Fairfax supervisors delay decision on raising real estate taxes on Tysons Corner

December 4, 2012

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to delay a decision on whether to raise real estate taxes in Tysons Corner to help pay for billions of dollars in transportation improvements, renewing hope among Tysons residents that they may not be asked to shoulder costs of the effort to transform the area into a new, vibrant downtown.

Because the board decided six weeks ago to back the tax district in concept, it was widely expected that the supervisors would approve its formal creation Tuesday. Instead, after more than an hour of mostly angry criticism from Tysons residents, Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) moved to defer the decision until Jan. 8 to give the board and county staff more time to work out what she called “fairness issues” raised by the public.

Speaking after the meeting, Bulova said she expects the board to adopt the tax district next month but with changes — and perhaps with an exemption for residential landowners that was taken off the table this fall.

“It’s the residential piece that’s giving us heartburn,” Bulova said.

As proposed, the new tax district would generate $250 million over the next four decades. When members of the county’s planning commission first suggested it as part of a much larger plan for financing billions in Tysons transportation improvements, they recommended trying to exempt homeowners, who make up only a small percentage of Tysons landowners. Supervisors decided to do away with the exemption in October, saying they believed a new state law would ultimately prevent them from legally limiting the tax to commercial landowners.

But after listening to residents, Bulova said she wanted more time to try to address the public’s concerns, either by working with the state’s General Assembly on changes that would allow the residential exemption, or by other adjustments, such as changes to the tax district’s boundaries.

“We are not large corporations,” said Philip Barbalace, a Tysons resident. “This money comes straight out of our pockets.”

For years, Fairfax has been working on plans to remake Tysons from a sprawling, traffic-clogged office park into a walkable urban center where people live, work and play. The effort culminated with the adoption of an ambitious master plan in 2010, which calls for the area to be largely rebuilt over several decades around four Metro Silver Line stations that will open next year.

In recent months, the county has begun taking tangible steps to implement the master plan, including figuring out how to fund more than $2 billion in transportation improvements — public-transit projects, sidewalks, bike lanes, a new grid of streets and a handful of major roads — that planners see as essential for the new Tysons’s success.

The funding plan presented this fall suggested that developers should bear most of the costs, but it also called for contributions from existing landowners, in the form of the tax district. An exact rate has yet to be set, but it is expected it would between 7 and 9 cents per $100 of assessed value.

About 18,000 people live in Tysons, and 100,000 work there. The county’s master plan envisions a city that will be home to 100,000 residents and 200,000 workers by 2050.

The vast majority of people who spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing opposed the tax district, and most cited the decision not to try to exempt residents. While the county has justified the district by saying all Tysons landowners stand to benefit from the redevelopment, many who spoke said they don’t see how.

“We’re going to pay for negative impacts,” including more crime, traffic and noise, said Molly Peacock, with the Morgan at McLean condominiums. “Where are we going to be in 20 years? Taxes only go up.”

Resident David Dunlap called it “highly speculative” to suggest that all property values in Tysons will increase.

Others said that if the county’s goal is to draw more residents to Tysons, the tax district will do just the opposite. They said Tysons landowners already pay extra transportation and rail-to-Dulles taxes, and they questioned the fairness of the proposed district boundaries, saying they are too wide and shouldn’t include properties that are far outside walking distance from the new Metro stops. One speaker suggested a tiered tax rate.

The board’s vote to defer the decision was unanimous, although Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) disagreed with the rest of the board about what should be done to address the public’s concerns.

Herrity advocated dropping the tax district altogether, suggesting the county make up for it by reducing affordable-housing and green-building proffers for Tysons developers and increasing proffers for transportation improvements.

Also Tuesday, the board backed a formal request by Supervisor Gerry W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) for information from the county’s attorneys on whether the county has the legal authority to require new county employees who smoke to attend cessation classes.

Hyland, whose father smoked and died of lung cancer, also asked for guidance on whether the county could legally consider tobacco use in hiring decisions and whether it could ban smoking on all county property.

He first raised the issue in October, saying that reducing smoking among county workers would benefit all employees as well as taxpayers. Since then, he has received angry feedback, he said.

Bulova was careful to note that in backing Hyland’s inquiry, board members weren’t necessarily saying they want any of the ideas to go further. She said she doesn’t support forced cessation classes or a ban on hiring smokers. Other supervisors also expressed hesitation about compulsory measures.

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