(Updated at 2:57 p.m.) Reston Association’s covenants department is once again contemplating ways to streamline its services and address staffing issues.
At a special meeting yesterday (June 13) between its Board of Directors, the Design Review Board and other staff, Anna Donato, RA’s director of covenants administration, suggested temporary fixes, including starting design and review meetings at an earlier time and editing guidelines to allow more DRB projects to be completed without applications.
The suggestions are part of an effort to improve the covenants’ departments services and create more room for staff to complete property inspections, address home resale requests, and other issues not directly within the purview of the DRB.
The DRB is primarily focused on preserving the architectural integrity of Reston Association properties, while covenants typically involve issues related to use and maintenance, which refers to the physical condition of properties. Covenants staff also provide support to the DRB, which is an independent agency within RA that reviews exterior improvements of properties within RA.
Richard Newlon, the DRB’s chairman, said that diluting the DRB’s role and process by limiting staff support or curtailing the DRB’s function is not sustainable fix for the “systemic problem” and “staffing crisis” that faces the covenants department.
New needs have changed the role of the covenants department over the last decade. The level of detail required for DRB applications has increased significantly and decision letters are much more details — departing from the days when applications were stamped with an “approved” label. Furthermore, redevelopment had generated more applications and RA recently started requiring its own properties to go through the DRB process.
Last year, the DRB processed 2,097 applications — up from 1,904 in 2016 and 1,835 in 2017.
Donato said workload increases justify the need for one full-time inspection, one full-time cluster specialist, and two vehicles to perform services, including property inspections.
Issues facing covenants staff have been a topic of discussion for at least a decade.
In October 2017, staff contemplated ways to address covenants requests. In 2006, a study commissioned by RA assessed the efficiency, processes and organizational structure of the covenants department.
That study by BDO Seidman LLP was brought to the attention of Donato several weeks ago. It laid out several problems with the department, including high turnover, no standardized training process for new hires, lack of retention, and significant manual and duplicated efforts.
The report suggested that the department clarify its goals and mission, revise its recruiting process and improve the department’s overall performance levels.
At-large Director Ven Iyer said he was concerned that RA’s covenants policies were driving away residents. In some cases, covenant inspectors flag longstanding issues that previous inspectors have not acknowledged — leaving some members to foot the bill of unanticipated issues.
Some RA members say the covenants process needs more teeth and consistency.
For example, when John Robinson bought his home, he says a covenants advisor listed necessary repairs required by the seller less than a week before closing.
“The structure is inherently broken if they can only create problems during the sale process and are not empowered to fix them,” Robinson said.
W. Neal Roseberry, a DRB member, disputed Iyer’s comments that RA’s design covenants were causing residents to move out. He said RA’s policies are designed to maintain property values and a desirable community.
RA’s CEO Hank Lynch said that he stands by covenants staff who work hard in stressful circumstances. He also stated that discussions about the report by BDO was “counter-productive.”
“If you don’t like the rules, go live somewhere else,” said Charlie Hoffman of the DRB said.
Discussions on solutions going forward will continue in the coming months.
In introductory remarks during the meeting, Cathy Baum, RA’s board president, also called out Reston Now for “irresponsible” reporting on issues facing the covenants department.
Baum, who is an elected by RA members, incorrectly stated that a Reston Now story left the impression staff had been interviewed for the story — even though the story explicitly stated staff remarks were referenced from a May 23 board meeting.
Reston Association also took issue with a recent poll about members’ experiences with the covenants department. Baum accused Reston Now of using the poll to “stir the pot of negative comments.”
“Irresponsible journalism or journalists have no place in this community,” she said.
Baum did not contact Reston Now about her concerns, although RA’s spokesperson contacted Reston Now about the poll, which he stated was being used to “drive comment engagement.”
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr