Letter: What We Can Learn From The Lake Anne Land Swap

Diane Blust/File photoThis is a letter from Diane Blust, former chair of Reston Association’s Environmental Advisory Committee. She resigned last week after RA’s Board voted to approve a land swap in order for developers to build a new parking garage at Lake Anne Plaza. Something on your mind? Send a letter to the editor to [email protected].

As some of you know, I took the extraordinary step of resigning last week from Reston Association’s Environmental Advisory Committee and as the Chair of RA’s Sustainability Working Group, which was established just last spring by the RA Board to design a sustainability road map for RA.

It would be easy to say I stepped down because of a few trees.  But, that would be a gross oversimplification.  The RA Board decision to swap an acre of mature upland forest for land that serves in part as a drainage ditch for Baron Cameron came at the end of a long process marked by a lack of transparency and bad management.  Changes must be made if Reston is to develop and redevelop in a truly sustainable manner, one that meets “the community’s present needs while preserving Reston’s essential character and ensuring the ability of future generations to meet their needs” — the RA Board’s own definition of sustainability.

The management of the land swap process was flawed, largely due to a lack of transparency.  Although senior RA staff was aware of the plan, neither RA environmental staff nor the volunteers on the Environmental Advisory Committee were told that RA was considering giving up an acre of natural area as RA’s contribution to the revitalization of Lake Anne. Outside advisors were apparently hired to help with decision, but the people charged with providing the RA Board with sound advice on the management of RA’s natural areas were completely left out of the discussion.

If we had been involved, the RA Board would have learned what we tried to tell them in testimony at public hearings and in emails: this little acre was much more than land and trees.  It was a valuable upland forest ecosystem that captured stormwater and carbon, provided a natural area for members, and provided habitat for critters providing services that promote human health.  It was most certainly not “just some trees.”

The process was flawed because there was no broad community involvement. The week before the October Board meeting, a couple legal notices stating RA was considering a land swap with the Lake Anne Development Partners appeared in the Connection and the Fairfax Times.  Full details of the land swap were not posted to the RA website until the week of the October board meeting.

 Yes, this covered RA from a strictly legal point view.  But, no organization that strives to be sustainable would be satisfied with doing the absolute legal minimum.  Sustainable organizations actively engage members to ensure broad community support for policies and decisions.  

I would argue that a sustainable organization would have prepared for the land swap discussion years ago when it was clear the RA parcel was included in the Lake Anne Revitalization Area.  Management would have engaged staff and advisory committees in a discussion on the best use of the RA parcel for a revitalized Lake Anne, not some outside paid consultant who determined that the RA parcel was worth less than an almost useless (from RA’s optic) strip of land along Baron Cameron.

What would management have learned?  It would have been reminded that RA policy precludes loss of natural area; that we were far short of reaching tree canopy goals; that the parcel provided significant environmental services; and, that there were many ways the RA parcel could contribute to a revitalized Lake Anne that would be true to RA policies and RA members’ view of what is most valued in our community.  But none of that happened because of a flawed process marked by bad management and a lack of transparency.

On the environmental front, there appeared to be no understanding on the part of most Board members that we were talking about more than just a few trees.  The little acre in question is an ecosystem.  We humans are part of an ecosystem, not — as much as we would like to think — masters of the universe. We depend on the services provided by even small ecosystems for clean air and water, stormwater management, wildlife habitat, recreation, and, yes, the opportunity for a simple connection with nature — something that professionals are now realizing promotes a sense of well-being.  All those services will be lost when the vast majority of the trees on that acre are cleared — not for a park, not for a natural amenity for Lake Anne, but for a parking lot.

We heard much over the past few weeks about the social and economic aspects of sustainable development. People were fond of saying that we couldn’t let the environmental element of sustainability trump the social or economic elements. We need to understand, however, that when we ignore the environmental element of sustainable development and focus only on the social and economic, we do so at the risk of losing services that support our health and the health of all those around us. We can develop in a manner that addresses all our social and economic needs, but if we destroy the environment in the process, we will condemn our children and grandchildren to a harsh and bleak future.

I believe the decision to sign the Letter of Intent for the land swap was a flawed, bad decision which sets a dangerous precedent for Reston going forward. I can only hope that we will learn from this experience, take steps to ensure best management practices, and focus on true sustainability for the entire community as we move forward.

I also hope that more people will realize it’s time to get involved with RA, RCA, ARCH and other community organizations to ensure we preserve the essential Reston as we develop for the future. If this is not done, we will become just another suburb and that would be incredibly sad.

Diane Blust

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