Home 2017 Races Blue Virginia Q&A: Erik Gutshall for Arlington County Board

Blue Virginia Q&A: Erik Gutshall for Arlington County Board

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On May 19, I sent all four Democratic Arlington County Board candidates Blue Virginia Qs & As and asked for responses by April 5.  I told the candidates I’d post responses in the order received, which for the record was: Erik Gutshall‘s at 9:27 pm, Vivek Patil‘s at 10:10 pm and Kim Klingler‘s at 10:14 pm (the other Democratic candidate, Peter Fallon, told me yesterday that he’d have his responses back by today). Voting is on May 9 (7-9 pm at the Key Elementary School), May 11 (7-9 pm at the Drew Model School) and may 13 (11 am-7 pm at Washington-Lee High School). With that, here are Erik Gutshall‘s responses.

Q1.      Tell us a bit about yourself, and specifically what in your background and/or temperament makes you the best qualified of the Democratic candidates to serve on the Arlington County Board?

A1:  I have a business owner’s perspective, focused on keeping Arlington affordable. When tax season rolls around, I pay three kinds—as a small business owner, a business property owner and a homeowner. I would be the only County Board member with that unique perspective. I know first-hand how we must better invest in people and infrastructure to broaden our employment base, fill empty office buildings, and keep taxes low. As a liaison to the Economic Development Commission, I also have forged ties with business and entrepreneurs that have deepened my understanding of their intersection with the County Board, and new solutions.

I am an advocate for fresh ideas in response to community needs, such as neighborhood-scale “Missing Middle” housing along our transportation corridors. As a small business owner, I have to make payroll, keep customers and employees satisfied, and continually look for opportunities to enhance my business. It’s the same with Arlington. It’s time for smarter growth that incentivizes development of low- and medium-density housing along our transportation corridors that young families, empty-nesters, and everyone in between can afford. I have the drive and the ideas to align our planning and zoning to keep the middle-class from getting priced out of Arlington.

I have deep roots in Arlington, and have taken concrete steps to plan for school and community needs.  As Chair of the Planning Commission, volunteer of Doorways for Women and Families, and a former civic association president, I’ve been in the thick of Arlington’s school, civic and business life. My wife Renee and I have lived in the Lyon Park neighborhood for 21 years where we are raising our three wonderful daughters.

Given Arlington’s limited space and dollars, the County must work differently. I will work with the new Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC), a citizen-led County-Schools effort that I lobbied for last year, to develop creative solutions like reimagining a vacant office building as a school on the lower floors and a senior center above.

I also know how to navigate a way forward on thorny issues. One recent example: proposed lighting of the soccer fields at Williamsburg resulted in opposing views in our community, but people agreed all sides got a fair hearing and were represented in the final report, based in part on my even-handedness as chair of the working group.

Q2:      How would you describe yourself ideologically – “progressive,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or something else?  How does your record of votes, endorsements, employment, and other activities reflect your political ideology?

A2:       There are yellow dog Democrats, limousine liberals, Rockefeller Republicans, and countless other varieties of political creatures. I don’t much like labels, and I’m glad to count a broad spectrum of folks among my supporters and that we can all come together on issues that matter.

I believe progressive social policy and clear-headed fiscal policy can work hand in hand. Here are my progressive guiding principles:

  • Believing government is a good thing, and that local government can excel in service and innovation.
  • Believing a public education provides an excellent education, and a beneficial intersection among kids from many different corners of life.
  • Believing the arts, parks and libraries enhance our quality of life, and deserve government support.
  • Believing Arlington can be business-friendly and economically competitive, without just making the rich richer and the comfortable, more comfortable.
  • Believing the scientific and practical reality of climate change, and that policy and tax decisions should support clean air and water.
  • Believing we must look after our most vulnerable, and be welcoming to each and every Arlingtonian.
  • Believing in the forthright exchange of information, and vigorous civic debate.
  • Believing in a free press and objective journalism that values facts and illuminates problems, disagreement, accomplishment, change and choice.

