A Rappahannock News – Foothills Forum Special Report: As the county prepares to adopt minor changes to its Comprehensive Plan, major challenges remain to the delicate balance that keeps Rappahannock unique.
Part one of a two-part series
Sometime in the next few months, Rappahannock’s Planning Commission, then its Board of Supervisors, will sign off on the latest revisions to the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The revisions are expected to be relatively minor, just as they have been for most of the updates since the document was written almost 40 years ago.
That would seem to suggest that the plan and its vision are as sound as ever, that not all that much has changed in Rappahannock since the 1980s. That’s partly true. There’s still no franchise store or fast food place on Route 211, still no sprawling subdivisions fouling the Piedmont, still no stop light.
But no change? Hardly.
“I can see that it’s changed a lot. We aren’t in some bubble,” said Van Carney, who with brothers Lain and Jennings, opened the Pen Druid Brewery in Sperryville in 2015. They grew up in Woodville, left to tour the world as the band Pontiak, and came back to a place that didn’t really look the same. “When I was a kid growing up here, all these big houses you see were just hills. That’s the development we have now.”
If anything, the winds of change are picking up speed. Suburbia has crept right up to the county line with Culpeper. Within Rappahannock, houses like the ones Carney now sees on those hillsides are the biggest source of new revenue. Since 2006, 326 more homes have been added to the mix. Meanwhile, the population keeps getting older, as do the members of the fire and rescue squads serving it. More and more authority is shifting from local governments to the state — such as the regulation of wineries — making it harder for the county to control elements that have made it unique. And, the community is wrestling with the impact of social trends that not long ago would have felt very much at odds with country living — sharing-economy businesses such as Airbnb, and the growing necessity in daily life of a broadband internet connection and decent cellphone service.
All this comes at a time of major transition within the county’s small administrative staff. Gone are county administrator John McCarthy, county attorney Peter Luke, revenue commissioner Beverly Atkins, treasurer Frances Foster, and with them, decades of institutional knowledge that brings perspective to how Rappahannock navigates change.
McCarthy played a pivotal role in updating the comprehensive plan over the years since it was first approved in 1980. He did the heavy lifting on the rewrites, although, in truth, the edits weren’t very heavy. There has been neither the need nor the desire to stray from the original mission of preserving the county’s “unspoiled natural setting” and “promoting and protecting agriculture” as the primary use of land outside Rappahannock’s villages. In short, keep it rural and keep it real.
It’s a guiding principle that still resonates with just about everyone who owns property in the county, whether they’ve been here six months or generations. But it’s just that, a guiding principle with no legal bearing. Ultimately, the impact of the comprehensive plan comes down to how local ordinances, funding choices and zoning decisions support and sustain it.
That’s the tricky part, one that requires maintaining an ever-more-delicate balance.
Land use and taxes
One factor that has played a big role in protecting Rappahannock’s rural identity is the state law allowing tax deductions for land devoted to agricultural, horticultural or forest uses. By enabling property owners to significantly reduce their tax bills, the deferments have permitted large land owners to keep farms and forests intact, instead of needing to subdivide and sell parcels. That was the intent of the state law when it was passed in the 1970s and adopted by the county in 1982.
Not only has it kept most of Rappahannock undeveloped, but the land-use deferment also has made it possible for the county to keep a lid on its operating expenses. As the saying goes, “Cows don’t ride school buses,” an allusion to the fact that agricultural land requires the fewest public services.
“Open land doesn’t really cost anybody anything,” said Chris Bird, a member of the county’s Planning Commission and a Rappahannock resident since the 1970s. “Even with the land-use deduction, it generates more revenue than it costs. That land doesn’t put kids in schools, it doesn’t need fire and rescue, it doesn’t need the sheriff’s department.”
All true, but the tax deductions have a downside, namely that they take a substantial bite out of the county’s potential revenue. According to the commissioner of revenue’s office, taxable land in the county that had a land-use deduction generated about $3.54 million last year. Without the deductions, the same land would have brought in more than $7.58 million in revenue, or an additional $4 million.
Here’s what the land-use deduction would mean for a 65-acre parcel of land with a dwelling: Without the deduction, the tax bill would be $6,603. With it, the bill would be less than half that — $3,207. Just under 50 percent of the county’s total acreage now receives a land-use tax deferment, although it’s less than a third of the parcels of taxable land — 1,850 out of 5,840.
Property owners must meet a number of conditions to qualify, including a minimum size of five acres for both the agricultural and horticultural tax deductions and 20 acres for the forestry deferment. About half of the land-use deductions in the county are agricultural, with almost another half for forestry. Less than 1 percent are horticultural.
It’s not unusual for that tax deferment to be used by relative newcomers or weekenders who qualify by renting their land for grazing or by having the grass mowed to produce hay. And that has sparked some ill will. “There is a certain amount of indignation against land-use taxation,” Bird acknowledged. “It’s particularly from small landowners or people who don’t own land and they say, ‘Look at those rich people sitting on all that value and not paying taxes on it.’”
Life after farming?
But sixth-generation Sperryville farmer Cliff Miller III has other concerns about the impact of all that mowing. “Any time you’re just cutting hay, that’s not good for the land,” he said. “You take fertilizer off and you’re not replacing it. So, the land gets worse and worse and worse.”
He and his son, Cliff Miller IV, would like the county to consider adding another option for land-use deductions — one simply for open space. That alternative is part of the original state law, but was never adopted by Rappahannock officials. As county administrator, McCarthy had argued that the open space option wouldn’t have the economic ripple effect that agricultural use does.
The law, however, has been amended to give local authorities more latitude in setting conditions landowners must meet to qualify. The Millers suggested that an open space deduction could encourage more people to put their land in federal or state habitat restoration programs.
