BY KAREN BEARDSLEE KWASNY
VIRGINIA BEACH — In 2002, when my husband and I were looking for a new house, a friend said to me, “You need to live in Pungo, Karen. That place will feel like home to you.” My family did not locate in Pungo for a variety of kid-school-related reasons, but we moved as close as possible at the time.
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I gravitate to the rural areas. In what we value and wish to conserve, it’s time our collective thinking and planning did the same.
Virginia Beach is a busy place. The city is teeming with life – restaurants, bars, grocery stores, gyms, theaters, boutique shops and the like. Almost all of us have every convenience within a three-mile drive. Yet, virtually half of Virginia Beach is found in the rural area.
As busy as life may get north of Indian River Road, when you head away from the commercial areas and travel toward Pungo, the topography changes and, so, too, does the state of mind. Visitors often comment on the sense of peace provided by the quiet, open spaces and lack of traffic on the roadways.
Still, it’s not as though business does not occur in the rural area. It does. Small business owners and farmers of many stripes – grain, fruit, vegetable, livestock, to name a few – conduct commerce here. And commerce is good, right?
Well, that depends on the type, of course, and one’s perspective about the right place for it.
Lately, there’s some talk about the kind of commerce that can and should be done in the rural area. Should the city permit, say, large tracts of land no longer, if ever, agriculturally used to become event venues? What happens to the land when a farm is no longer being farmed? Should this land go to developers? Of what type? How much?
These questions are important to a city like Virginia Beach, on the cusp of becoming a leader in alternative energy and environmental sustainability – a pivotal player in the race against sea-level rise.
The problem is that for many who live in Virginia Beach, the rural area is, well, out of sight, out of mind. Because of this, this important area of the city is often misinterpreted.
What our rural land provides us is not endless open space, but its value is immeasurable.
The farming that occurs there is crucial to our local and state economy. The rural area’s grain industry serves our port. The smaller farms that dot the landscape provide residents and locally owned restaurants with fresh produce throughout the year, and some enjoyable agriculturally themed activities.
The equestrian facilities provide lessons in and a place for a much-loved sport. Unique restaurants in this part of the city offer venue and fare different from anywhere else in town.
But there are also vast forests and wetlands covering the rural area. These provide us protection from the elements, which always seem like wolves at the door these days.
Is it possible a more robust and culturally reflective agritourism trade could be created by some ordinance changes that, likely, are long overdue? Yes. Is it necessary to consider the sometimes-disparate views of the various types of agricultural-use landowners who live there? Absolutely.
But preserving the land and conserving our rural area and agricultural heritage for the future truly must be our primary objective. It’s unfortunate to have our rural area in the crosshairs. Yet, in a way, this jewel has always been the center of our attention. All plans for this city work with the preservation of this area in mind.
The rural area plans propel other areas forward and compliment their goals. This is why it’s high-water time all Virginia Beach residents turn their attention to this area of Virginia Beach – if only to direct high-intensity commercial attention away from it.
The author is a college professor and former member of the Virginia Beach Planning Commission who lives in Ashville Park.
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