Falls Church city residents could get a say in whether high-rise condos and large apartment complexes are built in their downtown if an unusual measure passes in a referendum Tuesday.
The measure is in response to some recently completed residential complexes and others being planned for the city of more than 10,000 residents. It would ban any residential structure from being built on commercial property if it would increase the city's population by more than 1 percent, unless voters gave their approval.
Sponsors, who spent weeks collecting signatures to get the measure on the ballot, say larger developments draw too many new families, further crowding schools and draining city resources. Opposing the measure is Falls Church's most powerful political organization, the Citizens for a Better City, which has enjoyed a majority on every council except one in the last 43 years. CBC leaders say the measure would scare off residential and commercial developers and cost the city much-needed new tax revenue.
If it passes, the measure would need General Assembly approval because it involves a change to the city charter.
At two square miles, Falls Church is largely built-out and has struggled to attract new businesses. Economic advisers have told officials that commercial redevelopment will not happen unless it includes a large residential component.
Mayor Daniel E. Gardner, a CBC member, called the referendum "an effort that says we don't trust our . . . officials and professional staff." Gardner said sponsors are "uninformed" about the effects of high-rise condos and apartments, which he said do not swell school rolls.
But Lou Mauro, a lawyer and 23-year city resident who was the primary author of the measure, argued that mixed-used developments tend to have a large residential component stacked atop a few stores and are "a terrible waste of commercial property" downtown.
David Snyder, one of two council members not part of the CBC, said commercial development would not be endangered if the measure passed. "The message should be sent . . . that Falls Church is not open to massive residential projects, that any project that comes to the city has to benefit residents as much as it does the developers. In my view, voters should be trusted to determine their own future," he said.
But Stacy Moot, a city resident for 12 years and also not a CBC member, disagreed. Moot, who heads Parents for Progress, a group lobbying for a new school, said such complicated decisions should be left to elected leaders.
"What concerns me is that we are taking away the decisions of people who have access to experts," she said, "and they are asking us to place those decisions in the hands of ordinary citizens and to whoever gets the bigger PR campaign going."