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Letter: What We Can Learn From The Lake Anne Land Swap

Diane Blust/File photoThis is a letter from Diane Blust, former chair of Reston Association’s Environmental Advisory Committee. She resigned last week after RA’s Board voted to approve a land swap in order for developers to build a new parking garage at Lake Anne Plaza. Something on your mind? Send a letter to the editor to [email protected].

As some of you know, I took the extraordinary step of resigning last week from Reston Association’s Environmental Advisory Committee and as the Chair of RA’s Sustainability Working Group, which was established just last spring by the RA Board to design a sustainability road map for RA.

It would be easy to say I stepped down because of a few trees.  But, that would be a gross oversimplification.  The RA Board decision to swap an acre of mature upland forest for land that serves in part as a drainage ditch for Baron Cameron came at the end of a long process marked by a lack of transparency and bad management.  Changes must be made if Reston is to develop and redevelop in a truly sustainable manner, one that meets “the community’s present needs while preserving Reston’s essential character and ensuring the ability of future generations to meet their needs” — the RA Board’s own definition of sustainability.

The management of the land swap process was flawed, largely due to a lack of transparency.  Although senior RA staff was aware of the plan, neither RA environmental staff nor the volunteers on the Environmental Advisory Committee were told that RA was considering giving up an acre of natural area as RA’s contribution to the revitalization of Lake Anne. Outside advisors were apparently hired to help with decision, but the people charged with providing the RA Board with sound advice on the management of RA’s natural areas were completely left out of the discussion.

If we had been involved, the RA Board would have learned what we tried to tell them in testimony at public hearings and in emails: this little acre was much more than land and trees.  It was a valuable upland forest ecosystem that captured stormwater and carbon, provided a natural area for members, and provided habitat for critters providing services that promote human health.  It was most certainly not “just some trees.”

The process was flawed because there was no broad community involvement. The week before the October Board meeting, a couple legal notices stating RA was considering a land swap with the Lake Anne Development Partners appeared in the Connection and the Fairfax Times.  Full details of the land swap were not posted to the RA website until the week of the October board meeting.

 Yes, this covered RA from a strictly legal point view.  But, no organization that strives to be sustainable would be satisfied with doing the absolute legal minimum.  Sustainable organizations actively engage members to ensure broad community support for policies and decisions.  

I would argue that a sustainable organization would have prepared for the land swap discussion years ago when it was clear the RA parcel was included in the Lake Anne Revitalization Area.  Management would have engaged staff and advisory committees in a discussion on the best use of the RA parcel for a revitalized Lake Anne, not some outside paid consultant who determined that the RA parcel was worth less than an almost useless (from RA’s optic) strip of land along Baron Cameron.

What would management have learned?  It would have been reminded that RA policy precludes loss of natural area; that we were far short of reaching tree canopy goals; that the parcel provided significant environmental services; and, that there were many ways the RA parcel could contribute to a revitalized Lake Anne that would be true to RA policies and RA members’ view of what is most valued in our community.  But none of that happened because of a flawed process marked by bad management and a lack of transparency.

On the environmental front, there appeared to be no understanding on the part of most Board members that we were talking about more than just a few trees.  The little acre in question is an ecosystem.  We humans are part of an ecosystem, not — as much as we would like to think — masters of the universe. We depend on the services provided by even small ecosystems for clean air and water, stormwater management, wildlife habitat, recreation, and, yes, the opportunity for a simple connection with nature — something that professionals are now realizing promotes a sense of well-being.  All those services will be lost when the vast majority of the trees on that acre are cleared — not for a park, not for a natural amenity for Lake Anne, but for a parking lot.

We heard much over the past few weeks about the social and economic aspects of sustainable development. People were fond of saying that we couldn’t let the environmental element of sustainability trump the social or economic elements. We need to understand, however, that when we ignore the environmental element of sustainable development and focus only on the social and economic, we do so at the risk of losing services that support our health and the health of all those around us. We can develop in a manner that addresses all our social and economic needs, but if we destroy the environment in the process, we will condemn our children and grandchildren to a harsh and bleak future.

I believe the decision to sign the Letter of Intent for the land swap was a flawed, bad decision which sets a dangerous precedent for Reston going forward. I can only hope that we will learn from this experience, take steps to ensure best management practices, and focus on true sustainability for the entire community as we move forward.

I also hope that more people will realize it’s time to get involved with RA, RCA, ARCH and other community organizations to ensure we preserve the essential Reston as we develop for the future. If this is not done, we will become just another suburb and that would be incredibly sad.

