The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Burned Out

The story of Bill Downey, a Fauquier County supervisor who declined to run for re-election, is more than the tale of one man's frustration: It's emblematic of spreading dysfunction as non-urban communities begin to urbanize.


At times landmarks on the path to creating dysfunctional human settlement are easy to spot. A few weeks ago Fauquier Times-Democrat reporter Don del Rosso documented such a landmark. He profiled Bill Downey, a former Fauquier County School Board member who ran hard for, and won, a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2003. Don’s story documented why the supervisor “burned out” and would not run for reelection in 2007.(1)

The article, “Calling it Quits,” examines in depth why a Fauquier County Supervisor will not run for a second term, delineating a troubling trend in Greater Warrenton- Fauquier and highlighting an example of what best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell calls “a tipping point.”

Supervisor Downey is an active, high-profile governance practitioner. He is not always on the winning side in the evermore complex debates over the shape of Greater Warrenton-Fauquier’s future. The Fauquier Board has recently taken on a number of high-profile issues related to land subdivision, farm preservation, urban services, school location, transportation – issues that will determine the settlement pattern for decades to come.


Based on the volume and tone of letters to the editor and new interest groups that are emerging, it is apparent that a growing number disagree with decisions the Board of Supervisors has been making – regardless of what it decides. The critiques of these decisions seem to fall in three broad categories. Using locally-flavored metaphors they include:

  • Closing the barn door after the horses are gone.

  • Letting animals run lose in the Countryside.

  • Keeping the gates closed until opportunities wonder off to greener pastures.

For some who have lived in several Communities in the northern part of Virginia over the past four decades, the Fauquier supervisors seem to be repeating the mistakes made by other boards in other jurisdictions years and even decades ago.


Perhaps the biggest issue before the Board of Supervisors is the future of open land in the Countryside. Some claim that the leadership in Greater Warrenton-Fauquier has been doing the best they can for 40 years. Now it is quite clear that measures taken to conserve open land have had the effect opposite of what was intended. Large lots turn out to spread urban houses across the Countryside, destroying the resources that governance practitioners and citizens were trying to save.


Given the context in which they work, can anyone expect these governance practitioners to do better?  It is not a lack of good will or good intent. As del Rosso’s story illustrates, it is not for lack of effort. The bottom line is that with the current governance structure, the process of change in human settlement pattern from nonurban to urban is approaching ungovernability. In a word it is “dysfunctional.”


The Larger Picture


Del Rosso’s supervisor-burnout story prompted us to contribute an op-ed to the Fauquier Times Democrat  (“Burnout: Another Tipping Point?” June 28, 2006, Page A 17).  Burnout is a tipping point in places like Fauquier County and in other jurisdictions that lie from 30 to 100 miles from the centroid of the National Capital Subregion.


However, burnout is not happening in just these jurisdictions.  Frustration with governance and the inability to govern is endemic. Jurisdictions far from the Core of the Subregion continue to repeat mistakes that jurisdictions closer to the Core made years ago.  At the same time, jurisdictions in or near the Core (inside the Clear Edge) are frustrated and compromised in every significant effort to evolve more functional human settlement patterns.


Why is governing the evolution of settlement patterns so complex and why cannot well-intended governance practitioners and citizens do better?

For starters jurisdictions (aka, municipalities and counties) are not contiguous with Communities, and Communities are not jurisdictions. Regular readers of Bacon’s Rebellion know this but most governance practitioners and citizens do not yet understand the difference.

We will return to this reality later, but first let us consider some contextual factors.


Regional Subregional Context


First, there is no governmental recognition of the economic, social and physical reality of (much less the boundaries of) the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region.


Next, there is confusion and jurisdictional dispute over the extent of the National Capital Subregion.


Finally, there is mass confusion about the size and location of the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion.  (See “Where is Northern Virginia,” Aug. 11, 2003, which addresses all three of these phenomenon.)


There is not even discussion of the organic structure (and organic components that make up) these three spheres of geographic reality.


The jurisdictional (municipal and  county) and state boundaries delineated before and soon after the Revolutionary War are irrelevant to the economic, social or physical reality that exists 200 years later. In 1806 about 95 percent of the population of what now comprises the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region were directly or indirectly involved in nonurban activities (e.g. farming, fishing, forestry and mining) and the cumulative total of all the urban areas was about the size of the City of Falls Church.  Today 95 percent of the population is involved in urban activities and the intensively urbanized area is 400 times the area of the City of Falls Church.

Urbanized areas, especially large, fast- growing, 21-century urban agglomerations, require a high flux of governance structure and a broader range of organizations for democracy to function.  Area dominated by more self-sufficient agglomerations of nonurban activities such as existed 200 years ago required less governance structure.

