Like his colleague Chris Parrish, Piedmont District Supervisor Mike Biniek is seeking his third consecutive four-year term on the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors. And similar to his fellow incumbent, Biniek says “a number of people have asked me to stay in this position, so I have agreed to.”
A 24-year resident of the county, the environmentally conscious Biniek and his wife, Susan Hoffman, are founders of renowned Belle Meade School and Belle Meade Summer Camp along F.T. Valley Road. In addition, the couple runs a bed-and-breakfast at their property, which is also a working farm.
Biniek spoke of the family’s rural “entrepreneurial spirit,” as referred to earlier in this newspaper, when asked last week to comment on numerous issues of concern to Rappahannock residents, not the least being the county’s limited job opportunities.
“Our B&B is a wonderful venue half the year and on weekends,” Biniek replies, “and we have a wonderful summer day camp for 10 weeks. The farm — it doesn’t make a lot of money — but I hope to pay my property tax [this year] with the farm [profits]. And now we have the school.
“It’s a trade off to live out here,” the supervisor continues. “And I see it as a testing ground for many people. They come out here and it tests them emotionally and mentally to be able to stay here. And quite often they will leave. It’s probably why we have so many retired people. It’s a beautiful place and a beautiful community.”
As for bringing more jobs to a county that finds a majority of its citizens answering in a Foothills Forum survey that they want Rappahannock County’s character and landscape to remain virtually the same, Biniek admitted:
“I don’t even know where the jobs are anymore . . . I don’t even know if you need bricks and mortar for a job anymore. I do see people like my son in law . . . who opened his own business doing website designs. A former bus driver for Wakefield I know . . . now works in computers. At the same time, I hired a local guy to work on the farm. People are always asking him to come help on their place.
“So I would say to young people, if they don’t know what to do, consider [training to become] electricians, plumbers, even framer carpenters. You can’t outsource those [jobs] to China. Also EMTs, in the medical field — they pay well and are in fairly high demand in the [Piedmont] area. I think there are opportunities if you look hard enough. It’s probably easier to say that there aren’t jobs here. Maybe the jobs aren’t what people are willing to do,” Biniek says.
“But again, everything is changing. This used be a place of apple orchards. Well, it’s not anymore. Wineries are popping up. They need people to work these things! I’m actually impressed — we’ve got a distillery and two microbreweries right here in Sperryville. And the number of arts people here in the county is still very high.”
Which segues to the long-simmering broadband issue and lack of cell phone coverage, which arguably impacts the employment picture, as well as business vitality, safety and tourism.
“I’d like to see a stronger development of what I would call e-commuters, people working from home,” Biniek replies. “With a little bit better technology I think there’s a strong possibility [there for job improvement]. I think that would create a stronger community if people had access to professional jobs and were able to do 90 percent of the work from home.
“So I think with better broadband we can do this. And there is money from the state and maybe through the federal government for improving broadband, and that’s part of the study the [county] broadband committee is currently doing. Part of the process is to access some of these grant monies to improve the broadband.”
Biniek says a third term for him would come at a crucial time, as the county’s future arguably is being shaped more now than it has been in recent years.
“I think it’s important to have continued stability on the board, especially while we’re in the process of looking for a county administrator,” he says. “It’s important who we get to fill the administrator’s position.”
An interim administrator, Brenda Garton, currently fills the county’s top post following the resignation this past summer of Debbie Keyser, who spent only a year in the post. “That’s another reason I’m running. Maintain some stability.”
That said, the two opponents of both incumbent supervisors seeking reelection, including Biniek’s opponent Christine Smith, will tell you that board of supervisors itself is anything but stable.
“Some of the statements coming forward” from those criticizing county government “are kind of one-liners — they don’t follow through with what they’re referring to,” Biniek answers. “One-liners like, ‘You have a spending problem,’ but then not referring to what the problem is.
“I think it’s a political ploy by some of these people,” the supervisor continues. “Some of their approaches are rather disruptive, requesting FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] information on a broad sense. Even though they have a right to [such information], when you have a small government and you [submit] a big FOIA request you’ve taken everybody out of their day-to-day job to try to figure out that request. So it’s kind of weaponizing FOIA.
“Again, there’s a small minority that are heading this approach to change. They’re intelligent, they’re articulate, they’ve convinced other people that maybe they know what’s going on, that they have the answers. I think Christine Smith is part of that group. Many things we have done [as supervisors] are pretty low key, casual, maybe not as professional as Richmond or D.C.-run government.”
Other issues Biniek hopes to tackle should he win a third term surround:
- Fire and rescue: “How we maintain the volunteer rescue system when the stations are having a harder time recruiting young people to fill those volunteer places. And then to also provide the service so that there’s the balance of providing the service and keeping the cost reasonable to the public.”
- County buildings: “I think it’s important to maintain those [historic] buildings. But the county government might have to look at other ways to hold public meetings, although most of the time we’re not filled. One of the pleasures of being here and working with this county is if you need a building permit you don’t have to wait in line. I’ve waited in Fairfax four, five hours until I got up to the information window. So I think it’s a wonderful place to live and work.”
- Public schools: “I’m impressed with [new Superintendent Shannon Grimsley]. I think she’s very smart. She’s also very open to the public and the teachers, bringing them in to work on the same team as opposed to opposing sides. I’m looking forward to continued growth in our school system as far as with the quality of education. And in a small county like this you know our school system is probably one of the bigger vocal points of the community. We send our kids there. Sporting events there. There are plays and performances. All important to bring a sense of community and togetherness here.”
- Zoning: “One reason I’m running is to keep big changes from happening. I’d like to see much more farmland stay farmland. While we’ve had slow development — I know that all around me there’s been, probably in the 24 years I’ve been here, four or five houses that have been built fairly close by — but it hasn’t been where, ‘Oh my God, there’s development.’ . . . We have these wide open spaces, the ability to go out and enjoy it, whether it’s horseback riding, hiking up in the park, or hiking on your own property.”
- Night Skies: “It’s a gem, it’s a jewel that we have [in Rappahannock]. And there wasn’t any per se expenditure on our part other than low and slow growth. I think it’s very important to maintain that gem.”