Manassas Journal Messenger | Chairman candidates debate taxes, growth

Democrat Rick Coplen and Republican Sean T. Connaughton, candidates for the Prince William Board of County supervisors chairman slot, duked it out debate style Thursday night at the Montclair Country Club.

The lively back and forth kept about 80 supporters — and opponents — wide-eyed for more than an hour as the two dueled over growth, infrastructure, taxes and economic development ideas.

Following incumbent protocol, Connaughton, R-At large, touted his previous term’s accomplishments, such as lowering the tax rate, adding schools and cutting crime.

Coplen built an argument of why Connaughton, despite his being a “smart and clever guy,” should be ousted.

Coplen, a 44-year-old retired chief of foreign intelligence watch, is challenging Connaughton’s second bid for chairman.

Connaughton, 42, is a lawyer for a Washington, D.C., law firm and a Navy reservist.

Coplen said Connaughton uses a “divide and conquer” approach to dealings with government officials.

He challenged Connaughton to promise that he’d be in office for four full years — Republican party faithfuls have been making noise about recruiting the chairman to run for lieutenant governor in 2005.

Connaughton did not speak to that hint and noted that he probably wouldn’t be getting a Christmas card from Coplen.

“Likewise,” Coplen quickly added.

Asked how to reduce taxes and deal with transportation issues, Coplen referred the audience to his Web site.

His plan includes reducing the amount of government spending and increasing the amount of commercial development to offset a former dependence on property taxes.

“In other words, no answer,” quipped Connaughton, who said the supervisors have done the best they can do with the tax rate and rising assessments.

Connaughton said there is no magic bean to plant that will sprout money — plus the county has been trying to catch up from the problems of the 1990s.

Both candidates agreed that preserving the environment is critical.

Coplen said he signed a pledge to preserve the Rural Crescent and Connaughton said he declined to sign it, but received an endorsement from a group to stop sprawl.

The Rural Crescent is an 80,000-acre chunk of the county that stretches from Quantico Marine Corps base to Loudoun County.

Connaughton noted that an article in The Washington Post ran with a headline, “Coplen seeks more houses in Rural Crescent.”

Connaughton’s campaign manager, Kyle Robertson, passed out copies of the article following the debate.

County zoning restricts residential lots in the Rural Crescent to one acre or larger, and in the story Coplen was reported saying he would cluster homes in the Rural Crescent to preserve larger swaths of land.

That would mean bunching together more houses on one smaller lot, he said.

When asked how they would slow the rate of residential growth and address growing infrastructure needs, the candidates continued their high-strung debate.

Each grabbed every chance possible to discount his opponent’s answers and gain an edge in front of a sometimes snickering audience.

Connaughton pledged to make sure developers pay proffers — as much as they legally can — and to develop infrastructure at a rate that matches residential growth.

Coplen agreed and proposed to build mass transit nodes and use a “smart growth” model for development.

That would include “high-density housing within areas of existing infrastructure,” Coplen said.

He then placed a chart on a nearby easel and told the audience that the county was sitting on a total of $17 million in proffers that should be used for building roads and funding other services.

Developers pay the county proffers, or offers of cash, to reduce the impact of their developments. They pay for roads, sewer, schools, libraries and parks.

Coplen said at least $8 million is just sitting in a county bank account while residents constantly complain of incorrigible traffic problems.

Connaughton agreed that the money was just sitting there, but countered that the money couldn’t legally be used until specific projects were begun.

The $17 million that Coplen said was “collecting dust” is really put on hold because that money couldn’t be spent on projects other than what it was collected for, Connaughton said.

They also differed on how to build business along U.S. 1.

“I am strongly, strongly in support of revitalizing Route 1,” Coplen said, adding that surrounding towns would need more pedestrian access.

Both candidates said they support revitalizing U.S. 1 through the Woodbridge and Dumfries districts, but wholeheartedly disagreed that an Innovation East proposal would be a viable town center, as Coplen urged.

His Innovation East imitates [email protected] William, a business park that the county developed near Manassas.

Coplen’s vision includes office space, hiking and biking trails and a town center. He said the federal government is offering grants for jurisdictions that build office space for government contractors.

“My opponent says he wants to do these things, but it all costs money,” said Connaughton. “How is he going to cut taxes and pay for all this?”

Coplen said he has high hopes for the county, which he compared to a Corvette.

“We’re in third gear,” Coplen said. “We have not begun to scratch the surface of the county’s potential to bring large and small businesses here.”

Connaughton said his interests include continuing a Potomac heritage trail and a Virginia Science Museum in the U.S. 1 area.

Immigrant populations are increasing in Prince William County, and the candidates also addressed plans for varying needs, including affordable housing.

Connaughton cited his track record of “helping people break the language barrier” and said that he wants to help “them all in realizing the great American dream in Prince William County.”

He has proposed a plan for affordable housing for teachers, police officers and fire fighters. In his plan, a group of county employees would live together to save housing costs in a county-owned house.

Coplen criticized that plan and instead suggested that the affordable housing dilemma be solved with a “public-private partnership.”

He agreed that county employees need a place to stay that is affordable, but questioned the group home environment.

“I don’t think that many of them would want to do that,” he said.

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