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Homes by Lake Anne in Reston (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Reston’s central air-conditioning service is officially returning to keep hundreds of residents and businesses cool this summer.

RELAC Water Cooling announced on Sunday (March 31) that it has received enough community donations to be able to provide chilled water for air-conditioning to roughly 635 residential and commercial properties in the Lake Anne area.

Now run as a community-driven, volunteer nonprofit, the organization says the infrastructure and operations of its cooling plant will be “significantly enhanced.”

“This project has been made possible only with your and the community’s support,” the RELAC team said. “We will be able to refurbish much of our plant, upgrade equipment, and provide seamless service starting May 22, 2024, or as soon as temperatures hit 80°F for two consecutive days in May.”

The announcement came just a couple of weeks after a failed referendum conducted by Reston Association that would’ve revoked a provision in the Reston deed requiring homeowners to use central air-conditioning service if it’s available to their lot line.

Established in the mid-1960s and regulated by the State Corporation Commission, the Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning Corporation (RELAC) uses cooled water from Lake Anne to provide air conditioning to Washington Plaza, Waterview and four other residential clusters in the area.

The utility abruptly announced in December that it would no longer provide cooling services after 2023, reporting that increased electrical costs, an inability to get a loan for a new chiller and some customers refusing to pay their bills made it unable to continue operating.

In its announcement, RELAC said it had considered increasing its tariff but anticipated that would drive more customers to seek medical exemptions, since rates would increase by up to 30%.

As some members worked to restructure RELAC as a co-op, RA held a referendum vote from Feb. 13 to March 8 to repeal the provision requiring residents to use the central AC service. If passed, the repeal would’ve allowed those residents to instead install individual AC units, with the approval of RA’s Design Review Board.

The measure fell short of the two-thirds of voters needed for approval. Similar referendums failed in 2008 and 2015.

Now led by residents on a steering committee, RELAC Water Cooling was registered as a non-stock corporation with the SCC on Feb. 5. The new organization still ultimately hopes to become an official cooperative run by members but was unable to make that happen in time to prepare for this year’s cooling season, according to its website.

In order to resume operations this summer, RELAC solicited community donations to cover $296,000 in equipment repairs and replacements, including new motors and filters. Plans to obtain a new chiller have been deferred to 2025, when the organization says it will more likely be able to “obtain funding…and in turn reduce cost[s] to users.”

RELAC says its tariff for the 2024 cooling season will remain the same as they were in 2023. Rates are regulated by the SCC.

Workers install solar panels on Reston Fire Station 25 (courtesy Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination)

Fearing that new interconnection rules from Dominion Energy could derail its carbon reduction targets, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has asked Virginia’s utility regulator to step in.

In a near-unanimous vote, supervisors authorized Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw on March 19 to send a letter asking the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to evaluate whether the new regulations create unnecessary hurdles for small renewable energy projects attempting to join the power grid.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity was the only abstention.

Dominion maintains that the new regulations are necessary to ensure grid reliability and the safety of field workers, but Fairfax County and other stakeholders statewide remain skeptical, contending that they make renewable energy projects more expensive and less feasible.

“In the Hunter Mill District, I have an elementary school [project] that has been complicated by this requirement,” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said. “It’s gonna be coming to the Board of Supervisors here the next couple of months, but this is creating a real impediment to doing what we need to do.”

Cost added for dark fiber lines

Dominion says it updated its interconnection requirements in response to the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which increased the capacity limit for non-residential solar developments from 1 to 3 megawatts (MW).

As a result, Virginia experienced a surge in solar, wind and other renewable energy installations that generate over 1 megawatt looking to connect to the power grid. To accommodate more and bigger energy sources, Dominion began requiring smaller energy projects from 250 kilowatts (kW) to 3 MW to install a high-speed fiber optic communication line — known as “dark fiber” or “direct trip transfer” (DTT) — between the project site and the nearest substation in 2022.

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby says dark fiber is “more reliable” than cellular communication, which is prone to receiving mixed or missed signals. This could lead to unnecessary power outages if a solar facility’s power is mistakenly cut off due to a weak signal.

In addition, if there’s an emergency, dark fiber can more reliably signal the power source to turn off, ensuring line workers can fix the problem safely.

