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The Ladies of Pageland Lane
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.
The three amigas live on Pageland Lane because they like living in the country. While development pressure from Washington has penetrated ever deeper into the Virginia countryside to the north and south, building has been limited in an area of northwestern Prince William known as the "rural crescent."
The wooded hills around the Mannassas battlefield are dappled now with the yellows and umbers of autumn. The fenced-in fields beside Snyder's house are dotted with horses and geese. Her farm, where her family has lived for six generations, was the scene of military maneuvers in the Second Battle of Manassas, and Snyder has hosted Civil War reenactments there. Conservation is in her blood -- indeed, the Snyder name is synonymous locally with historical preservation.
Ghadban's farm borders the battlefield park as well. Deer make a regular appearance in the woods around the house. There is plenty of space -- enough for two adults, a half dozen dogs and a half-dozen cats. When she isn't working, Ghadban raises hay and horses. She keeps fit by horseback riding and taking part in the occasional fox hunt.
Their way of life is directly threatened by the proposed Bi-County Parkway, the central link in the planned North-South Corridor, which is guesstimated to cost as much as $1.5 billion. That corridor would route freight traffic from Interstate 95 past the Manassas Battlefield to Washington Dulles International Airport. While the three women would be impacted directly -- the parkway would slice through Pageland Lane, sundering their community -- they argue that the project would make people miserable throughout Prince William. The highway would attract hundreds of tractor-trailers full of air cargo bound for Dulles. Interchanges north of the battlefield would stimulate residential development that would swamp local roads with traffic. And, as part of the deal, the National Park Service would cut access to a heavily traveled two-lane road, Rt. 234, where it runs through the park. The state could invest its $400 million to far greater effect, they maintain, by addressing transportation bottlenecks along Interstate 66 and Rt. 28.
The message is getting through. Public hearings are packed. Politicians are responding. "The three ladies of Pageland Lane deserve great credit for motivating the local community," says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Remarkably, the movement has no 501(c)3 designation, nor even a formal name. When asked what they call themselves, Snyder says. "I guess you could say we're the, 'Say-No-to-the-Bi-County-Parkway group." Then she laughs. "Other people call us bitches."
The three dynamic damsels are not easily categorized politically. Snyder's parents were Republicans -- in the 1950s, her mother was president of the Prince William County Republican Party. But they, and Snyder, later leaned to the left on social issues such as abortion, preservation, the environment and gay rights."We have always been fiscally conservative," she says, "but none of us cared for the far-right Republicans." Today, she says, she votes the issues, not the party. Of course, this year, she's a one-issue voter -- all that matters is where candidates stand on the Bi-County Parkway. Saturday, she hosted an event in which Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a strong social conservative, announced his opposition to the parkway.
Ghadban is a registered Republican, although she has supported Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Manassas, whom she considers "a man for the people." A first-generation immigrant -- a legal one, she points out -- she believes in hard work, property rights and free enterprise. In 1984, her building company went broke and she had to file for personal bankruptcy. But she rebuilt her business developing residential subdivisions and a small industrial park. As she says, she got her business education through "the school of hard knocks." "The government didn't give me anything," she adds, "and I'm not willing to let any administration take what I've worked for."
Hefter deems herself a Democrat -- "we consider Bill Clinton a rock star at home" -- although she does vote GOP locally because Prince William Republicans question the assertions of big developers that growth around the rural crescent is "inevitable." Having grown up in Philadelphia where she rode buses and rail, she is the only one of the group who would call herself a "smart growth" supporter.
None of the ladies are active partisans of the Smart Growth movement, however, even though smart-growth organizations have battled 20 years or more to block a proposed outer Washington Beltway, of which the Bi-County Parkway would be a key link.
"We have done all the work ourselves," asserts Ghadban. Bi-County Parkway foes have raised money by putting on flea markets, peddling peaches and selling t-shirts and bumper stickers. As for the smart-growth groups, she says, "We do talk to them. But we've spent the money on the FOIAs [Freedom of Information Act requests]. We are the dirty dozen out there on a 24/7 basis, going to meetings and doing the Facebook."
