THE PEPPER REPORT/Del Pepper – Rest assured, we’re still working

THE PEPPER REPORT/Del Pepper – Rest assured, we’re still working

City Council is officially in recess during July and August. However, you can be sure that we are still working. We just do not have official meetings. This little break gives us all a chance to catch our breath, look back, and recall the highlights of the past fiscal year, July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008.

My choice of the top five issues Council dealt with during this fiscal year were (1) the budget; (2) the opening of National Harbor and its impact on Alexandria; (3) the Norfolk Southern Ethanol Transloading Facility, (4) the Mirant plant, and (5) Eco-City Alexandria.

The Budget
On May 5, the Council adopted a $542 million budget, which provides a 4.3% increase over the FY 2008 budget, and creates about $18 million in new revenue. The real estate tax was raised by 1.5 cents to 84.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The adopted budget provided a step increase for eligible employees. The budget funded $3.2 million for full-time city workers to receive a one-time $500 pay supplement and a 2% pay increase for employees at the top of the pay scale who did not qualify for a step increase.  

The increase in the real estate tax will not have a large impact on most residents because the average residential assessment decreased by 1.9%. Therefore the new rate will actually decrease the average residential tax bill by $7.

In an effort to diversify the tax base, parking meter fees were raised to a dollar an hour in Old Town. Emergency ambulance fees increased, as did the meal tax (by 1%), and the hotel tax (by 1%). In an effort to collect 100% of the cost of refuse collection, the residential fee for refuse collection and disposal will increase from $264 to $301.

There were two new issues that arose during this session:

  • Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. In February, we learned that the transportation money we were expecting to come through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority would not be coming. That gave us a shortfall of $18 million.  
  • Add-On Tax. On November 27, Council voted to establish an ad-hoc committee to study whether an add-on commercial real estate tax rate should be enacted. During its 2007 session, the Virginia General Assembly authorized localities in Northern Virginia (and Hampton Roads) to adopt a differential real estate tax rate on non-residential commercial property. This new tax could be added onto the existing real property rate. All funds had to be used for transportation purposes. Although the committee recommended an add-on to the commercial real estate tax rate, in the end, Council decided against adding anything at this time because of the concern that some of the smaller businesses would severely feel that impact.  

It was quite a busy budget season. City Council held two public hearings and 12 to 13 work sessions on the FY 2009 budget. Every City department and all expenditures were examined as we looked for possible savings. 

The Opening of National Harbor (and Alexandria was Ready!)
The National Harbor project is a 300-acre, $2 billion mixed-use development with five hotels and the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, located on the shores of the Potomac in Prince George’s County. This is one of the largest convention resorts in the world. It opened on schedule in April 2008, and Alexandria’s yearlong preparations were in place when it opened. 

Alexandria has been working hard to take full advantage of this prospective new tourist/visitor market. Hoping to draw some of the National Harbor visitors to our shores, we approved docking space early on for the operation of a new water taxi service that would run between National Harbor and the City. The water taxis, owned and operated by the Potomac Riverboat Company, were running and open for business on schedule, April 1, as was the City’s bright red King Street Trolley. This rubber-tired trolley travels up and down King Street with headways of 15 minutes. The trolley is free of charge and has enjoyed terrific ridership. (The price is right!) There are many marina improvements and much activity on the docks, as well as in the restaurants and shops, and on the streets in Old Town. Even the white Christmas lights on the trees that line King Street remain lit through the year, giving the visitor a welcoming feeling and a sense that this really is the “fun side of the Potomac.” Keep those visitors coming! 

Norfolk Southern Ethanol Transloading Facility
On April 9, the Norfolk Southern Corporation began operating an ethanol transloading facility just south of Cameron Station and Samuel Tucker School. At this facility, ethanol, a flammable liquid, is transferred from rail tank cars to tanker trucks for delivery to area tank farms, where it is mixed with gasoline for use as motor fuel. This site was formerly used as an intermodal (rail to truck) transfer yard, and not as a fuel depot. The Fire Department was unaware that the facility was actually operational and they were not prepared to handle a possible emergency at that site. Ethanol fires must be extinguished by special foam, and a special truck is required to deliver that foam.

The first that members of Council heard about the facility’s operation was in a May 15  memo from the City Manager. The City had tried to require Norfolk Southern to obtain a Special Use Permit (SUP), and to go through a public approval process, after notifying and working with the neighbors. However, the railroad refused to comply and proceeded with its plans.  In February 2008, the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency that regulates railroad activity, ruled that certain railroad transloading operations similar to the Alexandria facility were not subject to the laws of local jurisdictions. 

On June 2, residents of Summers Grove, which is located close to the facility, held a meeting with representatives of the City and Norfolk Southern, and on June 9, the Cameron Station Civic Association held a meeting at Tucker School to hear from City staff, City Council, the community, and the representatives from Norfolk Southern.

