Foothills Forum Special Reports

Community support for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foothills Forum provides research and reporting about Rappahannock County matters, in collaboration with the Rappahannock News. Here’s our work so far:

Dennis Brack

Foothills Forum Survey:
Life in the Jewel of Virginia


Part 1: Survey reveals what matters most to Rapp residents: Privacy, beauty, family farms – and internet and cell service

An unprecedented survey mailed to every household in Rappahannock County found that respondents treasure the beauty that surrounds them, the privacy they enjoy in one of Virginia’s least populated and unspoiled places, and the spirit of volunteerism that has neighbor helping neighbor.

But most who responded to the survey are open to some changes. They see a crying need for better cellphone and internet service, no longer frills but essentials that affect safety, children’s education and, increasingly, people’s livelihoods. As one resident put it, “We need to catch up to Third World countries.” Full story

Related stories
• Editorial: The Foothills survey Opinion: ‘The voice of the people’ Perspective: How much do we care?

Part 2: A rural life challenged: Unspoiled Rappahannock confronts spotty cellphones, aging population, fire and rescue services, taxes

Something went terribly awry on that autumn Saturday morning as two maintenance men cleared brush on Juba Mountain Road. The sharp blade on Richard Allen Brown’s trimmer hit something and slashed the back of his leg, severing an artery. His co-worker tried to fashion a tourniquet and then, because his cellphone had no reception, frantically ran a half-mile uphill to the nearest house to call for an ambulance from a land line.

The Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad arrived eight minutes after the call. Two other companies responded as well and a medevac helicopter was called, all too late for the 67-year-old Sperryville man, an avid hunter and fisherman whose family said he “just loved to make people laugh.” Full story

Part 3: Frozen in time? 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. Full story

Foothills Forum | Every Voice at the Table

Foothills Forum is tackling the need for more fact-based, in-depth coverage of the issues we care about in Rappahannock County. We’re a nonprofit, independent group promoting community engagement, research and solutions. We invite every voice to the table.

Why? Because a more informed, engaged community makes better choices and decisions for the long term.

We’ve surveyed the county, asking people what they think about our future. In the coming months we’ll continue to host forums and gather further research, publishing the results via an agreement with Rappahannock Media (Rappahannock News, Culpeper Times, the Piedmont Lifestyle magazines and the Piedmont Virginian and their online sites).

There’s room at the table for every voice.

More at

Rappahannock’s Digital Dilemma


Part 1: How topography, density and chance combined to limit local connection choices

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.

Five years ago, when Rappahannock County’s Board of Supervisors approved a plan from AT&T to build three new cellphone towers and add antennas to two other ones owned by Sprint, it seemed as if the county was about to take a step forward in shrinking its dead zone — the sections with little or no cell phone or internet broadband service.

But those towers never happened. Full story

Part 2: More smoke, less signal. In lieu of cell and broadband connectivity, students, visitors, responders and workers plug into some creative solutions

In Rappahannock County, there’s always a workaround.

It’s the sheriff’s deputies knowing where they need to drive if they have to make a cell phone call while on duty. Or it’s the kids without a broadband connection at home heading over to the parking lot outside the county library so they can use its Wi-Fi to do their homework. Or it’s B&B owners telling their guests to confirm any reservations, directions or last-minute details of their visits here before they enter the county. Full story

Related stories
Public forum: ‘To just plow through . . . would be a mistake’ • To be young, and offline, in Rappahannock • Cellphones and cancer? There’s no definitive answer

Part 3: Embrace change? No. Adapt to it? Possibly. A look at possible next steps — and some already being taken, here and elsewhere — toward improving rural connectivity

A little more than a year ago, close to 100 people showed up at Rappahannock County High School, hoping to get a glimpse of the county’s future.

They were there for an event billed as a “Broadband Forum,” and onstage was an impressive lineup of federal, state and county officials. One speaker after another expounded on how important a broadband connection to the internet had become, how it’s now integrated into farming and health care, business and education. Full story

Related story
• Editorial: So let’s find a unique solution

The Land, a Plan, a Future.


Part 1: As the county prepares to adopt minor changes to its Comprehensive Plan, major challenges remain to the delicate balance that keeps Rappahannock unique.

