In a crowded City Council election, the Alexandria Democratic Committee split the candidates into two groups for moderated debates, which posted Tuesday night.
Alexandria journalist Michael Lee Pope moderated the discussion, which touched on critical talking issues in city races over the last few years, from parking to broadband to — of course — Seminary Road. Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic was not a main topic of discussion.
ALXnow featured the first debate on Wednesday.
This debate featured candidates John Taylor Chapman, Sarah Bagley, Amy Jackson, Kevin Harris, Patrick Moran, Bill Campbell and Kirk McPike. Answers are summarized.
A number of candidates support reversing the Seminary Road diet, which has been a controversial issue for years.
Chapman voted against the proposal in 2019, and said he would vote to reverse it.
Moran — “I think a lot of the framework in which these conversations are made are so permanent,” Moran said. “I would spend the money to undo it.”
Campbell — “I absolutely would not spend any additional money to change that unless there was some new information that came up with regards to safety,” Campbell said. “And then you have to be responsible to take a look at that.”
Jackson would also vote to undo it, although she said that future road diets would have to be considered on a case by case basis.
“This became a ‘he said, she said’ in a lot of ways that I don’t think anyone on council was prepared for when city staff brought it to us,” Jackson said. “That just means that we have to do our own sleuthing and know the questions to ask after we’ve done our homework.”
McPike said he would not undo the road diet.
“I would not initially in this next council session, vote to revert the road back to what it was,” McPike said. “The intersection at Howard and Seminary is going to change in the near future when Inova Hospital relocates to Landmark Mall, and we don’t know what the needs are going to be along that stretch of road once that has occurred.”
Harris — “It’s one of those things that we ought to wait and see how it plays out before we try to change anything,” Harris said. “Because we’ve already wasted too much money creating the road diet. I think that we could use this money in other places.”
To go along with a recent increase in the stormwater utility fee, Alexandria’s City Council is broadening the scope of what that can be covered by that fee.
At a City Council meeting on Saturday, the Council voted unanimously in favor of expanding the uses of the fee to help combat some of the rampant flooding that’s plagued the city over the last few years.
The ordinance added “to mitigate surface and subsurface flooding from precipitation events” to the description of the fee. The new ordinance also adds specific examples to the types of stormwater infrastructure the project can fund, “including the enlargement or improvement of dams, levees, floodwalls, and pump stations.”
The fee is scheduled to increase from $140 this year to $210 starting in June, up to $280 by November.
The new language will also allow the city to use the funds for stormwater management contracts with private businesses.
“[Funding may be used for] contracts related to stormwater management, including contracts for the financing, construction, operation, or maintenance of stormwater management facilities,” the ordinance says, “regardless of whether such facilities are located on public or private property and, in the case of private property locations, whether the contract is entered into pursuant to a stormwater management private property program under Section 15.2-2114(J) of the Virginia Code or otherwise.”
The expansion comes along with plans to double the stormwater utility fee. That increased fee faced some pushback, including from Councilwoman Amy Jackson and retiring Sheriff Dana Lawhorne.
In the latest adaptation of Brewster’s Millions, Alexandria is sorting through how to make the most of $59.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding coming to the city over the next two years with an emphasis on not leaving a penny unspent.
The challenge for Alexandria is sorting through some ill-defined language. According to the city, funding can be allocated in the following ways:
(A) To respond to the public health emergency with respect to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality; or
(B) For the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue of such metropolitan city, non-entitlement unit of government or county due to such emergency; or
(C) To make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
Members of the City Council noted in a meeting last night (Tuesday) that the first and third items are fairly clear, but what is considered making up for a reduction in revenue is more vague.
“It does seem like the second item on the list, revenue lost item… how that gets defined by the federal government is going to be really decisive to what we can and can’t spend money on,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “That second point could be defined very broadly or very narrowly. And how they define that will determine how expansive that will be.”
Staff are currently planning to present options to the City Council at the July 6 meeting so the city can get more defined answers on funding requirements and restrictions.
