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City Council Race Draws Largest Field In Recent Years

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Fairfax City Council race features the stiffest opposition to incumbents in a decade, with five challengers trying to unseat the six current members May 2.

In the city of 21,500, bisected by Routes 236 and 29 south of Interstate 66, the hot-button issues are soaring real estate assessments and what some see as too much development. Incumbents point with pride to progress in the long-awaited redevelopment of downtown.

The six seats, all citywide, are up for grabs. Mayor Robert Frederick Lederer is one of seven Northern Virginia mayors running unopposed, though, and will glide to a third two-year term.

Also on the ballot are School Board seats. None of the seats is being contested, though two incumbents, Penelope A. Rood and Courtney Robinson, are not running for reelection.

The challengers for the council seats are seasoned civic activists with professional backgrounds in a variety of fields, including landscape architecture and teaching. Although they haven't singled out specific incumbents for criticism, challengers said the council, with three members in office since the 1990s, needs new faces.

"A change of dynamics would be good," said Hildie A. Carney, former president of Historic Fairfax City Inc., a preservation group.

Carney, 72, said she would pay special attention to issues that affect the elderly. In addition, she said, with expertise in preservation, she "wants to be part of the decision-making process" as the downtown undergoes a long-planned commercial redevelopment.

Challenger Gordon L. Riggle has focused on one issue: property taxes. "They've let a windfall of money [from higher assessments] flow into city coffers," Riggle said, calling his campaign a voter referendum "to show our dissatisfaction with the tax rate."

Residential real estate assessments in the city jumped an average of 21 percent this year. The council reduced the property tax rate earlier this month from 81 cents to 71 cents per $100 of assessed value. So homeowners' tax bills will rise 1.5 percent on average, city officials said.

Next year's $118 million budget will be 8.2 percent higher than last year's, an increase fueled by school costs, debt from school renovations and an ambitious open-space acquisition program, and salary increases for public safety workers.

Incumbent R. Scott Silverthorne said the council had addressed concerns about tax increases with the big rate cut and still enhanced services.

"We have a strong economic base," said Silverthorne, who is seeking a ninth term. "We're fiscally responsible. It's remarkable when you think about the investments we've made in the community as we've lowered the tax rate."

Council incumbents, who run every two years, were unopposed in the 2004 election. "I think it's a healthy thing we have so many contenders this year," said incumbent Joan W. Cross, who is seeking a third term. She said the council had tried to provide extra parking and marketing for downtown businesses that will see revenue decline as the renovation gets into full swing.

Although the renovation is a focal point, the rest of the city needs attention, too, said challenger William G. Foster, a retired banker and private investor. "It's time to look at the rest of the commercial areas of the city," Foster said, adding that he would push for more restaurants, office space and even condominiums along Route 29, now a stretch of car dealerships and strip malls without much character. He said a revitalized business sector would raise commercial real estate values and reduce the tax burden on homeowners.

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