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ArlingtonPoliticsElected official tries to find middle ground on Missing Middle

Elected official tries to find middle ground on Missing Middle

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If there is anyone with anything to lose, politically, in Arlington’s increasingly contentious “Missing Middle” debate, it could be Matt de Ferranti, the lone County Board member on the ballot in November.

De Ferranti appears trying to steer a middle course on the proposal – expressing support conceptually but not necessarily favoring more aggressive (opponents might say extreme) facets of the measure being advocated by some.

De Ferranti on July 8 confirmed to the Sun Gazette that he does not support placing as many as eight properties on lots currently reserved for single properties. But he acknowledged he is not yet of firm mind on how many properties should be allowed on lots as part of the proposal, currently wending its way through the development stage.

The Missing Middle battle is shaping up to be the biggest political conflagration in Arlington since the Columbia Pike streetcar brouhaha of a decade ago. During that battle, voters became so incensed at the local political oligarchy, they did the almost unthinkable: rejected a Democratic candidate for County Board, not once but twice, in 2014.

After independent John Vihstadt defeated Democrat Alan Howze in both a special and a general election that year, two County Board Democrats (Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes) abruptly switched sides on the streetcar battle, joining Vihstadt and board colleague Libby Garvey in killing off the $350 million project before a single foot of track was laid.

But de Ferranti, who spoiled Vihstadt’s re-election quest by defeating him in 2018, is unlikely to suffer the fate of Howze. De Ferranti in November will face independents Audrey Clement and Adam Theo, neither of whom is likely to build the campaign infrastructure and raise the campaign cash necessary to topple him.

Still, de Ferranti seems to be making an effort to listen to the public on the issue, and said he will “meet with any individual who asks and come to any civic association that asks.”

“I acknowledge and fully respect that this is a frustrating and anxiety-producing draft framework for a significant number of individuals and organizations in our community, even as there are also many who support Missing Middle,” he said, expressing the hope that “consensus – not unanimity, but consensus” could be reached on the proposal.

The next step in Arlington’s contentious “Missing Middle” housing-cum-zoning proposal arrived this week [after the Sun Gazette’s print deadline], when County Board members on July 12 held a work session with staff to guide efforts on the issue over the coming months.

Critics of the proposed policy change anticipated the County Board (soon to embark on its summer recess) would give staff direction at the meeting that will make approval and implementation of the zoning change almost a sure bet at some point in coming months.

The Missing Middle proposal – advocated for by housing and civil-rights activists – effectively would end single-family zoning in many Arlington neighborhoods that have had it in place for a century.

The community seems to be awakening to the implications of the change, and some are voicing increasing disquiet. But it appears unlikely that its implementation could be significantly delayed, let alone derailed, even with public outcry.

In a presentation to the Arlington County Civic Federation last month, county housing staff attempted to paint concerns about the implications of changes as overblown.

The number of lots where such changes would take place would be minimal, they contended, and the footprint of multiple units on a single property could be no larger than what currently is allowed for single-family homes, they say. Those who are mobilizing against the policy say staff is looking at the issue through rose-tinted glasses, or simply doing the bidding of their elected overlords.

Clement, who has been running nonstop for local office for the past decade, argued that what critics contend are the Missing Middle proposal’s negative impacts – tree-canopy destruction, excessive stormwater runoff, overcrowded schools, traffic congestion, reduced street parking and escalating property-tax assessments – are “issues the county [government] itself has either downplayed or avoided altogether.”

“I don’t like suburban sprawl any more than Missing Middle, but why sacrifice Arlington’s residential neighborhoods on the altar of ‘smart growth’?” she asked.

County Board members have kept a tight leash on public discourse, declining to host public hearings on the matter until fall and forcing those who wish to speak on the topic at public-comment periods of board meeting to sit down. Critics say it’s another longstanding Arlington government tactic – keep public comment bottled up until a major change is too far along for anything or anyone to stop it.

De Ferranti sees that as an unfair characterization.

“We have been engaging with civic associations, advocacy groups and individuals, both ‘virtually’ and in person,” he told the Sun Gazette. “We will continue to do so over the summer. We will also have extensive engagement opportunities in the fall.”

As for future political fallout over the housing issue, it likely will be negligible, at least as it impacts sitting County Board members.

Next year will bring the seats of Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey before voters, but whispers suggest neither is planning to seek what would for each be a third term.

Up for re-election in 2024 is Garvey, who has been on the County Board for a decade (following previous, lengthy service on the School Board), and might be expected also to retire from public office at that point.

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