“So, this is not an issue of being ‘pro-solar’ or ‘anti-solar,'” Ruby said by email. “It’s simply about having the same basic safety and reliability standards for all solar systems that connect to the grid. The standards for medium-sized systems (i.e., 250 kW-3MW) are the same standards that apply to all of our solar facilities. These standards ensure the reliable operation of the grid and the safety of our line workers when they’re out in the field.”

Ruby noted that Dominion has one of the largest solar fleets in the country, and solar will be “by far the largest source of new power generation in Virginia over the coming decades.”

Yet, Fairfax County officials argue that no other utilities in the region place the entire cost burden of installing dark fiber lines on developers.

“Our staff has gone and looked — we couldn’t find any other utilities in the region that require this level of cost and expense,” Walkinshaw said during the board’s March 19 meeting. “So, are they necessary? Other utilities have determined that they aren’t, and as to who bears the cost, given that there are benefits both to the new interconnection and the owner of that interconnection and everyone else who utilizes the grid…we would not accept that they are all necessary.” Read More

Townhomes in Reston’s Waterview cluster are among the Lake Anne residences served by RELAC (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The air-conditioning system that has long served many homes in Reston’s Lake Anne area will still be required for 343 homes after a referendum failed to pass.

Only 165 of the 343 residents who received a ballot from Reston Association voted to revoke a provision of RA’s covenants that required those living within specific residential clusters to use the Reston Lake Anne Air-Conditioning Corporation’s (RELAC) cooling services.

The referendum needed 229 votes — a two-thirds majority — to succeed, RA board president John Farrell said when announcing the results at a special meeting last night (Wednesday).

RELAC announced in December that it will cease providing services after 2023. The State Corporation Commission-governed utility served 625 residential and commercial properties, though condominiums weren’t included in the referendum since they’re outside the lot line.

In response to RELAC’s suspension of service, Reston Association launched the referendum vote to repeal a portion of Reston’s deed that currently prohibits individual AC units in residential clusters where central air-conditioning service is available to the lot line.

At last night’s special board of directors meeting, Farrell noted that a “substantial number of people” did not take part in the referendum. Only 89 members voted against repealing or revoking the provision in question.

At the special meeting, some members said they’ve been left with no other viable options as temperatures begin to warm up.

A community-driven effort to re-establish RELAC under a co-op structure is currently underway. But some members said the future viability of that option is unclear.

“RELAC as it stands right now is in very poor shape,” said local resident Max Goodman, noting that a lack of funds continue to be a problem for the new co-op structure.

Farrell emphasized that RA has no direct involvement in RELAC, either in its original form or the new co-op. He directed Goodman and others to take their questions to RELAC, adding that the co-op told RA that it plans to begin operating this spring.

Similar referendums to revoke the RELAC requirement failed to pass in 2015 and 2008.

Residents of the clusters required to use RELAC can obtain a medical exemption from RA’s covenants committee if they have a medical need. They must apply for the exemption before submitting any application for an HVAC system to the Design Review Board, RA says.

“Properties without an approved medical exemption will not be permitted to install exterior HVAC systems,” RA said.

Townhomes in Reston’s Waterview cluster are among the Lake Anne residences served by RELAC (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Over 600 Lake Anne area residents served by the now-defunct Reston Lake Anne Air-conditioning Corporation (RELAC) may soon be responsible for installing their own air-conditioning units.

After historically requiring certain residences to utilize RELAC, Reston Association’s Board of Directors will hold a referendum vote next month to change its restrictive covenant to accommodate other cooling services and options.

RELAC announced in December that it will no longer provide cooling services, starting this year. The company cited increasing electrical costs and challenges with securing a $400,000 loan to install a new chiller.

RA’s current deed states that no individual AC units of any type are allowed in any residential clusters where central air conditioning service are available to the lot line.

The association is not responsible for the efforts of RELAC, which is regulated by the State Corporation Commission.

“Our Board of Directors determined that a referendum is the first step available to Reston Association to provide affected members with an opportunity to decide in advance of the approaching summer heat whether or not to have individual air conditioning units,” Cara O’Donnell, a spokesperson for RA, wrote in a statement.

At a Jan. 25 board meeting, RA board president John Farrell emphasized that RA does not “own, control, or regulate” RELAC. Due to its restrictive covenant, homes in six clusters covering 601 residences can’t use AC independent of RELAC unless a member is medically excused to do so under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Members expressed frustration on the issue at the meeting. Some pleaded with RA to consider offering RELAC one year of life support to allow clusters and condominium associations to determine next steps.