Council had a briefing on this issue at our May 27 legislative meeting, and discussed the City’s response in two executive sessions on June 10 and June 14. Council vowed to do whatever was possible to have the facility closed, but in the meantime, wants to be sure that the residents living nearby and the students and faculty attending Tucker School are as safe as possible. The Fire Department now has the basic equipment to handle an emergency at the facility, and the City has provided Norfolk Southern with a list of site security upgrades, but Norfolk Southern has yet to fully comply with the City’s requests, either for emergency equipment and training or for site security.

On June 3, the City issued a haul route permit, which restricts the facility to 20 trucks a day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. On June 16, Norfolk Southern filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that the City does not have the authority to set reasonable permit limits on truck traffic using City streets. The City responded to this lawsuit and has asked the court to order Norfolk Southern and its contractors to comply-just like every other business- with their haul route permit. In addition, on June 17, the City Attorney filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, asking the Board to review how this specific facility is being operated, and issue a declaratory order that would subject the facility to our normal SUP process. Unfortunately, these proceedings may take up to a year to be resolved.

Meanwhile the Mayor, City Manager, City Attorney and appropriate staff have met with Senator John Warner, Senator Jim Webb, and Congressman Jim Moran, seeking their assistance in helping the City to end the ethanol transloading activity. On June 20, Warner and Moran wrote the Secretary of the Depar
tment of Homeland Security (DHS), Michael Chertoff, to ask for a threat analysis of the ethanol station. On June 23, the House Appropriations Committee asked DHS to assess the risks associated with such transloading facilities and to report on the best ways to handle them. The Appropriations Committee requested that the report be made within 90 days. 

On June 24, the Council voted to create the Norfolk Southern Ethanol Transloading Community Monitoring Group, which will include two Council members, (Ludwig Gaines and me), a representative from the Alexandria Public Schools, two from Cameron Station, one from Summers Grove, one from the Eisenhower Partnership, and one from the West End Business Association. The Group will keep our efforts to close this facility strong and focused.

  • Next Steps: The Monitoring Group plans to meet in late July. In addition, I will be representing the Council at a public hearing before the Surface Transportation Board on July 22. The City is asking the Board to adopt regulations requiring notice and an opportunity to comment to the Board, before a railroad facility for transloading hazardous materials can be located in a jurisdiction.

Mirant: A Victory in Richmond and a $34 Million Agreement
Two major events occurred during the last six months:

(1)The defeat of the move to take away the State Air Board’s permitting authority.

For months, deliberations continued concerning the issuance of a new comprehensive state operating permit for Mirant’s Potomac River plant-who would issue it and the air quality requirements that it would impose.  

In September 2006, at the urging of the City and its residents, the State Air Pollution Control Board decided to exercise direct permitting authority over this plant, in place of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ). However, the Board’s jurisdiction over air quality permits appeared to be in jeopardy during the 2007 General Assembly session. At that time, both the House and the Senate passed bills that would have combined the state’s three citizen environmental boards into one, leaving the new board with the authority to adopt general regulations, but without any authority over individual permit cases. Under these bills, which would have had to be re-adopted in the 2008 session to become effective, the authority to make permit decisions would have been placed exclusively with the Director of the Department of Environmental Quality. When the Assembly revisited the issue in 2008, they decided not to combine the boards and not to strip away their permitting authority, but to add some additional procedural requirements for the boards to act in permit cases.

This favorable outcome was due largely to the efforts of the City Council; our staff; our State Representatives; a number of wonderful, involved Alexandria residents; and other friends and environmental groups from around the State. This was a huge victory for Alexandria.

(2) In March, the Air Board met again to consider approving a comprehensive state operating permit for Mirant. Mirant wanted a permit that would allow the company to merge its five stacks into two, using all five boilers. Mirant sought the ability to produce more energy and to disperse the pollutants higher, faster, and further into the air, avoiding the downwash in the immediate area, but dispersing more total pollutants into the City and neighboring areas. The Board instructed VDEQ to return with a modified two-stack permit that would develop, among other things, PM2.5 emissions limits as part of the permit. 

Some time after the March meeting, Mirant initiated negotiations with City officials to consider an agreement whereby Mirant would place $34 million in an escrow account under the City’s control to be used for pollution control technology at the Mirant facility. The City (in consultation with Mirant officials) would select an engineer, who would help us to decide how best to use the funds to control pollution at the plant, especially the particulate emissions. Mirant benefits from the agreement by being able to move forward with its plans to construct the two-stack merge. Alexandria had been able to prevent Mirant from moving ahead for months, but with this agreement, we are assured of a clean-running operation, and therefore, will not contest the two-stack merge. Although the City’s Mirant Community Monitoring Group, (which I co-chair with Councilman Smedberg), and the City Council approved the agreement, Mirant still needs the approval of the Air Board, but that approval will likely come this Summer.

