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The Rabble-Rouser



For years, Marleen Durfee was an outsider, holding Chesterfield County accountable for its policies toward residential development and calling for a tighter rein on development in the region's fastest-growing locality.

Her message got through. And voters underscored it Nov. 6, sweeping four of five new candidates onto the county's Board of Supervisors. Durfee was one of them.

The first perceivable rising of the tide began in June 2002. It was at an otherwise routine meeting at a neighborhood clubhouse between two developers and about 150 residents of neighborhoods close to the two proposed subdivisions in the county's Matoaca District.

The developers arrived in fine developer fashion, self-assuredly telling residents what they could expect when the Fox Creek and Harper's Mill subdivisions were built. They were in control of the meeting, with residents listening politely, shifting uncomfortably around questions of density and traffic concerns.

"Nobody was asking the tough questions and when they did, nobody had answers," recalls Durfee, who was there and spoke up toward the end of the meeting. "I got the microphone and I said, Where's the planning commissioner?"

Not here, came the reply.

"Where's the county staff person?"

A county planning staff member stood up.

"I asked, Where's the participation? Where's the process?" Durfee recounts. She'd come armed with information about the developments. For both, the county would require the developer to pay proffers that amounted only to about $2.2 million. It wasn't nearly enough to pay for the services the new residents would demand.

"I asked, 'Do you know the cost of a middle school or an elementary school?' They were going at this point, 'Oh boy, we should never have given her the microphone.'"

The next morning, the Matoaca District planning commissioner called her. Durfee told him to defer voting on the proposed subdivisions until studies could be done to determine their impact on local infrastructure. He did.

She asked to see the county's comprehensive plan, a plan that is supposed to account for where and how the county grows -- residentially, commercially and environmentally. She was told the most recent version of the plan, which by law must be revised every five years, dated to 1991. She called Chesterfield's school administrators and asked how the school system would handle the soaring enrollment.

In the months that followed, Durfee built momentum behind her seemingly obvious and simple questioning of what had become the status quo. She and a group of neighbors formed the Foxcroft Taskforce for Responsible Growth. The group released a position paper on the new developments.

"I started to peel away the layers," Durfee says.

Durfee's group fought like hell to get county officials to realize that growth for growth's sake is simply unsustainable, especially on the narrow, winding roads of the Matoac District where new subdivisions on top of new subdivisions were already tasking those roads beyond their design capabilities.

The group eventually morphed — and expanded well beyond Durfee's neighbors — to become the Upper Swift Creek Taskforce for Responsible Growth, and eventually the Responsible Growth Alliance of Chesterfield.

Durfee became a fixture on the county's cable broadcast of county government meetings, holding officials' feet to the fire with hard facts about density, traffic and overcrowded schools. She was a thorn in the side of the county's Board of Supervisors.

Come Dec.20, when she is sworn in, this plucky thorn has the opportunity to make greater waves when she takes a spot on the board. In the four-way race for the Matoaca District seat vacated by Republican Renny Humphrey, the independent Durfee received more than 40 percent of the vote.

Proof that Durfee's words have reached ears beyond her own district are her new colleagues on the board. To a greater or lesser extent, all flew an election battle flag that flaunted their support of better growth management. All of them called for a slowdown of what many voters see as the county's unchecked residential development boom.

The parallels are eerie.

Way back in 1991, Chesterfield County voters delivered a message to their Board of Supervisors. They booted out three of five members (a fourth retired) and sent what appeared to be a clear mandate to the new leadership: Start listening to constituents and get the county's explosive residential growth under control.

The problems then sound familiar. Chesterfield was fast becoming a bedroom community for the region. An imbalanced tax base created a cash crunch for public services. There were crowded roads, classroom trailers at public schools, sprawling subdivisions and signs of blight on the county's eastern edges.

Flash forward 16 years to Election Day 2007: All four newly elected board members ran on the promise of better management of the county's growing suburbs. The county's afflictions today: sprawling subdivisions, an imbalanced tax base, crowded roads, classroom trailers.

Leading the charge for change is smart-growth advocate Durfee. For more than five years she's relentlessly challenged the county's political establishment, railing against its collective laissez-faire approach to residential developments.

"I never was anti-growth," Durfee says, arguing that the current election wasn't just about getting a grip on sprawl. "It was also about inclusion," she says, pointing to the icy approach of the sitting board to the input of voters and citizens at meetings. They simply didn't listen, she says.

