It wouldn’t be easy, inexpensive or likely politically popular with Fairfax County officials, but McLean Citizens Association (MCA) board members said Dec. 2 they would like to explore the idea of making McLean a city.
The state law that for more than three decades has prohibited the incorporation of new cities, expires in 2024. MCA president Robert Jackson broached the topic of whether McLean might want to separate from Fairfax County after that expiration date.
Jackson suggested, and the board concurred, that MCA in January should form a community-wide committee to examine the feasibility and desirability of doing so. The Virginia Commission on Local Government may be able to assist in that effort, he added.
“I know a lot of people sometimes – and I’m one of them – feel that Fairfax County’s just so big that it’s hard for the county government to be responsive to various communities in the county,” he said. “There [are] issues of some frustration. It’s not that we expect to get our way all of the time, but there have been some issues raised.”
Recent topics of concern among McLean residents have included planning efforts for the Community Business Center, McLean High School overcrowding and lack of trail and street maintenance by the Virginia Department of Transportation, Jackson said.
Becoming a city by no means would be a free endeavor for McLean, which would have to implement its own governmental structure – complete with mayor/council, police, parks, schools, etc. – and a tax structure to support it, Jackson said.
“The costs would have to be examined, as well as what some benefits are,” he said. “I can’t imagine this would be a way to reduce taxes. It’s more of a control-your-own-destiny thing.”
The current statute against forming cities has been on the books since 1987, when state legislators limited cities’ ability to expand their territories, said MCA board member Merrily Pierce. McLean residents have mulled achieving city status for decades, she said.
Cities have more authorities than counties, although the latter caught up somewhat this year with legislation passed by the General Assembly.
Towns in Virginia are parts of counties, but have an additional layer of government to provide extra levels of service. Town residents pay taxes not only to their locality, but to the surrounding county as well.
That arrangement allows towns to let counties shoulder the administrative burden of services that are too large (e.g., school systems) or too expensive and specialized (e.g., police helicopter, SWAT and K-9 units) for small localities to consider.
Unique among the 50 states, Virginia’s cities are independent entities and provide their own services. Some, however, have contractual arrangements with their surrounding counties for some services.
The town of Fairfax became a city in 1961 and since 1962 has had a partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools in which the latter provides staffing, curriculum, transportation and meals, while the city must manage, renovate and provide capital improvements at the four city-owned school buildings.
The town of Falls Church became a city independent of Fairfax County in 1948, and its school system became a separate entity the following year.
Both the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park separated from Prince William County in 1975. By contrast, Alexandria became an independent city in 1870, splitting from Alexandria County (renamed Arlington County in 1920).
MCA board member Martin Smith said he supported efforts to investigate forming a city of McLean.
“There are a lot of angles to it, but that’s why we start early, right?” Smith said. “I think it’s a great idea to at least look at it.”
McLean residents would have to file a lawsuit with the state to start the process – assuming the General Assembly does not change the law before it expires, Jackson said.
That prospect worried board member David Fiske, who said Fairfax County officials might lobby against the proposal if MCA started its efforts too soon.
Tysons residents – some of whom belong to MCA – also might want to see that urban center break away from the county, MCA members said.
The thought of losing both McLean, with its high-value real estate, and Tysons, with its massive revenue-generating presence, might give county financial officials heart palpitations.
“I would think that this is going to scare the bejesus out of the county supervisors when they get wind of it, because it would be a significant portion of revenues of the county,” said Jim Beggs, who chairs MCA’s Education and Youth Committee.
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), a McLean resident and former MCA president, said it’s highly unlikely McLean ever would become a city. Fairfax County officials years ago entertained the idea of pursuing city status, but discovered the cost of doing so – especially taking over VDOT’s responsibilities – would be exorbitant.
“It’s going to play itself out as it should,” he said of MCA’s city proposal.
Most people who live in Fairfax County do so to enjoy its excellent services, current pandemic-related hiccups with the school system notwithstanding, Foust said.
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