Foothills Forum Survey: Life in the Jewel of Virginia

Dennis BrackDennis Brack

Survey reveals what matters most to Rapp residents: Privacy, beauty, family farms – and internet and cell service

An unprecedented survey mailed to every household in Rappahannock County found that respondents treasure the beauty that surrounds them, the privacy they enjoy in one of Virginia’s least populated and unspoiled places, and the spirit of volunteerism that has neighbor helping neighbor.

See also . . .

Perspective: How much do we care? by Jed Duvall
Editorial: The Foothills survey
Opinion: ‘The voice of the people’ by Larry “Bud” Meyer

But most who responded to the survey are open to some changes. They see a crying need for better cellphone and internet service, no longer frills but essentials that affect safety, children’s education and, increasingly, people’s livelihoods. As one resident put it, “We need to catch up to Third World countries.”

The survey, commissioned by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foothills Forum and conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research (CSR), found 90 percent of respondents satisfied with living in Rappahannock and a scant three percent dissatisfied.

As much as people love the solitude and want nothing to destroy the mountain vistas, obscure the night skies or invade the hollows, more than 70 percent are open to some changes. Fewer than three in 10 believe Rappahannock should stay just as it is with no more changes.

But sentiment was strong – 70 percent – in favor of limiting taxes.

While respondents are mostly satisfied with the quality of services and amenities in the county, they also are anxious about housing affordability, the dearth of jobs, the availability of services for elders, and preserving farms.

Protecting the environment ranked high among concerns. Maintaining the county’s beauty, preserving the quality of its rivers and keeping the night skies shimmering were Nos. 3, 5 and 6.

While it’s a point of pride that there are no fast food outlets or big box stores nor even a stoplight, some residents chafe at having to drive to Warrenton, Culpeper or Front Royal to shop at a supermarket or fill a prescription.

An unusually high 42 percent of households – 1,362 of 3,258 – filled out the surveys that the respected University of Virginia center mailed out last fall.

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“What emerges is a county of moderates, thoughtful neighbors,” said Stephen Brooks, a retired attorney, Sperryville resident and chairman of the Foothills Forum survey committee. “On social and political issues, they do not advocate extreme remedies to anything. They think life in the county is good, but that doesn’t mean they are locked into the status quo.”

Larry “Bud” Meyer, a former newspaper editor and foundation executive who chairs the Foothills Forum, said, “The survey backs up something many of us already felt: everyone loves this county of ours, but we’re aware there are some big challenges ahead.

“The survey gives us a readout on where many Rappahannock residents stand on the important issues, and that’s useful to everyone with a stake in the county’s future, from homeowners to government officials to nonprofits to businesses to the faith community,” said Meyer, a Long Mountain Road resident.

w-qoflifeLaura Stanton

Not everyone was happy with the survey. An unnamed critic, in an open-ended response, decried the “continual agitation by a small group to transform Rapp from a rural community into a high density clone of Prince William County. I view this survey as one more effort to organize toward that end.”

Ben Jones, the essayist, former congressman, actor and proprietor of Cooter’s in Sperryville, declined an interview request, but by email reiterated his sharp criticisms of the Foothills Forum and its survey, which he called “nothing less than a clueless cultural insult by well intentioned arrivistes.

“There is a traditional rural culture here and we have built a wonderfully attractive environment free of the over-development and suburban/exurban blight of franchised living. Southern mountain people are very proud and are used to ‘taking care of our own,’” he wrote. “It is idiotic to suggest that this community is not aware of its own problems.”

Thomas Guterbock, Ph.D., a University of Virginia professor of sociology and founding director of CSR, said the 42 percent response rate was unusually high for a mailed survey. The margin of error was 3.3 percentage points on any given response.

“Typically public officials hear from the small number of people who come to hearings or write letters,” said Guterbock. “A survey like this illuminates the preferences of everyone as opposed to just the few who are raising their voices. It gives voice to the many.”

The survey was anonymous. Neither the CSR professionals nor the Foothills Forum, which raised $43,000 in contributions from residents to pay for it, knows who answered what. (CSR numbered the questionnaires, but said that was only so it knew which households to mail the survey a second time if they did not respond initially).

w-topissuesLaura Stanton

By asking questions about age, sex, race, household size, and other characteristics, CSR was able to match its sample against demographics of the county gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau. The patterns were very similar. The polling organization then used these comparisons to ensure the survey results closely reflected the county’s makeup.

What matters to Rappahannock

People were asked to rate the importance of nine conditions to their quality of life. Privacy and being left alone was by far their top choice, cited by 92 percent. However, the survey didn’t define privacy or ask people exactly what they had in mind.

The next most important things were: having friends or family nearby (70 percent); social and cultural opportunities (68 percent), volunteer opportunities (64 percent) and educational opportunities for adults (54 percent). Sentiments were more closely split on the importance of transportation assistance, job training, availability of help around the house, and proximity to churches or places of worship.

