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 this two-part series can be found here
How much change in an era of shifting economic forces?
Part two of a two-part series.
It happened almost five months ago, but people still talk about the End of Oktoberfest event outside the Pen Druid brewery in Sperryville.
There were no live bands and no food trucks, two staples of a typical beer festival. All that was offered, really, was beer and food. Local food.
By late afternoon, the food was gone. Van Carney, one of three brothers and Woodville natives who opened Pen Druid Brewing in 2015, said they expected 700 people to show up. More than 1,000 did, by his estimate, most from outside the county.
“We were stunned by the size of the crowd,” Carney admitted. “Right from when we opened up at noon, it was kinda insane.”
“It turned out really, really great,” remembers Mike Peterson, who with his wife Molly, runs Heritage Hollow Farms, which produces grassfed beef, pork and lamb. “It was a nice way to put out what’s being produced in the county. We grew all the food. We even cooked it with wood that came from the county. It was true farm to plate. It all really meshed.”
The Oktoberfest party was a collaborative effort involving a handful of local businesses, including Pen Druid, Heritage Hollow Farms, The Farm at Sunnyside, and Woodstone Baking. The idea, said Carney, was to put a spotlight on Rappahannock and what it has to offer. “Why would we get some food trucks to come out from D.C. when we have some great productive farms?”
That was how the businesses promoted the event on social media — come to Rappahannock, drink some beer and be served food by the farmers who had grown and prepared it.
“Yes, there was beer, and yes, there was roasted meat,” said Carney. “But people want that rural setting where you can come out and be part of something bigger, something organic.”
Shaping a future
There are those who hope that End of Oktoberfest will itself become organic, that it will take root as a model for agritourism in Rappahannock’s evolving future. Not only did it bring a lot of outsiders to the county — and only for a day — but it also didn’t cost local officials a penny to promote it. Best of all, it was initiated by a group that’s in painfully short supply here — young entrepreneurs.
But it’s a big leap from a few outdoor events a year — Pen Druid also does a “Yeaster” party every spring — to a movement that becomes a core component of a community’s identity, particularly in a place where change is often viewed like a stranger coming up the front steps.
It also touches on a number of basic questions about how Rappahannock proceeds in the 21st century. Does it need to pivot from a “Just leave us alone” mentality to one in which it deals more proactively with shifting social and economic forces? Can the county’s comprehensive plan still be an effective vision for Rappahannock or does it require a closer look at how to adapt to the future? How forceful a role should local officials play in encouraging change, particularly when it comes to redefining what it means to be an agricultural community? And can any kind of tourism — whether agritourism or ecotourism, or both — reach a scale where it can make a meaningful contribution to the local coffers?
Jason Brady is someone who understands the push and pull of addressing those issues. As vice president at the Union Bank & Trust and president of the Businesses of Rappahannock, he’s a leader of the local business community. Plus, he’s on the county’s Planning Commission. He also has very deep roots in Rappahannock, which he describes it as “the most individualistic place I’ve ever been.”
Brady doesn’t believe it’s the county government’s role to promote private businesses. Or even that it should necessarily give business a higher priority in the Comprehensive Plan. “It’s not a simple thing to say what the Comprehensive Plan is going to do for business. Is it going to promote tourism? Is it going to promote agriculture? Is it not going to promote business? It’s a fine line. How do we keep the things we love about Rappahannock the same? And how do we move forward in the world responsibly?
“A lot of the citizens of Rappahannock County don’t care about promoting some kind of brand to the outside world,” he added. “That’s the reality of it. To them, Rappahannock is what it is. They support businesses locally, but it’s not something that, in their minds, brands the whole community.”
Chris Bird, a longtime resident and another member of the Planning Commission, acknowledges the complexity of recalibrating Rappahannock’s game plan. “It’s a reasonable idea that the county needs another source of revenue,” he said. “I feel we’re in a kind of balancing act here. On the one hand, we are still largely in control of our destiny. We’re still able to meet our financial problems. That’s a pretty rare position to find yourself in. So, before you leave that base, you want to know that you can make it to the next one.”
Other sources of revenue?
There’s no question that revenue from tourism would need to increase exponentially to make a real difference in the county’s finances. The budget for fiscal year 2017 estimates revenue from food and lodging taxes coming in at slightly more than $220,000, with roughly another $517,000 generated through the local sales tax. That compares with revenue of about $12.3 million from general property taxes, meaning only about 5 percent of the county’s revenue comes from the sales tax and food and lodging taxes combined.
An estimated $13 million will be spent this fiscal year at The Inn at Little Washington and other restaurants and B&Bs in Washington, producing $325,000 in food and lodging taxes. But that money generated in Washington goes directly to the town, not the county.