It would be easy to dismiss the mild revolt that took place on Election Day, but for the first time 16 years, Chesterfield's old political guard has been put on notice. The county has for years been unresponsive to the needs of the region — it's infamously resisted allowing city buses to cross the county line, balked at sharing the region's public-housing needs, even resisted regional efforts to build a new baseball stadium.

On the surface, the recent election appears to have little to do with Chesterfield's long-running isolationism. The election was about growth — smart growth — and the county's ability to rein in residential sprawl.

But herein lies a conundrum. For the county to seriously scale back sprawl, it will need to urbanize its suburbs. The conversation is shifting to high-density developments — more houses per acre — and clustering those developments with sidewalks, retail shopping and employment centers. They call it new urbanism for a reason: It looks a lot like the city.

Naturally, going urban conflicts with what makes the suburbs the suburbs. Suburbanites enjoy being isolated — not necessarily from one another, but from the travails of the city — the crime, the traffic, the stacked housing and general lack of residential space. The question is, what exactly are the voters in Chesterfield asking for? Is it really smart, urbanized growth? Or is it controlled growth, which is often simply code for no growth? The gap between the two is wide.

Luckily, the new political leadership has a convenient measuring stick. The county's two largest proposed subdivisions — Magnolia Green and Roseland — conveniently run a direct, 16-year parallel.

In 1991, the old board — to the chagrin of incoming board members, including then-newcomer Ed Barber — approved the development of the 4,000-acre, 5,000-home Magnolia Green in western Chesterfield near the Powhatan County line. Amid calls to restrict unwieldy development, the old board slipped approval in just before the new supervisors took over, despite concerns about the project's environmental impact.

The move was significant for a variety of reasons — first and foremost, because the Board of Supervisors had approved the county's biggest rezoning since Brandermill after voters kicked out three of five members in the name of uncontrolled growth. At the time, incoming supervisor Barber told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the Magnolia Green vote was "prostitution of local government."

A second reason: It went largely unnoticed that the rezoning application for Magnolia Green was submitted in 1989, just before the county's new cash proffer system was enacted. That meant developers didn't have to adhere to the county's newly enacted proffer system, which by 1991 amounted to paying the county $2,000 per lot. The Magnolia Green developers, in fact, volunteered their own cash proffers of about $4,100 per lot, more than double the county's fee.

The move dramatically undercut the development community's prevailing argument against proffers: that they drive up prices of new homes and ultimately push some buyers out of the market altogether.

Not unlike the mini voters' revolt in 1991, the first major rezoning case that will challenge this new board is the proposed 5,000-home Roseland development. It's in the western part of the county, on Woolridge Road, the same route that slices through Swift Creek Reservoir and, ironically, Magnolia Green. Because of the old board's shenanigans 16 years ago, the county passed an ordinance to prevent lame-duck supervisors from approving rezoning cases just before the incoming board takes over.

And so Roseland awaits the January inauguration.

For incoming Matoaca District Supervisor Marleen Durfee, it's a story of contrasts. She lives here, wedged both literally and figuratively between Magnolia Green and Roseland, between the old and the new paradigms at the heart of her county's struggle with suburban sprawl.

Durfee lives in the equally sprawling Foxcroft subdivision just off Woolridge Road along Swift Creek Reservoir. Her home is a 3,500-square-foot carbon copy of every other vinyl-sided tribute to suburban architectural sensibilities on her quiet, manicured, tree-lined cul-de-sac. Winding through the maze of roads, visitors get lost on streets with innocuous and confusing names such as Fox Vale, Fox Haven, Fox Trot.

Inside, her immaculate house is a temple to American upper-middle-class decorating: emphasis on refinished antiques, overstuffed couches, off-the-rack still-life paintings in heavy gilded frames. Durfee's Lexus SUV is relegated to the driveway in deference to her husband's cherry red Corvette, which looks fast and mean even in its dormant state in the home's two-car garage.

Given her choice of real estate investments and comfortably suburban lifestyle, Durfee seems an unlikely champion for smart-growth principles.

But champion, advocate and pioneer are all labels Durfee has rightly earned during the past five years. The granddaughter of bootstrapping Ukrainian immigrants, Durfee eschews the term "smart growth," which calls for more housing on smaller lots, preferring the term "responsible growth" as a bit more tenable. It's about slowing growth, she says, and managing it better.

Fusing the managed growth tenets of smart growth with truly suburban lifestyles is no easy task. Durfee is a living testament.