It’s my sense that thousands of Arlingtonians share these progressive values as we create an economically strong, healthy and well-educated community.  I am humbled to have earned the endorsement of Senator Barbara Favola – the first state legislator to endorse a county board candidate in this election cycle, County Board Chair Jay Fisette, our Clerk of the Courts Paul Ferguson, and numerous other former state and local officials, members of the Planning Commission, community leaders, and individual voters across the county.  The progressive values described above unite these many public supporters and me.

Q3.      Who is your favorite and who is your least favorite Arlington County politician, present or past, and why?

A3:       Although I wasn’t living in Arlington during the ‘70s and ‘80s, I can thank leaders like Mary Margaret Whipple, Ellen Bozman and Jim Hunter for a multitude of accomplishments, including their early and wise decisions on Metro and smart growth. As longtime County Board members, they worked with citizens to influence where to put the Orange line, how to develop the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and how to maintain livability as Arlington grew. They also built relationships with Richmond to advocate for Arlington issues, an uphill battle given the Dillon rule and antipathy toward local control. For years, these leaders pushed to make affordable housing a priority, and they welcomed immigrants in word and deed.

Many others have made their mark on Arlington, of course. Yet in so many ways, these elected officials were role models for Arlington’s progressive values, and for the far-sighted visioning that today’s new leaders carry forward in their own distinctive fashion.

Q4:      As a County Board member, what would your approach be to improving housing affordability in Arlington?  Would your emphasis be more on providing subsidies for dedicated “affordable housing” units more on increasing the supply of housing via zoning and other changes, or some other method(s)?

A4:       Housing affordability is a bedrock piece of my progressive values. It’s getting harder to put down roots in Arlington when you’re young. And as a son seeing his mother struggle to find single-floor living, I also know that seniors face a limited supply of aging-friendly homes. As an employer, I’ve seen the challenge that housing affordability presents to my employees.

In my 21 years in Arlington, I’ve seen prices here climb astoundingly for all kinds of housing. In 2016, the average cost for a single-family home in ZIP 22207 passed the $1 million mark; from 2000 to 2013, Arlington lost 13,500 affordable housing units, primarily to rent increases.

It will take multiple tools—innovative redevelopment, zoning changes and subsidies for affordable housing units—to meet these challenges. The answer is not just building more multifamily units using the models of the past.

As a County Board member, I will:

  • Build a coalition of citizens, homebuilders and government to create low- and medium-scale housing along our major commercial corridors. Providing thismissing middlecan create hundreds of appealing, high quality homes. Creative bungalow courts and fourplexes, for instance, can work on a small footprint, yet do not look dense. We may need to make land use and regulatory changes to incentivize such development.
  • Support the goals of Arlington’s 2015 Affordable Housing Plan. Seek to increase funding for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF), by which the County funds construction and redevelopment of housing affordable to low-income renters.
  • Work with our congressional delegation to ensure that a U.S. tax code overhaul does not diminish tax credits for affordable housing.
  • Work with our state delegation to create a special property class for Affordable Housing buildings that would lower taxes for these properties, making them more affordable.
  • Collaborate with the citizen-led Blue Ribbon Arlington Group to identify careful changes to our zoning to make it easier for seniors to age-in-place and share homes.

Q5:      Given the potentially draconian cuts we could see in the coming months and years from the Trump administration and Republican Congress, what could/would you do to protect Arlington in general, and Arlington’s most vulnerable residents specifically? 

A5:       While Arlington has become less reliant on direct funding from the federal government, any instability within the federal government or budget cuts will inevitably have some effect on us. Arlington still receives significant transportation funding and Community Development Block Grant funding from the federal government. Additionally, many federal workers live in Arlington.

I suggest a 3-fold strategy:

  • Arlington should assert our voice in partnering with our local government colleagues to lobby the federal government on policy and budget issues;
  • As was done during the serious recession of 2008-1010, we should consider setting some funds aside in a Social Safety Net Reserve which could be tapped to meet service needs should federal funding be reduced for certain programs or should the needs for certain services be increased; and
  • We should continue to monitor the impacts of federal budget cuts and other federal actions that impact our residents. For example, we need to monitor and, as necessary, respond to Trump’s Executive Orders – including those on Immigration – to re-assure our residents that Arlington will remain a Welcoming Community and that they are valued. 

