Rappahannock looks to preserve its vistas and way of life
Folks who’ve never stepped foot in Rappahannock may have seen it. In nighttime photos taken from space, the county is one of those few, conspicuous dark spots amid a blaze of yellow lights illuminating the East Coast from Miami to Maine.
Just about everyone wants to keep it that way.
That was evident from the Foothills Forum survey of households conducted last fall and published in the Rappahannock News two weeks ago.
Four of the six topmost concerns dealt with environmental protection and preserving the county’s farms. In a concession to modern living, the only things respondents said were more important were internet and cellphone coverage.
Those four concerns were: Maintaining the county’s beauty, maintaining family farms, protecting the quality of rivers, and keeping those remarkable views of the sky and stars at night. Couple that with how highly respondents valued their privacy and the picture that emerges is a place intent on not losing its blessings.
Part One: Life in Jewel of Virginia
Part Two: A Rural Life Challenged
“It’s one of the last places on the East Coast with a view of the Milky Way,” said Rick Kohler, president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP). “It is a treasure we must all cherish for once gone, it is gone forever.”
But it’s complicated.
Rappahannock already has undergone significant changes in recent decades. The apple and peach orchards are largely gone. There are still no stoplights or fast-food franchises, but the population grew 44 percent between 1970 and 2010, from 5,200 to 7,500. It is graying rapidly and, some fear, gentrifying in ways that could make it affordable mainly for “come heres” at the expense of “been heres.”
This final installment of the three-part series on the Foothills Forum survey explores the issues of environmental protection, farming and privacy and looks toward what may lay ahead. More than 30 people were interviewed for this article. (The survey was anonymous; none of the quotes are from it).
Safeguarding environment, preserving farms
Chris Miller, president of the nine-county Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), said the air in Rappahannock is cleaner than it was 20 years ago thanks to the Clean Air Act that stopped acid rain. Rappahannock succeeded more than other places in staying pristine because “it has a much stronger consensus of what it wants to be and it has done a lot to keep it that way. It’s darker at night, more completely rural and has fewer exceptions to that aesthetic. For many people, it’s idyllic.”
But pressures to grow could intensify, especially if commuter rail reaches Haymarket and beyond, he cautioned. “More and more people are discovering how wonderful Rappahannock is. Even if they don’t live there, they want to visit, recreate, ride their bikes, and come to the restaurants,” he said, and that means “flushing the toilet more often. You’ve got to come to grips with that.”
Phil Irwin, who cofounded RLEP in 1970 and also had a hand in establishing PEC two years later, believes strict zoning and density ordinances have slowed population growth and spared Rappahannock “the environmentally destructive growth we see in all the counties all around us.”
Irwin, 82, proprietor of the county’s oldest B&B, Flint Hill’s Caledonia Farm-1812, said RLEP is what has “kept Rappahannock the way it is as long as we have. We take credit for comprehensive planning happening here before it was required.”
Kohler, a real estate broker, believes the county has a good chance to preserve its open spaces, “but we have to be cautious and proactive. You can’t just sit here and wait for the Til Hazels of the world to come in and decide they are going to crack open the watershed.” Hazel spearheaded the development of Northern Virginia.
Author and environmental activist Beverly Hunter, president of RappFLOW, the nonprofit volunteer group formed in 2002 to study and protect the watersheds, sees challenges aplenty. “Riparian buffer vegetation is not protected,” she said. Trees along streams are being cut down, large areas are mowed unnecessarily, and excessive chemicals are being used to combat invasive plant species.
Hunter said a new generation of leadership needs to step up now “to address emerging problems and opportunities for monitoring the situation and educating landowners on best practices.”
Changes in the life if not the look of farms
Rappahannock’s population peaked at 9,800 in 1850 and dropped to a nadir of 5,200 in 1970 as farms required fewer laborers. It “was still seriously apple country” in 1973 when the now retired Rev. Jennings “Jenks” Hobson III was called to be pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church on Gay Street in Washington. “There were truckloads of apples going up 522 to Warrenton. You don’t see that much anymore.”
If Rappahannock has a heart, it might be Massie’s Corner, with its breathtaking view of Mount Marble. “It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but when you’re there you feel like you’re somewhere,” said the 60-year-old beef cattle farmer Mike Massie, whose family has farmed 850 acres there for five generations. “It’s a good life but not an easy living,” said Massie, a former Hampton District supervisor and once part-owner of the News.
Rappahannock had 397 farms in 2012 that averaged 158 acres and sold $23,377 in crops and livestock, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census. Only a few dozen farms were larger than 500 acres. Some large-scale farmers don’t own all the land they farm, but lease it from owners content to have pastures maintained and fences kept in good order. The USDA census reported the average farm lost $5,944 in 2012.
“But there’s one very, very big thing they have always agreed on: [residents] don’t want the county to change very much. That’s why developers have steered away from Rappahannock. They can’t divide and conquer. We’re united in keeping those guys out.” Mike Massie, farmer, former supervisor
Wineries, organic farms and consumer demand for grassfed beef have created new opportunities for farmers, but land prices are so high and returns so modest that it would be hard for someone to turn a profit if he or she had to buy the property. Children who left the farm long ago for college and careers may sell the land when they inherit it either because farming is not for them or because estate taxes leave them with little choice.
