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Votes

Fees Raised; Council Gets Lesson on Dirty Bombs

The Alexandria City Council raised development fees, increased developers’ contributions to the Housing Trust Fund, discussed the Datatel building and CSX, learned about “dirty” bombs and more at its next to the last legislative meeting of the year.

Sewer access fees will go up from $630 to $4,200 for a single family home but will be phased in over several months and that phase-in will be tied to the due dates of preliminary and final development site plans.

“I am really pleased that the staff worked so closely with the development community,” said Councilwoman Claire Eberwein at the June 11, meeting. “The fact that we have letters supporting the increases is a reflection of that effort.”

The contribution to the Housing Trust Fund will also double. “I am going to abstain on this matter because I have always said that it is incorrect to say that this contribution is voluntary. So to vote for it would be the wrong thing for me to do,” said David Speck. “However, because I do believe in the need for affordable housing, I shall abstain.”

The vote was six to zero, and came on the heels of Rabbi Jack Moline’s impassioned plea for Council to set as a goal tripling the number of affordable housing units in the city within 10 years and then maintaining that level of housing stock into the future.

“You asked the Interfaith community to be a force for good in the community and now we are asking you to do the same,” Moline said in his presentation to Council at the end of the public comment session. The Interfaith Association brings together clergy from all denominations in the city. This year, the group’s focus was increased affordable housing.

“While I don’t necessarily agree with Rabbi Moline’s hyperbole, I do agree that setting this goal is something that Council should carefully consider and that is possible,” said Mayor Kerry J. Donley. “I do not think that this is Alexandria’s problem alone, however. I am working on the establishment of a $20 million regional Housing Trust Fund that would support all of the jurisdictions’ efforts. Also, I have been lobbying on Capitol Hill for the federal government to be a contributor. After all, they are one of the largest employers in the region.”

VICE MAYOR Bill Cleveland had another issue. “I think Rabbi Moline makes a good point,” he said. “But we need to come up with a number on just what is affordable. I know there are some national numbers but we need to be clear. What is affordable to me may not be affordable to someone else. We need to make sure that we are helping the people who really need help.”

Councilman William D. Euille pointed out that Council has made some progress in this area. “During the budget process, we increased the amount of money that we will spend on affordable housing programs by $1 million,” he said. “And tonight we have increased the contribution to the Housing Trust Fund. These are good first steps toward implementing the Affordable Housing goals that we set last year. We can certainly do more but I believe that this shows our commitment to maintaining affordable housing in the city.”

THERE WAS CONTROVERSY over a proposed clarification to the city’s leash law that resulted in the matter being deferred until September.

The docket item would have added the word “physical”” leash to the city’s ordinance because of a recent court case in which a woman who had her dog on an electronic leash was fined by animal control officers and the fine was dismissed by a judge.

“We don’t believe that it was Council’s intent to allow people to use anything other than a physical leash,” said City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa. “From personal experience, I don’t believe that electronic collars are that effective and they create an enforcement problem.”

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson pulled the item from the consent calendar. “Personally, I’m not necessarily supportive of electronic leashes because I just don’t know anything about them,” Woodson said. “And that’s the point. If I am going to vote on legislation, I think I need more information on this matter. Either I need to have the information between now and the public hearing on Saturday or we need to defer this matter until the fall.”

Councilwoman Redella S. “Del” Pepper agreed. “We got a letter from a school that apparently trains dogs off leash in Old Town,” she said. “He said that this restriction would have a negative impact on his business. I believe that we need to hear from him.”

Speck raised a concern about deferring the matter. “There is another unintended consequence about deferring this,” he said. “What kinds of enforcement problems is this going to create for staff if we defer it?”

CITY MANAGER Philip Sunderland suggested deferral. “There aren’t going to be any real problems if we defer it until September and get you more information,” he said. “Somehow, I believed that this was going to be just a simple clarification. I guess I was wrong.”

Donley expressed concern about the amount of time that is being spent on the issues relating to dogs. “Personally, I am tired of dealing with these issues relating to dogs,” he said. “We have a number of very important issues to deal with on Saturday and I don’t know that I want to spend an hour or more listening to testimony on this issue.”