Q6:      As you know, Virginia is a strong “Dillon Rule” state.  How best can Arlington operate within these constraints in order to “push the envelope” on progressive and pro-environmental policies while not getting slapped down by a Republican-controlled General Assembly? 

A6: The Dillon Rule is a constraint on local governments like Arlington. I would always work closely with the County Attorney and my colleagues to identify new and creative avenues/mechanisms to implement worthwhile progressive policies. I would also work with our legislative delegation to craft legislative proposals that might expand our authority, and then work to build supportive coalitions. The keys here are creativity, commitment and coalitions. Through perseverance and market forces, the obstacles to renewable solar energy have slowly been reduced in Virginia. There is still work to do, yet a bi-partisan coalition of legislators and advocates have slowly made progress. The best path forward to remove the existing obstacles to renewable energy in Virginia is to elect more Democrats that are willing to press Dominion Power. 

Q7:      What is your position on adequate funding for Metro?  Would you support a dedicated revenue source?   Increasing Arlington’s contribution to Metro?  Other Options? 

A7:       I support sustainable dedicated revenue(s) for Metro.  The funding plan must be developed in collaboration with our regional partners and the costs must be borne equitably among the beneficiaries and users of Metro.  At the same time, the region should leave no stone unturned when it comes to generating additional revenue from things like small scale retail leasing and advertising.

To keep Metro viable for the long term we will also need a renegotiated WMATA Compact, a well-thought out operating plan that clearly shows our dollars being used wisely and, importantly, new metrics to ensure the Agency uses our dollars efficiently and effectively to achieve the region’s vision and goals for the Agency.

Deciding which entities pay how much from which sources should be decided in a transparent, thoughtful public process that includes all stakeholders in the system – the Feds, the two states and DC, and the localities with stations and riders.  After all, all of these parties need to be willing to bring dollars to the table—the Federal government whose employees make up more than half the ridership; Virginia and Maryland, whose statewide economies receive huge benefits from the value that Metro creates; and the localities on both sides of the Potomac River whose residents directly benefit from reduced congestion, better air quality, and access to good jobs and retail.

I applaud Governor McAuliffe’s recent action to bring former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in to lead a regional effort focused on these very issues.  It is a critical step forward.  There can be no doubt that ensuring safety, providing the riding public with reliable, interconnected transit options that increase ridership, and controlling costs through sound business practices are key to this region’s sustainability.  The negotiations will be difficult and complex.  But if we act in good faith – in the interests of all – Metro can come back from the brink.

Q8:      Arlington officials like to refer to the county as an “urban village.”  Is your long-term vision for Arlington to move in a more “urban” direction, to remain more “village”-like, or what? 

A8:       As our bus and Metro system has developed, transportation corridors (like Rosslyn-Ballston and Columbia Pike) have seen an increase in high density condo and apartment buildings. At the same time, we have maintained traditional, leafy, quiet neighborhoods, particularly in the northernmost parts of the county.  Arlington’s success is in this careful balance of neighborhood character – some places, where the transit supports it, are more “urban” in character and others are rightly much more “village.”  One size does not fit all and I support the right of each neighborhood to define its own character and vision.

I believe we must work even harder to keep Arlington’s local flavor. We can have urban buzz, but not everywhere. We can have small-town suburban streets, but not everywhere. The challenge is how to balance.

We must purposefully incorporate green spaces; wide sidewalks; and art, recreation and amenities that engage and relax people. We must make safe streets for all, and deal swiftly with crime, congestion and disorderly disruption from bars.

As a County Board member, I will:

  • Protect single-family neighborhoods that border the major transportation corridors.
  • Along major commercial corridors, work to create neighborhood-scale “missing middle” homes consistent with the character of their neighborhood.
  • Work with business owners, artists, entrepreneurs, sports enthusiasts and others to focus on livability as Arlington develops.
  • Press for funds for key road, utility undergrounding and, where necessary, parking investments to assure that shoppers and clients have easy access to local businesses.
  • Work with the Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) in Rosslyn, Crystal City and Ballston to enable creative use of public spaces for events and business incubators.

Q9:      Given development pressures and the lack of strong environmental protection laws in Virginia, how would you protect – and preferably enhance/increase! – Arlington’s tree canopy, streams, natural areas, parks, and biodiverstiy?

