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Column: What Interest Served Bailing Out Crumbling Utility?

Once upon a time, I am told, Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning (RELAC) actually provided a relatively competitive cooling service to 500 residences around Lake Anne using chilled water delivered through a maze of underground pipes. It was the 1960s and air conditioning was still in its infancy. Compared with today’s A/C systems, RELAC at its best would be like an original Polaroid compared with a 2014 digital camera.

Its one advantage was that it was quiet, compared to the outside A/C units of the time, like those serving residents around Reston’s other three lakes. It has lost even that aesthetic advantage. Modern A/C units are very quiet. When my neighbor in the adjoining townhome has his system on, we are not aware of it in our yard just 20 feet away. He has a newer conventional system which cools his whole house, upstairs and downstairs, at a far lower cost than the RELAC relic which cannot effectively cool our top level, or the mid level on hot days. And, we are more fortunate than folks living elsewhere in the cluster further from the chilling plant. It seems they receive less chilled water due to changes up the line.

The latest proposal by Reston Association is a heavy-handed attempt to eliminate even the longstanding medical exception for residents with valid medical need, supported by a doctor’s certification, for a more reliable, lower humidity source of A/C. On its face, RA is enforcing a kind of indentured servitude of residents on behalf of a monopoly for-profit corporation. One might have been barely able to justify such a monopoly in a 1960s’ context, basing it on esthetic value (quiet) and was competitive innovation, perhaps worthy of Covenant protection until it had the opportunity to prove itself in the marketplace. That questionable proposition, unlike high-humidity RELAC, holds no water today. The system is no longer competitive with available cooling alternatives either in terms of cost or cooling capability. Nor is the aesthetic argument any longer valid. Modern A/C units perform quietly and don’t violate my right to quiet. Furthermore, RELAC is not environmentally friendly. Most homes on the system must run the A/C 24-7 to even approach the low end of cool. In addition, many have to run fans upstairs and dehumidifiers 24-7 because the insufficiently cooled air is very moist, even inviting mold. The only justification for continued monopoly protection of this for-profit venture is income protection for the owners, certainly not the well-being of residents intended by the covenants. Many residents, with severe allergies, asthma, various respiratory issues, and other ailments exercised the medical exception and got off the system. Many, many more would like to exercise an option to do so because they are ill-served, uncomfortable in warm weather and hurt by outrageous rates (increased 56 percent in one recent hike alone).

Now RA proposes to make medical exceptions nearly impossible to obtain, to require they be renewed annually with medical re-certification and that those willing to go through this process continue to pay for service no longer used. RA enforcement of this outrage will be both challenged and challenging.

What are the indentured ones to do? If the RA Board again refuses to listen to reason, a lawsuit might well be in order—the down side is that the indentured ones have to pay both lawyers! Another is to petition for referendum on the question of eliminating the restrictive covenant. Where do I sign?