Two conclusions became clear at the 18th Annual Town Meeting of Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland last Saturday. One is that most of the crowd of approximately 400 constituents are primarily interested in Hyland's "Virtual Bus Tour" and the other is that most are least interested in public education.
Following some opening remarks by U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, (R-11) about the federal budget and a special recognition of state Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45), who has announced her retirement from elected office after 22 years of public service, Hyland donned his "blue and white bus driver jacket and black cap" to launch the annual virtual tour. It takes the audience, via a slide presentation, through a myriad developments, planned and underway, throughout his magisterial district.
Concluding the guest presentations, more than four hours later, are the Fairfax County superintendent of schools and the Mount Vernon District School Board member. This year those roles were filled respectively by Dr. Jack Dale and Dan Storck.
By the time they spoke, less than one-fourth of the original crowd remained. And, it was visually apparent, the majority of those still present were well beyond the age of having school age children.
THE HIGHLIGHT of this year's tour were two positive announcements about developments that had had negative impacts on two previous town meetings. One was the recognition that Inova Mount Vernon Hospital will not only remain at its present location but also will undergo continuing improvements and upgrades. The second concerned a long simmering conflict between Fort Belvoir/Department of The Army and the Woodlawn Little League over the use of the fields located on a portion of the base. Although the dispute was settled last spring to everyone's satisfaction the deed to the property had not been officially signed.
"At 1 p.m. last Wednesday [Feb. 2] Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz signed the deed," Hyland said. "I personally want to thank Colonel Williams for his efforts on this matter. He pushed the Army to do this. And, this is one of the better examples of the Army and the community working together."
Later in the program Hyland presented Col. T.W. Williams, Fort Belvoir garrison commander, with a special recognition plaque for his support of a variety of community efforts during his tour of duty. It specifically referred to Williams' efforts in not only the ball fields controversy but also in his dedication to a variety of community concerns.
Among those efforts, Hyland cited the National Museum of the U.S. Army, replacement of Woodlawn Road, completion of the Fairfax County Parkway, and Williams' "commitment to the youth of our community through the Partners-in-Education" and specifically "For his decision to open the post to youth sports during the Washington Beltway Sniper incident."
IN ACKNOWLEDGING Inova Health System's decision to maintain and improve IMVH, Hyland paid tribute to the efforts of Susan Herbert, IMVH administrator and vice president IHS, by presenting her with a plaque that emphasized her "willingness to listen to the citizens of Mount Vernon."
Hyland admitted that he and Herbert had clashed at various times throughout the nearly 18-month struggle over the hospital's future but praised her for her "dedication to ensure continued health services to the Mount Vernon District." He also told the audience that IHS's planned new healthplex at Lorton will "feed patients" to IMVH to increase its viability.
Other special recognition plaques went to Major Larry Moser, former commander of the Mount Vernon Police Station, and two long time members of Hyland's staff, Holly Lagasse and Marcia Hanson, who have served in Hyland's office for 10 and 17 years respectively. Each was recognized for their years of "commitment to community service."
Leading off the group of guest speakers was Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) who brought the audience up to speed on where "we are along the road with the six priorities the board has set for itself." Those six subjects, according to Connolly, are crime reduction, affordable housing, the environment, education, transportation, and taxes.
"We are ranked 50th in crime among the largest governmental districts nationwide. And we have accomplished this with the smallest police force on a per capita basis," Connolly said. He attributed that accomplishment to "selecting the very best police officers."
BUT, CONNOLLY admitted, "The one cloud on our horizon is gangs. However, the cost of prevention, discouraging youth from joining gangs, is a lot less than the cost of prosecution."
He said, "Creating a choice is what we are going to concentrate on. When we have intercepted emails and telephone conversations among gang members from outside this area they are urging their members to stay away from Fairfax County."
That was buttressed by Col. David Rohrer, chief, Fairfax County Police Department. "We will not tolerate any violent gang crimes in this county," he said.
However, Rohrer also said,"We are continuing to work on ways to get more diversity into the department's personnel compliment." The decrease in Mount Vernon area crime was emphasized by Hyland who said, "Indexed crime at Mount Vernon Station is down 18.5 percent in the last year." That coincided with Moser's tenure as station commander.
Connolly also expressed concern about the increasing lack of affordable housing. "Affordable housing is being pushed farther and farther away. Only 22 percent of police can afford to live in the county and only one third of the county's entire work force live in the county," Connolly said.
"Every time there is a conversion of apartments to condominiums we lose, on average, 100 units of affordable housing. All this only contributes to the two things we all dislike the most —sprawl and traffic congestion," he said.
On the subject of the environment Connolly insisted the county "has been extremely aggressive." He cited the Little Hunting Creek Watershed study and other activities being taken to improve not only the county's environment but that of the entire Chesapeake Bay region.
"Education is always a delicate balance. As long as Gerry Hyland and I are in office, education will remain the number one priority," Connolly said. He maintained that education, at all levels is central to maintaining economic growth. As an example he said, "For every new job created in Maryland we have created three in Fairfax County."
ON TRANSPORTATION, Connolly cited such initiatives as the planned 2007 completion of the final link of the Fairfax County Parkway through the former Corps of Engineers Proving Grounds, the new REX Bus service along Route 1, and the adoption of the four-year Transportation Plan by the BOS.
