Home Local Politics Blue Virginia’s Arlington County Board Interviews: Peter Fallon

Blue Virginia’s Arlington County Board Interviews: Peter Fallon

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Arlington is gearing up for a special election to replace Senator-elect Barbara Favola on the County Board, with the caucus dates now set for 2/2 and 2/4 (at the NRECA Building and Kenmore Middle School, respectively), and with numerous candidates announcing at this past Wednesday’s ACDC meeting (see videos of their speeches here). I recently sent out questionnaires to all the announced Democratic candidates, with a deadline of this morning. The first interview, with Elmer Lowe, is available here. The second interview, with Melissa Bondi, is available here, and the third interview, with Terron Sims, is available here. The fourth interview, received a bit after the deadline, was with Kim Klingler. The fifth interview, also received a bit after the deadline, is with Libby Garvey (see here). The final interview, which you can read below, is with Peter Fallon, a bit past the “early Monday” deadline. Thanks to Mr. Lowe, Ms. Bondi, Mr. Sims, Ms. Klingler, Ms. Garvey, and Mr. Fallon for returning their Blue Virginia surveys (and to the first three for returning them on time). May the best candidate win!

1. Why are you running for Arlington County Board and what makes you the most qualified candidate at this time?

I am running to continue Arlington’s tradition of good government built upon qualified candidates with years of broad-based community experience, strong record of commitment to local public service, while embracing Arlington’s community values.

Local issues have always been important to me, and over the past 20 years I’ve devoted thousands of hours to a broad range of issues in Arlington.  These issues have included schools, transportation, zoning, parks and recreation, fiscal management, and public safety among others.  The Code of Virginia requires that every town, city and county have a planning commission to advise it on these matters.  

I have served on the Arlington County Planning Commission since 2004, serving as chair in 2009.  I chaired our zoning ordinance review committee for three years. I have been an active participant in all long range planning efforts during this period.  I have a voice at the table and have had a direct impact on the formation of County policy for the past seven years.  I can see the results of my contributions, and of others, as I walk throughout Arlington. I have reviewed dozens of site plan application proposals and advocated for shared community benefits.  I have supported many site plans, but opposed proposals when I concluded it was not in the best interests of Arlington.  For the past two years, I have served as the commission’s liaison to the County’s Affordable Housing Commission. During this time I have advocated for more housing benefits on each site plan.  I served on the Arlington Transportation Commission for three years, spending many hours on the County’s Master Transportation Plan (MTP) Plenary Group.  My campaign web site includes a more complete list of my community involvement over the past two decades.  

My service on the Planning Commission has given me a unique experience necessary for developing balanced solutions among competing priorities.  I have learned firsthand the importance of diving into the details, while not losing sight of the bigger picture and our overall policy goals.  As a member of the County Board, I would be voting on the very policy matters I am currently studying as a Planning Commissioner including changes to our sign ordinance, adoption of long range plans, and evaluating development proposals in exchange for tangible community benefits.  We need to be willing to solve problems, not look for convenience.

I am known for being fair, balanced, thoughtful, and objective in my decision making. I respect the diversity of opinion that commonly accompanies community discourse in Arlington. I know that compromise is an effective tool towards achieving consensus in a divided community.  I know that policy must evolve to remain relevant. We need to be willing to revisit decisions and learn from them.

Many of my extended family is involved in education and education has always been a priority to me.  Now, as a parent of a preschooler, I realize the County needs to take more significant steps to help our elected school board resolve classroom overcrowding. The County has control over the annual budget appropriation and controls access to bond funding. The County also has control over the zoning and construction permitting process. The County also determines the public discussion process and use permit approvals. Simply put, the school system has responsibility to carry out their educational mission, but in effect has limited authority, especially in terms of obtaining fiscal resources. In the past, the County Board and School Board have worked together and I am confident they will in the future. However, there should be a parent of a young child on the County Board side to look out for the schools too. I am NOT a seeking a seat on the school board. There are others that are qualified for service there. I am qualified to serve on the County Board, and ensure a fair deal for our schools in that capacity.

Great schools are a core community value of Arlington and must be protected.  Great schools provide the start in life to help the less fortunate to realize their full potential in life. Great schools are an economic driver and attract new employers. Great schools are essential to maintaining a thriving middle class in Arlington.

