For Kathy Smith, everything depends on Fairfax County’s countywide strategic plan.
The Sully District supervisor has many issues that she hopes to address if reelected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, such as affordable housing and transportation, but she realizes the county’s future ultimately lies in the community’s hands.
“The important part of the work about being supervisor, it’s really not about, okay, this is the direction I want to go,” Smith said. “It’s really about me engaging with the community, seeing those priorities in the community, and working together to help move Fairfax County forward.”
Initiated under County Executive Bryan Hill, who took office on Jan. 2, 2018, the countywide strategic plan will set Fairfax County’s priorities for the foreseeable future to guide county policy and resource allocation.
Started last November with expectations that an official document will be adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2020, the countywide strategic planning process has brought thousands of community members together over the past year to share their thoughts on the county’s direction, thanks to a public outreach effort that Smith says is more extensive than what she saw when she first joined the board in 2016.
“[Our staff has] made a real effort to go out into communities that aren’t necessarily involved and coming to meetings,” Smith said. “…It’s just wonderful to see how engaged the community is in providing feedback for the strategic plan, and so, I think we’re really moving into the future.”
More robust community engagement is far from the only change that Smith has witnessed over her nearly four years as supervisor.
A New Jersey native and former teacher who has lived in the Sully District since 1984, Smith served as the district’s representative on the Fairfax County School Board for 14 years before being elected on Nov. 3, 2015 to succeed longtime Supervisor Michael Frey, who had held the seat since 1990 when the county first carved out the Sully District.
When Smith took office, the Fairfax County Public Schools system seemed to be at a crossroads with the relationship between the Board of Supervisors and the school board strained after years of budget battles.
An anticipated $70 million deficit for the 2016-2017 school year led FCPS to start a community task force in 2015 to identify potential areas for funding cuts at a time when the county had 200 vacant teacher positions and a reported 50 percent faculty turnover rate.
During Smith’s first year on the Board of Supervisors, Fairfax County eventually allocated $2.7 billion budget to the public school system for the 2017 fiscal year, including $62.2 million for a base salary increase for all employees and $40 million for a teacher scale enhancement.
That saved FCPS from having to make any cuts that would affect instructional programs and services, but it left little room for improvements, still falling millions of dollars short of the school board’s request.
Since then, under Hill and FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand, the Board of Supervisors and school board have made an effort to approach the annual budget process with a collaborative mindset instead of viewing the county government and schools as competitors.
As a result, Fairfax County has fully funded the school board’s budget request for the past two years, including a $3 billion FY 2020 budget approved in May that was primarily devoted to employee compensation.
Smith says her experience on the school board gave her a deeper understanding of the urgency of the school system’s funding requests and has made her a strong advocate for FCPS on the Board of Supervisors.
The Sully District supervisor voiced support for a 4 percent tax on prepared food items when the issue went before Fairfax County voters in November 2016. The meals tax referendum failed, but Smith maintains the measure would have benefitted county residents by alleviating pressure from the real estate tax.
Virginia is a Dillon rule state, meaning local governments are limited to the authority expressly given to them by the state legislature. Unlike towns and cities, counties must receive voter approval through a referendum to levy any tax except for real estate taxes.
The meals tax proposed in 2016 would have generated approximately $100 million annually, 70 percent of which would have gone to FCPS with the rest allocated to other county expenses.
“We’ve had a lot of talk about working with the state to get the same authority that cities and towns have to do this,” Smith said. “It’s really not about grabbing more money that I think sometimes people see it. It’s really about diversifying revenue so that we’re not so dependent on the real estate tax.”
Going forward, Smith is excited about Fairfax County’s ambitions for everything from housing to transportation.
Smith admits that the board has not tackled the county’s affordable housing needs to the extent that she might have liked, noting that such complex issues can take a long time to address, but she believes the county has started to take steps in the right direction.
For instance, the county recently introduced a new workforce housing development called the Residences at Government Center with 270 rental units on just under nine acres of publicly owned land. The project was the result of a public-private partnership between the county, the Virginia Housing Development Authority, the real estate firm Jefferson Apartment Group, and the housing investment company Stratford Capital Group.
Creative approaches like that will be critical for helping Fairfax County reach the goal of 5,000 new affordable housing units in the next 15 years recommended by board’s affordable housing resources panel in March, though the county’s Communitywide Housing Strategic Plan says 15,000 units will be needed in that time span with 5,000 as the minimum baseline.
“There’s not just one solution moving forward, getting to this, but it is a big commitment to the board,” Smith said. “…When we've had the strategic plan community meetings, and even when I'm going door to door campaigning, I hear a lot from people about affordability of housing, so I do think it’s the priority of the public too.”
As the chair of the Board of Supervisors development process committee, Smith’s attention has been occupied lately by the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project, a daunting initiative to update the zoning ordinance that has been ongoing since 2017.
While Fairfax County has a process for amending the zoning ordinance, the existing document has not undergone a substantial overhaul since it was first written about 40 years ago.
Smith says an update is especially important to help build up Fairfax County’s commercial base and ensure the ordinance reflects the demands of a modern community, pointing to the Launch Trampoline Park in Herndon’s Franklin Farm Shopping Center as an example of a business that was encumbered by the county’s zoning regulations.
“The zoning ordinance that was written in the ‘70s didn’t specify trampoline as a use they could do, so we had to change the zoning ordinance,” Smith said. “That shouldn’t slow people down when they want to bring in a business that would be reasonable.”
Smith also serves as vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee, which has been grappling with a loss of funding for needed infrastructure projects as well as efforts to enhance the county’s multimodal transportation network.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which funds regional transportation projects, saw its revenue cut by $154 million annually starting in 2018 when the Virginia General Assembly approved dedicated funding for Metro that March but shut down a proposal to instead pay for it by increasing hotel and real estate transfer taxes.
Among the Sully District projects affected by the NVTA’s funding reduction was a long-in-the-works widening of Route 28, according to Smith.
When originally conceived, the project aimed to expand the state highway from four lanes to six, seven, or eight lanes depending on the specific area, but the reduced funding meant county staff had to limit the widening to just six lanes the whole way.
Still, Smith says she is satisfied with the new Route 28 widening design, which is currently going through the public input process.
Another passion project for Smith has been her push to ensure that there will be access to buses at the new Sully Community Center.
Funded by a human services and community development bond referendum approved by voters in 2016, the Sully Community Center will be a 30,000 square-foot facility on about five acres of land near the National Air and Space Museum’s Udver-Hazy Center in Chantilly.
In addition to providing program and activity space, the community center will house the Sully Senior Center, which currently operates out of a leased space, and a health clinic. The project is in its initial design phase and is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2022.
Having bus routes to the new community center is part of Smith’s vision of a more walkable, connected Sully District.
“I think we're on the cusp of doing good things there,” Smith said.