McCarthy looks back on 30 years of the county’s ‘enormous character’ and somewhat smaller changes
The second of two installments of this interview with John W. McCarthy is here.
The following are excerpts from a wide-ranging interview with John W. McCarthy, who retired June 30 after 30 years as Rappahannock County’s chief administrator, and zoning administrator. McCarthy sat down July 1 with Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi, at a picnic table not far from McCarthy’s offices at the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center in Front Royal, where he began serving last month as the center’s interim director. (More excerpts of this interview will be in next week’s Rappahannock News.)
Rappahannock News: So, John, how “done with Rappahannock” are you?
John McCarthy: Well, this is the first day in 30 years I have not been a county employee — so in that sense I’m done, I’m done being employee of the board of supervisors. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with Rappahannock. I don’t intend to move from my home in Warrenton, and most of my civic engagements, like the Fauquier Hospital and the [hospital-based] PATH Foundation — the footprint both of those include Rappahannock. In many ways it’s not going to change my interest in Rappahannock, it’s going to change my day-to-day engagement, put it that way.
RN: And the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation [of which McCarthy was most recently board chair]?
JM: Right, I went off of that . . . we have term limits there, and even if we hadn’t I think moving as I was to chairman at the PATH Foundation . . . it was difficult because of the conflicts of interest. I resigned from the Mental Health Association and a couple of other civic activities I was also involved in, just because some of them come to PATH for money and it just gets too confusing. So it becomes cumbersome to have a grant committee meeting or a board meeting and you have half the board having to recuse themselves because they have so many other engagements. Particular as chairman I felt I had to step back from some of that stuff.
RN: Did Rappahannock find you, or did you find Rappahannock?
The story is a silly one . . . I went to graduate school in Charlottesville . . . along about the first of January . . . when you are going to graduate in May, you start going to this enormous bulletin board that listed all the jobs in architecture and planning and landscape architecture that are currently advertised in Virginia. There were half a dozen in planning and zoning, and I applied for two — one was for a planner in Prince William County and one as a zoning administrator and administrative assistant to the Board of Supervisors in Rappahannock.
And I came up here, I think it would have been like March, because it was just starting to be spring and I remember it was very cold . . . and I had an interview with the Board of Supervisors in the courtroom before it had been renovated and it was very, I don’t know if you ever saw it, but at that time but it was . . . well, basic and grim are the two words that come to mind, somewhere in that continuum.
And the first interview I had was with the board and a guy named Clarence Baldwin was the supervisor from Hampton District. Diane Bruce [the circuit court clerk and clerk to the board at the time] says there were about four or five people who were interviewed over the course of several days, and I got called back about, I want to say about a month later, so sometime in April. In the interim Mr. Baldwin had died and so they wanted to interview me with the new supervisor, who was Newbill Miller. And they offered me the job that day and told me what dollar amount they thought and and they wanted me to think about that and get back to them. And so, I also was offered the planner job in Prince William County, which was actually for a grand total of $1,000 a year more than Rappahannock wanted to pay me.
But I had this image, after the interviews I had in Prince William, of me approving Taco Bell site plans for 20 years . . . The trouble with big organizations like that is you become pigeonholed, and no matter what your capacities are, you just got slotted into things, and I’m sure that in five years I would have been Planner 2, and in 10 years I would have made Planner 3 . . .
Obviously the thing that attracted me to Rappahannock is the thing that attracts a lot of people to Rappahannock — you can get your hands around it, but it’s got enormous character of its own. It’s a unique place.
RN: Has the biggest driver of change in Rappahannock been, after all, VDOT — and specifically its decision in the 1970s to widen U.S. 211 to four lanes?
JM: You know, what was funny, I think it was 1988 or 1989, and The Washington Post did that ‘What’s In, What’s Out’ thing every year — and what was in that year was Rappahannock, and what was out was Howard County or somewhere in Maryland that was no longer considered cool or whatever. And I remember that that was after the four-lane had been done to Washington, but before the four lane had been done to Sperryville. And before I was here, there was already a sort of initial level of notoriety — James J. Kilpatrick and Gene McCarthy, and their books, “The Foxes’ Union” and “The View from Rappahannock” — but I do remember on my first day on the job, in my little office where Beverly Atkins and now Sharon Dotson are, which was the zoning office in the back of that building, that a copy of both of their books, autographed to me by them, were on my desk. You know, they had just dropped them off — and which I thought was emblematic of the place: Probably the most notable public figures in the county were going to reach out to whoever just came in, on a very casual basis, but very nice . . .
But yeah, I probably would say VDOT has been the biggest change, but more than VDOT, I think [Rappahannock] just got into the public consciousness. And VDOT was part of that, but I wouldn’t say they were the principal driver.
RN: How many of the 17 supervisors you’ve worked with did you feel you were training, and how many were here to train you?
JM: I would have given you the answer that I was training most of them when I was younger, and that I had been trained by more of them as I got older — but that’s got more to do with in the fact that I have matured. Let me answer this way: Of all of those 17 that I served under, half of them I would call my friends. And the other half I would say were people that I respected because they were put there by the voters, but also I think they respected me, though neither one of us feeling that we had to socialize or drink together.
I’ve often told my daughters, to their intense boredom . . . that there is nothing that anybody can learn about politics, great or small, that you can’t read in the Peloponnesian Wars. Read Thucydides and he will tell you everything about nobility, baseness, about people doing right by their friends and people doing wrong by their friends. Everything is in there, and the principal lesson that you can take from that whole, whatever translation you read of that thousand pages, is: Hubris kills everybody.