Farming has become a second, full-time career for Jim and Carolyn Manwaring, who work long hours tending a herd of 260 brood cattle on their 1,100-acre Red Oak Ranch. “There’s nothing like Rappahannock,” he said. “One of the critical ways to preserve its beauty is to keep farming viable. It’s the farmers that keep the open spaces everyone loves.”
When sixth generation farmer Cliff Miller III inherited his 845-acre Mount Vernon Farm in Sperryville in 1998, he put much of the property in easements, protected wetlands and changed practices to prevent pollution of the Thornton River. His son Cliff Miller IV has revitalized the Schoolhouse antiques store, opened a pub and convinced the zoning board to let him open a par-three golf course to attract visitors.
“I don’t think agriculture can support the young generation that’s coming up here. Tourism can,” said the 45-year-old entrepreneur.
The quest for privacy
One of the survey’s clearest findings was how highly people valued “privacy and being left alone.” The survey didn’t define what those words meant.
Some of those interviewed emphatically agreed that they wanted solitude; others were of the mind that city folks who retire to Rappahannock are keen to find and protect their privacy, but soon get into the swing of the many volunteer and cultural activities offered here.
On the survey, the three things respondents rated as most important to the quality of life right after privacy were: proximity of friends or family; social and cultural opportunities, and availability of volunteer opportunities.
Real estate agent Jan Makela said city dwellers who lived in townhomes or condominiums might not even have spoken to their neighbors, but “here we depend on one another. It takes them a while to figure out the neighbor concept.”
Maggie Morris, who manages Schoolhouse Antiques and is a sculptor, has been fully involved in county life, but prizes the peace and quiet. “I’m moving to the back end of my property. If I could move farther in, I would. I really like Rappahannock the way it is. I’d prefer it if the dirt roads stayed dirt roads and we didn’t blacktop them,” she said.
“Privacy is no longer a concern and I don’t think that just for us,” said Beverly Jones, who first moved to Slate Mills two decades ago as a weekender. But “once former hyper-careerists really settle here, they look for ways to become engaged with local folks and activities.”
Retired VDOT manager Mike Cave of Flint Hill said people “love the seclusion, but when you live back five miles on a dirt road and you get a severe snow storm, a lot of them are the first ones to start calling and hollering to get the roads open.”
“I like not being able to see the highway from my house,” said Wakefield Supervisor and Board Chair Roger Welch. “The county’s 25-acre zoning restriction ensures a degree of privacy. You can build a house on top of a house on top of a house in Warrenton, and you can do that in Culpeper or Front Royal,” but not in Rappahannock, Welch noted.
Hobson, the newly retired Episcopal pastor, said, “Country living is not as private as you think it is. City people come out and ask, ‘What do you all do out here?’ I look them dead in the eye and say, ‘We’ve got more going on per capita here than you ever thought about in the city.’”
Carol and Bob Lucking relocated a quarter century ago from Cape Cod to Sperryville. She does counseling and social service work in four counties while he is a woodworking craftsman with his own studio. Both are involved in community life, but value their privacy, too.
“We’re stuck up here against the national park. We like it up here on the mountain,” she said. He added, “We make the choice when we want to go and socialize. If you want to become a hermit, you can do that, too.”
The view to the horizon
In 2033, less than a generation, Rappahannock turns 200. What does the future hold?
Seventy-one percent of those surveyed were open to some changes in the county. Most of those interviewed exuded a sense of optimism that come what may, Rappahannock will not be radically different than it is today.
Frank Huff, former chief of Flint Hill Volunteer Fire & Rescue, said, “When I was a little younger and a lot more foolish I wished we could have a few things in our county that our neighbors had and didn’t have to go to Front Royal or Warrenton or Culpeper to get them. But I don’t find myself complaining now.”
“If we try to be like the city, we’re going to lose the very things that people love about the county,” said Massie. “You hear all the time there’s nothing much in common with the new folks moving in and the folks who’ve always lived here. But there’s one very, very big thing they have always agreed on: they don’t want the county to change very much. That’s why developers have steered away from Rappahannock. They can’t divide and conquer. We’re united in keeping those guys out.”
Miller, the PEC president, said, “One of the greatest resources that Rappahannock has is an incredible diversity of really smart people from a lot of different backgrounds, including those who have lived there for five generations. They know exactly where they came from and why they still want to live there.”
Hobson, the only person twice named Citizen of the Year by the News, believes the county must do more to open its doors to young and working-class people. “We’ve got a lot of last-one-in-itis. ‘I’m in. Close the gates,’” said the priest, who found himself priced out of the housing market when it came time to vacate the Trinity rectory. He and wife Molly now rent a home on the back side of an Amissville farm.
“This place needs to open a little bit. If people think they are going to freeze this place, they may kill it,” he said. “You either grow or you die.”