I am a Democrat and seek the endorsement of my party in the upcoming firehouse primary.  I ask for your support and vote. My contact information is available on my web site.

2. What would you say are the top three challenges facing Arlington County right now?

1) Prioritize and fund infrastructure.

A challenge we face is the overcrowding of schools due to growing enrollment. We must work to build new classrooms and replace our aging inventory of libraries, recreation centers, fire stations and other public buildings. We need to examine the fiscal realities and how to best use these resources for the most good.

2) Manage change.

We are seeing more and more encroachment of development into edge areas between Metro corridors and established neighborhoods. Areas that were previously ignored by developers are getting attention with applications for projects along Lee Highway and Columbia Pike. We are also seeing changes in our community demographics. We have longtime residents and senior citizens who are looking to age in place in Arlington. We have people starting families with children adding to the school growth. We have a high number of households without children, but require services too. All three see Arlington as a great place to live and want to be part of it. It is evidence that Arlington is a thriving community.

3) Engage the community.

Some people are engaged in the Arlington Way, but others are not. Arlington is the community. We need to continue to take advantage of this human capital for the benefit of all.  There is a specific question on the Arlington Way further down.

3. What rules do you believe should apply to Arlington County Board members with regard to campaign contributions from donors with past, present, or upcoming business before the board?

Candidates should be mindful of who they accept contributions from and be prepared to return contributions if previously unknown information comes to light which would have precluded accepting the contribution in the first place. If a candidate cannot act independently, they should not seek elected office. If there is any doubt as to the ability to maintain independence and act in the public’s interest, the contribution should be immediately declined. Candidates must earn the public trust and elected officials must maintain that public trust. Good government starts with good candidates.

4. In general, do you believe that Arlington County Board members should conform to the Arlington County Code of Ethics, including items such as “Adhere to conflict-of-interest rules and avoid activities with real or perceived conflicts of interest?” Do you believe the Arlington County Code of Ethics should be revised? If so, what specific changes should be made to them?

As I noted above, every elected official, no matter where they may be, should act in the best interest of the public.  Official business should be conducted in an open and transparent manner with the highest ethical standards to maintain the public trust. Obviously you must follow the law and seek advice of counsel if unsure how standards are to be applied in a given situation. Elected officials should disclose relationships that can create the appearance of a conflict of interest in the eyes of the public. When appropriate, an elected official should recuse himself/herself from involvement in such matters.  

The Arlington County Code of Ethics was adopted to apply specifically to civil servants, not already covered under other policies. Elected officials and members of advisory commissions (including the Planning Commission) are subject by state law to the Virginia Code of Conduct requirements. This policy defines conflicts of interest in the context of direct financial interests. However, while setting clear limits, in practice it is important to go beyond these levels to ensure public confidence is maintained in good government by putting Arlington first. An elected official should conduct business in a manner that goes to the spirit and intent of the law (to maintain public trust), not merely follow a limited or perceived letter of the law.

5. How, in your view, should Arlington County best work within the constraints of the Dillon Rule and a state government dominated by Republicans in order to achieve the most environmentally friendly and most progressive community (e.g., in the areas of human rights and immigration) possible?

Arlington is part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Dillon Rule, and its limits on the authority of local governments, is a reality that local communities have lived with for over 100 years.  The Dillon Rule limits our local authority, by concentrating decision-making at the state level.  

Local government has responsibility to govern in the best interests of its citizens. Therefore, we must also have the authority and tools to best solve our own challenges based on our shared community values. To accomplish this, Arlington needs specific enabling legislation from the VA General Assembly. This is the responsibility of our elected delegates and state senators, but they cannot adopt this legislation without the support of lawmakers in other parts of Virginia.  

Virginia is a diverse state. We have highly urbanized areas in Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond, and Tidewater. Many of the residents are transplants from other places, drawn by our strong economy and high quality of life. Other parts of Virginia are more sparsely populated and residents have longstanding ties to their communities. Yet, we are one Virginia and common agreement can be hard to reach.

The more populous regions are natural allies for Arlington. We share similar challenges with respect to transportation, education, fiscal resources, the environment, and more. Our communities include more newcomers that do not speak English as their first language. Other urban areas of Virginia would benefit, along with Arlington, by receiving the necessary local authority to develop appropriate solutions to our challenges. The urban areas are the economic driver of Virginia and provide tax revenue which benefits people throughout the Commonwealth.  Greater control over local affairs will help us remain competitive nationally. All of Virginia would benefit as a result.

