Challengers Rap Zimmerman on Development Policies

Arlington Sun Gazette, September 5, 2006

Challengers Rap Zimmerman on Development Policies
by SCOTT McCAFFREY, Staff Writer

(Created: Tuesday, September 5, 2006 11:08 PM EDT)

Are County Board policies on development set to turn Arlington into a community where only two types of people – the wealthy and the super-wealthy – can afford to live?

That was the mantra of County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman’s two challengers at the Sept. 5 Arlington County Civic Federation debate, the event that serves as an unofficial kickoff to the county’s campaign season.

Both Republican Mike McMenamin and Green Party candidate Josh Ruebner said Zimmerman’s 10-year tenure is emblematic of a Democratic County Board monopoly that pays lip service to diversity, while allowing developers to destroy existing neighborhoods for quick profits.

“Developers [are] working hand-in-glove with the County Board to gentrify Arlington into an upper-income community,” said Ruebner, who pressed the issue most strongly during the candidate forum.

“In a few more years, Arlington will be completely empty of the economic and ethnic diversity that the County Board claims to value,” Ruebner said.

McMenamin focused his attacks on what board policy is doing to Arlington’s established neighborhoods, and the people who live in them.

“We are driving the middle class out of Arlington,” largely due to increasing taxes, he said.

Zimmerman, who has served on the County Board since 1996 and is seeking his fourth term, said that affordable-housing was the board’s number-one priority, and that the county government has enacted a number of measures to ensure Arlington remains home to an economically diverse group of residents.

“We haven’t been sitting idly by,” Zimmerman said, pointing to an extensive amount of tax relief offered to elderly and moderate-income homeowners, and a host of other initiatives.

Zimmerman, who as a Democrat enjoys front-runner status in the race, often breezed past his challengers’ criticisms, to offer a broader view of Arlington that at times sounded almost Reaganesque.

“Our greatest resource is the spirit of the Arlington community,” Zimmerman said at one point. At another: “Our best days as a community are ahead of us.”

Zimmerman sidestepped a direct question on whether he would support raising real estate tax rates next year, a politically unpleasant prospect facing the County Board as it grapples with a flattening real estate market.

Over the past five years, board members have been able to use rising home values to cut the real estate tax rate significantly, while still reaping a windfall in real estate tax revenue. Most residents have seen their tax bills double during that period; while some have complained, incumbents have not been held to account for the increase at the polls.

Now, with home assessments likely to be flat this year, board members are faced with two options: raise the tax rate, or cut back government programs.

Neither of the challengers offered a direct answer to the question of next year’s real estate tax rate, either. McMenamin said he would not raise taxes, but was not more specific, while Ruebner said he supported more tax relief for certain income groups.

Zimmerman’s seat is the only one of the five County Board seats up for grabs this year. All board seats are elected countywide.

Democrats traditionally win 60 to 70 percent of the vote in countywide general elections. But in a three-way race, with one candidate coming from Zimmerman’s left and one running somewhat to his right, the dynamics of the race could be more nuanced than in previous years.

Last year, in a three-way School Board race that pitted Democrat Ed Fendley against Republican Bill Barker and independent Cecelia Espenoza, the two challengers held Fendley to just 55 percent of the vote, well below Democrats’ traditional vote totals.

The good news for Democrats coming out of that race, of course, was that 55 percent still wins elections. Ruebner and McMenamin will need to find a way to get Zimmerman down around 40 percent in order for this race to be competitive, not something most political insiders expect to see happen.

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