Nor are you likely to see a big boost in tax revenue any time soon from a chain grocery or big retail outlet opening here — not only because most everyone would oppose it, but also, given Rappahannock’s small population and remote geography, without easy interstate access, it wouldn’t make much financial sense.
Even the winery business, one that’s growing in the county, isn’t going to become a robust direct source of revenue. There are seven wineries in Rappahannock now, and while the county does get 1 percent of the sales tax the state collects, it receives food and lodging tax revenue only if a winery serves prepared food. That income could grow as local wineries expand into the events business, such as weddings. But the majority of wineries here are too small to do that on a regular basis.
“The biggest benefit to the county is that the wineries bring tens of thousands of people out here who wouldn’t otherwise come,” said John Delmare, who opened Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly 15 years ago. “I can’t imagine what would happen to the majority of the restaurants and B&Bs out here if the wineries disappeared.”
But Delmare also pointed out that Rappahannock’s wineries will never draw the huge crowds that can gather on a nice weekend at the popular Barrel Oak Winery off I-66 in Delaplane. “I know that’s what some people are afraid of, that you’ll get all these cars and noise out here,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen in Rappahannock unless they build an interstate through the middle of the county.”
An even newer factor in the local economy are short-term home rental services, such as Airbnb, which have grown dramatically in recent years. Legislation recently passed by both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates would give local officials the authority to regulate and actually tax Airbnb rentals. That could provide another source of revenue, but again, not a lucrative one.
“With Airbnb, in Virginia Beach, it’s a revenue issue. In Fredericksburg, it’s a revenue issue,” said county supervisor Ron Frazier (Jackson District). “Here, it’s not revenue. It’s a land-use issue.”
Others make the case that even if short-term rentals don’t generate much income for the county, they can encourage more young people to spend time here. “Whether the supervisors like it or not, Airbnb is happening,” said Sperryville entrepreneur Lynn Sullivan. “You get more people out here with Airbnb rentals than B&Bs that cost $300 a night.”
But Harris Hollow resident Keir Whitson argues that sustaining Rappahannock’s distinct brew of solitude and serenity requires a more ginger touch. “If we get too carried away with saying all tourism revenue is good, then you might as well throw up your hands and say we’ll let people rent anything they want wherever they want,” he said. “And then the entire character of a lot of places in the county changes.”
The role of Rappahannock’s villages
Not that Whitson objects to Airbnb. He just doesn’t think it’s a good fit in rural areas with dark country roads and where people really prefer that their neighbors don’t change every week. Short-term rentals, he says, make more sense in what, for Rappahannock, pass for densely populated communities — the villages of Sperryville, Flint Hill, Amissville, Chester Gap and Woodville. (The town of Washington is a separate municipality operating under its own Comprehensive Plan, but it also has been designated a village.)
Described in the county’s Comprehensive Plan as places characterized by “a rural post office and general store,” “one or more houses of worship” and “service stations and other small commercial/service establishments,” the villages have long been envisioned as not just business hubs, but also the centers of residential growth. Nearby land, the thinking went, could be subdivided into small lots that could form little neighborhoods of moderately priced homes.
But that hasn’t really happened. In fact, the last time a new subdivision was fully developed in one of the villages occurred in 2005, when homes were built on five lots in Flint Hill. The reasons for the sparse residential development vary. The lack of a public water and sewer system in any of the villages, aside from Washington and Sperryville, has no doubt discouraged development. Owners of property near villages have tended to hold on to it, hoping that values will rise. But perhaps the best reason is simple economics — there just may not be enough demand to justify investments in even small subdivisions of relatively inexpensive homes.
That may seem contrary to the notion that one of Rappahannock’s greater needs is more affordable housing. Many locals can offer stories that would seem to support that belief, and it’s a sentiment reflected in some of the comments offered in responses to the Foothills Forum countywide survey in 2015. “It would be nice to have apartments for older people or single people in the towns. There is almost no accessible housing for people who would like to live near others, with no yard work,” wrote one resident. “If something happened to the house we currently rent, we would probably have to leave the county to find something affordable,” said another.
For some, it’s simply about family.
“I would love if my son would move back here with his family,” said real estate agent and Rappahannock native Jan Makela. “I don’t want to live in an over-55 community and that’s what we’ve become.”
But the hard reality is that Rappahannock doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to residential development around its villages. Nor can it provide enough solid data on potential demand to encourage a developer or bank to take that kind of risk.
Sperryville resident Christian Dutilh offered the perspective of someone who for decades developed properties in and around D.C. “In a community of 7,000 people, so much of what we know is only anecdotal. If I could get a miracle permit to build 12 houses, who would buy them, and how fast would they sell? That’s one of the issues.”
