Become engaged in Arlington civic activism, and you almost invariably will become embroiled in one or more site-plan battles between developers on one hand, the community on the other and, somewhere in between, the county government.
At the end of the day, a deal is usually brokered. In return for increased density or some other bonus features, the developer agrees to provide specific amenities to the community. Public art here, undergrounding utilities there, affordable housing over yonder . . . that kind of stuff.
But when the vote is taken and all sides go on to something else, what then? That may be the focus of the Arlington government’s auditor over the next year.
Auditor Chris Horton has proposed spending about 300 of his 2,000 work hours during fiscal 2023 evaluating past site plans to determine if the benefits that were promised to the public actually materialized.
His work plan, which will have to be ratified by the County Board, won a receptive audience at the April 7 meeting of the government’s Audit Committee.
“I really love this idea,” said John Vihstadt, a former County Board member who currently serves as a citizen representative on the panel.
Vihstadt said ensuring that community benefits emanating from site-plan concordats actually materialize will go a long way in “buttressing community confidence on how the county handles development and growth.”
“It will be reassuring to people,” he said.
County Manager Mark Schwartz agreed with the idea, saying it would be timely and would help evaluate “how are we doing on the promises that were made.”
But wait just a second, some of you with long involvement in county activism might say. Haven’t we been down this road before?
Indeed we have.
More than 15 years ago, the county government hired a consultant to determine whether site-plan conditions were being met.
“There was a lot of community engagement back in 2005 and 2006,” said Schwartz, who was in the county government but not county manager at the time.
The consultant delivered the report and, while some recommendations for improving the tracking process were adopted, a number never were addressed.
“Some [recommendations] have been implemented, but a whole lot haven’t,” Schwartz acknowledged.
The reason? It often boils down to staffing availability and overall government priorities.
“I don’t want to pretend we have enough people out there” to follow through on every project, the county manager said.
Horton’s proposed audit is not likely to delve into the broader topic of whether the community was getting a fair deal in site-plan agreements with developers, as that is a policy matter rather than an administrative task.
“I always think about ‘scope creep’,” Horton said in urging a straightforward evaluation of whether site-plan conditions are being followed.
The County Board will vote on Horton’s planned fiscal 2023 work plan in June. It’s likely the site-plan audit will make it through the approval process; two County Board members (Takis Karantonis and Christian Dorsey) sit on the Audit Committee and expressed support for the idea.
“It’s obvious we have a lot of interest in this,” Karantonis said.
The site-plan audit likely will be the only significant new initiative in Horton’s arsenal for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, as he has a number of projects from previous years that need to be completed.
“Carryover audits are going to be the bulk of the time spent” in the coming year, he said.
Horton is one of the few county-government employees who report directly to the County Board, rather than to Schwartz. The Audit Committee is an advisory panel appointed by the County Board.