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Arlington'Missing Middle' juggernaut rolls on in Arlington

‘Missing Middle’ juggernaut rolls on in Arlington

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Arlington County Board members have doubled down on plans to allow as many as eight properties to be squeezed onto single-family lots in most of the community, and aim to have the policy changes in place by the end of the year.

During a work session on July 12, board members directed staff to continue planning for the highest-density option under consideration – eight homes to a lot – in hopes that bringing in more density ultimately could reduce the cost of new housing.

“It we’re going to pursue the higher densities, there might be hope” for bringing down costs, County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said at the workshop with staff, which ran about two hours. Despite a good deal of back-and-forth between elected officials and staff, the workshop ended as both proponents and opponents of the so-called Missing Middle policy expected: moving forward with no virtually restraints on the staff proposal.

At the meeting, the proposed timetable also was laid out, anticipating County Board action by the end of the year.

Proponents of the Missing Middle zoning changes say they will have negligible impacts to neighborhoods, because the footprint of the new housing (be it two, four, six or eight units) would not be allowed to be larger than that currently permitted for single-family homes in any given neighborhood. Critics of the proposal shoot back that very few single-family homes in Arlington come close to the maximum lot coverage, while developers would have financial incentives to take it to the limit when putting multiple units on a single lot.

Opponents of the effort concede that barring some unexpected political earthquake – say, the defeat of County Board member Matt de Ferranti by Missing Middle foe Audrey Clement in November – the policy change will be implemented despite opposition.

(There would be a precedent for an election surprise triggering a major reversal in policy by the largely oligarchical County Board: The defeat of Democrat Alan Howze by independent John Vihstadt in twin 2014 elections caused two Arlington Democrats to switch sides on the issue of the Columbia Pike streetcar, effectively killing off a project that was once seen as a sure thing.)

While the public was not allowed to weigh in at the July 12 work session, some were permitted to comment on the measure at the July 16 County Board meeting. Predictably, neither side in the battle missed the opportunity:

• Jon Ware, however, said county residents had been kept in the dark about the proposals until late in the process, and called for “meaningful, clear, conspicuous notice” well ahead of ultimate decision-making.

“We can do better to include more voices,” he said.

• Chris Adams, a representative of an advocacy group supporting the Missing Middle proposal, said changing Arlington’s nearly century-old zoning rules would make the visions of housing diversity a reality.

“Let’s give home-builders the flexibility to be creative,” he said.

• Scott Ferguson said county officials needed to consider the unintended consequences of the proposal, intimating that “some of the largest private-equity firms in the world” could be salivating over the prospect of buying up existing homes on single-family lots, razing them, shoehorning six or eight properties on the site and renting them out.

Cristol acknowledged the possibility.

“We are potentially limited in our tools about who can own or rent housing,”she said, calling it “an area for further study.”

County Board members say they have been out meeting with individuals, groups and civic associations in an effort to explain the policy changes. Some in the public, however, have complained of e-mails and requests for meetings being ignored or put on the back burner on this – and on other matters where the board has its mind mostly made up.

“Delaying a response is one way of silencing communities, including communities of color, who are directly impacted and indeed harmed by your policies,” Courtney Massie said at the July 16 board meeting. She urged county leaders to “be more receptive and responsive to the people you work for.”

“It’s important to listen,” she said.

That’s exactly what Cristol, speaking two days prior at the work session, contended leaders were in fact doing.

Channeling her inner Winston Churchill, and somewhat paraphrasing the British leader, Cristol noted that “this is not even the beginning of the end [of the policy discussion],” but she acknowledged that “it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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