Op-Ed: A Stunningly Bad Idea

by RestonNow.com March 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm 1,661 44 Comments

Tetra BuildingThis is an op-ed by Reston resident John Farrell. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Reston Now.

I went to the March 2 Reston Association Candidates Forum prepared to vote by computer that night for two of the candidates up for election, but I also wanted to be convinced on the remaining candidates.

In addition to the expected platitudes and generalities, I was stunned to hear each one of the seven candidates tell us they thought borrowing $2.6 million to buy 3+ acres of parking lot, emergency spillway and the 32-year-old Tetra building was just a swell idea, and RA ought to spend $30,000 to submit the question to a RA members referendum.

That’s equal to two bocce courts, for those keeping count, just to hold the referendum.

Not one of these worthies mentioned the RA parking easement that covers most of the property and significantly inhibits any redevelopment. Not one mentioned that the property had its fair market value set by Fairfax County at $1.248 million — or less than half of the proposed $2.6 million purchase price.

The county says the building is only worth $400,000 and the land is worth $800,000. Did any of these candidates believe that the county would voluntarily forego the $10,000+ in real estate taxes that such a difference in value would cause?

Reston Now ran a song and dance from an appraiser (Thomas Kirchner, who is not involved in the Tetra project) as to how county assessments are not a true reflection of fair market value. Except the Virginia Constitution requires real estate to be assessed/appraised at fair market value.

Kirchner explained that the the county appraisal was performed as a mass appraisal. But those magic words are not going to make a $1.4 million dollar discrepancy go away. First, unless you look at the county records, you can’t know if the county used a mass appraisal. Second, there is no magic in a mass appraisal that explains a discrepancy of more than 112 percent.

Mass appraisal simply means averaging the changes in sales prices over dozens and hundreds of transactions. Have there been dozens and hundreds of sales of three-acre lots with 30-year-old, 3,000-square-foot offices buildings in Fairfax subject to extensive parking easements containing an emergency spillway for a lake the size of Lake Newport. Are there even a dozen such parcels in Fairfax?

I do know that there are 19 million square feet of vacant office space in Fairfax, which would suggest a very low value on a 30-year-old building of 3,000 square feet. Maybe that high level of vacancy should suggest that even $1.2 million is too high a price.

Not one candidate at the forum mentioned how much of RA’s budget would be devoted to debt service on the loan for this albatross and diverted away from camps and pool maintenance. Not one offered that they had personally inspected the inside of this derelict to determine if $250,000 would be enough to satisfy ADA requirements and correct 30+ years of wear and tear. Not one had seen a construction estimate. Not one mentioned that 60-80 percent of the three acres is paved for a parking lot or covered by building.

They were all deathly afraid the property might be redeveloped. Exactly what it could be redeveloped was left to the fervent imagination of the audience. The fact that it’s been available for resale for a decade ought to staunch the nightmares of the innocent. The parking easement held by RA ought to be a source of comfort to the wobbly-kneed.

The fact that the property is the emergency spillway for Lake Newport would frighten away any investor or lender of any redevelop proposal. Can’t you just see the new building floating away after a visitation by Hurricane Agnes’ younger siblings. (It was Agnes that blew out the dam on Lake Ilsa, aka Lake Audubon in the 1970s). That any redevelopment of the tiny corner of the three acres not in the spillway or subject to the parking easement would probably require a rezoning, just like the Reston National Golf course, never came up.

“But it could be a restaurant!” they warned.

“But the office could be doubled in size” How? Adding a second story? Who is going to spend that good money after bad on that building?

It was all rainbows and lollipops at the Candidates Forum.

Who’s asking the hard questions here? Anybody on the RA Board?

Apparently not the current Board. Go to any of the “District/Community Meetings” where our fearless leader gives a three minute drive-by sales pitch for this first-time-ever borrowing by RA and refused to take any questions on the subject. Then RA’s CEO Cate Fulkerson lectured us for 90 minutes about saving $6,000 by dumping the RA magazine in the rental office of the apartment complexes and the like. Talk about your nickels and dimes in a annual budget of nearly $15 million.

Then there’s the 6 p..m “public hearing” next week which ought to be a real treasure-trove of information. Not. Good luck getting there from your job in Tysons or downtown that lets out at 5 p.m. Unintended inconvenience? Absolutely.

