CBC History
by Wayne Dexter

Citizens for a Better City
Your Hometown Political Party
By Wayne Dexter

[NOTE: The CBC History was originally published in November 1985, and it was updated in November 1993. Further updates will be written.]

Citizens for a Better City (CBC) has been a dominant political force in Falls Church most of the time since it was organized in 1958. Consequently, CBC must accept the major share of credit or blame for the quality of Falls Church schools, the effectiveness of its government, and the nature of its business and residential development. CBC's position has been achieved by sustained political effort over nearly three and one-half decades, often against strong opposition.

The task of the first CBC council was to deal with critical problems remaining from the court settlement that had converted the rural village into a small city 11 years earlier. The new city was plagued by a shortage of land that persists to this day. It had inadequate schools and few of the amenities common in other small cities. There was no community consensus on educational and development policies and the town was sharply divided politically.

Falls Church shares with other suburban communities in the Washington area continuing problems of urban growth, traffic congestion, and economic development. Recently, an economic downturn focused attention on the need to attract business to relieve the tax burden on residential property. This is certain to involve highly sensitive planning and zoning issues.

New problems alter political perspectives. If CBC is to continue to play a leading political role it must continuously assess its organization and philosophy in terms of the city's future needs. Such an assessment can best be made in the context of the party's history.

BEGINNINGS

Following the end of World War II, Falls Church played out a scenario common among similar communities around the nation. Rapid growth in a central city, in this case Washington, spilled people out into surrounding suburban communities. Falls Church, a quiet crossroads village of 2,576 in 1940, was notable mainly for its historic Falls Church and the two major highways that intersect at its heart. Though its history reaches back to pre-revolutionary times, it was not incorporated as a town until 1875. At the beginning of World War II, its schools were in the Fairfax County system. The county was controlled politically by the then dominant Byrd organization.

Burgeoning population - it almost tripled during the 1940's - placed heavy burdens on the town's schools, streets and roads, drainage, garbage collection, and other city services. The newcomers generally demanded higher quality educational and municipal services than was customary in rural Virginia.

A particularly sore point was the county school system. Many in Falls Church were convinced that the town was paying more in taxes than it was getting back in school funds. They not only demanded better schools and municipal services but were willing to pay the taxes and float the bonds necessary to finance them. This was strongly opposed by many of the native residents long used to low taxes, minimum services, and pay-as-you-go fiscal policies.

Along with better schools, the new residents felt an equally compelling need for more control over the city's future growth than was possible under a town form of government. Many had come to Falls Church because of its "village atmosphere." They were resolved to keep it that way. They favored zoning policies that featured low density development of business and single family detached homes. This was strongly opposed by some residents who owned parcels of undeveloped land or property they thought suitable for commercial development, and by real estate speculators, some of whom lived outside the city. These two motives - better schools and more control over the city's destiny - were major drives behind the successful effort to obtain city status for the community in 1948.

GROWING PAINS

Political strife was even more heated during the city's first decade, with schools remaining at the storm center. Falls Church was badly short-changed in the court settlement that divided the community's school facilities between Fairfax County and the new city. The county received the Oak Street elementary school (later purchased by the city and renamed Thomas Jefferson) and the Falls Church High School (now the unused John G. Whittier junior high.) The city received the badly run down Madison school on North Washington Street and the obsolete Jefferson school built in 1875 and located on Cherry Street. Both have since been torn down. The city was left with no high school, the inadequate elementary schools, and a rapidly rising school population. It had no city hall, library, recreation center, virtually no park land, and a water system dependent on wells within the city.

The court settlement limited the city's land to 2.2 square miles, much of it already occupied by homes and businesses. Two attempts to annex additional land were rejected by the courts. The shortage of open land within the city continues to severely handicap planning for economic development. The two major developments in recent years, the Craver, Mathews & Smith building and the Sunrise Retirement Home, were on land made available by the demolition of the old Madison school.

