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Morning Notes

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

FCPS Condemns Recent Mass Shootings — “Fairfax County Public Schools remains steadfast in our commitment to speak up and speak out against such acts of hatred and domestic terrorism. This past weekend, the Buffalo, New York, and Laguna Woods, California communities experienced unthinkable acts of violence. We grieve with the families who lost loved ones and are suffering.” [FCPS]

Metro Veers Into Another Safety Issue — “Metrorail repeatedly powered the electric third rail while workers were still on the roadway in recent weeks, bypassing safety procedures and putting people at risk of injury and death, according to a new report issued by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.” [DCist]

County Bus Workers Win Statewide Competition — “Fairfax Connector Operators and Maintenance Professionals excelled at the Virginia State Bus Roadeo last month…The Fairfax Connector/ Transdev Maintenance Team placed first in the maintenance team category and will represent the Commonwealth of Virginia in the International Bus Roadeo next year.” [Fairfax Connector]

Local Vietnamese Community Recognized — A Virginia Historical Marker recognizing the significance of Vietnamese immigrants in Northern Virginia will be dedicated at Eden Center in Falls Church on next Tuesday (May 24). The community was nominated by Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School students last year as part of a statewide Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month contest. [City of Falls Church]

Descano Left Out of Virginia Violent Crime Task Force — “Commonwealth’s attorneys Buta Biberaj, of Loudoun County; Amy Ashworth, of Prince William County; and Steve Descano, of Fairfax County, told WTOP they were unaware a task force was being assembled until Youngkin’s news release Monday. All three prosecutors are progressive Democrats.” [WTOP]

Food Trucks Pop Up at Courthouse — “NEW! Starting TOMORROW, 5/18 food trucks will be visiting the Courthouse Grounds THIS week, from 11:30am-2:30pm to offer lunch options.” [Fairfax County Circuit Court/Twitter]

Lake Anne Parking Lot to Close Next Week — “The Lake Anne Park parking lot will be closed off next week due to required warranty work, starting on May 23 through the 25th (weather dependent). A contractor will be seal coating and restriping the entire lot. Any vehicles left overnight will be towed.” [Reston Association/Twitter]

Sale of Tysons Broadcasting Company Approved — Tegna stockholders voted yesterday to approve a sale of the Tysons-headquartered company to investment firm Standard General. Expected to close in the second half of this year, the $5.4 billion deal will turn the broadcaster, which owns 64 TV stations in 51 markets across the country, into a private company. [Deadline]

“Wheel of Fortune” Coming to Tysons — “‘Wheel of Fortune Live!,’ a new live stage show, is kicking off a tour in September that includes a stop at Capital One Hall…Guests can audition to go on stage and will have the chance to spin a replica of the iconic wheel and solve puzzles to win prizes, including $10,000 and trips to Paris and Hawaii. Audience members will also have the chance to be randomly selected to win cash and prizes.” [Inside NoVA]

It’s Wednesday — Rain overnight. High of 72 and low of 52. Sunrise at 5:55 am and sunset at 8:19 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Fairfax County is planning to spend one-time transportation funds on crosswalk and maintenance projects (staff photo by David Taube)

In the world of transportation infrastructure, $5 million will run out faster than a driver’s patience in rush-hour traffic, but it could still leave a worthwhile dent in Fairfax County’s massive backlog of safety and maintenance projects.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors expressed collective support on Tuesday (March 1) for a proposal to spend $5 million on bicycle and pedestrian improvements to address maintenance needs, add crosswalks, and other small but straightforward and relatively cheap projects.

“Given the magnitude of projects we have, we know it’s scratching the surface of the larger problem,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said at the transportation committee meeting. “But certainly, we need to make the money start working as quickly as we can, and also as equitably as we can.”

The board approved the one-time funds on Jan. 22 as part of the mid-year review package for the county’s fiscal year 2022 budget.

The $5 million is intended to be the first step in a longer-term plan to commit at least $100 million over six years to currently unfunded projects that will improve bicycle and pedestrian accessibility and safety. The board directed staff to identify potential projects on Oct. 5.

Using raw data and some input from community groups, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation has compiled lists of 200 to 500 requests for each magisterial district, Active Transportation Program Manager Chris Wells told the board.

To whittle those lists down, county staff will first identify high-priority projects using map-based data that can take into account a number of factors, including high-risk corridors, pedestrian and bicyclist demand, socioeconomic disparities, and proximity to schools and transit.