That is why the location of Beta Community boundaries that reflect the scale of the Community and the boundaries of all the Community’s components are so important.  As noted above Beta Community boundaries are not related to jurisdictional borders. Further jurisdictional borders are not scaled to or changed to reflect the stages of (or speed of) radial expansion in the urbanization process.  And finally there is not yet any consensus on the need for or location of the Clear Edge.  (See “Beyond the Clear Edge,” May 26, 2003.)


The jurisdictional borders obscure the reality of radial geography.  Fairfax County covers the northern part of Virginia from Potomac River to Potomac River between Radius=6 to 8 Miles out to Radius=18 to 20 miles and embraces all or part of nine Beta Communities.  While Fairfax County covers all or part of nine Beta Communities, Prince William County covers two and Loudoun County covers four including one that Loudoun County shares with Fairfax County.


Over the past 20 years the logical location of the Clear Edge has moved from between R=15 and R=20 to between R=22 and R=25, falling in eastern Loudoun County and through Prince William County running from the Potomac River in the northwest to the Potomac River on the southeast.


Western Loudoun / Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties make up most of a logical declination of a Balanced but Disaggregated Beta Community outside the Clear Edge. Regional Metrics based on Radial Geography do not generate perfect circles because of a number of factors. The federal military reservations, interregional traffic patterns and the Greater Fredericksburg Subregion along with topography and other factors yield different Beta Community configurations in the I-95 Corridor than are found in the I-66 or the DAAR/Greenway Corridors.  For this reason the Clear Edge does not follow an equal radius circular path.




Beyond boundaries and borders, the second major factor confusing the governance of the urbanization process is timing.  There are volumes of interesting history concerning the northern part of Virginia.  The major impacts on the evolution of governance in this Subregion started about 60 Years ago at the end of World War II.


The rate of outward expansion varies with the parameter considered.  First, land values go up to reflect speculative expectations.  Later, urban land uses are developed on a tiny fraction of the land held for urban development. Radial expansion of the open-land owner’s unfounded dreams of urban exploitation are followed by a much less rapid scatteration of urban land uses.  It is decades before infill results in functional urban land use patterns. The speed at which urban land uses expand radially varies with the extension of and the capacity expansion of radial transport facilities.


There is no place where failure to grasp the importance of A=PiR2 the first Natural Law of Human Settlement Pattern(2), plays a greater role than in urban development expectation racing ahead of demand.


Flipping and Flopping


In a democracy, governance practitioners must rely on citizens to provide guidance. During rapid expansion of an urban agglomeration without rational forethought there is no consensus upon which policies, programs and incentives to consider or implement.  The reasons are clear:

  • There is no conceptual framework of Region, Subregion or Community structure

  • The citizens keep changing

Large numbers of new citizens moving into jurisdictions with 200-year-old borders disrupts the traditional (aka, slow) assimilation of new ideas and new paradigms.

Old residents – the “been heres” – are not models of consistency.  They change attitudes while claiming “been here” values. They have an eye on the potential sale of land at inflated, urban, windfall values.


New residents – the “come heres” – have new ideas, new priorities, new needs and new demands.  The first wave of new residents want to pull up the drawbridge to keep out the potential “new, new” citizens.  The first new residents use the excess capacity from the nonurban era – e.g. the farm-to-market roadways – but expect the “new, news” to pay for their impact via developer fees.


Due to the geographic reality noted above, there is no “community” identity, especially in areas where a county is the “local” government.  Within 300,000 to 500,000 acres of territory spanning 20 radial miles there are examples of most of the stages of nonurban-to-urban transition.


It is not just the jurisdictions at or beyond the logical location of the Clear Edge that face flip/flop citizen views.  Closer to the Core, jurisdictions that seek to achieve “stability” and “buildout” do not come close before infill, backfill, refill starts. Organic systems change or die. Human settlement is an organic system.


In this context it is easy to understand the emergence of new policies and rough transitions from election to election. Here are two examples:

  • The let-her-rip Boards (some members of which went to jail over zoning actions) of the '60s in Fairfax County flipped to the Pause for Planning/No Growth Board in 1971, and then flopped to the Tax Base Board in 1975, and then to a series of stalemated boards, which after 30 years is finally beginning the process of putting rational development in METRO station areas.  (See “Metro West, 22 Years Too Late,” March 28, 2006 at Bacons Rebellion Blog.)

  • In Loudoun the Developers Boards of the '70s, '80s and '90s flipped to the Smart Growth Board in 1999 and then flopped to the Property Rights Board in 2003.  The prospect is for a Realism/Stalemate board in 2007.

It is no wonder there is governance practitioner burnout.


Is Professionalism the Cure?


Sixty years ago the elected leadership of Fauquier County, the Town of Warrenton and other jurisdictions in Virginia’s northern Piedmont began making decisions, failing to make decisions and not even considering actions which have brought the Beta Community to today’s reality – crowed schools, traffic congestion, eroding Countryside and the other related impacts of large-scale metropolitan urbanization 35 to 100 miles from the centroid of the National Capital Subregion.


