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The Spirit of Civic Activism in Reston

Community involvement makes Reston a special place. This week, I'm talking about two events that show that Reston's activist tradition is alive and well.

It's a busy time at RCA these days.  I think I've started most of my posts in the last couple of months with some version of that statement, but it's true.  There are a lot of hot issues in Reston right now, and we've been active and engaged on the ones within our sphere of influence.

Every once in a while, though, I begin to despair that RCA - and I - can only do so much.  During busy times like this, it seems like I can never attend all of the meetings I should attend, and RCA can't address all the issues we should address.  We have a dedicated and hard-working organization, but we are all only human.  And I worry about who will address some of these issues if RCA doesn't.

But when I do attend meetings, I'm encouraged and reassured by all the citizen activists that I meet.  As I've discussed previously, Reston was settled by a group of pioneers who believed that citizenship is an active duty, and that if you want to see change in the community, you need to make it happen, not wait for someone else to do it.  This spirit of service is not shared everywhere, and Reston is widely known for it.

When I had breakfast with Tom Davis the other week, he mentioned that Reston has a county-wide reputation for its civic activism and involvement, and added that Reston is considered "a high-maintenance area" by local leaders because of its involved citizens.  Speaking as a Restonian, I'm proud of that reputation, and I intend to see that it continues into the future.

Happily, I can report that citizen involvement in Reston is alive and well.  I've attended a couple of events this week that drove home to me what an active, committed bunch Restonians are.

Last Saturday, I attended and spoke at the rally organized by Rescue Reston to protect Reston National Golf Course against the threat of redevelopment. Rescue Reston itself is a success story for civic involvement.  When word spread through the community in July that Reston National's owners were applying to have the golf course declared to be developable, the surrounding residents jumped to action.  In the space of a couple short months, Rescue Reston has raised money for legal counsel, run an awareness campaign to alert Restonians to the issue, and developed an action plan to help Reston protect its open space.  It's a testament to what a group of dedicated people on a mission can accomplish.

The turnout at the rally was tremendous; we had several hundred folks in attendance, many of them sporting Rescue Reston's bright yellow-green shirts.  A lot of attendees were people whose homes border Reston National, but I spotted a number of folks who don't live anywhere near the golf course.  That's an encouraging sign. It shows that Restonians understand that this issue doesn't just affect the homeowners around the course; the principle of Reston's open space and the zoning laws that protect it affect all Restonians.

I was also encouraged by the speakers at the rally who affirmed the importance of open space.  In addition to me and Rescue Reston executive director John Pinkman, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins expressed her support for the preservation of the golf course, and her optimism that the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) will uphold the decision that the golf course must remain open space.  Richard Chew spoke on behalf of the Reston Association; he affirmed that RA stands with Rescue Reston on this, and that RA has also retained legal counsel to pursue the issue in court if necessary.

It's great to speak in front of a group of fired-up citizens; their passion and enthusiasm spurs me to keep up the fight.  And it's inspiring to see that so many Restonians take our founding principles seriously, and are willing to stand up and fight for them.

The event I attended on Wednesday morning was very different in tone and subject matter.  RCA's Reston Accessibility Committee held its community forum, entitled "Accessibility: A Call to Action."  The forum was designed to educate the public about the state building code changes and General Assembly bill that were recommended by the HJR 648 Work Group to make Virginia's building codes and laws more disability-friendly.

HJR 648 was a bill sponsored by Reston's own Del. Ken Plum. It established a working group that included representatives of the disability rights community (RAC among them), the building development industry, and local zoning officials.  The group proposed a total of 7 amendments to Virginia's statewide building code, and one bill that would provide tax credits for businesses that made improvements to make their property more accessible to people with disabilities.  The building code changes are now being reviewed by the Department of Housing and Community Development Board, and the bill will be considered in the next General Assembly session.

I had the honor of moderating this forum, but the stars were our panel of experts.  Del. Plum described the challenges that the tax-credit bill will face in the General Assembly, and encouraged us to build coalitions around common interests to help the bill pass.  RAC's hard-working chairman, Ken Fredgren, and one of his work group colleagues, Director Matt Barkley of the Disability Services Planning & Development of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services, explained the building code changes and told the audience what they could do to help get the changes approved.  After they spoke, the three panelists took questions from the audience.

The audience was rather different from the crowd at the rally, but they are also activists.  Many of them either have disabilities or have relatives or friends who do.  Theirs is often a quieter sort of activism, but no less vital.  For them, it's a struggle just to have the ability to go where they want and participate in the same activities the rest of us take for granted.  They're tenacious and determined, and their spirit inspires me.

Some of the most moving moments at the forum revolved around the stories these folks had to tell.  One man explained that he has to arrange to visit friends and relatives at restaurants; he isn't able to visit their homes, either because of the entrance stairs or because the doorways are too narrow for his wheelchair.  A woman described the fact that her son, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, had to move out of Reston - out of Virginia entirely, in fact - because he couldn't find a house that could accommodate his condition.  For someone like me, with no disabilities, these stories are shocking; for many of the people in the audience, they're a fact of life.

Ken noted that, to his knowledge, RAC is the only organization in Virginia doing what they do, reaching out to property owners and managers and encouraging them to make their facilities ADA-compliant.  He'd like to see RAC's model spread to surrounding communities, and elsewhere in the state.  I'd like to see that as well.  But it seems fitting to me that Reston, with its tradition of activism, is a pioneer in this form of citizen involvement.

Two different events, two different subjects, two different goals.  But the Recue Reston rally and the Accessibility forum, in my view, shared one common thread: engaged citizens getting involved in the community.  The people at both of these events don't just passively reside in Reston and watch things happen; they get active and make the changes they want to see in the community.

Both of these events left me feeling energized.  I have great ambitions for growing RCA, taking on more issues, and expanding the scope of our influence.  Despite this, I know that no matter how much we grow, RCA will never be able to address all of Reston's issues, or solve all of Reston's problems.  But because we have such active, dedicated, passionate citizens, I'm confident that we'll be able to address all these issues and solve these problems together.

For those of you out there who missed the rally and the Accessibility forum, you may be wondering what you can do to become active and get involved.  I'm happy to report that you can.

If you're concerned about Reston National and the open space issue, our next big target is the BZA hearing on October 24th.  Rescue Reston wants to flood the room with a neon-clad army of supporters, and you can be one.  If you want to have your say, you can submit a written statement or sign up to speak at the hearing.  Contact me or John Pinkman, and we'll provide you with the details.

If you're interested in accessibility and supporting the building code changes, there are three things you can do.  First, as I said, the Department of Housing and Community Development Board is currently reviewing the proposed building code changes, and will be voting on them in the coming months.  You can write or email the Board in support of the changes.  Second, the Virginia House and Senate Finance Committees will consider the tax-credit bill when the General Assembly recovenes in January.  You can write, call, or email the members of those committees and urge them to pass the bill.  Finally, you can contact the County Board of Supervisors and ask them to recommend the tax credit bill be included in the County's legislative package.  If you contact me or Ken Fredgren, we'll provide you with the contact information for those boards and commitees.

One of Reston's great strengths is its sense of community, which was built on the foundation of civic involvement and activism.  That spirit makes us a special place, and I'm inspired by the citizen activists I see every day to keep that spirit alive.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kathy October 03, 2012 at 11:53 PM
We appreciate very much that you took the time to come and speak at the rally. Public speaking is something you excel at. Kathy Kaplan
Colin Mills October 04, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Thanks, Kathy! I really enjoyed the rally, and I was glad to come out and show my support.

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