Planning for Metrorail in the Dulles corridor has been on the books since the 1960s. Four decades later whether or not those plans get off the ground could come down to a vote by the Herndon Town Council.
A group of landowners has petitioned the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to create a special tax district to raise the revenue needed to pay the county's share of the project, which would extend rail from West Falls Church to the Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County. The district includes portions of the Town of Herndon and some of its unincorporated area, therefore the Town Council must sign off on it. However, issues with inequity, a lack of guarantees and the apparent haphazardness of the district boundaries have council members questioning whether they can support the measure. Several of the largest corporate landowners in Herndon have also come out against the plan.
"One reason I have some trepidation on the part of Herndon is how taxes are levied. The county has a tax on property, Herndon has an overlay on that of about 28 cents per $100 of assessed value," said Councilman Dennis Husch. "You're talking about an additional 22 to 29 cents for those in the district on top of that. That's very important to those property owners in Herndon. They're not just paying the county rate, plus the tax. They will be potentially paying the county tax, the Herndon tax and this tax. That's a triple tax and it's significant."
THE PROPOSED SPECIAL DISTRICT would tax businesses and commercial properties contained in its boundaries an additional 22 cents in property taxes beginning as soon as Jan. 1 the year after it is adopted by the Board of Supervisors. That figure is proposed to rise to 29 cents after about 10 years and would be phased out after 30 years. The property owners also have the ability to increase the tax, should overruns on the rail project warrant.
The proposed boundaries include properties along Elden Street at either end of town, but do not include the downtown area or some large office complexes within town limits.
In all, Herndon makes up 7.9 percent of the total district. Of that, 22.2 percent of the in-town business owners signed the petition. Overall, however, Herndon landowners make up only 1.7 percent of the total signatures. At least 51 percent of the landowners in the proposed district had to sign the petition in order for it to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors.
The $3.4 billion project will be funded in two phases with the federal government picking up half the tab, the state paying 25 percent and Fairfax County, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Loudoun County paying the remaining 25 percent. The tax district proposal breaks the project into two phases: phase one consisting of Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, then phase two has the rail continuing from Wiehle Avenue to Loudoun County. The bulk of the county's expenses will be incurred during phase one.
It is the phasing and the lack of a guarantee phase two will ever be funded that has Herndon owners concerned.
"First there is the inequity. The second phase has to pay into it as early as July 2004 and it may never ever get built. Worse case scenario, the western part of the district could be paying taxes for decades and never get a benefit," said Eileen Curtis, president of the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce, from a statement submitted by Herndon property owners. "The Chamber also recognizes there seems to be a strong inequity and we recommend it be looked at."
Curtis said the land owners, as well as the Chamber, also have concerns that potential cost overruns would delay phase two; that the proposed phase one is slated to end at Wiehle Avenue instead of continuing on to the proposed Herndon-Monroe station, which would add about $250,000 to the first phase costs; and the so-called "poison pill" clause in the petition.
The clause says that if the second phase of the project is not included in the next federal funding cycle, each cycle is typically about six years, a second petition to increase the tax would have to be circulated. To date, the federal government is unwilling to make the funding guarantee. The clause, say Herndon officials, would essentially kill the district and any hopes of phase two being completed.
"Those in Tysons Corner could vote not to do that because they would already have rail," said Henry Bibber, the town's director of community development, at a Planning Commission work session Monday, Nov. 17.
BIBBER SAID staff is going to recommend the Town Council ask for some changes to the boundaries of the tax district, namely removing some businesses deemed too far away from the proposed rail to receive any benefit from it. Most are located along Elden Street close to the Fairfax County Parkway and are medical offices and small neighborhood shops such as dry cleaners, eateries or corner markets.
"They are beyond a mile from the station," Bibber said. "Because of their distance and because of the nature of the business, they are not affected by rail."
It is unclear, however, how much tinkering the town can do with the proposed boundaries. At a Town Council work session Tuesday, Nov. 11, when a question about boundary adjustments was raised, Tony Griffin, the county executive, said, "We would like you not to change anything because it opens it up for someone else."
He did say, however, that it could be possible to remove some land along "the fringes."
Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) sides with the Herndon properties' owners. Besides the inequities of the proposal, he said it will also cause unneeded competition between the business owners. As rail is built in Tysons Corner, he said, that land is going to become more valuable than the property in Reston and Herndon, which will not see a rail car until 2016 at the earliest, if at all.
"If rail only goes to Tysons, property values in the corridor go down and that affects the tax base," Mendelsohn said. "Businesses do not feel protected. A lot of this is favoring Tysons over the corridor."
Supervisors' chairman Kate Hanley (D) said the rail project, as far as the county was concerned, was one project not two and that the western part of the proposed district had nothing to worry about.
"There is nothing about this process that leads the Board of Supervisors to believe this is a project that ends at Wiehle. We believe it extends to Dulles and onto Loudoun," Hanley said. "The Airports Authority needs that comfort level, that it will come to Dulles. ... It's their right-of-way, which is a huge contribution."
In the end, it all comes down to whether the Town Council is convinced its constituents are protected.
"There are some things we can agree on. We all want rail to Dulles. ... We probably could all agree what we do needs to be fair," Husch said. "It all comes down to who pays and how much."