In Chesterfield County, even the debates over managed growth are hitched to trailers. On a recent Thursday night, candidates for the Bermuda District seat on the Board of Supervisors found themselves in Thomas Dale High School's stately auditorium. Inlays shaped like Doric pillars lined the walls. The big problem, however, was just outside.
Like so many county schools, the growing student population has outpaced the building's capacity, so a herd of 13 trailers was brought in to complement the central brick complex -- a diagram of the county's struggle to match services with the growing demand from new residents.
"We're at a crossroads in Chesterfield County and have a real chance to change," Rosemarie "Ree" Hart, the Democratic candidate, tells the audience. The election is about land use, schools and roads, she says, "but basically this election is about quality of life. We can continue to elect people who continue to do the same thing in the same way, and you know what? We're going to get the same results."
With overcrowded schools, clogged roads and strained utilities, most of the candidates agree that the county's massive residential growth needs to be reined in. But the election itself is already replicating a familiar pattern: Candidates are taking in loads of money from real estate developers.
"Developers have been running the show," says Bob Olsen, a Chesterfield resident and former chairman of the zoning appeals board. Since August he's tracked campaign donations to Chesterfield Board of Supervisors candidates on his Web site www.chesterfieldforum.org.
"I'm not anti-development, but all these developers are putting money into these campaigns, and a lot are trying to slide it under the table," Olsen says. "It's corrupting the system, and we don't have candidates strong enough to stand up and say no."
As in many suburban counties, the real estate community plays a major role in political donations. In Chesterfield, however, the influx of new housing and residents has been explosive. In the last decade from Jan. 1, 1997, to Jan. 1, 2007 Chesterfield's population has swelled from 248,000 to 306,000, a 23 percent increase.
Although the growth rate has dropped slightly over the last three years, citizens are focusing on strained public services. With two open seats on the Board of Supervisors, a new administrator replacing long-time administrator Lane Ramsey and magisterial redistricting right around the corner in 2010, this year's Nov. 6 election has taken on added significance.
The candidates for the board largely agree that the best way to get students out of the trailers and the cars out of traffic, and the police and fire stations built is to start "managing growth" better.
That's a flexible term. It's been variously used to mean restricting the number of homes built, requiring more dense development or enticing new businesses into the county to help offset the tax burden. The idea is to get development to pay for itself and to increase the commercial business tax base. But with so many dollars from real estate developers financing the campaigns, how much change is possible?
Take Don Sowder. He won the Midlothian seat on the Board of Supervisors in a special election last year to replace Ed Barber, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his teenage stepdaughter. Including last year's election, Sowder has received $107,171 in campaign donations, with $42,269 about 40 percent coming from developers and other donors with real estate interests.
Olsen says Sowder's collection of donors is particularly noteworthy this time around. On June 25, he took a $1,000 donation from Emerson Companies LLC, a developer in Chester, and $2,000 from developer Doug Sowers.. Two days later Sowder cast favorable votes on zoning cases for both donors.
"I don't base my decisions based on who contributes to me," Sowder says, noting that he files his campaign contributions electronically, making it easier for the public to review.
Olsen says further disclosure is in order.
"While technically this is not a violation of state law, ethically it does not pass the smell test," Olsen says. "For too long supervisors have been taking money from developers and not apprising the public of their relationships. Ethically, I believe it's not responsible government."
"I have absolutely nothing to hide in terms of campaign contributions," Sowder says. "I wish that campaign contributions were not even necessary. Unfortunately, the way we operate today, unless you're independently wealthy, that's a fact of life."
Mark Tubbs can sympathize with the situation. In the 2004 election, he lost to incumbent Supervisor Art Warren in Clover Hill. In 2006, he wanted to run for Barber's open seat and bought a new house in what he thought was the Midlothian district. When he went to change his voter registration, he found out the house was located in Matoaca, so that's where he's running this year.
He's accepted $28,896 from donors with building interests, including $17,000 from the Chesterfield Business Alliance, a political action committee made up of mostly home builders and real estate interests. Roseland, the 5,000-plus home mega-development coming before the board next month, is in the Matoaca district.
"I'm proud to have the support of a broad-based community, including home building," Tubbs says.
Art Warren, who has served on the county board since 1992 and is its longest-standing member, has $17,403 left from his last campaign and has only raised $4,250 this time around, including $3,000 from developers. While his funding does not reach an astronomical total for a supervisor's race, it towers over his opponent for the Clover Hill seat, Floyd Baynes, who's raised $155.
Warren refunded $500 that Reservoir Land gave him in August.
"I just felt that it would be inappropriate to accept the funds since they had a [zoning] case coming before the Board of Supervisors," Warren says. "That's my own personal approach, but it doesn't necessarily mean that other people running for office should use the same standards."
In the last three decades, Chesterfield has changed from a largely rural to a more suburban county. The influence of developers is unavoidable and necessary. Real estate developers catch the brunt of the criticism unfairly, says Tyler Craddock, government affairs director for the Home Building Association of Richmond.
"We are very active politically because we're one of the most highly regulated and taxed industries. Relatively speaking, especially at the local level, there are very few other industries that require the constant approval," Craddock says. His organization has donated to Sowder and hosted a special fundraiser for Tubbs.
"There are people out there with axes to grind against the housing industry, but I think it's a vocal few," Craddock says. "And I have to ask, do they live in a nest?"
Former board Supervisor Jack McHale says the proof of influence lies in the voting patterns.
"I think that this last board was very much a development-favorable board," he says. "I think that people have reacted to that and I think they'd like to see something different." S