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Going out on a high note

SoVaNow.com / November 08, 2017

Since there’s no way at the time of this writing to say much intelligent about the outcome of Tuesday’s elections, let turn our attention to other matters (with one election-related exception):

After a career in local office spanning six decades, let’s offer a word of praise for Bill Blalock. Virginia’s longest-serving county supervisor officially retired this week after first going on the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors in 1968 and holding the Baskerville-area seat for the duration, save for four years in the early 1970s when Blalock was out of office after losing his first re-election bid. Say whatever else you want to say about Blalock — and readers of this space know I’ve said plenty — he deserves the Ultimate Ironman Award simply for sitting through hundreds of board meetings throughout his career.

We won’t end the encomium there. While I’ve almost never agreed with Blalock’s priorities for local government, even I have to tip my cap to his staunch representation of the county’s farm interests and (mostly) consistent tightfistedness. Don’t get me wrong; this guiding philosophy of providing little above the bare minimum in public services (with education leading the list) has been harmful to Mecklenburg and the region. (If you want to know why Southside Virginia always lags behind the state average on almost every metric that you want to be associated with, start there). Still, there’s always a place on a governing board for that one member who will question any decision, no matter how small or trifling, especially when money is involved. Throughout his career Bill Blalock filled that role, and how.

Aside being stingy and irascible — I think I know Blalock well enough to know he’ll take this description as a compliment — the supervisor has been notable for his unstinting defense of private property rights. Early in my own career covering county government for this newspaper, I witnessed what I considered an enormous folly, even by 1980s standards: Mecklenburg’s refusal to implement zoning. You-know-who was the driving force behind that decision. Eventually, of course, everyone came around to the notion that an utter lack of zoning regulations was an invitation to disaster, and Blalock ended up losing his battle to impose Somali-style land use freedom on the rest of the county.

And yet, in the spirit of things come around and then they go around, lately we’ve been witness to a different sort of folly, this time involving the overzealous application of the zoning code to stifle private property rights. On Monday, the Board of Supervisors approved — justifiably so — a permit for the Geenex solar farm near Chase City. Only a week earlier, the Geenex project was voted down by the county planning commission. Good for the supervisors, reversing that decision. (The vote was 5-3, with Blalock absent and retired, leaving the board short a member). By green-lighting the project, supervisors above all else affirmed the right of landowners to control the use of their property, noxious purposes excluded, and selling your land to a willing buyer is the farthest thing from a noxious deal.

Sure, it’s not as though there weren’t some legitimate arguments against the proposed agglomeration of three major, industrial-scale solar facilities around Chase City. However, the best argument — that a ring of solar farms around town would choke off any prospect for Chase City’s future development — was badly undercut when Chase City Town Council came out in support of Geenex and the two other solar projects (the Bluestone farm and Spanish Grove Road facilities). That left perhaps the strangest of possible objections to solar development: the notion that land devoted to solar installations would crowd out agriculture, deemed the county’s highest land use priority.

The ironies here are so thick you need a machete to cut through them. Farmers and their go-to local representatives fought the Geenex project by essentially complaining that a farmer (Mac Bailey) would want to sell his farm for a nice sum of money — and thus strike a blow against the continued agricultural character of Mecklenburg County. Huh. I’m not sure I even know how to explain this argument. Is that what it’s come to, that long and illustrious agriculture careers must end with the landowner obligated to pass on his land to the next farmer down the line? I thought Bill Blalock had wandered off the ranch those long years ago when he warned about the potential for zoning abuses, but true to form and in a testament to his stamina, he hung in long enough to see his prediction almost come true. The final irony, of course, is that Blalock wasn’t around to see the majority on the Board of Supervisors overturn the planning decision to deny the Geenex permit, even as members upheld Blalock’s guiding philosophy throughout his career.

Good to go out a winner, I suppose.

***

I got the nicest email from a reader about our editorial endorsement in last week’s edition for the Virginia governor’s race: “I appreciated your analysis of the [two] gubernatorial candidates. Thank you for educating us all. I have one thing to add which I think is very important, which is their respective positions on gerrymandering.”

Gulp. Our reader hits the nail with a hammer that yours truly left in the tool shed. Gerrymandering is a huge issue in Virginia and across the country, and the governor’s race offered a stark contrast between candidates: Ed Gillespie, a career Republican operative and lobbyist, is utterly brazen in his disregard and contempt for redistricting reform, while Ralph Northam might just be the most committed elected official in Virginia to the cause of fair and non-partisan redistricting. In a lengthy editorial, I neglected to mention the issue even once. Shame on me.

By the time you read this, we’ll probably know who our next governor is. Either Northam or Gillespie will hold the power over election maps — for House of Delegates, state Senate and congressional districts — that will be drawn up after the 2020 census. With advances in technology, it now is possible to design election districts to suit the whims of individual legislators, or maximize party control over state and federal government. That’s what we’ve have in Virginia, a purple-blue state that has nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats serving in the House of Delegates, and seven Republican congressmen to four Democrats.

I get that it can be hard for people to work up much enthusiasm over the issue of political redistricting — not least because both political parties have deplorable records of using the gerrymander to their advantage. As lieutenant governor, Northam has been a notable advocate for redistricting reform, but it’s probably fair for people to take a jaundiced view on the matter. Advocating for change while one is out of power and putting it into practice once in control are two different things entirely. So let’s stipulate that much.

What cannot be seriously contested is the terrible impact of gerrymandered and one-sided districts on the current state of our politics. (While part of the problem lies with district lines that are engineered to favor incumbents, another issue, especially for Democrats, is geographic in nature: too many Democratic voters are clustered tightly together in urban areas. Hey folks, it’s fine out here in the countryside’s!) Lopsided districts that leave incumbents with nothing to worry about have given rise to another problem, especially among Republicans: incumbents who constantly defend against intra-party challenges by pandering to the base. The effect among the GOP is to reward ever-more extreme candidates who shovel red meat in the maw of the party faithful — culture warriors, holier-than-thou types, all-purpose right-wingers and others who don’t get along well with others.

Southside Virginia has been especially ill-served by gerrymandering. The 5th District is the current title holder for most ridiculous congressional district in Virginia: it begins one step over the line from Fairfax County and runs all the way to Mecklenburg and the North Carolina state line. As legend had it, the district was redrawn with then-Congressman Robert Hurt in mind: Hurt’s mother’s folks were from the Warrenton-Fauquier-Rappahanock region, or so the story goes, which was tacked onto the south-central 5th District in the 2011 apportionment. How much of this tale is fact or fiction I cannot honestly say, but the gist is basically correct: to a worrisome degree, election districts now serve favored candidates rather than the other way around.

Regardless of who wins the race for governor, the issue of redistricting bears close watching. A non-partisan group, OneVirginia2021, successfully sued to force the 2016 redraw of the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Bobby Scott of Newport News. That process also led to big changes in the 4th Congressional District, which today is represented by a Democrat, former state senator Donald McEachin of Richmond. (The 4th was formerly represented by Randy Forbes, a Chesapeake Republican.) OneVirginia has a lawsuit pending to force major changes in General Assembly election districts. If carried to fruition, the group’s efforts could balance the scales of power for the two parties in Richmond, a much better and ultimately more productive situation than we have now.

Absence of party competition leads to political stagnation, aversion to compromise and weak leadership by complacent elites — you only have to look at our General Assembly delegation here in Southside Virginia for proof. Ultimately, gerrymandering works to no one’s favor other than the politicians the process is intended to serve. Even if they won’t lift a finger to bring about change, the rest of us should.





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