Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Veiled Threat

Not everyone understands the concept of transparency, and why it's important on the Internet. Here's a perfect example of our local area (although the concepts discussed here can be applied anywhere).

Orange County, Virginia has been fought over for some time by pro-growth and anti-growth factions. Both groups are politically active, and both have powerful allies outside the county helping their respective causes.

Now there are many pro-growth people who just want what's best for the county. They see new residents and new businesses coming in as a healthy thing. Then there are some large land owners who see subdividing as a way to make a lot of money -- and a lot of it. And then there're the developers, of course, who just want to come in, throw up structures as quickly and cheaply as possible, and move on to the next project.

Recently the Board of Supervisors tried to tighten up the regulations surrounding development. A lawsuit was filed to overturn those regulations.

The people behind the lawsuit may have the purest of intentions. But the lack of information about them creates problems -- especially in a world where most information is readily available online. Accidental and innocent, or purposeful and sinister?

1) According to the news story, four families have filed the lawsuit, claiming that it unfairly restricts their rights as land owners. That sounds straightforward enough. So who are these people? I can't find any information anywhere that lists their names.

Most anyone involved with this issue in Orange Country could easily rattle off the names of four big landowners who have a vested interest in looser development regulations. Is that why these families are remaining anonymous, because if their names were known it would seem as if this was a ploy to forward development rather than an issue about property rights? I don't know, but the question sprang quickly to mind.

2) Although the news report said four families filed the suit, the link provided with the story goes to the "Orange County Citizens for Freedom."Great, a website! Now we can get some information.

Well, not really.

So who is the OCCF? There's no "about" link. The site tells us nothing about what the group's mission statement is, or how it's organized, or what its purpose is or anything. The homepage claims that the OCCF filed the lawsuit. So is the organization just the four families? And if so, what four families would that be?

The website also doesn't say if it's a non-profit group, for profit group, just some individuals, a PAC or what. There are no officers listed, nor any contact info save for a neutral e-mail address. There are links to some pro-property rights sites, but nothing especially illuminating.

Is this group trying to remain faceless for some nefarious purpose, or are they just clueless as to what information an organization website should hold?

3) There was only one name connected with the site. On the home page, people are encouraged to contribute to the OCCF by sending checks to the firm of Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, P.C. Now there's no indication as to what the money will be used for, or how much is needed. And it isn't clear whether this is a tax-deductible contribution or not.

But from that one piece of information, I found out a little more about Vanderpool, et al. A simple search revealed that they're a law firm based in Manassas (part of over-developed Northern Virginia), and their  specialties are land use, zoning, and development.

So is the OCCF really concerned about property rights, or is this just another way for developers to get rid of inconvenient legislation?

The OCCF had none of the information I expected to find on an above-board organization website. It could be an oversight (and if it is, I suggest they fix it quickly), or it could be the OCCF/nameless four families have something to hide. Given the little bit I had to go on, I suspect the latter.

- Ralph

Day 167 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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