BACK BAY – Two current members of the Virginia Beach City Council addressed the concerns of rural voters – including farmland preservation, flooding and district representation – during a forum at the Creeds Ruritan Community Complex on Thursday, Oct. 24.
Councilmembers Guy Tower and Rosemary Wilson had some areas in common – such as support for the agricultural reserve program, a program that keeps farmland active by purchasing development rights – but sparred over unique aspects of the contest, in which, for the first time, a sitting member of the council seeks another seat.
A third candidate, businessperson Richard “R.K.” Kowalewitch, arrived late at the forum from another function, but he stuck around to speak with people who attended the event. The forum was sponsored by Virginia Beach Farm Bureau and the Creeds Ruritan Club, and The Independent News provided promotional support for the event. Farmer Ryan Horsley served as moderator.
The Princess Anne District, represented by Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer, encompasses rural communities in southern Virginia Beach, the main coverage area of The Independent News. The forum included Beach District and Rose Hall District candidates, as past forums included other district and at-large candidates, because voters from throughout the city vote to fill all seats on the council. And all members of the council have a say in issues that influence life in rural areas of Virginia Beach.
“I’ve been on council only for a few months, but I’ve already seen where my skill set has come into use,” said Tower, a retired attorney and mediator, noting that he’d brought his experience to discussions of projects such as the Dome site.
Said Wilson, a realtor who has served on the council since 2000, “I’m running for the Beach seat because this has been a crazy year. Our incumbent lost, and the fellow who won was removed from office, and then we appointed Mr. Tower, who said that he was only going to be interim.”
Wilson said she wanted to bring stability to a seat that had three people in it within a six-month period.
“As all of you know, the district council person makes a lot of decisions and guides what happens in that district,” she said.
The candidates would fill the remainder of the term won this past year by David Nygaard, whose win was voided by a panel of judges who determined Nygaard had moved into the district only to seek office. Nygaard had defeated an incumbent, former City Councilmember John Uhrin, who then brought the suit that led to Nygaard’s ouster.
Tower was appointed earlier this year to the Beach District temporarily until the result of the special election. Initially, Tower said he would not run in the special election, but he changed his mind.
Wilson had announced she would seek the seat, saying she meant to bring stability to the district and guide key projects there. Wilson, who previously served on the School Board, remains an at-large representative on the council amid the campaign, and she has faced some criticism for her decision to run while already holding a seat.
A majority of the City Council recently voted to appeal to the General Assembly so the city could change its charter to prevent it from happening again.
She said her decision to run came because she saw the district needed experience.
“It needs the leadership that I can bring,” she said during the forum, “and I do live there. So I decided to run, and I announced, and then a couple of weeks later our appointee who said he wasn’t going to run, he said my word is my bond, he said I’m going to run against you.”
Both candidates said they support the agricultural reserve program, commonly called the ARP, which has helped preserve nearly 10,000 acres of farmland in Virginia Beach.
“I think I support it mainly because of its results,” Tower said. “It’s produced a great benefit to the city, I think. There have been many thousands of acres preserved from development rights, relieving the pressure on that property, keeping it in its agricultural state. That makes a lot of sense to me.”
He said the only criticism of the program he has encountered is that some have “profited, if you will” from enrolling in the program. This is not “disqualifying,” he said.
“It seems to be a fair way for the city to leverage its opportunity to acquire these development rights and a lot of money on infrastructure,” Tower said.
Wilson said she supported the program “100 percent.”
“There has not been one vote that’s come up for ARP that I did not support,” she said. “And it’s a really important program that Councilwoman Henley came up with I don’t know how many years ago. It was in place when I got on council.”
Wilson also noted she has supported the program during times it faced cuts, such as when former City Manager Dave Hansen proposed ending the program.
“I stood with Councilwoman Henley to make sure that funding stayed in place,” Wilson said. “So the one good thing about me that you know is I have a history. You know what you have. I can say what I’ve done. I don’t have to say what I think because I’ve been doing it.”
Another question during the forum dealt with whether the city’s hybrid system of at-large and district seat should be maintained. Though district representatives must live within and represent specific geographic areas, voters from around the city select them.
Tower said he was not sure the system is the best way to select leaders. He said a number of people are dissatisfied with the system because either they lack control over district representatives or because the system is hard to follow.
Tower said voters may need to take another look at the system, perhaps through a study followed by a referendum.
Wilson agreed that the hybrid system can be confusing, but there are benefits.
“With the system that we have, everybody gets 11 votes,” she said, referring to the number of seats on the council, including the mayor, and a district system would mean fewer representatives answering to voters within a geographic area.
“So your voting power would be diluted,” she said, and council members might have less investment in items outside their district.
Wilson and Tower both said they do not support extending services below Indian River Road, which could lead to development and would mean service costs amid a time of great concern about flooding, especially the recurrent wind-driven flooding unique to areas around Back Bay.
Regarding flooding, Tower said he would try to balance concerns about a backlog of work to dig out ditches with other priorities to battle flooding. He said he would pay attention to those concerns.
Wilson acknowledged that the challenges of wind tides are complex, but noted that the City Council asked a consultant to study the specific issue here to develop strategies. She said there are other things that can be done, too, such as elevating roads.
Kowalewitch, the only candidate from last year’s election to run in this special election, addressed some of the matters raised during the forum in a recent response to questions posed by The Independent News.
In those written responses, Kowalewitch said he supports the agricultural reserve program, but that “it needs to be audited and tweaked,” and that he opposes extending services south of Indian River Road.
“We don’t need to build on every square inch of this city,” he wrote.
Additionally, Kowalewitch listed addressing stormwater issues as among his top priorities should he win office on Tuesday, Nov. 5. He criticized the level of city support to address stormwater and said he will “focus our government in providing funding for our aging infrastructure problems.”
A downloadable audio version of the forum is available via princessanneindy.com/podcast. It can be downloaded to iTunes or RSS feed. Additionally, The Independent News 2019 Voter Guide is online. Pungo Publishing Co., LLC, which publishes The Independent News, is an associate member of Virginia Beach Farm Bureau but does not participate in political endorsements or policy recommendations.
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