If Arlington’s 2019 County Board race develops a theme, it could well turn out to be whether the level of development in the community is on a controlled or uncontrolled trajectory.
And to no one’s surprise, the candidates offer differing perspectives.
“I would characterize Arlington’s growth as growth on steroids,” said challenger Audrey Clement, portraying current County Board members as putting their heads in the sand on its ramifications while allowing “developers and builders to line their pockets.”
“The County Board is simply throwing these considerations under the rug,” Clement said of development impacts during the Sept. 3 candidate forum sponsored by the Arlington County Civic Federation.
It was the first time the four candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot – independents Clement and Arron O’Dell and Democratic incumbents Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol – squared off in what is expected to be a race where the final result is little in doubt.
First-termers Dorsey and Cristol had a different take from Clement.
“I do not believe Arlington has grown on steroids,” said Dorsey, who is serving as board chairman in 2019.
Dorsey said much of the development is inevitable, given Arlington’s location and state law, which tilts in favor of the rights of property owners.
“The whole idea of ‘closing up shop’ is not something we can do,” he said. “Managing growth is what we do well.”
But O’Dell, making his first bid for office, said the all-Democratic County Board’s approach is “backwards” and “the old way.”
“We should first be focusing on the infrastructure,” he said.
“It is my job to make sure we plan for the infrastructure,” noted Cristol, who served as board chair in 2018. As she has in the past, Cristol said those who wanted to “pull up the drawbridge” were misguided.
For more than a half-century, Arlington’s land-use planning has focused on concentrating high-density development along corridors served by mass transit, allowing single-family neighborhoods to remain largely untouched from encroachment.
But that may be about to change – proposals coming through the pipeline could conceivably lessen protections for single-family zoning. Critics paint a worst-case scenario of Wild West, anything-goes development.
O’Dell painted two possibilities for the future – one (he compared favorably to the city-nation of Singapore) where development and density was encouraged but controlled, another (he likened to the Thai capital of Bangkok) which he said had become a “complete, dirty, disastrous mess.”
The Arlington County government has been criticized for years for being too timid to get creative on addressing affordable housing in the community or to act on environmental issues wrought by new development. County Board members rightly or wrongly often point the finger at the General Assembly, which keeps a tight rein on local governments via shackles of the Dillon Rule.
Things could change if Democrats win control of both houses of the legislature in November.
At the Sept. 3 debate, candidates sparred over whether increasing density would bring down housing prices by expanding supply.
“The notion that somehow more housing would reduce cost is a misperception,” Clement said, drawing a rebuke from Cristol that the challenger was ignoring the basics of economics.
O’Dell, who seems to be running a campaign promoting fiscal restraint, said Arlington taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for what is a regional problem.
A shortfall of affordable housing is “not one that can be addressed by one neighborhood or one county,” he said. “Arlington shouldn’t have to take the brunt.”