Column – Not too late for an honest discussion about growth

Published 4:56 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Virginians have been debating, and often fighting, over property rights ever since a band of naive adventurers waded ashore at Jamestown more than four centuries ago. Who owns what, and what rights accrue to that owner, have been central to our history ever since.

Within a few years of landing on that miasmic piece of lowland, Englishmen were divvying up parcels of land for their own use, thereby settling the initial question of property rights: The land would no longer be owned by the Powhatan nation. That phase was settled by simply taking it, defending it and, when necessary, killing a goodly number of those who had possessed it earlier.

Thereafter, things got more complicated. Fence laws — Do you keep your animals in or keep your neighbor’s animals out? — came and went for much of the state’s history. 

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Then, there was travel. Englishmen and most Europeans historically had what was known as the “right to roam,” to cross private land while going from one place to another. Colonists enjoyed the same right. In time, there had to be roads, but early on, they were built by the landowner whose property they traversed, and travelers paid tolls to those landowners as they went. That system continued into the 20th century. 

Through it all, Virginians defended underlying property rights — the right to acquire and hold property, and to use it as they saw fit. They heartily embraced the concept that property was fundamental to liberty.

 It was no accident that Thomas Jefferson immortalized the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, he lifted without apology John Locke’s primary premise that no one should harm another’s right to “life, health, liberty or possessions.” 

The shift to “pursuit of happiness” is what we might consider today good public relations. It was a great phrase for a Declaration of Independence, but there was no misunderstanding that the founders and most of their fellow Americans believed in the sanctity of property.

The arguments over property rights, then and now, were often bitter, particularly in debates over eminent domain. In the early 20th century, roads that property owners had built were totally inadequate for the emerging automobile era, and in 1906 the Virginia Highway Commission was created and charged with building a state-owned road system. Taking property for public use was the only way that could occur, as well as school construction and other needs. 

Today, the property rights debate is most often focused on zoning issues, particularly in communities that developers have declared ripe for the picking — like ours.

Isle of Wight and Smithfield reluctantly adopted zoning rules just over a half-century ago. Such concepts just never sat well in rural Virginia, including here. After all, from the time we initially took it from Native Americans, this land has belonged to those who had a deed in the courthouse. They have had and still presume the right to do with it as they choose.

But to what extent, if any, should that right be curtailed? Does a landowner who happens to own one parcel of land totaling 250 acres automatically have the right to divide it as he chooses into more than 600 dwellings plus commercial property? 

Well, why not? After all, that’s what life, liberty and property is all about, right?

Perhaps, but what must the public be expected to contribute in order to satisfy that landowner’s needs? I’m not talking about tax dollars put directly into development. Hopefully, the debate over the Pierceville site has dampened local government’s enthusiasm for doing that, although we still don’t know for sure that it has. What I’m talking about is the impact on public services, including schools and roads — roads that are already listed as congested by the same Department of Transportation that routinely tells Isle of Wight and Smithfield to “bring it on” with more housing units. 

VDOT shrugs and says our roads can handle it, and if not, we’ll build some roundabouts and all will be good.

Seriously, there is a debate to be had here. In truth, it’s a debate that should have been held at least a decade ago, and probably two. How much growth can the county and town handle, and how much should residents be expected to handle? What’s the county’s absorption rate? What is the ultimate goal? Is it whatever the market will bear?

Smithfield and Isle of Wight need to be having this discussion — should have been having this discussion — and every last bit of that discussion should be held in public.

I understand the argument often made that, once here, everyone wants to close the door on anyone else coming. That makes for colorful debate, but it doesn’t address the underlying and very real concerns of people who — no matter how long they have lived here — don’t want to see this become Virginia Beach or Chesapeake.

Property rights are valuable, but so is the quality of life that once defined Isle of Wight and Smithfield. The horse may be out the barn door, but it’s still possible to tether it in the paddock rather than giving it a completely free rein.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is