Back at the Candidates Forum, nobody could explain the rush for RA to go into debt in less than four months. Why did RA have to act so precipitously?

When I served on RA’s PPA committee, we studied the indoor tennis facility for 2+ years, had financial pro formas developed in detail and had architectural and civil engineering drawings prepared. Even then, the RA Board wouldn’t take the idea to referendum. So what’s different this time?

When do we get to see the secret letter of intent, the secret contract, the secret appraisal, the secret architectural evaluation of the building and other secret due diligence materials?

And how much time before we vote will we have to examine those now secret documents?

The only conclusion from all this interaction with the RA Board, candidates and staff is that the fix is in on this purchase, no hard questions are being asked and voting in this RA election is an empty exercise of profligacy.

My ballot will be empty. How about yours?

Something on your mind? Send an op-ed/letter to the editor to [email protected] 

  • RestonRed

    Great op-ed! Thank you for writing and RestonNow for publishing it. It has important information I did not know. Agreed on Fairfax office market–definitely a ton of space out there.
    Our household will not be voting for any candidate who supports this purchase, which I guess means none of them. How sad!
    Way too expensive; unnecessary; irresponsible to borrow money for something there is no set program/plan to use.


    Thank you John Farrell. Well written and informative. I agree. The fix is in and RA BoD decided long ago and in secret that they would buy this. Can it be stopped?

    • John Farrell

      If less than 1700 homes participate in the referendum, the purchase fails.

      Thus, the answer is don’t vote in the referendum.

      Ironically, even a “no” winds up having the same effect as a “yes” vote toward meeting the 10% participation minimum.


        Thanks. I will not vote.

      • Robert Mowbray

        Is there any way we can stop them from wasting our money on a referendum?

        • John Farrell

          I guess you could go to the “public hearing” on Monday @ 6 pm and tell to stop the insanity.

      • Cluster Tycoon

        Thanks I will not vote.
        But if the vote fails, just so you know, you owe me a steak at “Harrys by the Lake”. I will take care of the side orders, just to ease the pain.
        [solid handshake]

      • Terry Maynard

        John: Now I’ll have to disagree with you on the strategy. If you recall, that was tried with the RA rules re-vamp a decade or so ago. It didn’t work. The RA Board just extended the timeframe for voting and eventually they got the result they wanted. (It seems the Board can change the rules when they are inconvenient for them, but not us.)

        I believe that if this goes to a referendum as planned, people should vote “NO.”

        • John Farrell


          That tactic only works if you can identify 1500 homes to vote no.

          Either way, the opponents need to have one tactical approach.

          • Terry Maynard

            John–Seems easier than trying to get 20-plus thousand people NOT to vote

          • John Farrell

            If past is prologue, 17,500 won’t vote anyway.

        • Rational Reston

          Ugh, that scam from RA where they kept changing the rules so they could meet the minimum number of votes is what opened my eyes into what a horrible organization the RA has become. A stipulation of any RA referendum should be some sort of UN Election Monitoring with Jimmy Carter observing.

  • No Tetra

    Makes no sense to borrow the money for this if RA is not speculating in land. I’d support borrowing over $2 million to refurbish aging pool facilities in a hert beat, but to acquire the Tetra property just so Lake Newport residents can rest easy they won’t have to look at a restaurant? NO WAY!

    • JCSuperstar

      The more I look at this it would be a wonderful thing for those 1100+ people coming to the Lake Anne Redevelopment. Imagine being able to walk over to the secluded Lake Newport and enjoy some fine dining out on the deck with a beautiful lake view.


      • 30yearsinReston

        One problem – no restaurant want to buy it for valid reasons
        It is a fake argument meant to inflate the appraisal

    • Secret Observers

      “Ugh, that scam from RA where they kept changing the rules so they could meet the minimum number of votes is what opened my eyes into what a horrible organization the RA has become. A stipulation of any RA referendum should be some sort of UN Election Monitoring with Jimmy Carter observing”

      ……Only God would know the motives of RA. RA has learned and mastered the art of “controlling” (or manipulating) voting, rules, bylaws in the 21th century to get the expected results dated back to the glory years of “King” (CEO) Milton Matthews, “Queen” Fulkerson and “General” Kenneth Chadwick.

