Post #1111: Town of Vienna, any lessons from Scout on the Circle?

If you want to see what Maple Avenue will look like, some time after the Vienna Town Council passes the new zoning this December, arguably the best place to look is Scout on the Circle.  This is the new mixed-use development that replaced a shopping center on the corner of Route 50 and Blake Lane.  Five stories of apartments over some retail.

Source:  Google Maps, copyright Google.

I walked around there yesterday.  If you have an interest in the Town’s new zoning, you might want to do the same.

What caught my eye?  All of the retail space is still empty.  There’s a Giant Food, in operation.  Giant partnered with the developer from the beginning.  But beyond that, there’s literally nothing else.  They’ve got roughly 30,000 square feet of top-notch, high-quality, completely empty ground-floor retail space.

I wonder if the Town of Vienna government might take a minute to ponder this.  True, that building has only been open since June of last year.  True, we’re in a pandemic.  True, it’s a stand-alone location, so that unless you live there, you have to want to make that a destination in order to shop there.

But even with that, zero is an interesting number.  Exceptional, as it were.  If I were in the process of converting my retail district into buildings just like that, I’d want to know why all that expensive new retail space is still empty, just down the road.

Possibly, merchants are clamoring for the space, but their rental applications are still in the pipeline.  Possibly, those spaces have been rented, but nobody bothered to post any “coming soon” announcements.

But the plain reading of it is that none of that space has been rented.  And since it looks like we’re going to commit the Town of Vienna to that same path, come the end of the year, wouldn’t it be nice to know why?

And I guess I have one more thing to say.  If you’re not all that keen on opening up Maple for medium-density housing, talk to your Town Council members sooner, rather than later.  The way I see it, as they are changing all the zoning in Vienna (during a pandemic), they are almost exclusively hearing from those with a professional interest in the result.  Those are the folks for whom it pays to be engaged in this process.  They aren’t hearing from the average citizen.  Nor will they do any sort of straight-up random-sample survey to ask citizens what they want out of this new zoning.  (Although the answer I got, a few years ago, for redevelopment of Maple, was small buildings and more green space.)

Once this comes up to to a vote in December or so, it’ll be too late to make any material changes in the new zoning.  From where I sit, this is being set up so that there will be no choice but to have a 7-0 vote in favor of whatever is presented.  (What I have termed the “cram-down” strategy.)  So if you have an opinion on this topic, now is the time to let Town Council know about it.

Don’t start complaining after the buildings go up.  Or after all the new residences on Maple result in even denser traffic.  That will be far too late.  Unlike MAC zoning, this new MAC-plus-more zoning will be irrevocable.  Once they up-zone to a new, higher density as the property owners’ right, they will never again be able to down-zone it.

Continue reading Post #1111: Town of Vienna, any lessons from Scout on the Circle?

Post #G21-013: Ball canning lids are back in stock.

The Canning Lid Shortage of 2021 may be over.  For now, at least.

I heard a rumor, via my wife, that canning supplies were back in stock in the  southern Maryland town where a friend of hers lives.  The local hardware store there hung a big banner in the window to advertise that they had canning jars in stock again.

Today, I decided to check my local grocery store.  And sure enough, what was a moth-eaten display of 2020 leftovers a week ago is now perfectly and fully stocked. Continue reading Post #G21-013: Ball canning lids are back in stock.

Post #1108: Town of Vienna water bills and a simple net-present-value calculation

The Vienna Town Council passed another increase in the water and sewer rates a few days ago.  No surprise.  It passed 7-0.  Again, no surprise.  Only a couple of people spoke out against, one of which was the only non-incumbent candidate for Town Council.  Also unsurprising, as even in a non-pandemic year the Town rarely gets any citizen feedback until the bills start coming out at the higher rates.

You can see the new rates, starting July 1 2021, from documents on this web page.  For comparison, you can find Fairfax County water rates here, and Fairfax County sewer rates here. 

