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Votes

Vote Backs RELAC

Supporters of the RELAC air-conditioning system win the day.

For the 343 households in six clusters around Lake Anne, the mandate to use the RELAC air-conditioning system will resume.

During three weeks in September, these same households voted in a referendum that asked whether or not to keep the obscure clause in the Reston Association governing documents that requires reliance on the RELAC system.

At a special meeting Thursday, Sept. 29, Jennifer Blackwell, president of RA, announced the results of the referendum, which were closely split.

Of 230 valid votes, 130 votes were cast against removing the clause, and 100 were cast to remove it.

In order for the provision to have been removed, the referendum required two-thirds of the votes to be in favor of removal.

For almost a year, residents dissatisfied with the system had told RA that it rarely kept their homes cool and asked for a vote.

During that period, RA had heard only opposition to the 40-plus-year-old system, including a petition against the system signed by 106 households. They demanded a vote because they said RELAC had a long history of not working properly and that they had a right to be comfortable in their own homes.

However, once RA granted the vote, several residents also on the system argued that the covenant be maintained. RELAC had originally been selected by early Restonians because of its lack of external noise and aesthetic appeal. Supporters of the cooling system, which is water-based, feared what might happen if people were allowed to go off the RELAC system, arguing that it would cause the downfall of the RELAC system and a transition to noisy individual air conditioning units.

“Once the door is open to people deserting the system, Aqua Virginia [owner of RELAC] is almost certainly going to recognize that its investment is under serious threat and will likely abandon the system or sell it for salvage,” said Joe Stowers at a meeting held before the referendum was mailed out on Sept. 9.

The argument proved to be effective. Jeff Ashley, and others in his predicament, asked neighbors to do away with the covenant. For most of the summer, Ashley had not been able to get the third floor of his townhouse below 90 degrees.

“But when you get people whipping up hysteria [that the system is going to collapse],” said Wayne Schiffelbein, “You just can’t win.”

Schiffelbein had been a strong advocate for allowing people to choose what kind of air conditioning they wanted, arguing that it would be easy to keep individual air conditioning unit noise levels down.

“That’s all right, though, it’s going to die anyway,” said Schiffelbein, who thinks RELAC is too antiquated to work much longer.

Others who wanted their choice of air conditioning systems, said the campaign to keep the system was too strong.

“The opponents were really skilled at getting people to fear that RELAC was going to go away if the vote was passed,” said Richard Speier, who had advocated for a vote for almost a year. He said that people were influenced by this argument despite “Virginia law that would not have allowed RELAC to walk away from the system if the referendum passed.”

For some, who have had problems with mold when the system hasn’t worked, the covenant could open RA to future lawsuits, said Schiffelbein.

It is still unclear, however, what dissatisfied users will do.

“The winners are the members of RA who will not have to deal with RELAC anymore and can concentrate on the governing documents,” said Speier. “I think the losers are all the people on the RELAC system, who, I think, have a rate increase in their near future.”

The RELAC referendum preceded the governing documents referendum, which goes out to voters sometime this year. 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 under which RA is governed.