Spotsylvania Supervisor Tricia Lenwell began her term in 1999 by insisting that the county take a stand on abortion and by bringing a gun to board meetings. It was clear this was not a politician who would come and go quietly.
Until recently, however, it seemed she might be remembered merely as an eccentric ideologue who used board time to promote her views on non-local issues.
That all changed a few weeks ago when Lenwell, a Republican, dramatically quit the board, accusing top county officials of misrepresenting several major developments and calling local politics "a sham."
Now her legacy is likely to be that of a politician who shoved into the public eye some of the most substantive issues ever to face Spotsylvania.
"Be vigilant," she told citizens in a resignation statement Nov. 26, "because you cannot always expect those who hold the power to be. In fact, that may be whom you need to be vigilant about."
In reaction, the board unanimously called Tuesday for a state investigation of her accusations. Chairman Benjamin Pitts (I-Battlefield) said that he didn't expect there to be any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but that Lenwell had cast a cloud over the board's work and that "her allegations deserve to be reviewed by a third independent party."
Lenwell's resignation has revealed tensions that have been building through two decades of nearly unrestrained growth in Spotsylvania, which sits about 50 miles south of Washington. With a population that has tripled since 1980 and one of the region's largest development projects on the table, Spotsylvania appears to be at a crossroads.
The trajectory of Lenwell's career also reflects the changing political landscape in one of Virginia's most conservative counties. In 1999, she came in with a slew of hard-right Republicans bent on not raising taxes. But, as in other burgeoning counties nearby, taking a firm anti-tax position has proved tricky.
With residential growth has come the need for new classrooms and roads and more services for thousands of newcomers. How to fund such expansion without skyrocketing taxes has put supervisors in Spotsylvania and elsewhere in a quandary. Many -- like Lenwell -- have concluded that tightly choreographing and limiting growth is the only alternative to rising taxes.
New county residents "came here to get away from high taxes; they don't want to be in Fairfax County," said Shaun Kenney, who was vice chairman of the county's Republican Party when Lenwell was elected and is now GOP chairman in neighboring Fredericksburg. "But now things are at a hard point, where, instead of just looking at taxes going up, now people are saying this is a quality-of-life issue."
Local Republican leaders sidelined Lenwell in favor of other GOP politicians because of "her antics" -- such as carrying the gun, Kenney said. "It wasn't her views, it was the way she approached the issue. A lot of people are pro-Second Amendment, but that doesn't mean they're packing heat at the Board of Supervisors' meetings," he said.
However, Lenwell's support for growth controls has earned her kudos from a broad political spectrum.
"I wasn't happy she was elected," said Bob Sargeant, chairman of the local chapter of Voters to Stop Sprawl, a group that is increasingly active in Northern and Piedmont Virginia. He said he was initially concerned that Lenwell would focus exclusively on the rights of property owners to "milk every nickel out of a piece of property."
But, he said, "I think she has taken it on a case-by-case basis."
Lenwell has also gotten support from some top county staff, including several who have resigned as tensions over growth have escalated.
Stephen K. Griffin, who was the county's top planning official until he quit in September to take the top planning job in Prince William County, credited Lenwell with helping push through zoning law changes this year that are aimed at controlling sprawl. The laws reduce by 42 percent the number of homes in any project that can be built without board approval.
Griffin said in an interview that the board is "in a much better position to manage growth now."
Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), a member of the House of Delegates who sat on the board with Lenwell until last year, said he understood why she was frustrated but wished she had stayed on to "keep fighting the good fight."
Lenwell declined to be interviewed for this article after initially agreeing to talk. "I'm not the star of this; the board, which I will not be on any longer, is the star of this," she said in an e-mail.
In resigning, she alleged that County Administrator Anthony W. Barrett had suppressed negative information on various development projects before the board. At one point, she and two other board members voted no confidence in Barrett though they were outvoted by the four other members.
Pitts, the board chairman, said he had not lost confidence in Barrett, and at least one member of the planning staff, who spoke on condition he not be named, said he knew of no pressure from Barrett to reveal only positive information about proposed developments.
Barrett did not return several telephone calls seeking comment.
Lenwell leaves the board as Spotsylvania is confronting debate on a major development, the Town of Chancellorsville, which could change the face of the county. Her absence -- even her name plaque has been removed from the council chambers -- is likely to affect what happens to the project, because she was considered a possible swing vote on the issue.
The development of about 800 acres would include nearly 2,000 homes and up to 2.2 million square feet of stores and offices. Supporters and critics of the project agree that its scale has riled people. Some 300 people attended a Planning Commission meeting last month when the project got preliminary approval. It now goes to the supervisors, who could begin rezoning hearings as early as next month.
At last week's supervisors' meeting, Lenwell's chair was empty. On the wall above was the county emblem with its motto, which could refer to a community wrestling with progress: "Patior ut Potiar," it says in Latin. "I suffer so that I may possess."