2017 will start off with some good news for Arlingtonians that use parks and community facilities. Planning and public engagement is expected to begin in early 2017 for several recreational spots and a new commission to help find more available space is currently accepting applicants. But as the County Board heads into annual budget discussions, that optimistic tone may shift considerably darker as the county struggles with competing school and Metro needs.
In 2015, the Jennie Dean Park was converted into parking space for the county’s ART buses until the new facility was built in Crystal City. Now, in early 2017 the buses are scheduled to move and the process of re-establishing the Jennie Dean Park is underway. In a year-in-review video posted by Arlington County, County Board Member John Vihstadt said the goal is to develop a strategic plan for the Four Mile Run Valley to make it more welcoming and more pedestrian friendly.
“The single biggest issue in this region is the Metro.” — Jay Fisette, County Board
“Right now we’re launching into visioning about land use and the park,” said Caroline Haynes, chair of the County’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “The park planning process [will] move along at a rapid clip along with our discussion of land use issues. We’re looking at what’s happening now, and over the next four to six months we will be forming that plan.”
To the west of the Four Mile Run Valley, the Buckingham Village Historic District will also see a new park and recreation space developed in 2017. The current Lubber Run Community Center is the oldest recreation facility in Arlington. Throughout 2017, community engagement will begin for the new building and park design development. Construction of the project is expected to begin in 2018 for completion in 2020.
“The design money for the Lubber Run Community Center was just adopted by the Board,” said Haynes. “That center was from back in the 1950s. The county had to move functions out because it was not [Americans With Disabilities Act] accessible. There was preliminary thinking about this last year, and from that the County Board has adopted design money to go forward to launch into this process.”
Haynes said parks across the county will also be affected by the updates underway for the 2005 Public Spaces Master Plan. Part of this will be a push to identify and publicize the privately owned public spaces throughout the county that have been gained through development negotiations over the years.
“The community supposedly gets access to these spaces, but it seems random and there’s no check on whether it’s really available or if there’s any signage,” said Haynes. “We need to know what’s already out there. That’s a big gap in our knowledge. We’re writing it now. I think it’s going to be very exciting. I hope we will be able to have something very useful for the county. We’re dealing with increasing pressure on our parks. We need to make sure we’re considering parks and recreation facilities in thinking about the larger county planning processes.”
For many Arlingtonians, the primary topic of conversation throughout Arlington is how to use the limited space within the county for the growing needs of the population.
Ginger Brown, co-founder of the Lee Highway Alliance, said a recommendation out of the 2015 Community Facilities Study to help reduce the conflict over space, is finally being implemented in early 2017.
“A Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) would bring schools and the county together to work on public facilities issues, like schools or fire stations, for joint decision making,” said Brown. “That group will look at working jointly whenever we have land that’s available or a facility that needs a site. It will look at both school and county land, working to use it more efficiently.”
JFAC, approved in November 2016, will be composed of 20 members appointed by the County Board. Applications to join JFAC are currently available at the county website.
County Board Member Jay Fisette says the priorities for the County Budget in 2017 will not differ much from the work that was done in 2016. Throughout the budget season, Fisette said the main conflict will likely be figuring out how to deal with the continuing enrollment growth and needs of Arlington’s school system. Currently, Arlington County Public Schools estimate a $22 to $28 million budget gap.
Every year the schools start with budget gap and every year the county and schools haggle to a compromise, but there's also a wrench in the plans for the Arlington County budget this year: the Metro.
On Oct. 30, 2016, Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld proposed a $1.8 billion budget, with a projected $39 million increase in contributions from Virginia. For Arlington County, a Dec. 1 budget forecast expected Metro subsidy costs to increase 22 to 30 percent, anywhere between $6 to $9 million. Metro funding is the largest factor in the county’s current $5.4 million projected budget gap, but that gap could increase with revised budget estimates from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
“The single biggest issue in this region is the Metro,” said Fisette. “We’re really looking hard to find a way to fix and sustain the Metro system. We’re incredibly reliant and designed around the Metro. It’s hugely important to our economy and to the whole region. That’s really the number one regional priority.”
But Fisette said the County Board won’t know exactly how the Metro subsidy increases will impact Arlington until the county moves into its budget sessions. In Maryland, the state covers the costs of the Metro, while in Virginia more than half of the subsidies come from the localities. Fisette said Metro and local government leadership need to work together to try and find new ways to fund Metro operations.
“In the short term, we’re looking at service adjustments, fares, and the existing funding sources,” said Fisette. “The real solution is a new dedicated funding source; a particular tax revenue dedicated to maintaining and covering Metro costs.”