But even with just the more well defined points, the funding comes as a welcome relief for a city still grappling with the economic impact of COVID-19. The region also combatted severe flooding over the last few years, and the city has been working to prioritize stormwater improvements in the aftermath.
“I don’t know how far along we are with our flooding stuff, but want us to focus on that,” said Council member Del Pepper. “Everyone is tired of the flooded basement and raw sewage.”
Council member John Chapman said the city should also use some of that funding to leverage public-private partnerships, with the new assistant city manager tasked with managing those partnerships mentioned now at least twice in a public meeting this past week.
“I think this is a great opportunity, if not too early, to engage our P3 coordinator to see how we can leverage these one time funds to get something popping in his portfolio,” Chapman said.
One of the important points reiterated multiple times is that the city should scrape the bottom of the barrel on this funding and ensure nothing is left to waste.
“Let us be mindful at all times that this community will be unforgiving if we do not spend all of that money,” Pepper said. “Now we just can’t go out and throw it in the streets, but there has to be — maybe not the best plan — but some plan, and God only knows we have plenty of things we can spend it on.”
A recent City Council memo is asking staff to schedule a legislative meeting — preferably in April — for an update on the projects, which a growing chorus say disrupt natural habitats. The issue would be raised during the oral reports portion of the Council meeting.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilman John Taylor Chapman drafted the memo, which was sent to the city manager’s office on March 10.
“Over the past several months, city council has received public comment, emails and other communication regarding the city’s stream restoration projects at Strawberry Run and Taylor Run,” the memo states. “We are also hopeful, that given resident concerns, staff would be able to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by alternatives that resident groups that come forward with, as well as any fiscal impact.”
There are two upcoming legislative meetings in April — on Tuesday, April 6, and on Tuesday, April 27.
Opposition has been led by the Environmental Council of Alexandria, which also says that the city’s soil tests at Taylor Run are not accurate. City Councilwoman Amy Jackson also recently went against the Taylor Run project after the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) advised Council to step back. Staff’s plan to clear the waterway near T.C. Williams High School and Chinquapin Park will result in the removal of 269 trees, of which they say 22% are dead.
“The proposed restoration method will degrade — not improve — the physical, chemical and biological features of the stream and the adjacent natural resources,” wrote EPC chair Kathie Hoekstra. “We believe the City needs to step back and address unanswered questions before proceeding with a project that would irreversibly impact Chinquapin Park for several decades at least.”
Photo via City of Alexandria
Famed Jewish Songstress Dies in Alexandria at 97 — “Singer, songwriter, guitarist and accordionist Flory Jagoda worked hard to preserve the music and language she inherited from her Sephardic Jewish ancestors in her adopted American home. Named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002, she died on Jan. 29 at age 97 in Alexandria, Va. at a long-term memory care facility, according to an obituary placed by her family.” [NPR]
Virginia American Water Identifies Source of Water Main Break — “The issue on S Whiting Street was identified to be a broken valve which has been repaired. We are slowly restarting service and it may already be on for some customers. We anticipate it will be fully restored within two hours.” [Twitter]
Alexandria Mindfulness Educator Training Police — “”We think officers could have some benefit in wellness course training. This course introduces strategies to regulate emotional states in a trauma-sensitive way, planting the seed of mindfulness, with the hope that they will continue to learn about it more in-depth later.” [Zebra]
FEMA Updating Flood Map in Alexandria — “While the flood maps are exclusively a FEMA initiative, the City of Alexandria plays a role in determining how the final flood maps could look. The City will provide feedback on preliminary maps and facilitates feedback and information between individual residents and FEMA.” [Alexandria Living]
Today’s Weather — “Mostly sunny skies (during the day). High 52F. Winds NW at 10 to 20 mph… Mainly clear (in the evening). Low 26F. Winds NW at 10 to 20 mph.” [Weather.com]
