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Megasite, mega-impact on ’07 county elections?

Story by Chris Graham

Augusta County supervisors earlier this year pursued a possible development deal that if successful would have brought Toyota and 2,000 manufacturing jobs to the Shenandoah Valley.
The fact that the maneuvering related to the project was done largely behind the scenes rankled hundreds of county residents – who remain cognizant of the fact that there are elections coming up again in the county next year.

“Even though the megasite issue, for the time being, seems to have sort of fallen to the backburner, at least, I think it’s definitely something for us to consider when we get ready to cast our votes next year,” said Betty Jo Hamilton, a Middlebrook farmer who played a key role in bringing the matter involving the county’s exploration of a so-called megasite in Weyers Cave as a possible location for a Toyota assembly plant into the public domain.

Hamilton said her issue was not so much the county board of supervisors’ decision to court Toyota as it was the decision to do so for the most part outside of the public sphere.

“I think it’s clear that people want to be involved in what happens in Augusta County – especially as it involves their quality of life. A lot of people came out and voiced their opinions on the megasite and on the megaindustry issue – and if anything, that served to show what we need in the county. We have people who want to protect their quality of life – and we also have people who know that we need jobs. And we need to find what that balance is so that we can provide jobs and yet not bring in an industry that’s going to adversely affect our quality of life,” Hamilton said.

“I’m not hearing so much about what impact this will have on next year’s elections right at the present – but back at the time when the issue was pretty hot, there was a lot of talk about who would be the candidate the next time around, and where would the candidates come from? And if the people who are presently serving as supervisors were not willing to listen to the people, and were not willing to consider points of view that were presented, and then take those points of view into consideration, then where are the candidates who would be willing to listen and to do those things? So this is something that people have been talking about, certainly,” Hamilton told The Augusta Free Press.

Middle River Supervisor Kay Frye actively fought fellow board members over the decision against going public with more information on the megasite issue – and also made it clear from the early stages that she thought the proposed development would be bad for Weyers Cave, which is located in the heart of her magisterial district, and for the county as a whole.

Frye, who has yet to make a call regarding her intention to run for a possible fourth term on the board of supervisors next year, said she thinks it is clear that the megasite issue will weigh heavily on voters’ minds.

“I think some seats on the board will be in jeopardy – if the incumbents decide to run for re-election. I don’t think people will forget that easily,” Frye told the AFP.

Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells joined Frye in raising objections to the decision to keep information about the megasite out of the public domain – and also in questioning the wisdom of the effort to try to woo Toyota to Augusta County.

“This certainly has the potential to have an impact next year – not the megasite issue, per se, but the way we run our local government,” Sorrells said. “I think more than the megasite, what people were disturbed about was that things were being conducted in a way that at least had the look of being something that was contrary to the comp plan, and it wasn’t being done with their involvement.

“I think that’s what maybe the people will remember even beyond the megasite. I think the people want to be a part of their government. That’s the whole idea of having a representative form of government. And they weren’t allowed to be a part of this,” Sorrells said.

“I would not be surprised to see that – it just depends on how long people’s memories are. A lot of things are going to happen between now and next November – so there will be a lot of other issues that we can’t even foresee at this point. Whatever happens between now and then will also play a factor,” Sorrells told the AFP.

That is one reason why James Madison University political-science professor Bob Roberts, who has tracked the megasite issue closely in recent months, has his doubts as to the long-term impact the issue might have on county politics.

“Another is that what you’ve got to crystallize people to have impact on board of supervisors races since they run in districts – and it’s very difficult to crystallize people around one issue when you have different issues in different districts,” Roberts said.

“What kind of impact this can have ultimately really depends – it depends if there is a group that comes together to run a slate, an anti-growth slate. And that might be tough to do,” Roberts told the AFP.

Beverley Manor Supervisor Jim Bailey – a vocal supporter of the effort to explore the possible development of the proposed megasite – would be surprised if that anti-growth slate that Roberts talked about doesn’t actually materialize next year.

“Many of the articles in the local media, especially in the Leader, portrayed the majority of members of the board of supervisors as trying to be kind of paternalistic and disregarding what the citizens wanted. Because of the nature of the attention that was given there, I think that’s an issue that will certainly be brought up in any campaign next year,” Bailey said.

“A lot of people will think about this – and I think it will bring some flurries of activity in the next election cycle in November 2007,” Bailey said.

Bailey, for his part, would welcome the opportunity to debate the issues if it were to present itself in that way.

“If indeed people come forward, and we do have contested offices, it will be a good thing – and a lot of misinformation that has been vocalized by what I perceive to be a minority of the citizens will be corrected publicly, and the truth will be made known,” Bailey told the AFP.

Hamilton would welcome such a public debate as well.

“You don’t always look at a specific issue as being the issue that’s going to re-elect or not re-elect a candidate for an office. It’s their track record. That’s what people look at when they’re thinking about making their vote. And if they look at a specific issue, and they say that that candidate did that with that issue, then maybe that candidate might also do the same thing with other issues,” Hamilton said.

“People don’t like public officials to keep secrets from them – especially when they involve the taxpayers’ money. I would think that some of these things would be things that would be in people’s minds when they think about making their vote, and they think about the candidate that they want to consider for that office,” Hamilton said.

(Originally published 09-18-06)

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