Fairfax County Mulling Becoming Fairfax City
A sign from the already-existing City of Fairfax. Flickr photo by teejayhanton.

A sign from the already-existing City of Fairfax. Flickr photo by teejayhanton.

In what might be today’s biggest regional transportation news or might be an empty piece of political posturing, Fairfax County is considering becoming a city.

According to the Post, the goal behind becoming a city would be to control local funding in order to better pay for basic road maintenance. On the surface, that’s O.K. news for sustainable transportation advocates. It’s not as if County Executive Anthony Griffin is seeking autonomy to put in more transit or bike and pedestrian paths. Even so, it’s good that Fairfax wants to spend its money on upkeep given that the Commonwealth of Virginia came in 39th of 50 in terms of spending its stimulus money on new construction rather than repairs. So autonomy would be a net gain in terms of transportation spending.

Even better is that becoming a city would be self-reinforcing in terms of making good transportation decisions. I think it’s safe to say that at each moment in the foreseeable future, the City of Fairfax (the new one—it’ll be fun to watch them negotiate a name!) will make better decisions on transportation than the VDOT. As you get more transit users, more pedestrians and more cyclists, you will get more local demand for that kind of infrastructure, and the divide between Fairfax policy and VDOT policy will only widen.

To my mind, though, the most important impact of becoming a city rather than a county is the symbolic power of that act. It’s impossible to quantify, but the mayor of what would be the region’s largest city (around 1 million residents versus the District’s 600,000) is going to think of himself more urbanly than the county executive of the same area would. Those who move to the largest city in Virginia will think of that choice as something different, even if they live in the same house or apartment they otherwise would have. Perceptions matter; symbols matter.

The Post quotes Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, as saying “Fifty, 60 years ago . . . we were one of the largest producers of dairy products. Now we are a mostly suburban community with some urbanizing areas. The city label more accurately describes what Fairfax is.” I’m not sure that as of today that’s true. But I’m quite certain that the city label will help Fairfax become a city proper.

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  • Keith Bender

    It would be very interesting to review why they decided to place the Courthouse where it is. Was it an attempt at “fairness” ? The town of Providence (1806) became the town of Fairfax only because the Courthouse is located there. Study the history of Alexandria County and we see the reverse argument embodied in not wanting to create confusion. Arlington was built as a shrine to George Washington by “Tub Washington Custis,but named after a Custis plantation on the Eastern shore. If you study how we came out of Prince William county and back in time to Westmoreland County and before that “SHIRE”. Then it gets rather fun anticipating the political BS that may ensue. I vote for condemnation proceedings on the little city. They came from the county of Fairfax and back they should go.

  • Madam_S

    This has been done before. Clarke County, GA, merged with the City of Athens to form Athens-Clarke County. Although not prosaic (hopefully you can just be Fairfax), it made sense, to reduce duplication of services and layers of government. Of course, bigger is not always better, and it’s questionable if the change will alter the self-image of the place: there are many “multi-centered” cities, so that quality would not necessarily change. Still, there are merits, perhaps including better coordinated actions, because the city/county split works wonders in creating disjointed decisionmaking.

  • George Siekkinen

    The idea of Fairfax County as Fairfax City is quite interesting and possibily very beneficial. VDOT is primarily oriented to the more rural counties of the state. An urbanized county is really somewhat out of their experience and skill set. VDOT is motivated to moving traffic fast and without “inconveniences”, such as pedestrians, bicyclists, and the experience of an urban street or boulevard. There are several issues with Fairfax as a city in that it is not really like other places where there is a defined “center” that has an urban sense. Think Midwestern counties with a real county seat and suburban areas surrounding the county seat. Fairfax is also not a collection of townships or town as in New England or the Midwest – where one typically finds some sort of “center”. It is essentially a rural county that was overwhelmed with unplanned sprawl beginning in the mid-20th century. It is more a disjointed collection of former country crossroads that grew, literally like Topsy, into the such distopias as Tyson’s Corners. Its ideal future will probably be a collection of urban centers centered on transit routes – possibly more light rail and former “grayfields” of shopping center converted into village centers. At some point, one will have to be able to reach the city/county government via some form of mass transit. I do not know if the population can withstand the more likely tendancy to engage in NIMBYism and oppose higher density on former defunct shopping center or convert Richmond Highway into a string of urban centers with a light rail line taking out several lanes. If the local leadership and the population can see a better vision in the future as a multi-centered “city” then let us hope for the best. If it is a scheme to gain control of funds and decision-making to maintain the current “sub”-urban state of being, then there really is not much “vision” in this.

  • Lennie

    I don’t see why this would be strange; Farifax already works much like a separate city and has been fostering interesting and sustainable development. MOreover, this is not the first time this has happened, in the very saem Commonwealth of Virginia in 1963, Princess Anne County became the City of Virginia Beach, home to over a quarter million residents now and -althought a bit belated- is taking steps to become more diverse, sustainable and less car-dependant…Go Fairfax!

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