Page Snyder (left), Mary Ann Ghadban and Philomena Hefter in their “war room.”
In Prince William County populist conservatives and liberal smart-growthers have found common ground in fighting Northern Virginia’s proposed Bi-County Parkway.
by James A. Bacon
The command center for the fight against Northern Virginia’s Bi-County Parkway can be found in the dining room of Mary Ann Ghadban’s farmhouse on Pageland Lane in western Prince William County. Dubbing it the “war room,” Ghadban and her buddies Page Snyder and Philomena Hefter spend countless hours huddling and plotting strategy there. They have requisitioned the dining room table, littering it with papers, notebooks, coffee mugs, pens, highlighters, post-it notes, computer paraphernalia and stacks of documents. In the corner looms a map showing where the proposed route of the $400 million parkway would snake along the edge of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. No one will be holding a dinner party there any time soon. That’s OK, Ghadban laughs. “This is putting the room to good use for the first time!”
An agreement between the National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Transportation outlining the terms and conditions for running the four- to six-lane highway past the battlefield was nearly complete when Ghadban got wind of the project last year. She turned to Snyder and Hefter, friends and neighbors whose homes would be impacted, too.The three women have dedicated themselves to dissecting the project and warning the citizens of Prince William County what it means to them.
The ladies of Pageland Lane are not professional organizers, although Snyder did learn some tricks of the trade from her mother, local legend Annie Snyder, who spearheaded the defeat of plans by Disney Corp. and, later, mega-developer Til Hazel to develop land near the battlefield. She certainly has her mother’s rough-and-tumble spirit. A banner on the fence in front of her house just down the country road shouts, “Say, ‘No!’ to Tri-County Parkway!” A home-made sign nearby proclaims, “No Highway. Manassas Battlefield Park Betrayed Us.”
Hefter, whose deceased husband served as Prince William County planning commissioner, does much of the research. She issues Freedom of Information Act requests and dredges through the mind-numbing minutiae of public documents to spot subtle changes in VDOT or Park Service stances.
Ghadban, a local real estate developer, hones the message. She downloads audio clips from public hearings, blasts out the email newsletter and maintains the web presence. “We’ve learned about Facebook,” she says, beaming as she adds, “We have 1,500 likes.” Then, she qualifies, “We don’t tweet. I can’t quite get a grasp on it.”
They may be amateurs but they have taken on the Republican McDonnell administration, the Prince William board of supervisors, local chambers of commerce and various groups funded by real estate developers, and they appear to be winning. So successful have they been in stirring up opposition and packing public hearings that a half-dozen GOP members of the General Assembly have joined the movement to stymy the project. The administration felt compelled to hire a Washington, D.C.-based communications consultancy, agreeing to pay $289,000 to “engage the public and foster a deeper and wider understanding” of the parkway project.”
The three amigas have tapped a vein of conservatism on the rural fringe of the Washington metropolitan area that responds to the call for fiscal sobriety and property rights. Remarkably, some of their most important allies in the struggle are typically thought of as liberal — smart-growth groups such as the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Southern Environmental Law Center. While those organizations have not turned out intimidating masses of citizens to attend public hearings, they do bring to the debate a deep knowledge of Northern Virginia’s transportation system, the bureaucratic machinery of VDOT and the political process.
The working relationship between the Pageland populists and the smart-growth movement is too informal to be termed an alliance. But their messages often align. They largely agree (a) that the Bi-County Parkway is a waste of public dollars, (b) that the project is driven by developers who want to enrich themselves at public expense and (c) that building the parkway is inconsistent with the goal of preserving the Civil War heritage of the Manassas National Battlefield Park and its environs.
The cooperation is reminiscent of the ad hoc alliance between fiscal conservatives and conservationists in 2002 when Northern Virginians defeated a referendum to impose a regional sales tax to raise money for transportation construction. The arguments back then were similar — the revenue would be co-opted by development interests and tax dollars would be wasted on bad projects enabling sprawl. But after the referendum was defeated, the two sides went their separate ways.
One problem, suggests Chris Miller, president of the PEC, is that the two groups don’t trust each other due to disagreements on other issues. He points to the example of Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, a controversial social conservative who opposes the Bi-County Parkway. “There is no member of the General Assembly who is more in tune with what is going on in his district. But people [in liberal conservation organizations] just can’t get over his social positions,” Miller says. Similarly, he adds, he didn’t exactly feel encouraged to engender conversation across the philosophical divide when the Tea Party burned him in effigy. “I take it little personally.”
America is so politically polarized today that liberals and conservatives don’t spend much time talking to each other. But the battle over transportation policy is an area where they could benefit from doing so. Strip away the culture-war issues, and the big divide in fast-growth regions is not between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, but between the growth party and the preservation party, between those who would utilize tax dollars to perpetuate the geographically expansionist, autocentric pattern of development that has prevailed since World War II and those who would support walkable urbanism and preservation of the countryside on the other. Read more.