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Good-bye 2003, Hello 2004

From busted bubbles to bogus bills, a look back on the year that was in Reston.

As Reston prepares to celebrate its 40th birthday in 2004, there were plenty of local stories grabbing headlines in 2003. From Mother Nature’s wrath to lingering debate over a proposed skate park to the groundbreaking of the Southgate Recreation Center, Reston had an eventful 39th year. So, with apologies to David Letterman, here's a look back at the top 10 stories of 2003:

<b>10. Isabel Leaves Her Mark</b>

On a Thursday night in September, Hurricane Isabel, a strong category 3 hurricane, rumbled through Reston, leaving her mark across town and around Northern Virginia. The high winds and soaking rain downed an estimated 200 Reston trees, closed area businesses and schools, and forced the cancellation of the fourth annual Reston Multicultural Fair. The powerful hurricane arrived in Reston in the middle of the night and battered the region for several hours. Reston residents emerged from their homes the next day to find streets and driveways littered with leaves, branches and trees. In large part, Reston was spared the extensive and debilitating power outages that plagued portions of the region. "With no street lights and all underground power lines, Reston was able to come through this better than some of our harder hit neighbors," said Jerry Volloy, the Reston Association (RA) executive vice president said. Traffic lights were out at key intersections, including Wiehle Avenue and Sunset Hills Road on that Friday. The major problem for Reston residents came from fallen trees, many of which ended up in homes. One of the community's smallest neighborhoods, the Pony Lane cul-de-sac, was especially hard hit as two of its four homes had trees resting in them courtesy of Isabel. "We still have a lot of work to do. The damage was widespread but luckily it was not as bad as it could have been,” said RA parks and recreation director Larry Butler after the storm.

<b>9. Police Raid Local Bars</b>

The year had barely begun before Reston and Herndon started generating national headlines, and not the good kind.

In the waning weeks of 2002 and the first three days of 2003, Fairfax County police sent plain-clothes officers into Reston and Herndon bars and restaurants to enforce the state's Alcohol Beverages Control (ABC) laws. Police said they were responding to, what they called, "a series of escalating violent incidents." In a couple of cases, uniformed police entered the establishments, and reportedly based on information provided by the undercover officers, asked patrons to undergo sobriety tests. A total of 12 arrests were made in or near three establishments, including Champps Americana in Reston. Police said nine of the arrests were for public intoxication. Under state law, any establishment open to the public is deemed a public place, in effect, making being intoxicated at a bar illegal. The raids and Fairfax County police's Reston District station came under intense criticism, including from state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and Herndon mayor Richard Thoesen, for raids that many people described as heavy-handed. The actions of the police raised questions about civil rights. The operation drew national attention on the area when a Herndon bar owner appeared on ABC’s "Good Morning, America.” "The police in the Reston District have done a disservice to themselves and destroyed their credibility among the citizens," said an angry Dennis Husch, a Herndon town councilman.

<b>8. Good Night for Local Democrats </b>

Election night 2003 proved to be a victory party for Reston’s Democratic politicians. Reston voters helped send veteran politicos state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and Del. Ken Plum (R-36) back to Richmond. While Plum ran unopposed, Howell emerged surprisingly easily from a exceptionally tense and especially costly race with Republican Dave Hunt, a first-time candidate who poured more than $400,000 of his own money into what became the third costliest race in the entire state.

In a race noted as much for its $900,000 price tag as it was for its unusually acerbic tone, Howell emerged victorious after returns came in on that Tuesday in November.

"I am very happy. This was the most vigorous campaign I have ever had to run," said Howell on Election night. "Mr. Hunt was very gracious in his concession and I look forward to representing the entire 32nd district ... He ran one heck of an energetic campaign."

In other races, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) had little problem from her Republican opposition in her bid for a second term on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Except for Plum, school board member Stuart Gibson had perhaps the most stress-free night, trouncing Arthur Purves, in a re-match from a race eight years ago.

