Story by Chris Graham
Candidates for the six of the seven seats on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors that are up for election on Nov. 4 took part in a candidates forum held at Verona Elementary School Thursday night.
The forum, sponsored by the Augusta Community Partnership, focused on issues related to agriculture and land preservation – though the candidates were able to mix it up over topics as diverse as education, Interstate 81 improvements and the subject that dominated the closing-statement portion of the two-hour-plus forum.
Who loves Augusta County more?
“I’ve been all over the world, but no matter where I am, I always want to come back to the Shenandoah Valley,” said Larry Howdyshell, a Republican running unopposed for re-election to the North River seat on the board of supervisors.
“I love Augusta County. I love where I live in Churchville. I want to keep it clean and keep it a safe place to live,” said Don Michael, a Republican running for the Pastures District seat on the board.
“Everything I am, I owe to Augusta County,” said Tracy Pyles, the Democratic incumbent running for re-election in the Pastures, putting a twist on the theme.
“I want to do what I can to take care of the people here and help them realize their dreams,” Pyles said.
The (substantive) issues
Forum attendees could start to get a glimpse of the differences between the candidates on the issues facing county voters and county leaders this fall.
Riverheads Republican nominee Tom Nelson emphasized the empowerment of community groups and the establishment of a county historical commission as two main planks to his campaign platform.
A former resident of Northern Virginia, Nelson served on a historical commission that worked with NOVA leaders to preserve the Manassas Civil War battlefield.
“I know the value of historic preservation. I’ve worked hard at it, and I know people here who want to work just as hard to see us preserve the history that we have,” Nelson said.
Riverheads independent candidate Nancy Sorrells said she wants to see county leaders put more attention on following the county comprehensive plan as a guide for their planning decisions.
“We need to listen to the will of the people and follow this plan that they helped set out for Augusta County,” Sorrells said. “We can either do that, or we can watch what we have seen with the cookie-cutter approach to development continue and spiral out of control, and what is going to happen there is we’re going to see our taxes increase to support providing services to our growing community.”
Tom Sensabaugh, a former supervisor who is also running as an independent in the Riverheads race, said the current comprehensive plan – which was adoped in 1994 – is not the answer.
“When I stepped down from the board in 1991, I told people that with the ordinances that we had in place then, we were going to become a bedroom community for Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. And look at what’s happening,” Sensabaugh said, pointing to development in the Stuarts Draft and Weyers Cave areas as examples.
Wayne Supervisor Tom Sikes, a Republican, debated a point brought up by other candidates about a figure from the county community-development office regarding how 57 percent of new lots created in the county in 2002 were carved out of areas zoned for agriculture and open space.
“That figure is misleading, because when you look at the figures for building permits in 2002, you see that 72 percent of them were for properties in urban-service and growth areas,” Sikes said. “Our comprehensive plan calls for 80 percent of building permits to be in those areas, so we have some room to improve, obviously. But being off by 8 percent isn’t all that bad in a county our size.”
Challenger Wendell Coleman – an independent – said he would like to see improvements in managing growth and would also like to see county leaders engage in more long-term-focused strategic planning to “make sure that we’re meeting the goals and objectives that we have set for ourselves.”
“And I want to engage the public in this process. I want to hear from you to know what you think on the issues that we have to deal with. All these decisions affect you, so your input is important to helping me see where we need to go,” Coleman said.
Independent Larry Weeks said he takes a different approach.
“When I had my children, that made me see things from a more long-range perspective, I guess,” Weeks said. “I realize that I want to try to improve the world that they’re going to live in.
“But I see myself as an activist, not a politician. So I’m going to stand by what I believe on issues, and if you like what I have to say, I hope you vote for me. And if not, you can vote for one of my opponents,” Weeks said.