Working with our state delegation, we need a strategic approach to legislative priorities leading to more local authority. We must stop making excuses for what we are unable to do under the Dillon Rule and work towards acquiring the tools we need. Given the current composition of the General Assembly and the unwillingness of some members to work cooperatively, it is unlikely that we will see results in the next legislative session. We can’t think short term and incremental progress, while slow, will bring us closer to our goals. We don’t want to have the same constraints in 5, 10, or 20 years.  

As we’ve seen in the recent redistricting process, Virginia’s population is growing. More people are moving into Arlington and other urban areas. Over time, this will lead to a greater proportional representation for the urban areas of VA. Again, these are the parts of VA with similar challenges to Arlington. Arlington will not be the only community seeking greater control over local affairs.  

We can also work with people in other parts of VA in support of General Assembly candidates with common progressive values, willing to work together for the benefit of all Virginians, and willing to grant more authority to local governments to manage their own affairs.  This will take time, but we can’t resign ourselves to a defeatist attitude that it can’t be done.  We have learned how important it is that we have a working majority in the state senate to stop bad legislative proposals in its tracks.  We need lawmakers in the General Assembly willing to support equality and human rights. We can also support progressives throughout the country, to bring about change at the national level, rather than wait on a state by state approach.

6. Do you support requiring, or at the minimum strongly incentivizing, all new commercial buildings constructed in Arlington County being constructed to the highest possible energy efficiency and “green” standards (e.g., LEED Gold or Platinum) possible? If you favor incentives, what specific incentives do you favor? If not, why not?

In Virginia, there are limits to local government’s ability to add new requirements. However, offering an incentive in exchange for voluntary efforts is an accepted alternative. As a Planning Commissioner, I review these aspects of all major site plan development proposals. During my 7 years on the commission, I have seen Arlington go from being an early advocate of green building to a leader. 7 years ago, it was a challenge to convince developers to seek the LEED “certification level.” Opposition was generally due to additional compliance and higher upfront cost. Now, recognizing the business case supporting green buildings, developers are routinely building to the “silver” and “gold” levels.  Tenants recognize that green buildings have lower operating costs and are healthier environments in which to live and work.  Green buildings have become a desirable feature in the marketplace and Arlington should position itself as a leading community in this way.

LEED scorecards offer an objective measure to compare green buildings and it has evolved for different uses and changing technologies, but there are other performance metrics that can be considered. LEED measures different criteria and we need to decide which are the most worth incentivizing. For example, is it overall energy efficiency, or use of recycled building materials, or something else?  To be successful, an incentive has to offer value to the applicant, but it should also support public goals and thereby give value to the community in return. We must be open to different tools and incentives, but should evaluate the results and make changes as necessary. Simply put, are builders and homeowners taking advantage of the incentives?

Arlington has focused on green building in the context of new high rise buildings. However, most of Arlington’s single family housing was built before 1960. We can do more to incentivize homeowners to make their older homes more energy-efficient. We are partially constrained by the state building code adding local requirements, but we can offer incentives to “go green.” For example, we could consider reducing building permit fees or reduce the turnaround for an inspection in exchange for greater energy efficiency.  

We must look at proven technologies as well as the latest innovations. It’s easy in a progressive community to be the early adopter, but we need to look at long-term reliability and efficiency. This is especially important when constructing public buildings such as schools, recreation centers, and libraries. We want green public buildings, but we need to consider the maintenance and replacement costs to seek value for taxpayers and the comfort of our residents using the buildings. We must learn from the experience in other communities, especially those with similar climates to Arlington.

We need to look beyond a building by building approach and ask how we move toward a greener, more efficient community overall. The density of our Metro corridors and long range planning efforts could create opportunities for district energy. The higher density corridors also help make us a greener community because of the heavy use of transit and walk ability, reducing the need to rely on personal cars to get around.

7. At the present time, do you see Arlington County as not friendly enough to small business, just about right, or overly permissive?

