Growth Policies Are Key as Seven Contend for 3 Seats

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Council elections in tiny Falls Church (population 11,000) will be dominated this year by how and whether to allow growth in this 2.2-square-mile button of land between Fairfax and Arlington counties.

The growth question has come a little late in Falls Church, where the sleepy main boulevard of Broad Street only a couple of years ago was dominated by decades-old businesses and empty lots. That has changed under the tenure of the current council, which has opened the door to such mixed-use developments as the Broadway, the Spectrum and City Center near Lee Highway. The developments include restaurants, office space and condominiums.

Three of the City Council's seven seats are up for grabs Tuesday, with seven candidates competing, including two incumbents: Mayor Robin S. Gardner, 43, and Vice Mayor M.R. "Lindy" Hockenberry, 68. Council member David C. Chavern will not seek a second term.

Gardner, an IT account manager, and retired teacher Hockenberry said their stewardship of growth in Falls Church has been good for the community. They have expanded the city's tax base, they said, without attracting such development as suburban residential neighborhoods, which require expensive schools and other services.

Before approving mixed-use condos, Falls Church allowed only commercial development along its main corridors, with no residential components. Although that is ideal for the city from an economic point of view -- residents cost the city money because they require services -- few such developments were coming, Gardner and Hockenberry said.

"Some people feel that it has happened too fast," Gardner said. "But it has allowed us to make sure the tax rates stay down, and it has allowed for a mixture of residential housing, which was missing."

Lawrence L. Webb, 33, an admissions officer at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said he thinks Gardner and Hockenberry have made good decisions, and he is campaigning alongside them.

But a majority of the challengers disagree. Nader Baroukh, 36, a senior attorney with the Department of Homeland Security; E.B. "Ed" Hillegass, 50, a postal worker; and Margaret W. Housen, 67, a retired city employee, said they think that too much development has been allowed and that the projections of service costs are not accurate.

A final candidate, Patrice A. Lepczyk, could not be reached for comment.

"The city needs a change in its leadership," Baroukh said. "We've gotten locked into a development strategy that's not in the best interests in the long term. In the out-years, the projects are going to have a high proportion of residential units. They are going to have very high public service costs."

As if to underscore the resonance of the growth issue this year, the ballot will also ask Falls Church voters to decide on a referendum question that would add language to the city's charter limiting the square footage of new developments to no more than 40 percent residential, with the rest commercial.

Sam Mabry, a former vice mayor and lead petitioner to get the question on the ballot, said of the current council members: "They're trying to convince folks that you can build enough condominiums to sustain the finances of the city. You reach a tipping point so that the cost of running services becomes impossible to afford."

Gardner, Hockenberry and Webb oppose the referendum.

Falls Church council seats are at large. The three candidates with the highest vote totals win four-year terms. Once seated, the council will choose its mayor and vice mayor for two-year terms.

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