Fairfax Mayor Has Critics But Not Opponents
Monday, May 1, 2006
Fairfax City still picks up the trash from homeowners' back yards, clears leaves from curbs and delivers mulch for free -- services that disappeared from most Washington suburbs long ago. The Fourth of July parade still marches down Main Street. And all but a few of the condos rising in communities next door have been kept at bay because they don't fit in with the city's capes and colonials.
It's Mayberry in the midst of a booming, urbanizing, diversifying region. And that's how Robert F. Lederer, a hometown boy, pledged to keep the 6.3-square-mile city, pop. 22,000, when he unseated a 12-year incumbent for mayor four years ago. He heads into tomorrow's nonpartisan election unopposed with the same message: His campaign mailing last week sounded an alarm that new condos, townhouses and rental apartments on the Fairfax County border could "negatively impact" the city's quality of life.
"I think the community thinks we 'get it,' " the mayor said, emphasizing the attention he's paid to the needs of homeowners' associations. "I want to avoid being the next Tysons Corner."
But the mayor's insular vision and forceful management style has upset some residents, business leaders and City Council members. An ambitious open space program and other spending to meet neighborhood requests has pushed the city into unprecedented debt, and legal fees to settle disputes with landowners are climbing.
Lederer also is fending off questions about some of his actions and complaints about excessive spending. He twice addressed those concerns at public meetings last week, and he appeared at City Hall on Saturday to rebut an anonymous letter mailed to voters. The mayor called the charges, which include a claim that his employer hired the developer of the city's downtown redevelopment to build a new headquarters there, "malicious" and "totally inaccurate."
Council candidate Gordon L. Riggle said of Lederer: "He has sensed that a lot of people in the city don't want anything to change. But rather than see the big picture, he has a record of responding to all the demands. That's not necessarily good for everybody."
Fairfax City, thanks to a strong commercial base, enjoys the lowest residential tax rate in Northern Virginia. But as assessments and tax bills have jumped, so has the budget, by 8.7 percent for the next fiscal year. Among the increases are interest payments on debt, including $6.7 million the city borrowed to buy 44 acres to preserve as open space. The borrowed money was above and beyond the $5.5 million that voters had authorized in a 2000 referendum. City Hall and a smaller building were pledged as collateral.
The cost of a middle school renovation is exceeding voter-approved limits, partly because the entrance was moved to accommodate a request from neighbors. The city's per capita debt has soared, although its bond rating, the highest for a city its size, has not been affected.
The open space land purchases are scattered across the city, abutting neighborhoods wary of new development. Several properties had contracts for development, and the city moved to condemn them. In some cases, this led to protracted legal battles with landowners who say the process was costly and high-handed.
"The abuses were pervasive with us and others," said Bruce Jennings, whose family had hired a developer to build six homes on three wooded acres south of Route 236 before the city condemned the land and said it couldn't be built on because it was environmentally sensitive. A circuit court judge ruled that Fairfax had "no persuasive evidence" that the property was a so-called resource protection area. The city and the Jennings family eventually settled on a price. "You can't just condemn every property that comes up with a development plan," Jennings said.
Lederer called the condemnations legitimate uses of city power for public purposes, embraced by voters. "In every case, we paid fair market value for the land," he said.
J. Chapman Petersen, a former state delegate and City Council member who has known Lederer since childhood, called Fairfax a "more traditional locality" than its Northern Virginia neighbors, a community whose residents "tend to the parochial" and see themselves as powerful voices against development. "That's why Rob is the perfect leader for Fairfax City," Petersen said.
Lederer, 50, served five terms on the part-time council before his two terms as mayor and is executive director of the National Pest Management Association, a trade group moving from Lee Highway to the historic downtown. He's happier tooling around the city than driving to policy meetings of regional groups that were the mainstay of his predecessor, John Mason.
An avid pilot, Lederer flew Petersen, a Democrat, across Virginia in his twin-engine plane during Peterson's campaign for lieutenant governor last year, and he took a group of prominent Republicans to Indianapolis for the NCAA Final Four last month.
At the mayor's urging, Fairfax threw a parade for George Mason University's returning men's basketball team, an unexpected gesture in light of years of tensions between the city and university. GMU President Alan G. Merten did not make the VIP list for the first July 4 parade after Lederer was elected. Then the mayor missed a private dinner for prominent local officials at Merten's house. The men have clashed over expansion plans of the university, which abuts a residential Fairfax neighborhood.
"I don't know why things didn't happen," Merten said. "We've just moved ahead on our agenda." Lederer called the snubs oversights but said George Mason is "exploding" with growth that has alienated some constituents. Both men say their relationship has improved recently.
Lederer has made a point of reaching out to the city's civic associations, whose main concerns are encroaching development. When a minister proposed construction of a 200-seat church near downtown in 2004, the mayor and council turned it down after neighbors expressed concerns about traffic. The denial triggered two years of lawsuits, political tensions and a U.S. Justice Department investigation into whether the action violated a law prohibiting discrimination against religious institutions. The government closed its probe in February once the city agreed to grant One God Ministry a special-use permit.
Neighborhood opposition also killed long-standing plans to build a new police station next to City Hall. The project was moved behind the old station at a higher cost. At residents' request, the mayor is now pushing for brick sound barriers along a two-lane road north of the university at a cost of about $600,000.
Council member Gary J. Rasmussen said he opposes the sound walls as an inappropriate use of city money for a small number of homes. "My position is it's wrong to spend $600,000 or $700,000 to build a very expensive sound wall for a very short stretch of road," he said.
Although the mayor votes only to break a tie, the council is divided 3 to 3 over most of the growth issues: They are with Lederer or against him.
"The mayor's approach is more of coming to a meeting knowing what it is he wants, and if you don't agree with that position, it kind of goes downhill from there," said council member Jeffrey C. Greenfield.
Lederer acknowledges that his temper can flare at staff and council colleagues who disagree with him. "I'm vocal," he said. "I consider that strong leadership."
He notes that no one has stepped up to challenge his leadership. Several local business owners, wary of traffic and disruption from the downtown redevelopment, said they sought candidates, "but no one wanted the job," Becky Stockel, owner of a Main Street printing store, said.
Lederer said: "I say to my colleagues and anyone else, run against me. They had just as much right to put their name on the ballot as I did."