Fifth District Congressman Robert Hurt of Chatham dashed through the Crozet area May 2, calling on small businesses and getting a status update on Crozet Library.
He arrived at Wyant’s Store in White Hall at 7:30 a.m. and sat on the long plank bench under the porch, chatting with farmers stopping in for coffee as a noisy stream of traffic turned south on Rt. 810 toward Crozet.
It is a district work week in Congress, a week when no votes are scheduled in the House and congressmen have a chance to attend to business at home. The Fifth District is Virginia’s most sprawling, reaching from the North Carolina line to Fauquier County, nearly to the riverbanks of Maryland. Hurt has a lot of geography to care about.
“The Fifth District is unique in that it is mostly rural but it has flavor with the University [of Virginia] and Charlottesville,” he said. “The agriculture sector is huge and vitally important, but we still have some manufacturing and some furniture and textile factories. Not like we used to, though.
“You don’t get a sense of some things that you hear being talked about until you see it on the ground,” Hurt said. He said he has two bills pending in the House now that are the result of touring the district. In one case a farmer in Southside had wanted to build a farm pond for irrigation and cattle watering. Farmers with projects like that are supposed to be exempt from oversight by the Corps of Engineers, Hurt explained. But the corps said the location had wetland characteristics, they became entangled in the case, and the farmer spent $30,000 and waited 18 months to get the pond built. Hurt put in what he called the Preserving Rural Resources Act, which he said tries to ensure that those with statutory exemptions from regulation are actually treated that way.
In a second case, because the dam at Smith Mountain Lake is for purposes of hydroelectric power, it is federally regulated and so is the lake shoreline. The lake has also become a huge recreation area and is lined with vacation houses. If a tree falls into the lake a property owner cannot remove it without permission from the Federal Regulatory Commission. To Hurt, it is another case of regulatory hassling and he has put in the Shore Act to, as he sees it, let common sense have more force. “The bureaucrats are always going to out-smart you,” he observed.
He also has also proposed a bill called the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, which attempts to mitigate the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate dust. “Farming makes dust,” said Hurt. “The EPA should not be able to shut farms down over it.” His opponent, Democrat John Douglass, has asserted that Hurt’s real aim is to restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate uranium dust, which could affect Hurt’s father’s ambition to reopen a uranium mine in Pittsylvania.
“We’re going off a cliff [with federal debt],” Hurt told listeners at Wyant’s Store. “It’s appalling that we’re going this way. It calls for a sensible tax reform.” But, he said, what will likely happen instead is that Congress will enact a “last-minute, kick-it-down-the-road band aid.”
Elbert Dale, an ardent Democrat and president of “the Liars Club” at Wyant’s, a group of retirees who start their day around a table at the store, said to Hurt, “You told me you didn’t have time for country stores.”
Hurt looked puzzled. “I heard about your club,” he said, bringing out a smile.
“Yes, this is the liars club here,” answered Dale. “You start lying as soon as you get in the door.”
Hurt asked if Dale had run for his office. Dale said, a little sheepishly, that he holds it on “an honorary basis.”
Dale bought Hurt a cup of coffee and said, “I need some time to straighten him out.”
“This is my favorite part of the job,” said Hurt.
“I know you won’t vote for me,” he said to Dale.
“I’ll vote for you if you can convince me you are the right man,” answered Dale.
Hurt said that from what he hears, “The immediate issue that is affecting people most is gas prices. We hear that everywhere we go. I believe we need to increase domestic supply. That should lower prices. It’s not simple because of what happens in the Middle East. We also don’t want to be subject to the whims of dictators there.”
He said “jobs and the economy” are his main themes in his campaign for re-election. “We need less government spending and less government regulation. It’s not really a Democrat or Republican issue. What Obama has tried hasn’t worked. It’s small businesses, like this store, that create jobs. Big businesses create jobs, but small businesses create more.”
Hurt mentioned the local fear of the possibility that the Greenwood Post Office will be closed. “We’re going to do whatever we can to protect them,” he said. “But we’re borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar the government spends.” The implication was that is hard to vote for subsidies for the U.S. Post Office in that circumstance. “I represent 22 counties and cities. It’s mostly rural. I know how important our rural post offices are.”
Next Hurt hustled off to Crozet Library where he was given a quick tour of the depot building and then headed for the site of the new library. The depot library has 75,000 visitors a year and as many as 10,000 a month over summer vacations, librarian Wendy Saz told him. “Our goal is to keep kids reading over the summer,” she said. The library has four public-access computers that people wait for chances to use, she pointed out.
“Isn’t that beautiful,” Hurt said as he was shown the design for the new library. He was joined in the new building’s future parking lot by Tim Tolson, chair of the JMRL’s board of Trustees, Bill Schrader, head of the local committee that is raising money to furnish the new library and stock it with books, computers and audio and video content, and JMRL Director John Halliday.
“This view is incredible,” Hurt continued.
The Crozet library serves about 28,000 people in western Albemarle, Schrader explained. He emphasized that the library is expected to be an economic driver for Crozet. “County officials tell us they think it will led to a 40 percent increase in business volume in downtown Crozet,” he said.
“I know you are against earmarks,” Schrader ventured.
“There’s an earmark ban across the board,” said Hurt, “but we’ll look for what we can that will help.”
“This is a real shovel-ready project, right now,” said Schrader.
Hurt said he was going assign a staff member the task of looking for ways the federal government might pitch in on the $1.6 million needed.
At Parkway Pharmacy, Hurt told pharmacist Brenda Plantz, “There’s nothing that means more to me than an independent pharmacy. They know everybody in a community.” He said he admires the way the independent pharmacies support each other.
Plantz took the occasion to speak out against monopoly formation in the industry by large pharmaceutical manufacturers. “The big pharmaceuticals shouldn’t be able to merge with smaller ones and buy up drug stores and consolidate control over the industry. The drug stores issue cards that make customers think they can only get their prescriptions filled through that one company’s stores.”
Hurt raised the matter of CSX railroad relinquishing ownership of the parking lot on The Square. Plantz said it still hasn’t happened, though the businesses are regularly told, for 18 months now, that the transfer to the county is about to happen.
“Lawyers are involved,” said Hurt, who is a lawyer. He offered to call CSX.
Hurt checked in at Crozet Hardware and talked about parking some more. He was easy, natural and gracious with everyone, yet was wound up with nervous energy that expressed itself in a tendency to fidget. He approached passersby when he encountered them and tried to talk to them. Many, not recognizing him, gave a perfunctory greeting and went on with their business. At Chiles Peach Orchard Hurt stood in the grove and owner Henry Chiles explained tree pruning and management and the business and marketing of fruit. Chiles said, “We are very concerned about where we are going to get the labor to harvest this crop. Our industry takes so much hand labor.”
“I worked a couple of summers in tobacco,” said Hurt with a knowing look.
Chiles was concerned about whether changes to immigration laws would harm the supply of seasonal farm workers. “Just because someone is unemployed doesn’t mean they can pick fruit,” he said. “We have to have experienced pickers. They have to be trained.”
“I have real concerns about e-verify,” said Hurt, referring to an immigration control proposal.
“Good,” said Chiles. They visited the three-acre pick-your-own strawberry field and Chiles handed Hurt a tray of plump strawberries.
Chiles asked Hurt to keep apples from China out of the American market. China raises more apples than the U.S., he said. “We went over there and taught them how to do it. I said then it was stupid thing for us to do.”
Next Hurt paid a call at The Lodge at Old Trail and from there he went on to a series of meetings set up in Nelson County. He said he logs about 1,200 miles during district work weeks. He predicted he would hear complaints about gas prices again soon.