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Fairfax takes center stage in national election

Newly identified as a swing state, Virginia held some of the most hotly contested Electoral College votes in the nation during this year’s election. As the most populous county in Virginia, Fairfax County saw multiple visits from both presidential candidates throughout the campaign and local TV stations were jam-packed with political ads for months.

President Barack Obama’s margin of victory in Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia jurisdictions helped him secure a 51 percent - 47 percent win statewide over Republican Mitt Romney. Winning key states like Virginia and Ohio, Obama won a second term as president.

Virginia’s Senate election was equally close, with Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen polling neck-and-neck until the final days of the campaign. With a 53 percent - 47 percent win over Allen, Kaine won the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb (D), who decided not to seek re-election.

The three congressmen who represent portions of Fairfax County in the House of Representative all easily won re-election: Reps. Jim Moran (D-8th), Frank Wolf (R-10th) and Gerry Connolly (D-11th).

Election Day was marred by long lines at the polling places throughout the state. In Fairfax County, which saw 80.5 percent turnout, voters reportedly waited as long as three hours to vote in some locations, while other sites saw virtually no lines at all. On Nov. 27, the Board of Supervisors formed a bipartisan commission to review election processes in the county and recommend possible improvements.

Airport board under fire

The year brought heavy scrutiny and big changes to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board of Directors. The board oversees operations at Washington Dulles and Reagan National airports, the Dulles Toll Road and construction of the Silver Line.

Squabbles between the MWAA Board and state and local officials regarding the cost of the new rail line’s second phase and the use of a project labor agreement spilled over from 2011 into this year, threatening the viability of the rail project.

Then, reports began raising concerns about ethics at the agency, both among staff and board members. A report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General highlighted cases of nepotism, abuse of the agency’s lax travel reimbursement policy, and overuse of sole-source contracts.

The agency also found itself locked in a legal battle with Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) regarding the removal of board member Dennis Martire. Martire agreed to resign his seat as part of a settlement agreement.

After keeping the Silver Line project on track, the MWAA Board began overhauling its policies in the later half of the year, adopting new travel and ethics policies and instructing staff to overhaul the contracting and human resources manuals for the agency. The makeup of the board also changed drastically, with six new members joining just in the last quarter of 2012.

495 Express Lanes give drivers new option

The 495 Express Lanes opened to traffic Nov. 17, adding four new lanes to a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway and bringing a welcome end to four years of construction delays associated with the massive project. Vehicles with three or more passengers can use the Express Lanes for free and other drivers can opt to pay a toll to enjoy the faster trip.

In addition to the new lanes, the project involved replacing more than 50 bridges and overpasses, adding new access points in Merrifield and Tysons Corner and installing new noise walls along the interstate.

The first few days of the new lanes being open brought a flurry of car crashes near the entrance to the northbound lanes as drivers learned to navigate the new traffic pattern. There were six accidents near the same location in the first three days alone. Express Lane operators Transurban continued to try and get drivers to educate themselves about the Express Lanes before hitting the road.

Price for Dulles Toll Road to increase

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board of Directors decided in mid-November to increase toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road in 2013 and again in 2014. In addition to funding operations and maintenance of the toll road, the toll revenues are being used to back bonds to finance construction of the corridor’s new Metrorail line.

On Jan. 1, tolls will go up to $1.75 at the main toll plaza and $1 at the ramps. In 2014, the tolls will increase to $2.50 at the main plaza, remaining $1 on the entrance and exit ramps. The MWAA board will decide in mid-2013 what tolls will be in 2015, which depends on what other funding they are able to obtain for the project.

New Tysons begins to take shape

Plans for the new, more urban Tysons Corner began to take shape this year as the Board of Supervisors approved two massive development plans near some of the new Metro stations in Tysons, which are slated to begin service by the end of 2013.

In September, financial giant Capital One got the go-ahead to build a new headquarters on its Tysons Corner campus and redevelop the surrounding acreage of its office park. The project includes about a dozen new buildings in four development areas, arranged around a new street grid. Including the existing facilities, the project represents about 5 million square feet of development, including offices, apartments, shops, restaurants, a hotel and parking garages. A community center, indoor basketball courts and community parks also are incorporated into the development.

