John McCarthy’s ‘historical perspective’

The following is the second installment of excerpts from a wide-ranging interview with John W. McCarthy, who retired June 30 after 30 years as Rappahannock County’s chief administrator, and zoning administrator. McCarthy sat down July 1 with Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi, at a picnic table not far from McCarthy’s offices at the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center in Front Royal, where he began serving last month as the center’s interim director. (The first half of this interview is here.)

Rappahannock News: In your opinion, has the tension between Rappahannock’s been-heres and come-heres gotten worse or better over the years?

John McCarthy: You know, it’s funny, I hear so many of my peers retiring, and they grumble about the state of public debate but . . . I mean, I honestly remember some pretty unpleasant donnybrooks in the past. Everyone always looks back to some halcyon golden era, but I’m dubious about it ever existing.

Side story — Peter Luke did some research a number of years ago. The first reapportionment in Virginia, which was done ahead of the Constitutional Convention, was gerrymandered at the behest of Patrick Henry. And the purpose was to get the Federalists and the anti-Federalists in the same district, George Mason and James Madison. And Peter went and mapped on his bike, all the churches that they went to to speak, to speak to all the voters. And they ended up in the Orange County Courthouse, which at the time, the way you voted was, you came up and you said who you were voting for. Madison was at one end of the table and Mason at the other, and one would stand up and shake the guy’s hand and say, “Thank you for your vote,” and the other would remain seated and say, “I hope to earn your vote the next time around.” And Peter’s version of the story was accurate, but it creates this image of this dignified, high-moral-value discussion, when of course the only reason they were in the same district was the gerrymandering, and if you read the newspaper accounts of the times, their . . . supporters, their creatures, were saying absolutely horrible things about the other guy all the time. So I think with the fullness of time, almost any rat’s nest of a fight can turn to look dignified.

Rappahannock's retiring county administrator, John McCarthy hands over the keys in May to Deborah Keyser, the new county administrator.Jan Clatterbuck | Rappahannock News
Rappahannock’s retiring county administrator, John McCarthy hands over the keys in May to Deborah Keyser, the new county administrator.

So no, I really don’t think the tenor of the debate has gotten bad. I do think there’s been strong consistency about the broader picture; [the fighting] is about the details. The broader picture is we like it the way it is and we want to keep it that way, and there’s some argument about what the best way to do that is. But the overall theme is still strong.

RN: The result of Rappahannock’s restrictive zoning, in terms of real estate, is that you wind up with a lot of large pieces of property, on which people who . . . live large . . . build large houses. Would you agree?

JM: Well . . . the context of the time [in 1988, when five-acre minimums were increased to 25-acre minimums for single-family housing] was, you were seeing a lot of growth coming out of D.C. and a lot of demand and a lot of pressure to make smaller lots and absorb more people. And we knew perfectly well we had a terrible transportation access. Even Fauquier, with 66 to the north and 29 through its center, had a much better ability to serve that than we ever would. But we’re also at the headwaters, you don’t have any reservoirs, in terms of resources and the ability to sustain that kind of growth, we clearly were never going to have it. So constricting supply was the intent. The raising of value was the inevitable consequence.

If you talk to the state department of taxation, one of the reasons we qualified for that additional revenue for school funding is we are so heavily dependent on real estate taxes. We have nothing else we tax. There’s no retail sales to speak of. But the biggest percentage increase in real estate value in Virginia from 1986 to 2006, which is what we looked at, there were two counties: Accomack on the Eastern Shore, and Rappahannock. In Accomack’s case it has more to do with the fact of how low they were in 1986, in our case it has more to do with how restrictive, you know, the value has been increased. Which is in some ways bad socially, because it’s awful hard for some young person to buy a piece of land in Rappahannock. It’s no more expensive than it is in Fauquier, but everyone always looks in the context of 30 years ago. You could buy five acres for nothing. Where can you go now to buy five acres for nothing? I mean, it’s somewhere in deep southern Virginia. That’s just a broader context that we live in.

So I think it had . . . there was intent to restrict supply. There was intent to not become the dumping ground for the quality of development that always seems to get pushed out a little further. And we came in for a fair amount of abuse for that. I remember there was Virginia Tech professor, a law professor, who said we weren’t absorbing our regional fair share of growth and development. And I said, you know, that’s like blaming a guy who ducks a bullet being shot at him for the guy behind him getting shot. I mean, that’s not my fault — if he wasn’t smart enough to duck, too . . . . That’s a gross simplification.