As a matter of policy, the County wants to be friendly with small business. However, in practice, this is not always the intended result. Throughout my time in Arlington, I have made an effort to patronize locally-owned small businesses because I feel a responsibility to support my neighbors.  We have a wealth of locally-owned businesses along Lee Highway, Glebe Road, Columbia Pike, and in areas such as Westover Village.  Some of these businesses are family-owned and others are new to Arlington. Some are lost as property redevelops and the business doesn’t have the resources to relocate easily. Others never become successful and fail, in part because they were unable to attract customers

Unlike large national chains, small businesses and start ups do not have the capital or resources to fall back on if they’re unable to open for business quickly or attract customers, contributing to high failure rates. Large organizations often have in-house expertise or can hire specialists to guide them through the myriad of licensing and regulatory issues. These requirements were originally adopted to protect the public interest. However, small organizations do not have the capital or other resources, to weather delays until they can generate sufficient operating cash flow for payroll and other costs. These challenges contribute to high failure rates.   Arlington’s Commissioner of the Revenue office has a program to help small businesses navigate through the various county requirements. This walk through approach has helped many businesses. However, we should survey the business community and find opportunities to reduce redundant or unnecessary rules and make the process simpler.

As a Planning Commissioner, I have advocated for additional efforts to help locally owned businesses. Currently, we are looking at proposals to change the sign ordinance. I support adding flexibility for small business to help them become successful. Arlington suffers when we have vacant office space and empty storefronts.

We have seen the building of much office space in recent decades of Arlington. However, smaller businesses often cannot afford to the rental rates and other costs in the Metro area corridors. Also, small businesses may have a customer base that cannot always be served by transit. Therefore, the availability and convenience of parking is often a consideration for small business.  We need to encourage the creation of affordable quality office space for local business. This can be accomplished with community support, through site plan incentives or by other zoning changes. Another option would be to have developers offer in effect relocation assistance to displaced small businesses. Currently, the County’s Office of Economic Development tries to find new locations for displaced businesses, but we can do more. Successful businesses contribute to Arlington’s tax revenue and provide convenient services to our residents, adding to the vibrancy of our overall community.  I support greater use of the zoning ordinance to support small business in Arlington.

8. Would you support putting strong incentives in place to encourage homeowners, businesses, and county facilities to install permeable pavement and other measures to prevent runoff of water?

As a general practice, I support incentives to encourage behavior that supports public goals and our shared community values. As we develop and urbanize the county, storm water has nowhere to go and gets collected in our storm drains, carrying various waste materials with them. These storm drains feed into our local stream system, the Potomac River, and into the Chesapeake Bay. As a planning commissioner, I have worked on Arlington’s storm water management plan. Better management of storm water runoff will help us invigorate Arlington’s natural stream valleys and support our local wildlife.

A more environmentally sustainable approach is to capture the storm runoff on site. This is done naturally where the ground can absorb the water. The runoff is naturally filtered as it percolates down into the soil. Greater use of permeable surfaces for driveways and patios, along with existing limits on lot coverage (building footprints) can give the water a place an alternative to draining into the storm sewers. Segments of our storm sewers are over 50 years old and require expensive maintenance or replacement.

Another alternative for capturing storm runoff onsite is with the use of storage tanks or cisterns. Storage tanks are commonly used in Arlington and allow for the controlled release of the water. Controlled release is critical to limiting erosion damage and flooding around our local streams. Cisterns have been used on public buildings and elsewhere to collect rainwater off a roof. This water can then be safely used to irrigate landscaping.

Rain barrels are available through Arlington County. Better education, along with incentives (e.g. reduced building permit fees, expedited plan reviews, credits on utility bills) should all be reviewed. We are not the only community dealing with these issues, and need to look for other success models. Again, incentives have to be examined to determine if we’re getting the desired outcome and at reasonable value to the community. If not, then the incentives need to be adjusted to get the desired result.

9. When the county orders the height of new residential buildings near Metro reduced in the name of aesthetics, what benefits do Arlingtonians see, and does that benefit offset the resulting reduced availability of housing?

As a planning commissioner, I am a member of the site plan review committee that reviews the height, covering and massing of all new site plan development proposals. I also have to balance competing public policy goals. A common conflict occurs between good urban designs principles, including height limits, floor step-backs, and building set-backs. While these features promote good urban designs and help place a building in a surrounding context, it also comes at a loss of potential community benefits. I would like to be clear that I do support established county policy that allowed site plan height and density is NOT an entitlement of development. Height and density must be earned, through community benefits, and take into consideration competing adopted policy goals.  

