The Herndon Town Council, last week, sat and listened to residents and politicians voice their opinions for nearly five hours about the proposed creation of a special tax district to pay for the Rail-to-Dulles project and the Council didn't like what it was hearing.
"We've got a pretty complicated issue and as we started this, we were told it was a yes or no vote. I don't believe that is the case. … If it was a straight up or down vote, I think this council would vote almost unanimously no," said Councilman Michael O'Reilly, as he made a motion to defer any decision of the district until Dec. 2.
Vice Mayor Carol Bruce, who was sitting in for Mayor Rick Thoesen who was recovering from surgery, was more blunt: "Quite frankly, if we had a vote right now it would go down in flames unanimously. I refuse to accept the doomsday scenarios laid before us. … We're going to have rail to Dulles … but rail to Dulles at any cost isn't the answer either."
THE PUBLIC HEARING attracted a wide range of people including former politicians, the current state secretary of transportation, and citizens and business owners not only from Herndon, but also around the county, especially Reston, where no public hearing on the special district was scheduled.
A majority of the speakers urged the council to reject the proposal, which would create a special tax district throughout the Dulles corridor, taxing commercial and business properties an additional 22 cents in property taxes as early as July 2004 to pay for the project. The proposal, in the form of a petition submitted by a group of landowners known as LEADER, increases the tax to at least 29 cents after 10 years and phases it out after 30. The petition, however, calls for the rail project to be finished in two phases, the first of which stretching from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. The second from Wiehle to Dulles Airport then on to Loudoun County. It also provides a clause, referred to by many as the "poison pill," which says the district would have to elect to continue to pay the special tax if the federal government does not commit to funding the second phase in the budget cycle immediately following the cycle paying for phase one. The federal government is expected to pay for half of the project's costs and the state 25 percent, with Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority making up the final 25 percent of funding.
"We have developed a prudent plan that maximizes federal funding," said state Secretary of Transportation Whittington Clement. "I understand we're here tonight to talk about a tax district, which is a local decision. But I want you to understand, a local commitment is essential to maximizing federal funding."
Former Gov. Linwood Holton, a co-chair of LEADER, addressing concerns about breaking the project into two phases without providing a guarantee of rail to the west, said there was no choice.
"It had to be divided into two phases, but ladies and gentlemen, it has never, by anyone [involved], been contemplated to be anything less than a rail system that goes to Dulles Airport and onto to Route 772 [in Loudoun County]," Holton said. "… The result was simply cost."
MANY OF THOSE in opposition said the petition was unfair to those in the western part of the corridor, including Herndon, because it requires them to pay for a rail project that may never come, or at best won't be completed for another 13 years. The poison pill, they said, allows the Tysons Corner owners to opt out of the district after rail is completed in that area. And overall, the plan will create financial inequities in the corridor as the eastern properties will become more valuable once the first phase is complete. All the while, it is Herndon, followed closely by Reston, that has highest commercial vacancy rate in the metropolitan area, said Thompson Hirst, president of the Rapid Transit Action Committee and a Reston resident.
The inconsistencies with the district boundaries also drew criticism, especially given the largest commercial property in McLean, known as the PRC property, is not contained within the district, yet is slated to have a Metrorail station within walking distance. In contrast, some Herndon properties located more than a mile from a proposed station are located within the district's boundaries.
"I've been looking to relocate my business to Herndon," said Elliot Eder, a Vienna resident whose law practice is in Washington D.C. "The prospect of moving out to Herndon only to face a pass through of double-digit rents is astounding. No businessman would consider leasing space in Herndon with the prospect of skyrocketing rents for no benefits. No mass transit will be in place for years. … McLean all of a sudden is looking awfully great."
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS in Herndon also took exception to the fact that it cost $30,000 to become a member of LEADER, which they said prevented them from having any input into the proposal.
"LEADER didn't invite small businesses. We couldn't afford it, but they're asking us to pay," said Robert Cook, owner of Fox Mill Pets, which has two locations in Herndon, one of which is in the proposed district yet is about a mile away from any proposed station.
Cook said he estimated the special tax will cost him an additional $1,400 in taxes annually above what he is paying now, which he reasoned amounted to about $9,300 per year.
"I don't have a problem paying our fair share. I do have a problem when there is no benefit," Cook said.
Another business owner, Rich Kelly, who owns Hard Times Café in the same shopping center on Eden Street as the pet store, said it is not just the tax western property owners are being asked to pay, but because the state is proposing to pay for its share of the project by increasing the fare on the Dulles Toll Road, Herndon residents and property owners are paying for rail twice.
"I have property in Loudoun County and always think twice if I want to use the Greenway," Kelly said. "Our concerns is, we're looking for a fair opportunity. I think it benefits Tysons Corner. There is no guarantee rail will come to Herndon. It's not a benefit to Herndon. The idea that everyone commutes to D.C. is flawed."
THE TOWN COUNCIL, however, opted not to dismiss the petition outright, even though a majority of the members said in its present form they would vote against it. Instead, the council decided to defer a decision until Dec. 2, suggesting members of LEADER come up with amendments that make the plan more equitable to the western part of the county.
"There's a lot of ways to get to a bottom-line dollar figure. We had a lot of comments tonight about building less stations from West Falls Church to Dulles and filling them in in phase two," said Councilman Dennis Husch. "Build one station in Tysons Corner. That goes a long way to being fair and equitable."
Others were not optimistic about receiving another proposal.
"I don't think another week [will make a difference]," said Councilwoman Connie Hutchinson, saying she didn't think the county had the authority to make the changes the council wants, namely the removal of the poison pill language and the extension of phase one to Herndon. The changes, she said had to come from LEADER.
"I think there are solutions and they're out there. … I'm willing to wait an extra week to see if the petitioners can come back with something else."