A9:       I support six strategies for preserving and expanding Arlington’s natural open space:

  • Establish an Open Space Fund for the Urban Corridors: Greater density within our urban corridors has stressed our already over-burdened parks and open spaces. I believe that developments should be responsible for mitigating the effects of their new residential and office building populations on the community; this includes meeting the need for open space and recreational opportunities. I would support the creation of an “Open Space, Park and Recreation Fund” similar to the Tree Canopy Fund, for developments not able to meet open space requirements on site. In addition, we need to ensure that open space and recreational community benefits agreed to through the site plan process are tracked, delivered, and maintained over the lifespan of the site plan. We should re-evaluate what constitutes a “minor” site plan amendment and ensure that any potential loss of a community benefit is acknowledged, properly evaluated, and captured through some other mechanism.
  • Fully Evaluate the Real Cost of Land: At 26 square miles, Arlington’s land is one of our scarcest and most valuable resources. I strongly support the work of the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission; a group I helped lobby for last year. Their work will appropriately evaluate the true cost of land in making development decisions.  Given that school grounds are treated as open space by residents and play an important part of school programming, we must consider what is really being lost through school expansions that consume scarce open space.  Likewise, the cost of underground parking should be evaluated in the context of the cost of the land.  Any land swaps with public or private partners must include a transparent accounting of what is being given away and what is being gained.
  • Commitment to Land Acquisition: Prior to 2008, the county regularly funded the parkland acquisition fund through the CIP, recognizing the importance of being able to respond to emergent land acquisition opportunities as they arose. Since 2008, funding for land acquisition has dropped precipitously. I support efforts to rebuild the land acquisition fund so that we have the ability to respond as land acquisition opportunities arise. I am encouraged by the ongoing Plan our Open Space (POPS) update to the 2005 Public Spaces Master Plan. This plan includes draft land acquisition criteria which the County can use to identify and rank acquisition priorities for future parks and open space. 
  • “Create” More Land: In addition to recommending the creation of JFAC, the 2015 Community Facilities Study suggested that we think more broadly about seizing opportunities to “create” more land. Other planning initiatives, such as the Realize Rosslyn sector plan have promoted creative solutions to our parks and open space challenges. We should be open to the range of opportunities before us and those that we currently may not foresee.  These include but are not limited to: exploring options for decking over more sections of I-66; improving access to the Potomac River through partnerships with the National Park Service; and exploring creative land swaps with public and private partners.  This additional “land” for other uses could allow us to preserve more parkland for nature. 
  • No Net Loss: The county should set the goal of no net loss of open space. While additional open spaces will be needed to keep pace with the growing population, we need to staunch the loss of existing land and ensure that we continue to have a base of open space for residents and workers as our population grows and density continues to increase.
  • Arlington Green Loop: I believe Arlington should set as a major multi-generational goal the establishment of an uninterrupted “green way” around Arlington that builds on existing multi-purpose trails, creating a contiguous wildlife corridor circumnavigating the County and ideally within a 15-minute walk of every resident.

Arlington has been lauded as a model for smart growth planning.  However, our parks and open space have often been forgotten in that equation.  The County needs to strengthen our commitment to expanding park and open space in the highest demand areas.  The research is clear: there are significant economic and health benefits associated with parks and open space.  We also know that great parks help create places that people want to live, work and play.  I am committed to investing in and expanding our parks and open space both today and in our future.

Q10:    How would you define the concept of an “Arlington Way?”  Does this actually exist of is it mostly just rhetoric?  How well (or poorly) do you think it’s been working in recent years, and what changes would you propose moving forward to strengthen it?

A10:     Effective community engagement is always a work in progress. As a civic leader, I’ve seen that decisions made by the County Board usually turn out better when transparent, inclusive community involvement has come beforehand. The challenge is how to keep it from becoming cumbersome, and not the province of a select few who have time to stay involved.

As head of the Planning Commission and a past civic association president, I know how to support a productive collaboration among conflicting interests. I have participated in and overseen efforts to develop the thriving Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and have worked to preserve and improve Arlington’s neighborhoods. Collectively, we can forge a path ahead on tough choices, as I saw in the 2015 Community Facility Study, the 2015 South Arlington Working Group and early discussions on land use in the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC).

