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Year in Review, Year Ahead

Record snow storms, a hurricane, police raids, new town personnel, including a town manager and public works director, saving a yellow house, approval of an arts center, over occupancy issues and a defeated special tax district for rail improvements are just some of the events that helped define 2003 for the Town of Herndon.

AS HERNDON RESIDENTS rang in the new year, word spread that the Fairfax County police, between Dec. 8, 2002 and Jan. 3, 2003, sent plain-clothes officers into Herndon- and Reston-area bars and restaurants, in response to "a series of escalating violent incidents" to enforce the state's Alcohol Beverages Control (ABC) laws. In a couple of cases, uniformed police entered the establishments, and reportedly based on information provided by the undercover officers, asked patrons to undergo sobriety tests. A total of 12 arrests were made in or near three establishments: Jimmy's, Champps Americana in Reston and Ned Devine's, located in the unincorporated portion of Herndon. Nine of the arrests where for drunk in public.

Town residents and elected officials criticized the move by the county police, especially in the case of Jimmy's where the town's own police force has jurisdiction.

"The police in the Reston District have done a disservice to themselves ... and destroyed their credibility among the citizens," said Councilman Dennis Husch at the time.

After a series of meetings between the establishment owners, town officials and police, the uproar over the incident, which made national headlines, faded from the news.

RECORD SNOW FALLS in February led to the roof collapsing at Floris Elementary school and at St. Joseph's unfinished school addition. No one was injured in either incident.

The students at Floris were scattered between five local schools until the roof could be repaired.

"I am just amazed at the how much they got done. The collapse happened Saturday and our kids will be back in school on Tuesday, that is pretty incredible," said Jamie Baird, who has three children at Floris, at a town meeting shortly after the collapse. "We all got two phone calls from each of our kid's teachers. Two."

Mother Nature wasn't through with the town. In September, Hurricane Isabel blew through bringing down power lines and trees then nearly month-long rains dampened, but did not wash out, the annual Herndon High School Homecoming parade in October. All in all, 2003 turned out to be one of the wettest years in recent memory.

IT WASN'T JUST the weather having an impact on the look of the town. Ground was symbolically broken on the much-debated Herndon Arts Center, and literally on the Herndon Commerce Center site. In addition, the Herndon Harbor House celebrated a milestone by breaking ground on its final phase of construction.

Throughout most of the year, the size, scope and management of the arts center took center stage. The project had been given the preliminary nod from the Town Council in 2002, so the new debates swirled around the details.

In April, the town's planning commission recommending slashing the center's funding in the capital improvements plan (CIP) from $7 million to $3.5 million for fiscal year 2008-09, as well as $500,000 from the center’s proposed $1 million design budget for fiscal year 2004. In June, the council reinstated the funding in the CIP. The next month, the council endorsed the Herndon Cultural Arts Center Advisory Committee's final report, which calls for a 275-seat theater complex.

The Herndon Foundation for the Cultural Arts was created to raise the remaining needed funds to construct and operate the center. The organization threw a symbolic groundbreaking party during Arts Week in October, which included the start of a community mural on the side of the Hands Inc. building, site of the proposed center, to remind people of the building's future. In addition, the foundation accepted donations from the Council for the Arts of Herndon and the Herndon Rotary to kick off its fund-raising campaign. The center is anticipated to be built by 2006.

The Herndon Commerce Center is proposed to be a 26,000-square-foot, three-story brick building reminiscent of famed architect Louis Sullivan's clock tower. Located at 754 Elden St. next to the Ice House Café, the center will be used for office space, while the bottom floor is reserved for retail. Previous to Tetra Partnership's proposal, the site was home to an abandoned gas station for several years.

"I think this will be an important building for downtown," Thoesen said.

In October, ground was broken on a new county senior center which completes the campus of Herndon Harbor House, coincidentally celebrating its fifth anniversary at the same time. Once completed, the Herndon Senior Center will be open to the public and will provide additional space for the residents of Harbor House.

The two-story, 23,000-square-foot building is proposed to have several multipurpose rooms, meeting rooms, lounges, game rooms, storage rooms, a computer room, a library, an arts and crafts room and a commercial kitchen and dining room, as well as administrative offices. It will be overseen by the county's Department of Community and Recreation Services, which runs the other 13 existing senior centers throughout the county.

WHILE NOT CHANGING the look of Herndon but still having an impact was the council's approval of the purchase an existing 60,000-square-foot, one-story brick building to house the police department.