<b>7. Skate Park Debate Lingers</b>

Last year’s controversy du jour in Reston, otherwise known as the skate park, continued to engender strong feelings on both sides of the skate ramp in 2003.

In May, proponents of a Reston Community Center (RCC)-funded skate park were disappointed after an RCC committee recommended dropping the issue, which had a price tag of between $800,000 and $1 million depending on whom was asked, from consideration for the proposed FY 2005 budget, citing bleak economic news and a tighter-than-anticipated budget. A hot button issue since the fall of 2002, the skate park — especially its funding source and proposed location — caused a chill in the relationship between RCC and the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and the West Market neighborhood, the chief opponents of the proposed skate park. In October 2002, RCC claimed that $800,000 was allocated within RCC reserve funds. In May 2003, that money from the RCC reserve for capital projects had dwindled from $943,459 in approved FY 2004 budget to $520,475 in the proposed FY 2005 budget, according to RCC documents.

On June 2, the coalition of business leaders and determined neighbors seemed to score a victory when the RCC board of directors tabled the skate park idea. The board removed the $800,000 earmarked in the Capital Project Reserve budget. The RCC did, however, authorize another study, at a cost of $12,000, to check the feasibility of a scaled down version of the original proposal. In September, skate park advocates met at Armstrong Elementary School to rally support for the beleaguered park. According to RCC officials, the study commissioned will look at two alternatives including a 13,000- to 15,000-square-foot site with a price tag of $500,000. In addition, the study will look at the feasibility of a $350,000 12,000-square-foot park.

<b>6. Southgate Breaks Ground </b>

In October, local, county and state officials broke ground on the Southgate Community Center in South Reston. While construction began in November, the doors are not scheduled to be open until the spring of 2005. In the meantime, Fairfax County officials have begun planning programming at the new center, a process that will continue in 2004. A community center advisory council, like similar ones in operation elsewhere in the county, is currently being organized because the county wants to make sure that the community decides what it does, and does not, want to program at the center. “There will be a cross-section of the community on the council,” Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said at the groundbreaking. “All the voices of the community will have a seat at the table.”

For supporters of the center, the October ceremony was a long time coming. “This is a very exciting day for the community and I know that they are going to love this center,” said Pat McClenic, of Fairfax County's Department of Community and Recreation Services. “Once built this center will be a focal point for the entire Reston community.”

In 2002, RA members, who were effectively the owners of the property on which the Southgate Neighborhood Center will be built, voted by an overwhelming margin — 96 percent — to lease the property to Fairfax County for 99 years.

Fairfax County took possession of the property, just off Glade Drive, in the summer of 2003. In exchange for the land, the county will fund the design and construction of the multi-use recreation center at an estimated cost of about $2.3 million. The dilapidated meeting room will also be replaced by a 7,733-square-foot multi-purpose facility complete with gymnasium, meeting rooms, kitchen and office space.

<b>5. Open Mouth, Insert Foot</b>

In 2002, thanks to redistricting, U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-8) added Reston into this 8th District Fold. It didn’t take long for the seven-term congressman from Alexandria to make his presence in Reston known. In March 2003, shortly before the beginning of the war with Iraq, Moran made headlines around the globe for comments he uttered at a anti-war meeting at a Reston church. Moran blasted the Bush administration for its rush to war, but it was his controversial criticism of Jewish leaders in the United States that started a firestorm of harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle, including local Democrats like state Sen. Janet Howell and Del. Ken Plum. "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this," he said at the time. "The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going and I think they should."

Seven area rabbis came forward to ask Moran to resign. Facing mounting criticism, Moran issued a four-paragraph apology for his comments, saying, “I should not have singled out the Jewish community and regret giving any impression that its members are somehow responsible for the course of action being pursued by the Administration, or are somehow behind an impending war,” he wrote. “In my response, I should have been more clear. What I was trying to say is that if more organizations in this country, including religious groups, were more outspoken against a war, then I do not think we would be pursuing war as an option.”

In the aftermath of Moran’s comments, Katherine Hanley (D), who was chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at the time, announced that she, among others, would challenge Moran in the Democratic primary in 2004. Hanley later abandoned that plan and in December; she retired from public life.

