What do golf courses have to do with me?

Can you please help?

I’m reporting early this month because your Arlington County Board needs some quick help with our Virginia delegation on a bill which is important to Arlington and is coming up on Tuesday morning. This bill will lower property taxes on our two golf clubs by about $1.5 million per year. This would take away tax revenue that home owners will have to make up. I hope that you will join me in asking our Senators to vote no on the bill.

The bill, HB 1204, has passed the Virginia House and is before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. It would forbid us to use “fair market value” when we assess our two private golf clubs for local real estate taxes. By tradition, the General Assembly does not interfere with local land assessments beyond setting general Virginia Code requirements on how assessments should be done. This is good government. We follow the code.

The bill would force us to assess the golf courses as if they were open space (parkland) rather than their “highest and best use” which is consistent with their residential zoning and as required by Virginia law. In Arlington, that “best” use is defined as a lot of single family homes in prime Arlington locations, and some with spectacular views. Contrary to some arguments, Arlington does NOT assess the land as if homes were on it nor as if they were ready to be built. There are no residential roads, water, sewer, or electrical lines on the golf courses. That lowers the assessed value considerably. In addition, some portions have steep slopes unsuitable for building. We do not assess those slopes as if they were buildable. The home lots around our golf courses are assessed at about $72/sq ft, potentially higher to over $100/sq ft. The golf courses are assessed at about $12/sq ft. If the bill passes, they will be assessed at between 30 and 47 CENTS per sq ft. This WOULD be unfair.

In most of Virginia, it is a fair assumption that when a golf course is sold it is most likely to be kept as a golf course. However in Arlington, with our scarce available land, it is most reasonable to assume that homes would be built. Should we be forced to assess the private golf clubs as if they were open space, that open space would not, of course, actually become parkland. It would continue to be privately owned and have no public access. But our public (you, dear reader, if you live in Arlington) will need to make up the difference in our own local taxes to cover the annual loss of approximately $1.5 million.

It would be very helpful if our legislators could hear from as many people as possible in the next 24 hours. (Yes, feel free to pass this to your Arlington friends and neighbors.) Senators Ebbin (most of South Arlington), Favola (most of North Arlington), and Howell (western Arlington) are eager to hear their constituents’ opinions on the bill and why it’s important that it NOT pass. Click your Senator’s name to send her or him a note. For your convenience, I have prepared some draft text, but please feel free to edit or to write your own. If you’re not sure in which district you live, click here to find out.

A controversial project
At yesterday’s regular meeting, we approved a condo building and townhouses on the last parcel in Ballston to be redeveloped, at 11th and Vermont. Immediate neighbors were concerned about the impact of the new building on their own large condo building and homes. The developer worked hard to make design changes such as cutting back parts of the building to improve views and ambiance for neighbors. The Board agreed that the project was appropriate for the site, which is a few hundred feet from Metro, and that it would not unduly harm the neighbors. The Board also agreed we need to do a better job of explaining to our public how our land use approvals work and what is reasonable, and not reasonable, to expect.

The tax rate
We ended our Saturday meeting by advertising the tax rate for next year. We adopt the tax rate when we adopt the budget in April. We can set the tax rate at what we advertised or lower, but not higher. Christian Dorsey and I again argued that we should advertise the tax rate a little higher than what we intend to adopt to give us flexibility to adapt to new information over the next couple of months. Both Metro and the golf course legislation I described above have the potential to change assumptions the Manager made when he developed the budget. The Schools budget is always strained by new students coming in, and difficult cuts may need to be made there.

Tax increases are painful for many people. Both Christian and I made clear we do NOT want to raise the tax rate, but that we simply wanted flexibility in case we needed it to avoid even more painful cuts to important programs. Christian and I voted to advertise a half penny above the current tax rate, to provide about $3.4 million in cushion just in case it becomes necessary. Our motion lost, as our colleagues Katie Cristol, John Vihstadt, and Erik Gutshall voted to advertise a tax rate equal to the current rate. Please note that because of rising property values, the “average” homeowner will see their real estate taxes go up by almost $300, even when the rate stays the same.

This begins our budget season which includes 11 work sessions, 2 public hearings, and more to get to our Board-adopted budget at our April meeting.

Finally, we started our Saturday meeting with a moment of silence for those killed at the most recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. I plan to join the student march downtown with my daughter and grandchildren on March 24th. Perhaps I will see you there. I am hopeful that this mass movement for sensible gun control led by young people may finally begin to have an effect.

As always, I hope you found this information useful.

Feb, 25, 2018