The more density and height an applicant receives over the base, the more community benefits that are required in exchange. This applies not only to affordable housing benefits, but also transportation improvements, streetscape, public art, utility undergrounding and more. Good policy means finding out where tall heights and highest density makes sense to consider. An example of competing public goals would be maximizing the height and capacity of a building, thereby maximizing the affordable house fund contribution, versus tapering off building heights that avoid encroachment on the nearby community. We have established planning principles in Arlington to minimize negative impacts on nearby communities, but these do come at a trade off of reduced community benefits.  

Our affordable housing ordinance is about 5 years old and codified in state law. It is time to reopen this discussion with housing advocates, community members, and private developers to consider changes to the contribution formulas and goals. This was how agreement was reached in the past. We may need to consider additional incentives, but should also seek to use the ordinance to more effectively obtain onsite and nearby committed affordable housing units (CAFs) and further incentivize preservation of existing market rate affordable units. We need to expand the ordinance’s applicability to other existing high density areas of Arlington. If we are unsatisfied with the progress or direction of these discussions, the existing ordinance remains in place. We need to get more in community benefits in exchange for what we are granting a developer through site plan. Developers are not taking the same financial risks building in Arlington as they did many years ago.

When we make decisions to scale back development proposals, we need to acknowledge that we lose some community benefits. However, we do need to have limits on development to protect the greater community. Good government needs to balance competing priorities for the benefit of the entire community.  

10. What is your definition of “The Arlington Way,” do you believe our county’s been living up to it, and what can be done to strengthen it?

My definition of “The Arlington Way” is allowing citizens to have a role in local government decision making, to offer their time, talent and expertise to the community for the greater benefit of Arlington. Allowing for people to come together and help define common Arlington values, participate in democracy and affect an outcome. We acknowledge that there can be common agreement among people to develop a consensus based solution. Everyone together gets to help build a better community. It encourages citizens to share the responsibility for good government. County staff and elected officials can be made more accountable me because of frequent contact with resident stakeholders.

Arlington’s level of civic engagement is the envy of most communities. Still, we are right to expect even more of ourselves because we can do better. We need to eliminate barriers to participation, bring more people and different viewpoints into the process, increase transparency, and consider alternative solutions. The input and contribution of participants should be respected, not discounted. We must put forward a meaningful effort to engage people in the Arlington Way.  Past mistakes have weakened public trust and the County’s credibility in the eyes of some residents.  

Arlington is a great place to live, work, shop, and play. Credit goes to the many longtime community members with the vision to have gotten us here. Times were different and folks just got involved and brought a friend or neighbor along to help too. Times have changed and so have our lifestyles. Many wish to contribute, but can’t find the time required to participate. We need to use new technology tools to engage the community, but also have to come together face to face. Actual meetings allow people to benefit from other points of view and learn from each other. Task forces have been helpful and will continue, but we also need to find simpler approaches for working issues in the community. We need to reach the new stakeholder community and bring them into our process.

11. Do you believe Arlington has the best possible process for determining which new capital projects to undertake and which to defer? If you believe this process could be improved, which specific improvements do you recommend and why?

No, we probably don’t. Arlington has always been limited by what projects we can take on, when we could build, and how much we could spend. During years of rapid growth in our tax revenue and borrowing capacity, this didn’t appear to matter as much to some. Yet, the decisions and choices we made in the past on capital improvements limit what we could do in the future. The future is now.  We made a choice to renovate our schools, but didn’t seriously consider the possibility that more people would remain in Arlington and start families. Focusing our CIP on a 6 year timetable didn’t give us the longer term perspective to consider the effects of deferred capital maintenance on our aging public buildings. We are bumping up to our debt ceiling limits and cannot reasonably expect the tax base to grow rapidly enough to support our borrowing needs.  

We need to have an honest conversation with the community about capital projects. This includes adding more transparency and sharing more analysis with the community, giving them a meaningful voice in setting priorities beyond mere advocacy or creating wish lists. While unpopular, we do need to remind the community that while we are fortunate to be able to do many things, we can’t do everything immediately. We have to set reasonable budgets to ensure we can build many projects. One or two projects can’t use all of our resources.

