The question of the bike trail illustrated a crisis in our community. The Board of Supervisors voted to return funds to VDOT, putting an end to discussion of that particular project. However, what is left is the clear picture of divide among various groups within the county.
One possible outcome of this crisis is that we will become increasingly distrusting and disorganized, conflict will increase and continue. The alternate and hopeful outcome is that opposing groups will learn to see this as an opportunity to work to find ways of communicating and to learn more about each other, to find common goals and work together.
Among the speakers who opposed the trail, some were “Been Heres” representing families who have lived in the county for many generations. They expressed anger about the process that generated the trail. This included Hodge Miller, Kim Estes Baader and Melanie Kopjanski, whose unforgettable “I feel like this bike trail was shoved down my throat” was representative of the depth of anger of many. A theme expressed repeatedly was frustration that so many essential services need attention in Rappahannock that a bike trail was frivolous. This included:
➤ The health department is an old building that serves so many
➤ Government buildings need repair
➤ We still need a community center for kids of all ages to hang around in after school and on weekends.
➤ Fire and Rescue squads always need support.
➤ Employment opportunities and affordable housing are needed.
On the other hand, the board had been presented with a petition from 165 people who supported the trail. Leaders of the trail effort presented financial data that they believed met the criteria needed to proceed and expressed a willingness to obtain additional information requested by speakers during the evening. Speakers identified benefits to the school and community Commit to be Fit program that reaches adults and children from every age and socioeconomic group. Others stressed the need for a safe alternative to riding on the roads
and the benefits to the trail as a school connection. The trail proponents repeatedly pointed out that the funds they have do not take away from any other program.
Both sides offer valid perceptions of this question. But does this issue represent a deeper question in our community? Does it illustrate the search for an answer of how to remain the same, how to keep the charm of Rappahannock and not stagnate from lack of growth . . . how to integrate the old with the new?
Listen to the context in which these opinions are voiced. Some of the old families clearly felt disregarded and disrespected by the process. Some of my “Been Here” friends have said that they believe that they — the “Come Heres” — want all of them (the Been Here’s) to move over the mountain into Luray and that it feels like it did when their ancestors were pushed out of the mountains to make a park for tourism.
This includes folks who feel their family values threatened because they can’t afford to buy land for their children to build a home near them someday. It includes hard working people who have a day job, clean homes, do yard work, provide home health care, etc. It includes people sitting on the Board of Supervisors who see their mission to preserve a way of life of a rural community. The Come Heres are often described as people who come here because they love it, and then want to change it.
The Come Heres, that includes me, fall in love with Rappahannock County. Many of us are weekenders who became full time residents as soon as we retired.
We begin to find friends and some open businesses, often tourism related. Ray and I operated a vacation rental home in Sperryville for 12 years. It was opposed by some who feared that those “city people” would come here for the weekend and disrupt our lives. That never happened, not even once.
Often newcomers put energy into supporting non-profits and the arts. For example, they support RAAC, Benevolent Fund, Food Bank, Headwaters, Scrabble Foundation, Rapp at Home and the Child Care and Learning Center. People bring their professional expertise, set up non-profits and help fund programs that benefit the community they love.
It is my belief that the anger expressed by so many people against this bike trail stems not only from the real, concrete issues identified by opponents, but also because it symbolizes some of the changes in the county: gentrification, income disparity, lack of employment and affordable housing, questions about future life style in the county. What do we want to stay the same? What do we want to change? What fears are raised as the county demographics evolve?
One dear woman of whom I am most fond said that she opposed the trail because of the children — her fear for their safety because the trail would bring in outsiders who might hurt them. Another woman that I know and respect was opposed to a vacation rental home near her house because of the fear of strangers coming into a home next to her back yard. We could answer those questions with logical explanations, but we would miss the point. What is relevant is that we all have our opinions and answers. What is important is that we learn to listen to each other and work together to find solutions.
I hope that the bike trail dilemma opens the door for discussion about building bridges. Can Rappahannock County become the model for using conflict to build a bridge to move toward understanding and building community?