by Steven Ginsberg, The Washington Post

6 July 2003, p. T12

“Sometime after midnight Wednesday morning, Ron Robinson stepped to the podium in front of the Board of County Supervisors to comment on a proposed subdivision in the county’s western end. The Woodbridge resident, running as a Republican for a seat on the board, kept it short and simple: He told supervisors that the infrastructure needed for the 1,245-home development would raise taxes for all Prince William residents. He, like most of the other people who spoke, urged supervisors to deny the subdivision.

“A short time later they did, and the decisive vote was cast by supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge), Robinson’s opponent in November. Barg, normally a consistently pro-development member of the board, said she voted against Greater South Market because it would take away a slice of the county’s rural preserve.

“She dismissed the notion that Robinson’s testimony had anything to do with her decision. ‘I couldn’t care about my opponent,’ she said. Barg said she would have voted against the project ‘whether I would have been up for election this year or next year.’

” ‘I think this was a good project, just one that needed to be scaled back,’ she continued. ‘We can’t start nibbling away at the Rural Crescent.’

“In the ongoing debate about growth, which is at the center of this year’s campaigns, the county’s 80,000-acre rural preserve has become a litmus test. Those who vote to protect the open space are viewed as smart-growth candidates, while those who vote to allow parts of it to be developed are said to be beholden to builders.

“Robinson and a handful of other candidates underscored that point, as they lined up in opposition along with the usual 100 or so citizens who oppose most developments. Their presence and their words made it clear that they planned to turn Greater South Market into a central issue in this fall’s campaigns.

“Barg ‘voted the right way, but she probably voted for it for the wrong reasons,’ said Robinson. ‘My position is she will not be able to run from her 16-year record because in the 12th hour she decided to vote the right way.’

“Generally, the board splits 5 to 3 in favor of development with Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large), Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) and Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan) voting against most major proposals. They, along with many board challengers, argue that the flood of new homes that have been built in the county in recent years have caused property taxes to soar as county officials struggle to maintain services. Others say that upscale developments such as Greater South Market bring in more revenue than they cost and that they are needed to bolster Prince William’s coffers as well as the county’s identity.

“In addition to Barg, four other board members face reelection this year: Connaughton, Caddigan, John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) and Edgar S. Wilbourn III (I-Gainesville). Races for the three other seats are wide open because Griggs and Loring B. ‘Ben’ Thompson (R-Brentsville) are not seeking reelection and Mary K. Hill (R-Coles) was defeated in a party primary.

“Since the last election, the board has split over a series of development proposals, including Cherry Hill, a new development template for Gainesville and a proposal to allow golf course communities to be built in the Rural Crescent. The golf course proposal, alone, was defeated.

“None of those votes was as politically charged as Greater South Market. Supervisors said that was because it was generally agreed to be a spectacular development — it included the kind of top-dollar homes and amenities the county thirsts for — and because it was proposed four months before an election.

” ‘I think that all of them would have voted for it if nobody had shown up’ to protest, said Wilbourn, who blasted most of his fellow board members for giving in to ‘pure politics.’

“In particular, Wilbourn blamed Barg. ‘I think Hilda was extremely intimidated,’ he said. ‘I think she was swayed by her opponent coming in and speaking.’  Wilbourn, who almost always votes in favor of development, said if he had been politically motivated he would have voted against the project too. ‘Frankly, I did not look at it as a campaign issue,’ he said. ‘If I had, I would have taken a soft road and said, “Well, I’ll deny one.” ‘

“Wilbourn noted that no one opposed the project when it came before the Planning Commission, which approved it 7 to 1, and said the opposition to it was manufactured to create a political fury. ‘There was no opposition until one individual said, “I don’t want it in my back yard.” And all she had to do was e-mail activists standing in line to oppose these projects.’

” ‘There is no logic to the vote . . . other than the fact that the base of at least two supervisors is that group, and they always vote that way,’ said Wilbourn, singling out Caddigan and Connaughton.

“But Wilbourn said the development was too good to pass up. ‘Election year or not, if no other project passed this year in the county it should have been that one,’ he said.

“Connaughton agreed that politics played a major role in sinking the proposal and he advised voters to have a longer memory than a single vote. ‘People were raging to me about this being such a crucial vote,’ said Connaughton, who was undecided in the days leading up to the vote. ‘But you can’t judge a person’s record by one vote. People are going to have to take a look at [supervisors’] records over the years.’

“Griggs, the county’s most ardent anti-growth official, said the supervisors ‘love’ the Rural Crescent in election years. ‘The other three years we kill it, but in an election year we love it, love it.’ ”

Note:  For further information on the Greater South Market (GSM) vote by one of the advocacy groups involved in the controversy, click on this link to Advocates for the Rural Crescent (ARC): “Greater South Market victory: The vote on July 1 [2003] was 4-3 against the GSM project”