  • Terry Maynard

    I agree with everything that John Farrell says here, and that rarely happens.

    He has, however, omitted one thing:

    RA has provided a compelling rationale for buying the property, that is, a clear, compelling specific Reston-wide need to do so. Just buying it (with our money) so others won’t–especially in the face of all the obstacles to its redevelopment–is not a good and sufficient reason to buy this property…

    …even if we get it at a fair market price or less rather than the ridiculous price that RA’s appraiser says it should cost. And when I say “cost,” I mean the cost you and I will have to pay.

    • Ming the Merciless

      Remind me – what is that “clear, compelling specific Reston-wide need to do so” that the RA provided?

  • Joe Heflin

    Absolute pleasure to read. Thank you for sharing.

  • Adam Petersen

    Great op-ed. I also thought this sounded fishy from the get go. I will not be voting to support the purchase of this property.

    • Greg

      Does that mean you will vote NO on the referendum?

      • John Farrell

        Hopefully, it means Adam won’t vote and thus deprive the promoters of this boondoggle the minimum participation necessary for the vote to be effective.

  • Reston Guy

    so what i’m getting from this is that you like the tetra purchase????

    • John Farrell


  • Bright Sider

    The facts are that the property “could” be built to a higher density, and the parking lots that an easement gives RA a use right is non-exclusive. That said, just because the assessor got the value wrong doesn’t mean it is really worth half what this deal and the appraisal suggests. If you are opposed to the acquisition on some rational basis, that is certainly fair, but it seems like you are just highlighting partial facts as sound bites that support your argument, and ignoring others.
    This is a fabulous piece of waterfront/view land, not to mention the history of what that building was used for. The flood spillway issue does not prevent development. The RA has had a long history of difficulty working with the current owner, and agreeing who is responsible for what maintenance, etc. It would give RA a great venue, at a fair price for what a private investor would pay for it. It isn’t about just catering to a few Lake Newport residents, either.


      A great venue for what?

      • LakeAnneMan

        Between John’s compelling assessment of the terrible deal and Terry’s closer that the RA Board enthusiasts have identified no compelling community use for it, I would hope this “deal” will be quietly put to death at next week’s RA hearing. The sad thing is we may never know what was actually behind this opague hurry-up plot!

    • John Farrell

      What partial facts were omitted?

      “Could” be built to a higher density? How?

      That the parking easement is non-exclusive is irrelevant. An easement for parking precludes a building from being place in the area of the easement. As does the spillway.

      What exactly makes this bit of paved-over ground “fabulous?” That’s not even a partial fact but a pure opinion.

      Please explain what concrete benefit the RA members living in Hunters Woods and South Lakes derive from borrowing $2.6 million dollars. That’s borrwing capacity that’s not available for other uses, like buying RNG. And the principal and interest payments on $2.6 million will either force the annual RA assessment higher or force cuts in other programs.


      “The history of what that building was used for”? WTF? It was used as a sales trailer for new homes. Nothing historical there.

  • Secret Observers

    “Reston Now ran a song and dance from an appraiser (Thomas Kirchner, who is not involved in the Tetra project)”. “this sounded fishy from the get go”
    ……FYI: Nelson Kirchner HAS BEEN Landscape Architect Member of RESTON DESIGN REVIEW BOARD.

    When do we get to see the secret letter of intent, the secret contract, the secret appraisal, the secret architectural evaluation of the building and other secret due diligence materials?
    …..The “Homeowners’ Bills of Rights” have passed thanks to State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), BUT we will never see HOA reports of ORAL intent, VERBAL secret, or HANDSHAKE contract behind private close meetings or “executive meetings”. HOA’s BOD and President come and go but CEO and Legal Counsel (paid “officers”) will make sure that we never see or hear the secret even we supoena the records.

    “Talk about your nickels and dimes in a annual budget of nearly $15 million”.
    …..Sorry, we “vote” to let HOA (= small group of “experienced volunteers”) spend our hard-earned $$$, now find “song and dance” to borrow $$$ … and later raise HOA due to pay debt. We are too busy or not smart enough so we have to be “directed” by BOD and have our real estate and $$$ controlled by HOA !!!

  • JCSuperstar

    Have to agree with folks here. The property is a perfect venue for a restaurant.

