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Town in Reston’s Future?

After neighboring Herndon asserts its power about financing rail, some in Reston look to strengthen community’s voice.

Moments after the light on her podium turned red, Susan Jones, Reston Association (RA) president, was politely but firmly, told by Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Katherine Hanley, who was running the Dulles Rail hearing, to “wrap it up.”

On Dec. 3, Jones raced through her prepared testimony on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement and RA’s concerns about the plan to end Phase I of the rail project at Wiehle Avenue.

Despite representing more than 50,000 Reston residents and a special request from Hunter Mill Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), Jones was allotted five minutes to make her points — the same amount of time as any other non-elected speaker at the public hearing. Elected government officials were given 10 minutes.

But the question of power and influence that Hanley used in limiting Jones is only one example of Reston’s perceived political impotence when compared to the voice heard one night earlier in the Herndon town council chambers.

Now in response to the rail-initiated events of last week, some in Reston, with an eye to the west, are wondering aloud, once again, about the I-word: Incorporation. Jones is one of those Reston residents.

In her remarks, Jones said she felt Reston and RA deserved a voice at the decision table, alongside partners like Fairfax County and the Town of Herndon. “We were not informed directly about the project revisions and, instead, had to ask for information,” she said. “We request we be involved in a significant and meaningful way in the planning for a project that has the potential for a significant impact on the community in which we live.”

DEL. KEN PLUM (D-36), a Reston resident, said the General Assembly is currently studying various proposals that would put larger homeowners associations, like RA, on par with towns. “We’re looking at it. The difficulty is there are literally thousands of these associations and they aren’t all equal. Maybe some should have more standing than others.”

Plum warned that towns might feel threatened by such legislation. “While I am empathetic in the interest, it is hard to sift everything out because of the nature of local governments in Virginia,” Plum said. “First, we have to get through all the complexities of not allowing every homeowners association the ability to weigh in on all issues.”

The Reston delegate worked on the failed referendum in 1981 and he understands why the issue is making news again. “Back then there was a big campaign about not wanting another layer of taxes,” he said. “But when it comes time to have a say in things, some of those same folks now want a say.”

Jones agrees. “I think there are a number of people who see the advantages now that perhaps didn’t see the advantages at that time, Jones said. “If people want it to happen, it can happen. If Reston wants to be a town, it ought to start the process.”

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Jones led a committee that, for two years, studied the idea of incorporating Reston. In September 1988, a community forum on governance attracted 220 residents and 75 percent voted to change Reston’s government structure. Given the option of considering a special tax district, town status, city status or status quo, 92 percent of those who voted to change chose the town option. “You have spoken,” Jones said, at the time.

That same week, however, the directors of the Reston Board of Commerce, the predecessor of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, voted 8-1 to support the status quo alternative.

Fifteen years later, very little has changed.

Today, Jones looks back at that period and sees a missed opportunity. “One of things I am most proud of is the energy that I put behind that drive because I felt so passionately about it,” she said. “I was really disappointed. Now I think people see the advantages afforded a town.”

But another member of that task force, Vera Hannigan, blames Jones for the 1988 failure. “Suzi Jones led that charge and Suzi pulled the plug on it. It’s her fault that we don’t have a town today,” Hannigan said. “We were meeting to start drafting a charter and without warning, she said, ‘this isn’t a good time.’ The business community told her they didn’t want it. So let’s be real honest about this, we don’t have a town because the leader of the group pulled the plug.”

Jones, who said she devoted two years of her life to that cause, said she felt if the committee had gone ahead at that time, it would have failed. “That was a judgment call and the committee decided to stop,” she recalled. “We had too many things working against us, one of which was the business community.”

But Hannigan disputes that. “We don’t know what it would have done. We were in no position to know that,“ she said. “If we are not at the table today, it is because she pulled the plug back then.”

For Jones, the decision to end the town-hood drive was a difficult one. “What happened was our committee got smaller and our resources were spread really thin. The committee lost its consensus,” Jones said. “A number of us just felt that we weren’t going to be able to pull it off and we thought it would be better just to put it on the shelf and dust it off down the road, rather than continue and fail.”

