Colin Mills: A Tough Night For Reston

colinmillsColin Mills is the president of the Reston Citizens Association. He will write a weekly opinion column on Reston Now. 

Last night, four years of work on the Reston Master Plan Task Force came to a frustrating and disappointing conclusion.  The Task Force voted to send the new Comprehensive Plan to the Planning Commission, starting it down the road to approval before the Board of Supervisors.  RCA’s representative, Terry Maynard, voted “no” on the final product. I did not have a vote on the Task Force, but if I had, I would have voted the same way.

RCA was not satisfied with the latest draft of the Comp Plan, as evidenced by the report card that our Reston 20/20 Committee prepared this week, which gave it an overall grade of D.  We felt that the plan was seriously lacking in many areas, most notably parks and recreation, transportation, and implementation. We joined with ARCH and RA to produce a joint comment describing the areas that we felt needed improvement.

Unfortunately, the few changes approved by the Task Force last night did little to improve the plan. Therefore, we felt that we had no choice but to oppose it.

The lack of changes to the draft plan was not for a lack of suggestions. By my count, there were 15 sets of comments submitted suggesting changes to the plan, including ours. Unfortunately, the discussion last night was limited to a handful of subjects selected by the Task Force chair, Patty Nicoson. The Task Force did not even consider all of the comments made by its members.  Major topics such as transportation and implementation weren’t even discussed at all!  Since those were two of the areas that needed the most work, I was extremely disappointed that they weren’t even raised.

In fairness to Patty, the meeting lasted over three hours as it was; discussing all of the comments in detail would have taken forever. But this only underscored the problem: The fact that such major disagreements still existed among the Task Force after four years of work is baffling. We were trying to have debates in one night that should have been had over weeks and months long ago.

As an example, one of the few subjects that did receive healthy discussion last night was athletic fields. Terry, with the support of some other Task Force members, pushed for more athletic fields to serve the new development and to locate them closer to the corridor. The Park Authority’s representative explained the process by which they arrived at the language in the plan. A thoughtful discussion ensued, involving Terry and other citizen reps, the Park Authority, and developer representatives.  In my view, everyone made good points.

But in the end, the Task Force had to punt, calling for a follow-on motion to address the question later. Of course we weren’t going to be able to resolve such a complex issue in one night.  But why didn’t we have this discussion a month ago, or a year ago?  Why were we having to cram this topic into a frenzied back-and-forth at the very end?

That’s a failure of process, and illustrates my overall frustration with the Task Force. For too long, we weren’t having discussions about the real disagreements that existed among the members.  Instead, we chatted amiably but aimlessly among ourselves, smiled and nodded. By the time the Task Force started having the discussions we needed to have, it was too late.  And that brought us to last night. The Task Force had to hold a rushed vote, because the Planning Commission deadline was a ticking clock, and everyone is so sick of the process that many members were probably grateful just to pass something and move on.

I can understand that. And I can understand and respect those (including the representatives from RA and ARCH) who voted “yes” because they wanted to lock in the positive things in the plan, or felt it was the best they could get. And there were positives in the plan: after our successful joint community forum, County staff listened to our concerns, and addressed some of them, especially on environmental issues.  I’m proud of the collaboration with RA and ARCH, and I think we made the plan better than it would have been otherwise.

But transportation and parks & rec have been two of RCA’s biggest issues with the plan, ones that we’ve been concerned about for years now. And we weren’t satisfied with where the plan ended up on those issues. Therefore, we just couldn’t support the plan as it was.

Sounds like a lot of bad news, doesn’t it? It was, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that. I left the meeting last night feeling gloomy.  But there is some good news: This isn’t over, and we’re not done fighting for the community.

As I mentioned earlier, this plan has to go before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors before it’s approved.  We at RCA are going to continue pushing for the changes that we feel are important, and our colleagues at RA and ARCH have vowed to do the same. It will likely be a more uphill battle at this stage, but we’re not going to let that dissuade us.

Also, we’re interested in that follow-on motion about the fields. The question of how many fields we need, where they’ll be located, and how they’ll be paid for is very important for our community. We need to find a solution that works for everyone. I certainly intend for us to take a leading role in the discussions, and if we can help guide the way to a good solution, that will be an important accomplishment.

So yes, last night was a disappointment on a lot of levels; there’s no disputing that. But we’re not out of the game, and we’re not going to let this setback take us down. We’ve got a lot of work left to do, and we’ve got three committed community organizations that are ready to do it. Let’s get started.

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