Ann Wheeler, the Democratic candidate for chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said Tuesday she agrees with past moves to strip the name of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, off Prince William County’s main eastern thoroughfare: U.S. 1.
Wheeler said many of the county’s residents find the name offensive.
“The name of that road, especially in the eastern end of the county, makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” Wheeler said Tuesday, during the first debate of the four candidates vying for board chairman, the county’s top elected post. “We are a majority-minority county. We need to understand that it upsets people.”
The other three candidates in the race said they see the matter differently. Republican nominee John Gray, as well as independents Muneer Baig and Don Scoggins, said they would leave the road’s name alone. Both Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, have removed Davis’s name from the highway in recent years, opting to call it Richmond Highway or U.S. 1. The current county board rejected an effort to change the road’s name in Prince William in 2017.
“We can’t erase our history just to make ourselves feel better,” Gray said. “Changing the name of the road isn’t going to do anything. It doesn’t change the past, it doesn’t change what happened.”
Scoggins said changing the name wouldn’t solve anything and that more attention should be paid to other matters, especially economic development.
Baig said keeping the highway’s current name is an opportunity to learn about our history.
“Every history in the world has its dark moments,” Baig said. “We can either run from it or we can learn from it. What we’re doing by erasing it, is running from it; but we have a great opportunity to learn from it.”
During the 90-minute forum, hosted by Regency at Dominion Valley and the Prince William Area League of Women Voters, the four candidates also outlined their positions on gun safety, the rural crescent and other issues.
The debate was moderated by Jill Palermo, managing editor of the Prince William Times. Voters will head to the polls Nov. 5 to elect all eight members of the board of supervisors and school board, as well as members of the Virginia General Assembly, sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney.
Supervisors are limited in what they can do to address gun laws in the county, but they can set the fee for concealed-carry weapon permits. Former Board Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, led an effort in 2016 to slash the price of concealed carry permits from $50 to $15.
Asked whether they would support an increase in the concealed carry permitting fee, three of the four candidates – Wheeler, Baig and Scoggins – said they would support a fee increase. The three also said they would advocate for “commonsense” changes in the state’s gun laws to help keep county residents safe.
Gray did not mention any gun law changes he would support and was the only candidate who said he would not consider raising the concealed carry permit fee.
Baig, a gunowner, said the state needs stricter background checks for firearms purchases.
Wheeler said Virginia’s state legislature had not done enough to address the issue.
“I care about commonsense gun control, whether it’s background checks, closing the loophole at gun shows, anything that makes our community safer,” Wheeler said. “I don’t think we can necessarily make it safer at the county level unless the state legislature changes the laws.”
“I think we’re really being derelict as adults in not coming up with some solution to what’s been going on,” Scoggins said. “Commonsense gun reform should be a no-brainer.”
The fate of the county’s rural crescent, the rural area in the northern and western areas of the county, was also discussed during the debate. Candidates had differing ideas about how to deal with the issue.
The county planning department recently completed a study of possible alternatives to the county’s current rural crescent policy. Some proposals would increase the number of housing units allowed in the area.
Gray is in support of keeping the current policy, which limits building to one house per 10 acres.
Wheeler said she would look for better ways to preserve the county’s open space than the current policy, including encouraging conservation easements to permanently limit development.
“There’s was a 450-acre farm recently that was chopped up into 10-acre lots. To me, that’s not preserving open space. It’s lawn; it’s not land,” Wheeler said.
Scoggins said he also supports preserving the rural crescent, and that his solution would be to create a commission of experts who could determine the best policy moving forward.
“I do not think we should to subscribe to one particular formula to preserve the rural crescent,” Scoggins said.
Baig said the rural crescent is a piece of history and cautioned against constructing new roads or sewers systems in the area.
“Developers want access, because that’s how they make money,” Baig said. “Any land that's opened up for them, any roads that are opened for them, any sewer system that’s built, that’s an opportunity for them to build.”
The next debate between the four candidates for chairman of the county board will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Red Rose Banquet and Event Center in Manassas.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org