Shortly after moving to a Reston townhouse in 2003, Terri Lund-Audia thought she’d made a big mistake.
Four days after signing her settlement papers in May, she received a notice from the Reston Association identifying 17 design and covenant violations. “It was everything from a light mounted on the front of the house to a problem with the top of my gate,” said Lund-Audia, a graphic artist. “When you first move in, you don’t expect to get letters with that kind of tone.”
Still reeling from the death of her husband a few years earlier and trying to move on with her life, the violations seemed the least of her concern. “I wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with problems that weren’t of my own making,” she said, referring to the fact that she unwittingly inherited the violations from the previous owner.
“If it weren’t for my neighbors, I would have left,” she said.
Lund-Audia persevered, spending months — and a considerable amount of money — to bring her home into compliance.
BUT SHE STILL has one outstanding violation: her solid mahogany front door.
The Association sent a letter last month saying they planned to file suit against her if the door wasn’t in compliance within 30 days.
What was the cause for legal action? Her door is paneled, not flush.
But Lund-Audia hasn’t intentionally left the door unchanged all this time as some demonstration of civil disobedience. She held on to her door because her cluster board told her it was grandfathered into the cluster’s standards. But even in the case that it wasn’t, the cluster board president told Lund-Audia and the Reston Association it would take steps to amend the standards to allow her door. Still, Lund-Audia faces a lawsuit.
“I’m just exasperated,” she said after three years of going back and forth with an organization she compares to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. “If someone has violations, why not knock on their door and just talk to them?”
FOR YEARS, Reston Association’s enforcement of the covenant and design standards has been a double-edge sword.
On the one hand, residents want property values to remain high and expect RA staff to enforce the standards. On the other hand, residents want to see prudence and flexibility applied to avoid a Big Brother criticism.
But open, free discussion on the topic seems rare.
Jennifer Blackwell, president of RA, said she has never personally heard a complaint about covenants administration from residents who have been dragged through the process because of a neighbor’s complaint. “It’s not because they’re happy that we’re filing suit against them. I think it’s because the process is so fair,” said Blackwell.
Several residents refused to talk about their experiences on the record, fearing retribution from the Association.
“I think Reston Association, as it has matured, has become like any other bureaucratic body and has gotten organizationally fat, unproductive and petty,” said a Reston resident who spoke in return for the promise of anonymity. “They’re so God-damned vindictive.”
At one point in the late 1970s, the Association placed a lien on this person’s property because his screen door wasn’t in compliance with standards. “I just said screw it and left it there,” he said. The person, who has dealt with other violations in 31 years living in Reston, found out the lien had been lifted when he refinanced his home several years later.
MILTON MATTHEWS, RA’s executive vice president, knows there are detractors, but he hopes to win them over with education.
“[Enforcement is] one of the primary responsibilities of the Reston Association,” said Matthews. “There’s not a lot of discretion when it comes to enforcing those covenants.”
However, if someone has a problem or had a bad experience, Matthews said he wants to hear about. “I don’t want any of our members to feel intimidated about how we’re doing business or how they’re being treated,” he said.
In this year’s budget, the Association will spend more than $1 million on covenants administration, nearly three-quarters of which goes to the department’s 14 staff members.
Many people don’t blame RA for doing its job, like Barbara Wiley, a Reston resident who had a complaint filed against her home last year. But she thinks the system needs improving.
“I don’t have a problem with RA, except for the inequity of [covenant enforcement],” she said. “They are wonderful people. This is not their fault. This is how this system is set up.”
Because a large number of inspections are initiated by complaints, either by named or anonymous complainants (see "Initiating Inspections"), entire neighborhoods are not being treated uniformly, she argued.
BUT WHAT MAY be an even bigger and growing problem, she said, is the vicious neighbor-versus-neighbor hostility the system causes.
“How the Reston Association runs this business is not healthy,” said Wiley, referring to an enforcement method that relies on residents to complain about other neighbors' properties.
“RA should report that themselves, not set the citizens up to do it by being reporters of properties that are in disarray or not up to standard,” said Wiley.
“I’m a strong advocate and believer that if we get a complaint from a member, we have an obligation to go out and do an inspection,” said Matthews. He added that when inspectors receive a complaint for one home and go to inspect it, they are also instructed to walk through that neighborhood to see that rules are being upheld uniformly.
Blackwell said that the system is not beyond improvement. “Our response rate to complaints and efficiency of the system — I’d like to see us improve that,” she said.
Earlier this month, the RA Board of Directors reviewed a management audit of covenants administration during executive session closed to the public. Matthews expects the report will be released for member review next month.