In the debate over a waterline in the Riverside Manor section of Great Falls, one group of people has remained rather silent: the homeowners association (HOA) board.
The five-member board has said little publicly on the issue, which has caused controversy in the area for the past several months and seems to have people forming strong opinions about the issue, whether a resident of Riverside Manor or elsewhere.
“This is a more important issue for those against the water than for it,” said Riverside HOA board member Tom Ochsenschlager.
The initial survey made of the Riverside community was carried out by the HOA board around the middle of last summer, he said, in order to gauge how residents felt about the installation of a waterline, which would replace the residents’ current well-water service provided by Fairfax Water, which owns the wells but is looking to cease their use.
“We took the survey as fairly as we thought it could be done,” Ochsenschlager said. “More than half of the residents responded, and we passed those results on to Fairfax Water.”
When the results came back in favor of the waterline, Ochsenschlager said, it seemed that some of the residents, unhappy with the outcome of the initial survey, “thought it would be better to go door to door” to poll the residents again.
The outcome of that survey, with more residents coming out against the waterline, was also presented to Fairfax Water, he said.
“We as a board didn’t feel it was necessary or our responsibility to take a position” and speak for the residents, he said, adding, “It’s up to the community.”
THE BOARD HAD ASKED representatives from Fairfax Water from the start if the community’s opinion would have an impact on whether the line was installed, Ochsenschlager said.
“They were inconclusive about it and said they wouldn’t necessarily change their plans,” he said. “They’re very aware of the strong opposition to this project.”
He’s not sure there’s a simple solution to finding a happy ending to this debate.
“Great Falls and Riverside are wonderful communities,” he said. “I think, for the most part, we’ve agreed that some people will think one way (about the water) and others will think another way. I feel strongly that we ought not let this issue divide our community.”
Fellow Riverside resident Ron Stowe shares Ochsenschlager’s sentiments.
“I understand that the board is endorsing what the community said,” Stowe said. “It’s clear that what they’re saying is the board isn’t taking a position independently, the board stands behind the vote of the residents of Riverside Manor.”
Stowe said the main reason he supports the waterline is fire protection, and he has no concern for development, two of the strongest arguments involved in the waterline debate.
“I don’t think there’s any realistic possibility that extending water to Riverside will bring in development,” he said. “I’m not in favor of development either, but I don’t think putting in a waterline will lead to development.”
He believes “everyone in Great Falls would be totally opposed to multi-family units per acre,” the kind of development he thinks some of his neighbors are concerned about if the waterline is installed. “I don’t want people to use a conjured-up, anti-development argument to stop improvement.”
The argument that Stowe said “intrigues” him is one he hears when his neighbors in Great Falls protest the installation of the waterline and the subsequent fire hydrants that would be installed.
“The people who say that why should we have improved fire protection and not all of Great Falls,” he said. “That’s a zinger of lack of logic, to oppose something here that isn’t going to be everywhere, but they don’t want it everywhere.”
STOWE IS CONCERNED that the strong arguments against the water and those making them will prevent further information and facts about the waterline to be discussed, which might change some opponents’ minds on the issue.
“No one seems to be interested in reconciling,” he said. “I understand passion, but there needs to be some civility. People need to not act like this is frontier justice.”
Board member John Slaybaugh hopes the issue can be resolved quickly but has concerns about finding common ground.
“We’ve invited the group that took the second survey to come and talk to the board, but they’ve refused,” he said. He added that the survey distributed by the board was a two-page synopsis of the waterline issue and was allowed to be mailed back anonymously, whereas the second survey was conducted door to door, and people could see how their neighbors felt.
“Their survey was 12 lines (of information) in total. It’s not clear what was going on with their survey,” he said. He had just last week received a copy of the second group’s survey, which was conducted in the fall.
“My position is that this is a small group of vocal people, they seem to be driven by the issue of growth and without any real data, they have a visceral opposition to growth,” Slaybaugh said of the residents protesting the waterline. “They haven’t presented any data that shows that water leads to growth.”
The only way the issue will be resolved is with the decision of Fairfax Water to install the waterline or to abandon the project altogether, he said.
“Fairfax Water is losing $60,000 each year on maintaining the wells, so they could either change how the water is provided or charge the residents more for well services,” he said.
The “large majority” of Riverside residents are “apathetic” about the waterline, whereas a “small minority of residents are against the water, and a small minority of residents are in favor of it,” Slaybaugh said.
THE ISSUE of the water’s quality is actually not an issue, he said, as the water from the wells has been tested against the water from Fairfax Water with the results coming out almost identical.
“I believe this is a business decision, although there are other issues they (Fairfax Water) bring up, such as the improved fire protection and water pressure,” he said. “I’m in favor of the water for economic reasons.”
“What amazes me is that the issue is larger than the 53 homes in Riverside Manor,” said former board member Chris Lehman. “The vast majority of homes north of Georgetown Pike are on wells. What people were reacting to is the scare tactic of radon and fire protection. If that’s true, it’s a problem for five thousand homes, not just the 53 at Riverside.”
Fairfax Water receives only between $7,000 and $8,000 per year in revenue from the well-water customers, at a huge loss for the amount of money it takes to maintain the wells, Lehman said. “The reality is, they (Fairfax Water) want to change, because in 20 years they’ll get their investment back if they switch to regular water. We want Fairfax Water to be honest with us.”
He said he prefers his well water to the water from Fairfax Water, “water that’s been filtered and treated to keep it safe.
“The real issue is much wider than Riverside. Most people don’t focus on it unless it’s going to bite them, and the threat of development underpinning this is real,” he said.
With property values rising across the county and people having to drive longer and farther to get to work, “it would make sense to bring in water and fill up those empty lots that need to be kept vacant because of the wells and the land area they require,” Lehman said. “The fact is, when all you have are wells, it’s a lot harder to develop.”