Stack of paper

The documents for one recent Blacksburg Town Council meeting are shown.

It will come as no surprise to most readers that the mood in Blacksburg and elsewhere in the New River Valley is unsettled just now. 2019 dawned with encouraging news. After more than a decade of deliberation, an ambitious mixed-use development on 21 acres was approved in downtown Blacksburg; and the county Board of Supervisors determined to address overcrowding in Christiansburg schools.

Blacksburg allowed backyard chickens, saw Airbnb revenues increase dramatically, and savored national acclaim for BT’s award as the Outstanding Transit System in North America. In Christiansburg, construction commenced at the long-neglected Marketplace shopping center, while plans advanced for a 60-acre public park off Prices Fork Road, and two new developments promised a mix of townhomes, apartments, office space, more shopping and a hotel.

These represent not change for change’s sake, but the rewards of joy deferred; the promise of things long-delayed, badly needed, sometimes earned at tremendous cost.

Then came news of Virginia Tech’s incautious over-enrollment of freshmen; and its deal with Amazon in Northern Virginia, which is causing ripple effects locally. Work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline scars the landscape. There’s the prospect of electric scooters in our streets and on our sidewalks; of drones in our skies. Little wonder that neighborhoods rail against high density housing proposals and the razing of familiar sites to make way for the unknown.

I talk nearly every day with friends and neighbors who are hurting. Not because they are unimaginative or unrealistic, but because this place they have known and loved seems to be slipping away before their eyes.

On Nov. 12, Blacksburg Town Council scheduled four public hearings, including seven separate legal actions, for new development sweeping from the north of town, through the center and westward. We’re considering an amendment to the town’s charter and setting a legislative agenda for next year’s General Assembly, too. The amount of supporting documentation involved for that one evening’s council meeting is pictured above: approximately three reams of paper.

I offer this illustration without judgement, in hopes that it will convey what all the ordinances, resolutions and charters cannot. Citizens have the right to petition their government, and that means when developers come to us with proposals, we are legally bound to receive and review them. We’re experiencing an order of change that most communities are never called to accommodate; and, we should acknowledge that many communities are contracting as the NRV expands.

It is the human condition to resist change. All of us have a tendency toward what researchers call “status quo bias.” So much so, that it’s embedded in our culture and language, going back to the ancients: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush . . . All that glitters, is not gold . . . Look before you leap . . . Better safe than sorry.

We vastly prefer the known to the unknown—it’s part of the human condition. And so, when presented with change, we experience it as loss and degradation, whether the circumstances warrant that or not. And more horrible still is the prospect of rapid change. From whence will come our help?

Town council members are not immune to the feelings of sadness, excitement, agitation and anger that our neighbors and friends are experiencing. At the same time, it is our obligation to evaluate each development proposal that comes before us with respect and curiosity.

Look at that pile of paper in the photo and consider that it may contain the seed of something we could embrace: daycare for our children, or an affordable first home; clustered housing to preserve rural open space, or new trails for hiking and biking.

Our help will come from the strength of our connections with one another. The citizens I’m honored to serve are self-reliant and typically unimpressed with conspicuous consumption. They loved this place before it had a four-lane highway, a shopping mall, a Starbucks or raw fish on the lunch menu. Then and now, true to our Appalachian heritage, this mountain valley welcomed the stranger.

As a public servant, I lift my eyes toward those mountains, with a resolve to preserve them and all for whom they are home. I have faith that we can manage the changes to come, while we hold fast to the people and things that hold value for us. For nearly 400 years, people have been drawn to the New River Valley in search of a better life, and with gifts of their own to share. I hope that day will not come when we cannot welcome another stranger.

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Leslie Hager-Smith is mayor of Blacksburg, Virginia.

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