Twenty-seven years after the first referendum failed, some Reston residents are pushing for a new referendum on whether Reston should incorporate into a town. The proponents of the town are seeking a middle ground between overburdening the citizens with a new level of government and a level of service that allows for more efficient governance.
"We hope there is a sweet spot between too few services, that it doesn’t make sense to be a town, and too many services, that it becomes too expensive," said Mike Corrigan, president of the Reston Citizens Association (RCA). The group has taken a leadership role in bringing the issue to the community. The effort included two meetings held last week to introduce the community to some of the issues on why to incorporate, and what it would take to incorporate Reston into a town.
"We are powerless," said Marion Stillson, RCA vice president, at Saturday morning’s meeting. "We have a population of 60,000 but we have no representation in regional affairs," said Stillson. She added that Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) does a good job of representing Reston, but also has to keep in mind interests of Herndon and Vienna as a representative of Hunter Mill District. "Without a Reston voice, Reston’s interests will always come second to the county’s," said Stillson.
One of the main concerns Stillson brought up is the recent Board of Supervisors’ decision to approve amendments to the planned residential community ordinance (PRC), which now allows for 7,921 more units to be built under the density cap in Reston’s PRC district — majority of Reston’s residential areas. Stillson said that three Reston organizations that represent Reston residents — RCA, Reston Association (RA) and Alliance of Reston Clusters and Homeowners (ARCH) — spoke against the decision to amend the ordinance in such fashion, but were ignored at the county’s public hearing. "They didn’t even ask us a question," said Stillson. If incorporated into a town, argued Stillson, Reston would have both Hudgins — a voice at the county board — and a mayor.
THE RCA PROPOSES to keep a lot of the county services — for example, police and fire departments, schools and libraries — but also to transfer some services, such as a planning and zoning department, to the town level. Jan Bradshaw, member of RCA, said in Virginia towns are allowed to choose what levels of service to provide, whereas cities are not part of counties, and therefore must provide their own services for public safety, schools and libraries. "I can’t understand why a place of our size and our identity would not become a town," she said. Bradshaw added that U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) talked about giving Reston some federal grants for certain projects, but could not do so because the grants would have to go to Fairfax County. She also said Reston, if incorporated, would become the largest town in Virginia.
Another member of the RCA, Debra Steppel, said that land-use issues in Reston should be one of the driving forces why the community should support incorporation. "We all know what a nightmare it is to go through the Board of Supervisors" for planning and zoning issues, said Steppel. "We know our community the best, and we don’t need the county to make those decisions for us," she said.
Steppel also argued that Reston’s sense of identity would be better served if it incorporated into a town. She said that new Reston residents, such as the ones living in recently built units at Reston Town Center, are not necessarily familiar with Reston’s history and community. She said the new residents do not have the same sense of community and identity as those residents who have lived in Reston for a long time. "I am concerned about the future of Reston," she said. The RCA proposes to codify Reston founder Bob Simon’s community goals into a town charter.
ABOUT 12 RESTON residents attended Saturday morning’s meeting. Roxanne Harbour asked if the proposed town planning and zoning department would have control over the building of nearly 8,000 approved units in the PRC district. Corrigan said that while town incorporation would probably not come in time to influence building of those units, there are other parts of Reston — Reston Center for Industry and Government (RCIG) — where thousands of additional units are planned for building as Metrorail comes to Reston. Joe Stowers said that Reston currently does not have literal control over planning and zoning issues. "If very active, you can let [the county] know how you feel," he said. Stowers added that he was glad to see an inclusion of a town planning and zoning department in the town proposal, although he is not sure that the details—– such as the number of staff required to run such a department — are sufficient yet.
Opposition to the proposal is possible from not only the county, but also from the business community and parts of Reston not represented by the RA, such as Reston Town Center. "It is unclear to me how businesses would vote," said John Bowman. Marie Huhtala also wanted to know the expected level of opposition from the local business community. She urged the RCA for a "full-court press" to get the businesses to support the community. "Right now they’re getting a lot of services" without paying the fees for the amenities, said Huhtala.
Corrigan said that while the businesses do not have a vote in the referendum, they do get a chance to have their voices heard in hearings in Richmond. Stillson said businesses have a voice in terms of campaign contributions and also the voice provided through the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce.
David Morrill said the financial aspects of the proposal would determine whether Reston residents support town incorporation. However, RCA’s presentations last week did not delve into financial factors. "We’ve stopped at a set of services," said Corrigan. "It’s not a dramatic amount of savings, but there is no increases either." Meetings on the financial aspects of the proposal are forthcoming.
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY has to approve a referendum. According to RCA representatives at Saturday’s meeting, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and Del. Ken Plum (D-36) – Reston’s representatives in Richmond previously said they would introduce referendum legislation in Richmond if enough Reston residents expressed interest in it. While the RCA is supporting incorporation, it is keener to see the question go to a referendum. It is asking Reston residents to sign a petition for a referendum — so the residents can choose whether they want a town or not — not a petition to incorporate Reston. If the referendum gained enough support this year, and was approved by the General Assembly in the 2008 session, it could take place in November 2008. If Reston voted to become a town, incorporation would take effect on July 1, 2009.
"We’ve made a lot of progress," said Corrigan. He said the studies and the charter in the current proposal go to the level of detail that two previous proposals, in 1980 and 1988, did not bother to do. According to Corrigan, a question from Wednesday night’s meeting that he and other RCA members had trouble answering was what would be different in 20 years if Reston became a town. However, he said on Saturday, it was easier to see what the community would look like 20 years in the future if it did not become a town.