Chances are that any hearing on land use or transportation policy in Arlington County, someone will stand up, brandish a copy of the Arlington News and begin, "Well, Louise Chesnut says. . . ." If no one does, chances are it's because Louise herself is there to testify.
Chesnut, 61, has lived in Arlington for almost 30 years and is recognized by many residents and officials in the area as the queen of citizen activism who knows how to get things done in the county. She once suggested to the Arlington County Board that they rename Arlington "Smith County" after super-developer Charles E. Smith.
"I don't know a great deal of specifics about a lot of things," she said. "I don't even really understand the zoning system, and I helped write part of it. But I do know who to ask, and sometimes that's all it takes."
In addition to sitting on numerous advisory groups, Chesnut writes a column for the Arlington News called, "Who Cares?" and sometimes finds herself at meetings, listening to someone quote her as an expert on Arlington's land use and transportation.
Barnes Lawson, senior partner in the Arlington law firm of Lawson and Walsh frequently finds himself pitted against Louise Chesnut when he represents the interests of many of the major developers before the county board, including Charles E. Smith Companies and Mobil Oil. But Lawson has words of high praise for Chesnut:
"I think she is one of the most dedicated and concerned citizens in Arlington," said Lawson. "Of course we don't always agree. But she's doing her job; I think having her around, and people like her, to present their perspectives to the board is a clear plus for good government.
Chesnut criticizes local government for the way it has dealt with rapid growth, especially the growth associated with Metrorail. "Arlington feels that because the buildings are already in place that they can just sit back," she said. "But once other areas where future Metro stops are located start to do more exciting things than we've done here, I think we're going to look pretty shabby."
Arlington citizens groups have failed to speak with a united voice, according to Chesnut, making it easier for developers to play one group against another. "Also, these groups sometimes don't know how to compromise," she said. "I think if you're antichange right down the line, you can really cut your own throat.
"I think you can mix residential and commercial property, but you have to do it very carefully," she said.
Chesnut, who is a native of New York City, says she feels Washington has successfully maintained enclaves where people can live and still travel to the center of town easily. "Convenient city living shouldn't have to be at 11 or 12 stories," she said.
She says she believes cuts in tax rates for Arlington County residents eventually will do great damage to area social services, and will mean builders are contributing less significantly to the tax base: "If it saves you $10 on a house, think of what it's going to save Charles E. Smith!"
Chesnut suggests a less-than-conventional means to effect change in Arlington: "Sometimes the way to get something done is not to give a particular thing to a neighborhood that has nothing, but to a neighborhood that already has a lot of things. Then all the other neighborhoods will start screaming that they should have it, too. . . These things have a habit of spreading."
She's focusing her efforts more on environmental issues now, but Chesnut says she won't cut back on the many hours she devotes each week to land use and transportation issues. "People get dependent on you so that you almost feel responsible to take a look at a certain issue when it comes up," she said.
Fewer citizens activists fight to change county development policies now, Chesnut says, as a more transient population moves into the area and more women leave their homes to work.
She also indicates it is the nature of the development issue for people to grow weary of the fight: "After a while you've seen as many zoning cases as you can stand."