Sometime in the next few months, Rappahannock’s Planning Commission, then its Board of Supervisors, will sign off on the latest revisions to the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The revisions are expected to be relatively minor, just as they have been for most of the updates since the document was written almost 40 years ago.

That would seem to suggest that the plan and its vision are as sound as ever, that not all that much has changed in Rappahannock since the 1980s. That’s partly true. There’s still no franchise store or fast food place on Route 211, still no sprawling subdivisions fouling the Piedmont, still no stop light.

But no change? Hardly. Full story

Part 2: Questions (and pivots?) along the county’s road ahead. How much change in an era of shifting economic forces?

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. Full story

A Troubling Diagnosis


Part 1: In Rappahannock, health care headaches for an aging community

It’s a rainy summer afternoon, and about a dozen of the regulars at the Rappahannock Senior Center in Scrabble are gathered around a table for an after-lunch conversation. The subject is health care, but not the details of contentious legislation, nor comparisons of personal aches and pains and bodies gone wrong.

Many in the room have spent much, if not all, of their lives in Rappahannock. They understand why people love its open spaces. But they also now know something else about it.

It can be a hard place to grow old. Full story

Related story
Next generation doctor: Helping to give people a better life

Part 2: To the Rescue? As Rappahannock’s population gets older, so do the volunteers who handle its medical emergencies

J. B. Carter still remembers a particular middle-of-the-night conversation.

Carter, who’s been chief of the fire and rescue squad in Amissville for 25 years, had roused himself out of bed that night in response to an emergency call from Sperryville. He rushed to the station, and, with another crew member, jumped into an ambulance and raced down 211.

When they arrived at the caller’s home, he was asked, angrily, what had taken them so long.

Carter started to explain that he had been asleep, that he and the crew had had to drive in from Amissville.

“You’re getting paid!” the woman snapped.

“No, ma’am,” he responded, “I’m not getting paid to do this. I’m volunteer.”

“So, where are the paid people?”

“There are no paid people.” Full story

Part 3: Care tactics. The Rappahannock community takes on an uncertain future, where the health of most of its residents is more likely to get worse than better

It’s a short loop around the main shelf in the Rappahannock Food Pantry — probably fewer than 50 steps — but in that tiny trip, a lot of ground is covered.

It’s a simple exchange, but one that opens up possibilities. And, it’s built around the kind of connection at the heart of many of the volunteer operations that help boost the health and well-being of Rappahannock residents, a role that will become more critical as the county ages.

“So much of this,” said Forbes, “is about trust.” Full story

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No opioid deaths here yet Finding help: A guide to local service organizations Alternative medicine: An opportunity for patients to be seen and heard


Going Nowhere?


Part 1: Lack of transportation is a hard — and sometimes life-threatening — reality for many who live in Rappahannock. And that can spiral into social isolation.

Wendy Oien still remembers the call.

It came last summer, when Oien, working in the Call Center of the Foothills Area Mobility System (FAMS) in Culpeper, took a call from a woman in Amissville. The caller was tentative at first, convinced the conversation wouldn’t amount to much. She said a social worker had suggested she call, then added, “But I don’t really believe you’ll be able to help me.” Full story

Related story
Meet the drivers of ‘Going Nowhere’

Part 2: ‘One Ride at a Time.’ Like Rappahannock, rural communities around the country are wrestling with transportation challenges. Here’s how some are dealing with them

Let’s start with a cautionary tale.

As someone who grew up on a dairy farm in Nebraska, Valerie Lefler knew firsthand about the reality of getting around in rural communities, how if you didn’t have access to a vehicle or didn’t drive, you weren’t going very far.

That ultimately led her, in 2016, to launch a company called Liberty Mobility Now, which, she said, would use 21st century technology to address a persistent need. Some described it as the “rural Uber,” although Lefler would point out that that was only partly true. Full story

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What about driverless cars? • Country roadsGary Ford, wheelman


Work in Progress


Part 1: Rappahannock is facing an economic transition. But it has a long history of dealing with changes brought by forces beyond the county line.

Janet and Roy Alther still remember the summer day in 1994 when the management at the Aileen Inc. dress factory, the largest employer in Rappahannock County at the time, summoned its staff to the cafeteria to tell them they were closing shop. Full story

Part 2: Farming in Rappahannock is going through a transition. What challenges does the community face in holding on to its agricultural core?