Therefore, as a County Board Member, I will:

  • Be exceedingly clear on the “charge” to any working group or community process. From the start, everyone needs to know parameters on resources, timing, County Board views, roles and authority for decision-making.
  • Explore quicker, more effective ways to elicit citizen views and make decisions. Current processes often take far too long. Many people can’t attend night meetings or don’t want to devote long hours to workgroups. The county must better harness social media and other technologies.
  • Redouble efforts to engage with under-engaged groups in an effective format.

Q11:    What do you think the current Board is doing well?  What do you think it needs to improve on?  Are there any areas where the Board is doing poorly?  How would you propose fixing what’s not working well?

A11:     Arlington County continues to generally do an excellent job at long term comprehensive planning.  In the past few years the County Board adopted a bold new Affordable Housing Master Plan.  The board also commission the award-winning Community Facilities Study and then followed-through by creating the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission with the School Board.  I also applaud the board for issuing a strong statement on the value of diversity and immigrants to our community.

However, with the County Board’s leadership and a resolve to improve, Arlington can be an even better place to live.

Therefore, as a County Board Member, I will work on the following improvements:

  • Diversify our tax base and proactively plan for potential impacts of a reduced federal government presence.
  • Keep property taxes low and look harder for new ways to economize while keeping services and quality high.
  • Press for a more clear and comprehensive evaluation of the impact of any new development on school needs, transportation (Metro/roads), water/trash services, parks and open space, and other county services.
  • Reduce Arlington’s high commercial vacancy rate (almost 20%).
  • Streamline decision-making while keeping civic engagement robust.
  • Be visible and forthright about solving pain points, such as safety for refugees and immigrants, the impact of widening I-66 through Arlington, and underage drinking in Clarendon bars.
  • Build a better understanding between residents and businesses. Community-building means linking private investment with public interests such as improved public spaces, roads, sidewalks and well-designed parks.
  • One of the most important Board roles is overseeing the county manager. The Board must be clear about expectations, and then assess the executive’s performance in light of those expectations. Mine include:
    • Foster improved customer service and responsiveness to questions and concerns from citizens and business. Today’s elephantine permitting system is one example.
    • Reduce silos in county government.
    • Effectively use new technology, management and information techniques.
    • Insist that every county government service area regularly report key customer service metrics.

Q12:    What ever happened to the proposed Long Bridge Parr aquatics and fitness facility, and do you support moving ahead with it?

A12I support the current plan to build a scaled-back aquatics and fitness facility at Long Bridge Park.  As I understand it, a citizen task force revisited the project after it was put on hold and recommended moving forward within the existing, approved funds.  There is an identified need for additional aquatics as our community and school-aged population grows – and this area of Arlington is particularly underserved. As a planner, I also respect the serious long-term master plan that was created for Long Bridge Park years ago. The fields, esplanade, playground, walkways and natural areas have been very successful. I support completion of the adopted plan, to include a 4th playing field on top of the existing surface parking lot, the indoor facility, and a trail connection at the north end of the park across the GW Parkway to the Mt. Vernon Trail.

Q13:    What would you propose to jump start Arlington’s Initiative to Rethink Energy (AIRE)?  More broadly, how can we move Arlington to a clean energy-powered county as rapidly as possible?

A13:     As a County Board member I will keep the commitment to use the Residential Utility Tax for environmental initiatives.  I pledge to keep this commitment so that Arlington’s leading environmental initiatives can continue and hopefully expand in the future.

When the Residential Utility Tax was instituted in 2007 to the AIRE initiative, Arlington was the only jurisdiction in the region that did not have a utility tax.  The tax was instituted on a sliding scale basis to provide a small financial incentive for those who conserve energy or who receive energy from renewable sources.

The funding allows Arlington’s leading edge environmental programs to continue.  The savings from all of the energy efficiency measures for the County and Schools helps the County and School budgets although it is not always acknowledged.  These environmental programs serve as a model for other jurisdictions.