The city's first elected council approved a bond issue for a new high school and for renovation of Madison and Jefferson schools. Land for George Mason Junior-Senior high school and the Mt. Daniel elementary school was purchased. Since no parcels in the city were large enough to meet state specifications, land had to be purchased in the county.

Opposition to these actions was immediate, vigorous, and persistent. The opponents regained control of the council and ordered an investigation of the school board based on charges of malfeasance brought by a group of citizens in l951. The controversy was fed by delays in construction of new school buildings resulting from postwar shortages of steel.

After weeks of civic turmoil, all members of the school board (except one who was overseas) resigned, charging they were being "systematically harassed." Support came quickly but nevertheless too late. A "committee of 100" was formed which mustered several hundred citizens to the council meeting at which the resignations were considered. The committee demanded that the council not accept the board members resignations but the council refused. The controversy subsided after supporters of the school system regained control of the council in 1953 and appointed new members to the school board. Work went forward with additions to George Mason and Mt. Daniel and the renovation of Madison. The Thomas Jefferson school was purchased from Fairfax County.

STRIP ZONING OF WEST BROAD

Although school issues were more pressing in the early years and received the bulk of public and press attention, zoning issues have been no less controversial and much more persistent. Years ago the community reached a consensus on the school issue. High quality education is now widely accepted as a civic responsibility. But zoning issues remain forever with us.

Rapid growth during the 1950's presented an opportunity to develop the city in ways that would attract sound business development while retaining the distinctive residential nature of the community. It also offered the opportunity for real estate owners and speculators to make a lot of money. Over the years, the majority of residents have shown a preference for open space, quiet residential areas, low traffic volumes, and low rise buildings. Not surprisingly, real estate interests have preferred zoning policies that permit more dense development.

A hard fought case in the early 1950's illustrates the magnitude of this problem. This was the strip zoning of West Broad Street in 1952, which left a permanent stamp on the development of the downtown business area. The proposal to zone for commercial use a narrow band of land on both sides of West Broad Street had been rejected by the planning commission. The council majority petitioned the state legislature to change the city's charter so that the council could override the commission by four votes rather than five. This was done by the legislature. As it turned out, however, the action was unnecessary since a council member switched his vote, providing the five vote margin. The five vote requirement was restored in 1954 by the legislature at the request of a new council.

As the planning commission had predicted, the strip zoning of West Broad Street effectively prevented block zoning which could have permitted creation of a more desirable central business district and more sensible traffic management.

THE SECOND SCHOOL CRISIS

The problems that beset the Falls Church school system which had appeared to be moving toward a rational solution, erupted again in the late 1950's. Those critical of the system regained control of the council in 1957. The new council majority rejected a school board request for a bond issue for expansion of the high school, despite a petition signed by 1,200 residents. The council then replaced members of the school board who had recommended the bond issue.

The actions of the new school board now seem strange indeed. It:

• Voted to eliminate 12 positions from the school staff, including the nurses, psychologist, and two librarians.

• Seriously considered eliminating two of the four principals.

• Proposed to house children in Quonset huts rather than permanent buildings.

Again the public was aroused. At the height of the controversy, one school board meeting was attended by more than 300 persons. The situation emphasized once again the need for a longer-term solution to the political ills that afflicted the city. It was now apparent that the school crises reflected the ephemeral nature of the political efforts of supporters of the system during the first decade of the city's existence.

Citizens favoring good schools, low density zoning, and better municipal administration would band together on an ad hoc basis to win an election. Once in power, they would let the organization wither away and as a result, lose the next election. An editorial in the Washington Post pinpointed the difficulty.

"The lesson is clear. Hard work built a good school system in Falls Church, but political apathy brought neglect of the vigilance at the polls necessary to insure its continuation."

Taking the lesson to heart, a group of citizens, many of whom had been active in city politics since the time when Falls Church was still a town, began a series of meetings in late 1958 to select and elect candidates for the 1959 council election. They described themselves as a nonpartisan group representing "all areas of the city and a broad range of views - Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, government workers and private business," united by a determination "to bring back good municipal government to Falls Church." The group, calling itself Citizens for a Better Council, was the forerunner of the present Citizens for a Better City.