Diane Blust

12 Comments

Letter: 1.1 Acres

Lake AnneWritten by Nigel PhillipsSubmit your letters to the editor to [email protected].

I think all of us are for supporting moves for making sure that the ‘1.1 acres’, as I call the Reston Association land that is up for a swap consideration as part of the Lake Anne redevelopment, is properly managed in its widest sense for the benefit of the community. This is important, because it’s not in the middle of Hunters Wood, it’s going to be in the middle of one gigantic building site before too long. And not just for a few months, but for several years.

Trees have a nasty habit of disappearing when construction starts on any building site, especially when they’re right in the middle of things. When the building is complete this ‘1.1 acres’ is definitely going to be in the middle of an urban center. I know many Restonians (can I use that term?) like to think they live in a forest. I’ve a slightly different take on this.

The reality is that the trees essentially provide barriers between the many diverse centers of activity (housing clusters, commercial centers, recreational sites, schools, places of worship, parks, etc.) and in many cases follow terrain that is of low value or not commercially viable (ravines, the sides of roads, the backs of developments). As an example, the walk up to the Town Center from Lake Anne is typical; it’s at the bottom of a ravine or the backs of housing clusters. And how many forests have asphalt paved paths! Now that definitely is a hallmark of urbanization.

I thought some numbers would come in useful. There are about 58,000 of us (2010 figures) living in 17.4 square mile (11,136 acres). Assuming 30-percent forest coverage (is that reasonable? I think it is for RA territory) that’s approximately 3,340 acres of forest (anything over one acre with 10 percent tree coverage is loosely defined as a forest). That’s plenty of room to spread around, even when the space occupied by commerce is taken away (and this is greater Reston, not just the RA).

Even if all that ‘1.1 acres’ were made into a decent-sized car lot (which is definitely not the proposal), that still only represents a reduction of 0.033 percent.  Even at 10 percent coverage that’s only 0.1 percent.  I couldn’t find a figure for the percentage of Reston covered by trees, if anybody has better numbers please use them.

I can’t imagine that such a decrease would have any measurable effect on for example total tree water uptake and transpiration rates (I did some research on this in the scientific literature, over a given percentage tree coverage threshold the curve is flat, and beware figures that come from the West coast, it’s a different climate). Similarly, I doubt that there would be any significant impact on biodiversity or ecological balance.  The ‘1.1 acres’ is too small for deer, small rodents or their predators have no cover, especially since the underbrush has been cleared, and the number of American Holly is probably skewing the space available for birds.

Interestingly, I haven’t come across any figures detailing the mammalian, reptilian or insect population of the ‘1.1 acres’. If such data is not available through a properly conducted survey, then environmentally there is not a position to support. I believe I came across the term “Home to butterflies” – but how many, number of species, feeding versus egg laying, resident or migratory?

Such a small forest (it just about meets the criterion) in isolation in the middle of arable farm land would be managed on an almost daily basis – unwanted tree species removed, thinning where appropriate, coppicing as required, new planting where necessary, change of use as economics dictated.

Farmers are not sentimentalists, and neither should we be. I’m not aware that ‘1.1 acres’ contains any endangered species (fauna or flora), or any isolated and unique species. So what is the actual value of the ‘1.1 acres’? I think its value is in what I believe it was originally intended to be, a scenic barrier, as evidenced by aerial photographs taken in the 1960s. And if this land can be used for a secondary purpose today such as parking without compromising the original intent, then I think everybody will benefit.

If anybody is interested, the USDA has a nice pamphlet on the management of urban tree populations (out of UC Davis) to optimize their impact on the environment. Things like getting the right mix of deciduous versus evergreen trees, tall versus short, fast versus slow growing and making sure the mix is appropriate for the rainfall and climate. The change in the environment of the ‘1.1 acres’ coming as the result of redevelopment calls I believe for appropriate management in an urban, not a forest, setting.

I cannot think of a rural or forest setting that has half a dozen or more commercial centers within a five-mile radius. I spilt my time between Reston and the suburbs of Montréal, up in Québec, Canada. We have half that number of commercial centers within the same radius! The best analogy would be a garden city (we used to live in one of the original ones from the 1900’s when we were in the UK). It’s urban living by any definition, with the bonus of the forested areas, and I don’t think Mr. Simon meant it to be any other way.

Nigel Phillips is a resident of Heron House at Lake Anne Plaza.

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