“We are all left with just an enormous task at our feet at the 11th hour before summer starts. I’m very concerned about my fellow community members and their health and welfare,” Restonian Susan Giesse said.

Jeff Crowe, a resident of the Waterview Cluster, questioned the need for a referendum vote when RA’s covenant appears to only apply to residential clusters where central AC service is available to the lot line.

“The obvious question is, ‘why should a vote have to pass at all?'” Crowe said. “The covenant only applies if air conditioning service is available to the lot line. Affected members have been notified that such service will not be. Is Reston prepared to guarantee that air conditioning service will be available to the lot line for all affected members for the forthcoming cooling season? For how many years after?”

As RA prepares for the vote, some members have coalesced to form a co-op that would manage water service for the 2024 cooling season. Simon McKeown, a Hickory Cluster resident and chair of the co-op’s steering committee, signed a memorandum of understanding on Dec. 28 with RELAC to create the foundation for the co-op structure, according to Patch.

If the referendum passes, RA’s covenants department will work with members to limit delays as AC applications make their way through the design review process.

Members of the Design Review Board will also work with each cluster to help establish cluster standards for HVAC systems.

“An established cluster standard for HVAC, will aid each individual member in having a good point of reference for HVAC installations and make the application process (if applicable) more simplified,” RA said.

Some members can seek a temporary health exemption to install individual air conditioning units in their homes.

Public hearings on the referendum vote are slated for Feb. 5 and Feb. 12. On Feb. 13, ballots will be mailed to voting members, who must return the ballots by March 8. Results of the referendum will be announced at a special meeting of the board of directors on March 13.

Fairfax Water plans to replace a water tank that has stood in the Poplar Heights neighborhood since 1952 (via Fairfax Water)

A water tank erected in Idylwood around the time of the Korean War is on its last legs, Fairfax Water says.

The water authority is seeking to replace the 71-year-old Poplar Heights tank with a bigger, elevated tank that will be able to hold approximately 1.25 million gallons of water, according to an application submitted in December to Fairfax County’s planning department.

“The Elevated Tank is required to provide a more consistent level of water service within the existing distribution system and will improve system reliability, water quality and water flow and pressure for many customers in Fairfax County and Falls Church,” Fairfax Water’s statement of justification for the application says.

Fairfax Water took control of the existing 700,000-gallon tank at 7407 Tower Street in 2014 when it acquired Falls Church City’s water system. The facility was built in 1952, predating the creation of the neighborhood’s civic association.

The authority says it “identified multiple system deficiencies” in areas previously served by Falls Church, including in the Poplar Heights Pressure Zone west of the city. The zone extends from Shreve Road to Graham Road Elementary School.

Issues with the Poplar Heights tank included low water service pressures, insufficient storage volume and “water quality concerns associated with the existing standpipe water tank.”

To set the stage for a replacement, Fairfax Water spent five years buying the single-family residential lots around the tank. Two of the four houses will be demolished, along with the existing tank, as part of the project.

According to the application, the new, elevated water tank will be approximately 100 feet tall — roughly the same height as the current tank. The site will have no public access, but Fairfax Water staff will visit weekly to conduct maintenance and repairs between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The application says “several of the existing mature trees” on the 0.9-acre property will be preserved to screen the tank from other residences, supplemented by new deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs and a 7-foot-tall fence around the perimeter.

In addition to replacing and upgrading the water tank, Fairfax Water plans to install new transmission water mains along neighboring streets to connect the facility to the existing system, according to the project page.

After holding public outreach meetings on the project last year, the authority doesn’t anticipate starting construction on the tank until the second quarter of 2025.

The application for a special exception and 2232 review — which determines whether a public facility is compatible with the proposed site — is currently being reviewed for acceptance by county staff.

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department responds to a utility emergency at Build America Plaza in Bailey’s Crossroads (via FCFRD/Twitter)

An explosion that occurred while firefighters were putting out a blaze at Build America Plaza in Bailey’s Crossroads in early November was caused by a backdraft, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department says.

Investigators have determined that the fire and “dramatic” explosion were accidental, resulting from degraded power lines that arced and sparked an “underground fire involving the insulation of adjacent communication lines,” the FCFRD reported today (Tuesday).

Firefighters were called to the shopping center at 3819 South George Mason Drive around 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 after 911 received reports of smoke in one of the commercial buildings.

“Crews arrived to find smoke in the building with no fire showing,” the fire department said, describing the incident as a “utility emergency.”

