Arlington Democrats Debate Offers New Look At County Board Candidates

ARLINGTON, VA — The six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for two spots opening on the Arlington County Board are getting into the groove of campaigning as early voting kicked off on Friday.

So far, the candidate forums sponsored by various organizations in the county have been cordial affairs, despite clear differences in the policy positions of the candidates on certain issues.

The friendly nature of the debates contrasts with the race for commonwealth’s attorney of Arlington and Falls Church, where challenger Josh Katcher is waging a combative campaign to unseat incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.

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On Wednesday night, at a candidate forum hosted by the Arlington County Democratic Committee at the Lubber Run Community Center, audience members were allowed by the hosts to cheer for their candidate of choice. During the forum, Maureen Coffey and fellow candidate Julius “JD” Spain received the loudest applause in response to their answers to questions from the moderator and to their closing statements.

Natalie Roy and Susan Cunningham, the only two candidates among the six who steadfastly opposed the Missing Middle Housing plan during its review by the Arlington County Board, emphasized that they have been loyal Democrats through the years.

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READ ALSO: Arlington Primary Election 2023 Early Voting Set To Begin

But both candidates did not shy away from telling Arlington Democrats that they opposed the outcome of the Missing Middle Housing study and how the process was conducted.

Other candidates who supported the board’s adoption of Missing Middle agreed with Roy and Cunningham that the county’s process in passing the major zoning revision was flawed and should have involved connecting it to the larger vision for the future of Arlington County.

On a question related to Missing Middle at Wednesday’s forum held by Arlington Democrats, where a large part of the audience favored the major zoning change, Tony Weaver said he supported the Missing Middle Housing plan.

At a candidates’ debate on April 26 sponsored by the Donaldson Run Civic Association and other civic associations, where the audience was more skeptical of Missing Middle, candidates were asked a yes-or-no question about whether they supported the vote by the county board in March to approve the Missing Middle Housing plan. Weaver was the only candidate who did not give a yes or no answer.

Roy and Cunningham answered “no” to the question, while Coffey, Spain and Jonathan Dromgoole answered “yes.” Weaver responded by saying he liked certain elements of the plan, such as duplexes, townhomes and fourplexes on the largest lots.

“My general sentiment about sixplexes was the way that the policy was written, they are very unlikely to get built because few of those structures will fit within the building envelope where they are likely to be built based on market forces,” he said.

Weaver’s response confused members of the audience at the Donaldson Run Civic Federation candidate forum. Some said Weaver’s response meant he would not have voted in favor of Missing Middle, while others said he would have voted for its adoption.

Asked about their No. 1 priority if elected to one of the two positions opening on the board, Dromgoole said that improving transparency in how the board acts and moves policies forward would be his top goal. Roy seconded Dromgoole’s stance on transparency and added that she would make public engagement and responsiveness to all communities in the county a top priority on her first day in office.

Coffey said the county needs to do a better job of long-term planning and that Arlington leaders need to develop holistic plans that connect to their larger vision for the county. Weaver said his No. 1 priority as a county board member would be reducing the commercial vacancy rate so that the tax burden does not fall too hard on the residential sector.

Cunningham said that reconnecting children to the community, an issue that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, would be her top priority. Spain said that addressing the mental health needs of Arlington residents would be his No. 1 priority.

READ ALSO: Katie Cristol To Leave Arlington Board To Head Tysons Community Group

At the April 26 forum sponsored by the Donaldson Run Civic Association, candidates were asked about lot coverage in residential areas, and most agreed that lot coverage reform is necessary in Arlington.

“Lot coverage should have been looked at a decade ago,” Cunningham said. “And all of the civic associations in this room have been saying that. The county board was disingenuous, frankly, in moving forward with zoning reform without touching lot coverage.”

Lot coverage is the ratio of an occupied area, including buildings and driveways, compared to the total area of the lot.

Cunningham said it’s not common sense to allow new density without dealing with an issue that concerns many Arlingtonians: the county is allowing too much coverage of lots by the building of huge homes on lots previously occupied by more reasonably sized homes.

In her first 30 days as a county board member, Cunningham said she would likely push to get work started on a study that looks at lot coverage reform and getting zoning changes put in place “to slow down the McMansionization” of Arlington’s neighborhoods.

Dromgoole said the huge size of the homes getting built on the county’s small lots “doesn’t give hope for a lot of our residents, especially younger residents or those who are hoping to age in place or coming to Arlington for the first time.”

The Democratic primary election on June 20 is open to any voter in Arlington County. Audrey Clement, an independent, who appeared at the April 26 forum sponsored by the Donaldson Run Civic Association, is on the November ballot to fill one of the two open seats on the board.

Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey and Board member Katie Cristol decided not to seek re-election.

Cristol announced Tuesday that she has accepted a job offer to serve as CEO of the Tysons Community Alliance, a new public-private partnership in the Tysons area. Her last day on the Arlington County Board will be July 4. According to Virginia law, the Arlington County Board must fill Cristol’s vacancy by appointment within 30 days of her departure date of July 4.

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