Change doesn't come easy in a county run by real-estate developers and good ol' boys who played softball with your daddy.
But in Chesterfield County, the jargon of slow-growth advocates and anti-sprawlers is beginning to catch on: New urbanism, walkable neighborhoods in "high-density" subdivisions complete with the real cherry on top open-air "lifestyle" shopping centers are all the rage south of the river.
It's the proverbial tip of the hat.
"The days of the strip shopping center sprawling out are over," Marleen Durfee declares to a half-dozen or so members of the Responsible Growth Alliance of Chesterfield County. They're meeting, ironically, in one of the newest strip shopping centers just off Powhite Parkway and Route 288. It's so new, an entire section of white concrete is still without tenants.
It's fitting, perhaps, that their regular meeting room at Dolce Vita, a suburban Italian restaurant complete with wine-bottle wallpaper trim, went to another group that showed up just before 7 p.m. So the alliance members are stuck in a cordoned-off dining area where it's difficult to hear with all the clinking glasses, ringing cell phones and the whir of tiny soccer players in cleats and kneepads.
They trudge on anyway. Tonight's featured speaker is Adele MacLean, coordinator of the Partnership for Smarter Growth in Richmond, who's giving her presentation on transportation sans PowerPoint because of the meeting-room mix-up.
"We have been very careless in the way we've created our community," she says, lecturing with the careful demeanor of a librarian. MacLean brings up all the typical issues an inefficient mass transit system, the lack of sidewalks and an overreliance on cars. She stresses the importance of pushing for more bicycle routes, but one member complains that even though she lives a block away from her son's school, he isn't allowed to ride his bike there. She appealed to school officials but was told that riding bikes, even a few hundred feet, was too dangerous.
The collective head-shaking begins.
"When we came and brought responsible growth to the county, they had no idea what we were talking about," says Durfee, referring to four years ago, when she founded the alliance with about 30 members. Today it counts more than 100 members, she says.
It's difficult to gauge just how successful the group has been, but others are starting to see a change in the county's political environment. Decades of unencumbered residential growth have knocked the tax base off-kilter. The county's manufacturing and commercial base, which generates more tax revenue, has long lagged the residential boom, and that means less money for public infrastructure such as schools and roads.
"The sophistication of the citizen knowledge is just amazing, and it's increasing substantially and it's showing up at county meetings," Chesterfield Supervisor Art Warren says. "Clearly, transportation is a very big issue in the county, as are overcrowding schools and the bigger issue of how fast we should grow and its impact on our water resources. There is sort of theme developing in the county in terms of slowing things down or improving the infrastructure."
For the first time, perhaps, the changing political winds could affect the county government significantly. Two of the five members of the board of supervisors aren't seeking re-election Republicans Dickie King and Renny Humphrey and longtime County Administrator Lane Ramsey is retiring later this year.
"I don't think there is any question that there is going to be a huge shift in the makeup of the board and the makeup of the administration, too," says Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Powhatan. "Lane Ramsey is one of those legacy figures that comes along once every decade or two, and they leave a tremendous mark on the county in terms of holding things together. With his leaving, it's going to present a unique opportunity for change."
Which direction, of course, is unknown: "I'm not sure exactly which way it's going, to be honest with you," Watkins says. "I think a lot of it is going to be determined by who gets elected to that board of supervisors in November."
As it tends to be in the county, even proponents of change have real-estate ties. Watkins and his family are behind the Watkins Centre retail and residential plan in the Midlothian Turnpike/Route 288 corridor. A mall is planned a "lifestyle" shopping center that would compete with Short Pump Town Center and Stony Point Fashion Park in addition to hundreds of residential homes and offices.
As with many new projects in the county, Watkins Centre comes with dense development and a new urbanism tag. The Watkins developers promise retail shops with apartments on the second floors, like the citified storefront feel of Stony Point.
"I've now started to see the development community talk about smart growth and incorporate smart-growth principles," Durfee says. "You're starting to see that they are now getting on board as well."
For her part, Durfee is trying to get on the board. She's running as an independent for the Matoaca District supervisor seat being vacated by Humphrey, likely an uphill battle considering the county's strong Republican ties.
Durfee recently handed the reins of the Responsible Growth Alliance to Mike Harton, the current president. He sees the smart-growth talk as a good sign, but admits there's a long road ahead.
Lately the focus of the alliance has been on the Upper Swift Creek plan recently forwarded to the Board of Supervisors by the Chesterfield Planning Commission which the commission admitted wasn't ready for submission even after four years of revision. The development plan covers the most populous part of the county, stretching from Brandermill to Woodlake, which Harton and Durfee say has grown so unwieldy that it's threatening the county's drinking water not to mention the strain it's put on the county's secondary roads.
Four years ago, the board of supervisors seemed to regularly brush off the persistent Durfee, whose fraying hair and intense glare seem to contradict her soft, monotonous voice. Durfee, a strong-willed "full-blooded Ukrainian," says the board eventually realized she wasn't going anywhere and started listening.
And she has an army of followers, such as Harton. He can't help himself when the talk turns to the Swift Creek plan, which he says is being pushed ahead without considering the full impact of development in that area.
For example, the development is so close to the water supply that it surpasses the county's self-imposed phosphorus runoff limit, and more houses more than 29,000 additional housing units are planned for the Swift Creek area.
"I'd summarize the current leadership by saying they've got myopia," Harton says. "They just don't seem able to see beyond their noses." S