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

by Karen Goff November 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm 12 Comments

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

  • Sean


    How much of RA common land is protected by conservation easements?

    • Diane Blust

      Sean – I’ll have to get back to you on that, but as far as I know, there are no conservation easements on RA land. If you send me an email at [email protected], I’ll dig up the answer for you.

  • Tammi Petrine

    What I find incredibly maddening and DANGEROUS the secrecy of this deal. If it were a bonafide “right” decision, WHY would it have been kept secret until the last minute? This tactic prevented anyone aside from the developer (hardly a neutral party!) from studying the entire plan to try to come up with a viable alternative.

    The previous RA CEO, Milton Mathews, opened the door to this deal but the new CEO, Cate Fulkerson was left holding this bag of steaming crap. (And that’s EXACTLY how I characterize any deal that is secret except for a few elites who supposedly know what is best for us but alas, do not.) I feel so sorry for Cate as she has sponsored and
    participated in YEARS of ethics training of community youth and she gets it.

    The old days of backroom deals that screw dues payers should be over. But we
    have a board, the majority of whom do not understand how RA members have been used and abused by keeping this controversial plan secret until effectively it was unstoppable. OF course, that was the goal all along.

    As I understand last Thursday’s vote, the board voted to approve a NONBINDING letter of intent. Question now is: Will board revisit their decision and request a delay of deadline for LAPD with Fairfax County so that Restonians can be assured that necessary parking for existing merchants would best be sited in our treasured grove vs. an alternative site. Surely the bad PR for the LA plaza after the lousy handling of this affair will not help in their future success so one would think they would be equally anxious to find a mutually agreeable solution.

    As was stated over and over in the RA testimonies, EVERYONE wants Lake Anne revitalization to be a rousing success. But manhandling RA constituents and RA senior environmental staff is a recipe for disaster. We are all waiting to see if RA
    management/board steps up to rethink the approach to this issue. The stakes are
    enormous. Win/win solutions do exist. Fingers crossed.

    • Laura Ramon

      Tammi- when exactly was your last purchase on Lake Anne? I’m there a lot since I live in the neighborhood and I never see you- and you’re kinda hard to miss. I would venture a guess that 99% of the nay-sayers are not from the Lake Anne area; and yeah I get that technically doesn’t matter but really it kinda does.

      • NotaGG3

        We may not live at Lake Anne, but that grove of trees belongs to us, not just to the residents of LA. The problem is that a commonly-owned asset is being swapped to benefit one neighborhood. Not cool and, if not illegal, ethically problematic.

  • NotaGG3

    Thank you, Ms. Blust, for standing up for the Reston environment and our children’s health. You understand that nature bats last.

  • John Lovaas

    Thanks, Diane, for helping to point this troubled and troubling RA Board leadership in the right direction and for encouraging more Reston residents to get involved because the future holds the prospect of more proposals for land swaps, or giveaways. The flawed process and nontransparency must not be repeated, but as it stands we have little assurance of that with this current Board, unless something changes. For five months–May to mid-October–this deal was concealed from RA environmental staff, RA’s own Environmental Advisory Committee and even select Board members. (The fact that the deal was cut in May was revealed in a public meeting of the EAC in mid-October by a senior RA staffer who was made aware of it.).
    Perhaps a new code of Ethics is in order–e.g., covering transparency, potential conflicts of interest and the like.

    • Laura Ramon

      Again- Mr. Lovaas- what evidence do you have that says a deal was cut in May. You make these statements but offer no proof.

      • John Lovaas

        Ms Ramon,
        It was a public meeting of the EAC at the RA offices, 15 or 20 people in attendance, including RA environmental staff & acting chief. I believe others have mentioned this previously in local print, online media. Sorry you missed it.

        • Laura Ramon

          Public meeting would seem to mean NOT SECRET. Not paying attention and not noticing that something has happened is very different than deliberate hiding or keeping secret. Your lack of respect for truth is really bothersome.

          • Kate Peterson

            I think what Mr. Lovaas is saying is that there was some reference to a deal made at public meeting of the EAC. However his timeline makes no sense; the County still hadn’t announced a winner to the bid process in May so not sure how anyone could have known much of anything.

            Which poses another question. Since the RA Land has always been in the mix for the consolidated plan that the County desired why was it a surprise to anyone that it is in fact included?

  • Sue Beffel

    Thank you Diane:
    –for your service as Chair of the EAC (Environmental Advisory Comee), including participating in the development of Reston’s Environmental Policy papers and the creation and work of the Sustainability Group.
    –for your efforts to clarify and educate the Reston Association Board and others in Reston about the swap as soon as EAC learned about it.
    –for your refusal to continue to work within the system when those efforts were stymied by the system itself.
    –for your clear and thoughtful letter with which I concur.

    Fellow bloggers: Let’s not get distracted by claims that one person supports Lake Anne more than another. While I happen to dine there at least once a month, arranged for monthly large group dinners there, volunteer for an organization that participates in the Farm Market every week, and walk there with my dog because I love looking at the scenery, the architecture and the people, that’s not really the point. All Restonians have a stake in the success of the Lake Anne Development and implementation of good land-use policies for the sake of the next generations.


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