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Right at the beginning let me express my support for the Rush River Commons; thank Mr. Akre for his generosity; and thank the many people who have labored long and hard to create a sustainable plan for the project taking into consideration the land, the county’s comprehensive plan and the future of Rappahannock.
Change is coming to Rappahannock. If it does not, the county will atrophy. School enrollment continues to drop. The curve of the aging population has moved considerably upward. Fire and rescue services get more expensive with the need for fully paid staff. “Not in my backyard” continues to strangle the expansion of internet service.
The comprehensive plan, so laboriously hashed out, so little read, mandates growth within the villages of the county. That means zoning rules must be changed in some way to manage the growth so as not to become sprawl. Isn’t this exactly what the plan for the Commons does?
The 1977 seminal work on town planning and architecture, “A Pattern Language,” lays out what makes for healthy, vibrant towns: all age groups; accessibility (sidewalks); differing architecture; planned access for needs.
In its wisdom, 20 years ago the town of Washington moved the library out of town, necessitating a car or a long, long walk. Then the bank moved to the bypass so as to accommodate drive-thru windows. The Country Cafe is gone, to be replaced by an upscale pseudo-Parisian cafe. And finally the town becomes dominated by an often generous, but nonetheless mega business. That comes close to putting all your eggs in one basket and praying it will be ok in the future.
Over the last two decades various attempts have been made to create a tourist destination. Two mainstays have been scenic beauty with long vistas of the Blue Ridge protected by conservation easements and land use agreements to give tax breaks to farmers. (It’s amazing to me how many small vineyards have sprung up to qualify as farmers.) Who then makes up the revenue shortfall?
Hastening the gentrification of the county has been the pandemic, driving the values of land and house purchases sky high. Last week’s edition of the Rappahannock News lists on one page 12 properties for sale: four range from $425,000 to $995,000. The remaining eight properties range from $1 million to over $9 million.
The other attempt to create a tourist destination is to tout Rappahannock County as an arts destination, with studios, shows and even a weekend in November given over to showcasing the arts and crafts. This morphs into a strong selling point for realtors: beautiful vistas and art openings and art to take home. Artists are the backbone of every fundraiser in the county. Because we are part of the community, we wish to support it and give what we can.
It is a misconception that we artists may assign a value to the piece of art we offer and take a deduction on our income tax — that is, if you qualify to pay an income tax. Not so! We are allowed only a deduction for materials — not sale value, not skill level, not years of study to have those skills — simply the cost of materials! One of my pieces sold at a fundraiser for $9,000. I was able to deduct the cost of the iron, about $50.
And now it turns out that as we move into old age we are also forced out of the county by the influx of big money which increases land and property values; by the overly restrictive zoning ordinances; and by the inability of various county boards to come to grips with the very real issue of having few places that are affordable for either young families or aging folks (in this case, read: artists) to live. I can only laugh at the irony of one estate being advertised in Rappahannock boasting ironwork by Nol Putnam, the Rappahannock artist who can no longer afford to live in this county.
Messrs. Maxwell and Jones thumb their noses at this reality. Without some give on the issue of affordable housing, this county will lose its soul and become a retirement community for the urban wealthy, with no schools, little diversity and few working families — all with a really lovely viewshed. Surely, surely we can muster the courage and the intellect to find a way forward.
The Rush River Commons is an elegant step toward meeting these needs within the town of Washington. It is now up to the county leaders to step forward and look more broadly afield.
The writer lives in Huntly