Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross touted her experience in government while challenger David Feld promised renewed leadership as the candidates outlined their visions for the future of the Fairfax County district in a Wednesday night debate.
Gross, a Democrat who has served on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors since 1996, portrayed Feld as lacking knowledge about county operations. “I think the difference between the candidates is pretty stark,” she said. “And you can easily make a decision: choose between experience and leadership, and no experience and questionable leadership.”
Feld, a Republican and immediate past vice chairman of the nonprofit Mason District Council, argued that residents have seen their living standards decline during Gross’ tenure.
“The proven result is that we have no results,” he said. “Mason District does not look like it belongs in the third-most affluent county in the country. If you look at our streetscapes, if you look at the problems that we have … this is not a great place.”
About 50 people attended the two-hour debate, held by local civic associations at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School. The hot topics of the night proved to be property rights, zoning and neighborhood improvement.
Feld said under current county policy, community members can submit an application for any neighbor’s property to become a park upon sale. Established neighborhoods should not be rezoned, he said.
“When we move in, that’s what we expect,” he said. “We expect it to get better. We expect everything to get better. We don’t expect to see two landowners get together and decide to sell their property and then put in a multi-family housing complex.”
Gross said that kind of rezoning is not in line with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. “No one is going to make your home into a park once you sell it,” she said. “That is not the process, and he needs to learn more about the process, except that I’m not going to let him.”
In response to a question about loitering and zoning violations, Feld said much loitering is caused by people living in overcrowded, unsafe homes. “We have what looks like a refugee camp within our community, and we don’t want that,” he said. “We’re good people. We need to provide a way for people to live in safe houses.”
Gross said Fairfax County is more successful than ever in taking zoning violations to court, getting properties cleaned up and reducing multiple occupancy. She said her civic leadership program has educated residents on what constitutes a violation and said the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Program encourages civic associations to resolve issues with neighbors before taking the matter to code compliance officers.
“A lot of time, people don’t know,” Gross said. “If they’re new to our community, they don’t know our community standards, and someone’s got to tell them.”
Feld said property owners who rent single units to multiple families should be fined and that responsibility of code enforcement should not fall to neighbors. “This is a symptom of a declining community, a community with a standard of living that is going to go really bad, really soon,” he said.
Asked about the feasibility of placing power and telephone lines underground, Feld said he would support a pilot project. Gross said burying lines entails cutting down trees and that she would rather keep the trees. Feld questioned how many trees would need to be felled.
When it comes to traffic calming, Feld wants more officers writing tickets; Gross favors speed bumps. Gross said she’s in favor of a trolley route on Columbia Pike, while Feld said an express bus was a better solution.
The candidates also weighed in on accepting contributions from developers. Gross did not rule it out and noted that all contributions are disclosed to the public. “I probably have as many contributions from retired senior citizens as I do from developers,” she said. “So does that mean I’m in the pocket of the senior citizens? I don’t think so.”
Feld said he was against accepting contributions from anyone who stands to benefit from county business. “As a rule, you do not take anything from anybody that you’re doing business with, whether you disclose it or not,” he said.
Gross, too, said she was in favor of the county taking over the Falls Church water system, which she said charged inflated rates to help pad city budgets. Feld said he did not believe a takeover would lower rates and said that water was cheaper in Fairfax County because the county is not investing in system maintenance.
Asked how to address substandard street cleaning and litter on main roads, Feld said residents should chip in to keep streets clean. Gross, noting that local residents pay state taxes for that service, called Feld’s approach “double-taxation” and said local officials need to push state representatives to provide more transportation funding.
The contenders ended the night with a quick back-and-forth about a perennial issue – campaign signs. Feld said he resisted placing his signs by highways, in violation of state law, until Gross did. “I’m going to have to do it,” he said.
“Well, David, you must have liked where I put my signs, because you put a sign in front of every one of mine,” Gross shot back.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.
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