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Solar panels (via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr)

(Updated at 11:25 a.m. on 8/5/2022) Fairfax County is exploring being the first Virginia locality to create a “green bank” as a way to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors’ environmental committee last week, county staff said a green bank can help spur investments in clean energy.

Essentially, a green bank is a publicly-funded financial institution that helps fund, develop, and support clean energy technologies for both residential and commercial entities.

“A green bank can act as a program sponsor, a trusted advisor, and a clearing house of information for residents and the private sector,” John Morrill, from the county’s office of environmental and energy coordination, said in his presentation to the committee.

The board asked staff to look into the idea of a green bank two years ago, ultimately authorizing $300,000 for a feasibility study. The General Assembly also passed legislation last year letting localities set up their own.

So far, the feasibility study found that a green bank could lead to $650 million of investments in just the first five years. Those investments would focus on residential energy efficiency measures, rooftop solar panels for both county homes and businesses, and shifting commercial car fleets to electric.

“The role of a green bank would be to encourage and facilitate those investments through targeted programs, direct incentives, and partnerships with private financial institutions and service providers,” Morrill said.

A few committee members questioned whether the county’s green bank would be “crowding out” private investment that would have happened regardless.

“That’s probably the crux of the issue and the most challenging operational,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “It doesn’t do us any good to fund a project that would have happened otherwise.”

According to staff, a county-backed green bank could help homeowners better afford improvements like solar panels or help make decisions about what’s right for them. For example, the county could provide “cash incentives” for installing rooftop solar panels in exchange for the county getting the renewable energy credits.

Morrill also noted that a green bank could help make improvements for low and moderate-income households that could benefit from the potential savings.

Staff recommended the county create a green bank as a non-profit 501(c)(3) with a board that could include county officials.

While no Virginia locality has a green bank yet, it is becoming a trend nationwide that was actually kicked off by nearby Montgomery County, which is among the first localities in the country to set up a county-backed green bank. D.C. also has a green bank.

(Correction: This article previously stated that Montgomery County was the first U.S. locality to create a green bank. While the county has said that, it was preceded in 2010 by New York City, which also claims to have the nation’s first local green bank, and St. Lucie County in Florida, which formed the nonprofit Solar and Energy Loan Fund.)

Staff recommended that the board follow Montgomery County’s lead in committing “a mid-range investment” for a green bank with initial funding ranging from $3 million to $15 million.

Chairman Jeff McKay suggested the county could partner with other local jurisdictions, so that Fairfax County doesn’t have to bear the sole financial brunt for an initiative that would benefit the region.

Committee members expressed overall support for the green bank proposal and asked staff to complete the study.

Staff will complete a draft ordinance and provide an official funding recommendation in the fall. The matter could come before the environmental committee for a vote in October with a Board of Supervisors public hearing scheduled for late this year or early 2023.

“If we initiate this, we have a chance to start this up in a way that not only benefits Fairfax County residents but also other counties around us to hopefully move more quickly adoption of ways to save energy and optimize our reduction in greenhouse gases,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Photo via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr

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Richmond Highway (via Fairfax County)

A project to underground Richmond Highway utilities may be buried due to cost, construction delays, and the risk it poses to federal funding for other projects happening along the corridor.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors weighed the pros and cons of undergrounding utilities along the highway, also known as Route 1, at an economic initiatives committee meeting on Tuesday (July 26).

Undergrounding utilities is a fairly common (and supported) practice, but the Route 1 proposal is complicated by two other major infrastructure projects in the corridor: the highway widening and the build-out of a bus rapid transit (BRT) service.

While the board didn’t take any definitive action on Tuesday, it was clear that a number of committee members, including Chairman Jeff McKay, were leaning towards scrapping the project altogether.

“It feels a little bit like ‘why wouldn’t we do it?’ if you just look at it on the surface, but as we dug into it today quite a bit…it makes it a little bit clearer how unclear it is,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said.

In a presentation, staff said the county would be solely responsible for financing any undergrounding, with no assistance from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) or the Federal Transit Authority (FTA).

Undergrounding utilities could also result in a two-year delay for the Route 1 widening and BRT projects, tacking on an extra year each for design work and construction. That would push the completion date for the widening to 2031 and for the BRT to 2032.

Utility undergrounding would also increase the cost of the two projects by at least $264 million, requiring an additional $136 million for the actual construction and potentially another $128 million to account for inflation during the two-year delay.

