This artistic rendering of the proposed Rush River Commons project.

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Some things never change. Humans, whether alive in 1250 B.C. or 2021 A.D. persist in delighting in things they think are free; even if they know in their heart of hearts there ain’t no such thing. The folks in ancient Troy were tickled pink when they first saw that grand wooden horse roll up to their gates, offered to them as a gift. What’s not to like? It’s beautiful, it’s big and it’s free! The fact that no one in Troy needed it was beside the point. The fact that they were perfectly happy without it didn’t matter. Never look a gift horse in the mouth.  

Homer records the gleeful remarks of the seers and soothsayers: “I feel this is a very important benefit,” “a brilliant idea,” “a living laboratory,” “it shows opportunity.” One enthusiastic priestess exclaimed, “It’s a gift from the Gods.” 

But Homer tells us that trust in the good intentions of others, in being lulled into acquiescence by tricks of language or the offer of lavish gifts can lead to unexpected outcomes — to put it mildly.

The Rush River Commons, if approved and built, will be the single biggest real estate development in the history of Rappahannock County. Or, to put it differently, the biggest single addition of housing since the land was inhabited by its Indigenous Peoples in the early 17th Century. You can’t be in favor of this project and at the same time claim to be for the protection and preservation of Rappahannock County as we know it. You can’t have it both ways. It just won’t wash. To those running for the Board of Supervisors this fall, hypocrisy will be duly noted.

Part of the charm we’ve inherited is that this place wasn’t built by developers. It’s why it looks and feels different than most other places. It was built one house, one business at a time. No single person big-footed his way into the county, imposing his plans for utopia. The county evolved gradually, organically, over time; sometimes increasing, other times decreasing in population. Never by the imposition of one person’s plans. 

This development would change all that. In one fell swoop it would wipe away decades of tradition, disrupting the age-old way things have 

been done here in Rappahannock, where change happens one family at a time, making their own decisions about where to build a home, plant a crop or start a business. 

The project boasts “a cluster of residential units … town-house type buildings … twenty units overall … there could be another group of houses in the second phase.” 

Since the national average is two cars per family, that could mean as many as forty additional vehicles or as many as eighty in the second phase. And that’s not counting service vehicles and visitors. What happens to parking on Gay and Main Streets? What happens to the volume of traffic in Little Washington? How long before Rappahannock County has its first traffic lights — a massive array spanning all four lanes of 211 at the Warren Avenue intersection? How many more police officers will the county have to hire? Do the current residents of Little Washington really want all this additional traffic and noise pollution? 

Alan Zuschlag and other real estate agents, who know the market better than most, have written over and again in these pages that the so-called affordable housing shortage is a myth. Pushed over and over by the same people, the purpose of this fantasy is to obscure our vigilance, to cover naked development with a cloak of social do-gooding. 

But even if one accepts this red herring as gospel, there are better, far less intrusive solutions. Row houses are not the answer. People don’t come to live in Rappahannock County so they can be squeezed into a fancy new tenement just like the ones they left behind in Gainesville or Haymarket. Any number of older homes across the county can be purchased and fixed up for lower income people to rent. If that’s truly where your heart is, Mr. Akre, you have the means to do this right now without any disruption to the county.  

The fact is it doesn’t matter how much rent will cost at Rush River’s proposed housing units, whether they’re called affordable housing or luxury apartments. The congestion, the traffic, the noise, the radical change to Rappahannock’s rural character will be forever changed. 

The food pantry is yet another shiny object to distract us from the plain reality of what is essentially a housing development. There are vacant buildings in Sperryville which can be retrofitted for a fraction of the cost of new construction. If that’s really the developer’s concern, no new buildings are required — not in Little Washington or anywhere else. Simply make the financial gift to the Food Pantry folks and let them sort it out.

Should this real-estate project occur, in five years or less we’ll look back with the clarity of hindsight to see this as the moment when Rappahannock County went off the rails. The extraordinary precedent this sets will unlock the floodgates of development. If “Rush River Commons”can happen, why not “Old Mill Luxury Apartments,” “Flint Hill Forum Townhomes,” “Sperryville Mountain View Homes” or “Woodville Acres.”

The Washington Town Council cannot pretend its decision will not adversely affect everyone else in the county. Why not be good neighbors, acknowledging this by seeking guidance and input from everyone who has a stake in the future of the county? The town of Washington is not an island unto itself. It is integrated into a larger community. Decisions made for the town affect us all. 

Something this momentous, guaranteed to change the character of Rappahannock for generations, should be subject to a plebiscite. Let the people of the county decide. It’s not too late to put the question as a referendum on November’s electoral ballot. 

A wise and humble course would be to defer any decisions until after all the county’s citizens express their preference in a referendum. Let’s wait a few months and do this the right way. If it’s truly a good idea, as the gifters insist, what’s the rush?

As Homer cautioned more than three thousand years ago: “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.”

The writer lives in Flint Hill.


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