Part 2 of a series
On most Saturdays you can find Roger Welch at the art gallery owned by his artist wife, Geneva, on Main Street in Washington, helping customers browse through the offerings inside. It was there recently that the soft-spoken and amiable chairman of the Rappahannock Board of Supervisors talked at length about his life in Rappahannock, his 19 years as a supervisor and current issues facing the county.
Welch grew up on the farm owned by his family, going back four generations, about two miles south of Flint Hill. After graduating from Rappahannock High School, he attended Virginia Tech, served in the Navy’s submarine service as an electrical technician during the Vietnam War, and then earned a degree in electrical engineering from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
After his Navy service, Welch joined General Electric’s Factory Automation Group in Richmond as a controller and later managed that group’s national training center. He visited Rappahannock regularly, and built a home on his property outside of Flint Hill in 1988. After retiring from GE in 2008, he moved there permanently.
Welch got interested in local politics some 30 years ago when be became involved in the debate over whether municipal waste sludge could be used as fertilizer on county farmlands.
“As a participant in those discussions, I was impressed with the process by which decisions were made,” he said. “In the end, the decision not to allow sludge on the fields turned out to be the right one.”
A few years later, at the urging of friends, he ran for supervisor for the Wakefield District and was elected.
A self-described conservative, Welch believes keeping partisan politics out of local government is key to meeting the challenges facing the county.
“There’s been a long tradition in Rappahannock of keeping partisan politics outside the county courthouse. We have a long list of issues to resolve and I don’t want to see politics gum up the works,” he said.
Here is Welch’s take on just a few of the challenges facing the county:
Economic Development: “Although we have commercially zoned areas, we simply don’t have enough population to support new businesses, and we never will unless we can keep young people in this county. When I graduated from high school I had three options: work on the farm, go to college, or move to the city. Most kids then, as today, move to the city, get married and don’t return. Once you leave Rappahannock it’s very hard to come back, and that loss of population makes new economic growth difficult.” Welch believes Rappahannock’s location also makes it difficult for businesses here. “Our main arteries, Highways 211 and 522, do not connect to larger populated areas so we just don’t get the traffic that would support new businesses,” he said. “Highway 211 used to be the main artery for travel to the Shenandoah National Park, but when I-66 was built it diverted traffic away from the county.” Another factor limiting economic growth is the lack of Internet connections. “I hope this broadband committee created by the board comes up with some solutions because businesses don’t want to move here unless they have good access to the Internet.”
Tourism: One potential path to expanded economic growth is tourism. “It’s the head of the arrow,” he said. “If we can expand tourism in keeping with our comprehensive plan we have a good chance of increasing our tax revenue and keeping jobs in the county, especially for younger people.” When asked what role the BOS might play in supporting tourism he did not suggest any specific actions: “The Board is working through the tourism issue and trying to decide what role, if any, it should play. In the past we had a tourism director, but she left and the funding for that position was reallocated. We need to work with the very talented members of our hospitality, arts and business communities and come up with a plan that will satisfy everybody.”
Education: Welch sees continued pressure on the county’s public schools to provide a quality education while keeping taxes in check. The Virginia’s Composite Index determines how much the state will pay and how much localities pay. The formula is based on a weighing of the value of real property, adjusted gross income, and taxable retail sales tax. “Under the formula Rappahannock is considered a wealthy county. We get a much smaller percentage of state funds compared to other nearby counties. The state only covers about 26 percent of our costs compared to 70 percent for Page County and 56 percent for Madison County,” he said. “If property values and income continue to rise our share of state money will continue to shrink and really press us to find additional funds for our school system.” Communities are guaranteed a minimum of 20 percent state funding so Rappahannock could possibly lose an additional 6 percent in state funds.
Fire and Rescue: Welch believes the rising ages of volunteer fire and emergency personnel are going to be a big cost driver in the future. “If we can’t expand the pool of younger volunteers, especially on the EMS side, we will have to begin hiring folks and that is going to cost big bucks,” he said. “Our firefighters and emergency service volunteers have done a terrific job over the years and frankly I’m amazed at how well they’ve been able to provide such excellent service given age and cost factors.” Welch believes if additional funding were needed, the fire tax levy would be the mechanism to raise funds.
Scenic and Rural Values: Long an advocate of protecting Rappahannock’s natural beauty, Welch treasures the county’s rural landscape. “Not much has changed here since I was a kid and I think it important to try and keep it that way,” he said. A proponent of keeping Rappahannock’s night sky dark, he fears encroachment from Front Royal and Warrenton will slowly eat away at portions of Rappahannock’s dark skies. Welch was disappointed the BOS shelved efforts to develop a night sky policy earlier this year, but hopes the issue will be revived again. He asks, “How would you feel if you were a kid here and couldn’t see the stars?” A strong proponent of the county’s comprehensive plan he supports the 25-acre zoning restriction as key to protecting its scenic beauty. Although he believes the current members of the board strongly support the 25-acre zoning policy, he was less optimistic about its future. When asked if it would last, he responded, “It could change with the next election, you never know.”
When asked about the current criticism being leveled at the BOS and some county employees by some citizens, Welch said, “Although the most vocal critics are a small minority of the county’s population, it is important that we get input from all interested citizens.”
Describing the current atmosphere as “a bit of a brawl” and “very disruptive,” Welch remained optimistic.
“In this post-John McCarthy period we find ourselves on a bit of a learning curve, but I have every confidence in (County Administrator) Debbie Keyser. It’s been a rough transition, it will take a while, but we’ll get through it.”
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series surrounding each member of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors. Our goal is to give you, the reader, a better sense of the personal background of each official, their political philosophy and approach to governing, and to report their positions on a number of key issues facing the county.