The purchase of 397 Herndon Parkway brings an end to the town's efforts to receive the appropriate approvals from Loudoun County to expand the current station site, at 1481 Sterling Road, in a two-phase improvement process of the existing police station that would have resulted in a 32,000-square-foot facility. The facility is located in both Herndon and Loudoun County.

The estimated cost is $7.1 million for the purchase of the building and additional $1.5 million to $2.4 million for the renovation of the property to make it useful to the police.

The two-phase renovation of the existing site was expected to cost between $8 million to $9 million.

The purchase, however, will force the town to postpone other projects in the CIP including pushing the final phase of renovation and construction of the Community Center back at least a year and indefinitely putting the new Neighborhood Resource Center on hold.

"[The police station] will have a long term effect on the town and will give us dividends," said Husch.

NOT EVERYTHING WAS RESOLVED in 2003. Throughout the year, the town held community meetings to discuss the possibility of creating a temporary day-laborer site which eventually stalled when the owners of the proposed site decided to develop it for other uses.

The idea of creating a site where day laborers could gather rather than hanging out in the 7-Eleven parking lot was never clearly embraced by many town residents. Often public meetings degenerated into stereotypical characterizations of immigrants by those against the proposal and cries of racism by those who favored an organized site. The issue also brought to the forefront other issues facing the town such as the over occupancy of residential properties, crime, and the changing diversity of Herndon.

In an effort to curb the informal day-laborer site that has cropped up at the convenience store, the council was entertaining the idea of a nonprofit organization creating a temporary site that would be organized and regulated. Reston Interfaith stepped up to run such a site and developer Stanley Martin Companies offered the old lumber yard site while it finalized its own plans for the location's development.

Even though the council approved a ordinance that would permit a temporary day-laborer site in selected locations within the town, the never-ending debate over creating such a site and what part the town government should plan in it dragged on with no resolution. In the meantime, Stanley Martin moved forward with its development plans, submitting a zoning code amendment, that if approved, would clear the way for the construction of single-family homes on the old lumber yard site.

"Because of the length of time, Stanley Martin is moving forward with developing the site," said Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith, in October. "They made the offer a year ago. They haven't withdrawn the offer, but they are moving forward with their own plans."

The move forced Reston Interfaith to withdraw its conditional-use permit application for a temporary day-laborer site.

The Town Council did take steps to address the concerns about over occupancy this year. The council approved raising the civil and criminal fines for zoning violations; making illegal boarding houses a criminal violation rather than a civil violation as it currently is; and increasing the civil penalties for additional violations.

Among the changes under the proposal, the civil penalty for a first offense would be raised to $100 with each additional summons costing $250.

Under the zoning code no more than four unrelated people can live in a dwelling unit. In addition, the building code specifies a minimum square footage per person. The Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code standard requires a bedroom or sleeping area have at least 70 square feet if occupied by one person. That figure drops to 50 square feet per person if one or more people regularly occupy the space. In addition, the space must have privacy, adequate lighting and ventilation, and two access points, one of which leads directly outside. Violations of the zoning code, known as the so-called "family rule," have civil penalties, while violations of the building code carry criminal penalties.

THE TOWN ENDED the year just as it had began, with a little controversy. In December, the Town Council conditionally approved a measure that would create a special tax district to pay for Fairfax County's portion of the Rail-to-Dulles project.

The approval came in a carefully worded resolution, with the council's support of the tax district contingent on several things happening, including moving the Herndon-Monroe station construction into phase one of the project and the removal of the so-called poison pill clause. If any of the contingencies cannot be met, the resolution becomes a "no" vote. The proposal, in the form of a petition submitted by a group of landowners known as LEADER, was scrapped altogether a few days later. A revised proposal is expected by this spring.

The tax district would have created 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. It would have increased the tax to at least 29 cents after 10 years and phases it out after 30. The petition, however, called 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 would be from Wiehle to Dulles Airport then on to Loudoun County. It also provided a clause, referred to by many as the "poison pill," which said 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.

Several business owners in the western end of the corridor expressed their opposition to the plan at a public hearing before the council in late November, citing issues with inequity, a lack of guarantees and the apparent haphazardness of the special tax district boundaries.

AS FOR 2004, Husch predicts the May Town Council elections will be highly contested and could usher in change. He also sees the Metrorail debate returning and "serious debate" about the CIP and the budget looming on the horizon. Increased enforcement of overcrowding will also be a priority for the town, he said.