being the first four projects I ran across.)  The costs were $100, $150, $445, and $666 per linear foot of sidewalk.  Presumably, if I’d looked at a larger sample of projects, I would have seen even more variation.

In the Town of Vienna, a) there’s really no meaningful “typical” cost for putting in sidewalks and b) in any given situation, the cost might be a lot more than you’d think.

The high costs of sidewalks — and the fact that literally “the sidewalk” is typically the smallest part of the cost — has some important implications for a couple of items that I’ve mentioned recently.

Robinson bequest for sidewalks.  At the last Transportation Safety Commission (TSC) meeting, I found out that the Robinson estate bequest for sidewalks in the Town of Vienna was being interpreted as literally that:  payment for the concrete sidewalk, period (Post #518).  Depending on the project, then, the Town would have to pay for everything else to make that sidewalk possible.  That’s certainly going to tilt the use of those funds toward simple projects where (e.g.) there is already curb and gutter in place, with no need for extensive modifications for site drainage.

Sidewalks versus road closure for the neighborhoods behind Sunrise/444 Maple West.  At the last Town Council meeting, citizens offered some things the Town could do to address pedestrian safety and traffic in the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed Sunrise facility (Post #517).  Among those was the idea of putting in sidewalks on (among other) Glen Avenue.  But Councilman Potter suggested that simply closing Wade Hampton at Glen would be a less costly solution.  And based on these per-foot costs, that seems like a plausible statement.  Based on those four costs per foot, 1400′ of sidewalk for Glen Avenue (pictured above) might cost anywhere from $140,000 to more than $900,000. 

Continue reading Post #521: The cost of sidewalks

Post #519: The tear-down boom and increased residential share of Town property assessments

This is just a quick back-of-the-envelope spurred by a presentation made by the Town’s Director of Finance at the 1/27/2020 Town Council meeting.

One statistic that caught my eye is that the residential share of total property assessments in town rose over the last decade, from 77.5% in 2011 to 81.0% in 2019 (Page 9 of this document (.pdf)).  The Director of Finance suggested that this was one possible justification for hiring the new business development officer for the Town of Vienna.  That is, to help bolster Vienna business and hence assessments.  Conversely, Councilman Majdi suggested that the tear-down boom might account for it, with small houses being torn down to make way for much larger ones.

So, that’s the question here:  Does the increase in residential share of total property assessments mean that commercial real estate in Vienna showed poor price appreciation, compared to residential?  Or is that plausibly just a consequence of the tear-down boom, with small, lower-cost houses in Vienna being systematically replaced by larger, higher-cost houses?

Here, in the crudest way possible, I want to test that.  Can the tear-down boom plausibly account for this change?  In keeping with the idea of a round-numbers calculation, I’m going to do a crude cut at this.  Basically, is the impact of the tear-down boom anywhere near large enough.

So:  My recollection is that, of late, the Town has averaged about 100 tear-downs per year, based on building permit data.  Further, based on a couple of observations, property value for a tear down typically increases by about a million dollars (in 2019 terms), from (say) $0.7M for a small house, to $1.7M for the typical mansion that replaces it.

So, 9 years x 100 houses per year x $1M/house = $900M in additional residential property values, in 2019 dollars, from the cumulative effect of the tear-down boom from 2011 to 2019.   Roughly speaking then, if I net out the crude impact of the tear-downs, I get this table:

Crude impact of tear-down boom on Vienna assessed real estate values
Residential Total Residential %
Actual 2019 4,251,761,320 5,204,854,490 81.7%
Less tear-down impact 900,000,000 900,000,000
2019 less tear-down 3,351,761,320 4,304,854,490 77.9%

And the answer is that the (crude estimate of the) impact of the tear down boom is more-or-less the right size to explain the shift in assessment share in the Town of Vienna.  The difference between the two red numbers, in the table above, is roughly as large as the difference between the two red numbers in the opening paragraph.

In other words, this shift in assessed values in the Town of Vienna doesn’t show any particular problem with our commercial real estate.  Plausibly, it just shows the impact of the replacement of small, lower-cost houses with much larger ones.

This is consistent, I think, with repeated mentions of high rental rates for commercial property along Maple (e.g., in the new Town economic development officer’s “listening tour”).  The complaint is that high rental rates are driving businesses out of Vienna.  But if so, that’s just an indication that business is good along Maple.  Nobody likes paying rent, but if property owners along Maple think they can get (e.g.) $60/square foot/year, that means they expect that business opportunities are such that some business can afford to locate on Maple and pay that kind of rent.