Development key issue at Vienna Town Council candidate forum

Michael Dranove Politics

Challengers and incumbents vying for three Vienna Town Council seats denounced recent development projects along Maple Avenue, and spoke out in favor of serious changes to zoning regulations during a candidate forum at the Vienna Community Center yesterday.

Hosted by the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Associaton, the April 16th event drew incumbents Tara Bloch and Howard Springsteen, along with challengers Julie Hays, Nisha Patel, Steve Potter, and Tim Strike. The hot button issue of the day was the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning ordinance. After lengthy debate, the zoning ordinance was enacted in 2014 with the stated goal of retaining Vienna’s “small town” character while also helping it keep pace with the rapidly changing character of Northern Virginia. Since then, several development projects have been approved using its guidelines, projects that critics claim threaten Vienna’s “small town” character. Sustained criticism has led the Town Council to place a moratorium on applications for future developments until MAC can be revised.

The first speaker, Tim Strike, set the tone for the day, denouncing projects approved under the MAC. “Turning Vienna into just another mixed-use development area, leaving us with mid to high density buildings, impacting our current residents and undermining our town character is not the answer.” Strike says he decided to run last fall after the Town Council approved a 4 story mixed-use development at 444 Maple Avenue. “In October, I heard the Town Council approve 444 [Maple Avenue] over the pleas of Town Residents. One person seated behind me noted that unless someone runs against the incumbents they will continue to approve these developments. That’s when I decided to be your Town Council respresentative.”

After Strike came incumbent Howard Springsteen. Springsteen was one of two councilmembers to vote against approving the 444 Maple Avenue project. At the forum Springsteen stated, “I am not hesitant to vote in the minority.” A councilmember of 10 years, Springsteen voted last year in favor of a condo development at 245 Maple Avenue. However, during the Q&A portion of the event, Springsteen underlined his opposition to development projects at 380 and 444 Maple Avenue stating, “My voting record is clear, I voted against two controversial MAC projects…I have not changed my opinion, I’m probably the only one up here who can say that.”

From left to right: Howard Springsteen, Tara Bloch, Julie Hays, Steve Potter, Nisha Patel, Tim Strike.

Next up came Steve Potter, perhaps the day’s most vociferous opponent of recently approved Maple Avenue developments. A founding member of Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development, Potter contrasted himself with the other candidates saying, “If you are concerned about development on Maple Avenue, you certainly have some choices in this election. All six candidates now favor MAC revision, and support the moratorium. So how do you choose? I suggest you consider the following: First, for the incumbents, look at their voting records, and what they have done on the MAC so far…For the challengers…have they participated in civil action groups that have challenged MAC projects? Have they spoken at town meetings in opposition to MAC projects? Have they drafted letters and met with town officials to discuss these matters? I think that if you consider those actions, you will conclude that I am a candidate that deserves your support.”

Following Potter was Nisha Patel, who similarly denounced raising the ceiling on density and height restrictions on Maple Avenue. Highlighting the “small-town” character of Vienna, Patel stated that if elected she would close significant loopholes in the MAC, spelling out height, density and other requirements in no uncertain terms. Patel also underscored the need to improve bike and pedestrian access throughout Vienna, and to create more green space. Patel pointed to her experience as a small-business owner, saying she understood how increased congestion and poor parking options hurt small businesses. “As a local business owner, I know the important of a vital commercial core. I know we need commercial zoning regulations that include adequate parking, commercial zoning, and density limits.” Patel went on to note school overcrowding as another consequence of high-density development.

After Patel came Julie Hays, chair of the Town’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Hays pointed to her experience working on transportation safety as proof of her commitment to alleviating traffic congestion on Maple Avenue. Hays distinguished herself from other candidates by presenting a more expressedly environmentalist platform. “Some of the characteristics for the Vienna I envision include…a strong network of connected pedestrian and bike pathways. Undeground power lines and large growth trees that create tree canopies throughout town. A culture of conservation with expansive green spaces and parks.” Hays went on to voice her support for full implementation of the pedestrian master plan, along with a plan to create a tree canopy on Maple Avenue.

Finishing out the speaking segment was the one person on the panel who most likely felt somewhat out of place, incumbent Tara Bloch. Bloch’s voting record shows she has supported the developments denounced by every candidate that preceded by her. While she acknowledged the fact that, “Vienna is at a crossroads,” she also said she favors mixed-use development on Maple Avenue as long as it is done in a, “thoughtful, deliberate” way. She noted that without approval of mixed-use development, Vienna would not have diverse housing options for those who might not be able to afford a single family home in the area. “Ideally, those who work and serve in the Town, can live in the Town…I’ve listened to citizens, heard their concerns, answered their questions. I support the moratorium…Working on all MAC projects gives me the experience needed to understand the good and the bad, and to see when changes are needed to sustain a viable, commercial corridor, and minimize impacts on neighborhoods.” Bloch then went on to discuss ways to modernize the Town’s water and sewer system. In doing so, she became the only candidate to spend significant time addresing an issue other than development at the forum.

The six candidates at the forum are vying for three seats, so at least one non-incumbent will be elected. Election for Town Council is May 7th at the Vienna Community Center. Polls are open 6am-7pm.