Connolly thanked the audience for their vote of support for the transportation bond issue last fall. "You should all give yourselves a round of applause for your 78 percent vote in favor of the bond issue," he said.
Finally, addressing taxes, Connolly said, "This year we will see the largest tax rate reduction in Fairfax County history. Presently, 60 percent of our revenue comes from the real estate tax. We have gotten three new sources of revenue in the last year that will enable us to reduce the real estate tax by one cent."
He also said, "If we (counties) had the same taxing capabilities as cities we could reduce the real estate tax by three cents tomorrow morning." County taxing powers are severely limited by state mandated constrictions.
Joining Connolly on the dais from the political arena was Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman whose magisterial district abuts Hyland's along the western side of the Route 1 corridor. He was recently named the new chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) which is responsible for coordinating and managing mass transit services throughout the region.
A longtime advocate of better transit facilities along Richmond Highway, Kauffman said, "We have made significant improvements for people along this corridor." Included in his list were: Richmond Highway Public Transit Initiative, Woodlawn Road replacement, Route 1 Location and Widening Study, and the Fairfax County Parkway project.
ONE OF THE RICHMOND Highway Transportation initiatives cited by Kauffman was the newly inaugurated Richmond Highway Express Bus Service known as REX, which he and Hyland advocated. Additional improvements will include:
* New northbound REX stop at existing stop locations, including all amenities
* Three new crosswalks
* Reconfiguration of lanes on Richmond Highway as needed to provide a concrete median with accessible pedestrian refuge
* Potential reconfiguration of parking lot access to facilitate pedestrian movements.
Hyland also emphasized that a "major element of revitalizing Route 1 is what to do about rail on Route 1. Our long range plans call for rail along the corridor to Fort Belvoir. However, the question remains, where do we put that transit?"
A major element of any planning along the Route 1 corridor is Fort Belvoir and its impact on that sector of Fairfax County. It is also the largest employer in southeast Fairfax County with a combined 24,000 military/civilian complement. Of that total 19,300 are civilians residing in the surrounding communities.
"Over the past three years, I believe we have put together a very good and effective working team with the elected leaders," Garrison Commander Col. T.W. Williams said. "A lot of things have happened at Fort Belvoir over that period of time and you all have been a part of that."
He announced, that in contrast to previous estimates, "Fort Belvoir's anticipated growth will only be about 3,000" over existing personnel. He also cited the formal turnover of the Woodlawn Little League baseball fields and the impending replacement of the closed Woodlawn Road. "The Woodlawn Road replacement will be built," Williams said.
WILLIAMS REFERRED to the anticipated National Museum of The U.S. Army and its proposed location which has not been formally established at this time. Earlier Hyland, during his virtual bus tour had noted, "I think it will go to the left of the main gate — where we have always wanted it."
The 300,000-square-feet museum is scheduled to be open by mid-2009. In addition to an appropriation by Congress, $120 million must be raised through a public/private partnership to fund the endeavor, Hyland explained to the audience.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Hyland presented Williams with his plaque stating, "I'm very thankful for Col. Williams's aid on so many projects." He also acknowledged that Williams will be completing his tour of duty at Fort Belvoir in July. He took over as garrison commander in July 2002 following a tour at The Pentagon where he narrowly escaped being a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attack that killed several members of his immediate staff.
Joining Fairfax County's Chief of Police with an overview of public safety issues was Dave Rohr, assistant chief, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. He referred to the dramatic increase in both fires and fire deaths during the recent holiday season.
"None of these were intentional and all could have been prevented. They were all determined to be accidental," Rohr said. He also informed the audience that the department was undertaking a comprehensive fire prevention public education program.
"We have responded to 9,324 calls in 2004. And we just graduated our 124th class of firefighters this past Friday night," Rohr said.
WHEN HIS TURN finally arrived, Fairfax County Superintendent of Schools Jack Dale said, "School systems nationwide face a real challenge in meeting the requirements of the "No Child Left Behind" federal initiative."
But, he also said, "We have a real asset here [Fairfax County] that is not found in many other school districts. We value our diversity."
In putting forth his personal educational philosophy, Dale said, "I firmly believe that everyone of our students must be prepared for college, if we define college broadly. There is nothing in life any more that says high school is it. You must continue to learn throughout life."
At three intervals throughout the town meeting, audience members had an opportunity to present questions to the speakers. These questions ranged from funding the Fire Department's harbor patrol, to increasing affordable housing for those earning less than $24,000 annually, to addressing zoning problems that put home owners at investment risk by not creating buffers between residential and industrial zones throughout the County.
On the question of the harbor patrol, Anthony Griffin, county executive, committed to continued funding.
On the subject of affordable housing, Connolly said, "We are trying to create an additional 1,000 units in the next four years."
The zoning issue centered on the recent controversy at Lorton Station where a group of homeowners discovered that their residences abutted an I-4 zone now scheduled to be the site of a Public Storage facility. Hyland is attempting to mitigate the situation by having Public Storage put in "as much screening as possible" by working with the county arborist.
"This is a situation that absolutely needs to be corrected [the zoning alignment.] I have met with Ryan Homes [the builders] and KSI [the developers] and we hope to have a joint meeting including Public Storage representatives," Hyland said. Public Storage is within its rights to build the facility on the site previously owned by a public utility.