The controversial proposal to gut single-family zoning across Arlington is likely to take center stage in the three-candidate race for County Board that kicks off next week.
But will the public’s views really hold sway with County Board members, and will the opposition have any resonance in a county where Democrats normally win more than 60 percent of the vote in any election?
Given the timetable put out by county staff for consideration and potential implementation of the so-called “Missing Middle” housing policy, independent Audrey Clement fears there may be little more than lip service paid to public opinion in the months leading up to an expected December vote on the matter.
“The tenor of the document suggests to me that they have made up their minds and that the vote is pro-forma,” Clement told the Sun Gazette. County staff wouldn’t be going to the trouble of drafting specific texts and General Land Use Plan (GLUP) amendments unless word had come down from the County Board dais that upzoning was a fait-accompli, Clement suggested.
Clement has run multiple times for County Board, positioning herself as a protest candidate who, depending on the issue, can be seen as either to the left or the right of the current, all-Democratic County Board. Her target this year is Democrat Matt de Ferranti, seeking to win a second four-year term.
De Ferranti, not surprisingly, sees the Missing Middle gestation process differently. He isn’t denying that there will be major zoning upheaval, but has pledged to listen to input from residents before making up his mind on how much change is right for the community.
“I am committed to taking the time and engaging fully to get this right,” de Ferranti told the Sun Gazette.
IS PUBLIC GETTING ITS SAY?
But the incumbent’s promises of a robust community engagement represent the views of only one of five board members. And recent actions of the county government call into question exactly how open elected officials want the public discussion to be.
County officials in early August touted plans for a series of input sessions, online and in person, where the public could weigh in on the Missing Middle matter during September. Yet attendance at the sessions was capped at such a limited number that most of the slots filled up within days, and county officials so far have shown no interest in having the meetings livestreamed or archived on the government’s Website in order to make them publicly accessible to those not speedy enough to nab a space and thus have a seat at the table.
“I can understand the county government may wish to limit the number of people who can comment at a particular event, but what possible reason could the county government have for not letting everyone watch what’s going on while our elected representatives are conducting public sessions on critical public business?” county resident Bill Roos asked in a recent letter to county officials, copied to the Sun Gazette.
Bryna Helfer, who supervises the county-government’s communications staff, did not respond to a request for comment directed to her and de Ferranti.
De Ferranti said that additional input sessions were being added, but argued that allowing the public (beyond those who made the cut by signing up quickly) to view them would not foster “an environment where individuals [would] feel safe to share their views.”
(To get around state-government requirements that government meetings be open to the public, apparently no more than two County Board members will attend each one of the listening sessions.)
It’s not the first time the County Board has worked to limit comment on the issue. In June, the usually accommodating County Board chair Katie Cristol tangled with residents during a contentious public-comment session at the monthly board meeting, using a narrow interpretation of public-comment rules to shut down speakers on the housing topic.
(Perhaps feeling she’d overplayed her hand, or that the look in June was not a good one, Cristol was less heavyhanded with the gavel during the July public-comment session. Board members do not hold August meetings.)
THIRD CANDIDATE CUTS COUNTY LEADERS SOME SLACK
While the third candidate in the County Board race – Adam Theo – often has been critical of County Board actions (“pointless processes and closed-door decisions”), he does not believe final decisions have been made on this issue.
“There will be changes to the Missing Middle plan based on public feedback – the County Board members were particularly focused on concerns about parking minimums in the July 12 workshop meeting,” Theo said in response to a Sun Gazette query.
“I also hope for changes to setbacks to preserve mature trees. Our 40-percent tree canopy coverage is something that makes Arlington special, and we can’t afford to lose that,” Theo said.
A supporter of more housing options, Theo praised the ongoing process for focusing on more than the desires of current residents of single-family neighborhoods.
“The County Board members are also listening to future residents and those who have already been priced out of Arlington,” he said. “This change to residential zoning has to take into account the long-term prosperity of Arlington, not just the interests of a subset of current residents.”
Unlike Clement, who has been running nearly continuously for more than a decade, Theo made his first bid for office last year, finishing at the back end of a four-candidate field won by Democratic incumbent Takis Karantonis. Clement finished second, but still well back.
During the 2021 race, Theo, who pursues policies he terms progressive-libertarian, said he was setting the groundwork for a more substantial run in the 2022 election. But neither he nor Clement have raised the amount of money that helped Republican-leaning independent John Vihstadt to victory in 2014.
(Vihstadt was defeated by de Ferranti in 2018, as Democrats rode a wave of local anger over the ascendancy of Donald Trump that percolated all the way down to the County Board level.)
WILL MISSING MIDDLE DOMINATE DEBATES?
Given the intensity of feeling on both sides, one presumes that the Missing Middle issue will dominate, or at least play a major role in, upcoming candidate forums sponsored by the Arlington County Civic Federation, Arlington Committee of 100, Arlington Chamber of Commerce and local civic organizations.
But one might end presuming wrong: Those forums sometimes find themselves hijacked by interest groups and individuals focused on issues of little import to the broader public, with moderators unwilling or unable to get the focus back on big-picture matters.
Proponents of the Missing Middle zoning changes contend they will have negligible negative impacts on the quality of life in neighborhoods, because the footprint of the new housing (be it two, four, six or eight units) would not be allowed to be larger than that currently permitted for single-family homes in any given neighborhood. Critics of the proposal shoot back that very few single-family homes in Arlington come close to the allowable maximum lot coverage. Developers, by contrast, would have financial incentives to take it to the limit when putting multiple units on a single lot, critics say.
Clement has blasted away at the Missing Middle concept in numerous campaign e-mails, saying it will drive out lower-income residents – many of them members of minority groups – and arguing that entities like the Arlington NAACP have “bought [the] hype” that zoning changes will actually benefit minority residents.
“The county’s own data indicate that upzoning of Columbia Pike off Columbia Pike [enacted earlier] has had the opposite effect,” she said. “Missing Middle is just another name for gentrification.”
De Ferranti believes that critics of the policy are trying to drag out the discussion unnecessarily. “We must neither delay for its own sake, nor rush without fully consulting with all interested parties,” he said.
A MAJOR ELECTION SURPRISE COULD IMPACT DECISION-MAKING
Opponents of the zoning-change effort concede that barring some unexpected political earthquake – say, the defeat of de Ferranti by Missing Middle foe Clement in November – the policy change will be implemented despite widespread voices of opposition.
There would be a precedent for an election surprise triggering a major reversal in policy by the largely oligarchical County Board, however. The defeat of Democrat Alan Howze by the aforementioned Vihstadt in twin 2014 elections caused two County Board Democrats (Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes) to switch sides on the issue of the Columbia Pike streetcar. That switch effectively killed off a project that once was seen, as Missing Middle is now, as a sure bet.
Current County Board members effectively safeguarded de Ferranti’s re-election prospects by declining this year to implement ranked-choice (instant-runoff) voting in County Board elections, a power it received several years ago from the General Assembly.
Advocates of instant-runoff elections suggest they give candidates outside the ruling Democratic establishment more chance to catch fire with voters, although outside the Vihstadt-Howze races of 2014, Democrats usually have won 60 percent or more of the vote in Arlington races, rendering the instant-runoff process irrelevant.
Candidate Theo says fighting for electoral reforms should be the primary focus if voters want a more responsive local government.
“Missing Middle may be the biggest issue this year, but the most important issue is whether the County Board ever implements ranked-choice voting to allow a wider variety of candidates to win, or continues to ignore it in order to retain the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s power,” he said.
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