In November, the Board of Supervisors OK’d the Arbor Row development, which encompasses about 20 acres of land that now houses some of the oldest office buildings in Tysons Corner. Arbor Row includes 2.6 million square feet of new apartments, offices, retail space and a hotel. It will house the new headquarters of the Association of Manufacturing Technology.

Region braces for federal budget cuts

Officials in both local and state government hoped for the best but began planning for the worst-case of federal budget cuts as Congress struggled to reach an agreement on deficit reduction.

Multiple analyses projected that Virginia would be hard hit, losing in excess of $5 billion, if the cuts in the federal Budget Control Act go into effect at year’s end. Combined with potential tax rate increases, the so-called “fiscal cliff” could have a greater effect on Virginia’s economy than the recent recession, some projected.

Regardless of the deal that Congress reaches, most analysts expect that there will be reductions in federal defense spending, which will affect Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, in particular. As County Executive Ed Long began preparing his fiscal 2014 budget, he projected more cost-cutting would be in store for county programs for years to come.

Springfield Mall torn down

The tearing down of Springfield Mall in November marked the end of an era, but according to Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee), the best is yet to come for the proposed town center that will take its place, as well as for Springfield itself.

“This is the most important thing to happen in Springfield since Metro came in,” McKay said. “For many, like me, who grew up in this area in the 1980s, Springfield Mall was the place to see and be seen. …To watch it deteriorate the way it did over the last 20 years has been devastating.”

The demolition marked the beginning of a 10-year redevelopment of the mall into a “town center” model, split into four phases, originally scheduled to begin in the summer of 2011.

Those changes are expected to be up and running by the 2014 holiday season, according to McKay.

Exxon Mobil leaves Fairfax County

ExxonMobil announced in June that it will be closing its Fairfax County offices by 2015 and transferring 2,100 jobs to a new facility in Houston.

The company’s office complex, located on Gallows Road in Fairfax, originally was built by Mobil when it moved from New York City in 1981. Since Exxon’s acquisition of Mobil in 1998, Fairfax has been the company’s refining operations headquarters. The presence of the company, one of the county’s largest employers, will be missed.

“While it’s unfortunate ExxonMobil chose not to keep their Fairfax location as part of their consolidation, I don’t expect the space to be vacant very long,” said Sharon Bulova, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairwoman. ”It is a large, conveniently located campus near the [Capital] Beltway, Route 50 and Metro, and I expect that space to be filled quickly.” Hopefully whoever takes over the space will bring 2,100 jobs with them to fill that gap as well.

Derecho rocks region

On June 29, a powerful line of thunderstorms with high winds, known as a derecho, blew through the county, knocking down hundreds of trees and power lines. Two people were killed by falling trees during the storm, and one by downed power lines.

A 27-year-old Burke man died when the car he was driving was hit by a falling tree.

In Springfield, a 90-year-old woman died when a tree fell on her home as she was lying in bed.

A 19-year-old Falls Church man later died on July 15, as a result of electrocution injuries from downed power wires he sustained on June 29 shortly after 11 p.m., Fairfax County Police said.

In addition to power outages, the storm compromised the region’s 911 system for hours, in what Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova described as an “unacceptable period of time.”

A full three days after the storm hit, about 82,600 Dominion Virginia Power customers in Fairfax County and another 1,000 in Fairfax City still remained without power, with temperatures reaching the upper 90s. Dominion spokesman Dan Genest said that Loudoun County, Herndon and the Alexandria areas were among the hardest hit by the storm.

Fairfax pursues its first-ever charter school

Fairfax County received and reviewed its first application for a charter school, which came to a School Board vote in late-October. The effort to found Fairfax Leadership Academy was led by J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher Eric Welch, who hoped his charter would serve at-risk students by fall 2013.

