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Op-Ed: The RELAC Vote and Fairness for All

by RestonNow.com January 5, 2015 at 11:00 am 28 Comments

Lake Anne PlazaThis is an Op-Ed by Connie Hartke of the Reston Citizens Association. Something on your mind that you want to share with the community? Email Reston Now at [email protected]. Reston Now reserves the right to edit submissions.

As we turn the calendar to a new year, some of our Reston neighbors will be facing an important vote in January that affects their summertime comfort.

Covenant 15 of the Reston Association Deed requires 343 households to use the 50+ year old Reston Lake Anne Air-Conditioning Corporation cooling system (RELAC), unless they receive an annual medical exemption — a nightmare when the unit goes up for resale.

These 343 households will have the opportunity to revoke (or not) Covenant 15 by a referendum vote. A yes vote will allow choice without ending RELAC. This system works adequately for many, but not all.

The Reston Citizens Association (RCA) supports revoking Covenant 15 (commonly called RELAC). Sridhar Ganesan, President of RCA stated: “While clearly many people around Lake Anne still like and want RELAC because it seems to serve their purposes, it is also clear that a number of people have not been happy with the system, the costs and other burdens that they feel it imposes on them. RELAC is a system as old as the Lake Anne community. Not only would the investment in that system have been fully paid for, today’s technologies have surely far surpassed RELAC’s. Many of us on the RCA Board as well as members sympathize and feel that after all these decades of using and paying for the operation of that system, those that would like to opt out of RELAC and pursue other alternatives should have the Choice to do so.”

None of us on the current RCA board live where RELAC is mandated, but we listen to Restonians who do and who live on the sunny side of Lake Anne.

From a website created about the issue www.freefrom15.org: “A number of residents have been dissatisfied for many years with the poor quality of the service available and would like to install their own units. Some people experience high temperatures and humidity which requires them to run dehumidifiers and fans 24 hours a day to keep cool and to stop mold growth. Since the covenant states that it may only be amended or revoked by members of the residential clusters which have air-conditioning service to the lot line, the only way to resolve these problems is to revoke the covenant.”

Let us be clear — voting yes to revoke the covenant is a vote for choice. It does not end RELAC!

When RELAC was installed, it was state-of-the-art technology. In the intervening five decades, technology has vastly improved, and HVAC (Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning) systems have undergone several major iterations of improvements. New systems are energy efficient, quiet, cost effective and allow maximum flexibility by individual homeowners for how cool/dry/warm they want their homes to be on any given day. They do not pollute our atmosphere like the older Freon-using RELAC behemoth. More on this in John Lovaas’ Reston Connection article, RELAC–A Museum and Environmental Problem.

In speaking to unhappy Lake Anne area RELAC subscribers, we have learned that their quality of service is dismal, the air is moist requiring the running of dehumidifiers constantly, and costs exorbitant.

You can view the RELAC cost by address at the “Reference Documents and Links” tab of freefrom15.org. As our weather becomes more extreme and the water levels of Lake Anne vary depending on Hidden Creek Golf Course’s needs and drought conditions, the quality of RELAC’s product is anything but constant for all users.

If the referendum passes, then everyone will get a fair choice. It is a matter of fairness in allowing choice in the important area of comfort. This will require that two-thirds of those voting will agree to choice for RELAC ‘s involuntary subscribers by voting yes.

Vote yes even if YOU are happy with your summer cooling. Consider your neighbor across the street/lake/cul-de-sac who may not have the same experience.

Mass exodus from RELAC is highly unlikely as conversion costs are a major factor, but to imprison anyone in a system that does not work for them is … well, unkind. Kindness and fairness is crucial to maintaining the fabric of our community. Forcing bondage to an antiquated monopoly is not kind, fair or necessary.

  • Greg
    • Karen Goff

      fixed now. thanks for letting me know.

  • Dexter Scott

    Exactly the same arguments could be used to justify any changes at all to Lake Anne Plaza, including tearing the whole place down and starting from scratch — so long as a majority of people want it, why not? Why force everyone to live in bondage to the cinderblock brutalism of 1970?

    • Greg

      Not a bad idea, but different covenants likely apply (and I understand there are many of them) to the ownership structures of the various Lake Anne properties. In fact, if my recollection is correct, these covenants, and their complexity, are some of reasons it’s taken this long to sort out and commence Lake Anne redevelopment.

      In any case, let’s hope that this next phase has more inspired and timeless architectural elements.

      • Dexter Scott

        The point of the article is the residents should be allowed to overturn the covenant with a vote. If that covenant, why not any other covenant?

        • Mason

          I believe that any of Reston’s covenants could be changed with a 2/3 vote. Those covenants that cover all of Reston would require a Reston-wide vote.

          • Dexter Scott

            But, ya know, if kindness and fairness required it…

          • Greg

            We certainly understand the point of the OP/ED, but there are many covenants appurtenant to the complicated legal structure of what’s called Lake Anne. Any covenant can be changed or be eliminated, but some of them may require unanimous consent of all property owners, mortgagees, or both. Each has its own rules for amendments, and, in some cases, statutes may apply.