The more arrogant and smartass you are, the more of a price you will pay. And if it’s the long walls burning because the Spartans have breached them, or if it’s a 5-0 vote of the board of supervisors because you were an arrogant ass in something you pitched, it all comes down to the same thing. The scale is different but the result is the same: Don’t be arrogant.
RN: What achievements are you most proud of, or happy about, during your tenure?
JM: I am deeply suspicious of the Edifice Complex that so many people have, that they want to point to ‘these things I did.’ I’d rather not have those things. There is one that I will toss out because it stretches towards poetry, and that’s Scrabble School. When I came here — remember the Reader’s Guide for Periodical Literature, that green-bound thing that all the libraries had in the pre-internet era? When I was interviewing for this job, I went to the U.Va. planning and architecture school library and pulled out the Reader’s Guide and looked up Rappahannock for the last couple years, and I got two hits.
One was from an article from Regardie’s magazine and it was one of those small column articles about the docket in the eastern district of federal court in Alexandria, and how a substitute judge, Rayner Snead of Rappahannock County, was expediting what was the most expeditious court in the land — and it had some quotes from him. One afternoon he was sitting there in a trial and said something to the effect of “Gentlemen, it’s 2 o’clock and I’ve heard both your arguments, we are going to be out of here by 4, so I am going to need you to pick your two best questions and we’re done.” It was like, wow. And the other article was Calvin Trillin’s piece from The New Yorker, which was about the whole Saltonstall case, which involved David Konick and many others, and I just read that and I thought, “What in the [expletive] have I gotten myself into?”
But when I came here and took the job, I started looking at back issues of the Rappahannock News, because they were not available online or anywhere I looked. And then, the most recent controversy had been about how the county bought the old Scrabble School site intending it to be the animal shelter. The county bought it at auction, and so by the time I actually got here they bought it for that purpose but they had gone ahead and put dumpsters there for the interim.
I remember distinctly thinking that’s kind of odd but then I never thought anything more about it. And as the years passed, of course, Frank Warner retired back to Rappahannock, and other people started saying, look, this was an African-American school, which I knew nothing about, a typical child of my era . . . and the more I realized, sweet Jesus, they’re going to use this place as a dumpster site and that’s kind of embarrassing. And largely as a result of us shutting a bunch of dumpster sites, we shut that one down, but we still had the property, derelict, sitting in inventory and nothing to do with it.
And thank God Frank was the conscience [who said] hey, look, this would be a good thing for you to find another use for, and finding the other use we did — which was the senior center.
I remember the day we opened it, and dedicated it again, and there were people there, and who are there today, getting hot meals, people in their 80s, who were students there at age 6. That’s as close to poetry as bureaucrats get, and that’s a nice win. Is it a big deal? Eh, I don’t know, I think it’s a big moral deal. I don’t think it’s a big, enormous construction, and I’m not going to put my name on it because there were a lot better people who did, but that’s cool. And so there are some good things I think Rappahannock has done that are mostly are below the fold in 12-point type, not above-the-fold, 80-point, Second Coming type.
RN: The restrictive zoning changes made by Rappahannock County, principally in the 1980s — are they still sustainable, or applicable, in the 21st century?
JM: You know, it’s funny, the path of a community, whether it’s 265 square miles or not, is wrought up into a broader world — and at that time, in the mid-’80s, you basically looked at 40 years, or at least 30 years since World War II, of an inexorable tide moving from the central business district of D.C., and every 10 or 15 years, another county became the next horizon. And at that point, Fauquier was sort of the next horizon, and you could sort of rationally predict that next is going to be Rappahannock.
But what changed was a couple things — the enormous increase in gas prices, so distance became more and more of a factor, and increasingly, now over at the last 10 years, it’s people’s expectations of “home.”
My kids don’t want . . . five acres in the country and an hour-and-a-half commute each way — they want quality of life, they want bars, restaurants, nightclubs, access to museums. They are happy to not even have a car! And so you’re seeing the path of human development, not just in the D.C. area but all over the country, where you are having massive infill development inside of beltways, where older, even single-family communities of the ’40s and ’50s, are now being redeveloped as condos and town centers . . .
What I worried about in 1986 was — the law at the time said basically if you had investment-backed expectations of purchase of property in the county and the local government changes the rules dramatically on you, you have a better case of the taking of private property without just compensation — which is the big worry in land-use law. Does your regulation stray into a “taking” under the 5th and 14th amendments? But every year that passed since we adopted the down-zoning, that worry is less and less. Because nobody who bought land in 1985 is not able to sell it for a lot more today than they could then. But in ’86 or ’87, the worry was, man, is changing from five-acre zoning to 25-acre zoning going to mean that they have a leg up in court?
And the biggest thing that I attach the strength to is that we didn’t have great transportation access then so they were going to have a hard time selling five-acre lots in huge numbers. But also because the enormous political will of this county has generally been: We don’t want to develop. In a lot of counties it’s the been-heres who want to develop, and the come-heres who want to shut the door after they move in — but in Rappahannock, it’s been fairly constant: We don’t want it to change.
So I guess my answer — which is, as I am wont to be, incredibly verbose — is that I worried a lot more about being sustainable early than I do now — but I do think that people need to accept that our villages should grow, we should have more housing — not just because I think that’s how we defend the agricultural zone, by saying we allow it here, but also because towns and villages need to have homes and businesses, you need to have kids that chase dogs, and dogs that chase sticks, and parents pushing strollers. Businesses are more successful then. I mean look at Culpeper. If you look at the sprawl around Culpeper, I think it’s awful — but if you look at downtown Culpeper, it’s a lot nicer than it was 20 years ago. But it doesn’t look materially different — it’s just more active.
So again, I think we need to change in terms of what we let happen in villages — so that everything can stay the same in the countryside.
The interview is continued here.