Our community will always have infrastructure needs, both for new items and for replacement of aging facilities. We need to objectively prioritize which needs come first, and build in a way that we have the financial resources available for other equally worthy projects. Bond rates have been historically low in recent years. We’ve been able to borrow at very attractive rates. Over time, rates will increase and borrowing will be less attractive and more current tax revenue would need to be allocated to debt service. Our AAA/aaa bond rating gives us access to the lowest interest rates available, but we probably not as low as we’ve seen. Bonds are repaid over an average of 20 year and impact our future annual budgets.

We need to become more effective at building multiple capital projects at the same time to reduce backlog and get these assets into community service more quickly. Towards that end, we should consider creating an in-house design and construction group specializing in design and construction management process. Currently, these roles are assigned among various departments or outsourced.

It is worth noting that we have built many great public facilities in the past decade. Many schools were renovated. We built new fire stations, libraries, and recreational facilities. These are buildings that we can all be proud of and reflect the contribution of many stakeholders in the community. However, our planning and construction timetables were delayed many times and building costs were high. As a result, we have limited some of our options going forward in terms of what we can build and what we can spend. Unfortunately, our needs and the backlog of projects continue to grow.

12. What is your vision for the optimal Arlington County in the short term (5 years or less), medium term (10-15 years) and long term (20 years and out)?  How would you go about achieving that vision?

My overall vision is that Arlington remains a diverse community where people of different backgrounds and circumstances can live through the various stages of life. We can be a place people can start a career, then raise a family, own a home, and live with dignity in retirement. In particular, I’d like Arlington to be a place where the children currently in our schools, though life may take them elsewhere, can choose to return to Arlington and become the next generation of community stakeholders.  Arlington need not be a temporary stop on life’s journey.  That may sound overly sentimental, but isn’t the definition of “home” an emotional one? A vibrant community should not be a revolving door. We want to keep the folks that are here, not just attract newcomers to replace those that have left.

In the short term, we need to actively lay the groundwork for the future so that we can take advantage of new opportunities arise and are in the community’s best interest to pursue. Acquiring new open space and recreation opportunities would be an example. Arlington needs to builds on its strengths, but also learns from our mistakes. We need to focus on our capital improvement priorities, including building new classrooms for our growing school population. The County needs to be more actively engaged with the schools system to tackle this challenge now.  For our competing infrastructure projects, we need to prioritize our needs, set timetables, and identify a financing strategy to get us there. In other words, we need an action plan to get us where we need to be. If we don’t, we won’t make much progress.

Much of the general planning work has been done in the past few years through the adoption of various long term planning documents in Arlington. However, long range plans tend to be light on implementation details. Results are often accomplished in response to development opportunities. Going forward, we need to find ways to make more things happen independently, rather than wait patiently to see results. It is time to stop shaking our heads when we lose existing market affordable housing units or more of our tree canopy is lost.

In the medium term, we need to be well down the path of implementing our vision for Arlington. We must continue reinvesting in our infrastructure to accomplish our longer term goals. We will need to continue to capital maintenance of aging public buildings, but also will need to build new resources for our growing population. We will need to expand our transit network. While not exclusively a local issue, we will need to prepare ourselves for likely changes in the availability of energy supplies. Traditional fossil fuel sources are likely to be in shorter supply and more expensive. There will be increased demand for transit service in the established neighborhoods away from Metro. Arlington needs to be able to respond to this need. To minimize our own energy costs, Arlington will need to reexamine how we deliver services.

In the long term, we also need to be seriously considering the near build-out of some parts of our metro corridors. However, just as our public buildings are aging, so will the inventory of privately owned buildings and we’ll need to examine redevelopment opportunities in that light. This is an opportunity, to correct past mistakes. At the same time, we should be able to see that we’ve continued to protect the established neighborhoods from encroachment. We should be able to look back to today, and not have regrets that we failed to plan ahead to ensure our community remained vibrant. The ideal vision of Arlington’s future is not based upon one person’s thoughts. A community’s vision is for the community as a whole to decide.  I welcome the opportunity to be a leader in this discussion.

Thank you.

Peter Fallon

Democrat for Arlington County Board

www.FallonForCountyBoard.org