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RA's Judge-and-Jury Boards

RA’s volunteer boards that decide covenants applications often are resolved "without a hitch."

Don Tidd of Reston started on plans to add a screened-in porch to his rambler late last year. Since its completion in February, Tidd says it’s become his family’s most popular room in the house.

But long before construction started, Tidd saved himself a lot of distress by seeking the required approval for the addition from the Reston Association.

“For us, it was easy,” said Tidd. “I talked to those guys for 10 minutes.”

According to the members of the Design Review Board, the local residents in charge of upholding Reston Association’s design standards, the review process is not meant to be difficult.

“Ninety-five, if not 99 percent of everything we do goes without a hitch,” said Barbara Bryson, one of two lay people on the nine-member board.

“Hardly ever do we say, ‘No, you just can’t do that,’” said Richard Newlon, chair of the DRB, adding that the board usually tries to work with homeowners toward approval. Newlon, a Reston architect who has run his own business for 35 years, entered his third three-year term on the board last year.

“Our pay is equal to zero,” said Newlon, joking that the board members volunteer for what can sometimes be a difficult job. “We do it because we love Reston.”

EACH MONTH, the Design Review Board listens to and decides the fate of between three- and four-dozen applications, not to mention about 60 “consultations.”

The board determines whether or not a project conforms to the association’s aesthetic requirements as stated in the Design Guidelines, a two-inch thick book. “They are just that, guidelines,” said Newlon. “Some of it is a judgment call.”

But it’s not the board’s interpretation of guidelines that’s caused the most contention. That distinction lies with cases that involve homeowners who made changes to their home and then sought approval after the fact, said several board members.

“We’ve seen instances of people who have done major work before applying,” said Graham Farbrother, one of seven mandatory architects on the board. “So when they do come in, after spending thousands of dollars and a lot of time, they’re faced with the possibility of having to undo or redo something. And, that’s hard.”

When that situation arises, the board is supposed to make its decision as if no work has been done.

If the decision goes against the homeowner, the result can be an irate resident who isn’t afraid to say so.

“We sometimes laugh, ‘We volunteered for this?’ after you’ve been chewed out by an angry homeowner,” said Neal Roseberry, another architect on the board. “If you follow the guidelines and the procedures, it’s actually pretty easy going.”

Mike Miller, who has 13 years experience on the board, agrees. “You have to be pretty thick-skinned at times.”

THE ASSOCIATION’S other all-volunteer governing body, the Covenants Committee, hears and issues verdicts on potential violations related to the ongoing maintenance and specific use of properties within the community.

Since the Covenants Committee is smaller — it has five members — and handles fewer applications, committee members actually inspect properties before deciding cases.

According to the committee’s chair, 21-year-resident Charles Brunner, applications range from overgrown vegetation to worn or rotting siding, and from new light fixtures to new roofing. Most of the cases heard originate from one of two sources: neighbor complaints or a request for Virginia’s Property Owner’s Association Act documents, which is required before a home is sold.

“We make a judgment on whether we think it’s a violation or not,” said Brunner, who added that it’s not always easy.

“Every now and then we get someone in who thinks we’re wrong,” said Brunner, who is serving his fifth year on the board. He said criticism is part of the job.

“We’re volunteers. We’re members of the community. We don’t have a bone to pick with anybody,” said Brunner, emphasizing that the committee doesn’t decide which applications to hear. “We try to tell them, we don’t go out and purposely look for things.”

But some of their decisions can cost residents thousands of dollars, especially “big-ticket items,” said Brunner, like a new roof or new siding.

WITH MANY HOMES in Reston reaching ages of three and four decades, the DRB and the Covenants Committee may see more difficult times.

“This is an aging community,” said Brunner. “We’re getting to see more issues.”

Most board and committee members said the process would be even easier if residents were better informed about the process and the guidelines.

“I wish everybody in Reston would come to at least one DRB meeting,” said Newlon. He urged that homeowners, at minimum, should check with the Association’s covenant staff before making any exterior changes. “Then you avoid all that heartache.”