Separately, they were presented 25 random issues and asked to rate their importance to the county’s future. Internet service and cell phone coverage emerged as the topmost concerns, with four out of five saying these were important (three out of five said they were very important).

The next most important things were maintaining the beauty of the county, its family farms, the quality of its rivers and streams, and the unblemished views of the night skies.

Limiting taxes, resources for aging in place, control of drunk driving and illegal drug use, and quality public schools rounded out the top 10. Of least concern (Nos. 21-25) were the availability of retail businesses, tourism, improving county roads, parks and recreation facilities, and child care services.

The questions about cell phones and internet coverage appeared to hit a nerve. Residents and visitors alike only have to drive a few miles into the county to enter dead zones where cellphones don’t work. It’s an inconvenience for tourists, but can be a matter of life and death in summoning an ambulance after a car wreck.

Fewer than two in three said their cell phones work at home, and most of those rated the quality as poor or fair.

The internet, especially high speed internet, has become a necessity for many especially businesses. Four out of five have access at home. Of those who do not, 40 percent said it is too expensive, 35 percent said it is not available and 25 percent do not want it. Young and middle-aged adults are more concerned with internet service than elders.

Twenty percent said they or their family own farms or agricultural businesses and 31 percent are involved in other businesses in the county. Seven in 10 felt Rappahannock is a good place to do business.

Dennis BrackDennis Brack
Entrepreneur Cliff Miller IV said his business depends upon getting online. “We probably couldn’t survive without the internet. Our entire point of sale system is hooked into it,” said Miller, at his Sperryville antiques shop with manager Maggie Morris.

More than 80 percent said the internet was important to their business. Entrepreneur Cliff Miller IV, owner of Schoolhouse Antiques and the popular Headmasters Pub in Sperryville, said, “We probably couldn’t survive without the internet. Our entire point of sale system is hooked into it.”

Almost nine in 10 respondents professed themselves satisfied with living in Rappahannock; fully half were very satisfied. Fewer than three percent were dissatisfied to any degree.

Four in five people plan to keep living in Rappahannock County. Only 7 percent anticipate moving in the next few years; many indicated they would leave for job opportunities elsewhere and felt they couldn’t afford to keep living here.

The survey appeared to give a vote of confidence to most important county services and functions, including the schools and law enforcement.

Fifty-six percent were satisfied with Rappahannock’s two public schools and 16 percent dissatisfied. People were not asked about private schools.

County government overall got a positive rating: 63 percent satisfied and 11 percent dissatisfied, with the rest neutral. Local law enforcement got a 71-21 vote of approval. Majorities or large pluralities approved the county’s handling of zoning, inspections and permits (55-15) and its health services (48-13) and social services (43-12).

Almost two people in three expressed concern about the lack of affordable housing.

Only two in five said it was important to improve county roads. A similar number said parks and recreation facilities – the county has only one public park of its own – are important.

Opinions were divided on the importance of tourism. Fifty percent said it was not that important or not important at all; 46 percent felt otherwise. There was an even split (48-48) on the importance of having retail businesses available).

w-tourismReal estate agent and former teacher Jan Makela expressed surprise that the survey did not find more support for tourism. The Amissville resident, who used to run Hackley’s Country Store, which has been in her family for three generations, said, “To keep this place beautiful, open and rural, we’re going to have to develop some tourism-related activities.” Makela, who is active in The Businesses of Rappahannock and serves on the Foothills Forum board, added, “Preserving things works hand in hand with tourism.”

The lack of good-paying jobs worries many, including Lillian Aylor, 77, of Sperryville, a much honored civic leader who is innkeeper at the Miller family’s bed and breakfast.

“I’m not happy with the way things are now,” Aylor said in an interview. “Rappahannock County pretty much is made up of elder people. The young people, especially African Americans, had to leave to get jobs. There’s very few of us here.”

By Dennis BrackDennis Brack
“I’m not happy with the way things are now,” said much honored civic leader Lillian Aylor, 77, of Sperryville. “Rappahannock County pretty much is made up of elder people. The young people, especially African Americans, had to leave to get jobs. There’s very few of us here.”

While the survey did not drill down on issues like privacy, it did give people an opportunity to write down what they liked most and least about living in Rappahannock.

Many extolled the peace and quiet. “It is an island of beauty close to the madness of sprawl spreading from Washington,” one person wrote. As for gripes, some people complained about “neighbors’ dogs barking endlessly” and “noise and light pollution given off by too many new houses and people around us.”

Having friends or family nearby was important to seven in 10 people. Two in three valued the wide array of social and cultural offerings (70-30) and the abundance of volunteer opportunities (67-33).

A DEEPER DIVE

• A PDF of the full Foothills Forum Survey report

• The UVA Center for Survey Research’s methodology report explains who received the survey and how the Center resolved mailing discrepancies. Also: a detailed explanation of questionnaire development, sample design, launch and production, response, data entry and cleaning, weighting and analysis, and margin of error.