“If they don’t fall in those high-priority locations, we know we don’t have the resources available to us to solve all of the problems immediately, so we want to move forward with the best projects we can for consideration,” Wells said.

Staff will then get feedback from the board and the public, followed by further analysis of the benefits and costs of each project to determine which ones will be feasible and most effective.

While money may be available for larger projects in the future, Wells advised using the initial $5 million to address short-term needs, such as crosswalks, which are often in the county’s right-of-way, and facility maintenance.

The Fairfax County Park Authority and Department of Public Works and Environmental Services both have millions of dollars worth of backlogged projects, some of which could be done quickly and produce immediate results, according to Wells.

The park authority, for instance, has approximately 40 bridges that need to be replaced.

“I think that’s a good, efficient use of money,” Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said of using the $5 million to address existing facilities. “We always want to go new projects, but we want to make sure the stuff we’ve got can be used.”

For new construction projects, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross noted that future maintenance costs will need to be considered as part of the budget, something that she says has sometimes been overlooked in the past.

“It’s not fair to our various agencies for the board to say this needs to be fixed but not provide the funding for the fix,” she said.

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Fairfax County Public Schools intends to prohibit guns from all properties that it owns or leases amid heightened concerns about the safety of students, staff, and elected officials.

The Fairfax County School Board agreed unanimously at a work session yesterday (Tuesday) to direct Superintendent Scott Brabrand and his staff to develop a draft policy for its governance committee to consider at its March 1 meeting.

Firearms are already banned from public and private school grounds in Virginia, but this policy would take advantage of a measure approved by the General Assembly in 2021 giving local school boards the authority to also designate administrative buildings as “gun-free zones.”

Laura Jane Cohen, who represents Springfield District on the school board, proposed adopting the ban with Providence District Representative Karl Frisch, saying at the work session that she believes it should “happen sooner rather than later” in light of “some of the threats many of us have gotten.”

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in the last year and a half of people who are targeting elected officials and threatening violence,” Cohen told FFXnow. “So, that’s certainly part of the impetus, to make sure that people are not allowed to bring firearms into the places where we’re having our meetings.”

While narrow in scope, the potential ban would include the Gatehouse Administration Center, which houses FCPS central offices and other facilities used by the school board and division staff.

Public school officials across the country have reported encountering increased hostility over the past couple of years, as topics like pandemic-related health protocols and critical race theory have become hot-button political issues.

The Justice Department moved in October to create a task force focused on threats of violence against school boards and administrators.

Cohen is one of five Fairfax County School Board members targeted for recall over the decision to close schools for much of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she doesn’t believe the threats she’s received are related to that campaign.

“It seems to really span the gamut…CRT or masks or…any number of things, just the fact that there are Democrats on the board,” Cohen said, noting that she often sees an uptick in harassment whenever she expresses support for the LGBTQ community or discusses gun violence prevention.

She says the threats have come over email, social media, voicemail, and even by letter. Most of them get sent to the FCPS Safety and Security Office, though a few have risen to the level of getting reported to the police.

“I wouldn’t say I’m by any means the only board member targeted, but it’s definitely made a real impact in my life and my family’s lives for sure,” she said.

The proposed gun prohibition is similar to an ordinance that Fairfax County adopted in 2020 after the General Assembly granted local governments the option to ban the possession of firearms on their public properties.

In accordance with state law, the policy will have exceptions for current and “qualified” retired law enforcement officers.

The school board also directed Brabrand and his staff to evaluate FCPS’ curriculum, safety protocols, and professional development practices related to gun violence and suicide prevention, building off of an effort to notify families about Virginia’s secure firearm storage laws.

Board members said a review is needed to ensure the school system’s security threat assessments, staff training on procedures for reporting concerns, and other policies are updated and effective in the wake of surging gun violence in schools, citing the Nov. 30 school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan as a relevant example.

“It’s always been an issue, but it is frankly coming back to the top of the list of concerns in our community,” Brabrand said. “What can we do beyond what we’ve done in the years past to be more proactive in getting the awareness out to families and students?”

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Herndon Middle School (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County police are investigating two threats of violence reported at schools in the county earlier this week.

Both threats concerned schools in the Herndon area and were determined to be unfounded, according to the Fairfax County Police Department.

The first incident involved a threat of violence written inside a bathroom at Rachel Carson Middle School. School officials notified a school resource officer at the site about the discovery around 2:10 p.m. on Tuesday (Dec. 7), according to police.

The FCPD says it provided additional officers who conducted extra patrols of the area around the school on Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution.”

