Orange County took its PowerPoint presentation of future economic vitality to the people last week in a dual public meeting Thursday evening at Lake of the Woods. Based on a similar presentation made to a joint meeting of the board of supervisors, planning commissioners and economic development authority members two months ago, the message sent to Route 3 residents and business owners was delivered not as “the” plan, but the plan for the plan of managing the corridor’s expected growth.
“We want to plan, rather than react,” said District 2 Supervisor Jim White, the presentation’s main architect. “It’s a call to action, that’s how I see it at the moment.”
The county scheduled two separate public meetings back to back—one with the homeowners associations of Lake of the Woods, Somerset Farm and Wilderness Shores and another co-sponsored by the Orange County Chamber of Commerce with eastern-end business owners. To White’s credit, the message was fairly similar to both groups—a definition of community and an invitation to create the future.
“The whole area makes up a community, the people, the businesses, the history, the appearance [of the landscape and buildings],” said White. “The purpose of this meeting is to encourage you to become involved in the planning process.”
Mirroring that first joint meeting, White told a grim story of Orange County’s economic state with a collection of statistics and demographic information. He borrowed the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s characterization of the county as “economically distressed.”
District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame served as White’s board of supervisors partner during the meetings, emphasizing how early the county was in its draft of the future.
“We don’t have anything in concrete yet, we don’t even have anything in mud,” said Frame. “There is no plan yet, we’re just telling you some of the issues we have to deal with.”
Frame uses the term “political infrastructure” in describing the board’s role in Route 3 planning, a phase meaning policy and zoning work could be the county government’s best tool in building the Route 3 it envisions.
“We can identify areas that would be good for certain types of industries and prezone them and coordinate with the landowners,” said Frame. “This is why we’re planning. If we don’t have a plan in place, if an applicant comes to us and wants to rezone a piece of land from agriculture to commercial, it could just be a 3-2 vote one way of the other.”
White said that among the best ways for the county to identify its priorities and take that first step toward a master plan would be to set potential small goals, such as reducing county out-commuting rates from 75 to 60 percent.
“Or we could double the amount of county industrial and commercial land from 1 percent to 2 percent,” said White. “Pretty outrageous isn’t it? The idea of 2 percent of our land zoned industrial or commercial.”
The differences in the two meetings likely come from what the two groups stand to lose and gain in any significant development of Route 3. The residents were the more skeptical of the two, with some saying they would be shopping at Walmart from day one while others felt disenfranchised on the county’s path to economic prosperity.
“Up until now, no one listened to what we had to say,” said Somerset Farm HOA president Walt Deering. “Walmart was a done deal and Signature Station, while not a done deal, passed anyway… It’s about time [the county sought our input] and we’re happy to participate.”
Bob Jones, also on the Somerset Farm HOA board hoped the county did not define economic development as added strip malls.
“We’ll take light and heavy industry wherever we can get it,” he said.
Where the citizen meeting featured more questions about how the process will work, the business meeting was mostly offers to help in the process.
“This has been an absolute eye-opener,” said Tony Wilson, Orange County Chamber of Commerce board member. “The longer we stay on the track we’re one, the harder it’s going to be to ever recover from it.”
Mansour Azimipour of A&K Development told the story of the early potential he saw in Route 3, of people questioning why he would want to pay commercial taxes on wooded and isolated property in the mid-1990s. As something of a reward to his investing foresight, or maybe just his patience, Walmart will open its doors on this property next week. But Azimipour matches his excitement for the attention being paid to Route 3 with questions for the county about its commitment to a master plan.
“I hope this is not just a wish list,” said Azimipour.
White said the next step had already been scheduled, one on one meetings among members of the board of supervisors, planning commission and EDA for July 8, followed by a larger joint retreat later in the month.