The City continues its June 2004 commitment to close down the plant as a long-term goal, but in the meantime, cleaning it up is an important short-term goal.

Why I supported the agreement:
I supported the agreement because it became obvious to me that there was no way that the City’s regulations and laws could force the facility to close down. The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled against our earlier efforts. Our consultants, our attorneys, our Richmond lobbyist, our own staff, and a member of the Air Board, Bruce Buckheit, who attended the Monitoring Group and Council meetings-everyone-advised us to accept this agreement. It was their unanimous opinion that, under Virginia law, continued adversarial proceedings before the Air Board could not result in as good an outcome as the City obtained under the agreement. 

Eco-City – The Greening of Alexandria
During the summer of 2006, Councilman Rob Krupicka and I attended the Council of Governments (COG) retreat and came away with the idea that Alexandria really needed to create an environmental action plan-a plan for action that would ensure that Alexandria was a truly environmentally friendly city. In a September joint memo to Council, we asked that the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) and City staff partner with Virginia Tech’s Urban Affairs Department in putting together a strategic environmental process-which became known as Eco-City Alexandria. The project was approved by Council on January 23, 2007. An Eco-City Steering Committee was formed, with Rob and me as members, along with representation from EPC, Virginia Tech, appropriate staff, etc.

We realized that the first thing that needed to be done was to compile all the programs and activities we already had in place that addressed various environmental issues. In January 2008, the Council formally received “Eco-City Alexandria: A Green-Ventory of City Environmental Policies, Plans, and Programs.” This 90-page document was developed by the Virginia Tech professors and graduate students. It is an excellent compendium of all the things that the City has done over the years to protect the environment.

This was followed by two City-sponsored, well attended, community meetings:  the Eco-City Caf, which was held on March 8, 2008, and the Eco-City Summit held on May 10, 2008.  The point of the Eco-City Caf was to solicit public input on what the community’s vision was for Alexandria as concerns the environment. These ideas became the guiding principles of a Draft Charter, subsequently compiled and presented to the City during Earth Day celebrations on April 26, 2008.  

On May 10, with more than 200 citizens in attendance, the Draft was reviewed at the Eco-City Summit, which was held at T.C. Williams High School. The audience used a keypad voting system to register their votes. The tabulated results of everyone’s votes were shown on an overhead screen. This enabled the participants to received an instant summary of their collective views. There was a strong consensus to approve the Draft Charter.  Following the Summit, some revisions were made to reflect comments received at that event. It was then submitted for Council approval. 

After a June 14 public hearing on the Draft, Council voted to approve the Charter.

This is the first such document to be developed in the

  • Next Steps: The EPC, Virginia Tech’s Department of Urban Affairs, and City staff  will be working over the summer to develop the process of putting together the Action Plan. A work session with Council will be scheduled sometime in the fall, as well as a public forum. It is expected that the Action Plan will be completed in FY09.

People: Comings and Goings

  • Patrick O’Brien retired as Director of the Alexandria Library System effective March 1, 2008 and was replaced by Rose Dawson. Ms. Dawson had served as the city’s Deputy Director of the libraries previously. Pat had become an acclaimed woodturner and will be working in that area.
  • Charles Konigsberg: Alexandria Health Director, Dr. Charles Konigsberg announced his retirement effective July 1, 2008. He had served the City for nine years. He was replaced by Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz, formerly the first Deputy Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response Programs.
  • Nolan Dawkins was sworn in as Circuit Court Judge of the 18th Judicial Circuit on June 12, 2008, having served 14 years as Judge on the City’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. This is an eight-year term. Judge Dawkins is the first African American to be named to the City’s Circuit Court. Donald Haddock, Jr. was elected by the General Assembly to serve a 6-year term as Judge on the City’s General District Court and began 5/1/08.

Tony Castrilli was hired as the City’s new Communications Director. He began the first week in May 2008. He had been the managing editor at WUSA 9 News.

On June 2, the Alexandria School Board announced the appointment of Dr. Morton Sherman as the new Superintendent. He will begin August 2008, replacing Interim Superintendent Dr. William Symons, Jr., who will stay on until then. Dr. Sherman is presently the Superintendent of the Tenafly, N.J. public school system. Former Superintendent Rebecca Perry’s last day with ACPS was Friday, January 18, 2008 after the School Board had voted not to renew her contact, which expired in June.

