Rappahannock planner dares to confront the future

Al Henry sees ways to ease zoning without impacting county’s integrity

Voting last week to reappoint Alvin Henry to another four-year term on the Rappahannock County Planning Commission, supervisor John Lesinski observed: “Henry does not shy away from letting people in the community know what his opinions are.”

And they’re not just opinions, Lesinski was quick to add, “they are well thought out and well researched.”

Who better then to sit down with to discuss the current state of Rappahannock County than Henry, a real estate appraiser — among other well-worn hats — from Amissville who’s been on the planning commission since 2001.

By John McCaslin
Rappahannock County Planning Commissioner Al Henry says the future can be bright for the county, granted it moves in the right direction.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with the Rappahannock News, Henry shared his thoughts on current and future land use and zoning, particularly as it relates to an updated comprehensive plan, increasing revenue, agriculture renewal, tourism and more.

But we start with what arguably is an increasingly divisive relationship between the county government and certain members of the community.

“Everybody recognizes it,” acknowledged Henry, who’s a founder and current director of the Warrenton-based Oak View National Bank. “This divide is terrible — it needs to go away. People are so quick to criticize, tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s counterproductive.”

Given the often-contentious issue of zoning restrictions, the seven-member planning commission has absorbed its share of heat over the years, most recently fielding blame for chasing Cooter’s in the Country over the mountains to Page County.

Cooter’s co-owner Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman and cast member on the “Dukes of Hazzard,” contends Rappahannock “snobbery” drove away his popular theme store and restaurant. On paper, though, the issues surrounded his application to expand parking onto land that is zoned agriculture. In addition, there were reported issues surrounding the establishment’s water quality.

“We caught a lot of PR over that,” said Henry. “He had water problems and I think that is probably why he ultimately left. It wasn’t a question that we didn’t deal with him. Every time we would start to deal with him he would walk out and withdraw [the] application. There was a situation there and we tried to address it, and he didn’t want to conform and work with us, and it didn’t work out.”

But the commissioner, who represents the Hampton District, drew attention to other examples of the county and applicants working together, with give and take on both sides, until projects get approved,  including the Schoolhouse Nine Golf Course and Miller Dairy Barn venue near Sperryville and just weeks ago the opening of the F.T. Valley grocery story and gas station.

And, he pointed out, it’s not always county vs. citizen. While civic engagement is essential for the strength of any community, Henry has witnessed in his 16-years on the commission everything from the   ongoing palpable tension between residents to just short of fisticuffs.

“Probably the biggest thing we’ve ever dealt with in this county from the zoning standpoint is the cell towers,” Henry recalled. “We had an application — all at the same time — for seven cell towers and it was chaos. We had public hearings that went on until 1:30 in the morning. It was terrible. We had neighbors fighting neighbors. We had neighbors cussing neighbors. We almost had fights up at the courthouse . . . in the lobby. Oh my God, it was ugly.”

County residents ultimately put emotions aside and worked through the issues, the seven towers were approved — all north and east of the town of Washington — and as Henry noted “it turned out to be very beneficial for the county. And the sky didn’t fall like a lot of people thought was going to happen.”

“We all need to come together,” he said. “We all need to work together. We have so much potential in Rappahannock County. We don’t need to fight, we need to hold hands.”

Fast forward then to 2017 and beyond, which “is going to be an interesting time” for Rappahannock County, the commissioner predicted.

“We have a leadership void here in Rappahannock,” he opined, citing the retirement last year of longtime county administrator John McCarthy. “He was here for 30 years, an exceptionally competent person in all fields, and we relied on him to the point that we were able to not think about a day when he was not here, not plan for that day . . .

“When John left it was kind of like Tito leaving Yugoslavia,” Henry continued. “And everybody started fighting and creating their own little tribes. And I think we’re going to be dealing with this for some time.”

While he voiced praise for McCarthy’s replacement, Debbie Keyser, Henry pointed out that her expertise  in public administration doesn’t extend to zoning. As a result, he said, when an application is brought before the board “everybody’s taking pot shots at it  . . . and it’s a constant challenge we deal with. It’s not an orderly [process] going on.”

Henry is encouraging the county to budget for a separate zoning administrator, preferably a candidate in the early part of their career “who can mentor from Debbie, take root and establish himself and maybe when [Keyser] is facing retirement in x number of years he might be able to do both jobs.

