Candidates for chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors have much in common above the water.
But the public disagreements between Democrat Rick Coplen and incumbent Republican Sean T. Connaughton indicate that their differences are much deeper than at a superficial glance.
Coplen served 20 years in the Army as an intelligence briefer, analyzer and advisor.
Connaughton has served 20 years of active and non-active duty in the Naval Reserve as chief of naval operations.
Neither men’s children attend public schools.
In terms of transportation, housing and economic development, both men have similar concepts of what has to be done.
But how to arrive at those goals is where Coplen and Connaughton begin their divergence.
About 173,900 voters on Nov. 4 will have the chance to choose which candidate will lead them for the next four-year term.
Coplen, 44, is a huge proponent of economic development on the eastern end of the county, as shown by his “Innovation East” business park plan.
On paper, it’s a mix of colorful swatches indicating office space, high- and medium-density housing, gardens, parks, a sports complex and a town center.
Connaughton, 42, supports business in the county, too.
But he criticizes Coplen’s Innovation East idea, saying it’s really the product of Ken Thompson, who developed Lake Ridge.
Coplen doesn’t deny that Thompson gave him the idea, and says that many other people have contributed to its design.
Coplen pushes the plan as a representation of his support for economic development of offices and transit nodes and smart growth.
Connaughton said he’s for smart growth too, with a record of making attempts to initiate affordable housing projects in the county.
But he questions the county’s role in facilitating private development.
Someone would have to pay for the exit ramp from Interstate-95 to Innovation East and the business park’s infrastructure.
Maybe the offices and retail shops, after they are built, could be a part of a specific taxing district to reimburse the county for those infrastructure expenses, said Coplen.
He added that the county would not have to purchase that land — a successful business park there would be the product of a public-private partnership.
Connaughton said county money should no longer be used to develop sites as it has done at [email protected] William, a business park site that the county purchased and has been selling to large companies.
He said the county shouldn’t invest in another business park when it’s in dire need of roads and schools.
The land that encompasses Innovation East, which is surrounded by I-95, Caton Hill and Minnieville roads, is already zoned for a regional employment center.
As the candidates traverse to the county’s western rural preservation issues, their paths overlap, too.
But under the surface — err, underground– is where they disagree.
Connaughton said he introduced a plan to purchase development rights from land owners so their properties remain rural with no chance of future development.
He said the idea was shot down by five of the board’s eight members.
Coplen said the county should be using more tools to preserve open space, such as purchasing development rights.
Coplen also proposes cutting developers breaks in proffer requirements if they cluster homes in the Rural Crescent, an 80,000-acre expanse throughout Brentsville and Gainesville.
It’s the only way for developers to cluster there — otherwise they’d build 10-acre lots that don’t require proffers, he said.
Residential lots in the Rural Crescent are zoned at a minimum of 10-acres and clustering is an allowed use. A clustered development places houses on smaller lots, positioning homes near each other and preserving one continuous open area.
Connaughton agreed that clustering is a great idea to swap huge swaths of land for a clump of 2.5-acre lots.
But he said that even though clustering is a “lovely” idea, homes that are closer together require sewer and water hookups rather than wells and septic systems.
Coplen said he’d like a citizen committee to review Rural Crescent zoning to work out kinks and make the area more effective in preserving land.
Connaughton agrees that minor changes in the zoning laws should be made, such as creating buffers between pig farms and houses, but only when the citizens “have a board they trust,” he said.
Having a board that can agree is an important issue for Coplen, he said.
He criticized Connaughton for not building consensus on the board during tough votes in order to obtain the best policy for the county.
Coplen prides his Army training to provide him with leadership skills that make him a “bipartisan consensus builder.”
“[Connaughton] had a 6 to 2 partisan advantage on the board walking in,” said Coplen. “You would have thought he would have done a better job reaching of consensus.”
Connaughton disagreed, saying previous boards voted unanimously frequently.
“Each one of us are elected to represent the interests of our constituents,” he said. “You should be voting based on proposals, not back-road politics and whatever trades are made.”
They each agree that the other is too connected to developers.
Coplen said Connaughton is indebted to developers, considering the amount of political contributions he received from builders.
Connaughton said Coplen is too close to Thompson and builder interests.
The candidate position is at large, meaning every registered voter in the county has a chance to choose whom they decide is the best chairman to serve the entire county.