The building was evacuated, but when firefighters opened a door to a shed that appeared to be the source of the smoke, a fiery explosion engulfed them. Sharing a video of the incident, the FCFRD confirmed that the firefighters were okay.

No firefighter or civilian injuries were reported.

Photo via FCFRD/Twitter

Pimmit Hills community members rally against a planned natural gas pipeline in 2020 (courtesy Devin Buries)

Fairfax County is exploring avenues for regulating or even prohibiting the construction of high-pressure natural gas pipelines under residential streets.

The county’s Board of Supervisors directed staff last week (Dec. 5) to evaluate options for “Board evaluation of, or possible prohibition of” gas pipelines that utilize local street rights-of-way based on their size, the type of pipe used and other operational factors.

The request was spurred by safety concerns from residents, according to Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, who introduced the motion.

“The residents have questioned the safety and need for this type of line to be located under a local residential street, citing concerns about a higher risk for gas leaks and related hazards in the event of a rupture due to construction activities within proximity of the line,” Foust said.

While no specific project is mentioned in the board matter, which passed unanimously without discussion, Foust confirmed to FFXnow that the potential risks of having major gas pipelines under residential streets was brought to the board’s attention by Pimmit Hills residents, who have spent several years now fighting a planned pipeline through their neighborhood.

The 2-feet-wide underground line proposed by Washington Gas would replace an existing 14-inch-wide line and complete the Strip 1 Tysons project that has been in the works since 2012. When finished, the 5-mile pipeline will run from Tyco Road in Tysons to a new regulator station at the Pimmit Hills Center (7510 Lisle Avenue).

Pimmit Hills residents have rallied against the project, which they argue will endanger their homes and families. Washington Gas has said an alternative route putting the pipeline under Route 7, instead of residential streets, would be more disruptive and time-consuming.

After the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals ruled in February 2022 that the project needs to get additional county approvals, Washington Gas sued the zoning board and four residents in a lawsuit that challenged the board’s authority to overrule an administrator who determined the project could proceed.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Oblon overturned the zoning board’s ruling on Oct. 12, determining that the pipeline is a distribution line and, as a result, not subject to the county’s zoning code.

“Washington Gas’ entire series of pipelines engage in the distribution of gas. They are all exempt from the Zoning Ordinance…exactly as the Zoning Administrator originally stated,” Oblon wrote in his opinion, disputing the defendants’ argument that the pipe counted as a transmission line because it doesn’t directly serve the affected properties.

The defendants have appealed the decision to the Virginia Court of Appeals and are seeking to put any construction on hold while Fairfax County develops a possible ordinance, according to Christine Chen Zinner, one of the residents. A hearing on the request for a pause is scheduled for this Friday, Dec. 15.

Kurt Iselt, another defendent and Pimmit Hills resident, says the community is “grateful” that the Board of Supervisors is looking at potential regulations after the October court ruling suggests “the clock on this ticking time bomb is running out.” Read More

Townhomes in Reston’s Waterview cluster are among the Lake Anne residences served by RELAC (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

(Updated at 10 a.m. on 12/13/2023) A community-oriented utility company that offers chilled water for air-conditioning has iced out over 600 customers in Reston.

Reston Lake Anne Air-conditioning Corporation (RELAC) announced yesterday (Monday) that it plans to halt its cooling system after this year, citing increased electrical costs and the refusal of some customers to pay their utility bills.

The company concluded its 2023 cooling season on Oct. 10 and typically shuts down for the winter. Regulated by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, it uses water from Lake Anne to provide air-conditioning to homes around the lake.

A Reston Association spokesperson says the organization plans to work with the community to determine next steps.

“We will be diligently working in the coming weeks to understand the full impact of this action to best help out affected members know and understand what alternatives to RLAC exist and the role LARCA and RA have moving forward,” Cara O’Donnell said in a statement to FFXnow.

Reston has 600 residential properties and 25 commercial ones that rely on RELAC for air-conditioning, according to RA.

In the past, some homeowners have sought to end the mandated use of RELAC, complaining that the 1960s-era system is outdated and inefficient. Referendums failed in 2008 and 2015.

Here’s the full text of the company’s letter to its customers.

We, the owners of RELAC, regrettably and with great difficulty have to announce that the 2023 cooling season will be the last year that RELAC provides chilled water to our customers. We have reached this decision due to many factors including the following:

Electrical costs have increased 20% in the ten years we have owned RELAC.

