Low Taxes or Big Egos?

(published in the Culpeper News, 29 June 2000)

What motivates every single county supervisor and town council member in Culpeper to advocate “growth” or “development”? Many people in Culpeper with whom I’ve spoken don’t favor this. They don’t vote or organize or write letters to the editor, but when you ask them they say they don’t favor this.

To our north are populations brimming over with regret and desperation and candidates running on anti-growth platforms. In Oakton a neighborhood has asked the Fairfax County supervisors to impose a special tax just on them in order to prevent a development. A group in Mclean made a similar request last year and was turned down. Officials in Middleburg are considering special tax districts to preserve farm land.

Northern Virginia used to look like Culpeper. Now it’s hideous. It has higher taxes, and people are pleading to be taxed more to save the token green space that remains. Meanwhile, Culpeper is doing everything it can to follow the course Northern Virginia did. What gives?

Our elected officials are planning behind closed doors to move court and other county operations out of town – which will wreck the town, distance the county government further from the town government, and eat up beautiful land with cheap government sprawl while further polluting a wonderful river. The tax-payers of Culpeper are paying for an “Economic Development Office” to promote growth. They’re paying for water and sewer and electricity and roads to farms that the county hopes to turn into industries.

As curious a question as why the county promotes growth is why the county promotes putting sewage sludge on farms. But the former may help answer the latter. County Planning Director John Egertson says that industry is more compatible with residences than agriculture is. Why? Because of sludge. But wouldn’t it be cheaper to stop allowing sludge than to outfit farms as industry construction sites? Wouldn’t banning sludge cost the county exactly nothing? And can’t we imagine some ways to help that group of farmers that really needs help that don’t involve putting them at risk of law suits resulting from the damage sludge does to creeks and ground water?

And what prolongs the popular pretense that a locality can bring in industry without bringing in residences? Not only do Culpeperites pay through the nose to attract businesses (the purpose of which, remember, is to reduce taxes). But they end up paying for services for the businesses’ employees who – needless to say – aren’t all found available in Culpeper.

And what proof does everyone have that growth is inevitable? How would we know while we’re falling over ourselves promoting it? And why bother to mention that it’s inevitable? If it’s desirable, that should be enough, right? Or are we going to achieve the much-discussed but rarely seen “smart growth”? Will we grow in a special way that does not involve endless road-construction, tax hikes and environmental destruction? I doubt it. There are empty buildings in the town of Culpeper, but the county is more concerned with putting new buildings on farm land. That’s expensive and unsmart.

My impression is that Culpeper suffers from a bad case of the usual small-town inferiority complex. It wants to be big in order to brag that it’s big. We want to be able to tell our friends that the famous Pella windows are made here, that the high school plays its sports in the biggest division, that Washington, D.C., television news shows mention the place.

What does being counted in Washington statistics have to do with lowering taxes? More importantly, what does it have to do with the quality of life in Culpeper – which is much much better than its loudest promoters believe it to be.

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