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Two pioneering towns face growth milestone


RESTON, Va. - Niceties in this planned community in suburban Washington make it something of a parallel world to Columbia, Md.: Paved pathways loop through preserved open space, and residents collect their mail at communal boxes.

Less utopian aspects of life compare as well: Fast-paced growth has in part overtaken the founder's original vision, and the absence of real government has contributed to a vacuum of leadership.

"We sometimes spend a lot of time wagging our tongues," says Tom Grubisich, chairman of a committee looking at the long-term future of Reston, which was founded in 1964, three years before Columbia. "But how much do we actually get done, and does this lack of real power and responsibility breed a kind of government by talk rather than government by action?"

The challenges facing Reston are, in many ways, the challenges facing Columbia. At issue is how a polished community once on the cutting edge can grow old gracefully and avoid becoming just another burb.

Vicky Wingert, who retired last month as the top official at the Reston Association, the homeowners group that is a counterpart to the Columbia Association, calls the two planned communities "barometers of the future."

"Columbia and Reston are going to be going through the throes of this before anyone else because we're the older communities of this type," she says.

An estimated 42 million Americans live in more than 200,000 community associations, according to the Community Associations Institute. Reston, which has 62,000 residents, and Columbia, which has grown to 87,000, are two of the largest homeowners groups in country.

Reston - which took its name from the initials of founder Robert E. Simon Jr. and an abbreviated version of "town" - began as 6,750-acre Sunset Hills Farm. Simon bought it with his family's share of the proceeds of the sale of Carnegie Hall. A consultant suggested the name "Simon City," but he hated it, so his wife and mother came up with Reston.

In a twist whose significance he didn't understand until later, Simon met with James W. Rouse, Columbia's founder, in his search for financing. Rouse was head of a mortgage company at the time.

"He was horrified," says Simon, 86, a member of the Reston Association's governing board. "In retrospect, I realize why his color changed from flesh tone to green, because he was in the business of collecting land for Columbia and thought he would be first on the mark."

Like Rouse, Simon had a vision for a socially, economically and racially diverse community with a commitment to open space and a distaste for urban sprawl. Simon continues to have flashes of that distaste, even when he drives through certain developments in the town he created.

"This has no dignity," he says of one such development in Reston Town Center, which, with its vast parking lots and big-box chain stores, isn't anything like he envisioned it. Town Center was supposed to be like Georgetown, with street blocks lined with residences and a few neighborhood stores. It was also to have a "dense" urban core with mixed-use buildings.

Down the hill behind the Best Buy and the Macaroni Grille - which could easily have been transplanted from Columbia - he points to one town home in particular: "That, I think, is an abortion, that gray against the brick!"

Manhattan and back

Simon, who can talk about Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura as easily as he can European architecture, left Reston in 1967 after being fired as president of the development division of Gulf Oil Corp. that served as the financial "godfather" of the project. Gulf installed a president, and Simon moved to Manhattan.

In 1993, 26 years and two developers later, he came back and eventually won a seat on the Reston Association board of directors. He has come to be known for speaking up - obstinately and passionately - about just about anything.

"There are those who think he's like the father that abandoned the family and then came back in his old age to have the family embrace him," Wingert says. "And there are those that truly really honor him and feel very indebted to him for the vision that he had and what he created here."

Now that Reston and Columbia are more than 30 years old, their emphasis has shifted from new development to sustainability and revitalization. Simon lives on the 13th floor of a high-rise in Lake Anne, one of the oldest parts of Reston, which is named after his former wife. The Reston Association has focused much of its renewal effort at improving the village's aging housing stock, though officials say more work and cooperation are needed.

Compared to the other village centers in Reston - and some of the recently remodeled shopping plazas in Columbia - Lake Anne is intimate. The pharmacy doubles as a post office, so customers buying stamps stand in line in an aisle displaying hair care and skin products.

One of the things that Simon admires most about the way Rouse developed Columbia is the community centers that anchor every village.

"Each of his villages has a community center," he says. "That's what ours were supposed to have."

But many people who move to Reston these days don't come for the vision. Like Columbians, they come because it's conveniently close to Washington, the schools are above average and crime is under control. With major employers such as Oracle, Nextel and PSINet, the area is growing to be a kind of Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

"This is a bedroom they bought," says Simon of some of Reston's newer residents. "And a kitchen and a bathroom, which is the American way."