Increasing the Residential Utility Tax to the same level as in neighboring jurisdictions would allow the Community Energy Plan (CEP) to become a reality.  Arlington has offered a leading vision to encourage buildings that run on renewable energy.  Funding is necessary for the initial higher costs of building net zero and more sustainable buildings, but over time, the lower energy bills repay this wise, future-focused investment.  Staffing is also needed to market and provide technical expertise for promoting AIRE.

In addition to the Residential Utility Tax, I’d also like to explore using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) to fund the capital investment in solar panels for civic buildings.

Q14:    Anything else that we haven’t covered and that you think should be?

A14:    I think that solving our school capacity challenge for the long term is critical.  As an active parent, a soccer coach, a neighborhood leader and a Planning Commissioner, I know that school buildings are the backbone of our civic infrastructure, providing playing fields for everyone, meeting rooms for civic associations and community groups, and classrooms that can be used by Arlingtonians of all ages at different times of the day.  We aren’t “making more land” in Arlington, so making these strategic investments in ways that meet multiple community needs will be critical role for the County Board.

That’s why I lobbied for the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) last year and am delighted to see their broad participatory community process in action this year.  I believe that our long-range land use and transportation plans MUST include the schools, parks and public facilities our community so desperately needs.  At the same time, as a small-business owner, I know regular maintenance of existing community facilities, parks and schools can’t be neglected, so I commit to providing sufficient funding to keep what we have working to serve us all.   And where a facility has reached the end of its useful life, I will ensure the community has ample opportunities to weigh in on any change options for the site.

That being said, I support the School Board’s focus on eliminating the achievement gap in every school in Arlington. While I don’t believe that any child’s destiny is determined by socioeconomic status, I do believe that every student benefits from learning, playing, and growing up with kids from different backgrounds.  That’s why my three daughters attend school in South Arlington. As a County Board member, I commit to examining land use decisions and housing policy choices with an eye to increasing opportunities for kids across the County.

Making sure that our physical investments serve the community well is one of the hallmarks of Arlington’s success.  We can’t neglect that value as we focus on the future.

  • dave schutz

    I am posting this same comment in response to to all four Board candidate responses: there was a catechistic quality to the questionnaire, and you all gave approved answers! You get your certificates. It’s nice to know that any of you is ready to be a thoughtful and forward looking member of the Board. That said, I think we are not going to enlarge the Board to eight, so the voters will have to choose.

    One thing I’d like to see each of you address – and I’m putting it up here so that you will have a chance to think about a response before something like it comes at you in a public meeting – is collegiality on the Board, and the potential for factions. Both Libby Garvey and Christian Dorsey, in their successful campaigns for nomination, stressed their interest in a positive and respectful environment and engagement with all their colleagues (I think Katie Cristol did, too, but I don’t remember specifics). Christian Dorsey said he was not running to join a faction, and Libby Garvey talked a great deal about getting away from rancor. This clearly stood them in good stead with the voters, and was among the factors which got them nominated in the face of a large number of endorsements for their opponents made by many people who had long histories of involvement in County affairs.

    One of the most succinct and insightful pieces I have ever seen about recent Arlington politics was written by Ben Tribbett the day after John Vihstadt’s seventeen point victory in the special. Among other things Tribbett said: “…. The simple fact is the Arlington County Board was seen as being more responsive to political party stuff than community things- a critique that is not totally fair, but has been widespread in the community for a while. …People hate partisan politics at the local level…They clearly liked the idea of some type of “coalition” politics for local government… Vihstadt running as an Independent baited many local Dems into highlighting his past support of Republicans- and I heard over and over yesterday from ‘Democratic’ voters on how that backfired and ticked them off…”

    So my question is, you are running for the Democratic Party nod, and if successful you will be going onto a Board which has one Independent and one Democrat who endorsed that Independent and puts a high value on including non-party-line Dems, and non-Dems in the discussion. You have an electorate – both the Dem nominating electorate and the general electorate – which has consistently chosen against the more strongly partisan “inner circle” Dem candidates in the last several elections. Assuming that you do value collegiality on the Board, what is your plan for maintaining it once elected? Bonus question for Peter Fallon and Erik Gutshall: you each ran for the Dem nomination against people now on the Board, how are you going to keep that from being an obstacle to smooth functioning if elected?