Euille agreed. “I agree that we have far more important matters to consider,” he said. “But to some people, this is an important issue because they feel that we are enacting legislation and taking steps that, somehow, indicate to them that we are an anti dog body. That isn’t true, but that’s the way they feel. If we need more information, then let’s wait until the fall.”

Eberwein asked that the staff report contain some specific information. “I want to know how effective the electronic collars are and if making them effective causes pain to the animal,” she said. “I have a real concern about that.”

The matter will be considered in the fall.

EACH MONTH for the past year, Council has received a report on the status of repairs to the CSX-owned King Street overpass. “I believe that CSX is committed to removing the paint, repainting the bridge and making the other repairs that we have requested,” said Transportation and Environmental Services Director Richard Baier. “However, the contractor that they have found isn’t available until July. The work could begin the week after July 4, if he is available this summer. Otherwise, we will have to wait until September.”

Speck suggested that this uncertainty is not acceptable. “I want a date certain,” he said. “I believe that we may be being spun here.”

Sunderland said that the city would know within the next two weeks whether the contractor will be available and will have a date.

“Please put this on the docket for our last meeting so that we will know what is going on,” Speck said. “If we don’t have a date, we can resume our public campaign by replacing the signs with the CSX telephone number. I just am not sure that this is a priority.”

THE STATUS OF the Datatel building in Arlandria is another item that has consistently been on the Council docket. Mark Jinks gave Tuesday night’s report.

“The contract purchaser does not wish to spend the money to improve the streetscape or to make the improvements to the building that we believe are necessary,” he said. “Therefore, we are moving to purchase the building from the contract purchaser and then tear it down.”

Speck asked about the timing of this decision. “If we are to deal with the contract purchaser, we will have a decision within the next couple of weeks,” Sunderland said. “The contract purchaser’s contract is up in July so we must decide before that. We will bring this back to you at the last meeting before the summer.”

The building has been vacant and deteriorating for the past decade. The city has long felt that razing it was the only economically viable solution because bringing it up to code would be too costly. One of the uses that is being considered for the site is the construction of new office space for school system administrative staff and the School Board. They are in rented space on Beauregard Street.

PEPPER ASKED for a report on “dirty” bombs. “I just really want to know what they are and how prepared the city is to respond to one if it is detonated in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Captain John North of the Alexandria Fire Department, gave a report. “There have been a lot of inaccurate facts in the media lately,” he said. “Dirty bombs usually impact a room or a building or, at most, a two to three-block area. They wouldn’t destroy an entire city like the movie that some of us have seen where a device destroys Baltimore.”

North explained that “dirty” bombs are really Radiological Dispersing Devices. “The radioactive material spreads as far as the dust from the bomb,” he explained. “If you can imagine a car bomb, it would affect a building or part of a block. They are also not necessarily nuclear. The type of material that would cause a major nuclear event is not easily available. Most of the material that is being used in “dirty” bombs is stolen from hospitals or medical supply companies.”

North said that Virginia Power provides the city with monitoring and detection equipment and that the amount of equipment that is available to the city has doubled since Sept. 11. “If a “dirty” bomb is exploded in the District of Columbia, we will likely be sending our resources to assist them not responding to any emergency of our own,” he said.

But if such a device were to be exploded in Alexandria, he said that the city is prepared. “Fire, police and the hospitals are all prepared to respond,” he said. “We have mutual aid agreements with a number of other jurisdictions and we could get help from the federal government. Seabirth, the marine hazardous material response team is now deployed to Indian Head in Maryland. It was in Georgia but has been moved closer to the Capitol. Within an hour of an emergency, we could have 100 men and equipment on scene and within a bit more time we could have an additional 240 men.”

Pepper said that she would like to see a pamphlet describing response to these types of emergencies. “You know, like the pamphlets we keep in Citizen Assistance office,” she said.

“We could certainly consider something like that,” Sunderland said.

POLICE CHIEF Charles Samarra said that public safety personnel would be on hand to tell citizens what to do. “The response depends on the emergency,” he said. “Whether people should stay in their homes or evacuate depends on what exactly has happened. We would have fire and police personnel on hand to tell people what we wanted them to do.”

City Council will hold its final public hearing of the year on June 15. There are a number of land use and other items on the lengthy docket.