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Votes

RELAC Battle Begins

Residents for and against RELAC clashed at a Reston Association meeting Monday night.

For 343 residential property owners near Lake Anne, the fate of the RELAC air conditioning system will be decided in September.

Last Monday, Aug. 29, the Reston Association board unanimously agreed to the RELAC referendum question, but not before hearing about an hour and a half of public comment for and against RELAC, a cooling system owned by Aqua Virginia that draws water from Lake Anne through a series of pipes.

While many people in the crowded room at RA headquarters requested that the board postpone the referendum, which will be mailed out Sept. 9, RA President Jennifer Blackwell said the board is committed to following the referendum schedule. She also made it clear that the board is not taking sides for or against the RELAC system, but that it is simply allowing the covenant that mandates RELAC’s use to be voted on.

“Reston Association is not trying to destroy the RELAC system,” she said. “We are responding to the concern of your neighbors.”

About three weeks ago, the RA board agreed to allow the 343 residential owners to vote whether or not to keep the RELAC covenant.

While many more people use the system, including condominium owners, only those forced to use the RELAC system because of the clause in the Association’s governing documents will be eligible to vote.

As it is now, whether these homeowners like it or not, they are required to use RELAC and only RELAC. In the last seven months, many people on the system have complained to RA that it doesn’t adequately cool their homes. The issue didn’t take hold with RA until February, when opponents of the RELAC system submitted a petition with 106 signatures of households. The petition asked RA to “delete all RELAC language from [the governing documents] and allow any homeowner to use an individual air conditioning unit.”

The covenant, however, states that it “may only be amended or revoked by at least two-thirds vote of the Category A Members of all residential Clusters on the service.” So, unhappy RELAC users included in their request to RA that they be allowed to vote on the issue. RA granted this request in an Aug. 12 vote.

The referendum question put to the 343 households will ask if they want to revoke the RELAC covenant. The referendum will require that at least 10 percent of the eligible voters cast a vote. To pass, the referendum requires that at least two-thirds of the votes cast be in favor of revoking the mandate. Forty years ago, the system was once considered “state of the art,” but has since drawn the ire of users over the years who have said the system doesn’t come on early enough, doesn’t adequately cool their homes and can cause humidity problems.

AT MONDAY’S MEETING, the issue was batted around by both sides.

Proponents favored revoking the covenant that mandates RELAC’s use because, they say, RELAC has a long history of not working properly and that they have a right to be comfortable in their own homes.

Despite having not been very vocal for the last six months, many people opposing any changes to the RELAC covenant were at Monday’s meeting. These opponents fear what might happen if people were allowed to have alternative systems, arguing that it would cause the destruction of the RELAC system and a transition to noisy individual air conditioning units. Since RELAC is more than 40 years old and a one-of-a-kind system in the United States, opponents said that they are also worried about the financial stability of RELAC if people are given the choice to go off the system.

“Once the door is open to people deserting the system, Aqua Virginia is almost certainly going to recognize that its investment is under serious threat and will likely abandon the system or sell it for salvage,” Joe Stowers said in a statement.

For Jim White, allowing people off the system would also cause Aqua Virginia to fail. “If you have one-fourth of the people get off the system, I think they’re going to jack up prices for the rest of us, and that’s going to cause more people to flee,” said White.

However, one of the leading proponents for revoking the covenant, Richard Speier, disagrees. He said that only the customers suffering the most will go off the system. “There will be no rush to get off the system because of the high costs to go to another system,” said Speier, adding that Aqua Virginia will not be able to raise rates without approval from the State Corporation Committee. Also, because the system is so old, others argued that costs will continue to rise anyway to support the aging RELAC infrastructure.

OPPONENTS ALSO ARGUED that if people switch from RELAC to individual air conditioning units, then their neighborhoods would no longer be quiet. The RELAC system was originally selected because of its lack of external noise and its aesthetic appeal.

“I feel sympathetic and I don’t want to tell my neighbors that they can’t have choice, but I don’t want to lose the quiet and beauty,” said John Frye.

Several people countered the noise issue. “There are systems so quiet you can carry on a conversation right next to it,” said Wayne Schiffelbein. Others said that the clusters and the Design Review Board could enforce noise limits for alternative air conditioning units that would maintain neighborhood quiet.

Richard Speier announced that a technical committee is planning to meet Wednesday night at the Reston Museum to discuss what homeowners can do to make air conditioning consistent with architecture and neighborhood quiet.

Yet, in the meantime, people are in misery because of the system, said Jeff Ashley, who includes himself in that group. This summer, he hasn’t been able to get his house cooler than the 80s.

“I wish my choice could be based on sound,” he said.

But instead Ashley, who has mold growing in his home because of the high humidity levels and who can’t get his third floor below 90 degrees on hot days, finds the decision much more serious. “This is about the health of my household,” he said.

Yet Ashley is so sympathetic to his neighbors that he said he would be happy to subsidize RELAC if given the choice to use another cooling system or an additional air conditioning unit.

“I don’t want to burden my neighbors, but I shouldn’t be forced to sit out there in the heat,” he said, urging the crowd to revoke the RELAC covenant that prohibits choice.

Suzanne Larne, on the other hand, argued that homeowners needed to take some responsibility for RELAC’s problems. She said many people have problems with RELAC because they don’t properly maintain their own homes. “We replaced our windows, and what a difference that made, but I still see people who have 40-year-old windows,” she said. “I think it is the responsibility of the homeowner to make sure their house is maintained to support the current system.”

THE AUDIENCE also heard from Aqua Virginia. Gregory O’Dell, the division manager of the company, attended Monday’s meeting, but also had a meeting with RA representatives earlier this month.

“I told everyone at that [earlier] meeting that we were committed to this system and planned to move forward with system improvements,” he said at Monday’s meeting. In his comments to attendants, O’Dell suggested that if people go off the system then those people remaining would incur higher costs. “The cost of running that system would have to be spread over a smaller pool of people,” he said, adding that people who might choose to go off the system and then decide to return will be charged a reactivation fee.

O’Dell also said that Aqua Virginia would try to influence the vote in the coming referendum by putting out a press release and conducting a direct mail campaign. He did not say how much money the company was planning to spend in the campaign.

In an interview after the meeting, O’Dell said that Aqua Virginia is committed to plans that would add two cooling towers to the RELAC site. Installing the towers would cost about $200,000, said O’Dell. When presented to the Design Review Board (DRB) last spring, the proposal said that the towers would generate about 85 decibels of noise. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association 85 decibels and above are potentially hazardous.

This was one of the issues the DRB had with the towers. “We’re working to see what we can do to meet the 55 decibels standard [set by Fairfax County],” said O’Dell. “We’ll be back before the DRB as soon as we get all the issues worked out.”

The RELAC referendum precedes the governing documents referendum, which goes out to voters in October. For the last two years, the RA board has worked to revise its 21-year-old governing documents, which they argue are out of date and put the financial future of Reston at risk. The governing documents codify the rules and regulations in which RA is governed.