“FCPD takes these threats serious and continues to investigate the case with the assistance of FCPS administrators,” the police department said. “…We encourage anyone with information about this threat to please share it with either school officials or our officers.”

At approximately 6:15 a.m. yesterday (Wednesday), Herndon Middle School officials notified a school resource officer that they came across “a vague threat of violence made over social media,” according to police.

Fairfax County police investigated the threat with support from the Herndon Police Department and Fairfax County Public School administrators. Investigators identifed the person behind the post and determined they did not have access to any weapons.

“Officers are continuing to investigate further and charges are pending,” the FCPD said.

FCPS confirmed to FFXnow that there were two threats involving local schools, but the school system opted to share details only with the affected schools.

“We are not proactively sharing details to those outside the immediate school community to avoid encouraging copycat threats,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said.

The two FCPS threats came at the same time that the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of 18-year-old Fairfax resident Shane D. Lucas, who allegedly made threatening statements toward Farmwell Station Middle School in Ashburn in a social media post that included a photo of a firearm.

Detectives determined that the photo came from the internet and did not find any firearms in Lucas’s house, but he has been charged with threats of bodily injury or death to persons on school property.

FCPS says students, parents, and other community members can report concerns through its safety tip line at 571-423-2020. Tips can also be sent by text to 88-777 with the keyword TIP FCPS.

Photo via Google Maps

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Safety crews investigate after the partial collapse and demolition of a Surfside, Florida, high-rise (via NIST)

Following the collapse of a 40-year-old high-rise in Surfside, Fla., officials in Fairfax County and across the country are looking to prevent a similar tragedy.

“Anything we can do to prevent such a [tragedy] from happening again, we want to do,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said yesterday (Tuesday) during a Land Use Policy Committee meeting.

County staff have identified 202 high-rises in the area that are at least 25 years or older, including 100 that are 25-30 years old, 41 that are 30-35 years old, and 46 that are 40 years old or more.

At nearly 50%, the biggest concentration of high-rises in Fairfax County is in Providence District, Fairfax County Department of Land Development Services Director Bill Hicks told the board. Those buildings were defined as being at least 75 feet or higher.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously directed staff on July 13 to assess the availability of resources for inspections and other options for improving the safety of aging buildings after the June 24 partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

For the Surfside condominium, a 2018 engineering report had warned of major structural damage. The 12-story building’s collapse killed 98 people.

In his joint board matter with Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith from the July 13 meeting, McKay noted that Virginia lacks a recertification program for older buildings.

While buildings must undergo numerous inspections, reviews, and more to get an initial certificate of occupancy, they are only inspected again if there is a change in occupancy or alterations that require inspection, the City of Alexandria said in July when urging Virginia to update its regulations.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson raised the issue in the wake of the Surfside collapse, stating that the city has “most of the residential high-rise buildings” in the Commonwealth. The River Towers Condominium in Alexandria evacuated amid structural damage in 2016.

Like other local governments, Fairfax County has a complaint-driven code compliance system intended to address potentially unsafe building conditions.

“My concern is in a lot of these buildings, not only would people not necessarily know who to complain to, but if they did complain, they’d probably complain to the management or the rental office or the condo association, maybe not necessarily to the county,” McKay said.

The county’s website explains how people can contact staff by phone, email, and complaint forms to address issues.

But the board stressed that it wants county workers to provide proactive outreach, such as by having the county’s fire marshal office communicate with a property manager or homeowners’ association leaders.

“We can at least convey broader safety issues that maybe they hadn’t thought about, and it’s a good way of reminding them,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said.

McKay suggested newer buildings might have different outreach approaches than older buildings, adding that the county’s review was not to raise alarm, but to help share county resources with residents.

Hicks told the board that the Department of Code Compliance will begin tracking cases that might be associated with an aging building.

“They track all of their work now, but they would categorize them so they would look for these sorts of requests,” Hicks said, noting that the county could also add more staff to assist with inspections.

The county chose the 25-year threshold for buildings to review to provide a level of comparison, Hicks said after the meeting. The age range was not meant to represent a program for building recertification or anything related to structural durability.

According to Hicks, Miami-Dade’s building recertification program, which covers Surfside, focuses on buildings that have reached 40 years, and other than one in nearby Broward County, it was the only such program that county staff could find across the country that’s currently active.

A program in Los Angeles is “forthcoming,” according to the presentation to the board.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology is investigating the collapse of Champlain Towers South. According to spokesperson Jennifer Huergo, a final report could take years to complete.

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