A high school teacher and a finance manager will square off Nov. 6 for the George Washington District seat on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors.

Tom Coen, a Colonial Forge High School government teacher who was appointed to the seat earlier this year, says his local government experience—including a stint on the Planning Commission—makes him the most qualified candidate. His opponent, Gordon Silver, a finance manager for Cox Automotive, says he would fight to bring more tax dollars to southern Stafford, which he thinks has been shortchanged over the years.

Coen unsuccessfully vied for the seat as a Republican in 2003 and 2007, but is running as an independent this year. Supervisors voted unanimously in February to appoint him over Silver and five other candidates after Bob Thomas voluntarily stepped down from the seat to become a state delegate.

Silver, a Stafford native, received the Republican nomination, which he said reflects his fiscally conservative views and belief in the free-enterprise system.

Both candidates have emphasized their desire to minimize housing developments in their more rural district, which includes the site of George Washington’s boyhood home. Coen said he helped create a program in which the county buys development rights from landowners, saying the measure has preserved nearly 500 acres of land. Some residents, he said, went on to buy additional farmland after the county purchased easements on their undeveloped property.

“My opponent hasn’t even spoken at board meetings in favor of any of these things,” said Coen, who has served on a variety of county and schools committees.

Silver acknowledged that the Purchase of Developments Rights program has saved farmland, but said applications can take years to process. The county, he said, should explore more efficient public–private partnerships, perhaps with the numerous land-preservation trusts throughout the state.

He said he could not yet say exactly how such a partnership would work.

“The need for preserving green space is not just something for quality of life, it’s something that will help us be stronger financially in the future,” he said, adding that housing developments do not pay for themselves.

Silver called Stafford’s new restrictions on higher-density “cluster subdivisions” a step in the right direction because they limit those developments to parts of the county with access to public water and sewer. But he said the county opened itself up to lawsuits by not grandfathering in applications that had already been submitted.

A Stafford developer sued over the restrictions, and a circuit judge recently ruled that he could move forward with three applications for cluster subdivisions ahead of a January trial.

Coen, who supported the new limits on cluster subdivisions, questioned his opponent’s commitment to managing growth, citing the Fredericksburg Area Construction Trust’s $1,000 donation to Silver. Coen said he met with the organization but was never offered money.

He did not explicitly say whether he would have accepted a donation from the group, but explained: “I’m very leery of taking money from anybody that there may be strings attached. There may not be strings attached, but in life, perception is reality.”

Silver, who said he is not pro-growth, said the construction trust purchased $1,000 worth of tickets to his “Community Cookout” fundraiser last month so that families could attend. The event included ice cream, hay rides and live music.

Silver criticized Coen for voting in favor of a capital plan this year that includes money for renovating, rather than rebuilding, Ferry Farm Elementary School. The county’s capital plan includes $10.6 million to renovate Ferry Farm Elementary by fall 2020, but Silver thinks a rebuild would be more cost effective.

“We have to have someone who will draw a line in the sand and fight for our end of the county,” he said. “I believe [Coen] folded like a cheap lawn chair.”

Coen said he had two options: Vote to renovate Ferry Farm soon or wait at least another decade to rebuild the 61-year-old school.

He said he would love to rebuild Ferry Farm in the near future, but that the votes were not there to do so.

“The choice facing everybody was, kick the can down the road and hope you would get a rebuild in a decade or try something now,” he said.

Neither candidate closed the door on increasing the real estate tax rate in the future.

Coen voted this year to maintain the tax rate of 99 cents per $100 of assessed value, which was technically a tax increase because of this year’s rise in home values.

Stafford’s budget this year included a 2.5 percent raise for teachers and local government employees—including deputies and firefighters—12 additional firefighters, five more deputies, and armed “school protection officers” in three of the county’s 17 elementary schools.

“I was very proud that we put a lot of emphasis on trying to retain employees—police, fire, rescue and education,” Coen said.

Silver said he’s knocked on 2,500 doors and heard from just one resident who categorically opposed a tax increase. Most people would be OK with a minimal tax increase if it meant, say, retaining more teachers, he said.

“I hate to coin this term, but it would almost be political suicide to say, no new taxes and pound your hand, because the community really is not saying that,” he said.

“They’re not looking for pie-in-the-sky type things but … they do not mind paying for a decent teacher’s salary, for decent fire and rescue, for infrastructure.”

Coen described himself as a lifelong Republican and fiscal conservative, but said he ran as an independent because partisanship and special interests have no place in local office. He was endorsed by the Stafford Democratic Committee, but he said he has support from people of varying political beliefs.

“I just have a reputation for reaching across to anybody to get things done and look for a way to find common ground,” he said.

Silver accused Coen of trying to have it both ways, adding: “You cannot be independent of a political party and accept a party endorsement.”

Politics aside, Silver said he can relate to the rural lifestyle of the George Washington District’s longtime residents.

The assistant chief for the Patawomeck Indians, Silver still lives on a family farm where he cut corn by hand as a child. The county has changed a lot since his childhood, but “we still have a vestige of that community—the farmers, the watermen—in [our] end of the county.”

“And I understand them, I understand their way of life,” he said.

Coen said that, being a teacher, he can relate to people on fixed incomes, something that plays into his decisions.

He’s lived and taught in the county for 20 years and said some of his former students now own businesses here.

“I understand the pressures of people who are trying to make ends meet,” he said “I understand the pressures of people trying to live in Stafford because housing prices and rent prices are so high.”

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402 jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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