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A Year Under The Weather

2003 marked by hurricanes, blizzards and deaths of local heroes.

It was the year of the second war in Iraq. It was the year that the second shuttle went down. It was the second year in a row that fears of terrorism loomed large, with no American attacks.

All of those events and fears had Arlington impacts. But in Arlington, 2003 was marked more than anything else by a death early in the year.

On Jan. 11, only 10 days after assuming the chairmanship of the County Board, Charles Monroe suffered a stroke and died. His death loomed large over Arlington’s political landscape: it put Paul Ferguson in the driver’s seat as baseball discussions swelled into a furor, it meant hurried March elections, and it left Arlington Board members citing the late chairman’s memory as they addressed some long-standing problems.

Eventually the year took on a life of its own, and as it wound to a close, Board members and county groups still remembered Monroe, but also worked to address new problems: a shrinking pool of affordable housing in Arlington, a blizzard and a hurricane.

<b>Losing Charles Monroe</B>

<b>KEEPING WITH TRADITION,</B> the county board got to work on the first day of 2003, holding its organizational meeting Wednesday, Jan. 1.

Monroe officially took over as board chair from Chris Zimmerman, and outlined his plans for the upcoming year. In his first address as chair, Monroe focused on economic development, neighborhood preservation, and community participation.

A week and a half later, Monroe was responding to citizen comment during his first meeting as chair when he collapsed. At 9:20 a.m., a ruptured brain aneurysm caused a massive, catastrophic stroke.

Emergency personnel were on the scene within minutes, and took him to Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington, where he died at 12:07 p.m.

Board member Paul Ferguson called Monroe’s performance at the meeting “very eloquent” and said there had been no sign of illness prior to Monroe’s collapse.

Barbara Favola, also a Board colleague, said his death was a shock. Even as Monroe began to slump in his chair, Favola said, she and other board members did not realize the seriousness of the situation. “You could not tell something was really wrong,” she said. “It happened so quickly.”

She also promised that his vision for the county will continue. “Many of us are still committed to his goals. He was so visionary and energetic,” she said.

On Jan. 15, so many Arlingtonians wanted to say goodbye to Charles Monroe, even the pastor called the church “too small.” Funeral services were held at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and were televised at Drew Model School and the Central Library via a live video feed by Channel 31.

The sanctuary of Mt. Zion Baptist church held about 450 people for Charles Monroe’s funeral, while hundreds, perhaps thousands more, watched at home on Channel 31.

Hundreds braved freezing cold weather to remember Monroe and pay their respects at the funeral, and at a viewing immediately preceding the service. Residents came to the viewing at 4 p.m., and the line often extended out the front door of the church.

“It’s a very sad moment for all of us,” said Scott Springston, a Cherrydale resident who had seen Monroe collapse at the board meeting.

Monroe was laid to rest Thursday, Jan. 16 at Pleasant Valley Memorial Park in Annandale. The interment ceremony was more solemn than the funeral, with a police honor guard serving as pallbearers and officer Matthew Owens playing taps.

<b>AFTER HIS DEATH,</B> Monroe’s wife Barbara said that the same dignity and honesty that earned him the respect of his constituents came through in his private life as well.

“He had respect for everyone, and I think that showed in the way he dealt with people,” she said. “He was that way personally and professionally.”

Those who knew Monroe only as a politician who jumped into the nitty-gritty details of public service didn’t know the whole person though.

“He was an artist,” said Barbara Monroe. “He painted…. He loved music; he was a very wonderful cello player,” she said. She spoke Monday of a man who enjoyed the “more serene activities” of life, and spent time on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and at the beach with family. The quiet dignity of those activities reflected his personality, which she said remained unchanged over the years.

At the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet on Sept. 27, Monroe’s mother echoed the late Board chair’s wife. Taking the podium for her first public speaking appearance since the death of her son, Eleanore Monroe said, “In the end, Charles was just a man. He was not perfect, but he was special.”