  • RestonRed

    I’m still concerned about the strategy of telling people not to vote in hopes of turnout being below the 10% minimum. Seeing the referendum rules would be helpful, also can RA Board members change the referendum rules, like someone below mentions–extend the voting period, etc? If so, I think turning people out to vote NO might be a better approach.
    I could also see RA really getting out there to get people to vote–at community festivals, school events, etc, and they could easily get over the 10% mark and without correct information, people might just say yes, as this property could be presented as whatever the voter wants it to be. You want more childcare options–oh we could that? You say you want more community room space–we could that.
    Similarly, if the referendum does not get a 10% quorum, couldn’t they just bring the issue back in a few months? I think soundly defeating something sends a better statement and increases the likelihood they won’t bring it back for another referendum.
    Does anyone know what average RA referendum voting turnout is?

  • LeftPolitico

    In a comment made after last week’s North Point District meeting, Ken Kneuven said that RA has an option for the right of first refusal on the Tetra property. When asked whether that fact was ever made known to residents, all that he said was that he had mentioned it in some previous (unspecified) meeting. If there is such an option, RA should inform Restonians of its terms along with all other information about what has already gone on in discussions about Tetra. Having such an option means, of course, that there is more time than RA is fear-mongering for having to make a decision and that waiting until someone else makes a bid could result in a much lower price than RA’s current one-sided “appraisal” price.

  • Brian

    How about, if we are itching to spend that kind of money, re-building other antiquated facilities that serve an existing purpose. The Glade Pool building comes to mind, and others. These facilities are embarrassing when prospective buyers compare Reston facilities to those in other communities.

    Mr. Farrell raises excellent questions about lack of research. If the Board truly isn’t ready to answer questions about debt service for instance, it’s says much about the process.

    We know how this will end. RA dues will necessarily increase in the near future to cover costs. No thank you.

  • Chose Reston Purposefully

    John, it sounds like you’re so unhappy with Reston on so many fronts. Why don’t you just sell your place and move away? You know, based on your prior experience serving, that serving the people of Reston on the BoD or even as a paid CEO is a thankless task. No, they’re not perfect, but they’re spending countless hours trying to help make our community better for all of us. Most of them are volunteers. Your strategy seems to be one of belittling and advancing conspiracy theories.

    • Reston Realist

      In what way does buying the Tetra property “make our community better for all of us?” We ALL will pay (a lot as John shows), but the only real benefit may be to those who live in the immediate vicinity of Tetra.

    • JoeInReston

      – Are you suggesting that the Reston BoD is so sacred that we should simply accept their proposal to purchase the Tetra building for $2.6 million dollars or move away from Reston?

      – If you are going to accuse somebody is advancing conspiracy theories, wouldn’t it behoove you to point out which particular statements you find to be conspiracist?

    • Greg

      The CEO, Cate Fulkerson, is thanked at least ($) 166,232 times a year. If she’s of the opinion that’s not thanks enough, she can find a door at her Taj Mahal and leave. Just like her mentor Milton Matthews did (who made at least $183,000). The CFO made at least $256,187 that year. Not enough you say?

      And these are 2013 numbers. I am certain they are much higher today.


    • Secret Observers

      Why don’t you just sell your place and move away?
      …….Article 3, 13, 17 – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the rights to own property, life… and freedom of residence. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her property.

      Most of them are volunteers
      ……IRS knows whether and how much they claim expenses or compensation related to volunteer work unless they cheat on their income tax return.

      Your strategy seems to be one of belittling and advancing conspiracy theories.
      ….. Are you saying that there is absolutely no conspiracy or secret with RA BOD/CEO and we should trust them to govern us and spend our $$$$ without any questions or concerns ? Sounds like third world or developing countries, when someone speaks up or questions the abuse or misuse of public $$$$, he or she will be accused with “belittling and advancing conspiracy theories” instead of responses or answers with the truth or fact. In developed countries : TRANSPARENCY FOR ACCOUNTABILITY is the rule of law for any public $$$$.

      • JCSuperstar

        Careful Secret… a lot folks here are not big on the UN and all that human rights mumbo jumbo. Several here still think our president is a Muslim. You may want to choose your sources more carefully.

  • JCSuperstar
  • JCSuperstar

    Coming soon. 12 angry men, upset with Reston Association. What will happen next?https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJ-98Huym3s


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