Essay – Community Character, what is it?

The Strategic Planning Advisory Group (SPAG) met recently to review the first draft of an Economic Opportunities Analysis that will be presented to the Board of Supervisors on 9 February. The committee consists of 17 county citizens with a diverse set of backgrounds, chartered to advise the County’s Strategic Plan initiative, a year-long effort to prepare a strategic action plan that will guide county operations and investments for the next 20 years.

Part of their session involved a preliminary discussion of the Strategic Plan’s Mission, Vision, Goals, and Actions. The basis of the discussion was a review of county documents like the 2035 Comprehensive Plan along with recent sensing sessions with community stakeholders, county staff, and the SPAG. Not surprisingly one of the key themes to float to the top was preserving “Community Character”. Part of the discussion at this session was the squishiness of trying to define what we mean by “community character” let alone defining what it is we want to preserve. A fair point but as most of you know the issue of preserving our community character is what we say is why we live in James City County based on consecutive surveys as part of the county’s comprehensive plans.

If we do want to “preserve the community character” it is only fair that we tell these Strategic Planning Committees what we mean by it. As diverse as we are as a community I am sure that there are multiple views on what we mean by “community character” but at the same time, I think there is a set of common themes that up to this point have not been articulated.

To start that conversation let me share my notion of “community” as broader than just James City County. As I travel about locally on any day I don’t differentiate between York County, the City of Williamsburg or James City County which I can cross into and out of and back again. My community is the Historical Triangle and the history of the region from Jamestown to Yorktown and everything in between is part of its character. Traveling across the peninsula on the Colonial Parkway gives you a feel for another dimension of that character with its open green space devoid of any commercial signage or clutter to distract you from the idea that you are traveling back to a simpler rural community of the past. Traveling through the city of Williamsburg past the college through “confusion corner” and out along Jamestown Road to the Jamestown Ferry and Jamestown Beach it’s not a far reach to see what you mean by “community character” and why you think it’s worthwhile to preserve. This is just one of many ideas of what community character can mean and what we may want to preserve.

There is a flip side based on today and not in the past that talks to what our future community character will be. Have you driven to Pet Smart or filled up on a tank of gas at Martins and then driven back onto Monticello drive to see a homeless veteran asking for help at the stop light? Or a school bus at a local motel in the morning picking up children whose family are homeless and that are striving every day to get an education. The county’s commitment to such issues are reflected in the little less than $300K that go to community service agencies like Avalon or Meals on Wheels or $325 to Education and Environmental agencies like Thomas Nelson Community College or its $1.8M contributions to health service organizations like Parents as Teachers Program, the Old Towne Medical Center and the Colonial Behavioral Health.

This community cares about all of us and gives generously with its time and resources to those who need our help – that is it’s about our character as a community in that we care about people first not things and it is also part of a legacy that stretches back to the founding of the county as JamesCity Sire in 1634.

I am sure that all of you have your ideas on what you mean by community character, why you live her and what you want to preserve. If you feel like sharing send it into the Last Word and let us tell the folks on the Strategic Planning Committees what we think is worthwhile preserving.

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