In light of what Candidate Patariu asked Town Council to do (freeze the rates for a year, to give people a break during the pandemic, I found this notice on the Fairfax website to be particularly interesting:

But there were a handful of surprises.  For one, I thought this was part of a five-year plan to raise rates by about 50%, pretty much exactly following the recommendation of a hired consultant (Post #448, 11/7/2019).  The current five-year plan would finish next year.  But there now seems to be discussion of maybe another five years of rate increases?  I’ll have to go back and review the tapes.

The other surprise is that my vague understanding is that, in the recent past, the Town of Vienna tried to get Fairfax to take over the water and sewer systems, but Fairfax refused.  Apparently, that’s not true.  It was just a question of the Town not liking the price that Fairfax was offering or asking, or some such?

But beyond that, I don’t think there was a whole lot of what I would call basic economic analysis of the options.  Water bills are going to go up.  And maybe keep on going up.  End of story.

A little calculation of value

Or is it a calculation of little value?  Probably the latter, but I’ll do it anyway.

I’m going to take five minutes to do a simple net-present-value calculation that ought to get done from time to time.  Just to understand the implications of the chosen path of raising the water and sewer rates, from a value perspective, if it really is true that Fairfax County could take over our system.  For a price.

When Vienna embarked in the current five-year plan of rate increases, the combined water/sewer rate in Vienna was just about equal to that in Fairfax County, for the typical Vienna resident.  As of the FY 2019-2020 rates (beginning July 1 2019), Vienna rates were roughly on a par with Fairfax County rates (Post #448).

Right now, as of this most recent increase, the average Vienna household pays about 23% more for sewer and water than they would pay if served by Fairfax County.  As shown above.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is a town full of well-off people.  Median annual household income is somewhere around $160K.  So, for the average resident, this probably isn’t a great burden.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a calculation about the value of what you’re getting, relative to alternatives.

In any case, it’s easy enough to do the calculation shown above.  I’ve been putting together versions of this rate comparison for a few years now.  You plug in your quarterly usage, and it’ll show you how your Town of Vienna bill compares to what you’d pay in Fairfax. You can download it here.  Plug in your own quarterly usage to see an estimate.

Vienna water bill calculator to FY 2022-23, with Fairfax comparison, V3 2021-04-15

That’s the easy part.

A calculation of net present value

Now I want to ask the value question.  What’s the “net present value” of all that additional payment that we make, here in Vienna, relative to what we’d have to pay if we were served by Fairfax County? 

Another way of saying that is the following:  If we had to pay Fairfax County to take the water and sewer system off our hands, and in return avoid the current high sewer/water rates in Vienna, what would be a fair payment for that?  How much could we, the citizens of the Town of Vienna, afford to pay right now, and “break even” on that deal.  We’d pay Fairfax up front, and in exchange, we’d get those lower Fairfax monthly bills from now on, instead of the higher Town of Vienna bills.

First, roughly how much more do we pay in one year?  If the average Town of Vienna household uses 15,000 gallons per quarter, and we have about 5500 households, you can take the figures above and calculate roughly our total annual excess payment, relative to Fairfax County.  That’s ($255.25 – 206.91) * 4 * 5500, or about $1M per year.

Ignore the fact that the Town is not yet done increasing its rates.  Just ask the simple question:  How much should we be willing to pay, right now, to avoid that $1M in additional bills year-after-year? 

This is called the “present value of a perpetuity” calculation.  So there is an answer to that, but it depends on the interest rate or “time value of money”.  I think the Town paid about 2.2% in its last bond offering.  But to be conservative, let me assume 2.5%.  The actual formula for the answer is ridiculously simple, as show in the reference cited above.

The net present value of a $1M per year perpetuity, using a discount rate of 2.5% per year, is $40M.  In other words, a fair deal, from the perspective of those paying the water bills, would be to pay up to $40M to Fairfax County, in order to have them take the water and sewer system over, and bill us a their rates, rather than ours.

