NEW KENT — As he pointed out the window of his restored 17th-century plantation house, John Poindexter asked a visitor to pay particular attention to the bend of the Pamunkey River. An old painting on his office wall shows the same curve in 1862, with about 100,000 Union soldiers camped alongside it.
A Texas-born industrialist and Vietnam veteran who owns a commercial truck and van manufacturing company, Poindexter says it was his strong sense of history that drew him to New Kent County, where his distant ancestors were among the first settlers. He dreams of one day buying Criss Cross, the cross-shaped house George Poindexter — a merchant, planter and shipowner — built in the late 1600s.
“It’s my goal to die here,” Poindexter, 74, said in a recent interview at Cumberland Plantation, the home base of the roughly 3,500 acres he’s acquired since 2012 as part of his return to New Kent. “It’s a heritage that matters to me.”
He’s not just interested in conserving New Kent’s past. He wants to shape its future.
Poindexter — who splits time between Virginia and Texas — is the chairman of a newly formed citizen advocacy group called Partnership for New Kent 2030, or PNK2030 for short.
In pursuit of its vision of “vigorous but balanced growth,” PNK2030 is backing an extensive slate of candidates in local elections in November, from the Board of Supervisors down to soil and water conservation district director. The group also registered a political action committee in order to be able to spend directly in county elections.
The partnership — which has a few dozen core members — says it wants to push the fast-growing county to adopt forward-thinking planning strategies. The group says expanding broadband internet access is a top priority, a step that could lure more businesses and commercial tax revenue. On its website, the organization says it has no partisan affiliation and “does not seek personal power for its members.”
Nevertheless, the group’s emergence has stirred concerns among skeptics who perceive it as being driven by affluent newcomers with significant business and land interests in the county. And some county officials say they didn’t need outside help to start planning ahead.
PNK2030 believes New Kent’s existing comprehensive plan — a legally required document meant to guide a locality’s growth — is outdated and inadequate. To rectify perceived shortcomings, the group intends to propose its own strategic plan.
Instead of becoming a county dotted with obtrusive dollar stores, food marts and truck stops, Poindexter said, New Kent could be an “oasis,” known more for its rural charm, wineries, horses and history. His fear, he said, is that New Kent “becomes an unsupervised extension of eastern Richmond.”
“The general opinion is that we’re reactive,” Poindexter said. “Rudderless.”
Combat range proposal
PNK2030 organizers say the initiative sprang partly from the controversy over a 2018 proposal for a 266-acre combat and tactical training facility in New Kent’s Barhamsville area. The project — which would have allowed military, law enforcement and private security firms to practice counterterrorism, driving and weapons skills — was eventually withdrawn after a public outcry over noise and safety. But the tension among some landowners lingered.
County Administrator Rodney Hathaway, who has served in the role since 2012, took exception to the suggestion that New Kent is adrift. He said the county had to follow a legal process with the land-use application for the combat range, and in the end, “the right outcome happened.”
Hathaway said he’s reached out to PNK2030 to get a sense of what its goals and concerns are, but hasn’t gotten much in response.
“If they truly want to make this county a better place, I feel like they should be focused on working with the decision-makers and leaders of the county,” Hathaway said. “And they haven’t done that, so there’s only so much I can do. I’ve extended my hand to them.”
For the five-member Board of Supervisors, the group is backing two incumbents and two challengers trying to unseat current officeholders. The group didn’t endorse in the fifth race.
PNK2030 has endorsed four candidates for the New Kent School Board: two incumbents, one challenger and one candidate for an open seat.
The group funded its PAC account with $22,000 earlier this month. Organizers say they don’t expect to spend much more than that to have an impact in a county of about 22,500 people.
‘Big Money Club’
In a New Kent discussion group on Facebook, commenters have called PNK2030 the “Big Money Club” and “a second form of New Kent government.”
“PACs generally use money to try to influence politics and we are just a small county,” said Heather Moon, a New Kent resident who has sharply questioned the partnership’s motives. “So a PAC seems to be very much overkill, and brings up strong questions about motives at the start.” (Moon previously worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a newsroom archivist. She left in 2015.)
PNK2030 members reject the characterization that they’re a group of well-off people trying to assert control over county affairs, saying they simply want to encourage the government to be responsive to the community it serves.
Sandi Gauthier, a winery owner who said her investment could have been “destroyed” by the combat range, said the county will probably have its most competitive election cycle in recent memory.
“It’s a good thing to have citizen involvement and people step up,” said Gauthier, who serves as PNK2030’s secretary and chairs its citizen outreach committee.
The partnership has established four other committees focused on county governance, strategic planning, financial oversight and land use.
