Neighborhood stability and traffic were the primary topics at Supervisor Dana Kauffman's (D-Lee) final Annual Town Meeting March 24 at the Lee District Government Center on Franconia Road. Under Kauffman's new format it was his constituents who took center stage, often putting county officials on the defensive.
Zoning enforcement overall and the need for more traffic control, particularly in residential areas, brought forth the most passionate pleas and criticisms from the overflow crowd that filled both the center's meeting room and lobby area. They showed no hesitancy to emphasize their displeasure with what they consider to be a deterioration of their "quality of life."
As Phyllis Hoag, a resident of Arden Acres, told Kauffman at the outset of the two-hour Town Meeting, "I'm glad to see that this disruption of our neighborhoods has come to where you live as well."
Kauffman, who has announced his intention not to seek reelection after 12 years in office, has made stopping and reversing that "disruption" and the spiral of deterioration due to overcrowding and misuse of residential properties his prime goal between now and the end of 2007. It has also been identified as a top priority for Kauffman's chief of staff, Jeffrey C. McKay, who has informally announced his candidacy to succeed his present boss. McKay, a Democrat, is opposed by Republican Doug Boulter.
The format of this Town Meeting was different from all previous ones. Instead of presentations from various county and state representatives, Kauffman turned the entire session into an audience-driven question and answer session in which county government officials were asked to respond to specific questions on an array of subjects.
"Instead of a gaggle of high-ranking county staff telling you why you should be happy living here, we are going to have two hours of questions from you to them," said Kauffman, kicking off his town meeting. "It's you turn to tell them what you think and get them to answer your questions."
However, prior to unleashing the invigorated crowd, Kauffman did thank them for allowing him to represent them for the past dozen years. "I want to say how much I have enjoyed being your representative," he said. He also thanked his staff who he credited with doing most of the work in satisfying constituent requests and providing answered to specific problems.
ON THE RECEIVING end of the questioning were representatives from an array of county agencies and departments including police from both Lee and Mount Vernon districts. Del. Mark Sickles (D-43), State Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39), and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly (D-At-large) also participated.
Connolly arrived near the end of the session. His lead comment of "I think the county is in very good shape," brought forth a response, "We didn't come here to hear campaign rhetoric. We are talking about our quality of life."
Connolly's reference to a survey showing Fairfax County superior to Long Island, N.Y. as an ideal living area and his remarks that "we've created something that works in Fairfax County" and "zoning officials are doing a very good job" raised a chorus of "no's" throughout the audience.
"No district has more problems about overcrowding that Lee District," he said. "But it is not an easy issue. While we do not want government to become intrusive in people's lives, government is responsible for health and safety."
Hoag pointed out that in her neighborhood she had reported zoning violations dealing with overcrowding, abandoned vehicles and houses being used as businesses numerous time to the Department of Planning and Zoning with no results. "Nobody in zoning really seems to care," Hoag said.
"On the overcrowding issue, the General Assembly has now raised the fine from $1,000 to $2,500 per offense," said Sickles. "We tried to add jail time to the bill but that did not fly."
"We also passed a bill allowing zoning officials to secure subpoenas from the county attorney," he said. "This [overcrowding] has been a problem that is getting worse. But, to enforce the laws on this is very labor intensive. Zoning officials just need to stay on this constantly."
"The $1,000 fine was really not having any impact," Kauffman said. "If a business was turning a profit of $5,000 a month, why not just pay the fine and keep on going?"
Another speaker pleaded with officials to focus on the quality of life issue for residents rather than on the business issue. "Please concentrate on our quality of life so that families can continue to live and raise their children in Fairfax County," was a statement endorsed overwhelmingly by a majority of meeting attendees with their applause.
James Zook, director, Fairfax County Planning and Zoning Department, told the audience, "Let me assure you we do care about your quality of life. Although we are behind the curve on this issue we are working very hard to enforce the laws both from a safety and health standpoint."
"To me it is offensive to let a neighborhood deteriorate," Kauffman said. "I will be working on this throughout the rest of my term."
WHEN IT CAME to traffic, the primary concerns were dangerous intersections, excessive speed in residential areas, and the travel of large trucks through neighborhoods. "Sen. [Patsy] Ticer (D-30) did have a bill in this last session of the General Assembly to reduce the weight of trucks traveling neighborhood streets from 12,000 pounds to 7,000 pounds but it was defeated," said O'Brien.
A primary concern was the number of traffic accidents at the intersection of Kingstowne Boulevard and the Franconia-Springfield Parkway. However, Doug Hanson, who is in charge of traffic calming with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, stated that not enough accidents have occurred to warrant the addition of more turning lanes or signalization.
"It usually takes an enormous volume of accidents to promote a change," he said. "There is so much traffic delay in Northern Virginia that VDOT is hesitant to put in left turn green arrow signals that may promote further delays and cause other unsafe conditions."
Other issues raised during the meeting included residency requirements for school enrollment, stormwater runoff and flooding, control of pets, increasing crime rates in overcrowded area, upkeep of property both inside and outside of residences, the widening of Telegraph Road from the Beltway south, and the return of tax dollars from Richmond to the local government.
Before the town meeting began, attendees had the opportunity to talk with and obtain information from exhibitors from various county agencies, the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, the Transportation Association of Greater Springfield and the Cold War Museum, among many others. Attendees also had the opportunity to visit the Franconia Museum now located within the Government Center.