First in an occasional series of articles about people who’ve made a difference in the Rappahannock County community.
Ask anyone who’s been around Rappahannock County for 30 or more years how the county has managed to maintain its rural and scenic character when other nearby counties have not and the name Newbill Miller comes up.
From his perch on the county planning commission he helped put into place the standards that thwarted the type of sprawl that has been seen elsewhere in Northern Virginia. And he apparently managed to do it in a gentlemanly way. Those who know him speak of him as being evenhanded and willing to hear out the other side.
Miller, 74, has Alzheimer’s disease and spends his days in his farmhouse at 97 Main St., Washington, that was built in what used to be an orchard on his property. He was not interviewed for this article.
Jay Miller, one of his three sons, said his father “is homebound. Sometimes he remembers. He has occasional visitors.”
The younger Miller said his family goes back nine generations in Rappahannock County. Newbill’s father, David D. Miller, was president of the Rappahannock National Bank.
Newbill grew up in the county and got a degree in animal husbandry from Virginia Tech in 1957. After college he entered the Army. He served in the Army Reserve until the early 1960s and left with the rank of captain.
With his father, Newbill started a farm “out past Baldwin’s on the right” and ran an apple packing plant “where the co-op is now,” his son said, describing locations relative to landmarks that exist now. “Apples were big in this county,” the younger Miller said. “Apple packing plants employed hundreds and hundreds.”
And his father bred and raised Angus cattle. “The first purebred animal he bought was with his father,” Jay Miller said. He also raised sheep on the 750 acres he owned.
His success as a breeder earned him an honor from the Virginia Angus Association. He turned over his Ginger Hill Angus farm to his sons in 1999. Miller and his wife Carolyn raised three sons, Jay, Hodge and Brooke.
Jay remembers that his dad was a Boy Scout troop leader and a Little League baseball coach. He was also an avid foxhunter as a teen and young man.
Bill Fletcher remembers going on a fox hunt with Newbill Miller when he was 5 years old, and that he also “helped me play baseball.” He said he’s known the man now for 50 years and that their families have been connected for generations.
Fletcher remembered that Miller in his prime was “a powerful man both physically and mentally.” Miller, he said, “is a great gentleman. He still remembers me.”
Fletcher called him “a man for all seasons — one of the three or four most influential people in my lifetime.”
Serving the public in various capacities just seemed to be the thing to do for Miller. He served on several town and county boards and elected positions.
He served on the county planning commission and was the youngest member (and elected chairman) of the board of supervisors, Jay Miller recounted. “He was the mayor of Washington and served on town council. He was on the county zoning appeals board . . . He was chief of the volunteer fire department, a board member of the Rappahannock bank and president of the Virginia Angus Association and was on its board of directors.”
That often meant Dad was off doing something when he wasn’t working, Miller said.
“He was gone almost every night either to baseball practice or the board of supervisors or something,” he said.
It was on the county planning commission that Newbill Miller made his presence felt.
His father was a believer in “large lot development with growth centered around villages,” Jay said. “What brought this up was what happened in Chester Gap. There was no soil work done and the roads couldn’t come up to VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) standards.”
The Chester Gap development in the late 1950s near the Warren County line involved the selling of parcels for a subdivision. Seeing poor quality roads and septic systems there, along with a feeling that Rappahannock County must do more to set tougher standards for developers to meet if they came calling, spurred Miller and others to act.
They managed to get the more restrictive large-lot development requirement passed. Not everyone thought that was a great idea.
Jay Miller remembers his dad getting “some nasty anonymous letters” against it.
But, “if you look at the way the county is now it could have ended up like Culpeper and Warrenton,” the son said. “At this point we could have been stuck with the population (growth) and no industry.
“People are coming to Rappahannock County not for development purposes, they’re coming for the beauty,” he added. “It’s something that you can come 60 to 70 miles from D.C. and not see a traffic light, just a flashing light. There are no interstates or rail and no fast-food restaurants.”
His father, Jay said, “had a deep desire to preserve Rappahannock County.” And he “treated everyone equally. He didn’t believe in a class structure. It wasn’t like he didn’t know you because of the color of your skin or your status in life. I’ve heard that from a great number of people. I think he’s respected for his honesty and integrity and being a man of the people.”
Fletcher said that “Rappahannock County would not be what it is today” were it not for Newbill Miller and others.
“I think he tried to do the right thing and he did do the right thing,” he said. “He probably retained more value to the land, if not agricultural value than scenic beauty” through his actions, Fletcher said.
Timmy Clanagan, a mechanic at B&B service center in Sperryville, said he has known Newbill Miller since he was a little kid. Clanagan is 52 now. “He’s always been a good man. I worked with him on the farm. He’s always treated me with respect.” He said that Miller also got race driver Dale Earnhardt’s autograph for a co-worker of his at the station.
David Fannon served on the planning commission with Miller and got to know him socially.
Miller’s restrictive zoning stance “was not exactly popular” with everyone, he remembers. “But it’s turned out OK.”
Fannon said Miller is “a great guy who was very easy to work with. He was ethical and treated everyone with respect. He was a first-class guy.”
Fannon now lives in King George County and hasn’t seen Miller in six to eight years.
He offered the view expressed by many others that “Rappahannock County wouldn’t be in the very nice position it’s in right now if it weren’t for guys like him.”
David Thornhill of Boston also served on the planning commission with Miller but he first became aware of him as a boy when Miller got involved in putting together a youth baseball team.
“There weren’t any sports in the county. He (Miller) saw a need for kids to be able to play baseball. He put together a team” that played in a summer league. Thornhill’s recollection is that Miller footed the bill to get a team on the field. “We had a grand time,” he said.
Thornhill said he spent a lot of time at the Miller home both during the summer and the school year for that matter.
Then “I went off to college and then I got on the planning commission and Newbill was on the planning commission.”
Regarding Miller’s views on zoning and his legacy, Thornhill said “I think overall Rappahannock County has been better for it. We don’t have the problems of some other counties and it’s one of the prettiest counties in the area. Land prices have held and there are all kinds of cottage industries. Anybody you talk to about Newbill will tell you that you didn’t have to agree with him. If he could see where you were coming from he could usually work things out.”
Seeing how Miller thought Rappahannock County should plan for the future taught him something that he finds useful to this day, Thornhill said.
“Newbill taught me that you need to plan ahead in my own life. You have to study what’s going to be the consequences. He had the foresight.”