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Arlington's plan for Columbia Pike home draws pushback

Proposal for eminent domain has now become a political football

An apparently escalating fight over possible condemnation of a home at a key entrance to the Arlington View neighborhood is now taking on racial-equity overtones. And is becoming part of the Democratic County Board primary, as well.

At the May 18 Arlington County Board meeting, a conservator for the owner of the house at 1802 Columbia Pike said county leaders acted prematurely in agreeing to move forward on condemnation of the home.

“This home is structurally sound. It is currently being renovated,” said Sandra Fortson, acting as conservator for the Newman family, which has owned the property for more than a century.

Fortson also is the cousin of the family member who previously had occupied the home.

In March, County Board members authorized staff to make a purchase offer for the property, and if that failed, to acquire the parcel via the government’s eminent-domain powers. The property would be used to realign South Rolfe Street and improve its intersection with Columbia Pike.

Fortson on May 18 told County Board members that the family’s plan was to return her cousin to the home with a caregiver. She said she had attempted, without success, to negotiate providing an easement to county officials, to allow them to conduct work on the nearby intersection without having to take the entire property.

Citing ongoing negotiations, County Board Chairman Libby Garvey and other board members declined to speak publicly on the matter. But at the March public hearing when the decision was made, board members acknowledged they were in a quandary, and seemed to accept that the idea of taking the property of an African-American family that did not want to sell would not provide the best optics for an all-white elected body.

“This has been a hard decision for all of us . . . but I think it’s the right thing to do,” Garvey said then, pointing to the need for better vehicular access to the Arlington View community. The neighborhood is bordered to the east by Interstate 395, to the north by Columbia Pike, to the west by high-rise residential properties and to the south by Army Navy Country Club.

(No members of the community, nor Fortson, spoke at the March hearing.)

The circa-1929 home sits on a lot of 6,153 square feet and is assessed by the county government at $624,800. County officials offered $627,000 and have said they would be open to further negotiation on the price even as they moved forward with condemnation proceedings.

But Fortson said the issue isn’t about the money, but about a property that has dates back to Arlington’s era of segregation, a time when African-American families living in Arlington were forced into a few neighborhoods, including Arlington View.

And now, the issue is part of the upcoming race for Garvey’s seat on the County Board.

In a statement issued May 18, candidate Natalie Roy sided with the family, calling the county government’s desire to take the property “distressing and shameful.”

“Not only should [County Board members] stop this sham process to acquire this property on the cheap, but they should offer the owner and her family assistance, to make their move back as smooth as possible,” Roy said.

The racial component of the issue may prove extra challenging for current County Board members. Since Jan. 1, the five-member body is all-white for the first time since 1999, and concerns have mounted that rising housing prices are likely to further denude the county of its already shrinking diversity base.