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Jim Kennedy said he had no intention of going into politics when he moved to Toano Woods 23 years ago.
That all changed when a proposed asphalt plant threatened the quality of life of Stonehouse residents in the late 1990s. Kennedy led the charge to shut down the project, and colleagues say he rode the success of that campaign all the way to a seat on the James City County Board of Supervisors.
Friends and colleagues say Kennedy’s legacy is clear as he leaves the board at the end of this year: His commitment to preserving quality of life was not limited to his own district, but rather to the entire county through initiatives he championed like the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program.
“I think if you look around you’ll see the legacy of a lot of quality of life investments,” said former County Administrator Sandy Wanner. “When you think about schools and parks and the community college and green space, that is his. His legacy is the quality of life of James City County.”
Kennedy was first elected to the board in 1999, defeating incumbent Anderson “Andy” Bradshaw by eight votes in the general election. Bradshaw would get the seat back in 2003 but Kennedy captured it again in 2007, holding it until he lost his re-election bid to Sue Sadler in November.
Bradshaw said he and Kennedy have been able to set aside their differences since the elections and he admires Kennedy for dedicating his time to serving on the board.
He said the PDR program was Kennedy’s most important accomplishment for the Stonehouse District and for the county as a whole because it allowed for the protection of farmland from economic development.
The PDR program, which was supported by citizens in a 2005 referendum, allows the county to buy acres from landowners who volunteer to participate and then stop development on the land for perpetuity. Kennedy was an outspoken proponent for the program, noting he began and ended his time with the board with the purchase of development rights.
“Most things a supervisor does might last years, but this is something that really lasts forever, so it’s a wonderful legacy for Jim,” Bradshaw said.
Twelve years of Kennedy’s time on the board overlapped with those of Roberts Supervisor John McGlennon. While he and Kennedy were on different sides of the aisle – McGlennon is a Democrat and Kennedy ran as a Republican before identifying as an Independent in the most recent election – he said they agreed on many issues, including the creation and continuation of the PDR program and establishing a living wage for county employees.
The PDR program would be a happy medium for the two supervisors, who differed when it came to land use policies and, at times, the purchase of green space.
“I wanted to see land preservation and he wanted to see land preservation but on a more restrictive basis, so the PDR program offered a good mix,” McGlennon said.
Former James City Service Authority General Manager Larry Foster said Kennedy was also a leader on water issues, often bringing his own knowledge to table when conservation efforts were discussed.
Colleagues agreed Kennedy was at his best when he served as chairman of the board, a position he held multiple times. McGlennon said Kennedy was skilled at developing consensus among board members and was less confrontational as chairman.
“I think he recognizes holding the position requires him to rein in his personal preferences and instincts,” McGlennon said.
Wanner said he regularly told Kennedy he was a better chairman than a board member, noting he was more of a “sharp shooter” when he was not holding the gavel.
“As a chair you take a leadership role, you try to get that coalition, you try to get the board to think and work together. He was great that way,” Wanner said. “He was a fantastic chair. He was everything I would want in a chair.”
His service on the board did not come without moments of contention. McGlennon said Kennedy recognizes his treatment of groups and individuals has been “quite harsh” over the years. He has since publicly apologized for his treatment of some county employees.
“At various times I thought Jim was being overly critical of staff or of citizens because they didn’t happen to agree with him or try to advance an agenda, or he was just responding to some complaints his supporters and advisers were providing to him,” McGlennon said.
Foster, however, said he and Kennedy always had good chemistry and a straightforward, open relationship.
“Jim always treated me with dignity and respect,” Foster said. “While we may not have agreed on everything, we had a mutual respect for each other. I think that’s what made it – it was basically the foundation we worked with.”
Close friend Jack Fraley said Kennedy may be “big and outgoing” as a supervisor but he is otherwise a private person.
“He values his friendships and will do anything for a friend,” Fraley said. “He values loyalty beyond any other characteristic in a friend.”
Many attest to Kennedy’s generosity. Fraley made the generosity he has recieved from Kennedy publicly known when he asked County Administrator Bryan Hill to read aloud a letter he wrote during Kennedy’s final board meeting Dec. 8.
Fraley said Kennedy has gone so far as to drive through the night to find medicine for Fraley’s mother while he was out of town, medication that ultimately saved her life.
In his time on the board, Fraley said he has seen his friend grow as a person and become more empathetic, tolerant, open-minded and thoughtful.
He believes the tipping point of Kennedy’s growth in the past year – he no longer identifies as an “ideologue” and aspires to be an independent thinker – was when he voted with fellow Republicans to oust County Administrator Robert Middaugh, a decision Kennedy disagreed with and one Fraley said “hung over him.”
“He is open to all but influenced by none, especially in his later years on the board,” Fraley said, adding his personal growth into a nonpartisan leader has stood out to him the most about Kennedy’s time on the board.
McGlennon said Kennedy has “mellowed” since his daughter was born, as his perspective has focused on making the community great for her. He said “time will tell” if the change he has seen in Kennedy sticks.
“It’s been an up and down relationship. I know at times he has worked very hard to make sure I’m not still on the board and, most recently, he’s supported my re-election,” McGlennon said. “If that’s the Jim Kennedy we’re going to be seeing now, I think he’s going to continue to play a very constructive role in the Greater Williamsburg area.”
Kennedy said he intended to retire from the board this year but decided to run for re-election so Stonehouse voters would have two options for their representative.
With Sadler’s victory, Kennedy will be able to step down when he had intended. Kennedy said he was looking forward to spending more time with his family, a move Fraley called the “proper” next stage of his life.
“No one likes to lose, but I think he’s a bit relieved,” Fraley said of Kennedy’s loss. “He had a lot of longevity. I’m happy to see that he now can move on to this stage of his life.”