Months of uncertainty over what their neighborhood would look like came to an end for the Park and Ride Neighbors (PARN). The group fought the public private proposal for a residential development and garage on site of the county-owned South Reston Park and Ride. Last week county staff recommended that the proposal not be approved.
“We’re so relieved,” said Marie Huhtala, whose property backs into the park and ride property. Huhtala, a retired U.S. ambassador, participated in many PARN meetings and said the group could thank public input and participation for the county’s decision.
“Personally, I’m a little surprised that it only took eight months,” said Mike McDermott, another neighbor of the property.
Supervisor Catherine Hudgins’s (D-Hunter Mill) office informed members of the group on March 29 of the county staff’s decision. Hudgins said she would hold a meeting with the neighbors in late April, to discuss the reasons why the staff did not endorse the proposal for the 10.6-acre area at the corner of Reston Parkway and Lawyers Road. “It would not be in county’s interest to go ahead with the proposal at this time,” said Hudgins.
John Bowman, one of the facilitators of PARN’s meetings, said the county has an opportunity now to gain a lot of trust with the neighbors of the lot, and public in general, if it explains exactly how staff came to the conclusion to not recommend the development. “Workings of the county staff is kind of a black box,” said Bowman. He added that he understands there are many legal constraints keeping the staff from being as open about its processes as the public might wish.
Not much is known about the proposal itself, since the Public Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA), which goes a long way to protect the developer’s proprietary rights, guided it. The county officials refused to reveal the details of the proposal at a Dec. 6 meeting, despite the pressure from more than 300 concerned citizens who attended the meeting. “We could not even know the footprints of the buildings that were going to be built,” said Huhtala.
“HOW DO YOU HAVE a rational discussion with the county without knowing what the issues are,” said John Bowman, who was a facilitator at the PARN meetings. Group members believe public participation played a hand in the county staff’s decision. “I think the folks heard us. We worked hard to get our message out,” said McDermott. He added that the Dec. 6 meeting was the high point of public participation, in terms of the number of people who came to the meeting. “We didn’t wait till it was our turn. We made noise early and often,” said McDermott.
Organizing the neighbors into a cohesive unit required an extensive public awareness effort. The core of the group developed a Web site and distributed flyers in the neighborhood and on the cars parked in the park and ride lot. Members of the group met with elected officials and attended meetings of Reston groups and committees.
McDermott said that the group benefited from the fact that the field of communications has gotten stronger in recent years. The Web site and the e-mail list allowed the group to reach a large number of people with relatively little effort.
Although the neighbors got what they wanted, no development of an unknown project for the time being in their neighborhood, the group will not disband. One of the main reasons for the group’s existence is to fight PPEA — and sister law PPTA that deals with transportation improvements — which they consider to be a bad law. “We firmly believe that needs to be changed in Richmond,” said Bowman. He said government officials at all levels speak the feel-good language of citizen involvement in development issues. However, he said, “Someone goes through with PPEA and it all goes secret. It trumps citizenry.”
“I’ve been shocked to learn what PPEA allows the county to do,” said Huhtala.
FIGHTING THE PPEA is not the only reason the group would remain organized. Other issues affecting Reston are currently on the table, and there will be issues in the future that will require a good organization on the part of the citizens. For example, the extension of the Metrorail to Reston and beyond will likely bring many issues with it.
Bowman said the group benefited from other groups in the area, such as the Hunter Mill Defense League, and hopes to pass the lessons learned on to other groups in the area. “You can learn how to more effectively interact with officials,” said Bowman, about the lessons learned. “We don’t want to lose that knowledge.”
McDermott said in the last eight months, since some of the neighbors received a letter from Hudgins telling them about a possible development, he has run into many other citizen groups who exist for different reasons, most of them to oppose other developments. “There are little pockets of groups all over the place fighting their own battles,” said McDermott.
Members of PARN will also continue to watch what the county decides to do with the 10.6-acre parcel that hosts the park and ride now. “They could come back next year with a new proposal in a non-election year,” said Huhtala.
There is bound to be redevelopment in South Reston, but the process for it needs to be much more open to the public, according to Bowman. As long as the citizens get a chance to participate, redevelopment could be a good thing. “There are issues that that area can be a solution to, but we all have to participate,” he said.