Apparently it’s going to be a race to be first in line to sign up for public-comment sessions held at Arlington County Board meetings.
Because the current chair, Katie Cristol, seems disinclined to give much leeway to those who want to speak on the contentious Missing Middle controversy out of turn.
At the June 18 board meeting, the first two speakers discussed the contentious proposal to expand zoning in single-family neighborhoods – one pro, one con.
But then when a speaker from the Arlington Tree Action Group, which has voiced concerns about the proposal’s potential impact, attempted to add her comments, Cristol shut her down.
“I’m asking for your help in respecting our rules,” Cristol told Susan Land. “This is duplicative testimony.”
No, it wasn’t, Land shot back.
“This is about trees. I am talking about the tree canopy. I am talking about the effects of Missing Middle on the tree canopy,” she said.
Under some board chairs, perhaps a looser hold on the gavel would have been applied. But with County Board members seen as ready to push through Missing Middle changes despite rising (though hardly universal) community opposition, Cristol was sticking to the rules, hall-monitor-style.
“If we turn every County Board public-comment session into a de-facto hearing about the same issue, we’re not going to get to items on our regular agenda,” she said.
(The irony: The June 18 meeting turned out to be one of the shortest of the year.)
Messing with the vocal and at times unabashedly aggressive Arlington Tree Action Group can get one booed, and they rained down on Cristol. But she stood firm.
County Board rules do effectively limit speakers during the public-comment period to one per issue, or one on each side of a particular issue. Whether that is equitable, to borrow a catchphrase of the modern era, is open to debate.
Veteran civic activists know the workaround: Find ways to address a topic without being too obvious about it.
Sometimes, as with Land, that strategy doesn’t work. But sometimes it does.
Take the case of Jeanne Briskin, who spoke about plans for major development along the Langston Boulevard corridor, both in terms of commercial and residential zoning. Such an effort, technically tangential to Missing Middle, got across her point that the board needs to “protect our air and [guard against] the increase of traffic” that comes from increased zoning.
Stacey Meyer, representing the Arlington County Civic Federation, read from a newly adopted policy position of that body, asking for a “more robust process” before moving forward on upzoning in specific areas of the county. Technically not Missing Middle, but it was hard to miss the connection.
And Jerry Auten chose to remind County Board members of the last major political brouhaha in the county – the Columbia Pike streetcar battle-royale of a decade ago.
The county government and its consultants had their plans in place and their ducks in a row, Auten said, until the public began to rebel. And after voters in 2014 delivered a stinging rebuke to the Democratic political oligarchy of the county by installing an independent (John Vihstadt) on the County Board, two incumbent Democrats (Mary Hynes and Jay Fisette) flipped their voted and killed off the streetcar project.
From the outside, that wouldn’t seem to have much to do with Missing Middle. But Auten had the knife ready to twist.
“Remember that history,” he said. “Be careful of grand plans. They don’t always work out.”
Both supporters and opponents of the Missing Middle proposal filled the County Board room; supporters got the front seats, enabling their signs to be seen by the folks watching at home.
They were creative: “More Neighbors = More Fun”; “Triplexes and Fourplexes Are Pretty”; “Granny Flats are Grand”; and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
County Board members next month are expected to direct county staff to move forward on drafting language to implement Missing Middle policies, with at least one board member having publicly opined that the goal is to have it in place by the end of the year.
The July action is likely to come during a work session, where no public comment will be taken – another indication, critics of the policy say, that the fix is in and no opposition will be brooked by the leadership.
One worried about another topic at the June 18 board meeting was Mark Farone, who complained that County Board members (since 2019, back to an all-Democratic dais) have little feeling for the plight of the community, since Arlington didn’t reduce tax rates despite big bumps up in assessed valuations over the past year.
“The rest of the nation is trying to find ways to help Americans with the rising cost of inflation,” he said. “The Arlington County Board seems to have no controls. People that have been in the community for years suffer.”