The first Great Falls Citizen's Association (GFCA) meeting of 2006 had one primary focus – the future. In an effort to be proactive about issues affecting their community, GFCA members took the first steps toward formulating what will eventually become a "long-range plan" for Great Falls.
"We can begin by looking at what is great about Great Falls," said Lisa Tofil, Chair of the Long Range Planning Committee. "And secondarily, we can look at what might need improvement."
Tofil added that she wanted to put emphasis on the term "long-range."
"This isn't going to happen overnight," said Tofil, noting that the objective is to have the process completed by the end of 2006. "Our goal is to have a very inclusive process, and to get as much input from as many people as we can."
The latter part of that goal is of particular concern to GFCA president David Olin. As the GFCA is only made up of a small portion of the Great Falls population and is primarily operated through its executive committee, Olin says that when the organization takes a stance on various issues, he often hears residents complain that "the GFCA does not speak for me."
"That is really discouraging to us as an executive committee because we are trying to represent what the community wants," said Olin.
Olin says he is hopeful that the GFCA's efforts to create a long-range plan will provide the impetus for finally attaining a true sense of what the entire community wants, rather than just one segment of the population. He challenged members to collect resident opinions from as wide a range as possible. Quoting former GFCA president Jim Falk, Olin said "Let's use the GFCA as a conduit to identify what Great Falls wants or does not want to be."
"It's really the community that's telling us what to do," he added. "We've got people in Seneca wanting traffic patterns so they can get out, and we have people over here who want to preserve Georgetown Pike… there has got to be some way to start a dialogue."
In last week's meeting, initial thoughts on long-range planning were discussed and those in attendance were encouraged to sign up for various sub-committees. As of right now, the sub-committees that have been formed are Land Use and Heritage, Transportation and Public Facilities, Environment, Parks and Recreation, Village and Business Development, and Waste Water Management. At the meeting the Environment, Parks and Recreation chair Estelle Holly suggested that a separate Trails sub-committee be formed as the creation, connection and completion of trails is such an important issue in Great Falls. This suggestion was supported by the members, although the Trails sub-committee may end up being included as part of the Transportation and Public Facilities sub-committee.
"I think the biggest issue [with trails] is transportation," said Eleanor Weck, Chair of the GFCA Trails committee. "People in this community would like it to be a walk-able community. They would like to be able to walk two or three houses down without getting killed on Georgetown Pike."
ANOTHER MAJOR TOPIC OF DISCUSSION was the fact that the dichotomous population of Great Falls means that incorporating sentiment about development into the long-range plan may prove complicated. On the one hand, residents would like to preserve the semi-rural nature of Great Falls, while also enabling older generations to stay in the farmhouses that many have lived in since they were born there. On the other hand, residents do not want to shut out newcomers who will bring growth and a new generation of citizens of Great Falls.
Stella Koch, Chair of the Environment sub-committee pointed out that Great Falls is "sort of stuck with the zoning that exists," and that "most development in Great Falls is by-right."
"What we can deal with is protecting the environment… there are things we can ask for and this is what we should focus on," said Koch.
David Olin agreed, pointing out that developers needed to be educated and made aware of environmental landmarks.
"There needs to be language that goes into these proffers and special exceptions saying that there is some sort of penalty – not just 'don't develop here,'" said Olin.
Other suggestions were more historical markers, the creation of a detailed map of the community and a census of large trees that should be preserved. In addition, several members expressed a desire to appeal to Homeowner's Associations (HOA's) to become more actively involved in community issues.
"If we could somehow convince each Homeowner's Association that we need a spokesperson to come forward, it would make a difference," said Dianne Van Volkenberg, Chair of the Transportation and Public Facilities sub-committee.
"They [HOA's] trump the zone," said member John Hughes-Caley. "Setbacks, heights, styles, planting regimes – you name it. In terms of this 2020 plan, they are very influential people."
However, HOA's are another tricky issue in a community like Great Falls. Its semi-rural zoning results in homes frequently being located very far from one another, and subsequently, many residents are not represented by an HOA at all. In addition, many people like this aspect of the community.
Member Dr. Harry Alpernin had his own example of the difficulty of getting HOA's involved.
"I used the Great Falls FYI Network to ask about Homeowner's Associations and I got six responses back," said Alpernin, referring to the popular community e-mail network Neighbors Great Falls. "And the other responses said 'this sounds like a solicitation and we don't want anything to do with it.'"
Despite this President of the Georgetown Pike Association John Adams agreed that working through HOA's was an effective means for creating an effective relationship between residents and citizen groups.
"That's the model of the MCA [McLean Citizen's Association]," said Adams.
Stella Koch noted that perhaps the long-range planning committee should "look at community structure in terms of service."
"We need a sense of a more integrated community," said Koch. "There was a vision of what McLean citizens wanted for McLean, and what we need here is that same strong sense of 'this is who we are, this is what we want.'"
Dianne Van Volkenberg agreed that a true sense of community identity and desires is imperative.
"If we don't have a plan, someone will create one for us," said Van Volkenberg.