Potential costs of Richmond Highway utility undergrounding (via Fairfax County)

To raise the needed funds, county staff proposed working with the General Assembly to implement a utility “surcharge.” A $1 per month surcharge for residents and a 2.5% surcharge on commercial properties that could reach a maximum of 6.67% would bring in $40 million in revenue annually.

However, a surcharge would require an agreement with utility companies, mainly Dominion Energy, Verizon, Cox, and NOVEC. Even if an agreement is reached, it could take 12 to 18 months for the companies to sign off through their own “internal legal review” processes, delaying the undergrounding even more.

According to staff, undergrounding utilities could also result in the loss of $334 million in federal funding that the FTA is providing for the BRT project. Read More

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A plastic grocery bag (via Christopher Vega/Unsplash)

Fairfax County is on track to bring in more than $1 million in revenue from the first year of its plastic bag tax.

In the first five months after the tax took effect on Jan. 1, the county government received over $500,000, the Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination said in a memo to the Board of Supervisors.

That’s even with retailers allowed to retain two out of every five cents collected on each disposable plastic bag they distribute in 2022, a provision intended to offset the costs of transitioning away from plastic for businesses.

The OEEC projects that the tax will generate $1.2 million for the county over its inaugural year.

“Revenue is likely to fluctuate in the first few years of implementation,” OEEC Director Kambiz Agazi wrote to the board, noting that the amount of the tax retained by retailers will drop to one cent on Jan. 1, 2023. “…As has been observed in other jurisdictions with a plastic bag tax, over the long term, tax revenue is likely to trend downward as consumers begin reducing their use of disposable plastic bags.”

The revenue that the county has “regrettably” collected so far suggests many community members haven’t gotten into the habit yet of bringing their own bags to grocery stores and other businesses, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck observed yesterday (Tuesday) at the end of the board’s environmental committee meeting.

By a matter of days, Fairfax County became the first locality in Northern Virginia to adopt a plastic bag tax in September. The 5-cent levy was enabled by a 2020 state law and is supposed to encourage people to use more sustainable alternatives.

Under the law, revenue can be used to support educational programs, clean up pollution and litter, and provide reusable bags to people who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food benefits.

In his memo, Agazi proposes allocating $511,000 already accrued from the tax to existing county programs, including:

The plan also designates funding for technology that collects litter in county waterways, gloves and other materials for volunteer stream cleanups, and reusable bags for SNAP and WIC recipients, food pantries, and farmers’ markets.

For future beneficiaries, staff proposed having a formal process where county agencies apply for funding. A project selection committee would prioritize the submitted projects, which would then be reviewed by the county’s chief financial officer and Department of Management and Budget.

In addition to meeting the state criteria for the plastic bag tax, the projects would have to be based in the county or part of a regional initiative that directly benefits the county and scheduled to start in the same year that money is requested. They also can’t require new, permanent staff positions, be part of the capital improvement program, or have other sources of funding.

“This is an opportunity for us to repurpose those funds, if you will, to hopefully make a difference in our environmental management,” Storck said.

Photo via Christopher Vega/Unsplash

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Morning Notes

Bella Mack of Vienna spins and jumps on roller blades at Wakefield Skate Park in Annandale (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Underground Utilities Proposed for Route 1 — Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck has joined many residents, businesses, and state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36) as an advocate for moving power lines along Richmond Highway underground, though that isn’t in the current designs for widening the road. Advocates say undergrounding would limit storm damage and bring economic benefits. [On the MoVe]

Metro Plans for Budget Shortfall — “Metrorail has only recovered 42% of its ridership and Metrobus has recovered about 60%. This time, Metro officials are not banking on the cavalry — in the form of a federal bailout or additional local dollars — to arrive. Later this summer, board members and new Metro General Manager Randy Clarke will begin to calculate how to plug a $356 million operating budget gap.” [DCist]

Police Investigate Gunshot in Fair Oaks — “Fairfax County Police are investigating a shooting that occurred early Tuesday morning in the Fair Oaks area, according to the weekly crime report. Police responded around 3:18 a.m., for the report of a man firing a handgun into the air in the 12000 block of Thompson Road.” [Patch]

Bailey’s Crossroads Library Volunteer Honored — “Fairfax County officials gathered Saturday to honor Carmen Fernandez, a longtime pillar of the Culmore community. A conference room at the Woodrow Wilson Library in Falls Church now bears plaques in Fernandez’s honor.” [Fairfax County Public Library]

McLean Theater Group Retakes the Stage — “McLean Community Players is back after a three-year hiatus and will hit the Alden Theatre’s stage July 22 to 24 with ‘The Show Must Go On! A Musical Revue.’ The effort features an array of songs from past productions and shows the company hopes to perform in the future.” [Sun Gazette]

