I live in Fairfax County, immediately south of the City of Falls Church and west of Seven Corners. Recently, I was checking out my neighborhood on Google Maps and noticed the words “West Falls Church” just south of Arlington Boulevard, between the Beltway and Seven Corners.

Image from Google Maps.

I started to report this to Google as an error, since their “West Falls Church” designation was due south of the city of Falls Church, and 3 miles from the West Falls Church Metro station. But first, I thought I’d search Google Maps for “West Falls Church VA.”

An outline appeared, covering the area from the Beltway to Sleepy Hollow Road, and from Lee Highway to the north to Holmes Run to the south. Clearly, someone had defined this area as “West Falls Church.” (As an aside, searches for “West Falls Church VA” on Bing and Mapquest return much more sensible results: the intersection of West Street and West Broad Street in Falls Church City, near the Metro station.)

What is a Census-Designated Place?

A quick search on Wikipedia showed that “West Falls Church” is the name of the Census-Designated Place (CDP) outlined on Google Maps. Before the 2010 Census, the CDP had been named “Jefferson,” presumably after Jefferson Village, a neighborhood in the CDP but certainly not the focal point for the entire area.

For the 2010 Census, the Bureau established the following criteria for CDP names:

The CDP name should be one that is recognized and used in daily communication by the residents of the community. Because unincorporated communities generally lack legally defined boundaries, a commonly used community name and the geographic extent of its use by local residents is often the best identifier of the extent of a place, the assumption being that if residents associate with a particular name and use it to identify the place in which they live, then the CDP’s boundaries can be mapped based on the use of the name.

There should be features in the landscape that use the name, such that a non-resident would have a general sense of the location or extent of the community; for example, signs indicating when one is entering the community; highway exit signs that use the name; or businesses, schools, or other buildings that make use of the name. It should not be a name developed solely for planning or other purposes (including simply to obtain data from the Census Bureau) that is not in regular daily use by the local residents and business establishments.

So, what was the process to rename the Jefferson CDP? According to a representative from Fairfax County’s Department of Community and Neighborhood Services, in 2009, citizen committees, elected officials, and county staff came together to find a new name:

Because the mailing address for the entire Jefferson CDP was Falls Church, citizens in that CDP told us that they wanted the name changed to Falls Church. Unfortunately, a CDP cannot have the same name as an incorporated city or town that is adjacent to the CDP. After negotiating with stakeholders and the Census Bureau, the name ‘West Falls Church’ was accepted.

Subsequently, I found out that not only is a CDP not allowed to have the same name as an adjacent town or city, but also it is not allowed to be called the town or city name prepended with a cardinal direction unless that term is in “local use.” The CDP residents (which, I was told, included Census Bureau employees) involved in the 2009 process were intent on having the CDP name include “Falls Church” so they opted for the term “West Falls Church.”

While this term certainly is in “local use,” it is not used to describe this CDP, but to describe the area around West Falls Church Metro, or the area of Falls Church City west of the intersection of Broad and Washington streets. I did find the “Shops at West Falls Church” (and a dental practice there) that is in the CDP, but even it is on the very northern edge of the CDP, at the intersection of Lee Highway and West Street.

So, what do you think should “West Falls Church” be called? In my next post, I’ll propose some alternatives.

Roger Wilson has been a resident of the Falls Church area for 16 years. He is the Providence District representative for Fairfax County’s Trails and Sidewalks Committee. Roger is currently pursuing a Postbaccalaureate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems from Penn State.  And, he is a Captain in the Virginia Defense Force.