Riverheads District candidates speak out

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Nancy Sorrells is running for her first re-election to the Riverheads District seat on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors in next month’s general elections.
The independent will face the challenge of a Republican Party nominee, farmer Michael Shull, on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Sorrells and Shull both talked this week with “The Augusta Free Press Show” about the issues of the day in Augusta County government and politics.

The megasite

Sorrells joined with Middle River Supervisor Kay Frye in leading the charge against a proposed industrial megasite in the Weyers Cave area that was the story of the year in Augusta County in 2006.

Her efforts there won her praise from some and criticism from others, including fellow board members who supported the idea of developing a megasite that reportedly had the interest of Toyota toward its development of a new auto-assembly plant in the Southeastern United States.

Sorrells pointed out that the megasite issue was actually two separate and distinct issues rolled into one.

“One is that we did receive an inquiry from a particular automobile manufacturer – and with that inquiry, you should always do due diligence, and that should be in closed session, to see if that’s a legitimate inquiry and where they’re going with it and where we’re going with it,” Sorrells said.

“But beyond that, and as a result of that inquiry, we received an inquiry from the state of Virginia, from the governor’s economic team, an unelected economic team, I might add, about whether or not we would be interested in pursuing a megasite, regardless of whether that particular business wanted to locate here or not. They seemed to think we were the appropriate place for a megasite – which is an industrial complex that has up to 2,000 acres, that will employ thousands of people, and would require huge infrastructure. That, to me, was the key – not whether or not we received something from a particular industry,” Sorrells said.

“I think when you’re going to make a drastic departure from the comp plan, early in the process you need to ask the people, is this the way they want to go in their economic development, and lay out the pros and cons and hear from them about it. And we didn’t ever really do that,” Sorrells said.

Shull said the megasite issue from last year “is already behind us” and that he doesn’t “know all of the inside information and everything that they had.”

“But for the future, we’d have to look at it and see what kind of impact it would have on the county, environmentally and everything, before we could make a decision on it,” Shull said.

“I’m open-minded and would like to look at anything that’s there available before it comes in, and see how it is going to impact the county,” Shull said.

“We need more industry here – we’ve got more people every year that’s coming out of schools that doesn’t have jobs, and we’ve got to look out for those people, too. And I don’t know that a big industry would be the best thing, but I’m not going to turn it down without looking at it first. And I want to be open-minded in that area,” Shull said.

   

Agriculture

Shull said he thinks the county is “doing a pretty good job” in the agriculture-development area.
“I am a farmer – I’ve been a lifetime farmer, so I know the issues that’s out here as far as farming,” Shull said.

Shull doesn’t seem to be supportive of efforts to put in place a purchase-of-development-rights program that would allow farmers to sell their future development rights to the county in exchange for cold, hard cash in the present.

“I don’t want to see our farmland built all up – but I also want to give farmers the freedom to make the choice for himself,” Shull said. “It’s his land. He’s worked it all of his life. And it ought to be his responsibility and his say-so what he wants to do with the land. I don’t think we should restrict him in any way.

“If he gets in trouble, and he needs to sell a lot off the corner, then that’s his privilege. But most farmers that’s true farmers out here, that’s the last thing they want to do is sell off their land. They’ve had it all their life and worked with it and everything – they don’t want to do that,” Shull said.

“As far as trying to help us out, we need to work at ways of increasing profits on the farm. If a farmer’s got good income off the farm, you wouldn’t have to worry about growth and development out here – because he’s not going to sell off something that he’s making money off of,” Shull said.
Sorrells, who has backed efforts related to the establishment of a PDR program in the county, and has made agriculture and open-space preservation a priority in her time on the board, feels that agriculture is “key” to defining the way of life in Augusta County.

“And it’s not about whether you have ag or you have industry – because I think you can have both together,” Sorrells said. “And I like to remind people that our number-one industry collectively in Augusta County is agriculture – but you have to have much more than agriculture. So I think the key is how you can find the balance between agricultural growth, between commercial and industrial growth, and between residential growth.