Local Hummingbird Photographers Get Focus — “I have been promised hummingbirds. I am, after all, at Green Spring Gardens, in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, prime hummingbird territory…Jane [Gamble] takes me somewhere we’re guaranteed to find hummingbirds: inside the house, where 46 hummingbird photos hang on the walls.” [The Washington Post]

It’s Tuesday — Rain in the evening. High of 87 and low of 70. Sunrise at 5:55 am and sunset at 8:36 pm. [Weather.gov]

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County leaders walk past building W13 on their way to break ground on the latest renovation at the Workhouse Arts Center (via Supervisor Dan Storck/Facebook)

Construction is underway on Fairfax County’s latest effort to remake the former Lorton Reformatory grounds into a destination for local residents and tourists.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, and other local officials broke ground Friday (June 24) on a renovation of two buildings — designated W13 and W15 — that once housed prison inmates.

Located along Ox Road on the west side of the 52-acre site, now known as the Workhouse Arts Center, the 4,500-square-foot buildings will get their brick exteriors restored, while their interiors are overhauled for future commercial tenants. The county has its fingers crossed for a restaurant or brewery.

“We hope that it provides food and beverage opportunities and places for people to come here and spend more time, not just to stop off, but spend the better part of the day exploring the Workhouse,” McKay said. “These buildings will go a long way to doing that.”

Funded by a $6.3 million county investment, the project will also transform the open space between the buildings into a plaza with a boardwalk, raised walkways, seating areas, trees, and new paved paths along Ox Road.

It’s part of a larger plan to redevelop the former prison complex that has been in place since July 2004.

Opened to the public in September 2008, the Workhouse Arts Center now consists of 11 restored buildings that feature art galleries, studios, classrooms, facilities for ceramics and other crafts, and the Lucy Burns Museum, which delves into the Lorton prison’s history.

Additional amenities envisioned for the campus include housing for resident artists and performers, an amphitheater or music hall, a 450-seat theater, a 300-seat performing arts center, a 600-seat events center, and an outdoor garden with a greenhouse.

A map of the planned Workhouse Campus in Lorton, with buildings W13 and W15 in red (via DPWES)

The W13 and W15 buildings have been approved for eating establishments with a total of 400 seats. Read More

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Jean R. Packard Center at Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Nearly 22 years after Lorton Prison closed in 2000, Fairfax County planners and developers are in the thick of reimagining what the sleepy spot along I-95 will look like in 2040.

Staff are currently evaluating feedback from a second round of community engagement in March on what the community envisions for Lorton. The meetings followed an initial round of feedback in 2019.

Barbara Byron, director of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development, says conceptual frameworks are being developed along Lorton Road between Silverbrook Road and Richmond Highway.

“The maps will help visualize potential improvements to the public realm, such transportation and parks improvements to better serve the area, and potential alternatives to the planned mix of land uses and development within the area — primarily at the three commercial centers of Gunston Plaza, Lorton Marketplace and the Lorton Station Town Center,” Byron said.

Mt. Vernon District Supervisor Dan Stork notes that significant transformation is already underway.

“In 2000 as the Lorton Prison was closing, the community came together to plan for the future of Lorton,” he told FFXnow. “Today, I am particularly proud of the role we have all had in bringing much of that vision to fruition, with three new schools, several new residential developments, and many new businesses and commercial centers.”

Ultimately, the county hopes Lorton will become a destination for residents and regional visitors that is anchored by the Workhouse Arts Center, the new Lorton Community Center and library, the Liberty mixed-use community, parks, and the creation of a new downtown east of I-95 along Lorton Road.

But the challenges of transforming a largely suburban area with commercial centers and large swaths of parking lots remain.

“Development patterns in the Lorton area are heavily suburban in character with commercial centers and large parking lots,” Byron said. “However, there is an opportunity to identify and attract unique, niche commercial uses that could turn it into a go-to destination in Northern Virginia.”

Stork says the recent reinvigoration of feedback on the future of Lorton will help guide the process of bringing the community’s “vision for the next 20 years to life.”

For the coming decades, property owners and private investors’ willingness to share that vision will be a key to realizing it.

In 2021, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the consideration of a comprehensive plan amendment to recommend a town center concept near the Virginia Railway Express station, along with gateway locations and residential areas at a mix of densities. A community task force has collaborated with the county to begin work on the study, which will wrap up in the winter.

Next steps include drafting a comprehensive plan amendment on the topic.