The first big test for the new board will be Roseland, the 5,000-home development that espouses smart growth and new urbanism. Roseland's developers, led by longtime county developer George "Buddy" Sowers Jr., are promising to pay for much of the needed infrastructure: extending Woolridge Road to Route 288 from the reservoir — a key artery that will relieve traffic from Magnolia Green to Hull Street — and even building a new school.

By most accounts, including Durfee, who supports rezoning the nearly 1,400-acre development, Roseland is what "smart growth" advocates dream of. It's high density, with shopping centers, office parks and interconnecting sidewalks. The hallmark is the clustering of residential houses, which make it easier for the county to provide public services such as water, sewer, police and fire.

"It' a very good example of new urbanism with its mixed-used, mixed-income, human scale, [and] environmentally sensitive development," says John V. Moeser, professor of urban studies at the University of Richmond. "More development needs to follow the principles that are integral to Roseland."

But to many Chesterfielders, Roseland isn't viewed as a solution to the problem, but as just another giant suburb gussied up for political purposes. At a recent meeting with abutting neighbors in Charter Colony — another new subdivision along the recently completed 288 corridor — a handful of residents showed up to protest. They moved to the county, they say, to get away from urbanlike development.

Roseland presents an interesting dilemma. Sowers could have carved up the 1,400 acres his firm acquired over the last decade into smaller pocket subdivisions, which would have made for an easier road politically, not to mention financially. Instead, the family opted to cobble all the lots together and do it differently, more responsibly. It would have been easier, more profitable in the short term to develop the old way — bit by bit.

"If not that zoning, then what, when?" posits Sowers. "I would suggest that the mandate that these folks got … [is] there is a difference in smart growth and just growth and zoning."

Sensing opportunity a few years ago, Sowers says he decided to develop Roseland as kind of a legacy subdivision. "Roseland is quintessential good planning," Sowers says.

The county's planning director, Kirkland Turner, says that Roseland should be a model for how the county develops in the future. "The Roseland applications are a tremendous thing for the county," he says. "I'd much rather see one 1,600-acre zoning case than I would 50 smaller zoning cases. We can't coordinate those 50 zoning cases. … [The Roseland] developer has really given the county a lot more control over how the county develops that property."

Roseland may prove the exception rather than the rule, but it's a start for a county that continues to struggle with managing its residential growth. The county's growth has indeed slowed in the past few years, typically between 2 percent and 2.5 percent a year, county administrator James J.L. Stegmaier says.

The problem isn't so much the amount of new housing and residents flooding into Chesterfield, he says, but where those new houses are popping up. Since the late 1980s the county has allowed so much land to be rezoned for residential — if all the residential lots approved in the county were to be developed simultaneously, it would lead to about 43,000 housing units — that Chesterfield's political leadership is in the unenviable position of reacting to development that by law it has little ability to stop.

"It's a concept called vesting," Stegmaier says. "Once you get zoning approved, it becomes problematic for the government … to come back and deny it."

So the county is focusing on doing whatever it can to balance the residential base with new businesses, which bring in more tax revenue. For example, the average homeowner in the county brings in about $2,175 in real estate taxes a year, but it takes $5,220 for the county to provide the necessary public services to that household, including schools, police and fire services. Stegmaier says the county can offset the remainder with business taxes, something the county has struggled to do.

In planning jargon, a locality with a residential to business tax-base ratio of 70/30 is considered financially stable — in other words, it's bringing in enough tax revenue to pay for the necessary public services. Stegmaier says Chesterfield's resident to business ratio is around 80/20.

"We have to be successful at attracting non-residential growth to balance the residential growth," he says. "If we're strictly a bedroom community and people come here to live and go outside to work, then the financial challenge is increased. But if we can grow jobs at the same rate we're adding households, we do have a reasonable chance. It's barely kept pace."

Developments such as Roseland help. Buddy Sowers and his development firm have committed to spending upward of $100 million to pay for roads, a new school and other infrastructure improvements the new development will require. That commitment will far outweigh what the county would receive through proffers alone.

"I'm proud of Chesterfield," Buddy Sowers says. "We looked at that piece of property and saw its importance."

"I would hope that whoever it was would have treated it the same way," he says. "It's the right thing at the right place at the right time. It made sense to do it that way because it's good planning."

Some people say the county has unfairly gotten a bad rap.

