Many Reston residents might not have heard of Martha Pennino, a former member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, but her efforts helped bring the community everything from South Lakes High School to Reston Town Center.
Pennino, who represented the Reston area on the Board of Supervisors from 1968 to 1992, will be honored Saturday at the Founder's Day celebration at Lake Anne Plaza.
During her 24-year tenure, Pennino guarded Reston’s interests and ideals as Fairfax County evolved from the sleepy bedroom community it was, to the developed urban landscape it is today.
“She was a visionary,” said Michael Horwatt, a Reston attorney who is a longtime friend and advisor. “That vision has really helped shape Fairfax County, and certainly Reston.”
Pennino, who was affectionately called “Mother Fairfax,” had a hand in almost every facet of Reston’s development, playing a major role in bringing the community Reston Hospital, Town Center, the Wiehle Avenue bridge, the Dulles Airport Access Road, and the Fairfax County Parkway.
She was also responsible for securing many of the county services provided in Reston, such as schools, fire and rescue, law enforcement and the Reston Regional Library.
“WHEN YOU LOOK at the history of Fairfax County and of Reston, Martha was a major part of it,” Horwatt said.
Perhaps Pennino’s broadest contribution to Reston was her belief in Reston founder Robert E. Simon Jr.’s vision for what the community should eventually become. She realized that a planned community open to all income levels and all races was revolutionary in 1960’s Virginia and she fought for it for almost a quarter century. “If she hadn’t had the attitude she had toward Reston, Reston would have been stymied,” said Linda Singer, a Reston resident who worked on several of Pennino’s campaigns. “We had her at the county table, and we wouldn’t be where we are without her.”
Her efforts included bringing affordable and public housing options to Reston, such as the Southgate Village Apartments.
A former social worker, Pennino spearheaded the push to bring a homeless shelter to Reston in the 1980s. Prior to the shelter’s opening, she housed Reston area homeless families in the conference room next to her office.
“She was a real humanist,” Singer said. “She had no snobbery; none of this NIMBY business.”
PENNINO was always more than just Reston’s representative to the Board of Supervisors, she was a lover of the community and what it stood for, said Priscilla Ames, Pennino’s close friend and neighbor at Lake Anne’s Heron House, where Pennino now lives.
“Martha’s just been such a tremendous asset for Reston,” she said. “She’s kept her hand right on top of the Master Plan. She was the guardian of building this community.”
She was also an ardent believer in involving citizens in any major undertaking, said John Thillmann, who was the county planner for the Reston area and a friend and appointee of Pennino’s.
When Reston Town Center was being conceived, she formed a citizens’ task force to advise the developer. The task force helped ensure the project avoided becoming another mall like Fair Oaks, as many feared that it might.
“She just had a huge impact on this community,” Thillmann said.
In the late 1970s, as the county was holding hearings about zoning the South Lakes area to allow a high school, Pennino successfully fought for what Reston residents wanted in the face of county-wide opposition.
“It was basically the Reston area and Martha versus everyone else,” Thillmann said.
A LIFELONG Democrat, Pennino was unseated in November 1991 by Republican Bob Dix, effectively ending her political career.
Twelve years later though, Pennino is still revered for her ability to find consensus in difficult debates and for her capability to work in a bipartisan fashion for the good of the county.
Despite her success at the county level, she was always lesser-known than Simon, Reston’s founder. The award she is receiving on Saturday will bring her some of the recognition she so rightly deserves, Thillmann said.
“Bob Simon had the original vision and the financial backing, but she made it happen after that — more so than any other single individual,” he said.
Speaking of her advocacy of Simon’s vision, in a 1995 newspaper article, Pennino said she always felt connected to Reston and was proud to have helped foster its success.
“I always felt it was Bob Simon’s dream and his symphony, but I got to play in it,” she said.