Some Fairfax County residents are hoping to see a decrease in their water bills following a move by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
However, the board’s action is likely to be challenged in the Virginia General Assembly and, potentially, in court.
The board approved a measure that will set a standard water rate countywide starting July 1, no matter which utility serves a given customer. The cities of Falls Church and Fairfax and the town of Vienna all serve customers outside their borders and charge higher rates than the county’s utility, Fairfax Water.
The average quarterly bill for a Fairfax Water customer is about $60, according to an August analysis by Fairfax Water. For Falls Church water customers, it is about $80, and for Fairfax City and Vienna customers it is about $100 per quarter.
If those jurisdictions can justify the need for their higher rates and demonstrate they are not profiting off the utility, the higher rates can stand, pending county approval.
The board’s action also immediately sets Fairfax Water as the default service provider for all new development in the county, except in cases in which the property owner can demonstrate a reason that connecting to Fairfax Water is not practical or is cost-prohibitive.
Although residents were most interested in the cost controls, the latter action likely will have the greatest impact on the local utility business, particularly in the Tysons Corner area.
Tysons, which is poised for significant redevelopment around its four new Metro stations, is served by both Fairfax Water and Falls Church water.
The change will be bad for the county’s redevelopment efforts, Falls Church officials say. The new regulations will “force county developers to construct new water mains that overlap the existing system in order to hook-up to Fairfax Water, an enormous unnecessary cost that could stop the exciting Tysons and Merrifield redevelopment effort in its tracks,” said Falls Church Councilman Lawrence Webb.
The county has had a long-running legal dispute with Falls Church regarding the city’s water service. After the city raised its water rates earlier this year, the Fairfax County Consumer Protection Commission recommended the county exercise more control on water service within the county.
“Today’s action by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is a blow for regional cooperation,” said Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder.
Vienna officials are no happier with the decision.
“We adamantly oppose any attempt to interfere with our rate-setting,” said Vienna Mayor Jane Seeman.
She testified at the hearing that her town does not profit from its water system and, in fact, has subsidized it from its general fund.
“We have never expanded our system to get more money or new customers,” Seeman said.
Vienna’s county customers predate the existence of Fairfax Water, she said.
County supervisors, on the other hand, said county residents have been overpaying for water service for too long.
“I think it’s time. The inequities that occur in the existing system have gone on far too long,” said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), whose district includes many Falls Church water customers.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said he is concerned the county has rushed into action, although he ultimately supported the measure. He said he hopes the county keeps tabs on how its actions affect the surrounding utilities.
Fairfax city needs to charge higher rates to be viable, he said.
“I don’t want the water to be cut off, and I don’t really want to be a vehicle in a monopoly march by Fairfax Water,” Cook said.
State Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Dist. 34), whose district includes Fairfax city and Vienna, said he will introduce legislation to try to stop the county from interfering with surrounding water utilities. He sees the county as trying to illegally interfere in a contractual relationship that it is not party to.
“I live in Fairfax city. If I go play a round of golf in Fairfax County, does the city council have a right to set the fees?” he asked county board members at a meeting of the county’s legislative delegation Wednesday. “What gives you the right to come into this economic relationship?”
County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D-At large) countered that one party to that relationship, the water customer, has no choice in the matter.
Dels. Mark Keam (D-Dist. 35), who represents Vienna, and Scott Surovell (D-Dist. 44), who represents the U.S. 1 corridor, said they are considering supporting Petersen’s legislation.
Surovell said he has a personal objection to the county’s new rules because of an unintended consequence for his 106-home community that has its own private water district.
“I think the county just required us to file reports every year justifying our water rates,” he said. “I’m not sure that was contemplated.”