New Charter Might Inflate Homeowners' Bills

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Reston officials announced yesterday that residents have approved changes to the community's charter that could result in higher annual dues to the region's largest homeowners' association.

Voters in the planned community in Fairfax County approved raising the cap on annual fees in a referendum that drew so little excitement that the Reston Association extended the 60-day voting period by 10 days.

But when the votes were tallied yesterday, the balloting exceeded the 40 percent needed to make the referendum valid (with 41.3 percent) and the two-thirds "yes" votes needed for passage (70 percent).

"The standard [for passage] was set so high that even achieving that was a mandate from the community," said Jennifer Blackwell, president of the elected nine-member Reston Association board, which acts as Reston's local government.

The cap on annual dues, now $465, will also rise by the greater of two figures: 4.5 percent or the employment cost index, a calculation of labor costs that exceeds the consumer price index. Dues, which finance public programs, buildings, trails and pools in the community of 60,000 residents, have risen 2.4 percent a year for 15 years. Blackwell said that with the new cap, the association's $12 million budget could rise by $1.2 million a year.

Among other changes, the charter revisions will impose a one-time $250 fee on homeowners who buy property in Reston or move within the community. The extra dues from new homeowners could bring in $300,000, she said.

The revisions are the first changes to the charter in 22 years. Reston's swimming pools, trails, ballfields, tennis courts and public buildings have been needing renovations, but dues from homeowners were not covering the costs, the association said. Officials warned of cuts to recreation and education programs if voters did not authorize more revenue. They held public hearings over four years and began an aggressive campaign to publicize the referendum, with local newspaper ads, door-to-door pitches and electronic mailings.

But by the time the voting period ended March 31, the association was short the 40 percent quorum it needed to make the vote valid. Many homeowners said they had not had time to read the lengthy booklet of arcane language that arrived in their mailboxes in February. It was not easy reading; the referendum was billed as a change in the "governing documents."

After an emergency meeting, the association extended the deadline until Monday.

Many homeowners who read the documents didn't like what they saw.

"The increase in dues comes without accountability," said Jack Kenny, a local Republican activist who opposed the charter revisions. He said the referendum's labored passage should be a sign to association leaders that they need to pare spending instead of ask homeowners for more money.

"The idea that if we have a requirement that 40 percent of the membership has to vote on something and you can't get that many people excited about it, then maybe it isn't such a good idea," he said.

Among other revisions to the charter are new restrictions on changes homeowners can make to their property, including those related to lighting, fences and sheds.

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