Is 'Big Brother' watching?

Some suburban residents scoff at the notion of living in a planned community with strict architectural guidelines and under the watchful eye of "Big Brother."

To that, Simon responds: "It doesn't have to have anything to do with that. What you do in a planned community is put out temptations for people. You putout opportunities. You don't tell them to use them."

For example, early in Reston's development, Simon put in a volleyball pit. At first, no one used it. Then a few people started, and it slowly caught on. Now it's a popular community sport.

"Big Brother would go around saying, 'All out for volleyball,' whereas a planned community puts out a volleyball court because it thinks that people will enjoy using it," he says.

As a necessary step toward looking at the long-term future, both planned communities have begun to look inward.

In 1997, then-Fairfax County Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. created the Reston 2000 task force to look ahead 20 years and make recommendations on everything from how the community's civic and quasi-governmental organizations can better work together to which social services may be lacking. The task force, which had about 60 core members, spent about two years fact-finding before compiling a comprehensive report that is in the hands of a small group trying to implement some changes.

One recommendation was to unify the "disparate" groups in Reston to promote a "common voice."

"Without unity," the report said, "effective action and governance is undermined, and a sense that the community is disjointed can persist."

The uncertain future

The Columbia Council is beginning to look ahead, too, as it begins its search for a Columbia Association president. The problems are potentially profound: Little or no development is planned, and the revenue stream has leveled off.

Council member Vince Marando, who represents Wilde Lake, the oldest village, has proposed a comprehensive study of the city's governance - which he thinks is outdated, inefficient and flawed.

"The governance system is very, very difficult to comprehend even while you're serving on it," he says.

He maintains that the Columbia Association's governing board is a public body - or at least functions like one.

There are others who insist that the Columbia Association is a private homeowners group and nothing more.

Wingert, the former executive vice president of the Reston Association, can see it either way. The dues residents pay to live in the community and enjoy services and programs are mandatory, which gives RA a public role, whether people want to call it that or not.

"I think we're perceived as a form of government, yes, and I think because of the mandatory fee I don't have any problem with the imposition of the sunshine rules," she says.

Grubisich, the leader of the committee looking at Reston's long-term future, has advocated a form of local government but isn't sure what model would work. The system, he says, is hampered by official Reston's lack of "civic fortitude" and residents' lack of participation. Some say the voting system is undemocratic: Every household gets two votes, one for the property owner and another for the property occupant, which may or may not be the same person.

Simon, who was elected to one of four at-large seats on the Reston Association board, doesn't consider himself a public official.

"No, I'm not a public official," he says. "I am a ceremonial official - on occasion."

It is hard to reconcile those who think the Reston Association is - or should be - a government with those who think it should be nothing of the sort.

"It's got all the trappings of government," says Grubisich, "but it does not have all the protections we've been building up, sometimes painfully, in the United States in the last two centuries."

Other planned communities may look to Reston and Columbia for answers as they experience the aches of middle age. But both cities are just beginning to ask the vital questions.

"Is there a model we can turn to?" Grubisich wonders. "I'm not sure."

Compared communites

Reston, Fairfax County, Va.

Founded: 1964

Population: 62,000

Open spaces: 1,300 acres

Median household income: $79,445 (1996 figure)

Governing body: Reston association board of directors

Board size: nin (four district and four at-lare representatives, one for apartment owners)

Term length: three years

Voting regulations: Two votes per household ( one for owner, one for occupant)

RA employees: 75 full-time, 250 seasonal

RA operating budget: $9.5 million Top RA official: executive vice president, appointed by the board

Salary: $95,000

Budget cycle: biennial

Debt: none

Annual membership cost: $370 per unit in 2000, $375 per unit in 2001 for residential properties only

Covenants: citywide guidelines

Columbia, Howard County, Md.

Founded: 1967

Population: 87,000

Open space: 3,000

Median household income: $63,161 (1999 figure)

Governing body: Columbia association board of directors/Columbia Council

Board size: 10 (one member from each village)

Term length: one or two years, depending on the village

Voting regulations: one per household or one per resident, depending on village

CA employees: 225 full-time, 800 part-time and seasonal

CA operating budget: $44.2 million

Top CA official: president, appointed by the board

Salary: $130,000

Budget cycle: annual

Debt: $82.9 million

Annual membership cost: $0.73 per $100 of assessed value for residential and commercial properties, Covenants: vary by village

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