Fears of taxpayer spending, pedophiles, bears and quicksand
Another marathon session of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors ended close to 11 p.m. Wednesday night, Sept. 5, with a 4-1 vote to table consideration of the Schools Connector Trail until organizers can deliver an irrevocable letter of credit or some other guarantee that taxpayer money will not be used to build the trail.
The proposed 1.2 mile path would link the county’s elementary and high schools and serve as the first section of a proposed 6 mile multi-use trail between the villages of Washington and Sperryville
The evening session of the meeting was moved to the Rappahannock County High School auditorium to accommodate the large crowd on hand. A majority spoke in opposition to the trail that would link the elementary and high schools out of concern that taxpayer dollars would ultimately have to be spent on the project, which is endorsed by the schools system.
Rappahannock Public Schools “wholeheartedly and enthusiastically” supports the trail project, Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said last month, particularly as a safe evacuation route sought by “previous school board members and superintendents.”
Hampton district Supervisor John Lesinski was the only supervisor to vote against the motion.
With its vote the BOS refused to sign the resolution approving the documents that would authorize the necessary agreements between the county, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the PATH Foundation, and the RappTrails Coalition, the founding organization led by Rappahannock County resident Jane Whitfield.
The vote capped nearly three hours of heated public comment from more than 50 county residents, some of them speaking more than once. Several times Chair Roger Welch had to call for order when audience members’ emotions spilled over into boos, jeers, applause and other interruptions.
Most of the comments were in opposition to the trail, citing reasons that county Administrator Garrey Curry, Whitfield, and others familiar with the project attempted to correct.
Curry opened the discussion with a brief history of the development of the School Connector Trail project. He also explained the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between RappTrails and the county, the other documents, and the funding. Later, several commenters on both sides of the issue praised his presentation.
Reading from the MOU, Curry specifically noted guarantees that no taxpayer funds would be used. He also described the “off ramps” for the county to withdraw from the project if financial goals were not met or cost overruns could not be covered by additional fundraising.
Of the estimated $1,022,339 cost of the schools project, 80 percent is covered by a VDOT grant. As required by the grant, RappTrails raised the remaining 20 percent ($206,468) and more from the PATH Foundation and private donors. As stated in the MOU, within days of the BOS authorizing the resolution, the $206K-plus would transfer into the county’s account to be drawn down during the initial phases of the project. Subsequent expenditures would be reimbursed by VDOT from the grant funds.
RappTrails has also raised over $30,000 to cover the maintenance of the trail for 15 years and has committed to raising an additional $20,000. That cash would also transfer to the county as soon as the BOS signs the resolution.
Even so, Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier and many county residents continued to claim that taxpayer funds would be used to build the connector trail.
Several speakers expressed fears of dangerous people, including pedophiles, roaming the trail. Jessica Jenkins of the Hampton district spoke of potential “creeps and weirdos” lurking along the path.
Henry Gorfein called that argument a “Trojan horse,” suggesting that if there is a fear of pedophiles, “then why not close down the county park and Stuart Field?”
Walt Longyear of Washington told the board that bears hang out around the Flatwood dump near where the trail would cross Rock Mills Road. He suggested that the BOS ask the game warden to study the bear presence in the area to potentially ward off attacks on bikers and other strollers.
Longyear also warned of a “mud sand area” along the proposed trail route that, according to lore, once sucked up a man, his wagon and team of horses.
After Rock Mills resident David Konick called the MOU a document “not worth this piece of paper,” and demanded the county get an irrevocable letter of credit, he addressed Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Chris Parrish directly.
“You sent out a flyer last year,” said Konick, referring to Parrish’s campaign for reelection in which Konick was an unsuccessful write-in candidate, “saying that honesty is the best policy. You wrote a letter to the RappNews and said ‘I’m not for [the trail] if any tax dollars are going to be used.’ Chris, do what you say for once in your life.”
Konick then spoke several sentences in Russian and was rewarded with thunderous applause.
In a phone call Monday, Parrish, who used to be a Russian translator, explained what Konick said.
“David repeated a little ditty a professor made up about me when I was 25 and studying in Leningrad,” Parrish said. “’Everything’s successful without courage or trying.’”
A couple of speakers defended the trail as an alternate evacuation route for the schools in case of emergency.
“One more reason for the trail,” said Steph Ridder, “was to have another exit for the schools other than Route 211 [in event of emergency]. RappTrails has saved the schools money.”
Ridder, from Wakefield district, is on the RappTrails organizing committee.
Others evoked a more positive vision of the future. Gorfein suggested looking at the trail as an asset to the county.
“Imagine a few years hence,” said Hampton resident Mike Mahoney, “the trail is complete and the county has not spent any money. It’s a million dollar enhancement.”
In an email Thursday to the Rappahannock News, Curry said: “I believe my core purpose as the County Administrator is to provide objective information to the Board of Supervisors in a transparent manner so they can make informed decisions on behalf of the citizens . . .
“I believe that facts informed the Board’s decision, not hyperbole and personal attack, and as such I ask that we collectively support an objective process as I continue forward working with the Rappahannock Trails Coalition to identify changes to the agreement with the County that provide protection against a scenario in which project costs could burden our locally collected tax revenue.”
In a separate email, Whitfield said on Thursday: “To date, in partnership with the schools and the county, RappTrails has raised nearly $1.1 million for the Schools Connector Trail. This is a terrific accomplishment, and shows the potential that Rappahannock County has for leveraging outside funds for projects that benefit our community.
“At [Wednesday’s] meeting,” she continued, “many people spoke passionately on both sides of the issue. It is clear that there is still work to be done and that some members of the community want more detailed information. In the end, the Supervisors asked RappTrails to consider providing even more financial backing, over and above the $1.1 million we have already raised. We will consider our best course of action over the coming weeks.”
An unedited video of the supervisors 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. sessions on Wednesday, September 5 can be found online at rappnews.com/video, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/RappNewsPlus. The meeting agenda and related documents are online at boarddocs.com/va/corva/Board.nsf/Public.