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Survey Says …

Great Falls 2020 Vision survey reveals desire for upgraded Village Center but preservation of semi-rural community character.

When Stella Koch describes Great Falls to people unfamiliar with the community, she sums it up in one simple sentence that she feels, says it all.

"I say, it ain’t country, but it ain’t bad," said Koch, chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) Environment committee, and a long-time resident of Great Falls.

Koch is not the only person to feel this way. The long-awaited results of the Great Falls 2020 Vision survey are finally in, and on Tuesday, May 8, the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) shared the survey findings with the public. Two sentiments came through particularly loud and clear in the participants’ responses: generally speaking, residents like Great Falls exactly the way it is, and they are especially keen on preserving the community’s semi-rural character by keeping its current low-density zoning and winding one-lane country roads in place. However, there is one part of Great Falls that residents do not want to stay the same — the Great Falls Village Center.

"A lot of people said the Village Center needs work," said Kathleen Murphy, who co-chairs the GFCA 2020 Vision Project committee with Michael Keeler.

"They wrote in profusely about how disappointed they are with the Safeway —– even though they really like the people that work there."

Murphy noted that numerous survey participants did write in expressions of gratitude for the numerous annual community events such as the Fourth of July celebration, the Easter Egg Hunt and the Halloween Spooktacular — that are organized and funded by local business owners in and around the Village Center. Ralph Lazaro, DDS, a local dentist and president of the Great Falls Business and Professional Association (BPA), said it was gratifying to know that dissatisfaction with the Village Center did not necessarily imply a lack of appreciation for the tremendous generosity and civic-minded nature of the vast majority of local business owners.

"There is a lot of support and there are a lot of festivals … that are made possible by the generosity and support of the business community," said Lazaro. "So you have got to support the business community as well."

Despite the residents’ appreciation for the community efforts made by local businesses, the 2020 Vision survey results still indicated a general dissatisfaction with the Village Center’s lack of vendors that residents perceive as obvious and necessary staples. Most notably, residents complained about the lack of a coffee shop and video rental store. The other feature that residents continually mentioned as lacking in the Great Falls commercial district was interconnecting pedestrian pathways. Many residents who identified themselves as close neighbors of the Village Center said they would love to be able to walk or bike to the center, and were frustrated by the fact that it is nearly impossible to do so with any degree of safety.

Murphy said most respondents said they liked shopping in the Village Center, and wanted to shop there for the obvious reasons of convenience and proximity. According to Murphy, many survey participants said they would absolutely shop at the center all the time if it could provide for all of their various needs.

"Everybody shops in Great Falls and everybody wants to shop more in Great Falls," said Murphy.

However, Murphy noted that the survey responses also indicated that additional and improved vendors should not be confused with a desire for the introduction of large chain retailers.

"We’d really like to have unique and individual store owners here," she said.

A MAJOR ONGOING issue for the Great Falls Village Center has been the escalating dilemma of how to best cope with its failing septic system. The lack of a public sewer line in the Great Falls commercial district is one factor that has helped to prevent high-density development, since the center’s wastewater disposal limitations vastly reduce the number and variety of businesses that could potentially lease space in the center. Currently, the failing status of the center’s septic system has resulted in an indefinite moratorium on leasing Village Center space to any tenant deemed a "high water user." Thus, businesses such as restaurants, coffee shops and hairdressers are not even eligible for consideration as tenants because the center’s septic system is simply incapable of taking on any additional strain at this time.

But while some gripe about the fact that the Village Center is handicapped by its commitment to septic over sewer, there are many residents who adamantly support septic systems precisely because of their limitations. For these residents, the high capacity capabilities of a sewer line translate into an open pathway for the type of big commercial chain development they have fought so long to keep out.

However, restaurant owners and other "high water user" businesses already leasing space or yearning to lease space, say they are frustrated by the high expense and inconvenience of depending on an aging septic system for wastewater disposal. The Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department and the 7-Eleven located on Walker Road are already operating on an expensive pump and haul service to manage their wastewater. Since all septic systems have capacity limits and are subsequently doomed to eventual failure, some solution must be found, as it will only be a matter of time before all of the Village Center businesses will eventually be forced to turn to pump and haul services.