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Just in time for the summer tourist season, Fairfax County is stepping up its efforts to promote the amenities in its southeastern area, providing a discount pass for admissions and more.

County and tourism officials, along with staff of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, touted a new digital pass yesterday (Wednesday) that gives visitors at historic sites and other destinations 20% off admissions and other deals.

Launched last December, the branding campaign is called “Potomac Banks: Explore Fairfax South” and was developed by the digital marketing agency Streetsense. It was showcased during a media event outside the first president’s mansion overlooking the Potomac River.

“Fairfax South is the place to be,” said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, who started the Mount Vernon Tourism Task Force in 2019 that led to the branding.

Storck, who was a President Abe Lincoln re-enactor for 25 years, said his love of history was a driving force in showcasing the region’s amenities.

An original marketing push rolled out in February 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic soon took hold in the U.S., particularly damaging the hotel and restaurant industries, Storck said.

The effort also includes one year of marketing with a business development campaign, said Barry Biggar, president and CEO of Visit Fairfax, the area’s official tourism organization.

“Now the real work begins,” he said.

Savings pass launched to promote region

The pandemic-induced delay meant the marketing effort could include a new feature: the Potomac Banks Savings Pass, a $46 pass that gives discounted admission to partnering sites, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, George Mason’s Gunston Hall and Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House.

The pass, which has a $25 version for kids ages 6 through 11, also provides deals on tours, gifts and activities at sites such as the National Museum of the U.S. Army, the Workhouse Arts Center, G34.3 Brewing Co., Woodlawn Press Winery and Historic Huntley.

The pass is valid for 90 days, but once it’s first redeemed at a site, it lasts for seven days.

While Washington’s historic property has weathered the pandemic and had buses of visitors there yesterday, other sites will be able to cross-promote.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said teachers and textbooks are amazing, but nothing can replace experiencing history in person, and there are historic assets right in people’s backyards to enjoy that people from across the world come to visit.

Biggar said there are plans to create the county’s first tourism improvement district in southern Fairfax County. He said it could be a model for the rest of the region.

According to Biggar, Fairfax County’s tourism dollars generate the most revenue for the Commonwealth of any jurisdiction. The county’s tourism industry generated more than $3 billion in 2019, and he projects it will reach $4.5 billion in five years.

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Cyclists on the Mount Vernon Trail (via National Park Service)

An iconic resource along the Potomac River is turning 50.

The Mount Vernon Trail first opened on April 15, 1972. Half a century later, elected officials and others will gather to celebrate its storied history with activities for all ages.

Scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. this Saturday (April 16), the 50th anniversary event at Daingerfield Island (1 Marina Drive) in Alexandria will feature giveaways, work demos, the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program, and more, according to an event page.

“The creation of the Mount Vernon Trail exemplifies how determined community members can help foster partnerships with government and the private sector to create a community asset that benefits all of us,” Mount Vernon Supervisor Daniel Storck said during a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting yesterday (Tuesday).

The Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail credits volunteers as instrumental in creating the multi-use path, which now spans more than 18 miles across Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria City:

On April 15, 1972, the first 4.5-mile stretch of the Mount Vernon Trail opened to the public. The gravel path ran from Belle Haven in Alexandria to the Memorial Bridge in Arlington and was the brainchild of two Alexandria women, Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch. In 1971, the two gathered over 700 signatures on a petition to create a trail alongside the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

The National Park Service was sympathetic to the plea and agreed to provide the right-of-way, gravel, and tools if Pickering and Lynch could provide volunteers to do the work. So Pickering and Lynch organized 40 volunteers, and every Saturday that winter they spread gravel. In total, 400 recruits spread 4,200 tons of gravel, contributing 5,300 hours of labor to start the trail that would become a vital recreational and transportation corridor in the region.

Storck said the trail serves as an essential artery for the Mount Vernon District, an 18.5-mile anchor for the region’s trail network with approximately 1 million annual users.

In addition to Storck, speakers at the celebration will include:

  • George Washington Memorial Parkway Superintendent Charles Cuvelier
  • Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail President Judd Isbell
  • Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol
  • Alexandria City Councilmember Sarah Bagley

Several community, transportation, and governmental groups are also expected to attend, including BikeArlington, WalkArlington, Capital Bikeshare, GO Alex, East Coast Greenway, Capital Trails Coalition, Friends of Dyke Marsh, and the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

The event is free and open to the public.

Photo via National Park Service

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Yellow Line tunnel and bridge over the Potomac River (via WMATA)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and other Northern Virginia officials are looking for ways to help commuters during a lengthy planned shutdown of Metro’s Yellow Line for rehabilitation work.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will stop service on a key section of the line for seven to eight months to repair a Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac River and tunnels that are over 40 years old.