CBC declared in its initial statement that "we are deeply disturbed by the steady deterioration in the quality, intentions, and direction of our political leadership. The reputation of our city as a desirable residential and business community is being undermined. Our future growth is imperiled."

The group charged that "our schools - once a major attraction of this community and a source of justified pride - are now being driven into mediocrity." The statement cited delayed construction, crowding, lowering of standards, reductions in budgets, and teacher pay scales below area standards, in support of its claim that the school system was being subjected to "systematic, vicious attack."

Although it considered schools the most pressing issue, CBC also stressed zoning for public interest, open debate on major matters of policy, and appointments to city boards and commissions of qualified persons. An overwhelming victory in the council election testified that the policies of CBC accurately reflected community sentiment.

CBC's efforts brought national attention to Falls Church in 1962 when the city received an All-American City award from Look magazine and the National Municipal League because "It got better government and better schools through nonpartisan political action."

A PERMANENT PARTY

Many of those working in Citizens for a Better Council were convinced that the victory in the 1959 council election, satisfying as it was, represented only a step in the right direction. The critical issues of the time - schools, business development, protection of residential areas, staffing the city government with able and qualified persons - were long term. Other more mundane but no less important matters, such as streets and roads, curbs and gutters, water and sewers, parks, library, recreation facilities, and a master plan for development also required continuity of policy and personnel. The opposition, though now clearly a minority, was strongly entrenched. Time was needed to recruit and appoint qualified members of the school board, planning commission, and other civic bodies.

With these considerations in mind, discussions aimed at creating a permanent political organization were begun soon after the 1959 election. Citizens for a Better City was in operation within a few months and continues so today.

The stated aims of the new party reflected the view that if Falls Church is to be a desirable place to live, it must have "good city government, responsive to the needs and interests" of its residents. To accomplish this objective, CBC seeks to:

• Select able and qualified persons to run as candidates for the city council and work for their election;

• Keep members informed about the progress of Falls Church;

• Inform the public of CBC objectives, principles and activities.

The structure of the organization is simple. It consists of:

• a nominating convention held before each council election;

• an executive committee composed of ten members elected at large for two-year terms at a general meeting of the membership;

• five officers - president, vice president, recording secretary, corresponding secretary and treasurer - elected by the membership;

• present and past members of the city council who are members of CBC; and

• former presidents of CBC.

The organization and objectives of CBC as they have evolved over a quarter century reflect the small town aspect of Falls Church, its suburban nature, and its proximity to the nation's capital. Several features are unusual, if not unique, for an organization of its kind. These include:

An open nominating convention.

Residents of voting age may attend the convention, participate in its proceedings, and vote for nominees, whether or not they are members of CBC. Also, any resident of voting age, whether or not a member of CBC, may seek the convention's endorsement as a candidate for the council. All candidates for nomination are required to subscribe to CBC principles.

These provisions were adopted to encourage the widest possible participation in CBC conventions. The possibility that an opposition group could come into the convention and nominate candidates hostile to CBC was recognized and accepted. It was believed that the advantages of an open convention made the risk worthwhile.

The open convention gives lie to the charge sometimes made that CBC is a political machine run by a secret inner group.

No party platform. CBC does not develop a party platform to which candidates for nomination at the convention are pledged. Instead, candidates are quizzed during the question period at the convention as to their stands on issues, philosophical positions and personal qualifications. After the convention, the nominees draft their own platform which is expected to be consistent with the stated principles of CBC.

This practice reflects the long held CBC position that the best guarantee of good city government is the experience, judgment, competence and integrity of council members. There are also practical considerations. In this small city, politics are generally carried on by those who work full time elsewhere. Most do not have time or energy for the time-consuming and often tendentious process of platform writing. Nor is there time for it in a convention that meets for a few hours one evening every two years.

