Some residents are concerned that restrictions on political campaigning at Reston Station Plaza raise free speech issues. But local and state officials versed in state election law say the question of whether or not campaigning is allowed on the plaza is a gray area.
That’s because Comstock Companies, the developer of Reston Station, leases the plaza from Fairfax County through a 99-year ground lease. The county says that state election law still allows campaign activities, including voter registration, on the private property.
Several residents who have unsuccessfully tried to campaign and distribute leaflets on the plaza say they’ve been told to request permits from Comstock before distributing materials.
But Comstock’s CEO Chris Clemente says that Comstock has no such policy for requesting permits.
“I cannot respond to the reports you have received about a days-long permit process since that is simply not true,” Clemente told Reston Now in a statement.
He clarified that Comstock has not revised its policy prohibiting soliciting on its private properties “out of respect for the privacy of residents, visitors, and commuters.” Instead, Clemente said Comstock’s policy revision was restricted to scheduling a candidate meet-and-greet for a few hours at the plaza. Candidates would get the chance to meet with voters and distribute campaign materials with no cost.
“To date, we have not seen any indication of interest from any of the campaigns (except Maggie Parker’s) to participate in such an event. What we have seen from some of the candidates is public criticism of Comstock for not allowing random soliciting of Metro commuters. It makes me think that the candidates, with the exception of Maggie Parker, have no interest in discussing their vision for the Hunter Mill District with members of the public,” Clemente said.
Parker, who is Comstock’s vice president of communications, is a candidate for the Hunter Mill District seat and has campaign signs on the property.
Other candidates can purchase advertising space for either $2,000 or $3,500 per week on two plaza locations. Parker said she paid for her ads on Comstock’s property. Comstock and Comstock-linked entities have filled up more than half of her campaign coffers — which exceeds all of her challengers’ fundraising for the latest reporting period combined.
Joanne Collins, a representative for Herndon-Reston Indivisible, said Comstock’s security told her to leave the plaza after she tried to hand out leaflets about Tuesday’s primary. Collins said she requested a permit from Comstock, but was told the process would take several days — possibly after the June 11 Democratic primary.
Residents say that the Fairfax County Board of Elections and the Virginia Department of Elections are mum on the issue. Laurie Dodd, a candidate for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor’s Hunter Mill District seat, lodged a complaint with the state’s elections department, but was told the issue wasn’t within its jurisdiction.
Dodd said she was told the department only addresses issues within 40 feet of voting machines. The Attorney General of Virginia’s office offered the same statement, she said.
Others said they would file complaints with the county’s election board after the election in order to spend more time campaigning in other parts of the Hunter Mill District.
Dodd also noted that the cost of purchasing signage at the plaza was too high, especially since the election is just days away and the process would require Comstock’s approval.
The Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney is looking into whether or not free speech rights are at risk of being violated.