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21 Years and Counting

Back in 1988, a small group of concerned citizens came together in the area east of Richmond, known as Varina, to discuss some civic improvements. The impetus for the meeting was a new interstate, I-295, which would circumvent Richmond and in so doing, cross over a local road that these citizens held dear. The road, Route 5, the new world’s first “highway,” connected the old and new capital of Virginia– Williamsburg to Richmond. Today it is a scenic byway; with its tunnels of arching trees it provides the only access to many of Virginia’s historic plantations: Westover, Shirley, Sherwood Forest and Berkeley, Evelynton, Malvern Hill and numerous Civil War battlefields.

A massive intersection was planned for those exiting I-295 as a way to get onto Route 5 going east to Williamsburg, or west to Richmond through Varina. These local citizens felt the entrance to Varina and the gateway to Williamsburg should be no ordinary, unimaginative federal intersection. So they formed the Varina Beautification Committee, raised over $14,000 from local folks and planted 409 trees on those four cloverleafs. VDOT helped with a landscape plan for the new magnolias, white pines, crape myrtles, maples and red oaks that still glorify the intersections today.

With our mission complete and the interchange permanently beautified, we were about to close shop and go home. An unknown developer was about to build a gaggle of low quality homes with their backyards and garages facing Route 5. How tacky! After several meetings with the developer later and he agreed to install a service road and reverse his site plan and situate the fronts of the houses along Route 5 where they are today. With that taste of success, we sought discussions with other developers to extract the best we could from them.

Here it is, 21 years later, and we are still meeting on the first Thursday evening of each month. Our task has evolved into “helping to ensure only quality development occurs along the historic Route 5 corridor.” Our record of success would amaze you, especially considering we are a relatively small group, and eight of us have served since our genesis 21 years ago. As much as we would like to see Varina remain in bucolic fields of soybeans, alfalfa, horses, historic plantations, forests and battlefields, it’s not going to happen. The best we can do is work with the developers for smart growth, walkable communities, and “density with amenities,” as we say, in order to consume the least amount of farm and forest land possible.

We are champions of open space and conservation easements, transferable development rights and mindful of the cost of infrastructure to the county. When you consider the number of planning and boards of supervisors meetings we have attended over the past two decades, in addition to our own monthly meetings, the total must be nearing 500. We have stopped bad developments and endorsed good ones; we’ve extracted proffers for better design, landscaping and lighting, more open space and given awards to conscientious builders.

Three shining examples of enhanced quality include: the Exxon station at Rt 5 and I-295, Citizens and Farmers Bank at Strath Road and the veterinary clinic on Rt 5. But more than that, our county supervisor and planning commissioner told us several years ago that when they are approached by a developer, they tell the builder to “run it by the VBC” before even approaching the County. That’s a pretty good track record for a bunch of “just dedicated citizens”!

With the 2026 Henrico County land use plan up for its only public hearing June 9 we are moving to a crescendo. Lots of land use is at stake, and during the past year we forced our supervisor to hold an evening work session which was attended by over 300 citizens. For once the supervisor and his planning commissioner got a good dose of face-to-face input from real live residents! We have made visits to all five supervisors and the county planners with our thoughts on the 2026 plan and urgings for Henrico County to adopt a program for the purchase of development rights (PDR). Three of the five supervisors said they had never been lobbied by citizens from outside their district before! More than that, they said they finally understood what a PDR program was and how it could foster conservation easements and save the county infrastructure dollars. We are hopeful that our 100+ hours of study and input will make a difference when they vote to adopt the final plan.

We take great solace in our ability to slow down sprawl and helter-skelter housing, crammed onto retired family farms only for the purposes of a quick buck. The supervisors and professional planning staff recognize our expertise and value it. I dare say there are parts of the Henrico code book that we know better than the professional planners. There’s no telling how many letters we have written, public statements presented and phone calls made over the past 21 years. The message is this: If you care, you can make a difference!

If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t been in bed with a mosquito!—Charlie Finley, Chairman,  Varina Beautification Committee.

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