Fairfax County on Friday accused the real estate company that leases a plaza adjacent to a Metro Silver Line station in Reston of civil rights violations after it allowed one of its employees — who is running for the Board of Supervisors — to post campaign signs there but barred her opponents from approaching voters.
The firm, Comstock Companies, disputes that the land near the Wiehle-Reston station is public and says the employee — company spokeswoman Maggie Parker — paid to display the signs seen by about 14,000 commuters per day.
“We all know that political speech is the most highly protected form of communication under the First Amendment,” Fairfax board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At Large) wrote in a letter to Comstock chief executive Chris Clemente.
“Allowing one’s own employee to engage in such highly protected activity in a public area, while excluding other candidates from doing the same, is clearly wrong and cannot be tolerated,” Bulova said in the letter, which threatened legal action.
The dispute stems from complaints about Comstock’s policy from two of Parker’s opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election for a chance to replace retiring Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).
Both county planning commissioner Walter Alcorn and attorney Laurie Dodd said that a Comstock security guard stopped them last month from passing out campaign literature in a section of the plaza that is near one of Parker’s signs.
Alcorn said Friday that the company later told his campaign that he would be allowed to post his own sign there for a fee.
“We basically inquired about that, and they never responded,” said Alcorn, who has been endorsed by Hudgins.
In an interview, Clemente said the land is not a public space under the terms of a 99-year lease that Comstock has with Fairfax County to operate the site that includes the plaza, a commuter parking garage, homes and businesses.
“Our agreement with the county does not allow people to petition or protest or do anything else on the property,” he said.
Clemente said that anyone who wants to post a sign at the site must pay a fee of $2,000 per week. Banners cost $3,500 per week.
Parker’s campaign paid those fees to display a banner and a double-sided sign there for the past four weeks, he said. Alcorn and Dodd, the second candidate who complained, never inquired about placing signs there, Clemente said.
“This is a bully tactic,” said Clemente, who has donated $5,000 to Parker’s campaign, while his company and its affiliates have contributed at least $60,000, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project. “Maybe it’s a closer race than everybody thought it would be.”
Parker, the company’s vice president of communications, said she has never campaigned at the plaza.
“I have never done that because it is private property,” she said. “The only people who are allowed to vend on it are the Girl Scouts because they are the least likely to get us into trouble.”
Bulova disagreed, saying it’s normal practice for candidates to be allowed to canvass outside Metro stations.
“I’ve done that, and I’ve never had to ask for any permission,” Bulova said in an interview.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia agreed.
In its own letter sent to Bulova on Friday, the organization said the Comstock lease does not mean it isn’t subject to First Amendment protections.
“Even while it is leased to a private company, the Plaza remains a ‘traditional public forum’ — government property where the Supreme Court has said that free speech rights are most protected,” Claire Gastañaga, the Virginia chapter’s executive director, said in the letter.
Raymond F. Morrogh, the commonwealth’s attorney for the county, told Fairfax police that, while the dispute remains unresolved, he would not prosecute anybody arrested for trying to campaign at the train station.
“It would not be appropriate to prosecute anyone exercising their First Amendment rights in public areas,” Morrogh said in a letter to the Reston district station captain that was released by a spokesman.