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Southgate Challenges County, RA

There was a detailed agenda for last Wednesday’s meeting on the Southgate Recreation Center. Local officials gave speeches on subjects like "Southgate History" and "Making Programming a Reality."

But some people didn’t follow the agenda.

A group of residents interrupted the meeting and challenged local officials, asking whether or not the center will ever be rebuilt. The current plan to renovate the center hinges on a referendum, in which every Reston homeowner has one vote. But for that referendum to be valid, 40 percent of the homeowners need to participate. RA has never seen 40 percent participation in a referendum vote. The highest participation has been around 30 percent.

“[Asking for 40 percent] is like asking for 100 percent,” said Charles Pullen, who works at the center in the summer, as an employee with the Reston Youth Club.

TOM WILKINS, longtime Reston resident and former president of the RA Board of Directors, agreed with Pullen.

“This is only going to give people false hope,” Wilkins said. “We need to take a step back.”

But Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who is working with RA officials on the Southgate project, showed optimism. She said the community surrounding the center needs to band together and encourage the rest of Reston to vote in the referendum.

“When I am faced with a challenge, I don’t start out saying this has never been done before, so it can’t be done,” Hudgins said. “You put your heart into it. You put beyond your heart, you put your labor into it.”

And although neighborhood residents were encouraged to help spread the word on Southgate, most will not be able to vote in the referendum. The neighborhood immediately surrounding the center is one of the lowest rent neighborhoods in Reston, consisting almost entirely of apartment complexes. But, according to RA policy, only homeowners are able to vote in the upcoming referendum. Apartment dwellers are not eligible.

“We are a homeowners association,” said Glenn Downing, president of the RA Board of Directors.

PULLEN, WHO GREW UP in the nearby Stonegate apartment complex, asked if there was some way neighborhood residents could be included in the vote. He was told there was no way, according to RA documents. RA plans to sign the center over to the county on a long-term lease, in exchange for which the county will fund the $1.5 million renovation. RA by-laws say a long-term lease is equivalent to a donation of property and it requires a community referendum. Although apartment dwellers are able to vote in RA’s yearly elections to its Board of Directors, apartment dwellers are not included in referendum votes.

“All this is apartment owners,” Pullen said, referring to the neighborhood. “How are you not going to let them vote? Somebody in Northpoint is not going to care about Southgate. They’re not ever going to go down there.”

Downing said no one in Reston should have any reason to vote against the renovation of Southgate because the project will have no impact on RA dues. The renovation will replace the center’s unused pool with an indoor half-court basketball court, three multi-purpose meeting rooms and a snack bar.

“Reston’s covenants control this,” Hudgins said. “If we could get RA agreement tomorrow, we could start tomorrow.”

But Donn Dears, a former member of the RA Board of Directors, spoke up in RA's defense.

“I want to make sure you don’t put all the blame on RA,” Dears said. “It would not require a vote if you didn’t require a lease. And a lease is not the only alternative. There are other alternatives.”

FOUR OR FIVE YEARS ago, when RA and Fairfax County first began discussing the renovation of Southgate, each side agreed to pay for half of the construction. Under that plan RA, which currently owns the center, would have retained ownership. That plan would have required no referendum. But that original proposal was never put in writing and, due to staff turnover, it went stagnant.

In early 2001 Hudgins and RA renewed the conversation over Southgate. One of RA's early ideas was to enter into a land swap with Fairfax County, whereby RA would swap Southgate for a comparable piece of county-owned land. This would have allowed the county to take control of the center and would not have required a referendum. But, in July 2001, Hudgins presented the current long-term lease proposal.

“You can’t get any better than me coming and saying, ‘I’ll build your house, I’ll furnish it and you move in,’” Hudgins said. “That’s what this is. But in order to do it we [Fairfax County] need to hold the property as collateral.”

John Lovaas, who was president of the RA Board of Directors in 1997 when RA and Fairfax County first started discussions over Southgate, asked if there is any alternate plan if the referendum fails.

“Our only goal is to get this completed,” Hudgins said. “If we see it as something we can’t do we will climb another ladder. But I’m not ready to do that yet.”

“But you’re using the same old ladder,” Pullen countered.

Following the meeting Downing said a backup plan has been considered, but he would not go into any more detail.

BUT OF THOSE that were disappointed with the current Southgate plan, most said they would still do all they could to get the referendum passed. Bob Dim, director of the Reston Youth Club, said it is “unfortunate that the process does not include the people most affected by the decision.” But, Dim also said “all our energy should be put into the campaign to get this thing done. It’s going to be a tremendous effort.”

Bertha Hoskins, vice president of the RA Board of Directors, said 1,400 more homes need to vote in the Southgate referendum than voted in the Nature House referendum, when there was 31 percent participation.

“There has never been this kind of PR push behind any referendum in Reston,” Hoskins said.

The homeowners association is talking to local news anchors, asking them to express support for the project. RA will be running local advertisements on CNN Headline News. Children in the community will go door to door just before the ballots arrive, asking homeowners to vote. The referendum ballot is scheduled to be sent out to Reston homes in mid-September, but Dim said he would like the referendum to be sent out earlier in the summer.

“We’d like to do some community service projects to get kids out into the neighborhoods,” Dim said. “But the structure seems too rigid. We could be doing this at the Reston Festival, at soccer and lacrosse games, but if we’re talking to people in July and the vote is not until September I don’t know how we can do it. The timing has to be perfect. The ballot has to be in their hands when we talk to them. How many people get those things in the mail and just toss them?”

Hoskins said the referendum date is not set in stone, but RA chose the September date because many people take vacations during the summer months and may not be home to receive the ballots.

IN THE MEANTIME, though, Dim said RA should fill the pool at Southgate, either with water or with dirt. The pool is currently closed because a 1998 study found that it was underused. Even if the referendum does pass, construction will not start until 2004. Dim said the empty pool is a “hazard” and he is surprised no one has been injured by it.

“They should fill that pool up, put in a little park,” Dim said. “They should show some movement. People are tired of looking at that.”

The next Southgate meeting, where officials and residents will continue to discuss program options for the center, is on April 17, 7 p.m. at Dogwood Elementary. The meeting is open to newcomers. A series of similar meetings will follow, in order to create a community council for the center. The community council, which will include neighborhood residents, will decide which programs to run at the center.

“I’m not missing a meeting,” said Pullen, who currently lives in Centreville. “This is my neighborhood. When I came out of college I said I’d come back. It's because of the kids. They have a lot of spirit in them.”