Positions on issues. By long-standing consensus, CBC does not take stands as an organization on specific issues before councils on which CBC is represented. This position derives logically from the primary aim of electing able council members. Those elected on a CBC ticket are accepted as spokespersons for the party while they are in office. There are certain advantages to this procedure. Accountability is clear. Council members are fully responsible for the positions they take. Another advantage is that it minimizes the possibility of an open break between CBC council members and the organization. This could be confusing to the public and politically damaging. Also, it avoids the possibility of CBC splitting into factions when CBC council members disagree - which occurs frequently.

The relation of the CBC executive committee to CBC council members is analogous to that of the national committees of the major parties to the candidates for Congress they support. The chief functions of the executive committee are to elect CBC nominees and to maintain the organization between elections, and not to dictate policy on issues being considered by the council.

This is not to say that there is no interchange of views among CBC council members, the executive committee and the membership. CBC councilpersons are members of the executive committee and considerable time in meetings is devoted to discussing current issues. Members are free to press their views on individual council members and many do, either personally or through representatives of other organizations to which they belong. CBC forums and its newsletter are other means by which views are exchanged.

Nonpartisan policy. The Falls Church City charter specifies that ballots used in the election of council members shall not have "any distinguishing mark or symbol" indicating party affiliation. The federal Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from running for office as representatives of national parties. These two provisions are the basis for the tradition of nonpartisan city council elections in Falls Church. Over the years, CBC has made a determined effort to enlist all those devoted to good municipal government, whatever their state and national party affiliations or ideological position. Every CBC board has had both Republicans and Democrats. Included in several years were the chairpersons of the city committees of both parties.

THE FAILED LAWSUITS

CBC proved its mettle in the 1960's, retaining a council majority until the end of the decade. But the fight for good schools was far from over. Unable to win at the polls, the opposition resorted to the courts.

The first challenge came in 1960. After a hard fought campaign, voters approved a referendum on a $1.2 million bond issue to provide $875,000 for enlargement of George Mason and modernization of Madison elementary, and $325,000 for storm drains and street projects. Alleging irregularities, the Falls Church Taxpayers League asked the Fairfax County Circuit Court to invalidate the result. The court found the bond issue legal, a decision affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

The second suit asked the court to vacate the seats of the four federal employees on the City Council, all of whom were members of CBC. The suit was based on a 175-year old state law prohibiting such service by federal employees above the rank of "clerk." The courts rejected the suit, thus confirming the right of federal employees to serve on the council. It is worth noting that if the League's suit had been successful, it would have invalidated not only the votes of the four councilmen on the referendum, but all of their other council actions.

THE BANK IMBROGLIO

The drive to cut school expenditures rapidly lost momentum to be replaced by general pride in the accomplishments and reputation of the system. Unfortunately, however, this was not a harbinger of an era of good feelings. Issues involving business development and zoning moved to the forefront. By the end of the decade, these focused on the proposed development of the First Virginia Bank property at the intersection of Broad and Washington streets. This is the tract opposite Brown's Hardware, developed in 1985.

The Bank proposed to construct an office building that exceeded the city's seven story height limit. This was strongly opposed by those determined to maintain low density development in the city. They feared that once the height barrier was breached, the way would be open to high rise development similar to that of Rosslyn. The issue was no less important to those who saw the Bank's proposal as an essential key to the long-sought creation of a central business district. They were willing to raise the height limit to achieve this goal. The controversy divided CBC as well as citizens generally. Following protracted negotiations, the Bank submitted a site plan for a building within the height limitation, which was approved by the planning commission. Later, however, the Bank withdrew its proposal. The Bank gave no public explanation, but a factor in its decision may have been a recently enacted state law which prohibited a bank located in a city from having branches more than five miles from its central office. The Bank had numerous branches more than five miles distant, in Arlington and Fairfax counties.

The Bank later constructed two high rise buildings just outside the city, in the Seven Corners area.