And it’s straightforward to see that it’s a fair deal.  If you had to borrow that $40M, at 2.5%, and make those interest payments forever, you’d pay $1M per year in interest.  Which is what makes that the break-even price.  You’d be paying $1M in interest, to avoid paying $1M in sewer-water bills.

The upshot of this is that if we’d have to pay Fairfax County anything less than $40M to take over our water and sewer system, we’d be better off, financially.

And that figure is only going to go up, as Vienna first completes the initial five-year plan for raising rates.  And then reassesses the situation, and maybe embarks on another five-year plan?

I’m not a Town insider.  I don’t know what those negotiations were, between Vienna and Fairfax, in the past.  I’m not sure that the information ever was or was not made public.

But I can say that if Fairfax County would take out system off our hands for, say, a mere $20M payment from us to them, that would be a bargain, compared to the rates we’re paying now.  And it would be an even bigger bargain as Vienna’s rates continue to rise.

Edit:  I’ve been told that this next section is wrong, so I’m dropping the offending word.  I mistakenly said “entirely”.

Per the Town of Vienna budget, 2021, p 380:  “All capital improvement projects are financed through general obligation bonds.  Debt service payments on issues released after 1990 are fully funded through a meals and lodging tax assessed on all applicable businesses within the Town and transfers from the Water and Sewer Fund for Water and Sewer projects.

It’s possible that there’s some legal or arcane reason that the Town could not issue general obligation bonds, with the debt service to be paid by the meals tax, to allow us to buy our way out of the water system.  If so, I don’t know what that would be.  There may also be a distinction between whatever-it-is-that-is-shown-in-the-Town-budget-and-is-about-issuing-bonds, and some other definition of capital fund that is not directly relevant to issuing bonds.  But what I’m talking about is the Town issuing bonds.

But, true fact, I said entirely, when it should have been mostly.  Or something even less precise.  So that was wrong.  But don’t miss the forest for the tree(s).  If Vienna could relieve itself of its obligation to maintain the water system via general revenue bonds, then it could use the meals tax to reduce residents’ water bills.

That said, let’s face it:  That’s never going to happen.  Read this as an extras-for-experts, not as anything that the Town of Vienna would ever have the sense to do.

An extras-for-experts, or how to reduce your water bill via the meals tax.

And here’s an extra for experts.  The sewer and water system is infrastructure.  It is paid for out of the Town’s capital budget, not the operating budget.  And the capital budget is funded entirely in part by the 3% meals tax paid on every restaurant meal provided in the Town.

That’s interesting, because a) a lot of that is probably paid by non-residents, and b) I don’t think people even realize that they pay that tax.  For the average Town of Vienna resident, that’s as close to a painless tax as can be.

Suppose Fairfax County wanted, say a mere $10M payment to take the sewer and water system off our hands.  Suppose we have to finance that by borrowing the money, issuing $10M in 20-year bonds in the next bond financing.  Suppose the interest rate the Town pays rose to 2.5% in this next bond cycle.  What would our annual payments be, to pay off those bonds, in order to make that payment to Fairfax County?

Answer:  About $650K per year.  For twenty years.  And, then, after that, nothing.  That would be less than the current $1M per year that we pay for Town of Vienna water bills, in excess of what we would pay if Fairfax County ran the water and sewer systems.

The upshot is that we could use the meals tax — which I think is fairly painless — to reduce Town of Vienna citizens’ quarterly water bills.

Post #G21-007: Core bed irrigation.

I’ve finally decided how I’m going to irrigate most of my garden beds this year.  I thought I’d write it up, briefly, while I wait for the rain to clear.  No pictures, no references, just words.

The back story:  I have about 500 gallons’ worth of rain barrels, located some distance from my various vegetable beds, and more-or-less level with them.  And last year, it was a real chore to get the water from those barrels to my vegetable beds.  That’s only enough water to put maybe 1″ on all my beds.  But it weighs upwards of two tons.  With a small submersible pump and some two-gallon watering cans, I managed it last year.  But I can’t say I was looking forward to repeating that this year.