The application was the first Fairfax County-based charter to be approved through the state’s new review process, and the second passed by the Virginia Board of Education. Despite this state approval, local School Board members and the community expressed concerns over the need for more information about private funding, curriculum and services. Welch said the Fairfax Leadership Academy’s board would answer these questions and resubmit its application. He expressed hopes the charter school would open in fall 2014.

Fairfax County Police Chief steps down

When Fairfax County Police Chief Dave Rohrer, 56, joined the department in 1980, there was no cyber crime, there was only one police helicopter, and the Northern Virginia 911 system had not yet been implemented.

After eight years as chief, Rohrer stepped down on Oct. 20, leaving a much different department, one whose communications and technology systems are the envy of many police departments across the country. Rohrer accepted an appointment by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to become the deputy county executive for public safety. “After I accepted, I went home and said to myself ‘What have I done?’” he said. “Stepping out of law enforcement is bittersweet. I have worn a uniform my entire career. Thirty-two years is a long time, and I love this department, but at the same time, I like to grow and face new challenges.”

Merten’s retirement end an era at GMU

In July, long-time George Mason University President Alan G. Merten retired and was replaced by new President Angel Cabrera, 45. Under Merten’s 16-year reign, GMU grew from a commuter to a residential campus, adding about 3,500 beds. The number of on-campus facilities rose from 125 to 168, and student enrollment increased from 24,200 to 33,300. Merten solidified Mason’s role in the region as well as its brand nationally. School leadership said they hoped Cabrera, who came to Fairfax after serving as the president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, would extend the school’s name recognition internationally.

Admissions process at Thomas Jefferson fuels debate

Ranked among the top high schools in the nation, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology drew complaints over its admissions process during the summer months. The NAACP and local minority advocacy group the Coalition of the Silence, which also represents students with disabilities, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education saying “for decades [black and Hispanic] students have been grossly disproportionately underrepresented in admission to [TJ].”

During the 2011-12 school year, black students comprised 1.5 percent or seven of the about 480 students admitted as incoming freshmen. Hispanic students received 2.7 percent or 13 of the about 480 spots.

Also that summer, school administrators looked at concerns from TJ’s community, including teachers, about the increased volume of students needing remedial help with math. The application to TJ, which is a STEM focused governor’s school, includes a math admissions text weighted 20 percent of the application, and information of students’ past performance math and science, which is weighted 15 percent. School Board members said the STEM-schools’ application should include more emphasis on this curricula rather than writing samples, student background questions and teacher recommendations, which total 65 percent of the application.

Fairfax City schools seek crowding solutions

School crowding concerns drew community attention in 2012 when school officials looked to answer capacity issues after enrollment topped 180,000 this fall for the first time. Nearly 3,600 students were added to the school roster this fall. The school system’s enrollment has increased about 2 percent each year for the last five years.

Fairfax City schools, which are owned by the city and run by the county, began discussions on how to relieve crowding at Fairfax High and Lanier Middle schools. The high school is more than 300 students over capacity and could reach as high as 700 students over capacity by 2017 if no changes are made.

Countywide, however, school administrators sought program availability shifts to solve crowding at some elementary and middle schools. A proposed expansion of the Advanced Academic Program Centers in middle and elementary schools countywide was made by school officials, but rejected by the community who worried about watering down rigor.

The School Board also tried, and failed, to gain approval from the Board of Supervisors of an increase to its annual bond funding to pay for school capacity needs.

Herndon teen convicted in animal slashings

A Herndon teenager accused of slashing animals at Frying Pan Farm Park in April and May was convicted in August of three counts of animal maiming and a misdemeanor charge of trespassing.

The teen’s name and sentencing was never released because he is a juvenile.

Police said three horses were slashed with a machete on April 26, and a steer, chicken and goats were slashed overnight between May 26 and 27. All of the animals attacked made full physical recoveries.

According to psychologists, the connection between animal cruelty and human violence is well documented. Studies show a correlation between animal cruelty and other crimes, from narcotics and firearms violations to battery, sexual assault and murder.

“Apparently the police, courts and general public need to be educated about the frightening signals of this slasher’s behavior. He did not need a motive,” said Fairfax-based psychotherapist Patricia Seaver.