CBC LOSES COUNCIL MAJORITY

In the 1969 council campaign, a major effort by real estate interests, dissension within CBC over the Bank issue, and perhaps some relaxation of "vigilance at the polls" resulted in CBC's first and only loss of a Council majority. An immediate after effect was another zoning issue, as divisive as the strip zoning of Broad Street in the 1950's and the First Virginia Bank's proposal.

The new council majority first tried a ploy that had been used earlier. It attempted to change the City Charter to permit the council to override the planning commission by four voted rather than five. This was defeated by a massive petition campaign that obtained more than 2,000 signatures.

Frustrated in this attempt, the opposition councilmen refused to give up. The council adopted a Planned Unit Development ordinance which was supported by CBC members as a useful device for planning and development of the commercial areas of the city. The PUD ordinance did not control density; this was to be done by assigning Land Use Intensity ratings (LUI's) to various areas.

There followed a classic maneuver to subvert the intent of the PUD ordinance. The night it was passed, after most of the audience had gone home, without public notice or hearing, without recommendation of the planning commission, the council majority adopted a resolution which assigned interim LUI's for most of the city, residential as well as business. The effect would have been to open certain areas to highly intensive development. For example, maximum ratings were assigned to Tyler Gardens (now Winter Hill) and the tract now occupied by the Oakwood Apartments. These were more than twice the density of the Roosevelt and Madison apartment areas.

Public outrage forced the council to modify these actions and was largely responsible for CBC regaining its council majority in the 1974 election. Political strife then eased markedly. In the four elections from 1980 through 1986 council candidates supported by CBC were uncontested.

COPING WITH SUCCESS

The absence of highly divisive issues during most of the 1980's was a welcome interlude to veterans of the political battles of the 1950's and the 1960's. With the bitter debates of the early years largely resolved, the main political dialogue took place in CBC nominating conventions and its annual forums. The general community consensus freed the council and school board to devote attention to more routine matters.

Success also imposed problems. The lack of competition indicated general satisfaction with current policies and the quality of council members and appointees to boards and commissions. But without the spur of competition, it was difficult to maintain campaign organization at block and ward levels. Lack of controversial issues led to political apathy among citizens generally.

Nevertheless, the party continued to function. Membership drives were conducted, funds solicited, literature prepared and distributed, and the campaign organization maintained. CBC nominees campaigned actively, reflecting the general belief among members that a political party is responsible for informing citizens of its principles, activities and goals.

Interest in local politics revived dramatically after the 1986 election. In 1988, CBC faced opposition for the first time from a new party, the Falls Church Citizens Organization (FCCO.) Preceding organization, several issues of an anonymously written broadside entitled "Blur" were distributed. It attacked not only CBC council persons but also the schools and the city's professional staff. This disturbing development violated the city's tradition of open political debate.

The new party campaigned vigorously, charging that CBC policies had resulted in "runaway taxes." The three candidates supported by CBC were defeated, but four elected in 1986 remained in office. In the next two years, political debate was warm and often rancorous. CBC won all four of the contested seats in 1990 and all three in 1992.

DEVELOPMENT ISSUE REVIVED

The intensity of the political dialogue in the last half of the 1980's and the early years of the 1990's centered around business development and the schools. The development issue reflected concern about the traffic congestion and deteriorating appearance of West Broad Street. The schools were built early in the city's history and all needed rehabilitation. The voters approved bonds to finance the West Broad Street Improvement project (supplementing state funds) and improvements at George Mason. The council also arranged financing for work on the library and the elementary schools.

THE JOB AHEAD

Under the leadership of CBC council members, Falls Church has made long strides in converting a tiny village into a viable small city. The political stresses in future years are likely at times to be as severe as those of the past, but there is a significant difference. We are now a good deal more sophisticated politically. The fiercely contending political factions of the 1950's seldom lasted from one election to the next. No group was able to maintain a council majority long enough to establish a viable program. In the last 3 1/2 decades, however, CBC provided a rallying point for those seeking quality education, responsible municipal government, and low density development.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be drawn from the brief history presented here is simply this:                 We have learned that to have the kind of a community we want, continuing, organized political action is essential.