By Bud Meyer, Foothills Forum chair
If there are doubts about how many people care about the beauty of Rappahannock County, its agricultural base and its economic future, Sunday afternoon’s forum dispelled them quickly.
Despite a 2 p.m. Sunday start time vying against the tug of church, family, weekend recreation and the NCAA Elite Eight, 43 good and diverse folks showed up to weigh in on the latest two-part Foothills-supported series published in the pages of our media partners, the Rappahannock News.
Randy Rieland’s “The Land, a Plan, the Future” series (March 9 and March 23 editions) stepped back to assess the roles zoning, planning, conservation and tourism play in the county’s economic life and future. Dozens of citizens weighed in on Rappahannock’s much-admired comprehensive plan, still awaiting completion of a delayed five-year review and update. For an hour-and-a-half, moderator John McCaslin, the weekly’s solid new editor, led a thoughtful and civil discussion backstopped by Rieland’s considered takeaways from the 35+ interviews he’d conducted for the series. Everyone who had something to say got a chance to speak her or his mind. I was struck by the number of next-day conversations the Sunday forum inspired, including, I hear, a rousing discussion by the Monday Lunch Bunch.
You can find the series at www.rappnews.com. (My favorite part was the 5 Myths sidebar; short and informative). Publisher Dennis Brack handled the video of the gathering; it will soon be available there as well. Or pick up a copy at Quicke Mart, the Corner Store or Sperryville Trading.
Of course, those 43 attendees were self-selecting, but they chose to join a big-picture conversation on the topics raised in the series. The crowd included elected officials (Supervisor Chris Parrish, Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan, CSWCD commissioner Dr. Monira Rifaat); planning commissioners (Al Henry); farmers (Nick Lapham of Sunnyside, Mike Sands and Betsy Dietel of Bean Hollow, Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny, Charles Harris from Amissville; Parrish); environmental leaders from PEC, Shenandoah Valley Network, Virginia Working Landscapes and RLEP; a dozen newcomers interested in learning more about their chosen county; several hardy veterans of county affairs intent on preservation.
Thoughtful ideas and suggestions about tourism arose. Such as: Lengthen the successful festivals like Pen Druid Brewery’s Oktoberfest to week-long affairs as they do in European villages. Develop walking paths connecting farms and ranches to encourage more nature-loving visitors. But tourism’s scant contribution to the county’s tax-revenue bottom line was acknowledged. Sentiment ran stronger that the county’s real economy is, and will continue to be, the taxes paid on real property — farms, ranches, homes. Just as the series described.
RLEP’s Phil Irwin reminded the crowd that the comprehensive plan review had sought public input. He was alarmed by how little public participation the review has attracted so far.
Several farmers reflected on what it takes – grit, patience, money, support – to succeed in Rappahannock. If the county’s future is to become “a bread basket” for greater D.C., it seems we’re not there yet. The foundation of a farm-to-table economy sustaining growers and ranchers is being poured, but the few who are making it say they have to travel elsewhere – to farmers’ markets in D.C. and elsewhere – to find buyers in volume. Dr. Rifaat pointedly observed that despite seeing the half-dozen or so famers in attendance, “this is not a representative group.” She faulted the series for failing to include comments from the Farm Bureau. And she reiterated, “Without land use taxation there will be no farms.”
The discussion moved to a consideration of what it might take to take to help agriculture thrive. Organizations like the Farm Bureau and the county’s extension office were praised. Next-generation farmers acknowledged the helping hands of long-time owners, but Sunnyside’s Nick Lapham said there isn’t a true support structure in the county.
Bean Hollow’s Mike Sands said the biggest thing to be done in Rappahannock is create a sense of pride about farming and a sense of welcoming to folks interested in farming. “Being made to feel welcome is important.”
Realtor Cheri Woodard talked about how rising rudeness is poisoning matters in the county. She hearkened to a previous three-part Foothills-fueled series on broadband and cellphone coverage, reiterating the importance of cellphone coverage to the economy, education, health and public safety.
Supervisor Parrish ticked off the county’s greatest advantages and pointed to a few needs.
- Dark skies. To take advantage, we’ll need legislation from Richmond, he said.
- Clean water. All of our water starts here, he reminded us, and it courses through the county and leaves here as clean water.
- Open land. “If you want to have open land you’ve got to make it easy to own open land.”
- Our farming heritage. He agreed with Rifaat, referencing dozens of small farmers who are important players but wouldn’t attend a gathering like Sunday’s forum.
On cell service? Parrish voiced the sentiment expressed by the board of supervisors: It’s not a good idea for the county to invest in technology that might quickly become outdated. “It’s a big gamble. Better to invite private investment.”
On the larger topic of planning, land use and the comprehensive plan’s ability to keep Rappahannock the way it is, he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t see any real grim scenario coming down the road.”
Planning commissioner Al Henry took an opportunity to summarize. “Taxation and improvements to property are the only game,” he said. Tourism’s impact, in his opinion, will remain small.
Henry welcomed the discussion but cautioned: “Everybody’s good idea is part of the solution, but no one’s ONE idea is the total solution.”
Mayor Sullivan followed on concerns expressed about the caustic climate and the “upheaval” in the county’s administration reported by the News. He reminded folks that policies are made at governmental meetings. “This is a good time to be involved,” he said, “I would encourage everyone to show up.”
I’d echo the mayor. In meetings coming soon, the planning commission and supervisors are on track to wrap up the comprehensive plan’s review, finalizing it for another five years and setting our future course. I’d join Phil Irwin in encouraging more public input.