In July, Moran opened his first district office in Reston.

<b>4. NIMBYs ‘Bubbling’ Over</b>

It wouldn’t be a year in Reston without a few neighborhood battles, and 2003 was no exception. Dismissing shouts of “NIMBY” ("Not in My Backyard"), most neighbors from the West Cove Cluster cheered as Curl Burke Swim Services decided to take down the bubble Ridge Heights Swimming Pool earlier this year sending swimmers, especially youth swim team members, scrambling for a new place to set up shop. For more than a decade, the Ridge Heights bubble was RA’s only year-round swimming alternative, but neighbors argued that they were tired of the sight of an inflated bubble behind their townhouses. Curl Burke has vowed to return to Reston next year.

Not too far from the bubble on Ridge Heights Road, another group of neighbors tried unsuccessfully to stop another project in their backyard. Owners of a Reston Montessori School purchased the vacant United Christian Parish church on South Lakes Drive and, much to the dismay of neighbors, announced plans for expanding the site and turning it into a school. Despite protests and several rounds of questioning from a skeptical Design Review Board (DRB), the plan was ultimately approved and bulldozers were on the site in December.

Across town in North Reston, the Lake Newport Cluster battled two separate construction projects. While RA moved to cover four of the six tennis courts at the Lake Newport Tennis Facility, a private developer looked to convert the old Terrabrook Visitors Center into a large scale 23,000 redevelopment, including a lakeside restaurant. Despite criticism of the project from RA and DRB, the development group plans on beginning construction in 2004.

And while RA maintains committed to providing covered tennis for its members, RA staff is still trying to find a solution that is both cost effective and amenable to its Lake Newport neighbors. In December, an estimate for a steel enclosed structure that was deemed acceptable by many of the neighbors came back about $400,000 more than expected. Ultimately, the issue will have to go to a Reston-wide referendum for approval after an acceptable design and cost are found.

<b>3. What Happened at Cobblestone?</b>

It was the story that had the halls of South Lakes High School buzzing and nearly everyone else in Reston talking, and in many cases they were talking to attorneys. In July, the Reston Connection broke the story that the United States Secret Service was investigating three recently-graduated South Lakes High School athletes and one former student under suspicion of making and using more than $4,000 worth of counterfeit $20 bills in and around the Reston area in June.

Fairfax County police investigators turned over the case to the Secret Service after the bills in question were passed on June 10, around 11:30 a.m. at the Silver Diner in Reston. But the story did not end there.

In August, four South Lakes High School graduates turned themselves in on federal witness tampering charges in connection with the alleged counterfeit ring.

Reston residents David Alexander Post, 18, Adam John Blake, 18, and Trevor Harvey, 18, were arrested, accused of beating up a witness in the ongoing federal counterfeit investigation. Harvey and co-defendant Joseph Lawrence were former football players on the South Lakes football team, while Blake played on the school's basketball team.

On July 6, Secret Service agents interviewed an 18-year-old in connection with the counterfeit investigation. The informant and victim who, according to court documents, assisted the U.S. Attorney’s office with the investigation, was another former Seahawk football player. According to the affidavit, the informant identified Post, Blake, Bleich and two others, including the basketball player, as the distributors of the manufactured money. The victim had reportedly purchased $200 worth of bogus twenties from Post.

Nearly three weeks later, on July 25, Post, Blake, Bleich and Harvey allegedly “physically assaulted” and beat the former football player, resulting in several lacerations and abrasions, a Secret Service agent said in his sworn affidavit. While on the ground, witnesses reported seeing Post kick the victim in the head. During the incident, the suspects reportedly told two teenagers, including the victim, that they could “die in the hood for snitching.” Defense attorneys maintained that the July 25 incident at Cobblestone Lane and Ridge Heights Road was nothing more than a teenage brawl, instigated by the two teens who were injured, not the four defendants.

