County blazes new trails (like it or not)

On-farm events permit also approved at marathon session

After a nearly five-hour public hearing before an alternately eloquent and indignant crowd of more than 100 — large enough to force the board to move the meeting from an over-capacity courthouse to the high school auditorium just after the meeting started at 7 — the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors agreed, in the wee hours of Tuesday, to build the county’s first bike trail.

The Board of Supervisors evening session began as usual at the county courthouse, above, before moving west on
Route 211, to the high school auditorium, below, due to the size of the crowd. Luke Christopher | Rappahannock News
Luke Christopher | Rappahannock News

It was either, depending on your point of view, the end of the world as Rappahannock County has known it, or the beginning of a new era.

Only a public hearing on Sprint’s cell tower plans for the county a decade and a half ago — the first time in recent memory that the world ended, or a new era began, in Rappahannock — went on longer than Monday’s session, which wrapped up at 12:30 a.m.

Actually not a “bike trail,” the project is a 1.2-mile multi-use trail, and what the supervisors voted 4-1 to do (with Ron Frazier dissenting, after his last-minute motion to table the matter died for lack of a second) was apply for a grant — only available to governmental entities — on behalf of RappTrails.

RappTrails is the ad-hoc group that wants to build the trail — originally envisioned as a six-mile trail along U.S. 211 between Washington and Sperryville, and since scaled down to the trail that would double as an emergency egress route from the schools. The group has already privately raised more than the funds needed to match the amount required by the Virginia Department of Transportation grant, according to RappTrails founder Jane Whitfield, including $150,000 from the PATH Foundation.

The size and volume of the crowd Monday night was partly due to the board’s consideration, for the first half of the marathon, of a hotly contested application for a special-exception permit by a property owner to host public events on her family’s 111-acre Alnell Farm, off Jericho Road north of Flint Hill.

Halfway through Monday night’s meeting, after more than an hour and half of public comment for and against, the board unanimously approved the permit — good for one year only before it’s reviewed again — to allow farm owner Susan Kummli to host four events a year for no more than 200 people (with a list of conditions approved by planners and the supervisors in July and August).

Oddly, however, hardly anyone left the auditorium after that decision — or not so oddly, since those who came to oppose to both actions, in particular, told the board they’d be going against the grain of the county’s persistent, centuries-old rural and agricultural nature.

“Moving here means adjusting to a different way of life,” said Mike Cioffi, who rose to read from a letter he wrote to the Rappahannock News a decade ago about life in a rural area. “Notice that this statement says you adjust to our way of life. It doesn’t mean you change it. So many people leave cities and towns because they no longer can deal with growth, skateboard parks . . . bike paths . . . traffic lights, inconsiderate neighbors, high taxes and the like.

“They move to places like Rappahannock County to get away, and what do they do?” he said. “Instead of appreciating the place they get away to, they re-create the place they left in disgust.”

“I know you all have a tough decision to make,” Ron Maxwell of Flint Hill told the board, speaking of the trail. “I have dear friends on both sides of this issue . . . but . . . this project didn’t start because of a perceived need in the community. There was no spontaneous clamor from the citizens of the county. It started because of the desire to access federal grants available through VDOT! In other words, this is a classic case of social engineering — luring a community to doing what it would otherwise never do.

“Let’s be honest,” Maxwell said. “This project is a frivolous luxury that the citizens of this county simply cannot afford.”

“It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said Sperryville farmer W. T. Wayland, visibly angry as he approached the podium. “And if it goes on to Sperryville, it’ll go right on the front of my farm and ruin it, the property values . . . I oppose it completely!

“Where are you all from?” he said, turning to one of the seated trail supporters who’d spoken earlier. “If you don’t like it here, then get the hell out of the county.”

Both Christine Smith of Sperryville, and Al Henry, a longtime Hampton district resident and planning commission member, pointed out that the plans for a trail through a dense wooded area seemed “odd,” and not likely to attract either tourists or unaccompanied children. Henry also noted that the plans, now apparently on hold, for a path along U.S. 211, also seemed “misguided.”

“No one is going to come here to bicycle, and then want to listen to all that traffic noise,” said Henry.

Several of the trail opponents also pointed at the county’s sponsorship a decade ago of the Rappahannock County School Sports Association’s purchase of lights for the high school playing fields — a loan which, contrary to the promises RCSSA members had made in exchange for the county’s signature on a note, the county wound up having to pay off itself in 2012. Others worried about the cost of the trail’s ongoing maintenance and liability insurance.

Whitfield, an Amissville resident with much experience in fundraising and grant-seeking, pointed out that the group had already raised significantly more than the estimated $178,000 needed for a 20-percent match required for the VDOT grant — for a project likely to cost just under $1 million. She also told the board that maintenance costs could be built into the grant funding, and that the group had already reached an agreement with the Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Planning Commission to act as grant managers (another potential continuing expense). Liability insurance would be covered under the county’s existing policy, she said.

“You keep saying ‘we,” Frazier to Whitfield toward the end of the hearing, attempting to highlight that it was the county’s responsibility, fiscal and otherwise, that the project sought, after Whitfield had made a brief, Powerpoint-free presentation (because the projection equipment was back at the courthouse). “You mean us, the county government.”

“Well, I was thinking of all of us as collaborators,” Whitfield said.

In all, over the two-hour hearing, seven people who opposed the trail spoke at the podium. In support of the project, there were 14 speakers, who enthusiasically pointed out the benefits to school-age children, seniors and cyclists alike.

