Arlington County has been a national leader on environmental issues in the last decade while keeping its tax rate lower than most of its neighbors. However, it still has several chronic problems, such as a lack of affordable housing and lagging capital improvement projects.
This was the message from County Board Chair Paul Ferguson (D) in his State of the County speech last week.
"It will come as no surprise to you that I say that the state of the county is excellent," Ferguson said to a group of business leaders at a meeting of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. "But the statistics back me up on that."
Ferguson, who is not seeking reelection to the Board and instead is running for the Clerk of Courts position, cited Arlington’s solid financial footing as one reason that the county is in good shape.
The county’s tax rate is one of the lowest in the region, he said, and its unemployment rate is the lowest in the state. He also brought up the county’s triple-triple-A bond rating which he said was only granted to a handful of local governments across the country.
THE MAIN THRUST of Ferguson’s chairmanship this year has been the Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions, a project designed to combat global warming, so it was no surprise that environmental concerns featured prominently in the speech.
"Whatever the environmental issue," Ferguson said, "Arlington has consistently over the past decade been a leader."
But Ferguson, in an appeal to the business executives he was speaking to, said that while "Global warming will have serious health consequences for us… our initiative is really about saving money."
He touted the county’s sponsoring this year of 20 home energy audits, in which a specialist examines a home to find ways to make it more energy efficient, and announced that the county would be sponsoring five more energy audits for small businesses.
FERGUSON said that sound, long-term planning is the cause of Arlington’s stability.
The county is quick to flaunt its "smart growth" policy, which encourages high-density buildings near public transportation hubs, when contrasting itself with other Northern Virginia jurisdictions.
"We have sought balance as a county," Ferguson said. "We’ve had planned, managed growth. Our neighbors have grown more than us but they have struggled to pay for it."
As an example of this measured expansion, Ferguson cited the revamped Shirlington neighborhood.
Formerly an industrial, economically-depressed area, Shirlington has seen in the last few years hundreds of apartments and condos constructed along with dozens of new restaurants and shops. Ferguson attributed this revitalization to the county’s investment in the new Signature Theatre complex and to the routing of buses to the neighborhood.
"[Shirlington] is the smart growth model that could be replicated anywhere," he said.
WHILE THE CHAIRMAN focused mainly on the positive aspects of the county, he was not reticent in discussing the problems and failures Arlington faces.
With housing costs skyrocketing in the last decade, securing places for low-income workers and immigrants to live has been a constant challenge for the Board.
"Affordable housing is still a problem," Ferguson acknowledged. "But no other jurisdiction in the area has done more to try to promote [it] than Arlington."
Known for his candor even on difficult subjects, Ferguson also detailed some votes from his tenure on the Board that he wishes he could take back.
He said that his approval of the Hilton Garden Hotel in the Courthouse neighborhood, which forced several small businesses in the building to relocate, was done under pressure from the hotel’s developer.
Ferguson also said he regretted his votes dealing with the relocation of the Cherrydale Fire Station.
"You never know how a project will turn out," he said. "It’s just bad luck."
THE IMPRESSIONS of the speech from the business leaders in the audience were overwhelmingly positive.
Patricia Rodgers of the Arlington Community Foundation called it a "Great speech" and said that she was "Struck by his talking about the contribution arts make in the community."
Marymount University President James Bundschuh also said that the speech was great.
"Arlington is a great place to live," he said. "It’s a planned community [and] it’s planned well."
Pat Williamson, director of administrative services with WETA, said that Ferguson was "really relaxed and proud of what he’s done."
She said she was glad that Ferguson talked about expediting the county’s permit approval process because, in the past, "It has been abysmal."
Even Mark Kelly, a local attorney and Ferguson’s Republican opponent in the Clerk of Courts race, couldn’t think of anything bad to say about the speech.
"It was very informative," Kelly said. "And it was a good outline of where the county is going."