I can, in theory, do what normal people do and water the garden with tap water.  At some point each year, I seem to run out of rain water and end up doing that.  But I like to avoid it, mostly because some plants can’t tolerate the chloramines in the municipal water.  (Peas, for example, bleach when watered with Town of Vienna tap water.)  So I have to use an activated-charcoal filter to remove the chloramines if I water with tap water.

(Plus, I just plain don’t like giving my town any more money than I absolutely have to.  It’s a long story.  But that’s yet another reason to avoid watering from the outdoor spigot.)

This year, I want to do something smarter with my rain barrels.  After having looked at my options, and tested a few, I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary.  I’m going to convert my raised beds to core beds. Continue reading Post #G21-007: Core bed irrigation.

Post #1104: Sidewalks, one last try at clarifying the issue.

I’m just going to make a few simple points here that may have been missed in my last post.  I made the mistake of thinking that everybody knew this.  That’s my error, and I’ll try to correct it now.

These point are that:

  1. The Town of Vienna strenuously objected to the narrow interpretation of the Robinson bequest.  They didn’t agree with it.
  2. A lawsuit in this case is the professional way to have differences in interpretation of a legal document resolved through the legal system by a disinterested, trained legal expert (the judge).
  3. My opinion of what the intent of the document was does not matter.
  4. The legal impediment to using the money is what matters.  Unless you change that, the Town of Vienna’s current plans are as good as it gets.

Continue reading Post #1104: Sidewalks, one last try at clarifying the issue.

Post #1103: Dead cobras and acorns on Maple.


If you don’t understand the title, don’t bother to read the post.  This is an arcane topic that seems to bother just about nobody in the Town of Vienna except me.

See Post #583 for background, or Post #503 for background.

To be clear, fixing these is not the Town of Vienna’s problem.  I think.  You can see that laid out in the prior posts.  I’m just unclear as to who is supposed to report them, and under what circumstances.

In any case, these are catching my eye again so it’s time to refresh the count.  Currently: two dead cobras (south of Courthouse) and ~12 dead acorns (north of Courthouse).  That’s out of a total of about 150 acorns, so around an 8% mortality rate, well under where it was the last time I did one of these counts.

It’s possible that one of the cobras was killed by the construction on Maple.  That said, the two dead ones make for a visibly dark stretch of road and sidewalk.  I guess anybody can just report the pole numbers on those.  If I have nothing better to do tomorrow evening, I’ll do that.

It’s striking, really, how much the cobras matter for keeping Maple lit, and how much the acorns don’t.  With all the nearby commercial lighting, the acorns are more of a glare hazard for drivers than an actual aid in lighting the roadway.

A handful of acorns appear to stay on 24/7.  Tough to tell, really.  Best guess, that generates about a quarter-ton of totally unnecessary C02 emissions per year per always-on light.  Not even rounding error in a town of 10,000 square foot houses and Suburbans.  But maybe our Sustainability Committee could figure out whom to nag about that.

That’s based on:

I guess that also illustrates how environmentally unsound those acorns are, compared to the cobras.  Quick count, per mile, we have just about 10x as many acorns as cobras.  No clue what the cobra wattage is on Maple, but it’s a good guess the acorns consume 4x (?) the energy per mile for street lighting.  And the cobras do a better job of lighting the road.  And the cobra heads are increasingly being replaced with dark-sky compliant (flat-bottomed) heads, whereas the acorns are exactly what you don’t want to use in the modern world.

I guess I’ll write up a separate screed on that issue.  The Town is going to rewrite the zoning to modernize the Maple Avenue corridor, meaning, principally, given market conditions, encourage the creation of medium-density-housing stumpies on Maple.  So we’ll get with the trend.  But the inefficient and dysfunctional acorn lights are sacred and must be retained.  Go figure.