The project is scheduled to start in September and finish in the spring. The shutdown will be between the Pentagon and L’Enfant Plaza stations.

“The seemingly endless stream of shutdowns, delays, and missed completion dates is making Fairfax County commuters increasingly frustrated and hampering Metro’s ability to rebound from pandemic ridership numbers,” Chairman Jeff McKay said during the board’s meeting yesterday (Tuesday).

The board agreed to write a letter urging WMATA to accelerate the project timeline and provide more alternatives for commuters, such as improved bus service and parking fare reductions at Yellow Line stations during construction.

McKay also encouraged Virginia Railway Express to play a “lead role in possibly providing relief in ways like fare incentives for Yellow Line riders.”

The work is occuring at the same time the new Potomac Yard Metro station is being connected to rail lines as part of a six-week project. The station is slated to open this fall, following delays.

McKay said that while safety must be the highest priority, he’s concerned about the effects of the shutdown, especially as people return to the workplace. Metro service has already been significantly reduced systemwide for months since a train derailed in Arlington County in October.

“WMATA needs to find a way to shorten that timeframe and do a better job of at least getting our commuters through that bottleneck, which is frankly, for us, Alexandria,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said.

The Mount Vernon District borders the City of Alexandria and includes the Huntington Metro station at the end of the Yellow Line.

“That’s not a criticism of Alexandria,” Storck added. “It’s just the amount of people that’s going to go through it is even more than in the past.”

WMATA spokesperson Sherri Ly said the authority is working with its regional partners, businesses and the community to create a mitigation plan, including bus service enhancements and changes to parking policy for the project’s duration.

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A major residential project is coming to the Penn Daw area (Image via handout/Fairfax County Government)

A major residential project by Lennar Corp. that has been years in the making has been approved for the Penn Daw area.

The owners of the 7.4-acre property — which has 16 parcels owned by Penn Daw Properties and Michael Strassburg — hope to redevelop five single-family homes and a commercial building with up to 46 stacked townhouses, 35 townhouses and a 385-unit apartment building that would stand up to seven stories tall.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the project, which required rezoning the property, at a Feb. 22 meeting. The project is located in the Penn Daw Community Business Center east of Richmond Highway and north of Shields Avenue.

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Daniel Storck said the county and applicant worked with many stakeholders to move the project — which he said has been “a long time coming” — forward. He noted that the project is one that “tells you that things are changing at Richmond Highway.”

“We leave no one behind as we redevelop this area,” he said.

The developer’s agent, Lynn Strobel, called the project a “gateway site.” She said the applicant intentionally moved utilities underground to improve the aesthetics of the site and worked through a number of typographical challenges to activate the site with appropriate residential elements.

A parking garage for the apartment building and 22 street parking spaces are planned. The applicant successfully sought a 26% reduction in parking spaces as required by the county. The project is next to Penn Daw Trailer Park, a 90-unit mobile home park that could also be slated for redevelopment in the future.

The site, which is near the future Penn Daw BRT station, includes a two-way cycle track and road connections to neighboring areas. A network of public open spaces, including an urban plaza along the frontage of Richmond Highway in front of the multifamily building, is also planned.

In recent years, the county has stepped up efforts to encourage revitalization of the Richmond Highway Corridor.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the project’s eligibility for tax abatement through the county’s Economic Incentive Program (EIP), which is designed to encourage revitalization of high-demand areas like the Richmond Highway Corridor.

Storck said those economic incentives were instrumental in pushing the project forward.

“In this case, we will see our investment paying off with a project that would not have been possible otherwise.”

At a Feb. 22 meeting, the board unanimously approved tax abatement efforts to help the project proceed.

The developers will be able to take advantage of roughly $1.3 million in tax abatement per year over 10 years. Staff noted that the proposed development is near a future Bus Rapid Transit station on Richmond Highway.

“In the case of this site, the property owners have sought redevelopment for over ten years but we’re strongly challenged by consolidation issues, among others,” according to a staff memo.

In September 2020, the county instituted the EIP program for the county’s five Commercial Revitalization Districts and Commercial Revitalization Areas, which include Richmond Highway, McLean, Seven Corners and Annandale. The program gives developers regulatory and financial incentives to proceed with development and revitalization efforts.

In 2015, the county worked with Prince William County, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment on an 18-month study to revitalize the corridor. The plan — called Embark — sought to bring transit-oriented development to the area along with a surge in Bus Rapid Transit.

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