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?

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