Anyway, I counted somewhere around 12 dead acorns, driving the length of Maple last night.  It’s an approximate count because I count them on the fly as I drive by.

Probably not the world’s safest pastime.  But it gets the task done.

And the dead acorns don’t matter one bit, except for the look of it.  Even then, it only really stands out when there are two dead ones on the same pole.  Which, in hindsight, occurred more often than could be explained by chance, suggesting that some of the 12 might actually be dead poles, not dead bulbs.

But the dead cobras actually matter.  Guess I’ll report those to Dominion Power.

Upon reflection, this is the last one of these that I’m going to do.  Not only am I the only person who cares, but the acorns are better off dead.  They truly don’t seem to matter in terms of actually lighting the street, so the environmentally smart thing to do is just let the acorns burn out, and leave them.  But the cobras serve a purpose.  I think I can deal with the dead cobras by reporting them directly to Dominion, just like any other streetlight outage.

Post #1096: Sue them

A lot of decision-making in the Town of Vienna just seems to wander around, until it stops.

I think the Robinson estate bequest for sidewalks is a perfect example. I gave up on this one a year ago.  But I need something to post about, and so I thought I might revisit it.

For those who are unaware of this, former Town Council member Maud Robinson left $7M (now reportedly grown to $9M) to Vienna, for the purpose of building sidewalks.  But with a five-year time limit.  Of which, I think at least two years may have already elapsed.

Let me start with where this has ended up.

As I understand it, among the places the Town has prioritized for possible sidewalk construction, using this new source of funding, is Circle Drive.  It’s a tiny cul-de-sac with four houses on it.

Here are two view, via Google Street View:


In any normal town, where there were lots of roads with no sidewalks, you’d have to say, what a bizarre choice.  Why would you prioritize what appears to be a completely safe little four-house cul-de-sac?

In fact, at least one person affected by this has said exactly that.  Why on earth would you make this a sidewalk priority?

But in the Town of Vienna, when granted millions of dollars for sidewalks, and with streets that really could use them, prioritizing this little cul-de-sac makes perfect sense.  Because it’s the Town of Vienna.

In fact, the first street segments to be designated for sidewalks under this initiative weren’t even chosen by the Town, they were chosen by the estate’s executor.  Which, judging from the reaction that got from the Town’s lawyer when that was announced, probably isn’t strictly legal (Post #532).  But that’s how it goes.  Within the context of how the Town of Vienna operates, that makes perfect sense as well.

(And just to show where that’s gone, more than a year after Town Council gave approval, work hadn’t even started on the ones the executor chose.  Or, at least, not Plum Street, which is the one within easiest walking distance of my house (Post #1056).  )

So, how does this make sense?

First, based on all public-facing statements (e.g., anything you’d hear at a Town Council meeting) the bequest was structured so that the Town could not spend the money on anything but the sidewalk.  No curb, no gutter, no drainage.  Just literally the flat thing you walked on.  Further, the bequest was only for new sidewalks, meaning that anything that really desperately needed a sidewalk, as was on some plan, somewhere, slated to get a sidewalk sometime, was off-limits.

The problem is, that’s not actually true.  All of that — no curb, no gutter, and so on  — all of that was the interpretation of the estate executor.  None of that is actually in Maud Robinson’s bequest itself.

And so, it was the estate’s executor who came up with that “Merchant of Venice” interpretation of the bequest, in that the Town could have its pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood.  Which, when you get right down to it, is an interpretation that basically thwarts using the money for sidewalks, to build sidewalks. And the Town, in classic form, did not meaningfully contest that, perhaps because the executor is a Town insider, being a former Town Council member.

And, equally unfathomable to me, the Town refuses to spend any of its own money on this.  This, from a Town that just borrowed $35M (or was it $25M?) in its last bond issuance, making about 7.5M in not-previously-disclosed land purchase out of that.  (But, aha, that finally explains the oddball $7M extra that they borrowed — so those land purchase were probably already in the works when the did the bond issuance).

