Published October 13, 2020 in the Reston Patch
Developer Wheelock Communities proposes to add up to 1000 new residential units on the “high ground” of the existing Hidden Creek golf course and to “dedicate” up to 100 acres of the property as a park. This “grand park” is a “concept” held out by Wheelock as a trade-off and incentive for Fairfax County to reduce the existing open space commitment in the Comprehensive Plan for Reston. The proposal is an illusion, however, since economically, environmentally, and aesthetically it is an impossible dream. Here are the myths promulgated by Wheelock:
Myth # 1: The park’s amenities will be an attractive addition to Reston. Wheelock’s presentations include depictions of indoor tennis or pickleball courts, “a senior fitness area,” and an “inclusive” playground. But Wheelock also promises that much of the proposed park will “look a lot like the current golf course” with meadows and “mowed lawns.” Wheelock will not own the park and expects to turn it over to either the Reston Association (RA) or the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA). But, RA has resolved that it has no interest in owning the “park.” FCPA has made no commitment, and it would have substantial budgetary issues if it accepted the land. Wheelock has not, and cannot, point to a “need” for the amenities it describes. The existing “mowed lawn” is open for walking trails already. As a developer, Wheelock is motivated by the desire to obtain approval for the maximum density possible. At this point, none of its “concepts” for a park are binding. Wheelock will divest itself of the parts of the land it doesn’t want for development, and those remainders will be someone else’s financial problem later.
Myth #2: The park will be financially self-supporting. Recognizing the facilities it describes cost money to operate, Wheelock hypothesizes that user fees will support them, rendering the project “revenue neutral” to local citizens. This promise is belied by the real life costs of both RA and FCPA. Tennis revenue for RA does not cover the costs of its outdoor courts, which are subsidized by membership assessments. (Wheelock imagines much more expensive indoor courts.) User fees in the County park system provide only about 60% of operating costs, and much of that revenue is generated by the public golf courses (!) and the brick-and-mortar recreation centers, neither of which is relevant here. Facilities in a new park would compete, of course with other Reston and County parks, requiring competitive pricing for any user fees. New tennis courts fully supported by user fees would not attract users given the existing alternatives. The repeated assertion by Wheelock that its park will be financially self-supporting is not credible.
Myth #3: Open space is free. Wheelock ignores the ongoing costs of maintenance for the open space left behind. Wheelock says it will leave much of the property in its current state, to be enjoyed for trails and meadows, and does not expect “reforestation.” Wheelock never mentions the costs associated with maintaining that “passive” space, a cost supported today by members of the golf course. (One might wonder how, if the new park will not need water from Lake Anne, as Wheelock claims, irrigation of the property as “lawn” will be provided.) The property Wheelock does not want includes flood plain, wetlands and streams which require active management, equipment and staff to monitor. Experience at RA and FCPA facilities of a similar scope proves that these annual expenses are substantial, placing a budgetary burden on any entity that is handed the responsibility by Wheelock.
The conclusion? In mailings and focus groups, Wheelock has solicited ideas for the property as if the decision to re-plan and rezone has already occurred. The public relations campaign pretends residents have only to choose between the possible uses of a new park. This is classic “false framing” – the real issue is whether the community will support a change in the 60-year-old plan for open space so that a developer can make a profit on residential housing. The answer to that question should be a firm ‘no.’ Reston citizens will be poorer financially and aesthetically if that trade-off is permitted.
Rodney F. Page
Greenbriar Court, Reston
Rodney Page first moved to Reston in 1971, and, after living elsewhere for several decades, returned in 2017. He is a former President of the Reston Community Association and was a member of the Fairfax County School Board representing Reston from 1974-1980.