Sunday, May 15, 2016

Rural Va. weekly gets unprecedented community response from survey on quality of life, concerns

The weekly Rappahannock News in northern Virginia got an unprecedented 42 percent response rate (1,362 out of 3,258) from a survey sent to every household in the county asking residents about their most important qualities of life in the region and their main issues of concern. Rappahannock County (Wikipedia map) has 7,400 residents and is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, 65 miles west of Washington, and may be a classic case of a rural place that wants to maintain its environmental qualities while having more urban conveniences. The News turned the survey, done in a partnership with a local non-profit, into a three-part series.

Many respondents said they "treasure the beauty that surrounds them, the privacy they enjoy in one of Virginia’s least populated and unspoiled places, and the spirit of volunteerism that has neighbor helping neighbor," Christopher Connell writes in the first part of the series. "But most who responded to the survey are open to some changes. They see a crying need for better cellphone and internet service, no longer frills but essentials that affect safety, children’s education and, increasingly, people’s livelihoods. As one resident put it, 'We need to catch up to Third World countries.'”

(News graphic: Respondents rated each category from 1, not important at all, to 4, very important)

"The survey, commissioned by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foothills Forum and conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research, found 90 percent of respondents satisfied with living in Rappahannock and a scant 3 percent dissatisfied," Connell writes. "As much as people love the solitude and want nothing to destroy the mountain vistas, obscure the night skies or invade the hollows, more than 70 percent are open to some changes. Fewer than three in 10 believe Rappahannock should stay just as it is with no more changes. But sentiment was strong – 70 percent – in favor of limiting taxes."

"While respondents are mostly satisfied with the quality of services and amenities in the county, they also are anxious about housing affordability, the dearth of jobs, the availability of services for elders, and preserving farms," Connell writes. "Protecting the environment ranked high among concerns. Maintaining the county’s beauty, preserving the quality of its rivers and keeping the night skies shimmering were Nos. 3, 5 and 6. While it’s a point of pride that there are no fast-food outlets or big-box stores nor even a stoplight, some residents chafe at having to drive to Warrenton, Culpeper or Front Royal to shop at a supermarket or fill a prescription."

The biggest concerns were poor internet and cell phone service, Connell writes in the second part of the series. "Rappahannock residents gripe about a myriad of inconveniences from the county’s spotty cellphone service—the missed call from a doctor’s office or a teacher, the important text message that didn’t get through, the boss or a customer not being able to find them in a pinch. Mostly they grin— or grit their teeth.—and bear it. Some would prefer no service to a profusion of cell towers."

Poor cell service can be more than a nuisance, Connell notes, telling the story of maintenance worker Richard Allen Brown being struck in the leg by the blade of a trimmer, severing an artery. "His co-worker tried to fashion a tourniquet and then, because his cellphone had no reception, frantically ran a half-mile uphill to the nearest house to call for an ambulance from a land line. The Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad arrived eight minutes after the call. Two other companies responded as well and a medevac helicopter was called, all too late for the 67-year-old Sperryville man."

Despite lack of technology, some residents are concenthat the region is "frozen in time," Connell writes in the third part of the series. In addition to poor internet and cell phone service four of the top six concerns were "maintaining the county’s beauty, maintaining family farms, protecting the quality of rivers and keeping those remarkable views of the sky and stars at night." Rick Kohler, president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, told Connell, “It’s one of the last places on the East Coast with a view of the Milky Way. It is a treasure we must all cherish for once gone, it is gone forever.”

The region has "already has undergone significant changes in recent decades," Connell writes. "The apple and peach orchards are largely gone. There are still no stoplights or fast-food franchises, but the population grew 44 percent between 1970 and 2010, from 5,200 to 7,500. It is graying rapidly and, some fear, gentrifying in ways that could make it affordable mainly for 'come heres' at the expense of 'been heres'.”

The nonprofit Foothills Forum raises community support for research and enhanced reporting on Rappahannock County matters. Its all-volunteer directors and advisers include journalists with backgrounds at The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, America’s Morning News and American Spectator. "The countywide survey establishes a baseline to guide future reporting on key issues including a deeper dive into broadband and cell coverage where large swaths of the mountainous region lack connectivity. In this unique community engagement effort, the nonprofit is also underwriting a college intern this summer and has underwritten the expenses of a volunteer uploading public meetings to YouTube," writes Larry "Bud" Meyer, chair of the organization, in an email to The Rural Blog.

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