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Group Of Lake Anne Residents Organizing For RELAC Referendum

by Karen Goff February 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm 12 Comments

Lake Anne Plaza

A group of Reston residents who are customers of RELAC, the air conditioning system that is powered by recirculated water  from Lake Anne, are organizing to start a referendum process that would give them more freedom of choice in the matter.

About 300 Lake Anne-area homes are on the RELAC (Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning Corporation)  system, which has been in place since the mid-1960s.

Reston Association has been discussing an amendment to the Reston covenants declaring that a person who is asking for an exemption from using the aging air conditioning system must show a doctor’s order advising of the “handicap,” information about the handicap (such as medical records), and that order must be updated annually. That rule tightens up the current exemption, in which a medical reason is good for as long as the homeowner lives in the house.

Currently, the RA covenant binds RELAC homes to using the system. Washington Plaza Cluster resident John Hunter says the time may be right for a referendum to alter the covenant.

A previous referendum, in 2008, was defeated 130-100.

“We’ve decided to get the process going again,” said Hunter. “Our goal is to make it so people have a choice. If they are happy with RELAC, great. If not happy, then they can get off of it.”

Hunter, who has lived in his home about three and a half years, used the medical exemption to get off of RELAC. He said the system could not reach the third floor of his townhome, where it was routinely 80 degrees in summer. He said he installed an electric heat pump at a cost of more than $6,000. He will still have to put the RELAC ductwork back in place when he sells the house, he said.

Because it was quiet and saved energy, RELAC was considered innovative in the 1960s. But as other technology improved, it became clear the system had many faults, many Lake Anne residents say.

The cost has also risen significantly in recent years. Hunter said rates vary greatly from home to home. His bill, before he installed the heat pump, was $1,500 for the season. He said some homeowners are paying more than 50 percent than they did a few years ago.

To get a change in the covenants, interested RELAC users would have to petition the RA Board of Directors. The board would then pay for a referendum of all RELAC customers. The vote would have to be a two-thirds majority in order for the board to consider the change.

RA President Ken Knueven says “as a RELAC user I am satisfied with it — but also sensitive to those who aren’t.”

“Members have every right to [try to] change bylaws anytime they want,” he said. “We would be happy to make sure they get that process.” 

The board is slated to discuss RELAC at its Feb. 27 meeting.

  • JoAnne Norton

    Well written article.

  • mlbjunkee

    How do we contact John Hunter and the others to get involved? I’m so excited that we may have a shot at getting rid of it!

  • Dennis McDermitt

    I think this is a great approach that recognizes what the RA covenant actually says. This referendum has nothing to do with keeping or getting rid of RELAC. If you revoke the RA covenant, it just means that people in the 343 homes subject to that covenant have the choice of opting for individual air conditioning–the same option that Reston’s other 58,000+ residents have. Those like Mr. Knueven who are happy with their RELAC service can continue to use it. And I think having this choice benefits everyone around Lake Anne in terms of reduced costs and better quality of service.

    • Dexter Scott

      It basically is a decision to get rid of RELAC. The more people opt out, the higher the costs for those who remain, and the higher the incentive for the remaining people to get rid of it. The ability to opt out will quickly lead to a stampede away from RELAC.

      Not that I care since I don’t use it.

      • Dennis McDermitt

        I think this “death spiral” argument is conventionally what holds people back on this issue. But I don’t think it is true for several reasons:

        1. Having the right to opt out does not eliminate the fact that you would need to pay $5,000 or more for central air–plus you would need to get DRB approval. I think this is enough of a natural economic and time investment disincentive to avoid a “stampede.”

        2. The 343 member homes subject to the covenant are not RELAC’s entire user base. RELAC is still used by all the condo units. And there are plenty of people like Mr. Knueven among the 343 who have indicated they are happy with RELAC.

        3. I think a covenant repeal would actually yield lower costs for RELAC users. Right now RA has created a monopoly, which leads to higher prices, lower quality, and price discrimination. If you introduce some competition into the market, you get competitive prices, better services, and more uniform pricing. In short, there are incentives that serve the interests of RA members.

        • Dexter Scott

          So the 100 households who voted to get rid of the covenant last time did not think it would cost them anything to get central air? Talk about low information voters…

          Whatever the effect of “competition” on RELAC, cutting their customer base almost in half will certainly put upward pressure on the prices charged to the remaining customers.

          • Dennis McDermitt

            1. It costs absolutely nothing to cast a vote in favor of having the option for individual air conditioning. My point in #1 above is that actually buying air conditioning is an investment of both money and time (DRB process). That investment means that only a portion of the 100 would actually do so, and it would slow the rate at which they left RELAC.

            2. Not sure how RELAC’s customer base is cut almost in half. Even if you take the figure of 100, that is roughly 1/3 of the cluster homes subject to the covenant. Remember that all of the condos in LARCA and Vantage Hill (not subject to the covenant) use RELAC in addition to the clusters. So even 100 homes are far less than 1/3 of the units using the system.

            3. To your last point, I think the price pressure is exactly the opposite–downward. The day after the covenant is revoked, it is not as if 100 homes can instantaneously leave the system, and it is not as if RELAC has a floor on its prices. Faced with customers who have the option of leaving (but who cannot do so without making a substantial investment), the incentives for RELAC are to lower its prices, cut its operating costs, and provide better service. Prices do not rise after you eliminate a monopoly. They go down as service providers have to compete for customers.

  • John Hunter

    I must admit I’ve heard the argument that Dexter put forth regarding RELACs price possibly going up if folks get off of it, however even if that were the case, which I disagree with, I don’t feel that would be a good reason to force folks to stay on RELAC. Currently folks already have the ability to get off RELAC if certain stipulations are met. We are just looking to make it so that folks would not need to go through RA if they chose to get off of RELAC. Seems like RA should not be in the business of telling folks which companies they have to do business with.

  • KevinChisholm

    Since these comments were written, a friend brought this to
    my attention since I provide engineering services to facilities like
    RELAC.

    I understand the string of discussion and hear a desire for
    more flexibility.

    I did some looking into this. It is interesting that two large cooling
    towers were placed at the RELAC facility, but the cooling towers are not piped
    to the RELAC system. Given what I know
    about the problems experienced, use of those cooling towers would solve many
    problem. Does anyone know why the
    cooling towers are not in use?

    Kevin Chisholm, PE

    Mid-Atlantic Energy Consultants

    • Kris Rehberg

      I believe the towers are intended to replace RELAC once they have permission to do so. There’s a bunch of legal tangles and the current owner/operator of the RELAC system that have to be resolved first.

  • Shemp (Bilbul Baitzim)

    So whats the story?

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