            In the case of this article, it’s a Reston Association, not Lake Anne, covenant that is at issue.

            Our understanding is that Mr. Simon purposefully made the covenants running with some of the earliest of Reston’s properties difficult to amend. You will have to ask him why he did so.

            We also understand that some of the Lake Anne properties have a historic overlay (protective covenant?) restriction on them, so it may remain a monument to Brutalism until that’s addressed.

            The RELAC system has been declining for decades, but its covenant has kept it alive for 50 years. A liberal interpretation of what’s required to change it this time round may be the relief that some seek.

  • Dana Travis

    Extremely well said.

  • Adam Petersen

    I don’t understand why a 2/3 majority is needed. It should be majority rules.

    • Greg

      The covenant sets forth within itself what is required to change it. Some are as low as ten percent (for example, to increase the assessment), some are 100 percent (for example, to dissolve the entity and demolish the property).

  • Damien

    The statement “a nightmare when the unit goes up for resale.” is a sweeping and inaccurate generalization. I personally sold a townhouse this year on the RELAC system in days and bought another on RELAC. Additionally, our cluster had at least 3 other sales go within days and surprise RELAC was no issue. So 4 houses out of a cluster of 42 sold quickly and RELAC has not an issue in any of them.

    Finally the idea that providing choice will have no impact to those of us that are happy with RELAC is crazy. RELAC operating costs won’t go down drastically as people leave the system. So if this passes those of us that are happy may lose our choice because the system may fail.

    • Greg

      Your points are well stated. The system is limping along as it is with full participation; fewer ratepayers cannot be entirely good news for those who choose to stay connected should the covenant be changed.

      We think this is one area in which RA should be providing technical assistance and guidance. For instance, HVAC technology has evolved to the point that distributed district chillers could be installed while abandoning the existing RELAC apparatus — a technical solution that’s scalable from single units to full service for all RELAC-eligible properties.

      Modern, air-cooled chillers are nearly silent, do not depend on lake water for cooling, use safe(r) refrigerant chemicals. and can be configured to heat water and air should those options be desirable. Moreover, the systems modulate their output so that only as much energy is used as is necessary to provide dry-air comfort based on outdoor air temperature and humidity levels. Also, these systems do not have any (seasonal or otherwise) start-up lag and can be switched from cooling (for a day like yesterday) to heating (for a day like today) instantly. Most district-sized systems can heat some areas and cool others at the same time.

      Geothermal systems, albeit more expensive, are even more efficient, and, in the style of the existing RELAC system, are less visible and nearly silent, and can be installed against or in the lake bed (so they are not affected by lake water level).

      There is a 30 percent federal tax credit (not deduction) available for geothermal A/C systems available for systems installed before 31 December 2016.

    • Adam Petersen

      Just because houses sell that have RELAC that does not mean it won’t negatively impact the final purchase price. It is a fact that some people in the market to buy a house will not buy one on RELAC. When my wife and I sell our place which is on RELAC we will not even consider a place on RELAC. I have had people looking at neighbors houses stop me and ask my opinion of RELAC. The fact they even know to ask people shows that buyers are aware of the negative view of RELAC. The houses in your neighborhood could have sold quickly because they were priced below market value. A low price on a house allows people to overlook negatives. While some people will not be deterred by RELAC others will. Even removing one person from a bidding war will effect the eventual sale price. Because some people will not buy a house on RELAC that means the number of people to compete to buy a house goes down. When demand goes down so does price. The more buyers that are interested positively impacts your sale price.

      The fact that RELAC can’t afford to lose even 10% of their clients to competition speaks volumes. If you run a business that can’t survive even a little competition, something is wrong with your business. Competition keeps prices in check. That’s why the government has laws against monopolies with the exception being utilities.

      I would love to know the reasons anyone likes RELAC.
      For me I can’t name one thing I do like.
      Here is what I don’t like: it is expensive, can’t control when I want to use it, it creates a lot of humidity which also causes mold, it does not efficiently cool my house, if a RELAC pipe breaks it will flood my house quickly(it has already caused water damage in my house), if one central system goes out everyone loses AC, if the lake water level drops the ability to cool diminishes greatly, we have no say, repairs have to be timed with when they shut the water down, negatively effects the sale of my house, is not more energy efficient or green than singular efficient current AC units

    • Jeff

      You missed the point. The author isn’t claiming that every home on RELAC is “a nightmare when the unit goes up for sale”, her claim relates specifically to those homes whose owners have been given annual medical exemptions. As the term “annual” suggests, these are not permanent. This means that a homeowner who has invested thousands of dollars to upgrade their home with AC that works well has to tear it out or turn it off when they sell, or that the new owner has to. Or something. I don’t actually know what it means, so, yes…a nightmare.

