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Whoever said politics makes strange bedfellows might have had Marleen Durfee in mind. Government moves slowly; Durfee continually pushes for solutions. Chesterfield County government has a history of embracing rapid residential development and of resisting public transportation; Durfee has advocated controlling growth and expanding public transit, particularly high-speed rail, her current focus.
As one of four new county supervisors who ran on platforms of change, 50-year-old Durfee wants to be known as a servant-leader who makes decisions based on data rather than politics.
A Chesterfield resident for 23 years, Durfee didn't become active in local government until 2002, after talking with her twin brother, Alex Tatanish, about the county's growth surge. "Something doesn't feel right about the way growth is happening here in Chesterfield," she recalls telling him. During 2002, its population rose by 7,000 to 271,000, increasingly overloading the Upper Swift Creek area where Durfee resides. Tatanish, an urban planner in Pennsylvania, suggested she look up the county's comprehensive plan, which guides future development.
Durfee took her brother's advice. She was shocked by what she learned. The countywide thoroughfare plan in use was from 1989 and the comprehensive plan was from 1991. By 2002, the number of potential housing units approved by the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors stood at 27,950 — more than Hanover, Goochland, Powhatan and Henrico combined. Today, the number tops 50,000.
About 60 percent of the growth was occurring in the Upper Swift Creek area, which represents 13 percent of the county's land. Yet the area lacked a police station, library or fire station. Schools were overcrowded, roads were clogged, land prices were rising and water quality in the Upper Swift Creek Reservoir's watershed was threatened by phosphorus runoff.
"I knew it could be done smarter," Dur-fee says.
An Early Activist
Durfee's family moved to Chesterfield from Louisiana in 1986 when her husband, Jim Durfee, took a job with MeadWestvaco. Marleen Durfee previously worked for the Pennsylvania DUI Association, training law-enforcement officers, advocating for tougher drunken-driving legislation, evaluating offenders and making recommendations for treatment. She decided to halt her career to raise their daughters: Lindsey, now a junior at Virginia Tech, and Lauren, a Cosby High School junior who recently was crowned Miss Virginia in the junior teen pageant. Still, Durfee kept her hand in highway-safety work. She worked with Jerry Kilgore, then Virginia's secretary of public safety, and later served as an ad-hoc member of then-Gov. Mark R. Warner's highway-safety task force.
Although she's relatively new in her role as supervisor, Durfee is no novice when it comes to activism. In Gulich, a close-knit township in central Pennsylvania, Marleen Tatanish grew up watching her father, Alex, landscape the cemetery grounds free of charge and build a local grocery store. Marleen's grandfather, who emigrated from the Carpathian Mountains of what is now the Ukraine, built the local church to serve Gulich's population of less than 1,000 — including her 19 aunts and uncles and 21 cousins.
Her mother, Martha, volunteered for a variety of causes, which prompted 10-year-old Marleen to knock on doors to raise money for the American Heart Association. She was a natural. The next month, her mother had her collect for the March of Dimes, then the American Lung Association.
"I became the poster child for veterans and every other cause," she says with a laugh.
In high school, Marleen played on the girls' softball team. She was already a seasoned player; she and her siblings built what became the neighborhood baseball field in their backyard, using slabs of Pennsylvania slate for the bases. "I thought about joining the boys' baseball team because I threw the ball too hard," she says. "I kept accidentally breaking the thumbs of my teammates." When she took up basketball, she consistently scored more than 20 points at every game. She recalls the crowd chanting, "Go, Pocahontas!" — a nickname earned for her dark, braided hair and endurance on the court.
She received her bachelor's degree in health-community education at Pennsylvania State University in 1981. There, she met Jim Durfee, a member of the fraternity where Marleen was a little sister. He remembers when she played center field for the Penn State softball team: "We were both athletes, but she was a much better athlete than me. She possessed an amazing amount of energy."
Pushing for a Plan
Marleen Durfee's first issue before the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors as a county resident was a push for compliance with a state requirement to revise the comprehensive plan every five years.
"There were some infrequent amendments made but no [full-scale] revisions," she says. The comprehensive plan needed to address growth issues, particularly in the rapidly developing Upper Swift Creek area, she says. Under the philosophy that growth pays for itself, former board members green-lighted development at a rate unsupported by county infrastructure.