"There are many, many jurisdictions around this state that will give their right arm to have the growth that we have," says state Sen. John Watkins, R-Chesterfield, whose family owns the 640-acre Watkins Centre development in the Route 288-Midlothian Turnpike corridor.

"Growth is not a bad thing," Watkins says. "Uncontrolled growth, growth that doesn't pay for itself, that's when [you have a problem]. … In the last decade, planning staff and the Board of Supervisors and the planning commission have done a pretty good job of moderating growth."

Durfee grew up in the small Pennsylvania mountaintop town of Janesville. The village had no post office of its own. She was athletic, riding her bike over challenging hills to neighboring towns where she'd watch baseball and softball games.

One of three children of first-generation Americans, Durfee says her Ukrainian grandparents arrived at Ellis Island with the same amount of nothing common to immigrants of the time. They worked hard and eventually owned a dance hall in the town where Durfee grew up. Beer was 5 cents. Dancing the jitterbug was the rage.

With a shortage of girls her age in Janesville, Durfee grew up playing football, basketball and baseball with the boys. She wrestled. In high school, there was no girls' softball team so the coach suggested she join the boys' baseball team. She'd been playing with them for years and could hold her own.

"Sports was my world," she says, recounting her first time playing ball with the girls, after the school finally started a girls' softball team. Throwing overhand, she'd wing balls at inexperienced girls whose attempts to catch often resulted in broken or dislocated thumbs.

At home, among dozens of cousins — nearly 20 children are pictured in an old black-and-white family portrait of her grandmother's side of the family — Durfee learned that sitting back and observing the action wasn't an option.

"You were not allowed to be quiet," she says. "If you have that many cousins growing up, you had to get on board fast."

Her parents also encouraged their children to achieve. Girls of her generation and from her community were expected to marry early, settle down, have lots of babies. But Marleen's father didn't adhere to old notion, pushing his two daughters to attend college.

Durfee's first job after she graduated from Penn State in 1981 was as director for DUI programs with the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission in central Pennsylvania.

The next year, she married James Durfee and not long afterward moved to Louisiana, where there was no state or local alcohol highway safety program. Durfee created one in her area through a private alcohol abuse treatment center, then later through the locality — all the while working for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

That sort of devotion and energy is 100 percent Durfee. She sleeps very little, often up until 2:30 a.m. and then awake before sunrise. She burns calories like a furnace, maintaining a slim, athletic figure into her late 40s.

Durfee first arrived in Virginia in the mid-1980s, following her husband's job with James River Paper. Though not particularly impassioned at the time by matters of growth, development or county government, Durfee recalls the words of the real estate agent showing her and her husband around as foreshadowing.

"She told us … 'Hull Street is going to be widened and all this traffic will be gone,'" Durfee recalls. It's only gotten worse, of course. The couple left Chesterfield briefly in 1994, returning the next year to settle in the Matoaca District.

Durfee says she never wanted to run for the Board of Supervisors, though she says that had her life not led to motherhood, she might have considered elected politics as a career. She also resisted calls four years ago to run for supervisor.

It was the momentum she built behind her responsible growth message that led to the inevitable, she says. And her experience with the process didn't hurt. Over the years, she's attended hundreds of government meetings. One of her campaign rivals even used her omnipresence at board meetings in his attack literature, she says.

The Responsible Growth Alliance of Chesterfield operates on a simple premise, Durfee says: articulating the idea that smart growth practices are important to Chesterfield's future.

The 90-member-strong group provides one-stop shopping for information: comparative data on surrounding counties, road and infrastructure information and traffic studies, water quality information, zoning data and background on proffers.

Her persistence wasn't always welcome. Durfee recalls one of her earlier appearances before the Board of Supervisors to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on smart growth issues as they applied to a particular case. She says an elderly lady walked up to her, supportive of her cause but doubtful from long experience of the likelihood of her success. County leaders have long been beholden to developers, the woman said.

"She comes up to me and says, 'Honey, you don't think you're going to educate these people, do you?' and I said yes. She said, 'Honey, we've tried for years. They don't hear.'"

They heard Nov. 6. Now the challenge for Durfee is in applying her relentless work ethic to the county's struggle to control so many sprawling subdivisions, particularly the ones that have yet to come before the board.

Of course, the county has many more tests on the horizon. How the new board handles Roseland, and the thousands of acres already zoned for residential development in the western portion of the county, will largely determine its future.

Perhaps the county has gotten a bad rap — that it's done more than many people realize to rein in growth. But now comes the hard work. Durfee says she's ready. S

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