• The media agreement between Foothills Forum and Rappahannock Media

One of the newest is Rapp@Home, a fledgling nonprofit trying to line up more neighbor-to-neighbor support to help elders age comfortably and safely in their own homes. On a larger scale, the five-county Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services dispatches a van to bring seniors to its Scrabble Senior Center in Castleton for lunch and activities four days a week. “This is not an easy place to grow old,” said Darcy Canton, the longtime director.

Almost half those surveyed were working full time (47 percent) and more than a quarter were self-employed (19 percent) or working part time (8 percent). Twenty-one percent were retired.

Half work in Rappahannock or a neighboring county. Almost one in eight works at home or telecommutes – another reason why people want better internet coverage – while one in four commutes outside Rappahannock and its neighbors. While the average commute is 30 minutes or less, almost one person in four faces a commute of at least an hour morning and night.

Foothills Forum plans to hold community meetings – open-invitation forums – to share the findings in depth and provide residents opportunities to learn more and discuss solutions to some of these complex challenges. It has raised more community support for future in-depth reporting on the issues surfaced in the survey, said Meyer.

“A good survey settles some issues,” said Guterbock, “but leaves many questions unanswered.”

Challenges and change

Many of the issues respondents were concerned about – affordable housing, services for the aged, fire and rescue – are affected by government policies and tax rates. More than two in three respondents said it was important that taxes be limited.

“Everything revolves around taxes,” Roger Welch, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said in an interview. “People want to keep their taxes as low as possible, and yet they still want the same benefits provided by bigger, more developed cities and counties." Dennis Brack
“Everything revolves around taxes,” Roger Welch, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said in an interview. “People want to keep their taxes as low as possible, and yet they still want the same benefits provided by bigger, more developed cities and counties.”

“Everything revolves around taxes,” Roger Welch, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said in an interview before the survey was released. “People want to keep their taxes as low as possible, and yet they still want the same benefits provided by bigger, more developed cities and counties.

“We’ve had an influx of people who are used to having pretty much everything,” said Welch, born and raised on a Flint Hill farm and retired from a 36-year career in electrical engineering for General Electric.

Bill Dietel, co-founder of the Forum and international philanthropic consultant, said the survey captured the qualities that make the county a special place where everyone shares the love of the land and “the poor, near poor, middle income and wealthy all live scrambled together.”

“It’s amazing in terms of the fascinating people here – those who’ve lived here forever, the hippie crew who started coming in the ’60s and ’70s and now are kind of the backbone, and all the retirees and weekenders who decided to settle here. The volunteering and amount of money given to nonprofit organizations is extraordinary.”

Dietel said he took “with a grain of salt” the finding about privacy. He takes that to mean “they don’t want annoying intrusions, like lights lighting up the sky or wild dogs running around or other things that harm the environment or make it unpleasant.”

Bill Dietel, co-founder of the Forum and international philanthropic consultant, said the survey captured the qualities that make the county a special place where everyone shares the love of the land and “the poor, near poor, middle income and wealthy all live scrambled together.” Dennis Brack
Bill Dietel, co-founder of the Forum and international philanthropic consultant, said the survey captured the qualities that make the county a special place where everyone shares the love of the land and “the poor, near poor, middle income and wealthy all live scrambled together.”

“But people know change is coming,” he added. “The truth is the county is in tough financial shape because the population isn’t growing and when it grows, it’s the elderly who come in and they demand services. We are not getting young people to help carry the burden.”

The aging volunteer fire and rescue companies haven’t been able to replenish their ranks with as many new volunteers as they need. The Board of Supervisors heard at its March 7 meeting that the Flint Hill Fire and Rescue Company already faces difficulties in answering ambulance calls. Supervisor Chris Parrish said the county eventually may need to pay firefighters and EMTs and that “is going to cost a fortune.”

Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser urged the supervisors March 21 to consider setting aside up to $200,000 in the fiscal 2017 budget to “rent” EMS help if necessary. On April 4 the board struggled with a proposed rewrite of the county’s financial contract with the fire and rescue companies and referred it to a committee for more work.

Matthew Black, a retired economist who is president of the Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community, said the survey “could be an inflection point” for the county by showing leaders and residents alike what people care about most deeply. As to whether it helps make Rappahannock an even better place to live, “the answer is to be determined,” said Black, who is on the survey committee.

Freelance reporter Christopher Connell is a former education writer and assistant bureau chief for The Associated Press in Washington. Graphics editor Laura Stanton is a veteran editor and artist who has worked for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. Photojournalist Dennis Brack has covered national and world news for five decades for Time, Newsweek and Bloomberg News, among others.

See also . . .

Perspective: How much do we care? by Jed Duvall
Editorial: The Foothills survey
Opinion: ‘The voice of the people’ by Larry “Bud” Meyer
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