And so, the Town is effectively scraping the bottom of the barrel to find streets that have curb and gutter, but not sidewalk.  And so, instead of any rational set of priorities — we end up with Circle Drive.

Now, I would not know any of this — about the bequest not actually limiting what the Town could do, about the Circle Drive being on the list — had I not gotten an earful about it from one of the Town Council candidates, David Patariu.  He’s a lawyer, and member of the Planning Commission, and so far, he’s the only one in the Town government from whom I have heard a sensible plan for using the Robinson estate money.

Here’s Patariu’s plan:  Sue them.  Sue the trust, to get a court to compel a less restrictive interpretation of the language of the estate document.  Apparently, this is something that gets done routinely.  So his plan is prevent the executor of the estate from adding all those restrictions that are not actually in the bequest document.  Then use the unrestricted funds to build sidewalks where they are most needed, not where there by chance happens to be curb and gutter already in place.

That sounded rational to me.  But this is the Town of Vienna, so I don’t think that’s going to happen.

As I said, we tend to do decision-making-by-wandering-around.  And now you know why, in the context of Town of Vienna decision-making, Circle Drive is one of the streets where the Town would now like to put a sidewalk.

In linear fashion:  A former Town Council member made a bequest to build sidewalks, the executor imposed numerous onerous restrictions on the use of those funds, the Town would not meaningfully protest those but instead accepted them at face value, nor would the Town spend its own money to work around those restrictions, so the list of possible streets is limited to those with curb and gutter but not slated to have sidewalks any time soon, and of those, Circle Drive is one.  Even though it clearly doesn’t need a sidewalk.

And the upshot?  A revered former Town Council member cared enough about the Town to dedicate her estate to the construction of much-needed sidewalks in Vienna.  And when the dust settles, we end up using the money to try to prioritize a street that nobody thinks needs a sidewalk.

It all makes perfect sense.

In all fairness, even in the Town of Vienna, I’d be surprised if the Town actually went through with putting in a sidewalk there.  Instead, we’ll just forfeit the funds. We’ll build no sidewalk, rather than useless sidewalk.  I think the Town is at least that rational.  I think.

Post #1090: Making decisions about $5,000,000,000 worth of private property based on a $400 self-selected internet survey.


I’m a Ph.D. health economist, now retired.  I have significant professional experience in both conducting and analyzing surveys.  I’m only bringing that up so that you’ll know that I have the bona fides to discuss what does and doesn’t work in surveys.

And I don’t think it’s very smart to do what the title of this posting says.  That is, to use a low-quality survey to make decisions affecting roughly five billion dollars’ worth of residential property in the Town of Vienna.

But that’s exactly what the Town of Vienna is doing. 

Worse, for a few hundred dollar’s worth of post cards and stamps, they could easily check the results of their low-quality survey.

But I’m betting that they won’t do that.

Read on if you want to know further details.  First, I’ll describe the Town’s survey and the risk they take in accepting the results.  Then I’ll describe how, for a few hundred dollars, they could avoid that risk entirely.  And why they really, really ought to want to do that.

No screeds this time, other than to point out that I’ve been saying the same thing for years now.  And that we used to have people on Town Council who understood the basics of surveys.  But apparently we don’t any more.  Or they aren’t speaking up.  And that’s a pity. Continue reading Post #1090: Making decisions about $5,000,000,000 worth of private property based on a $400 self-selected internet survey.

Post #1087: Do you want bigger houses in Vienna, VA?

And I don’t mean, “more houses of the size currently being built.”

I mean, do you want the Town to change the zoning rules to allow new houses to be, say, 25 percent larger than the ones currently being built?

The Town is in the process of doing just that.  And here’s the thing.  Nothing that you will see from the Town of Vienna will ever let you know that this is (part of) what the revised zoning will do.  Instead, if you look at what’s available from the Town, you’ll get the impression that this is some harmless revision to allow more outdoor living areas. Continue reading Post #1087: Do you want bigger houses in Vienna, VA?