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The monster that ate Augusta County

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Scotland has Nessie, the Pacific Northwest has the Sasquatch, and Augusta County has its own monster – NIMBY.

“There’s this notion that it was OK for me to move in – now I want to lock the door behind me. I don’t want anybody else to move in and enjoy why I came here,” said Wendell Coleman, the chairman of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, which has been at the center of a firestorm that ignited when it became public knowledge that the county had commissioned a six-figure study of the potential for a Weyers Cave location to be developed as an industrial megasite.

A loosely organized citizens’ group has led the fight to get the board of supervisors to release details of the study – which is reportedly linked to the interest of Toyota in building an automobile-manufacturing plant in Western Virginia.

Coleman is among those who view the group’s aims as being in line with those that have been associated with the Not In My Back Yard syndrome seen in other localities in the state and across the country where development issues have been made into major controversies.

“I’m reminded of the fact that there was a lady who wrote something in the paper recently, and in the first paragraph of the article, she said she’d been here one week, and she had something to say about Augusta County,” Coleman said.

“She wants it to stay rural, she wants the rolling hills, she wants all of that. Well, we want all of that, too – but you’ve somehow got to constantly work toward finding where that balance is,” Coleman told The Augusta Free Press.

Betty Jo Hamilton, the Middlebrook farmer who has been one of the more vocal critics of the county’s apparent behind-the-scenes flirtations with Toyota, thinks the NIMBY label is being unfairly applied to her and her cohorts.

“If it were the case that we didn’t have a comprehensive plan on record – a state-mandated comprehensive plan – that says that we want to work to attract small- to moderate-sized businesses employing several hundred employees, that would be one thing. But this dates back to 1994. This isn’t all of the sudden people saying, Oh, we don’t want that coming in here. This is a decision that has been made broadly by the citizens of Augusta County,” Hamilton told the AFP.

And county residents still want their leaders to work in that direction in terms of their economic-development efforts, Hamilton said.

“This is what the people who came to the comprehensive-plan meetings in January said – and there were 800 people at those meetings. I went to two of those meetings – and the people there were very adamant about preserving the quality of life, preserving the rural character of this area,” Hamilton said.

“That may be Not In My Back Yard, but it also may be, We like living here, we know that we don’t have everything that you could have in a big metropolitan place, but we don’t necessarily want those things. We want some of these other things – we want a peaceful existence, we want low crime, we want to be able to stretch our arms a little bit and feel like we’re breathing some fresh air when we walk out the door and not feel like we have somebody right on top of us,” Hamilton said.

Riverheads Supervisor Nancy Sorrells also thinks the NIMBY label is not appropriate in this instance.

“Unless NIMBY means that you don’t want a big monster to come in and destroy your community, I guess anybody would be a NIMBY in that case,” said Sorrells, who has pushed board members to approve the release of the megasite study.

“It’s not that we don’t industry – that we want to stay just the way we are and not change. I think these are people who want us to comply with the comprehensive plan, which calls for small- to medium-sized industry,” Sorrells told the AFP.

“These are people who want to have appropriate kind of industry and a diversified economy – which we’ve done very well. I don’t see any reason to stray from that, and I don’t think they see any reason to stray from that,” Sorrells said.

“This is not in any way that I’ve seen an anti-industry or anti-growth movement – it’s just, we’ve got a plan, let’s follow it. We’ve got an industrial park where we’ve tried to put forth that plan. Let’s unfold our plan and get to work on what we’ve already said that we want,” Sorrells said.

Weyers Cave Republican Del. Steve Landes can speak better than anybody to the backyard nature of the megasite issue. Landes has been outspoken in his opposition to the plans – and he said the community outpouring on the matter is “a natural reaction for most people when they see something happening directly to their communities.”

“The thing where at least some of the folks who support the efforts to try to not see the megasite occur, folks like myself, they’re not opposed to industry or business, but it’s the scope, and it’s the appropriate types of businesses that you’d like to see, that don’t detract from existing businesses, that don’t overpower existing resources and infrastructure, and that are part of the pattern of smaller- to medium-sized organizations and businesses that have been recruited in,” Landes said.

“There are some people who would not like to see any industry or business come in – and I think that’s a legitimate philosophy, if that’s what you believe. But both sides probably agree that they don’t want to see this occur in their backyard – that’s normal. Nobody wants to see something change their area completely around,” Landes told the AFP.

Andrew Clem, an Augusta County-based blogger who has publicly criticized the board of supervisors for moving forward with the megasite plans, concedes that there “probably some element of NIMBY sentiment at play here.”

“The way to keep NIMBY sentiment in check is to make sure that public forums are wide open, with a variety of civic activists involved so that no particular interest groups prevail over the public interest. That should be the primary criteria in evaluating all these development proposals,” Clem told the AFP.
Patrick Slevin, a Tallahassee, Fla.,-based consultant and former municipal mayor in the Sunshine State, said Augusta County officials would be well advised to pay close attention to these points being raised by residents.

“What you have is a clash between economic development and progress and status-quo attitudes – basically, we have a certain charm in our community, and we don’t want to see that change,” Slevin told the AFP.

“The NIMBY issue is really in between – where you have progress against status quo, and how do you find the harmony between the two? It sounds to me that this is a classic NIMBY scenario that is played across the country every day in communities very much like Augusta County,” Slevin said.

“What you have is the backlash of a vocal minority opposing a project that they feel is going to change their perceptions of their community. Time and time again, groups of this nature have undermined multimillion-dollar projects – so my advice would be to not underestimate the ability of this group to change political latitudes,” Slevin said.

Slevin said he would also advise county leaders to come up with a community-outreach program “to allay those fears, address them and educate the community as to what are the merits of the project, and how is it going to beneficial to the community, and most importantly, how concerned citizens can become partners of the project as opposed to being adversaries.”

That is easier said than done in the current climate, to hear Coleman tell it.

“If people would work with us instead of just constantly bombarding us with the fact that we spent $400,000 and that we’re being secretive about this stuff, and we have a right to know and that sort of thing – it takes energy speaking to that as opposed to expending energy on something else,” Coleman said.

Hamilton, for one, would welcome the opportunity to put an end to the onslaught on the matter involving the release of the study to move on to the more substantive discussion about its contents.

“From their perspective, they certainly are giving leeway through the way this is handled – these industrial initiatives and business initiatives are handled in a private fashion to protect the private interests involved. The reason that’s done is to try to prevent gouging on land-market values – and you can understand that. Certainly we wouldn’t keep an industry out of the area that would be beneficial to us,” Hamilton said.

“The bad part to that is that it cuts the public out of the process. It doesn’t let us take part in it. It doesn’t give us any choice in the matter. It doesn’t give us the ability to know what the business is, to know what kind of growth the business might bring along with it. These things obviously affect our quality of life and are things we are concerned about,” Hamilton said.

“It’s not a good situation for the public to not be aware of what may be happening as far as this type of industrial initiative is concerned,” Hamilton said.

(Originally published 06-05-06)

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