  • Also, that week, Claire Eberwein, School Board Chair, announced that she would be moving with her family to Vienna, Austria this summer due to a career-related opportunity for her husband. This vacancy will be filled by a special election, which will be held August 12.
  • On July 1, Yvonne Folkerts was elected School Board Chair. Cheryl Gorsuch will serve as the Vice Chair.
  • Mel Riddle, who served as Principal at T. C. Williams for two years, resigned effective the end of June.  He will join the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
  • Kerry Donley, T.C.’s Athletic Director, resigned effective June 30 to run for the Virginia House of Delegates, District 46. This is the seat currently occupied by House Democratic Caucus Chair Brian Moran, who will be announcing his candidacy for Governor sometime this summer. Kerry had served 3 years as the Athletic Director at T.C. 
  • T.C. Williams Basketball Head Coach Ivan Thomas has also resigned and is moving to Williamsburg.

Hotel Monaco: Located at 480 King Street, this hotel, formerly the Old Town Holiday Inn, opened on March 14, 2008.
DASH: On May 28, 2008, Alexandria Transit Company held a groundbreaking ceremony for the new $32 million DASH facility, which will be located on 10 acres and will house 96 buses. It will provide DASH with offices and increased indoor maintenance areas. The facility, which is being built to achieve Silver LEED certification, will include rooftop parking for 254 cars and ground-level parking for 103 cars. Construction is expected to be completed by fall 2009.
Wilkes St. Tunnel: On June 14, 2008, the City held a ribbon cutting ceremony to commemorate the completion of the renovations made to the Wilkes Street Tunnel. About $700,000 worth of improvements have been made to strengthen the walls of this 150 year old tunnel. It was originally used by the Orange and Alexandria Rail Company as part of the route between Washington, D.C. and Richmond.
The Monarch: This is a complex with 168 units, located at 525 North Fayette Street. Construction was completed in October 2007. Originally, the Monarch was to have sold as condominiums. However, due to market changes, it is now being marketed as rental property.
Charles Houston Recreation Center: The groundbreaking ceremony was held in September 2007. The center is scheduled to reopen in spring 2009.
Monroe Avenue Bridge: The first new span of the Route 1 Monroe Avenue Bridge was opened in December 2007. The second span is scheduled to open in late 2008.
Tauber Property: The City Council voted to acquire approximately 5 acres of property where the old Jefferson Hospital was formerly located. The property is valued at between $15 and $30 million and is a gift from the Tauber Foundation.  The City has to pay $5 million for certain expenses.  Some smaller buildings remain on the property and these have leases.  Eventually, the City will demolish these buildings, and City agencies currently occupying leased space will be relocated there.
Police In Headquarters: June 2008, City Council approved plans for the new police facility to be located at 3534 Wheeler Avenue, south of the Duke Street McDonald’s. This $56 million, four-story facility is expected to be operational by 2011 and will occupy a seven-acre site. There will be a five level parking garage.
WWB: On May 15, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was finally declared officially finished, to great celebration. The second and final (northern) span, opened to the public on May 30. The project cost $2.5 billion. Efforts now turn to the final project: the Telegraph Road Interchange work. The completion date for this project is June 30, 2013.

We lost a number of people who had truly made a difference in our community. 

  • Ellen Pickering: Ellen was a former member of the Alexandria City Council and a strong advocate for parks, and for preserving open space, trees, and the waterfront. Her lobbying efforts resulted in the creation of Founders Park and the Mount Vernon Trail between Alexandria and D.C. She had been nominated as a 2007 Alexandria Living Legend. She died April 26, 2008.
  • Jack Ticer: Jack was a former member of the Alexandria City Council and was the husband of State Sen. Patsy Ticer. He died August 29, 2007.  Jack had been nominated as a 2007 Alexandria Living Legend.
  • Jean Caldwell: Jean was active on the City’s Beautification Committee and worked to protect Powhatan Street from becoming an extension of Route 1 when the first Monroe Avenue Bridge was being planned. She joined Ellen Pickering in the successful Save the George Washington Parkway campaign. She was nominated as a 2007 Alexandria Living Legend. She died June 1, 2008.
    Anice Chance Wilson: Anice was the former Executive Director of Hopkins House and a long time activist in Alexandria Branch of the NAACP. She served as the administrative aide to former Councilman Michael Jackson.  She died May 15, 2008.
  • Rich Leibach: Rich had been a member of the Planning Commission for nineteen years. At the recommendation of the Commission, City Council named the Duke Street Bridge near the Beatley Library after him.  Rich had lived in the Hallmark Condominiums located near the bridge.  Rich died February 19, 2008.
    Peter Smith: Peter was an Urban Planner for the City for 18 years and had served as t
    he principal staff member of the Board of Architectural Review. Peter died May 8, 2008.
  • Roger Wheeler: Roger had been the founding president of the Strawberry Hill Association, and president of the Seminary Hill Association and the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations. He was an unsuccessful candidate for City Council in 1979. He died June 5, 2008.