Part 5 of a series
Mike Biniek brought his entrepreneurial spirit to Rappahannock County almost 23 years ago when he and his wife, Susan Hoffman, started the Belle Meade Summer Camp and later expanded the operation to include a bed and breakfast, farm, and the highly-regarded Belle Meade School.
Biniek, a member of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) who represents the Piedmont District, started visiting the area back in the 1980’s when he and his brothers bought a small cabin near Syria in Madison County.
“We hiked the trails in Shenandoah National Park, fished, and enjoyed everything the great outdoors had to offer,” he said.
One weekend, after returning with Susan from a visit to the cabin, they drove by an old farm on F.T. Valley Rd. and noticed it was for sale.
“We came back the next weekend and put in a sales contract, which was accepted.” he said.
It wasn’t long after that he left his job as a commercial newspaper distributor for the Washington Post, and Susan retired from teaching public school in Washington D.C.
After adding an addition to the main house, they opened the B&B, and soon started a day camp and eventually the school. The 138-acre property also supports a sustainable farm with free-range cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys as well as bountiful organic gardens and horses.
Biniek is finishing his second four-year term on the BOS and is running for a third term, so far unopposed. Asked why, he said, “I enjoy living in this county and how it has developed into a very rural, scenic place. It is stable and hasn’t had many substantial changes and I’d like to see it stay that way.”
He believes the county’s biggest assets are its natural beauty and its sense of community.
“I want to work to maintain the rural flavor and I think there is a wonderful development of a community feeling here, where you step right in and feel part of it,” Biniek said.
As for his approach to serving on the BOS, “I am not partisan as far as county government goes and I think that is the way it should be. I listen to both sides and try to understand different viewpoints,” he said.
Below are some of Biniek’s thoughts and feelings about several issues facing the county:
At its June 5th meeting, the BOS is expected to vote on the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget which Biniek supports.
“Our first draft of that budget had a shortfall of eight or nine hundred thousand dollars, it was huge,” he said. “Debbie Knick and Debbie Keyser (County Treasurer and County Administrator, respectively) did an excellent job scrubbing it and eliminating the shortfall, so there will be no tax increase this year. Although I have strong confidence in our revenue and spending projections, it is a very lean budget without a lot of buffer. If an unanticipated expense occurs, it’s possible we’d have to take a short-term loan. I would prefer not to do that, but it is not unusual as many counties do it, as has Rappahannock.”
Biniek cited potential expenses as security upgrades at the county’s public schools to address concerns stemming from the threat at the Rappahannock High School last month. He also cited a possible increase in social services for children.
“Sometimes operating funds can run up short, especially if the needs of the social services program increase. If a family gets into trouble, the state requires the county to make sure the children have a safe place to be. You never know from year to year how many children you will need to take care of,” he said.
As for expensive projects such as building repairs, the proposed radio tower and upgrades to the emergency radio system, Biniek sees the county spreading out those costs over time. “We’ll address those costs as the need arises,” he said.
“A big question is whether to spend money to improve the buildings we’ve got. A lot of those buildings on Gay Street are ‘Model-T’s’ — those buildings probably all had outhouses and gas lamps at one time. They are historic and likely worth preserving, but as we move into the future our needs will change. County employees are working in cramped conditions and things like plumbing, electrical and roof repairs all need to be evaluated,” he said. “Building something new is not always the solution. Sometimes old structures hold together better than something new.”
Some buildings, such as the former church on Gay Street leased by the RAAC Community Theatre, may offer a solution. Although RAAC currently leases that building on a month-to-month basis, Biniek would like to revisit that arrangement.
“That building needs repairs and upgrades, including a backdoor and a bathroom. I think the county should consider a long-term lease to RAAC, perhaps 20 years. They could make the needed upgrades and a long-term lease would allow them to recoup their costs,” he said. “The county would continue to bring in revenue from a lease, but not have to make the repairs.”
As an owner of a B&B, Biniek shared his thoughts on tourism in the county.
“It has its place,” he said. “But, I would hope it would not end up like other places that have become too touristy. So far, we have a good balance — not sacrificing our community lifestyle in pursuit of tourist dollars. The local population just can’t fill all the restaurants and buy all the art and antiques, so many of our businesses rely on tourism.”
Biniek supports the Artisan Trail, which he sees “as a potentially powerful tool” to promote tourism. Supported by the Artisans Center of Virginia, the program promotes local art galleries, restaurants, wineries, shops, B&Bs and special events in Rappahannock and other counties.
“Interested Trail members can sign up for monthly Second Saturday promotions and many in Rappahannock have done so,” he said. “With the ability to spread the word via social media and the internet, the Artisan Trail program can promote our local businesses that cater to tourists, especially during the quieter winter months.”
Biniek has seen some changes over the years, but says they are not that noticeable.
“Farming, which has contributed to our open spaces and rural character, is still the largest economic sector in the county generating something like $9 million in annual gross sales. With the sale of land for weekend homes increasing, more people are choosing not to farm, especially on the smaller 25 acres lots.”
But he believes farming those smaller lots can be profitable: “Look at Waterpenny Farm, they are making a go of it. I’d like to see more Waterpennys.”
And for non-farmers who reside in the county, he recognizes that living here can be a challenge.
“The economics of living out here is a huge issue, especially when it is hard to find jobs at a reasonable commuting distance and decent inexpensive housing is rare,” he said.
Beniek also believes the county’s night skies are an important part of its rural character.
“I would like to see more focus on a night sky initiative. Not only are our starry nights a treasure for the people who live here, they can be an attraction for tourists as well. I think we should move forward to try and address it in our comprehensive plan. We could also work with real estate agents to encourage new property owners and those building homes to consider protecting the night sky,” he said.
Over the past several months, Biniek has increasingly spoken out about some of the criticism leveled at the BOS.
“Whether it was prompted by John McCarthy’s retirement or the current political climate in Washington, D.C., there has been much more aggressive behavior by a small percentage of the community,” he said. “There are different ways to bring issues forward to achieve your goals. I think that a more civil approach is a better approach.”
Biniek wants to see consensus among his colleagues and the community at large. “Overall, I think all the board members and many of the more vocal critics agree that we have a beautiful place here, and would like to keep it that way,” he said.
“It’s just the way some people approach the issues. A supervisors’ meeting is not a place to make a spectacle of yourself and dishonor our county government. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate differences. It’s good to have someone who can look at things from a different angle, but let’s sit down and work them out in civil manner. I think some of the criticism is counterproductive to building a strong community, and I find it sad that we would risk tearing apart the wonderful sense of community we have here.
“All the supervisors are not lawyers. We relied on Peter Luke and now Art Goff to tell us what the state codes dictate. That’s the job of the county attorney. Sometimes one member presents their view of what the law says and the other members don’t necessarily agree. It is important to follow the guidelines, but if you get five lawyers in a room you are going to get five opinions as to precisely what the law means. I think we have run into this issue here.”
He supported the recent briefing on the Freedom of Information Act sponsored by the Rappahannock chapter of Friends of Liberty. “We need an open process, we have the FOIA rules, and I think they are important,” he said.
Despite the recent political wrangling Biniek maintains a positive outlook.
“We have a dynamic community where people participate and create remarkable things,” he said. “Our art community, hospitality businesses, agriculture sector, volunteer organizations and excellent schools all bring people together to make this a wonderful place to live.”