“Barring any unforseen disaster, the taxpayer is basically going to get a free ride here,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish. “I feel comfortable making a motion that we adopt this resolution . . . It’s not like we are completely obligating ourselves to this. If we do get this [grant], we can change our minds before signing the contract next June 1.”

Frazier interrupted Parrish’s motion and Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek’s second to approve the resolution with his own motion to table the item, while Whitfield repeated her caution that the deadline for the application was Nov. 1, “and we don’t have time to wait.” No one seconded Frazier’s motion, and the board voted. Most of those present applauded.

Alnell Farm events

Unlike the trail discussion, during which more than a few supporters of the project used the word “no-brainer,” the comments on the Alnell Farm permit seemed to focus less on the brain and more on the soul of Rappahannock County.

Bob Clements, whose 130-acre farm adjoins the Kummli farm, said he and his family decided in 1999 to leave Loudoun County because of encroaching development and found Rappahannock’s comprehensive plan, meant to preserve the county’s open land and agriculture, compatible with his cow-calf operation and his and his wife’s appreciation of a rural agricultural setting.

“This is not a foxhunt issue or a personal issue against the Kummlis,” said Clements. “It’s an issue about the future use of land zoned for agriculture. I believe Mrs. Kummli has no intention to harm anyone, but if approved, this would be the first commercial-use exception in the Wakefield agricultural district under zoning ordinance section for recreation and amusement. If approved it would set a precedent for other farms to request this exception.”

“I found it to be really shocking that there are people who foxhunt in the area who are opposed to Ms. Kummli’s application,” said Lynn Sullivan of Piedmont district, a self-described “former foxhunter.”

“The fox hunt clubs have three events, each week, and they ride up and down the road, with their trailers and with hunt breakfasts. If she is required to have a special-exception permit for her four events a year, maybe the foxhunting clubs should be required to do the same thing.”

“I’m actually a farmer, and a friend of Mrs. Kummli,” said Wade Louthian, of Jefferson County, West Virginia. “I’m on the planning commission in Jefferson County and I’ve seen a lot, over time. And I’m trying to keep farming alive in my county, keep some open land. And I implore you, not only for Mrs. Kummli and her daughter but for all the farms — if you want to keep open land, keep it beautiful, we have to diversify . . . because we’re not going to keep farming the same way we farmed that made it successful.

“If we can’t make it farming, well hey — the land’s going to get sold off, and usually it’s to a speculator, exactly what we don’t want to happen,” said Louthian, who noted that a anti-growth county commission in Jefferson County about eight years ago “shut the door” to development, and that in subsequent court challenges, “we lost every case. And it really had an adverse effect. When we were trying to shut the door, it really hurt and we kinda lost control for a while.

“As we say back home,” he said, referring to citizens who oppose various community issues, “the majority of the mouth is from the minority of the people. I don’t like to be rude, but it’s true. I think I’ll sit down now before I get run out.”

In the board’s discussion before the vote, Frazier said he was inclined to side with the opponents, who worried that inviting visitors unfamiliar with narrow unpaved Windsor Farm Lane, from which Alnell Farm is accessed, or the connections to North Poes Road, Jericho Road and U.S. 522 itself, would make for a safety concerns.

“I think everybody in this community agrees that we should do everything we can to preserve our open spaces,” said Hampton supervisor John Lesinski. “I think we agree the best way to do that is farming, but farming is getting more and more difficult, and I hear all the time that our farms are dwindling in number.”

Lesinski noted that several comments on “event creep” — more and more events held on what were agricultural properties — concerned him, and admitted that the county did not do a good enough job at enforcing permit conditions (or catching those who hold events but don’t apply for permits), but “I come down to being very open to business opportunity in this county. I think we have to promote the industry that complies with the comprehensive plan. And . . . events are something now in our local economy that we should be encouraging, as long as they’re reasonable and we put proper restrictions on them.”

“We have to figure out sooner or later where we want to go as a county,” said Parrish. “These events can possibly keep a farm together, which keeps the land open, but it is true that when you add up what the costs are to having these events, and what the income to the county is, it’s probably a loser, in general — but that doesn’t factor in the exposure . . . the people who come here and fall in love with Rappahannock, and who then come back.

“I predict there would be one or two weddings [at the Kummli property], and maybe one or two smaller indoor events,” Parrish said. “Being as she’s agreed to try this for just for one year, I don’t see a whole lot of gamble on this. I mean, if she needs money, Ms. Kummli could cut off some building lots and sell houses, that would be even worse for the neighbors. And also she could plant some grapes — and these wineries, they’re exempt from our oversight, they can do whatever the hell they want to do.”

“I’ve been toiling over this for the past two or three months,” said board chair Roger Welch of Wakefield district, the last board member to speak. “What I see here is: Good neighbors make good living. People say this is not a case of Not In My Backyard, but I think maybe it is. I talked to a lot of people about this, and . . . the further they lived from the site, the more likely they were apt to approve of this.

“I heard about the roads, and rode them from one end to another,” Welch said. “There were areas of washboarding — but here in the country, that’s not washboarding. In the country, that’s speed bumps. The road was in better condition than I’d ever seen it.

“She’s asking for four events a year, and everybody says well, then there will be eight and then 20 events — but that’s only if we let that happen. I’ve got friends on both sides of this issue . . .”

Welch made the motion to approve the permit, Lesinski seconded, and the board voted unanimously to approve it.

Patty Hardee and Luke Christopher also contributed to this report.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.