This year’s banquet was dedicated to the theme “We will not forget,” honoring the life and legacy of Monroe. “The message we’re trying to send is that we will not forget Charles Monroe,” said Talmadge Williams, president of the NAACP Arlington branch. “The legacy of Charles Monroe will not be forgotten.”

<b>BOARD MEMBERS PLEDGED</B> to continue Monroe’s plans. The board resumed operations Friday, Jan. 17, 2003. to complete the meeting that had been adjourned when Monroe collapsed.

“This year will be dedicated to his priorities that he laid out for us in our January first meeting,” said Paul Ferguson, who was elected by the other board members to take over as chair.

With just two items on the agenda, the meeting ended quickly, but the mood in the board room was somber. Ferguson remained in his old seat Friday, leaving the chairman’s seat empty throughout the meeting.

<b>IT COULDN’T STAY</b> empty for long. By state law, Monroe’s seat had to be filled by March 11. Three candidates ran for the Democratic nomination, with Walter Tejada, a longtime civic activist, winning the party’s nomination and moving on to face Republican nominee Mike Clancy in the race to serve the remainder of Monroe’s term.

Clancy said Tejada wouldn’t excite voters. “He’s offering nothing really new. I think we need to take back the County Board room for the voters,” said Clancy.

Instead of focusing on Clancy, Tejada said he wanted to push his own view for Arlington. “People see that we have a positive perspective, focusing on what I want to do, not on other people,” he said.

That message found a willing ear as Tejada beat Clancy by some 2,100 votes, and was reelected in the Nov. 4 election, along with board chair Ferguson.

At year’s end, amid rosy forecasts for 2004, Ferguson still remembered his fallen colleague. “I can report that we carried out his agenda,” he said, pointing to the passage of form-based code along Columbia Pike, negotiations for a conference center site, a “Shop Arlington” initiative and a blighted properties ordinance that will allow the county to condemn and demolish problem properties.

<sh>Fighting the Housing Crunch

<b>A SUMMARY OF</b> projected assessments released last January showed that the value of the average single family home in Arlington rose in value by 17 percent in the last year, from $269,500 to $316,000. In spite of a two-cent drop in the tax rate, that still left homeowners facing an average increase of $414 in their property tax bills - which rose from $2,676 to $3,090 for the average single-family home.

Increases like that, added on to already high property values, signal problems on the horizon for some. Board members tried to address the issue with a living wage ordinance, included in the fiscal 2004 budget that took effect as of July.

That measure meant that workers employed by companies contracted by the county would earn a wage of $10.98 an hour, geared towards workers eligible for the least expensive form of affordable housing.

In October, Arlington board members approved plans for increased affordable housing in a nine-story residential development in Virginia Square, adding 108 new affordable units and committing 204 existing units as affordable to families making 60 percent or less of the area median family income - $91,500 for a family of four.

Even those measures didn’t seem sufficient to affordable housing advocates, who noted that Arlington has been losing affordable apartments and houses year after year, as rents and assessments rise.

So at their Dec. 6 County Board meeting, Board members considered a trio of items geared toward maintaining apartments and houses affordable to low-wage workers in the county: targets to guide county negotiations with developers, guidelines that would put some teeth behind those targets, and an affordable home-ownership program.

Taken together, the three actions would let the county push for more apartments and houses affordable to low-income workers when considering future development. Affordable housing is defined as housing affordable to people of families making less than 60 percent of the median income. In the Washington region, the median income for a family of four is $91,500, so affordable housing must be manageable for families making $54,400 a year or less.

In the end, board members listened to the speakers, unanimously adopting the affordable housing targets while putting off consideration of the guidelines until Feb. 21. The board also voted to consider the affordable home-ownership program on Jan. 10.

Just before that vote, John Antonelli, a member of the county’s housing commission and a regular at Board meetings, told county officials that Arlington housing everyone can afford is not “a priority — “It’s the priority.” Other board priorities, like preserving street trees or undergrounding utility lines, pale in comparison with affordable housing, he said. “No one’s going to live in a street tree, or in an underground cable.”

