Pastures candidates talk county politics
The Top Story by Chris Graham
Tracy Pyles is making a go at a fourth term on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors – but this Pastures District re-election bid might be his toughest to date.
West Augusta businessman Travis Smithdeal has made his presence known in the Augusta County Government Center already – leading an effort to get the county to review its ordinances related to the establishment of adult-themed retail stores to prevent the situation that has arisen in Staunton with the opening of a porn shop adjacent to a sprawling residential neighborhood from occurring in the county.
The Augusta Free Press interviewed the two candidates in preparation for their Pastures District forum at the County Government Center on Oct. 25.
We asked questions of each on the adult-store issue, the proposed Weyers Cave industrial megasite that was at the center of the county government’s attention last year, and the county’s 58-cent tax rate.
Issue – Regulation of Adult Stores
“I brought it up for obvious reasons that are, I think, shared by the vast majority of people in Augusta County and apparently the city of Staunton,” said Smithdeal, the Republican nominee.
“Pornography in our town and in our county has been proven time and time again in other localities to be harmful to the county, harmful to the communities of the towns where they move into. They obviously lower property values. They increase crime. They’re bad for children to see, bad for adults. I was reading a stat the other day from a psychologist who said that 77 percent of the people he counsels who are divorcing, pornography is an issue in their divorce. He didn’t say it was the primary issue for their separating, but it was an issue brought up by one of the spouses,” Smithdeal said.
“I don’t think it can be argued that pornography has any positive values for a community. That’s why I brought it up. I brought it up because Staunton was blindsided. Somebody had put in an application to open a pornography shop several years ago, according to Dickie Bell on the city council, and then they retracted the permit, so council did not really have to deal with the issue. But in hindsight, they should have – they should have seen it coming. They didn’t, and now they have their first adult video-bookstore in Staunton, and a lot of people aren’t happy about it,” Smithdeal said.
“I’d like to preempt another business like this from moving in by getting an ordinance on the books that makes it difficult for these type of shops to move in. Otherwise, it’s going to hit us like it did Staunton – and we’ll be reacting as opposed to being proactive,” Smithdeal said.
“It’s not something we hadn’t looked at in the past. We came to the conclusion that it tended to give more advertising to those folks in raising the issue and putting it in the public domain that we really didn’t have any issues for and any problems with,” said Pyles, the Democratic incumbent.
“Having said that, the fact that it’s now out there, it’s a big topic of conversation, it’s unseemly, and it sullies us all, I think – every time I run into somebody, we had a luncheon, people say, I didn’t know we had a porn problem in Augusta County, I say, Well, not that I know of. We don’t. But since that was one thing we were trying to avoid more than anything else, it’s appropriate to look at it, and let’s see what we can do,” Pyles said.
“One of the things that people are most concerned about to me is that we don’t spread the net too wide. You often have people react to something, and then they have unintended consequences. It’s sort of like when people get fired up about guns, and then they want to put in a lot of regulations. Well, they catch up some folks that maybe they shouldn’t have caught. You could expand this thing so that Victoria’s Secret and Blockbuster would have problems. That’s something we want to avoid,” Pyles said.
“I think having it under a police permit is more appropriate – and I think since we require fingerprinting to get a concealed-weapons license, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to have that, too. Do the background check. Those things are fine to do,” Pyles said.
“It may make us feel better that we’ve done something – but in the end, I’m not sure that we’ve accomplished a whole lot,” Pyles said.
Issue – The Megasite
Pyles didn’t name names, but he offered very-thinly-veiled criticism of Middle River Supervisor Kay Frye and Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells for bringing the due-diligence work that was done on the proposed megasite by the board to public light.
“I hope to have more ethical people on the board this next time,” Pyles said. “This thing didn’t have a fair chance in order for us to get all of our ducks in a row. We were doing our due diligence. People gave us a hard time for putting $400,000 into a study – but I think we would have been in greater error not to have done that, and not to look at it, and say, Just go with it.
“So you do those things, you take a look at them – but unfortunately, the two ladies on the board were determined that it would be killed, and it was killed before it even got started,” Pyles said. “So I think we need folks who understand that business takes a certain amount of confidentiality, and then when things are figured out, and if we can mitigate the problems or take care of them, then we’ll present it. And if there are problems we can’t get around, then we don’t have to worry people.”