Still, Dutilh thinks the villages have unrealized potential in shaping what Rappahannock becomes. So does Whitson. “Somebody’s got to say, ‘Let’s set a plan for our villages.’ That, to me, is where we need to put our energy,” he said. “The thing that makes us unique is all this open space, so why screw it up?”
Meanwhile, Nick Lapham, owner of The Farm at Sunnyside, believes a key to the future is keeping all the rolling pastures productive. “If you care about conservation, if you care about sustaining these landscapes, you’ve got to find more ways for these open spaces to generate revenue and jobs,” he said.
Therein lies the challenge of edging forward in a community where the paving of a road can be seen as something lost. As county supervisor John Lesinski (Hampton District) puts it: “We know a lot more about what we don’t want Rappahannock to be. Not so much about what we want it to be.”
Mike Sands, owner of Bean Hollow Grassfed in Flint Hill, feels it’s important to tackle change. “In the long run,” he said, “doing nothing doesn’t keep the county the way it is. If you want to try to keep it the way it is, you need to define what you want and identify policies that enhance that. If it’s a rural atmosphere with small village population centers, what can be done to preserve that?”
There’s no shortage of ideas for ways to try to refashion Rappahannock without contorting it. Longtime Planning Commission member Al Henry sees value in the county doing what it can — such as providing tax incentives — to preserve local apple orchards. Amissville resident Jane Whitfield has proposed creating privately-funded paved bike paths/hiking trails that could eventually connect the county’s villages. The idea received an initial negative reaction from some property owners worried how the project might affect them, but Whitfield says she’s not discouraged, and public meetings are being scheduled to get more community feedback.
Audrey Regnery, who with her husband Al, own and operate the Greenfield Inn B&B just west of Washington, wants to both foster more collaboration within the Rappahannock tourism community and promote to the outside world the diverse talents of local residents.
“In this county, we have a wealth of individuals with unusual abilities,” she said. “We don’t just have wineries and artists. We have people here who make cheese. We have people who do apothecary. We need to think about how we can create more experiences that will bring people out here.”
Patti Brennan also is a big believer in the potential of tourism. A stained glass artist and owner of De’ Danann Glassworks outside Sperryville, Brennan has spearheaded the effort to make Rappahannock part of Virginia’s Artisan Trail Network, designed to make the public more aware of the state’s tourism options. She says the Rappahannock group now has more than 100 members, including not just artists, wineries and restaurants, but also specialty farmers and the Schoolhouse Nine Golf Course in Sperryville.
“We have thousands of tourists passing through the county each year to hike our trails,” she said. “Think about what we could achieve by working together to encourage visitors to enjoy all we have to offer. How can we expect business to thrive without utilizing this opportunity? Third-world countries have figured out economic sustainability through tourism. I think we can, too.”
Others see an opportunity to build on events like the annual Rappahannock Farm Tour to shape a more modern version of the community’s legacy, one that promotes sustainable farming.
“Maybe you put $5,000 a year into that and bring it to the next level in terms of publicity,” said Betsy Dietel, who runs Bean Hollow Grassfed with Sands, her husband. “You try to encourage more people to participate and also be able to better track why people from outside came, and make sure you remind them before the next one.”
Van Carney said there’s been discussion of incorporating the Pen Druid brewery as a kind of “hub” for the Farm Tour, where people could get food and beer, and use the bathrooms. He also sees events like the End of Oktoberfest as “another dimension of the Farm Tour.”
“By having the farmers come here and serve the food gives people a different kind of connection to them,” he said.
No one goes so far as to suggest that agritourism will be the answer to the challenges Rappahannock faces. They are too complex for one simple solution. But some do see its potential to help spark a different perception of the county — particularly for young people – as more than a place to drive through on the way to Shenandoah National Park. And that, its proponents say, might even attract more young entrepreneurs.
“You have the beginnings of a younger generation of business people in the county who are committed to the community and are very savvy about running their businesses,” said Sunnyside’s Nick Lapham. “I hope that that will start to feed on itself. This is not an easy place to be a younger businessperson. But I think there are some encouraging signs.”
“I know people who want to do cool things in Rappahannock,” added Carney. “And I think it can happen. We need young people doing stuff, people with energy. They do need things like broadband to make a living. But people want to be here.”
Talk to the neighbors
“Outsiders come in and tell us what we’ve been doing wrong, and how they’re going to come in and fix it,” said local attorney and Board of Zoning Appeals member David Konick, who has lived here since the 1970s. “When I came here, I thought I knew everything, too. It’s easy to fall into that trap.”
Another long-time resident who understands the wariness about managing the county’s future is Phil Irwin, founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection and owner of the Caledonia Farm B&B in Flint Hill. “The word planning is anathema to some people,” he said. “They want to do their own planning. I will say that if you’re planning to grow like the counties around us, I want out. What I want to do is plan how to grow responsibly to where we can preserve a significant portion of our land for posterity.”