Because the leadership did not understand A=PiR2, what was thought of 60 years ago as the start of intensive urbanization turned out to become the scatteration of low-intensity urban land uses across the Countryside. What is happening now, as indicated by “Calling it Quits,” is that the urbanization process is moving to a new phase.  What lies ahead is potentially even more destructive of Countryside resources, as well as Urbanside resources, than in previous phases.


The citizens of Greater Warrenton-Fauquier and other Beta Communities from 35 to 100 miles from the centroid of the National Capital Subregion are now on the cusp of a new wave of challenges -- ones for which the existing institutions and governance structure, policies and programs are not designed or equipped.


Scatteration of urban land uses across the Countryside is hard to manage.  The conflict between the goals and expectations of “been-heres” and the goals and expectations of the “come-heres” is nearly impossible to accommodate during this period of transition because there are not yet any agencies and institutions set up to meet the challenge.


The conversion from nonurban area governance to urban area governance started years ago with new standards and expectations for some county, city, town and school system employees.  The transition started in Arlington County and moved out radially.  There were also new standards and expectations for those who provided volunteer services.  The transition from volunteer to professional staff in fire, rescue, and safety personnel is a familiar transition that is approaching completion in Arlington but is an ongoing process further out.


What Supervisor Downey’s burn out indicates is that municipal elected leadership is morphing into a full-time, professional job.  Elected officials having a “life” apart form government service is becoming a thing of the past and will disappear unless a new governance structure evolves that provides better ways to govern areas inside and outside the Clear Edge.  These new systems must involve more well informed citizens and more decision making fora.  Decisions must be made by those who will be impacted and made by agencies with jurisdictions that match the scale of the impact.  These new structures will not focus so many decisions at the Town Council, the City Council, the County Board or the General Assembly.


Fundamental change in the governance structure to reflect the new, complex demands of an urban community is difficult to accomplish.  In the normal course it will be a number of years before a majority of the citizens in outlying jurisdictions will even accept the fact that they need full-time professional politicians to run their government.


Past experience in Core jurisdictions indicates that in the interim, there will be a period when elected officials are not just “volunteers” but persons who gain a personal advantage, directly and indirectly, from holding office. The policies toward change in the community flops back and forth as it has in Fairfax County and is now doing in Loudoun County. During the period of transition many of the resources of the community are lost in spite of the best efforts of all involved.


Even professionalization of municipal governance is not a panacea.  Professional governance management when confronted with the challenge of conversion from nonurban to urban land uses in large New Urban Regions has resulted in stalemate, timid non-solutions, politically correct compromises and the perpetuation of Business-As-Usual.  Fundamental Change is not just professionalization.


Where to From Here?


Driven by:

  • Expansion of speculative, inflated land prices that spread faster than demand,

  • Failure to understand the first Natural Law of Human Settlement Pattern (A=PiR2),

  • Failure to evolve a functional governance structure...

municipal and county jurisdictions (with little help from the Commonwealth) are struggling with the process of urbanization and a 60-year legacy of partial urbanization – sometimes called “suburbanization”.


It is not clear how much could have done to change the trajectory of Warrenton-Fauquier 60 years ago when the transition first started even if elected and appointed governance practitioners had a crystal ball.  Even today not much can be done to change the traditional course of events acting as individual jurisdictions.


By joining with neighboring jurisdictions and adopting a proactive agenda, a great deal can be accomplished to create the type of Alpha Communities in which the vast majority of voters would like to live and work. But success will require Fundamental Change in governance structure as well as Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.


Government official burnout is a warning sign that the upcoming elections will be critical. Many will rely for votes on political party clichés and social wedge issues that are irrelevant.  Some will run for office on a platform of “Trust me and I will make it better.” Others will cater to a number of conflicting objectives – preserving the Countryside, improving congestion for the commuter, saving the farmer, expanding business opportunities, creating affordable and accessible housing, expanding the tax base, lowering taxes...  the list goes on. Many of these things can be pursued simultaneously but not by following the policies established to date nor with the existing governance structure.


News coverage and letters to the editor in MainStream Media over the last two years – and the last 20 – indicate that citizens have fundamentally different perspectives and profound misunderstandings about how one addresses these issues.


With elections held every four years and supervisors burning out in one term, the direction of governance policy will shift with the wind as happened in Fairfax County and is happening in Loudoun County unless community-wide attention is focused on the cause and impact of the burnout tipping point. These are issues which PROPERTY DYNAMICS is tooling up to address.


-- July 10, 2006






1. “Calling it Quits: Needing A ‘Break,’ Supervisor Bill Downey Will Retire After One Term.” Fauquier Times Democrat. 21 June 2006 Page 1.


2. A=PiR2. Translated: Area = Pi times the radius squared. In other words, as development follows the radius out from the centroid at an arithmetic rate, the area increases at a geometric rate, leaving large holes undeveloped or underdeveloped..














Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.