Local business owners have launched a grassroots campaign, including flyers and automated phone messages, aimed at convincing the Herndon Town Council to veto a resolution supporting the creation of a special tax district to pay for Fairfax County's share of the Metrorail expansion from West Falls Church to Dulles Airport and on to Loudoun County.
"People are questioning the fairness of the plan by LEADER," said Ray Ritchey, executive vice president of Boston Properties, the large commercial landowner in Herndon. "We are fully committed to rail. This is not an anti-rail thing. … We have a problem with the plan."
The Town Council was set to vote on the resolution Tuesday, which because of the Thanksgiving holiday was too late to make the Connection's early printing deadline.
UNDER THE PROPOSAL, which was submitted as a petition to the county Board of Supervisors, commercial and business properties contained within the proposed district would pay an additional 22 cents in property taxes, effective the January after the plan is adopted. The first payment would be that July.
The figure is proposed to rise to 29 cents after about 10 years and would be phased out after 30 years. The rail project itself, however, would be completed in phases — the first from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston; the second — from Wiehle Avenue to the airport and on to Loudoun County. The second phase is not projected to be completed before 2016.
In addition to the special tax, property owners would still be subject to the county property tax, on top of which the Town of Herndon has a property-tax overlay, meaning some property owners could in essence be paying three taxes on the same property. There are also some instances where those same owners are already part of another special tax district created to fund improvements to Route 28 as well.
In addition, the state is proposing to raise the fees on the Dulles Toll Road to pay its share of the project.
"I think there is disappointment and anger. It wasn't very inclusionary," said Jim Deuel, chairman of the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce. "Those most affected by the district weren't included."
In general, those in the western part of the district feel the plan is too "Tysons-centric," said Deuel. There are no guarantees that the second phase of the project will be financed by the federal government within the next funding cycle, putting the completion of the project in question. There are also no guarantees from the Tysons landowners that they would support a second petition, should cost overruns occur, that would raise the tax.
LOCAL LANDOWNERS say they are being asked to pay up front for something they may never get. Instead, they would like to see the first phase extend to the proposed Herndon-Monroe station or have two districts to fund the two phases.
"On the face of it, it sounded good. I just don't know if I had all the facts," said Bill Lauer, president of Tetra, which has properties in Herndon and Reston, including at the proposed Wiehle temporary terminus. "I was happy rail was going to Wiehle and I knew it's not far enough. You would think as a landowner at a Metro station I would be happy, but … I think the Monroe station is a better one."
Lauer said the site of the Herndon-Monroe station already has parking and land for additional garages, while at Wiehle traffic is already snarled and there is not enough parking to accommodate potential riders. Instead, he said the rail could be built out to the Herndon-Monroe station, bypassing the two proposed Reston stations, then "backfill" them when phase two is begun.
He said, as for the petition, he had not been contacted by LEADER, the group of landowners in the corridor behind the petition, until last Thursday and he has no intention of signing it until it is made more fair to those in the western portion of the district.
In fact, the petition was approved by only 51 percent of the landowners in the corridor. However, Herndon landowners make up only 17 percent of the total signatures.
"That's hardly a mandate to do this," said Deuel. "It's a hard way to start out a multi-million-dollar project."
"WE'RE BUILDING the Grove Street extension for the Town of Herndon. We're on a pay-as-you go basis," said Ritchey. "It's the same philosophy. Nobody from Herndon is against rail."
The business owners aren't the only ones who have come out against the plan. In a Town Council work session to discuss the petition, held Nov. 11, Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) said he sides with the property owners. Besides the inequities of the proposal, he said it will also cause unneeded competition between the business owners. As rail is built in Tysons Corner, he said, that land is going to become more valuable than the property in Reston and Herndon.
"If rail only goes to Tysons, property values in the corridor go down and that affects the tax base," Mendelsohn said. "Businesses do not feel protected. A lot of this is favoring Tysons over the corridor."
A week later at a town Planing Commission work session, Henry Bibber, the town's director of community development, said staff was going to recommend the Town Council ask for some changes to the boundaries of the tax district, namely removing some businesses deemed too far away from the proposed rail to receive any benefit from it. Most are located along Elden Street close to the Fairfax County Parkway and are medical offices and small neighborhood shops such as dry cleaners, eateries or corner markets.
"They are beyond a mile from the station," Bibber said. "Because of their distance and because of the nature of the business, they are not affected by rail."
Ultimately, however, the decision rests with the Board of Supervisors, who are scheduled to hold a public hearing on Dec. 8.
"Metro is too important," said Ritchey. "We're not asking to derail the project. We just want it to be fair."