  • Lake Anne Resident

    As a resident on Lake Anne on RELAC I have heard and understand all of the arguments for and against this referendum. Putting that aside, I would like to say from a personal standpoint, that I don’t understand why, as a homeowner, I need to “suck it up” on a day in May when it’s 90 degrees outside and I’m unable to properly cool my home for myself and my family because the system has not yet been turned on. Also, I live in a multi-story town home and the top floors are never properly cooled during the season. I have measured temps as high as 80 degrees in my home at night with the system running. On top of this, I get to pay around $350 a month for this privilege.

    • Greg

      Sorry you have to pay that much for so little comfort. A modern, high efficiency, air-cooled A/C system in your TH would cost about $4-5k installed. A zoned system is about $5-6k, and it will provide each floor, and perhaps each room, with its own temperature control.

      • AB

        I, personally, cannot afford $4-6k. How will I then cool my home when RELAC is forced to go under and I need to purchase a unit? Everyone had a choice when they purchased here! Now, the possibility is that the majority of folks who are content AND appreciate the system will have to spend $4-6k in one fell swoop to purchase a noisy unit to cool their homes.

        Give the new owners of RELAC a chance. They’ve made numerous positive improvements over the short two years that they’ve been owners. They provide excellent and quick customer service. They are honest, good people that are really trying to make it work.

        • Greg

          All the more reason to get RA’s support on a group purchase program. A beneficial program (for lots more than just A/C systems, even though all RA assessment payers have A/C systems) that will cost RA nothing.

          LEAP is always a consulting option, and it’s quite possible to finance a replacement A/C system for a lot less than the RELAC fees. Less expensive still are mini-split systems that cost as little as $1000.

          New A/C systems are not noisy, so neither noise nor affordability should be issues for those who wish for choice.

          Cooling towers are noisy as are the ugly diesel-powered pumps that RELAC is forced to use during low-water times. If the (not-so) new RELAC owners install and operate cooling towers, the noise and potential issues with Legionnaires disease will exist.

    • AB

      Did you contact RELAC about not being able to properly cool your home? We had an issue, too, with it not cooling. They came out almost immediately and at no charge to remedy the issue.

      When was the last time you did an energy audit of your home? RELAC offered a credit this year for participation in the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) audit, which was cheap and incredibly useful for us. They are a great local business and I believe that they are actively and honestly trying to remedy years of neglect and mismanagement.

  • WW

    I absolutely love how quiet RELAC is. I moved from another part of Reston where all I heard most of the Spring, Summer, and Fall was A/C units going on and off all day and all night. As someone who enjoys having the windows open most of the year, I truly relish RELAC. If you want the noise (i.e., choice) why not move to somewhere that allows you to have your choice? You were notified of RELAC when you purchased. Why ruin it for the rest of us? It’s easy to find homes with noisy A/C units but more difficult for those of us who enjoy it to find homes without the noisy units. I love hearing the birds and insects! This is exactly why I live in Reston!

    • Guest

      So you are willing to force all your neighbors to use RELAC whether they like it or not???

    • Waterview Cluster resident

      We were “notified” that our house was on RELAC by being told “your house is on RELAC.” Due diligence by both our realtor and the homeowners was done. We received the water, electric and RELAC bills. Should we have done more research into what RELAC really was? Heck yes! Had I known that my third floor would remain 80+ degrees all summer, that until 5 consecutive days of 80+ degree temperatures required RELAC to turn the system on I would remain without a cooling option, and that my water and electric bills would be astronomical during the summer (not to mention the seasonal RELAC fee), I would have had second thoughts. Over the past 8 years of owning the house, we have added ceiling fans, opened and closed vents on all three levels to maximize cooling, spent thousands of dollars insulating walls, outlets, and the attic, thousands on a new heating system, and thousands more on insulated window coverings. We try to leave as little footprint as possible in our world and the only thing left for us to do is improve the efficiency and energy sucking of our cooling system. This will cost thousands more but as many RELAC users who have switched know, the cost is very quickly re-cuped with lower water and electric bills. We are voting for choice.

      • Waterview Cluster resident

        And for those “I love the quiet of Lake Anne and outside units are so noisy” folks: the 2-3 rescue units flying down North Shore Drive every day, airplanes and police helicopters flying directly overhead, leafblowers, and the ever-present traffic from Baron Cameron, North Shore, and Wiehle are far noisier than any outside AC unit could ever be.

        • AB

          The road noise is not in the immediate vicinity of the house. It’s in the distance so it does not affect my ability to hear what’s happening outside my windows.

      • AB

        You had choice. You’re voting to remove my and others’ choice to have RELAC. Many of us made the choice to purchase here because of RELAC.

        • Dennis McDermitt

          Absolute nonsense. Revoking the covenant will allow those suffering from poor service to buy an individual A/C unit. There is absolutely nothing in this referendum that could prevent you from choosing RELAC for yourself.

  • Waterview Cluster resident

    Thank you for your support!

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