The 2020 Vision survey addressed the issue and asked participants for their opinions on the choice between septic or sewer, but the survey also inquired about potential alternative solutions to the problem — such as the recent septic system technologies that were presented to citizens at a recent GFCA general session. Forty-three percent of survey respondents said they were in favor of exploring cutting edge septic system technology options, while 35 percent said they were in favor of bringing a sewer line into the Village Center on the condition that it would only be available to commercial entities that really needed its extra capacity.

"People have a vision of a small town village for Great Falls, and I think that people are saying we’ve got to fix the problem in the Village Center," said 2020 Vision co-chair Michael Keeler. "The septic technologies had a slightly higher preference, but I think the main point is that people want to fix the Village Center."

THE PREFERENCE for septic options was not especially surprising given the respondents’ overwhelming desire to preserve the semi-rural character of Great Falls. Those who attended last week’s GFCA 2020 Vision Survey meeting seemed to reach an easy consensus on their definition of "semi-rural," which seemed to fall right in line with Koch’s description "it ain’t country, but it ain’t bad."

"When roads turn into streets, it’s no longer semi-rural," said Richard Bliss, a 30-year resident of Great Falls and the president of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT). "VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] doesn’t come in and straighten your curves and level your grades, you don’t have shoulders on the road, and you don’t do everything for the sake of efficiency — you do it for the sake of aesthetics. I don’t think you can define it, it’s more of a feeling."

During the May 8 survey results presentation, Bliss discussed the benefits of purchasing and donating conservation easements to the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. For the countless Great Falls residents who are overburdened by soaring property taxes, but loathe to give in to mounting pressure from developers, conservation easements are often the best possible option. Donated easements are maintained and protected in perpetuity, which ensures that the land will never be used for development — even after its owners are long gone. Landowners who donate easements do not receive anywhere close to the amount of money they would if they choose to sell to a developer, but they are given substantial tax breaks and some monetary compensation.

Michael Keeler said he was not surprised by the overall results of the 2020 Vision survey.

"There were a lot of affirmations," said Keeler. "But what was surprising was that people did not want no growth and people did not want no change — people want moderate growth and moderate change."

Keeler said he also found it interesting that while people expressed high satisfaction with the quality of life in Great Falls, they still had a new vision for its future.

"Even though people expressed a high satisfaction with the quality of life today in Great Falls, what we have today is not the vision," said Keeler.

THERE WERE SOME who questioned the validity of the survey given the fact that it was only completed by 566 residents, while Great Falls has a population of approximately 12,000. However, GFCA president Jackie Taylor said the 2020 Vision Project committee members made every effort possible to generate mass participation, but in the end, there is simply no way to force every resident to participate.

"The survey was mailed to every single house in Great Falls," said Taylor. "So lack of participation because people were not getting the survey was not the case. Were people just not interested in responding? That seems more likely."

Taylor emphasized that the GFCA is making a concerted effort to reach out to all the residents of Great Falls, and is particularly anxious to recruit more GFCA members in order to have a citizens association that is truly representative of the broad range of its community members.

Anne Whipple, a parent at Great Falls Elementary School who will be president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) next year, said last week’s May 8 GFCA meeting was the first one she had ever attended. She confided to those present that she and many other young mothers have a desire to be active in the community, but felt somewhat intimidated by the GFCA because it is perceived by many to be an organization of long-time residents who possess definite, unmovable opinions about what should and should not happen in Great Falls. Whipple said she decided to attend the meeting in the hopes of breaking through such perceived community divisions. She cited one of her own personal issues as an example of why she and many others love the semi-rural nature of Great Falls, but would not mind having a few sidewalks or trails here and there.

"We live three-tenths of a mile from [Great Falls Elementary] and my kids can’t walk to school from our house," said Whipple. "So I think if you want to draw more people in, you’ve got to draw some of these fixed ideas out a little bit."

The GFCA Board members said they were happy that Whipple had taken the plunge and that they appreciated her point of view. They also noted that while sidewalks are scoffed upon by many residents, stonedust trails are generally widely supported and are precisely what the 2020 Vision survey respondents had included on their 2020 wish list.

"We really have to take into account the needs of the families and children in this town," said Kathleen Murphy.