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.
Age-old rivalries stand in way as Fairfax examines city status
Urban-rural battles, state law don't give county good odds

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.

Worried about being gobbled up through piecemeal annexation, Princess Anne County, which then had a population of 77,127, arranged a merger with Virginia Beach, a small city of 8,091. Princess Anne vanished, and Virginia Beach instantly became one of the commonwealth's largest cities.

Funds not guaranteed

Even if the legislature granted the county a strong new city charter, there could be problems. Supporters believe that if Fairfax County became a city, it would qualify for a larger pot of transportation funds in the formula the legislature uses to divvy up the money for cities and various regions. But skeptics worry that if Fairfax did change to a city form of government, the General Assembly, faced with a city twice as large as any other in Virginia, would just change the roads formula.

Still, some think it should be studied. "I think it's worth looking into," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). "We're running out of options."

Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) asked the attorney general's office to explain what effect a change of government at the county level would have on the existing city of Fairfax inside its borders and the town of Vienna. The attorney general's opinion, in a letter Aug. 24, said there would be no practical effect on the powers of either.

The driving force

Calls to reevaluate the county's structure of government have become more frequent as Fairfax has grown in size. With more than 1 million people, the county would already rank as the 10th largest in the United States, just below San Diego.

Those who favor a change suggest that as a city, with an elected chief executive and council, government accountability might be improved. But opponents worry it would lead to higher taxes -- and even more rapid development.

Cities have additional taxing powers. As a city, for example, Fairfax would have more leeway to impose taxes on cigarettes, meals, hotel occupancy and admissions to entertainment venues.

"It's these excise taxes that are the biggest attraction," said Mark Flynn, director of legal services at the Virginia Municipal League.

But the driving force behind the study is clearly roads. For some time, Fairfax has received only 19 cents on every dollar in taxes sent to Richmond. In June, the county was notified that state funding for secondary roads would plummet in each of the next five years, from $28 million to $225,000. Then the board was told funding would be eliminated.

Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) has called for a blue-ribbon commission to study alternatives for gaining control of its roads and finding ways to pay for them, an issue that has been studied before.

Whether to be or not to be a city has been examined by Fairfax at least as far back as 1980, and many of the old hurdles remain, especially Virginia's tradition of independent cities.

"It may be feasible for Fairfax to become a city. Certainly, it has all the attributes of a city now," said former governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., who chaired a 1993 committee that examined changing the county's form of government and other issues. That committee urged Fairfax to instead press the General Assembly for more legal authority. He has doubts about a city proposal.

"One of the real obstacles that exists in Virginia is the independent city situation. We're the only state in the country with it," Holton said. "What it does is, it creates needless rivalry between cities and adjoining counties, and it inhibits regional approaches to solving problems that would save cities and counties a lot of money."

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