Nick Lapham, who bought Sunnyside 10 years ago, says he’s learned some valuable lessons. “A lot of doing business here is about relationships. Building trust and not moving too quickly. That goes a long way in this county.”
Carney, a native, agrees. “People sometimes forget that this is still truly a very small community, and if you want something to happen, you need to build consensus. You need to go talk to people. You don’t go to the board of supervisors first. You go to your neighbors.”
But he also believes that even those who have lived here for generations can adapt to change, so long as they don’t feel it’s been imposed upon them.
“You could go around the county and find things that have changed in the past 20 years, things that people objected to, and now people take those things for granted,” he said. “Imagine if you had full cell coverage in the county for a few years and then it went away. People would be up in arms.
“I just think we need to be more proactive,” he added. “Getting caught on your heels is never a good thing. It’s not going to work if the attitude is ‘we’re just going to wait and see.’ The pressures from around the county are much greater.
“People have this folly that we’re in a bubble. Things are going to change. Everything changes. But the more people can feel we’re moving forward in a direction that’s going to be more economically stable for everybody, the more I think they’ll start to feel okay about it.
“I think we can develop in a positive way where we will be able to keep the county open. Keep it rural. Keep it looking beautiful. And at the same time, we’ll bolster our purses. I definitely think there’s a way to do that. I’m not thinking in terms of years. I’m thinking decades. The question is, where are we going to be 30 years from now?”
Five Myths About Rappahannock:
1. The county’s zoning requires each home outside the villages to have 25 acres of land.
It’s a common mistake people make when they talk about Rappahannock’s restrictive 25-acre residential zoning. The ordinance, approved in 1986, actually stipulates that a density of one house per 25 acres is required. So, on a 100-acre parcel, four houses can be built within an acre of each other.
2. Land in conservation easement can’t be farmed.
While there are restrictions on how the land is used, agriculture is often encouraged by conservation groups, such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), the Piedmont Environmental Council, and the Krebser Fund for Rappahannock County Conservation, as a way to maintain its natural state. “There is not an incompatibility between easements and working landscapes,” said Nick Lapham, owner of The Farm at Sunnyside, where land is in conservation easement. “My experience in working with the VOF is that they were very enthusiastic about seeing Sunnyside stay a working farm.
“People think an easement is a straightjacket for anyone trying to operate a business,” Lapham added. “But there is flexibility in the model. I think we need to destigmatize the discussion so it’s not a case of ‘You’re not in easement so you don’t care about conservation’ or ‘You are in easement so you’re an elitist who doesn’t care about working farms.’ They’re both wrong.”
3. Conservation easements and land-use tax deferments are behind the county’s revenue challenges.
While there’s a touch of truth to that thinking, it’s an overly simplistic explanation. Yes, land in conservation easement is assessed at lower levels, and yes, parcels receiving a land-use tax deferment can generate significantly less revenue than they would otherwise. But that’s what keeps most of the county open and undeveloped. And that kind of land use places the fewest demands for public services on the county, helping to keep those costs lower.
4. Many people with land-use tax deferments cheat on meeting the requirements.
There no doubt are some property owners who don’t play by the rules when it comes to qualifying for land-use tax deduction by not, for instance, meeting the required productivity or income levels. But speculation that this is widespread and systematic is overblown, according to a number of county officials and long-time county administrator John McCarthy. First, there’s the stiff penalty for noncompliance — a roll-back tax equal to the sum of the deferred tax for each of the five most recent years, plus 10 percent interest per year. Another reason, they say, is the number of anonymous tips called in by people reporting neighbors or nearby landowners suspected of not abiding by the land-use rules. “What we found is that if you enforce it against people, they will tell you about other people,” said McCarthy.
5. Rappahannock is anti-business.
As Jason Brady, president of Businesses of Rappahannock suggests, it comes down to how you define business. “We’re anti-growth, but that’s not the same as anti-business,” he said. “Are we anti-Walmart? Yes. Are we anti-McDonald’s? Yes.” But at the same time, Brady points out, Businesses of Rappahannock continues to grow, and now has just under 150 members. He is of the mind, however, that the local government shouldn’t play a big role in promoting businesses. “I’m very much, ‘This is business, and this is county.’ The county should take care of what the county does,” he said.
Sperryville entrepreneur Robert Archer provided the perspective of a relative newcomer. “I haven’t seen that Rappahannock is anti-business. I’ve seen people who want to do business here, but just haven’t approached it in the right way. The reality is that with a county of only 7,000 people, you’re not going to attract many businesses. It’s hard to make the numbers work.”
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.