“It all boils down to a very strong comp plan – which is a vision for how we grow together and improve our quality of life – and then having a user-friendly set of ordinances that makes that vision work,” Sorrells said. “But if those two work together, you can have all three of those types of development – and it can be a very positive thing for your community. So it’s not an either-or situation. It’s finding the right balance and moving forward with what’s best for the area.”

     

Development in Riverheads

“Most of Riverheads is very rural – and in fact in the comp plan in the areas that are designated for only receiving 10 percent of the growth over the next 20 years in Augusta County,” Sorrells said.

“But the area all across the county that is outlined in red is the urban-service area – and that is the area that is designated to receive 80 percent of the growth in Augusta County in the next 20 years – and we do have around the high school and elementary school and at the interchange there, we do have an urban-service area, where you have water, where you have sewer, where you have the infrastructure in place to really develop correctly and to put your development without spreading it out over your rural areas. And we’ve got some developments that are happening around those schools right now, residential developments, that have been zoned residential since 1966 – so we’re not changing any farmland over to houses, and we’re trying to have walkable communities laid out in a compact pattern that’s going to preserve land,” Sorrells said.

“So you can have your rural areas, and you can have your areas that are designated for growth, and all those can be something that enhances our community,” Sorrells said.

“We have some of those areas in the comp plan that are in Riverheads there – and we do need to stick with the plan and develop where we have water and sewer,” Shull said on the issue of preserving the way of life in Riverheads.

“The more development you have, we have concerns with septic and water, these wells going into the ground, we’re worried about our water tables, especially now that it’s a dry time here,” Shull said.

“Water’s going to become a very important commodity here before long – and we need to be looking at things like that. These droughts are coming like hundred-year floods, and they happen every couple of years here. These droughts are coming, and we need to take care of our water and our sewer and everything – and so we need to keep our development in close to where we have water and sewer so that we can maintain the environment and keep our ground clean with the sewer,” Shull said.

   

Taxes and spending

Shull thinks the county “has done a very good job” of managing its finances.

As far as the current 58-cent property-tax rate is concerned, though, “I don’t know what the future holds. No one knows what the future holds. We don’t know how the economy’s going to be,” Shull said.

“This county is a business – and people don’t realize all of the people that we have working in this county with our sheriff’s department, our schoolteachers, all the administrators that’s down there at the government center, and elsewhere. And all of these people, they need to make a living, and we have got to look out for them. So it is something that needs to be looked at,” Shull said.

“We need to look at the future. We have got schools that’s going to need to be looked at. And we’ve got to start looking now at the future and appropriate funds and things that’s needed for that. So as of right now, yeah, we’d like to keep it right where it’s at, and if there’s any help that we can do for the taxpayers, we’d like to cut it as much as we can. But I think it’s being run pretty efficient as it is right now,” Shull said.

Sorrells differs from Shull on that part about the county running like a business.

“A lot of people say that the county is a big business, and it needs to be run like a business – and I agree with that to a certain extent. Certainly we have to use sound business principles and practices and be very, very wise with how we spend our dollars. But in a business, your bottom line is making a profit and expanding – and I don’t think anybody is in favor of expanding government,” Sorrells said.

“I think our job is not the bottom line, is not making a profit – it’s on how we can most wisely use your tax dollars and improve your quality of life, and how can we do that with sound fiscal management. So it’s a little bit different – we use sound business principles, but it’s not just like running a business,” Sorrells said.

“We’re starting the wheels going again for a state-mandated reassessment – and so almost certainly your taxes are going to go up again, even though the tax rate is going to hold at 58 cents, or may be lowered, depending on what the assessment is,” Sorrells said specifically on the tax rate.
“The key to keeping that 58-cent tax rate, or if we are ever going to consider lowering it, the key is having your growth in the right places,” Sorrells said. “Because if you don’t put the growth in the right places, you dilute that tax dollar – you don’t get the bang for your buck. And that is simply because, say if you take houses and scatter them in the very rural areas, those people are going to be, and rightfully so, demanding of services. If you get a certain number of people out there, they’re going to want a new fire department, they’re going to want more law enforcement, they’re going to want a park out there. And you’re never going to do that on a 58-cent tax rate. So the key is making sure, again, that we manage our growth properly, and grow, but grow in the right ways that is going to be fiscally responsible.”

  

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.



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