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Glory in the Past, Struggling in the Present

The Reston Community Association was founded to preserve the idea of Reston

When Robert E. Simon Jr. was fired by Gulf Reston Corp. in 1967, the loss of Reston’s founder left the community worried that the oil corporation would sully the ideals upon which Reston was based.

To protect Simon’s principles and to serve as the voice of the community, a handful of early Reston residents created the Reston Community Association.

“Reston was going through a transition in those days and we made a difference,” said Dick Hays, one of RCA’s co-founders who successfully convinced Gulf Reston to stick to Simon’s vision of tolerance, the protection of open spaces and housing options for all income levels.

As the years passed, RCA grew into a formidable political body that fought for the Reston community on myriad issues, always keeping Simon’s original ideals in mind. Descendants of RCA’s past accomplishments are still evident today, such as Reston’s commuter bus system and the Reston Festival.

RCA was, in essence, the primary voice of the community, whose purpose was to serve as the voice of Reston residents and protect the community’s character from corporations and developers.

However, RCA, which is now called the Reston Citizens Association, has become a shadow of the powerhouse organization it once was. And without a vibrant RCA, the Reston community lacks a forum to tackle such issues as the Dulles Rail Project, whether or not Reston should implement another form of government, and whether low-income housing should still be available within Reston’s borders.

A glimpse at RCA’s recent activity suggests that the organization is struggling.

OUT OF 15 POSITIONS on RCA’s board of directors, nine seats are currently vacant. Three of the seats are vacant because the directors resigned over the past year.

Voter turnout for RCA elections is particularly low, with an average of about 200 to 300 residents casting ballots.

In the past 12 years, RCA has given out its formerly prestigious community service award only twice — once in 1992 and again in 2000. For more than 25 years prior, the award was a major honor annually conferred upon Reston citizens.

During the last three months, RCA’s planning and zoning committee, which makes recommendations to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors about development issues in Reston, has canceled every meeting because of a lack of new business.

CHAD DAVIS, the current president of RCA, acknowledged that times are tough for the organization, but said he and his fellow volunteers will be working to represent Reston’s interests, especially on transportation issues.

“RCA definitely still has a role to play in the community,” he said.

RCA has lost its political strength in recent years, Davis said, as the Reston Association has grown into the leading representative of the community. RA, a homeowners association responsible for keeping property values high, has significantly higher voter turnouts and is now considered Reston’s main governing body.

“Our clout certainly has dwindled over the years,” said Davis, who will conclude his term as president this summer. “But we’re looking to become more relevant.”

RCA is still active in helping run the Reston Festival and its planning and zoning committee should become more active once the economy picks up, Davis said.

The lack of volunteers serving on the RCA board should not be seen as evidence that the organization is becoming irrelevant, he said.

“If a board is focused on getting the seats filled rather than doing what’s best for the community, then that’s not the best situation,” he said.

Davis was approached by volunteers last year asking to be appointed to the open seats, but RCA declined their offer because it would have made the majority of the board appointed, not elected, Davis said.

“We decided as a board that it wasn’t fair to the voters,” he said.

THE RCA of today is substantially different from the RCA of yesteryear, according to interviews with former officers and a review of almost 40 years of records and newspaper articles.

The citizens who served on the old RCA board were often agitators and activists willing to fight for Reston’s founding principles and used their ingenuity to make the community a better place to live.

“RCA was a brave new experiment,” said Dave Edwards, an early RCA director. “We wanted to maintain the vision of what Reston should be.”

When the original members of RCA saw a growing need for public transportation, they created the Reston Commuter Bus. Founded in March, 1968, the bus took Reston residents into Washington, D.C., the Pentagon and elsewhere. The RCB system has become somewhat legendary among longtime residents partly because the buses offered riders coffee and donuts in the morning and cocktails in the afternoon. The Reston buses led directly to county-sponsored mass transit.

“We thought people ought to have alternative transportation,” Hays said. “Lo and behold, we have the Fairfax Connector today.”

Also, when RCA members recognized a need for health care coverage among low-income Restonians, the organization began to provide coverage itself, said Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston), who was president of RCA in the 1980s.

And in 1977, when Sambo’s Restaurant, which used arguably racist imagery at its franchises, attempted to open a restaurant in Reston, RCA led the charge to block them from ever opening their doors.

In the late 1970s and then again in the late 1980s, Reston began to seriously consider incorporating as an official town. RCA was involved in the push both times, serving as a forum for ideas and community discussion.

TODAY, interest in RCA seems to have waned among Reston citizens.

Patrick Kane, a founding member of RCA and a planning consultant, blamed the lack of willing volunteers on a general apathy and disinterest in the community.

“People don’t understand the impact they can have,” he said. “The majority of the people who live in Reston today don’t know what it is.”

Because much of the general public is in the dark about the ideals upon which Reston was founded, there is a greater need for RCA to become more active, said John Lovaas, who served as RCA president four years ago.

“You need a community forum,” Lovaas said. “You need an organization whose interest is in protecting the founding principles of Reston.”

But that isn’t happening, Lovaas said, citing Reston’s loss of more than 1,000 low-income housing units in the last five years.

“Somebody has to take the lead on that,” he said. “It’s changing the fundamental character of Reston and it’s something Bob Simon did not foresee. We’re kicking the poor people out.”

Arthur Hill, who has served on RCA’s planning and zoning committee for almost a decade, said RCA should be doing more to protect low-income housing, though it is difficult facing down the powerful Northern Virginia developer industry.

“I think we have given it an effort in the past and perhaps we should do more that way,” he said.

Hill also said he hopes younger citizens will take an interest in RCA in the future to help revitalize the organization.

“We need some fresh blood,” he said. “Not just the same old people who have been involved in community organizations for forever and a day.”

DAVIS, the president of RCA, said he would like to see the organization play a more significant role in shaping the community's future, as it did in years past.

On issues such as the Dulles Rail Project, Reston’s governance, and low-income housing, RCA may very well work to facilitate dialogue among the public, he said.

Hill said he hopes those promises are fulfilled and that RCA will once again serve as the voice of the community.

“We’re a mature community,” he said. “There’s work we can do, but we might need to change our focus a little bit. RCA should provide that public forum.”