"We're willing to go balls to the wall," says Snyder. "They aren't able to rabble-rouse like we are."
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While the property populists and smart growthers may not be cooperating especially closely, their rhetoric is converging on the theme that powerful special interests should not be allowed to hijack the machinery of government to lavish hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that benefits only them.
The Pageland ladies aren't anti-development, and they're certainly not anti-business. Ghadban is a developer herself, albeit a relatively small one. But they see how the Bi-County Parkway is pushed by developer-backed groups such as the 2030 Group and the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. They also observe that Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, the former Prince William board chair who is driving the project forward, is tight with the developer community. "Check him out on VPAP," Ghadban says. Indeed, the Virginia Public Access Project confirms that his unsuccessful candidacy for lieutenant governor was largely bankrolled by Northern Virginia developers.
Fighting the parkway has instructed the ladies in the political realities of growth and development in Virginia. There is huge money to be made in buying land, getting the property rezoned and building new subdivisions and shopping centers in the middle of nowhere -- especially if taxpayers are paying the hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation improvements that make it all work.
Like the smart growth activists, the Pageland ladies point out that funding the north-south parkway project would starve resources needed to address Northern Virginia's overloaded east-west traffic arteries. Ghadban points to a list of alternative projects proposed by the Coalition for Smarter Growth that would target bottlenecks in the Interstate 66 corridor and, for north-south traffic east of Dulles, on Rt. 28. "The substitute plan was good," she says.
Cuccinelli, their most visible convert, has adopted similar language. “The case has not been made that what’s proposed right over here is an efficient use of your transportation dollars to reduce the congestion that plagues all of Northern Virginia,” the attorney general told a crowd of 150 Saturday, according to The Washington Post. “It’s crazy in Northern Virginia to be making a deal with the National Park Service that closes down major roads in the heart of communities in Northern Virginia. ... If this is just a developer’s project, then it shouldn’t happen.”
"There are strong fiscal-conservative reasons to be opposed to this highway," says Schwartz with the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Local state senators and delegates are very concerned about the misallocation of tax dollars to this highway project. ... When they’ve spoken on this issue, they talk how it would make traffic worse, how it would divert resources from more critical fixes, and how they support protecting the rural crescent."
Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, is one of those conservatives. Among the more out-spoken opponents of the parkway, he says he sees considerable overlap between the thinking of Republicans/conservatives and that of Smart Growth advocates. The Bi-County Parkway controversy has made him more sympathetic to smart growth viewpoints, he says. "There is some argument to be made for smart growth."
For the most part, though, the sympathy for smart growth perspectives seems tactical, not based upon a profound appreciation for the smart growth vision of compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Largely missing from the conversation about the Bi-County Parkway is the insight that Smart Growth policies pursued in the Washington region's inner jurisdictions can absorb much of Northern Virginia's anticipated population growth in the coming decades. Supporting higher-density, mixed use development in D.C., Arlington and Alexandria and around Fairfax County metro stations when it is supported by market demand would relieve the pressure to continue developing Loudoun County, thus undercutting the perceived need for projects like the Bi-County Parkway. Republicans have yet to articulate that connection in a meaningful way.
Given the difficulty culturally conservative Republicans and culturally liberal Smart Growthers have talking to one another, it's not clear that Republicans will ever take that leap. But the PEC's Miller sees how the two sides might forge an alliance built around conservation and fiscal conservatism. Republicans and conservatives talk about Main Street preservation in the state's small towns. Those compact, walkable towns with grid streets, corner stores and apartments above the shops are similar to the kind of communities that Smart Growth advocates would like to build.
"In a lot of Virginia," says Miller, "they don't have to do smart growth -- they just have to revitalize stuff that's already there. In a lot of places, smart growth is just taking care of what you've got."