RN: Right, as Frank Bossio said [jokingly referring to McCarthy’s alleged plan to keep developers out of Rappahannock by giving them directions to Culpeper], “Here’s your map . . .”

JM: (Laughs.) You know, while it’s not literally true, it’s damned figuratively true.

But Culpeper’s got 29, it’s got Route 3 . . . there are reasons things happen where they do. And we just don’t have them. We’re never going to be able to compete for that type of quality . . . look at the stuff they’ve got, SWIFT . . . Mount Pony. . . . We’re never going to get that, because we don’t have a way to get to it.

RN: When the Aileen factory closed down in the early ’90s, what was the impact on Rappahannock?

JM: The real impact was the fact that it had 300 jobs. And admittedly some of those people were living in Front Royal or other places, but there were a lot of second incomes and a lot of houses that had spouses that worked at Aileen. It was a big economic knock. But that [the number of jobs] had dwindled over the years — the highest was probably in 1971. I think there were about 150 jobs by the time it shut down. That was a hit. That was the biggest private employer in the county. When it shut down, there was some pain.

But I point to . . . you’ve heard vaguely about Avtex Fibers in Front Royal. It had pollution, contamination, was a big employer, in many ways similar to Aileen — but a totally different scale. Once it shut down, it created an unemployment level in Front Royal that was terrible for the people who were unemployed, but it allowed Front Royal and Warren County to attract other businesses because there now were actually people you could put to work. So there was 18 to 24 months of pain, but long-term, the best thing that’s happened to Front Royal and Warren County in the last 25 years was Avtex shutting down.

And Aileen . . . I can’t say that it’s been replacing employment but, you know, once that business started failing and they started throwing pollutants off their loading dock, that was only going to go one way. And without us getting involved, that never would have been put right.

And now . . . it has Virginia Chutney going full force in front, and over time it will incubate some other stuff too. But none of that would have happened without us getting into it. If there is anything that I ever convinced the board to do that was sort of disruptive, it was that [the county purchased the property and spent years cleaning it up and, eventually, selling it to private investors] because most of them were like, jeez, we don’t want to buy a polluted factory. And we sold it twice, and made money both times [laughter]. Go figure. That was unexpected.

RN: To return for a moment to your comments earlier about village development, what are the former zoning administrator’s thoughts on the town of Washington’s sale of most of the Avon Hall estate to private buyers?

JM: Well, I worked so hard to try to convince John [Sullivan, the mayor] and the rest of the council that holding out, instead of just taking $750,000 in a big hurry — I know the pressure they had about the debt, but doing more intense development of that property. . . . And yeah, you would have had some nearby property owners bitching, but the net result —look at what is happening in most of our towns around us. Where you infill something of quality like that, you raise the standard of everything and you provide some much-needed housing. Is it going to house a sheriff’s deputy or a teacher? Probably not, but it will create more market space for them to have other stuff in the county.

The final takeaway is the takeaway I already said: People caring is a great thing. People being respectful of each other is a great thing. Put the two of them together, Rappahannock is going to do fine.

RN: So Rappahannock should not say goodbye to you yet?

JM: Well, I’m going to be engaged with PATH and other stuff and . . .I forget who it was, but somebody said, “I’m sorry we’re not going to see you again,” and I said, “Well, don’t count yourself that lucky.”

I did sort of warrant to Debbie [Keyser, the new county administrator], just because I am sensitive to the fact that I tend to loom over her, that I am not going to go to any public hearings or meetings in Rappahannock for at least a year, no matter what the cause is — but, even then, mostly [I’ll still be] engaged because most of the stuff I care about still includes Rappahannock.

RN: And the dollar-a-month, year-long zoning consultant position?

JM: . . . is two or three emails a week, and one or two big “How would you deal with this?” and “Who do I talk to at the state level?” And that’s great. Or “How did you get from here to here?” Usually they would have to spend, Candy [Wroth] and Debbie would have to spend hours poring through stuff to find it, and I can just tell them, no, here is where that is.

And really, if I was the guy who serviced the HVAC equipment, I think the same thing holds true. You need to have that kind of historical perspective.

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