Homeowners in Fairfax County may have to wait another three to five years for any tax relief.
That was the somber warning issued by Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin Monday night at the annual joint dinner meeting of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce and the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation.
"The commercial vacancy rate in the county is now at 18 percent. That means the commercial market has three to five years of vacant space unless something radically changes," Griffin told the group gathered at the Mount Vernon Inn.
"The average homeowner is being asked to pay 50 percent more in property taxes than they were four years ago," he emphasized. "Budgeting has become a challenge to balance programs and money. It is also a challenge to balance quality of life with the tax burden on home owners."
ON THE PLUS SIDE, Griffin noted, "The Richmond Highway area is doing much better than other segments of the county. I believe, when we look back a year from now we will be able to see that this area has done very well."
The theme of the meeting was "Economic Development and Revitalization in Southeast Fairfax County." Richard F. Neel, Chamber Chairman of the Board, and president, SFDC, kicked off the topic by saying, "We need to do all we can to grow our commercial tax base. It is now only a little over 19 percent. We need to get it back to over 26 percent."
Neel also noted, "Richmond Highway represents a very attractive investment opportunity." He attributed much of the corridor's revitalization to "the leadership on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors" of Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland and Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman.
Joining Griffin in a presentation pertaining to various aspects of the Richmond Highway revitalization process, both Hyland and Kauffman buttressed the need to shift the tax burden away from homeowners. Hyland predicted that the tax rate will drop no less than five cents when this year's county budget is finalized.
Kauffman pointed out, "Many big name retailers have come to the highway in the past couple of years. The things that you are now reading about concerning improvements along the corridor were very long in the making. Our overnight success took years of work."
He also tied revitalization to overall improvement in transportation planning and services. "Where are we going with transportation planning," Kauffman asked rhetorically.
"On March 13, the Board of Supervisors sent a letter to all members of the Northern Virginia congressional delegation outlining the priority items for our area in transportation," Kauffman stated. It requested their assistance "in securing funding in the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century for a series of projects in Fairfax County."
TOPPING THE WISH LIST was the Richmond Highway Public Transportation Initiative pegged at $32 million. It includes bus service improvements, pedestrian and passenger improvements, and transit centers and parking.
A primary element of the overall transportation/pedestrian safety plan is what is known as the "Centerline Study." It proposes to widen Richmond Highway from the Stafford County Line to the Beltway in order to provide sidewalks and trails along the corridor combined with center islands and increased signalized crossings.
Kauffman urged all those present to attend the next meeting on this proposal scheduled for April 29, from 5 - 8 p.m. at Mount Vernon High School, 8515 Old Mount Vernon Road.
"A year ago the big concern was the increase in pedestrian deaths along Route 1. Tomorrow [Tuesday] the first signs go up alerting motorists about increased fines if they do not yield to pedestrians in crosswalks," Kauffman told the crowd.
Hyland emphasized, "There has been a real change in the way people think and feel about Richmond Highway. Many people have worked for years to change its image. I believe we have arrived."
But he also insisted, "VDOT's proposal to change the highway design in front of Kings Crossing will devastate any future development in that location. Many members of the Board of Supervisors are against the VDOT proposal."
THE AREA IN question is in the Penn Daw region of Richmond Highway and is currently the site of Michael's Arts and Crafts and Chuck E. Cheese. The Board of Supervisors' Revitalization Policy Committee, which Hyland chairs, has identified the site as being one of the best along the Route 1 corridor for mixed use development.
The Kings Crossing development plan has received enthusiastic support from citizens, businesses, and the SFDC, according to Hyland. But, VDOT is proposing a grade separated interchange at the location which would consume most of the right-of-way and render the site unsuitable for the envisioned development.
As a volunteer, community based organization with a principal mission of revitalization of Richmond Highway, SFDC's service area is comprised of the 7.5 mile stretch of Route 1 from the Beltway to Fort Belvoir. It is a one-stop site location and information source for developers, property and business owners, and citizens interested in revitalization of the area.
IN OTHER MATTERS, Hyland informed the audience "Two weeks ago I received notification that the Army will soon make its decision as to the location of the Army Museum. They indicated that it will be located near the Main Gate where we wanted it originally. But, it's still a work in progress."
On the negative side, he emphasized, "Belvoir has no intention of ever reopening Woodlawn Road. We need to find an alternative."
When it came to the question and answer portion most of the inquiries returned to the tax and budget subject. Questions centered on cutting spending and capping the tax rate.
Griffin said, "I can't make further reductions without reducing programs and services. One possible area that is now being looked at is to reduce employee salaries. The Board will be doing the mark up this coming Monday."
In answer to "Where have the revenues gone?" Griffin stated, "It's that the revenue stream has dropped." This he attributed primarily to the loss of commercial real estate income.
One suggestion from the audience was a cap on residential real estate taxes. Kauffman noted, "The only local area that has this is Prince Georges County. But I think we have a better quality of life. An example of that is our police force. I feel a lot safer here than in Prince Georges County."
Hyland stated, "A cap presupposes that nothing changes. It also has a severe impact on education in the county. We have a great many excellent programs that are very expensive. And, a cap is dependent on a guaranteed revenue stream."
Kauffman assured, "When it came to the '04 budget, every agency took it on the chin."