“At the time, we said, ‘Look, it’s not the time, the time will come,’” Jones added. “Maybe the time is now. I hope it is.”

THREE PREVIOUS TIMES in Reston’s nearly 40 years, the community has devoted time and energy towards exploring incorporation. Three previous times, it has failed. But the events of last week have, for some in the community, rekindled those ideas.

Reston historian Marcia McDevitt has heard it all before. “Everybody wants to forget that Reston is nothing more than a glorified subdivision,” McDevitt said. “If in 1981 we had voted to be a town, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today. But, back then, they didn’t want to pay the money. Well, it comes back to bite you.”

Jones said the current rail debate reveals the necessity her group tried to articulate 15 years ago. “I think we were prophetic in 1988, I really do. We should have seized the opportunity. We needed a voice and it would have changed Reston’s status in this rail debate, and future debates.”

Supervisor Hudgins has lived in Reston for 33 years and now represents Reston’s interests in Fairfax County. “The homeowners association is not given the same responsibility that a town is given,” she said. “As a Reston resident, I understand the issue resurfacing. People are always looking for a more defined structure.”

When the issue emerged in 1988, Karl Ingebritsen, director of LINK, didn’t support the idea. Ingebritsen thinks it's an idea whose “time might have passed.”

Working with the former chamber in 1988, Ingebritsen opposed incorporation because of the added level of taxation.

That same sentiment exists in today’s business community, said Tracey White, the Reston chamber president. “We’d be happy to look at again, but usually that ends up with another tax district. With the rail debate right now, I think people want to take one thing at a time.”

Ingebritsen had another reason for his opposition, however. “I also was against it because there was some reassurance that the county supervisor would stand up for Reston,” Ingebritsen said. “In this instance, every one of our Reston representatives have abandoned Reston’s true interest in this fight.”

Hudgins, a proponent of Dulles Rail, said there is a bigger issue than incorporation. “The more important part is that they make sure that our engagement is one that we can be completely happy with,” the supervisor said. “If we all carved out boundaries around ourselves, it would be an interesting county that we have. There are lots of ways to provide input and I think the best way to provide it is to stay continuously involved. That’s a piece I would like to work on.”

LAST WEEK, Jerry Volloy, the RA executive vice president, sat through two marathon town meetings about the proposed Dulles Corridor tax district in neighboring Herndon. It quickly became obvious to Volloy that the process that exists in a town compared to a home owners association, even one the size of Reston, is considerably different.

“I thought it was interesting to see the Herndon Town Council turn to LEADER [Landowners Economic Alliance for the Dulles Extension of Rail] and tell them what they considered to be a fair deal for their business owners,” Volloy said. “When you look at that situation, you immediately ask yourself what forum is established here in Reston that has the power to go back to LEADER and tell them there is no deal unless boundaries are re-drawn.”

Volloy said he would like to see a study of what it would mean to become a town or a city. “It became apparent to me, for the first time, that the Herndon Town Council seemed to be able to wield a certain amount of authority when it came to dictating and demanding within its own community what it considered to be fair or unfair,” the RA executive vice president said. “The power I saw in Herndon certainly demonstrated a process that perhaps is a little more vague here in Reston.”

Like Volloy, White, the chamber president, made the connection between the rail debate and Reston’s role in the matter. “It does make people think about the process and the voice that we do have and the difference between our voice and the voice that the Town of Herndon has,” she said. “My sense is prior to rail there was not a cry from the business community that Reston as an entity needed to look towards it. Whether the rail will be a motivator of that, I am not really sure.”

Hannigan, for one, hopes it will. “I would love to look at that again. I have always thought Reston should be a town,” she said. “We’re larger than most incorporated communities in Virginia. We have a real identity and a sense of community. We’ve been a town emotionally and mentally for many years, but we don’t have the legal documents that say we can sit at the table. Instead, other people make decisions for us.”