One month after their arrest, the four college freshman were back in an Alexandria federal court room for a two-day preliminary hearing. In a surprise move, the judge said he could not determine who started the fight and therefore could not find probable cause to hold the four defendants over for trial. But in November, Bleich and Post were indicted by Grand Jury on federal counterfeiting charges. And on Dec. 30, Blake and two other former South Lakes High School athletes, Douglas McLaughlin-Williams and Willima Chandler Greene were arrested and charged on state counterfeiting charges. The trials for all five defendents are scheduled for early 2004.

<b>2. RCC Upheaval</b>

The Reston Community Center's (RCC) year picked up where it left off in 2002, a year that found RCC and the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce trading barbs about the special tax district, the proposed skate park, the efficacy of the annual preference poll and proposed business representation on the RCC board. In February, Reston business owners, long looking for a seat on the Reston Community Center board, got one small step closer to their goal, after RCC agreed to undertake a review of its governance policies, specifically with respect to changes experienced by both the RCC and the Small Tax District Number 5. It would be the first such internal review for the board in its 27 years.

The formation of the RCC Governance Review Panel, which Overton would later oversee, stems from the board's efforts to reach out to segments of the Reston community, specifically the business sector, that, to date, have been largely left out of the community center's decision-making process.

In May, RCC announced that it was forced to cancel the remainder of its teen programming, including a popular after-school program, after the center’s Teen Department spent all of its money two months before the end of the fiscal year. The decision led to a round of public criticism of the RCC’s budgetary practices and ultimately led to two separate audits of the center.

The special governance panel ultimately made a host of recommendations, that to date, the RCC board has yet to take action on, though the new board is scheduled to begin addressing the recommendations, which include the addition of a new Dulles Corridor district and a change in voting rights for Reston property owners, at their annual retreat in January 2004.

While the 2002 RCC preference poll attracted only about 300 voters and three candidates for three open seats, the 2003 pool was a different story. This past year, nine people, including a slate of pro-business candidates, put their political hats into the ring. Amidst charges of voter fraud and voter intimidation, more than 1,300 people turned out to vote in October. The results sent two sitting members home and in November the new RCC board welcomed three new members, including two chamber-backed candidates.

<b>1. Rail-to-Wiehle?</b>

When Virginia transportation officials announced in August that the $1.5 billion first phase of the $3.4 billion rail-to-Dulles project would end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston rather than the Herndon-Monroe park-and-ride, few could have predicted the political firestorm that would erupt later in the year.

In a proposal that the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) submitted to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) this summer, construction on Phase I of the Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project would begin as early as 2005 and would, to the consternation of many in the western end of the county, include four stops in Tysons Corner. The proposed “Silver Line” would extend Metrorail service from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston by 2009, officials said.

While neighbors of the proposed station worried that a terminus station, even one that is supposed to be temporary, would only add to the congestion in the area, Dulles Corridor landowners in Reston and Herndon complained that they would be funding a project that had no guarantees of ever reaching farther west than Wiehle. The chorus of criticism reached a crescendo in November and December when the Herndon Town Council rejected the plans for a special tax district along the corridor, a plan favored by Tysons Corner property owners, transportation officials and Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).

In a heated December public meeting at Langston Hughes Middle School, opponents of the Rail-to-Wiehle made their voices heard. Michael Cooper, a senior vice president with Prentiss Properties, a Reston Town Center based company, was one of the first in a long line of pro-rail property owners who were decidedly anti-tax district and anti-Wiehle. While Cooper expressed frustration with the process, he made it clear that, despite what some on both sides of the debate have said, the project is not “dead.” “First off, we support [Rail-to-Dulles],” said Cooper, whose company owns more the two million square feet of commercial space in Fairfax County. “We do not, however, support Phase I ending at Wiehle and we think that the project funding is unfair and inequitable as evidenced by last night’s Herndon Town Council vote. This project is Rail-to-Dulles, not Rail-to-Wiehle. The businesses in Herndon and Reston should not be paying for 10 years in advance for their competitors to use in the corridor with no guarantee that it will ever make it out here.”