New Job: Youth Soccer Coach — “Soccer Shots blends soccer, education, and fun into high energy 30-minute sessions to kids ages 2-8 throughout the DC/MD/VA area. You’ll laugh. You’ll break a sweat. And you’ll go home at the end of the day knowing that you made a difference. It may be tough but coaching our children will be one of most rewarding things you ever do. Apply today to be our friend and their hero.” [Indeed]
Surge in COVID-19 Deaths Occurred in January and February — “The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is reviewing and accounting for COVID-19 deaths that occurred during the post-Holiday COVID-19 surge between January and the end of February. As a result, there have been recent increases in deaths reported in Alexandria’s COVID-19 dashboard. AHD and the City extend their sincere condolences to all community members who have lost someone during the course of the pandemic.” [City of Alexandria]
Resident Launches DrainALX Website on Flooding — “After Waynick’s first flood experience, she started talking to neighbors on her own street, letting them know that they should submit information through Alexandria 311, sign up for City alerts and more — and her communication efforts kept growing from there. Her email list now has more than 250 people across at least a dozen neighborhoods from the West End to North East Alexandria and Old Town.” [Alexandria Living]
AlexRenew Provides Details on Alexandria’s RiverRenew Project — “The project AlexRenew is undertaking now means reducing the millions of gallons of rainwater mixed with sewage that sometimes pollutes Alexandria’s waterways via four outfalls located around the City. These outfalls are at the eastern end of Pendleton Street, the southern end of Royal street, and two along Hooffs Run.” [Alexandria Living]
Front Boarding, Fares To Resume On Dash Bus In Mid-March — “Other regional bus systems, including Metro, Fairfax Connector and Arlington Transit, resumed front boarding and fare collection in early January.” [Patch]
Health Department Gives More Doses to Ladrey Senior Highrise — “The Alexandria Health Department (AHD) has allocated another 100 first doses to ARHA for seniors. In addition to the remaining residents at Ladrey who want to be vaccinated, ARHA is reaching out to seniors at other sites who have not yet been vaccinated to offer them the opportunity. The clinic will be held in the Community Room at the Ladrey Highrise on this Wednesday, March 3 from 1:00PM – 4:00PM.” [ARHA]
Elnoubi Out of Council Race — Abdel Elnoubi, the co-vice chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, is not running for City Council. Elnoubi, a project manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, filed to run in the upcoming democratic primary on Dec. 30, but told us that he’s now thinking about running for the School Board. [ALXnow]
Today’s Weather — “Sunny (during the day). High around 45F. Winds NW at 10 to 20 mph… Clear skies (in the evening). Low 31F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]
New Job: School Classroom Monitor — “Positions start as soon as possible. Temporary/Contract – Through June 2021.” [Indeed]
Alexandria is one step closer to seeing its stormwater utility fee double for residents, as City Council on Tuesday night accepted a report from city staff outlining its multi-million dollar plan to upgrade the city’s storm sewer capacity.
City Council approved receipt of the staff proposal 6-1, and it will be voted on in a public hearing on Feb. 20. Also approved was the formation of a nine-member Ad Hoc Stormwater Utility and Flood Mitigation Advisory Group. The plan includes doubling the $140 annual fee for residents to generate $15 million per year on $284 million worth of immediate and longterm projects, some of which aren’t slated to be completed for a decade.
Earlier this month, Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne joined his Del Ray neighbors in venting frustration over what he sees as a history of misdirected funds. Lawhorne criticized council for implementing a stormwater utility fee in 2018, and then redirecting significant portions of the monies toward Clean Water Act initiatives instead of much-needed improvements.
Councilwoman Amy Jackson was the lone dissenting vote, and raised an objection to the potential for the city to potentially acquire land through eminent domain in order to make some stormwater improvements.
“We’re in this position because we’ve raised stormwater fees in the past — 2018, right?” Jackson said. “And we are not anywhere near helping anybody, and honestly we’re still going down this path that there’s a whole trust and transparency issue.”
A number of heavy rainstorms in 2020 laid bare Alexandria’s besieged stormwater management system, leaving many damaged neighborhoods throughout the city. There were more than 500 requests for service through the City’s 311 system due to extreme rain events this year, according to a city memo.
Below is a graph showing storm sewer capacity projects in the city for Fiscal Years 2022 through 2031.
Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services has installed new signs along Commonwealth Avenue, Ashby Street and Glebe Road warning that the road ahead could be flooded.
Nearly half of the Americans killed in floods die in their vehicles. Cars stuck in flooded waters can also result in significant damage to the vehicle, as many locals discovered in 2019’s severe floods.
The signs are an admittedly small step in a long-term effort to overhaul the system’s outdated storm management infrastructure. Over the last two years the city has seen severe flooding that has damaged both city property and local homes, Alexandria Living Magazine reported. A heat map released last year by the city showed that the areas around Ashby Street in northern Del Ray were a hot spot for flooding during heavy rainfall.
City leadership has vowed accelerate stormwater infrastructure improvements, but simultaneously faces vocal criticism for a perceived lack of return on earlier stormwater utility fee funding meant to help mitigate flooding.
In the meantime, if the city gets heavy rainfall soon, be aware that roads near Ashby Street could be flooded.
Image via T&ES/Twitter
Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne joined his neighbors in criticizing City Council’s plan to double the stormwater utility fee, and asked at last night’s meeting that the matter be deferred to give the community more time.
Lawhorne, who lives in Del Ray, said that his home flooded multiple times last year and is frustrated with what he called a lack of progress to solve the problem. A number of heavy rainstorms in 2020 resulted in dangerous flooding situations, revealing a besieged stormwater management system that left many homes damaged throughout the city. There were more than 500 requests for service through the City’s 311 system due to extreme rain events this year, according to a city memo.
“When the city imposed a stormwater utility fee in 2018, I thought it was a step in the right direction,” Lawhorne said. “Instead, this is what happened in 2019 only 12% of the capital expenditures went to addressing the street flooding, and only 28% and 2020. Most of it went to the mandated Clean Water Act initiatives. I’m all for the clean water, but I thought we would get a fair share of that pie, but we didn’t.”
City Council ended up passing a motion by member Amy Jackson 6-1 to reintroduce the city’s stormwater utility fee on Jan. 26, followed by a public hearing next month. Mayor Justin Wilson was the lone dissenting vote.
“I do feel like this has been rushed through,” Jackson said.
Yon Lambert, the director of the city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, worked with the newly formed Interdepartmental Flooding Management Task Force to create the plan over the last six weeks. The plan includes doubling the $140 annual fee for residents to generate $15 million per year on $284 million worth of projects that would not be completed until at least 2030.
“These are very very complicated infrastructure projects,” Lambert said. “Some of them may require property acquisition. There are going to be situations where we’re going to have to be considering utility relocations. All of those things add up to some level of uncertainty for us as we move forward, but it is our desire to continue as we refine the design of the project, the scope of each project and continue to come back to you and talk to you more clearly about what the delivery will be.”
City Councilman John Taylor Chapman agreed with Lawhorne’s assessment.
“I really think there’s been overall a kind of genuine miscommunication around what we’ve been spending out money on, versus the expectations of the public,” Chapman said. “And maybe that just has not been followed and communicated out… The city has not necessarily prepared itself to try to catch up to the inland flooding.”
Slides from the city’s presentation are below.
Graphs via City of Alexandria
Transportation and Environmental Services warned locals on Twitter to take the time to ensure downspouts flow away from homes and water can flow into drainage areas. The city has already faced several floods this year, and T&ES warned melting snow could create another.
According to the National Weather Service:
…FLASH FLOOD WATCH NOW IN EFFECT FROM THURSDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH LATE THURSDAY NIGHT…
* ONE AND HALF TO TWO AND HALF INCHES OF RAIN ARE EXPECTED THURSDAY AFTERNOON AND THURSDAY NIGHT. THIS IS EXPECTED TO RESULT IN FLASH FLOODING OF SMALL STREAMS AND CREEKS AND POSSIBLE RIVER FLOODING.
A Flash Flood Watch has been issued due to heavy rains expected starting Thurs. (tmr). The City is checking drainage areas.
— Alexandria T&ES (@AlexandriaVATES) December 23, 2020
Staff photo by Jay Westcott