Chris Zimmerman was elected chairman of the County Board on Monday and presented his priorities for his year-long term, promising to help the county realize its vision of being a vibrant “urban village.”
Zimmerman highlighted the policy areas he will concentrate on while chairman, including increasing the stock of affordable housing and continuing transportation improvements, and proposed new initiatives to aid seniors, small business owners and teenagers.
“Clearly, the state of our county is very good,” Zimmerman said. “Yet we know we cannot become complacent, that our work is not done. We have significant challenges, some new, some born of our success.”
Zimmerman, who is replacing Jay Fisette, was first elected to the County Board in 1996 and served as chairman in 1998 and 2002. Paul Ferguson, who previously was chairman in 1999 and 2003, was elected as vice chairman.
This year the county is expected to complete work on several key planning projects, including the new Clarendon Sector Plan, the development of Courthouse Plaza and Arlington’s first Historic Preservation Plan, Zimmerman said.
Despite escalating construction costs, the county will continue to aggressively pursue investment in infrastructure, Zimmerman said. In 2006 the county will proceed with the development of the North Tract property and Arlington Mill Community Center, and a new library and theater are slated to open in Shirlington.
“Arlington is in fact a model, cited regularly in articles and conferences, and receives a steady stream of visitors from around the county and abroad seeking answers to their own community development challenges,” Zimmerman said.
During the County Board meeting, traditionally held on New Years Day but moved this year to Jan. 2, Fisette warned that the county will not be able to spend as much on capital projects as it has in the past.
“With rising construction costs and limited bonding capacity, we will need to make difficult choices and say ‘no’ to some appealing projects,” Fisette said.
PRESERVING AND creating more affordable units in the county will be one of the main goals of Zimmerman’s term. In his speech Zimmerman suggested the county could modify its tax policy, change the regulation of building forms and allow more accessory dwelling units in order to increase the stock of affordable housing.
“We must continue to confront the affordable housing challenge because it is fundamental to the kind of community we aspire to be,” he added. “We cannot be diverse and inclusive if there are not places to live in our community for people of all backgrounds, all income levels, all ages.”
The lack of affordable units was also a central theme of other board members’ speeches. Walter Tejada said he would conduct a public forum to discuss housing cooperatives as a viable alternative in Arlington. Barbara Favola stated that the county needed to make owners aware of the grants, loans and tax credits available to assist them in renovating units that could be designated as affordable.
Turning his attention to transportation issues, Zimmerman emphasized the improvements expected to be finished this year. Those include the completion of 20 “WALKArlington” pedestrian projects, new Metrobus service in the Crystal City/Potomac Yard corridor and the final recommendations of the Columbia Pike transit study.
Zimmerman said the county will launch a “Youth Transit Initiative,” in conjunction with Arlington Public Schools and Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, to inform teenagers of their transportation options and provide them with better services.
“Transit has the potential to open up new horizons for young people, and to connect teens with jobs, after school programs and other teens,” he said.
AS THE BABY BOOMER generation ages, Arlington will be forced to adapt its services and vision to meet the challenges the demographic shift will present. This year the county will assess Arlington’s “aging readiness,” in categories such as housing, health services and transportation, Zimmerman said. County staff will also review the need for additional retirement communities.
“What many seniors are looking for is a place that’s walkable, with services like libraries, a post office, a grocery and the doctor’s office easily reachable,” Zimmerman said.
The new chairman praised small business owners as the backbone of the local economy, noting that 82 percent of Arlington employers have fewer than 20 employees.
Zimmerman is proposing a new initiative to aid start-up enterprises and help small business who are struggling financially.
“These enterprises make an essential contribution to our community’s distinctive character and its livability,” he said. “We need to be able to assure that we have on-going mechanisms to retain otherwise successful local enterprises that are impacted by redevelopment.”
New vice chairman Ferguson devoted much of his speech to urging the county to invest in energy efficiency, especially now that Hurricane Katrina made clear how vulnerable the nation’s energy supplies are.
“Although Arlington is already a leader in this area, much more can be done,” he said. “We all know that money invested in energy efficiency is paid back to the county in future savings. It is also the right thing to do for air quality and public health.”
Ferguson proposed modernizing older buildings with energy efficient lighting and heating systems, and called for installation of new energy-saving traffic signals. He also recommended a forum to educate the public and county staff on the benefits of “green buildings.”