As one of its first moves, PNK2030 hired Goochland County Supervisor Ken Peterson — who wrote a book about his efforts to shore up Goochland’s finances — to review New Kent’s books and offer his analysis of how the county is doing. The report concluded that New Kent is “in good shape financially, but is not without prospective challenges.” Peterson did not respond to requests for comment.
One aspect of the partnership’s mission, organizers say, is getting people to care about local issues
“We don’t pay attention to the jurisdiction that, in the end, matters to us the most,” Poindexter said.
The Houston-born businessman’s unique profile has added to the intrigue surrounding the group.
In 2016, he was thrust into the national spotlight as the owner of the West Texas ranch where then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead, apparently of natural causes.
In 2009, Poindexter and 85 veterans of the Army regiment he led in Vietnam received the Presidential Unit Citation from President Barack Obama for their bravery under fire in the jungle 40 years earlier, a recognition Poindexter pursued relentlessly on behalf of his men.
Poindexter said that although he once considered running for Congress as a Democrat, no one involved with PNK2030 has much of a background in politics.
“We’re a bunch of amateurs sort of bumbling toward a better future,” Poindexter said.
The partnership has held a series of public meetings to introduce itself to county residents. Several events took place at New Kent Winery, whose co-owner, Joe Dombroski, was recently a PNK2030-endorsed candidate for the county board. Shortly after a version of this article was published online Friday, Poindexter said the partnership had rescinded the endorsement, with Dombroski’s agreement.
Dombroski — a former Baltimore police detective, federal narcotics agent and Northrop Grumman executive who moved to New Kent from Northern Virginia after buying the winery in 2014 — is challenging Supervisor Patricia Paige, a former Army reservist and New Kent native.
Paige is the county board’s only African American member.
Dombroski recently caused a social media stir when he publicly insinuated that the county had engaged in suspicious land deals that were being investigated by law enforcement. His post prompted an unusual response from the official New Kent County Facebook page, which called Dombroski’s comments “potentially libelous.”
“The County of New Kent is not aware of any active State or Federal investigations involving ‘land deals’ as claimed by this individual,” the county administration said. “Not only is the County unaware of said investigations, we also welcome anyone who would like to do an audit of any ‘land deals’ involving your local government.”
Poindexter said PNK2030 would be reaching out to Paige after parting ways with Dombroski. Jo Anna Dombroski, Joe’s wife, is also no longer serving as PNK2030’s treasurer, Poindexter said.
In an interview, Dombroski said that, according to his law enforcement knowledge, the “activity” he referred to would likely focus on individuals, not the county itself.
“That was a huge bit of confusion,” Dombroski said. “And I take responsibility for part of that confusion.”
Dombroski was one of the founding members of PNK2030. He sat in on the partnership’s interviews with other candidates — including Paige — before stepping down to make his own run for the board.
“We’re regular folks,” Dombroski said. “Born and raised in regular neighborhoods that made something in our lives and did other things before we ever got into business. And we want to help.”
Paige declined to comment, saying she’s “trying to run a campaign of dignity and respect and truth.”
New Kent Board of Supervisors Chairman Tommy Tiller is facing a PNK2030-endorsed challenger, Kate West Ferris, a former president of the New Kent Chamber of Commerce who owns a tourism company. Tiller said he feels the partnership wants the county to exert near-total control over development projects, but zoning rules don’t give the county carte blanche to choose which businesses come in and which don’t.
“We can’t say ‘You know what, we’ve already got McDonald’s. We don’t want a Hardee’s down here now,’ ” Tiller said.
As an example of smart growth, Tiller pointed to the new emergency center VCU Health System is building in Quinton to bring urgent care services to the county, a project he said the county worked hard to secure.
“We do have a plan,” Tiller said.
Hathaway said the county is in the process of updating its strategic planning documents, and is expecting its own broadband committee to deliver a report next month. He said he welcomes citizen involvement and still hopes to be able to work with PNK2030 in some way.
“I want our citizens to feel comfortable that they have a competent government, which they do,” Hathaway said.
PNK2030 members question whether the county would be taking action in those areas if they hadn’t gotten involved.
Poindexter, who bought 262 acres next to the newly reopened Colonial Downs horse racing track, said he doesn’t plan to develop his New Kent land. But he expects others might want to.
Because he has no children, his land holdings are set to go into a foundation when he dies.
All he wants, he says, is for New Kent to have good infrastructure, good schools, a balanced tax base and “intelligent zoning” that make it an attractive place to live.
If there are powerful interests steering New Kent, he said, it’s not him and his associates.
“It’s the incumbent faction that controls the county,” he said.