Voters Apathetic On Reston Charter

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

Restonians have always taken their democratic rights seriously.

More than half the registered voters in some precincts turned out to elect a Virginia governor last fall. A few years back, the homeowners' association canceled plans to hire a marketing firm to promote a vote on funding a new recreation center after so many volunteers stepped up.

So leaders of the Reston Association have been stunned by the results of their latest exercise in democracy, a referendum to change the community's charter for the first time in 22 years, largely to raise revenue for much needed repairs to pools, paths and other amenities.

Even after a 60-day voting period that ends today, they have not been able to gin up enough votes to make the balloting valid, let alone favorable.

"I've been very demoralized and disheartened by the lack of interest," said Jennifer Blackwell, president of the elected nine-member Reston Association, which acts as the local government for the Fairfax County community. Annual association dues from homeowners -- or "members" -- finance maintenance, recreation and education programs and building renovations in the planned community of 60,000 residents and 11.5 square miles.

"A lot of people lead very busy lives," Blackwell said, acknowledging that the proposals to change the charter are complicated (at 86 pages of fine print) and not "all that sexy. . . . There's an attitude among our members that if it's not broke, don't fix it."

Yet Blackwell and other leaders say Reston's finances badly need fixing, and they warn of service cuts if the revisions on the ballot are turned down. After 42 years, Reston's pools, ball fields, tennis courts, trails, picnic pavilions, sewers, roads and public buildings are showing signs of age, and the costs of construction, insurance, oil and other supplies have jumped. Among other changes, the association wants to raise the $461 cap on annual dues, now at $437 for each property owner, and charge new homeowners a one-time fee of $250. Dues have risen just 2.4 percent a year over 15 years.

"We're trying to be proactive," Ray Leonhard, the association's chief financial officer, said. "We've only replaced a few of our major assets. We have huge costs coming in the future that we've never faced." A consultant hired to assess capital needs recommended a minimum $65 million reserve fund. It now has $3 million.

The referendum appears to be a victim of Reston's founding principles. Two-thirds approval is needed, but the charter requires at least 40 percent of homeowners to vote. Of the 6,828 ballots needed, 6,067 were in as of last night.

The association voted unanimously to extend the deadline 10 days at an emergency meeting last night, but officials said they were skeptical the extension would bring in sufficient ballots.

"It's mind-boggling to me that people aren't aware of what's going on," said board member Robin Smyers . "We have done an absolutely fantastic job of promoting this."

Indeed, it has looked a lot like a political campaign, with door knocking, electronic mailings, fliers and ads in local newspapers at a cost of $131,000 so far, officials said.

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