A little over a month before the May 2 City Council elections, pavement-beating is well underway for the five challengers in this year's race. Taxes and development have emerged as major issues for the challengers, most of whom are first-time candidates, like Hildie Carney, who first considered a council run about a year ago.
According to Carney, who most recently served as president of Historic Fairfax City, Inc., the city must stick closer to "smart growth" concept in development decisions, keeping the city's historical properties intact, said Carney, a 40-year resident of the city.
"Have we really looked at the whole corridor and said, 'What do we want to do with this, how do we want it to look?" said Carney, referring in particular to the city's long-term "economic revitalization" project for the Fairfax Boulevard-Route 50 corridor.
The city needs to develop a specific long-range plan for the corridor to supplement a vague current comprehensive plan, said Carney.
At their its April 4 meeting, the City Council approved a 10-cent drop in the real-estate tax rate for the coming fiscal year to 71 cents per $100 of assessed value. Residents are still likely to pay more in real estate taxes than last year because of soaring property assessments, which rose about 21 percent in the city this year.
However, said Carney, real estate taxes should be less of an issue for people who can pay them than for senior citizens who live on fixed incomes. These people are more strongly affected by a higher property tax, said Carney, who cites affordable housing for seniors as one of her top campaign issues. Fairfax needs an affordable senior living complex for its elderly residents, she said.
"I've seen firsthand what citizens can accomplish from my 'Save Blenheim' campaign," she said. "That can happen on just about any issue if citizens are serious, come forward, and don’t give up."
THE CHANGING CHARACTER of the city is at the forefront of Allen Dobey's campaign as well. Dobey, a first-time candidate and retired Army lieutenant colonel, remembers how Arlington County changed from a low-density area to a "metropolis" during his childhood there.
"I moved out to Fairfax City in 1994 and was impressed by the small town environment out here," said Dobey. "I've seen that environment being progressively degraded over the years as developers acquire more and more parcels." Rezoning for high-density developments cause problems such as increased traffic, he said. If elected to City Council, said Dobey, he will take a more hard-line stance on zoning laws.
"It would be pretty easy," said Dobey. "The idea would be that when developers petition the council to rezone their parcels for high-density residential, I would just tell them 'sorry.'"
A number of factors besides development prompted Dobey to run for a council seat, including cutting down on city spending and repealing a yard-car law.
"We need to look at these expenses and try to cut back on unneeded government spending," said Dobey. However, he would also want to reduce real-estate tax rates to the point that they would not deliver additional funds to the city, cutting back on services and raising other taxes to make up the difference.
"I don't want to raise taxes, but we can't not pay our debt," he said.
Dobey also urged a second look on a law that makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor for a city resident to let an inoperable motor vehicle remain on their property even after a warning period. The ordinance defines an inoperable motor vehicle as one that has essential parts removed and is left for over 60 days, but Dobey said he fears this definition is too broad.
"We need to review these laws to make sure people don’t get criminalized for behavior that most people consider defensible and harmless," he said.
REDEVELOPING the Route 50 corridor is an issue close to Bill Foster's heart. A retired investment banker who served on the city's Economic Development Authority, Foster sees a direct relationship between revitalizing the businesses along the corridor and reducing dependency on the real estate tax as a source of revenue.
"It's time for us to redevelop Fairfax Boulevard," said Foster, who described the corridor as "tired" and uncompetitive.
In the proposed 2006-07 budget, real estate taxes make up 43 percent of total city revenues. Forty-eight percent of this comes from residential properties, and 52 percent from commercial properties. While residential assessments have increased over 20 percent, commercial assessments have gone up about 15 percent.
"We see a shift that has occurred in real estate taxes to the residents," said Foster, who grew up in Roanoke and moved to Fairfax in 1993. Redeveloping the business properties along Fairfax Boulevard will raise the value of the properties and the revenue that comes from those properties, said Foster, and this will shift the burden away from homeowners.
However, said Foster, the redevelopment process must take into account Fairfax's small-town spirit. A master plan for the corridor can specify building heights and encourage certain types of uses, he said. The plan should not shy away from examining residential uses for the corridor, he said, as long as it also encourages things like parking, drugstores and groceries to support these uses.
"Change is coming," said Foster. "You can sit back and react and let someone else determine what you are going to be, or you can decide what you are going to be and direct that change."
TWELVE YEARS have passed since Jerry O'Dell first began running for a City Council seat. In those years, he said, his reasons for running have changed little, with an anti-abortion stance still at the top of the list, along with taxes, development and traffic.
"There are three or four issues I hammer away at," said O'Dell, who grew up in California and moved to Fairfax in 1988. He opposes the city's health plan coverage, which he claims supports abortion providers.
The real estate tax rate is a significant issue for O'Dell as well. Even though the city is lowering the tax rate, taxes are still higher than last year, he said.
"None of them have lowered it enough," he said.
O'Dell also opposes over-development, which he said is made too easy by the use of the proffer system. A developer can receive higher density by accepting aesthetic rules or paying for infrastructure additions, and according to O'Dell, is a "ruse" to achieve high-density zoning.
"I'd stop letting developers be the tail that wags the dog," he said.
Part of O'Dell's campaign also includes placing more traffic lights along Chain Bridge Road and Old Lee Highway, a move he acknowledged might cost him votes. Traffic lights would cut down on backups along the Old Lee Highway, he said.
"I don't care what residents said, we still have an absurdly slow pace of traffic," said O'Dell.
TO GORDON RIGGLE, 40 years as a landscape architect have given him a useful perspective in development and zoning decisions.
"I would bring an understanding of lifestyles," said Riggle. "You have to understand how people live, and why they live that way," he said.
However, Riggle's number one campaign issue is taxes.
"Basically, [the city] has just let the real estate tax rate fly with assessments," he said. Riggle wants to level real estate taxes completely so that even as property assessments go up, the homeowners would not see an increase in their tax bills. A workable rate, he said, would be 66 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The current tax rate is 81 cents per $100.
Although real estate taxes make up the largest percentage of city revenue, said Riggle, cutbacks on city spending as well as an increase on the meals tax could make up the difference.
"I would suggest, don't spend it. Don't buy it," he said.
Riggle, who said he has spent 46 hours door-knocking so far, has received a great deal of feedback on the tax issue on the campaign trail.
"I met a 92-year-old man the other day who said, 'I can't believe people are not up in arms over the tax rate,'" said Riggle.