“The future is not farming in Rappahannock,” said Cliff III. “The future is keeping the land open and beautiful and native and hopefully attacking invasive species.”
“I think there’s a big interest among landowners here who would like to convert fescue pastures into something that’s better for the habitat,” added his son. “If you could take land and convert it into wildflower meadows that people could come out and hike through, those are the type of things I’d love to see people able to do without getting hammered on taxes.”
About 19 percent of the county’s acreage already is in conservation easement, meaning that land will always have restrictions on any development. That wouldn’t be the case with land receiving an open space tax deduction.
A political third rail
Others believe it’s time to take a hard look at the county’s zoning ordinances. Attorney David Konick, a member of the Board of Zoning Appeals, thinks they need to be made even more restrictive.
“Rappahannock is part rural and part gentlemen’s estates now,” he said. “My idea would be to have the minimum lot size in the agricultural zone be either 100 or 200 acres so that if somebody wanted to take one of the remaining big farms and hack them up into 25 or 50-acre lots, they would have to come in and have it rezoned and go through the planning process first. Now, these types of divisions are mostly exempt from any review.”
Konick contends that the lack of residential zoning outside the county’s villages is vulnerable to a legal challenge. “The Supreme Court has ruled there has to be reasonable basis for these distinctions. You have all these 25-acre lots in the agriculture zone where, in fact, there’s very little agriculture happening.”
That 25-acre zoning for parcels outside the villages has clearly become a defining feature of Rappahannock, one that distinguishes it as a rural oasis in a region of hyper-development. Not surprisingly, it has also become a political third rail.
“I think you could make a very convincing case for cluster housing,” said long-time resident and retired philanthropic consultant Bill Dietel. “But you’re not going to get cluster housing, except in the villages. Politically, nobody wants to touch the 25-acre zoning.”
There’s no question that the big homes among the rolling hills are a welcome source of income for the county. Each new million-dollar house brings in another $7,000 a year in taxes. Even renovations of some existing properties are now costing $2 million and up, according to Richie Burke, the county’s Building Official.
“Yes, we’ve been inundated with weekenders in recent years,” said County Supervisor Chris Parrish (Stonewall-Hawthorne District). “But the houses they buy and build are usually more valuable than the houses already here. And that has made a substantial increase in revenue from real estate taxes. At the same time, they, by and large, do not utilize the school system or many other services. So, that’s been a big help.”
But there are those who worry that Rappahannock is accelerating down the road to becoming a high-end retirement community. Already, its most common age group is between 50 and 54, followed closely by 60 to 64. Next are people 55 to 59 years old.
“I’m fascinated by older couples who come out and buy a chunk of land and build a big house, most of them rather idiosyncratic in their design and layout,” said preservationist and town of Washington resident Allan Comp. “They’ll be here for a while, and then they won’t. What happens to those places? Are we going to clutter up the county with more of that? Where’s the market 15 years from now?”
Still, Planning Commission member Gary Light believes it would be overstating matters to suggest that Rappahannock has reached some kind of tipping point. “I still see a continuity,” he said. “Yes, we have problems — demographic changes, agricultural generation transition. So, maybe there’s a qualitative difference. But we’re still a rare, scenic and beautiful community.”
That said, there’s a growing sense that local officials — and the community at large — need to be more proactive in envisioning Rappahannock’s future, that a “wait and see” approach may bring higher risks than in times past. While not much is likely to change in the current version of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, there’s already talk of digging in more deeply the next time around. County Supervisor Ron Frazier (Jackson District), for instance, is pushing for a greater emphasis on financial planning.
Konick is among those who say the plan needs a rethink. “The current comprehensive plan may sound great to people, but will it withstand the pressures and the challenges that are coming? The general attitude of the Planning Commission is that it’s not broke so we don’t need to fix it. I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s not based on statistical analysis. It’s just a feeling they have.”
Conversely, Al Henry, longtime member of the Planning Commission and a Rappahannock resident since 1981, is of the mind that too much tinkering with the plan could do more damage than good.
“It needs very little work in my opinion,” Henry said. “It’ a good document. It says most of the things we need to say. If you start throwing a lot of stuff in, everything you put in there is open to interpretation. If you say we need more affordable housing, that could open the door up for someone to come in and say, ‘I want to rezone this 50 acres next to Sperryville.’ “
One thing all seem to agree on is that when it comes to preserving what renowned columnist and long-time resident James Kilpatrick described as “our unsullied paradise,” there will be no easy answer, no magic bullet.
First, says real estate agent and Rappahannock native Jan Makela, it will be important to reach a consensus. “People are suspicious of one another’s motives,” she said. “We gotta get past that. We need to find common ground. What do we all care about? What do we all want to sustain here? And then we need to ask ‘What’s the next logical step to achieve that?’ “
To Chris Bird, it’s a classic dilemma. “What I wonder,” he said, “is how do you keep what you want and get what you need?”
About this series:
There’s little question that preserving Rappahannock’s sublime landscape is a top priority for most of its residents. According to the Foothills Forum survey — to which 42 percent of the county households responded — the top issues of concern after Internet broadband service and cellphone coverage were “Maintaining beauty of the county” and “Maintaining family farms.”
This two-part series, based on more than 35 interviews, will focus on the challenges the community faces in protecting its scenic richness and unique rural identity, and also explore how it might evolve without losing what makes Rappahannock so special.
Part 1 (this week) examines the role the county’s comprehensive plan, land-use tax deferments and restrictive zoning ordinances have played in helping Rappahannock avoid the rapid suburban development that has spread through nearby counties.
Part 2 (March 23) will look at how, as social and economic pressures increase, the county may have to change its approach to sustaining its rural identity. With traditional farming in decline, should it more actively embrace agritourism and ecotourism? What role can the local business community play in a county where the term “economic development” makes people skittish.