<b>America’s Game —

Is It Arlington’s?</B>

<b>NO ISSUE HAD</B> as high a priority this year, however, as baseball — largely because supporters and opponents of a major league stadium kept the issue at a boiling point throughout the year.

In January, Major League Baseball formed a special committee to examine the possibility of relocating the Expos to Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. or Portland Ore, possibly as early as next year.

To entice baseball to move the Expos the Northern Virginia, the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, a group working to bring the Montreal Expos baseball team to Northern Virginia, hired an architectural firm to study possible stadium sites.

On Saturday, March 29, representatives of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority announced five potential sites for a stadium, along with preliminary design plans and financing projections. Three of the locations are in Arlington – two in Pentagon City and one in Rosslyn. Investors hope to make the stadium the new home for the Montreal Expos within the next three years.

But outside the press conference, there were Crystal City residents who weren’t so thrilled by the plans. “We love our neighborhood … and we think this would ruin it,” said Judy King, one of about 50 picketers against building a stadium in Arlington.

County Board member Chris Zimmerman was also skeptical about a stadium. “We don’t gain anything,” he said. Major League Baseball can help make a name for an underdeveloped area, he said, but that’s not Arlington’s problem. “Travel and tourism is being hurt by 9/11, not because people can’t find Arlington on the map,” he said. “We’re on the map that we need to be on.”

But baseball isn’t just a matter of economics and zoning, said Gabe Paul, executive director of the stadium authority. “Equally important is the quality of life that baseball brings to a community,” he said.

<b>AS 2003 CREPT</b> on, those two camps grew more deeply entrenched in their own beliefs, and more deeply separated. At a May 3 Walking County Board meeting, Aurora Highlands residents in South Arlington demanded that the County Board take a stand against baseball.

On May 19, a public information session held by the stadium authority erupted into a debate between hundreds of opponents and supporters of the stadium, occasionally marked by catcalls and boos.

“The problem is, you have all these NIMBYs who don’t understand what it’s all about,” said Jerry Foster, who drove from his home in Herndon to attend the meeting.

At another information session, audience members interrupted almost every speaker with shouts, jeers and sometimes profanity.

<b>LATE IN MAY,</B> one of the leading sites for a stadium in Pentagon City, was apparently lost, as developers submitted site plans for One Metropolitan Park, an eight-stage development that would begin with an 18-story, 488-unit tower.

Neighbors threw their support behind the apartment towers. “Our community is definitely opposed to the stadium,” said Rich Pforte, president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association. “We would much prefer to have the regular development there.”

On June 20, members of the stadium authority held their final meeting with Major League Baseball’s Relocation Committee before the committee was expected to decide the Expos’ fate. An announcement on the sale and relocation of the team was expected on July 15.

But members of the Relocation Committee opted to postpone that decision, possible for years. On July 17, County Board chair Ferguson wrote a letter to Michael Frey, Chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, asking that the county be removed from the list of possible stadium sites.

Baseball supporters didn’t see that action as final. “All the sites remain under consideration,” said Brian Hannigan, a spokesperson for the Stadium Authority. “We have deliberately not narrowed our options.”

But County Board member Jay Fisette was more inclined to see Ferguson’s letter as a nail in the coffin for Arlington baseball. As to whether board members will revisit the baseball issue, “There’s a very short answer to that. It’s one word, two letters,” Fisette said.

<b>Weathering the Weather</b>

<b>STARTING IN JANUARY,</b> 2003 was the year weather became more than a topic of idle chit-chat. Only another half-inch of rain or snow, and 2003 would have been a record year. But county officials have tried to ensure some benefits come from the snowstorms and hurricane that the Arlington faced over the course of 12 months.

Icy roads and freezing temperatures in January kept most of Washington indoors. But Ron Boyd spent the time in the great outdoors.