We have considered applying for a tariff increase which would cost over $50,000. We believe it would hasten our customers applying for exemptions as rates would increase by up to 30%.

We did promise not to increase the tariff 11 years ago and thought we could cut costs with new equipment but found it impossible to secure a loan for a new chiller that would cost over $400,000.

Reston Association continues to grant “health exemptions” to customers without enforcing the rules returning homes to RELAC when they change ownership. We now have 33 homes off the system.

A significant number of customers on the RELAC system have refused to pay their utility bills. This has caused a serious problem for RELAC’s bottom line. The amount of unpaid utilities has fluctuated between $80K to $120K. We have sent letters, made phone calls, knocked on doors trying to reason with customers to pay their overdue bills. Some customers are years behind and we have no way of turning off their service as the other utilities do.

We have been a community oriented utility for over 50 years and understand the hardship we are generating on our customers. We know that the cost of retrofitting a new A/C system will be expensive. Leaving our good customers is the worse part of this decision and we feel a profound regret. The decision we have made is not an easy way to end our relationship with you, our loyal customers.

The Fairfax County Fire and Department responds to a utility emergency at Build America Plaza in Bailey’s Crossroads (via FCFRD/Twitter)

(Updated at 8:45 p.m.) An explosion occurred while Fairfax County firefighters were addressing “a utility emergency” at Build America Plaza in Bailey’s Crossroads earlier this evening (Monday).

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department personnel, including an investigator, were dispatched to the shopping center at 3819 South George Mason Drive around 4:30 p.m., according to scanner traffic on Open MHz.

At 4:33 p.m., a firefighter in the electrical room reported “smoke coming from the sidewalk” but no active fire, per the scanner.

A firefighter said at 4:39 p.m. that a “power explosion” occurred in an exterior structure that’s attached to the building. Scanner traffic indicates that gas to the building was shut off.

At 4:51 p.m., a battalion commander reported that “we just had some sort of explosion underground over here,” adding that power will also need to be shut off. A video shared later by the FCFRD shows a firefighter tugging open a door, releasing smoke, followed by a ball of fire.

The firefighter is “thankfully” okay, the department said in a tweet shortly after 8:30 p.m. No injuries have been reported from the incident, though the exact nature of the utility issue remains unclear.

“The utility companies will determine what the issue is,” Ashley Hildebrandt, a fire department spokesperson, told FFXnow.

Businesses in the affected two-story building include a 7-Eleven, Stone Hot Pizza and several Ethiopian establishments, including restaurants, markets and a butcher shop.

Kirby Road in McLean has caved in after a water main break (via FCPD/Twitter)

A key commuter road in McLean could be closed for days after getting seriously damaged by a water main break this morning (Friday).

Police officers responded to Kirby Road around 4:45 a.m., shutting down both lanes between Sugarstone Court and Claiborne Drive. A video shared by the Fairfax County Police Department shows water gushing up onto the asphalt roadway, buckling what appears to be the southbound lane.

Fairfax Water says it received reports from customers around 1400 Kirby Road that they had lost water service. A total of 18 homes have been affected, according to public information officer Jesse Aranda.

“This outage has been identified as a water main break and our crews and technicians are working on resolving the break as soon as possible,” the utility company said in an alert on its website. “We ask that affected customers watch social media and our main website to receive the latest updates regarding the progress of the main break repair.”

The “extensive damage” to Kirby Road “is estimated to take several days to repair,” the FCPD said, advising drivers to “plan accordingly” and avoid the area.

Aranda didn’t have an estimate for how long the repairs will take, but he said Fairfax Water teams are “going in right now” to restore service to the affected homes.

‘We’re going to try to take care of it as soon as possible,” Aranda told FFXnow, noting that the utility is taking into account that Kirby Road is heavily used by commuters.

While the exact cause of this rupture isn’t known yet, water main breaks are usually the result of wear and tear on aging pipes, Aranda says. Per Fairfax Water, freezing or severe weather, soil conditions, ground movement and construction can also be contributing factors.

He says Fairfax Water is working to upgrade its pipes as they get older, but with more than 4,000 miles of main in the county, it’s a long process. The company’s new pipes are made out of ductile iron, a stronger and more durable material.

“It’s something we work on over time,” Aranda said. “And then, we replace it with something…that’s going to last a very long time.”


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