“We need to think about the next decade,” the planner explained. “Otherwise it worries me down the road that we’ll be going through this entire process again.”

Continuing down the road, Henry said the time is now for the county to step away from the past and face current challenges, including addressing the lack of “commercial zoning and industrial zoning.”

“Historically, that’s been a bad word in the county,” he said, “but now we seem more conscious of opportunities for the local people and for generating revenue to where it’s a meaningful number.”

(In a nutshell, industrial businesses involve the manufacturing of goods, such as chutney production in Flint Hill, whereas commercial ventures generally consist of offices and retail spaces).

“We only have so much land in this county that has zoning to it — and when I say ‘zoning to it’ I mean it has commercial zoning or industrial zoning,” Henry explained. “And as more people want to do things in this county they don’t have space to do it, so they look to do it at other places.

“I’m not saying throw away the [county zoning] ordinance, but we’re going to have to look at other ways to accommodate them — whether they’re in the heating and air-conditioning business and need a garage to work out of on their land, or they want to hire one or two employees and make some cabinetry or what have you.”

Conscious growth, in other words?

“Going forward I think we can keep Rappahannock the way it is. I want to keep Rappahannock the way it is,” Henry insisted. “But we’re going to have these pressures. People are going to be coming out here that we’ve seen in the past that want to do things, and we have to use common sense and be practical but maintain the dignity of the community.”

The bottom line, he said: “We’re going to have to either expand the zoning or you’re going to take the risk on somebody [legally] challenging you because you’re being too restrictive.”

He addressed the county’s overnight lodging options — or lack thereof, which many in the county complain keep certain visitors from spending the night or weekends here. The commissioner said more consideration should be given to affordable tourist homes, for example, operated by property owners with good acreage and road access, whether offering five bedrooms or five cabins.

“The more acreage, the more protection, the less influence on the neighbors,” Henry pointed out. “I don’t think we should kill the community standards here in these rural areas. They will have to have integrity where it gives quality to the operation and protection to the neighborhood.”

During the early part of his career, Henry, who grew up in the Shenandoah Mountains near Mt. Jackson, worked in the farm credit field, which is what brought him in 1981 to Amissville. Today, with his participation, his brother and son continue farming in Mt. Jackson, raising thousands of pounds of vegetables each season that Henry himself hauls to the farmers’ market in Warrenton.

“We sell about 15 to 20,000 pounds of tomatoes a year, plus pumpkins, sweet corn, and everything else,” he said, segueing to his point: “We need to have an agricultural renewal interest here in Rappahannock County.

“We are one hour from the metropolitan area — a direct route, easy to get into,” he said. “We should be the breadbasket out here for Northern Virginia. My brother is a chef in DC and they buy all of their quality meats and vegetables out of Pennsylvania. We could be doing that out here.”

He applauded the recent expansion of vineyards in Rappahannock County, and the fact that the cattle industry has remained a constant, but he said much more can and should be done in the agriculture field, even if it takes incentives offered by the county.

“For somebody who wants to make an investment here in agriculture we need to consider that,” Henry said. “Let’s say somebody wants to plant 10 acres of apple orchards, 10 acres of peaches, 10 acres of nectarines. Give them tax-free land for five years. Is it going to break the county? No. It says something other than lip service.

“Schools, employment, land use — yes. But we also have to think about the agriculture base of this county,” he continued, adding it was the county’s once-robust “apple orchards that created the view sheds we still enjoy today. What really made Rappahannock the great county that we enjoy today was the apple.”

In closing, the county, with the public’s input, is currently revising its comprehensive plan, although no completion date is set in stone. Currently posted on the county’s website is a “Planning for the Future” questionnaire, asking residents what they “never want to see” and “want to see” change in Rappahannock — physically, socially, economically and environmentally.

“The comprehensive plan has dragged on too long,” Henry agreed, “but let me tell you this: the comprehensive plan in my opinion is strong. It’s a strong document and has probably 90 percent of the things it needs to have in there — the view sheds, Shenandoah National Park, natural resources.”

Among the updates it needs, he said, surround issues like affordable housing and the county’s aging population.

“Just tweak these things up a little bit . . . and it’s a good document,” he said. “It’s almost ready to go.”

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