Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that the last time a Virginia county became a city was when Princess Anne County merged with Virginia Beach in 1963. The county of Nansemond ceased to exist when it became a city in July 1972. In January 1974, the city of Nansemond merged with the city of Suffolk.

Fairfax becoming a city? Odds stacked against it.

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

Fairfax County officials created a stir recently when they announced that they were considering changing to a city form of government for its 1 million residents -- an idea motivated almost entirely by frustration over their inability to improve roads in a sprawling suburb that has several urban pockets.

But the question has been asked, and answered, at least twice before, and each time with discouraging answers.

Fairfax leaders who have studied the issue warn that the county could maneuver through a complex legal and political labyrinth to become a city and still end up virtually in the same place, thanks in no small part to age-old rivalry in Virginia between rural and urban interests.

A major potential roadblock: Any proposed city charter would have to have the blessing of a General Assembly that still holds the final say in Virginia. Dominated for years by rural and suburban lawmakers, the legislature could approve a charter that denies some of the city powers Fairfax hopes to gain.

"Why would you take risks for such marginal gains?" asked Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), the immediate past chairman of the County Board of Supervisors.

Linked to the debate is a unique feature of Virginia's history and law that has made the transition from county to city tricky: Its cities are completely distinct and independent of the counties that surround them. Unlike in other states, county and city functions do not overlap, enshrining the longtime antagonisms between city and county, with one's potential gain seen as the other's potential loss.

What's more, said Ted McCormack, director of governmental affairs at the Virginia Association of Counties, there is a little-known provision in Virginia law that would appear to put a moratorium on approving any new city charters until 2018. The measure, enacted in 1987, was intended to slow the rapid encroachment of suburban development by cities through annexation. McCormack added, however, that the legislature could simply override the provision.

"The basic problem is, our financial structure and, to a certain extent, our governmental structure go back 200 years," said County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, who had discussed only in passing the possibility of becoming a city while explaining to the board the two ways Fairfax might gain greater control of its transportation network.

Odds against success

In an interview last week, Griffin acknowledged the unlikely odds of success, especially when most county leaders are focused almost entirely on writing a cost-cutting budget in a grim economic period.

"I can make some very good arguments as to why we should be a city," said Griffin, who was the city manager for Falls Church and county manager in Arlington before coming to Fairfax. Not least is that cities have more cachet than counties, he said.

"We'd probably get more respect, generally, from the public if we were the 10th largest city" in the United States, Griffin said. "But I also recognized the hoops we have to jump through that would make it unlikely."

There are few precedents for such a step in the modern era. If anything, the trend in Virginia seems to be for small cities to revert to towns, thereby allowing surrounding counties to pick up most of the bill for schools and other services. The last time an entire county became a city was in 1963, when Virginia Beach was formed.

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