Fairfax County is sort of like a lake — placid on the surface, a battlefield below. The county’s government plods along with little above-the-surface turmoil but, like any local government, it seethes with competitive pressure and temptations down below.
Most of those temptations revolve around real estate, more specifically real estate developers. In a few short decades, the county has grown from a sleepy suburban oasis to more than 1.1 million people, making it the largest jurisdiction in the D.C. area and the unquestioned economic engine of Virginia.
But family farms and ranchettes don’t turn into high-rise multi-use developments by themselves. It takes developers and a helping — or at least willing — hand from government. During the ten years that retiring Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova has presided, the Dulles Corridor has blossomed, Tysons has exploded into a fast-developing little city and $1 million homes and condos have displaced modest ranch homes and bungalows in one neighborhood after another.
Unlike previous administrations, Bulova’s administration has been largely untouched by whiffs of scandal but now, in its final days, allegations of taint and corruption are beginning to fly, most obviously between incumbent board member Jeff McKay and challenger Tim Chapman, a builder with no notable government experience. As in most such cases, political contributions and favors are the issue.
Chapman was recently outed as having been behind an anonymous memo that suggested McKay had gotten a sweetheart deal on his $850,000 home, a charge McKay angrily suggested bordered on libel. McKay even hired a lawyer to investigate and, with apologies to the Mueller Report players, his lawyer found McKay had done nothing wrong — or, at least, nothing illegal.
Outgoing board chair Bulova, who has endorsed McKay, called the allegations “really rotten.”
Campaign contributions … and more?
All of this annoys Alicia Plerhoples, who is also a lawyer, as well a law professor at Georgetown University and a candidate for the very office McKay and Chapman are competing for in the June 11 Democratic primary.
“When there is smoke, there is not always fire. But the corruption allegations against Jeff McKay are the very reason why I refuse to take political contributions from developers,” said Plerhoples, the only woman and the only person of color in the race, in a recent statement.
“As of the last finance reporting cycle, Jeff McKay has taken over $89,000 from the real estate and construction industry for the June 11 primary, and the Washington Post reports that Jeff McKay has taken $50,000 from businesses affiliated with the Halle company, a Fairfax County developer, in his bid for Chairman,” Plerhoples said.
“Taking such contributions while also overseeing zoning approvals is not illegal, but it raises the specter of impropriety and gives the public doubt about whose interests the Board of Supervisors serves as Fairfax County continues to grow,” she said.
Plerhoples and the fourth candidate in the race, school board member Ryan McElveen, have relied largely on small donations from individual contributors and have said they would not take donations from developers.
McElveen’s campaign received $111,948 by the first quarter reporting deadline from more than 600 individuals, with 544 donors giving less than $100, it reported in mid-April. Plerhoples raised over $90,000.
Conflicts of interest
“One of the principal roles of the Board of Supervisors is approving development throughout the county. We need stronger internal Board policies to keep developers at arms’ length to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Plerhoples said.
“Jeff McKay should not have engaged in this private sale, even if the developer was his friend, but more importantly, the Board should require such non-arms’ length sales to be fully and completely disclosed to the public. We owe the public trust and confidence in our elected officials.”