While simultaneously trying to disentangle themselves from a wave of vocal neighborhood discontent, Arlington County Board members on July 18 agreed to move forward with a temporary relocation of the government’s salt dome that had precipitated the angry community reaction.
The 5-0 vote was on a merely procedural motion – setting a public hearing on the matter for late September – but given the immediate need to replace the existing salt-store facility, it effectively cleared the way for county staff to begin moving immediately on the project.
“We have to move forward. There is not a ‘no-action’ alternative,” sighed board member Erik Gutshall, who like his colleagues had been inundated in days leading up to the vote with complaints from neighbors of the Old Dominion Drive facility, demanding they find another way to address the issue.
“This is kind of a stunning fail – a fail of planning followed by an abject failure of creativity,” said local resident Susan Cunningham, one of a baker’s-dozen speakers who criticized the proposed move not just on its merits, but also trained fire on what they described as a lack of transparency from county staff.
Although the relocation would take place within the same government-owned 7.5-acre parcel on Old Dominion near Marymount University, “it has a real meaningful impact on the character of the neighborhood that we live in” and “sets a dangerous precedent” for the future, local resident Adam Gooch said.
The circular salt-storage facility rests on Old Dominion between 25th Road North and 26th Street North. Not surprisingly, given what it holds, the existing facility is rusted out; for several months, county staff have said the current dome will not make it through the winter, when it will be needed to support road-clearing efforts.
Waiting any longer to approve the project would potentially leave the county without the ability to purchase the 85-foot-by-125-foot replacement storage facility it seeks.
“If someone else gets ahead of us, we lose that opportunity. There is a daily risk,” said Greg Emanuel, who heads the government’s Department of Environmental Services.
Under a proposal recommended by County Manager Mark Schwartz and effectively ratified by the County Board, preparatory work on the site will begin shortly, with pre-construction efforts (including removal of trees) taking place in August.
Schwartz said every effort would be taken to find ways to mitigate concerns raised by neighbors in coming weeks.
“We don’t have the final design, the final answers,” he said. “If we find a better way to do it, we will post those and get feedback from the community.”
County Board members and Schwartz also agreed on a timeline that would develop a long-range plan for the entire 7.5-acre Old Dominion tract, with final recommendations coming before the County Board in late 2019.
Residents living around the Old Dominion parcel have been in a state of agitation with county officials for years, and in 2016 successfully fought off a proposal to relocate Fire Station #8 from Lee Highway to the site. Most residents are hoping for much of the space to be used as a park, while Marymount University also seeks to have a role to play as it looks to further expansion opportunities.
“We’re anxious to get started on the long-range planning,” Al Diaz, the university’s vice president of finance, told County Board members.
It came as no surprise to anyone holding a graduate degree in the Arlington Way that County Board members spent a good deal of their July 18 meeting trying to placate the angry neighbors while all the time knowing they ultimately would back the staff recommendation that had so infuriated those same residents.
Board member Libby Garvey said the controversy was, in part, a result of a lack of transparency and an unwillingness of staff to get ahead of the issue and tell the community and elected officials the facts of life about a relocation sooner rather than later.
“By putting off facing up to this tough situation . . . it’s gotten worse,” she said to staff. “Please don’t do this to us or our community again.”
County Board members, who do not meet in August, will return on Sept. 22 and are likely to vote then on the necessary zoning changes allowing the salt dome to be moved.