Boyd, an engineering associate with the county’s Department of Public Works, is one of many employees who worked 12-hour shifts day and night to fix water main breaks that destroyed Arlington roads during a cold snap at the beginning of the year,

After mild winters, the return of cold temperatures this year shouldn’t have been a surprise, weather forecasters said. For temperatures occasionally to fall below 20 degrees is fairly common for a Washington winter, said Jim Travers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Dulles. This year, temperatures have been below normal.

Winter returned in force with a blizzard on Feb. 16 that dropped two feet of snow on the area, more in some places.

It left students and parents with an extended weekend. “It’s always exciting to have a snow day, although I am a little bit concerned about my AP classes,” said Amy Gray, a Yorktown junior who takes AP English, History and Psychology.

<b>FEBRUARY’S BLIZZARD</b> also left school officials facing a school day crunch. Arlington Public Schools calendar included plans for two snow days in the original calendar for this year, and contingency plans for three more school days that meant making up school on the Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day. More than five snow days means extending the school year further into June.

Snowstorms led school officials to cancel eight days of school, Memorial Day and Presidents’ Day were designated as makeup days. After an entire week of cancellations, Superintendent Robert Smith announced Friday, Feb. 21 that the Memorial Day holiday was back on.

Smith’s new plan for making up snow days would make the school day 30 minutes longer, starting March 17 and continuing through the end of the year. Memorial Day, previously designated as a makeup day, would again become a holiday.

State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31) has introduced legislation in this General Assembly that could put an end to endless snow-day make-up days. Virginia law lets school systems slide if they miss 10 or more days due to weather. But systems that miss nine or fewer days must make up all of them.

That makes no sense, school officials say, since it rewards schools that cancel school early. So Whipple will file legislation, to be considered at the coming General Assembly session starting in January.

“This bill says, after the first five days” a school system misses, “you make up days two-for-one,” said Whipple. That means Arlington schools would have made up seven days total last year, rather than nine, and school systems that miss 10 or 11 days would end up making up eight days.

<b>WHIPPLE’S BILL</b> may help schools cope with future blizzards, but county officials are still working on how to manage future hurricanes - trying to find some silver lining to Hurricane Isabel.

It wasn’t all gray skies in late September, though. On Sept. 18, as winds picked up and the first drops of rain began to fall, Michelle Volpe and Chris Kohler smiled at the approaching 700-mile-wide, category 2 Hurricane Isabel.

“We just wanted to get blown around a little bit,” said Kohler. The Courthouse residents, both natives of Cleveland, wouldn’t pass up the chance to experience a hurricane up-close. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Volpe. “So I want to see some action.”

By the time it was over, many residents had seen all the action they wanted. Dominion Virginia Power reported that over 82 percent of the company’s coverage area lost power — more than 1.8 million customers

Though Arlington fared better than many surrounding jurisdictions, the county faced a substantial bill. In less than four days, workers from the Department of Public Works cleared more than 400 trees or large limbs blocking streets and sidewalks.

Of the 250 signalized intersections in the county, 60 lights, or nearly 25 percent, lost power. That meant extra shifts for police officers to direct traffic, and extra work to repair the damage.

<b>ISABEL’S WAKE OFFERED</b> real lessons in the importance of emergency planning, said Jim Schwartz, Arlington’s director of Emergency Management. “Basic preparedness covers a wide spectrum,” he said.

Hurricane Isabel marked the first major test for the county’s newest emergency management tools, the Community Alert System and Community Emergency Response Teams.

Unveiled to the public on the last day of April, the Community Alert System is a system designed to give near-instant information regarding public safety through e-mail and text-message cell phones and pagers. The system saw a large increase in subscribers during Isabel and now reaches almost 6,000 residents. Residents are still encouraged to sign up at <a href="http://www.arlingtonalert.com">www.arlingtonalert.com</a>.

Emergency management ran relatively smoothly during the storm. But there were problems getting accurate and timely information about power outages. County officials are pressing Dominion to make changes in how they report information.