Editorial: Rappahannock Playground?

Pop quiz: what’s the most popular tourism destination in Virginia? Colonial Williamsburg? No. Then it must be Mount Vernon? Sorry, no. Okay, then, it’s got to be Monticello? Wrong, again.

It’s a sad state of affairs to report that the answer is Potomac Mills. Sad because most people would apparently prefer to spend money on so-called bargains at an outlet shopping mall than invest in historical knowledge ― short-term consumption and instant gratification over lasting values.

But that’s happy news for Rappahannock. The sparsely populated county — with its enviable way of life, based on the very opposite of conspicuous consumption — has nothing to fear from tourism. At least nothing to fear until an interstate highway is built where U.S. 211 now is, and resulting interchanges at places like Ben Venue or Massies Corner sport commercial development of fast-food restaurants, discount gas, chain motels and thousands of square feet of retail space.

Hell would first freeze over.

Still, some local residents have expressed concern over the county’s budget to promote tourism, even though the expenditure of public monies is relatively tiny, certainly when compared to neighboring jurisdictions. So it was that one of the county’s articulate contrarians paid a visit to the newspaper office last week to ask the question: Why spend any taxpayer money at all promoting tourism?

His nightmarish premonition: that Rappahannock would turn into the Hamptons, or worse. As late as the early 1960s, that eastern end of New York’s Long Island was still dominated by potato fields and other agricultural pursuits, punctuated by quaint villages and historic residences. Only a few artist studios and weekend retreats gave any evidence that New York City was less than three hours away.

Today the Hamptons are defined by traffic congestion, one restaurant after another (high-end and otherwise), socialite partying and sprawling post-modern mansions.

Is that Rappahannock’s future? A playground for metropolitan Washington’s rich and famous? Again, hell would first freeze over ― or, to say it another way:

Rappahannock’s zoning laws, and the land-use ethic which they reflect, would have to be gutted. What “killed” the Hamptons was not weekend tourists visiting B&B’s, antique shops, foodie destinations and artists’ shows — the kind of tourism being promoted by Rappahannock County leaders — but too many people building on too little land.

What makes Rappahannock special — and thus of interest to day-tripping tourists — is the exact opposite: very few people on lots of unspoiled land. As long as these tourists don’t decide to stay, the land and our way of life should do just fine.

In fact, dollars generated from tourism can help maintain and reinforce that way of life. Anecdotal evidence, like the number of roadside stands west of Sperryille, suggest that those dollars have been declining in recent years. The county’s program just might reverse that trend.

Walter Nicklin