Engage in Arlington civic activism and you will almost invariably be embroiled in one or more sitemap battles between the developers on the one hand, the community on the other, and somewhere in between the government. County.
At the end of the day, a deal is usually negotiated. In exchange for increased density or other bonus features, the developer agrees to provide community-specific gear. Public art here, underground utilities there, affordable housing there. . . this kind of things.
But when the vote is taken and all parties move on, what then? That could be the goal of the Arlington government auditor over the next year.
Auditor Chris Horton has offered to spend about 300 of his 2,000 hours of work in fiscal year 2023 evaluating old site plans to determine whether the benefits promised to the public have actually materialized.
His work plan, which will have to be endorsed by the County Board, was welcomed at the April 7 meeting of the government’s audit committee.
“I really like this idea,” said John Vihstadt, a former county council member who currently serves as a citizens’ representative on the panel.
Vihstadt said ensuring the community benefits emanating from site plan covenants actually materialize will go a long way to “building community confidence in how the county is handling development and growth.”
“It will be reassuring for people,” he said.
County Executive Mark Schwartz agreed with the idea, saying it would be timely and help assess “how we are doing with the promises that have been made.”
But just wait a second, some of you long involved in county activism might say. Haven’t we been down this road before?
Indeed we have.
More than 15 years ago, the county government hired a consultant to determine if site plan conditions were being met.
“There was a lot of community involvement in 2005 and 2006,” said Schwartz, who was in county government but not county executive at the time.
The consultant delivered the report and while some recommendations to improve the monitoring process were adopted, a number were never addressed.
“Some [recommendations] have been implemented, but many have not,” acknowledged Schwartz.
The reason? It often boils down to staff availability and overall government priorities.
“I don’t want to pretend we have enough people” to complete every project, the county executive said.
Horton’s proposed audit is not likely to delve into the larger topic of whether the community was getting a fair deal in sitemap agreements with developers, as this is a matter of policy rather than an administrative task.
“I’m always thinking about ‘scope drift,'” Horton said of asking for a direct assessment of whether the site plan conditions are being met.
County Council will vote on Horton’s planned fiscal 2023 work plan in June. It is likely that the site plan audit will go through the approval process; two county council members (Takis Karantonis and Christian Dorsey) sit on the audit committee and have expressed support for the idea.
“Obviously we’re very interested in that,” Karantonis said.
The site plan audit will likely be the only major new initiative in Horton’s arsenal for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, as it has a number of projects from previous years that need to be completed.
“Deferral audits are going to make up the bulk of the time spent” over the coming year, he said.
Horton is one of the few county government employees who report directly to the county council, rather than to Schwartz. The Audit Committee is an advisory committee appointed by the County Council.