“The siding looks good. The shingles look good. The landscaping is fine,” says Janet Bolton as she circumnavigates a home in Reston, stopping every few feet to get a closer look.
On just about every aspect of a home’s exterior, whether it’s trimming or siding or a patio or deck, her eyes are peeled for fading, discoloration, disintegration, rotting, cracking, spalling or leaning.
As one of six residential covenants counselors for the Reston Association, it’s Bolton’s job to check homes for design and maintenance violations.
WHILE HER FINDINGS aren’t always received kindly, homeowners don’t have to take her word for it. “We photograph everything,” she said.
Bolton, who has lived in Reston for 28 years, understands the significance of her job.
“We deliver the facts. We’re just telling it like it is … We’re reporting,” she said, as she drove a Reston Association minivan to a property for inspection. “It’s our job to be fair and objective and treat members with respect as property owners.”
Plus, she added, counselors are only allowed to grant approvals on specific items. “We don’t do much interpreting on the staff level. It’s very clear what the staff can approve,” said Bolton, who has been on the job for six years. Before this position she worked for several trade associations, including the National Education Association.
Potential violations, on the other hand, are decided by the Design Review Board or the Covenants Committee. The former handles aesthetic and design related violations, while the latter decides violations related to maintenance and use. Both boards are made up of volunteer RA members.
For a fair arbitration, both bodies rely on the inspections completed by covenants counselors like Bolton.
What the counselors see and document is very much like evidence. But how they collect that evidence is regimented.
“I want to be sure everybody is getting the same review,” said Bolton, referring to the strict method in which counselors approach an inspection, which includes a highly specific checklist supported by photos.
INSPECTIONS ARE prompted in one of three ways: a request for Virginia’s Property Owner’s Association Act documents, by a complaint filed by a neighbor and by random checks performed by staff.
According to RA’s Executive Vice President Milton Matthews, the first two occupy most of the organization’s time and energy. However, Matthews said counselors sometimes perform a “windshield drive-by” of a neighborhood to look for potential violations.
Each counselor has a working knowledge of RA’s Design Guidelines, which govern what is and isn’t allowed. In addition, each cluster has it’s own covenants, which supersede the Design Guidelines and are often much more specific.
“[Clusters] are a completely different animal because there are a subset of standards that have to be followed,” said Barbara Ramey, a covenants counselor who focuses on certain clusters like a reporter might focus on certain beats.
“I have 32 different clusters that I handle. They’re all over Reston and they’re all different ages,” said Ramey, who said she finds violations about 50 percent of the time.
THE COUNSELORS, as part of the administrative arm of covenants enforcement, have a file on every property in Reston. Some files are as think as a telephone book, while others are as thin as a few pieces of paper. Bolton said it depends mostly on how many times the property has changed hands.
In many respects, Bolton and the other counselors’ primary purpose is to ensure that properties are in good shape before they are sold.
During POAA inspections, Bolton explains that counselors start the process of disclosing violations. “It’s only fair to the buyer that we identify what we can,” she said.
In doing so, counselors often refer back to the Design Guidelines. When in question, the counselors lean on the side of caution. “If I see it, I cite it,” said Bolton.
AS A PROPERTY owner who lives in Reston but not within the RA borders, Bolton knows what’s it’s like to live somewhere without covenants.
“Living where there’s no rules has its pluses and minuses, obviously. Given a chance, I would live in a community with protective covenants,” she said, speaking as a homeowner.
She explained that covenants would have prevented her neighbor from cutting down “all the trees in his backyard,” which subsequently caused all the landscaping in her yard to wash away.
Ramey, a Herndon resident, has a similar story.
She said she wasn’t thrilled when she found out a neighbor a few doors down had decided to use pink trimming. “I think the things people choose to do can have a huge impact on their neighbor’s property values,” said Ramey.
As bearers of bad news, the counselor positions are sometimes viewed unfavorably by some community members.
“I don’t think it’s tougher than any other job,” said Bolton, who enjoys the work. “Our job is meaningful.”
But it can be thankless.
“I think the people in Reston realize at times we have a difficult job. Unfortunately, the ones who appreciate us are in general the ones you don’t hear from. But I know they’re out there,” said Ramey.
Either way, said Ramey, counselors go out each day trying to protect “what in most cases is people’s largest investment.”
DRB and Covenants Committee members often express gratitude for the staff’s work. Several members credited the counselors with keeping Reston beautiful.