Pyles feels the county board of supervisors owes it to county residents to explore these kinds of opportunities as they arise.
“I don’t know that every company is – and I wouldn’t roll out the red carpet like we did for this company, but to me, it’s the number-one company in the world,” he said, referring to the suitor in last year’s megasite discussions, Toyota. “And it’s just so disheartening that we would have folks who can’t see the value for everybody, who are more worried about their little corner of the world being invaded when that’s not what any evidence shows would happen. And to deny so many families the chance to work for a good wage, that’s just sad for me.
“But I will do it again. I will fight again – if it’s a company as good as the one we were looking at,” Pyles said.
Smithdeal, for his part, he is “not as familiar with the megasite as obviously the people on the board of supervisors – because a lot of it was done within the confines of the board and the corporation that was looking into this.”
“So I don’t know enough about it to say whether I would have absolutely wanted it or absolutely not wanted it. My whole issue with that is that I did not have the opportunity to find anything out about it, because it was done behind closed doors. And the taxpayers of Augusta County – there was a curtain there that we couldn’t get through to find out what was going on,” Smithdeal said.
“That’s my whole issue – is the openness of the issue, and the obligation, I think, of the elected officials to inform the people who put them there and the people they work for, to inform them on what’s going on in the county, especially when it comes to issues like jobs and land use, where the people of this county, it’s very dear to their hearts,” Smithdeal said.
“I am not anti-development or anti-bringing-business-in. I’m for that. Obviously a county needs jobs, a county needs a good tax base. I would tend to want to keep any megasite like this in the future close to the interstate – which I’m sure is where the company looking at our county would want to do also. That provides them with good logistics. We have a good rail system close by, we have 81/64. Plus it’s already been developed,” Smithdeal said.
“The Fishersville/Stuarts Draft/Waynesboro area is in the process of being developed – and if we’re going to have a megasite, that’s fine with me. But I think it needs to be kept more on the eastern side of the county. I want to concentrate on keeping the western part of the county, particularly the Pastures District, a place where farmers can feel secure in their land and their families’ future. I’d like to keep the western part green, if you will. And if we’re going to develop, we need to develop along the I-81/64 corridors there,” Smithdeal said.
Issue – County Finances
“Property values – they do seem to rise every year. A lot of that is based on things that aren’t that accurate, to tell you the truth. But we seem to have been doing a fairly decent job of keeping our tax rates low – and our services don’t seem to have been affected too terribly bad. I think we need some big road upgrades out my way, Pastures. I think the sheriff’s department needs more revenue. But that’s something that I would have to look at when I get elected,” Smithdeal said.
“I’m not averse to correlating a rise in property value with a minimal tax increase, but I would hope that we would be able to look at spending cuts first rather than raising taxes. But sometimes that’s unavoidable,” Smithdeal said.
“I think again that we’re going to have a big reassessment. I think that the homeowners just got caught before the crest of the numbers, and probably four years from now they’re not going to have that increase. You have some areas where things have gone down in value. I hope that’s not the case – because we don’t want our values to diminish. We want people to be able to invest in their homes, and those investments to grow,” Pyles said.
“I think that’s something that’s missed in a lot of this – is that we’re lucky that the values are going up. Some folks are making more money on the increased value of their homes than they’re making as a living. But having said that, it’s only a negative to our folks if we don’t lower the tax rate. And we didn’t do that last time – though I moved that we would try to get it to come down, and I’ll do it again. I hope that I’ve got three people this time to go with me to lower the tax rate. It should be lowered,” Pyles said.
“The thing we can do is not take on crazy spending, like the PDR program, and look for ways that we can do things better. We’ve talked about consolidating the 911 systems, and there’s a study that’s been authorized to go forward with that. I think there’s more to do – in terms of things like, and you did an article on this a year or so ago, on having a single service authority. I think it would be such a great thing for the builders to say, I only have to deal with one group,” Pyles said.
“We need to look at how to do things more efficiently – not anything that’s philosophical in nature and that people would really have a problem about giving it up. But where the localities can work together on these things, we should,” Pyles said.
“But the biggest thing is to continue to look hard at our spending. We spent up to what we had coming in three years ago, and we shouldn’t do that again,” Pyles said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The New Dominion.