You can see it’s a story James Jenkins likes to tell.

It was a dozen or so years ago, and he was back in the big shed at Jenkins Orchard near Woodville, where customers still show up year after year to pick bags of apples or peaches or cherries. A stranger walked up, and, after confirming that he was talking to Mr. Jenkins himself, looked him straight in the eye and announced, “I’m here today to buy this place.” Full story

Part 3:  As Rappahannock ages and farmers struggle, where does business — particularly tourism — fit into the economic mix?

Rappahannock County is the kind of place that makes dreams seem possible.

Bill Gadino knows this. It was almost 30 years ago that he bought a rolling patch of 15 acres between Washington and Sperryville, secluded behind the county’s elementary school, yet not far from the tourist thruway of Route 211.

Lately, the future seems less clear. Full story

The Struggle to Stay:  Some call it the Rappahannock Hustle, and the many who do it need no further description.

It’s the way to make ends meet by stitching various small jobs, formal and informal, into a livelihood. It helps prop up the local economy. But it also hews tightly to two challenges facing Rappahannock County’s younger population: stable, well-paid work and affordable housing. Full story

Part 4: Some farmers see agritourism as financial salvation. Others see it as a buzzword

When Bill Fletcher, whose family has been farming in Rappahannock for more than two and a half centuries, proposed turning his Thornton Hill Farm south of Sperryville into a busy events venue last year, the idea did not go over well. In truth, it had the effect of a primal scream at a star-gazing party.

Neighbors objected vociferously, arguing that Fletcher’s plan would result in traffic nightmares on Route 522, risk public safety due to sketchy cellphone service, and, in all likelihood, devalue the neighborhood’s quality of life. Full story


Rappahannock Snapshot


Special Report:  The Rappahannock News and Foothills Forum revisit our past reporting projects to see where the county stands on everything from broadband to health care to housing

This shiny new calendar of 2019 marks Foothills Forum’s fifth year of raising community support for reporting on Rappahannock County.

We start Year Five by revisiting … looking back … checking in on the status of six different research and reporting projects on the front-burner issues as identified by residents. Spot reporting by the Rappahannock News has updated some of these developments, but this presentation ties them into one package. Full story

Doing Good Together


Part 1: Volunteers have become an essential cog in how Rappahannock works. Can the machine keep running?.

It’s been said that Rappahannock runs on volunteers’ fumes.

There’s something to that. Starting with the more than 200 men and women on the rosters of the fire and rescue companies to the hundreds of others who tutor local students or stock shelves and unload trucks at the Food Pantry, volunteers have become an essential cog of the community. Full story

Part 2: On a Mission: As they adapt to the community’s changing demographics, local nonprofits wrestle with how much they should shift their focus

For a January night in Rappahannock, it was one festive beach party.

Revelers in Hawaiian shirts and pirate outfits weaved around the tables packed into the old gym of the Washington School House. Some stopped to sample freshly-shucked oysters or a shot of tequila. Others gathered around several tables in the back, waiting for their turn to put in their silent auction bids on a wide range of prizes, from expensive dinners to physical therapy sessions to tree service. Full story

Part 3: “A Community Thing”: In Rappahannock, the challenge of charity is finding ways to help others while avoiding cultural fault lines.

The white-haired man, a Food Pantry regular, is headed out the front door, a box of food in his arms, when Mimi Forbes calls out to him.

“Are you okay on wood for this weekend,” she asks. “They’re talking about another storm.”

“I don’t have room in the car,” he answers.

The exchange lasts barely a minute, but the simple act of charity reflects something bigger, a spirit of generosity that typifies what many would say is Rappahannock at its best. Full story

Video: Amissville’s Giving Tradition

One of Rappahannock’s longest-running, all-hands-on-deck volunteer traditions is the Amissville Christmas holiday gift basket project. The Amissville Community Foundation is the driving force, enabling dozens of volunteers, young and old, to purchase, assemble and distribute generous gift boxes to more than 100 deserving families.

This past Christmas, Foothills Forum commissioned Roger Piantadosi and Luke Christopher of Synergist Media to tag along and produce this video taking you behind the scenes. Take a look and see how this wonderful project is done.

Find out more about Foothills here

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