"When you zone more property in any year than the market will absorb, then you have over-zoned," says Kirk Turner, the county planning director. "A healthy growth rate is 2 percent. Anything less doesn't support the growth, anything more stresses our ability to provide public services." (Chesterfield's population growth rate was higher than 2 percent for most of this decade, with a high of 2.75 percent from 2005 to 2006.)
Durfee asked the board about plans for public facilities. She was told repeatedly that those would come later. In response, she formed the Responsible Growth Alliance in 2002 and six months later, founded the regional Partnership for Smarter Growth.
Durfee — described by acquaintances as committed, persistent and driven — became known as a go-to person for bringing up issues with the supervisors.
By early 2007, Durfee had addressed the board more than 200 times. Other residents and smart-growth colleagues encouraged her to run for an open board seat representing the Matoaca district. Durfee was mourning the death of her father and preparing her older daughter for college. She didn't want to think about campaigning. But right before the April deadline, she jumped on board, making it a four-way race to replace Renny Humphrey, who had decided not to seek re-election.
It looked like a long shot; Durfee was an independent candidate in a predominantly Republican county with no political machine backing her. Her campaign went online, aided by a YouTube video featuring supporters' testimonials and Durfee talking about shortcomings of county leadership and her ideas for solutions. Her unusual tactics worked; she won with 43 percent of the vote and took office in January 2008.
A Seat at the Table
"We can do better," is what County Administrator Jay Stegmaier says he hears from Durfee in almost every conversation. But he adds, "There's a lot from 20,000 feet that looks like it could be done better. When you get down on the ground, there are obstacles you didn't see from [there] — whether they are unforeseen consequences or political realities."
Case in point: her push to complete the revision of a countywide comprehensive plan in 18 months. "It's pretty aggressive," Stegmaier says, adding that such a revision typically takes two to three years.
But Durfee sees progress, even if at a slower pace than she'd like. The board has approved hiring a consultant to work on updating the comprehensive plan and appointed 32 residents to an advisory committee. At June's meeting, supervisors discussed transportation, economic development, levels of service, the environment and revitalization as part of the revision process.
Last summer, the supervisors approved a revised Upper Swift Creek plan that designates a portion of the 446.5 square miles as a growth-management area, where rezoning for residential and commercial development is discouraged until sufficient public facilities are extended to the area.
A group of land owners filed suit afterward, arguing that the growth-management designation would harm their property rights. However, the group is not pursuing the suit for now. Jack Wilson, one of the lawyers representing the property owners, says the revision of the county's comprehensive plan could resolve their issues.
Bruce Moseley, one of the property owners, says his family has owned land in the area for eight generations. "We weren't looking to develop now but felt that if we wanted to in the future, it stifled the ability of our children who may not want to farm anymore," he says.
Meanwhile, the economic slowdown has led to a sharp decline in building-permit applications. In 2004, there were 3,811 building-permit applications for single-family homes, including apartments; projections for the current year are in the 600s. Turner also estimates the county's population increase from 2008 to 2009 was less than 1 percent.
Recently, Durfee has set her sights beyond Chesterfield. In May, she led a team project with the Leadership Metro Richmond program and helped launch a Web site, transittalk.com, to point out the benefits of mass transit and seek public participation in the issue. Durfee also represents Chesterfield in four other regional organizations. The half-dozen boxes and binders of paper work in the back of her SUV are a testament to her perpetual involvement.
She also is among a group of regional leaders who are positioning Virginia to compete for a chunk of the $8 billion in available federal funds for high-speed rail. She says that if the high-speed rail project comes to fruition, Richmonders eventually could travel to D.C. in 45 minutes.
In a July news conference, the group announced that nine area jurisdictions and four regional organizations have passed resolutions supporting an application for $1.6 billion to fund high-speed rail in Virginia. Proponents hope the strong regional support, combined with Gov. Tim Kaine's backing and the state's proximity to the nation's capital, will give them an edge in the competition for money.
Because of Durfee's "smart growth" stance and not infrequent record of being the lone dissenter in 4-1 votes, some have pegged her as a tree hugger. Asked about the label, Durfee pretends to flick it off her shoulder. "You keep putting those labels on me and I'm going to fling ‘em," she says. "My dad taught me to never let anybody get you down and to persevere."