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An Open Letter to Council and our Community – Small Town Charm or City Hustle? 

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Though many emails were sent to our Town Management speaking against the proposed Special Events matrix system, the special event permit proposal has only slightly been adapted from its over-the-top initial draft.

We are still looking at bureaucratic paperwork requiring information beyond the business of the Town Manager’s department for an event permit. Event organizers must choose between a grand event or a social blip and then wade through detailed explanations describing their worthiness to host an event that will attract high-spending tourists and appease a tourism influenced check-list.

Locals have not been offered a simple amplification permit nor a simple community event permit; we are still looking at a subjective matrix and multiple hoops to hop.

At the July 12 work session, integrity was thrown off the table when the recommendation was to manipulate numbers to achieve permit approval and/or ignore the Code of Conduct. Relying on the goodwill of our Law Enforcement to not enforce the Code was also an option.

Where does the line stop? Isn’t any manipulation too much? Why make laws that you then encourage to be broken?

My mind has been blown on this one.

I was chastised by Town personnel for not communicating my concerns and questions with the Town Manager’s office, yet the last two emails I sent to the same personnel with questions and concerns have been unanswered. At this point, anyone who has followed this Special Events Permit process knows my concerns; the Town Management office is no exception.

The concerns brought forward by myself and others on June 28 have been largely ignored. I know I am not the only one. Over the past two months, emails have been sent. Citizens and business owners have expressed their concerns at the hearings. In-person discussions have also taken place. We are being heard but not listened to. Band-aid fixes encased in catchy phrases promising streamlined objectivity and community benefit are passed out with smiles yet the problem persists. What could have been managed efficiently, practically, and in a timely manner has instead been complicated disproportionately for the Town’s needs. Summer is almost over, and the community has missed out on all sorts of fun community might-have-been downtown activity.

Perhaps, Council should be asking:

  • Outside of increasing tourism numbers, how does this matrix system benefit the community?
  • Is increasing tourism, beyond the natural flow we traditionally experience, really a benefit to our community (infrastructure, water, sewage, electric grid, taxes, public safety, general well-being, inflation, town character)?
  • How can the matrix system with all its bureaucratic paperwork benefit local event organizers?
    • Extensive paperwork and the matrix scoring is a deterrent to anyone venturing through the process let alone be approved for a small-medium creative event.
  • Why is tourism influencing community events?
    • No other town around us has such an extreme application system. Community events are encouraged and easily accessible. Why is something so simple being made so difficult?
  • Why does the Town Manager need to know our budget, management experience, past event successes, estimated tourism numbers, projected revenue, corporate backing, marketing, production, projected dollar expenditure by tourists and locals, target market, and after action report on event success in order to approve an event permit?
    • Experience points to bureaucratic micro-managing and catering to a different agenda other than community.

It is very likely this complicated matrix system will be approved on Monday, and the Town Code / Ordinances updated accordingly. This proposal is not good for Community events nor does it encourage Community creativity, development, and character – the very things that give this community the small-town charm that pulls tourists back; no one has been willing to show me otherwise though I’m begging to be shown.

Please come on Monday, July 26 (7 p.m.) to the Council’s regular meeting at the WCGC. The more faces in the crowd, the more reminder that the community is present and listening.

I am very disappointed in our Town Management and the blind refusal to put Community before Tourism. Tourism as the golden carrot takes a toll on our taxes, infrastructure, and Town character. Yes, some businesses and Town revenue will flourish above average, but the average taxpayer will see no benefit other than traffic, inflated prices, strange faces, and more taxes. We are the Town of Front Royal. Sharing our beauty and charm with visitors is wonderful; handing it to visitors on a platter over the heads of the community for the sake of dollars is a travesty. Where will this end?

The final vote for approval occurs this Monday, July 26 unless Council intentionally stops, listens, thinks, and demands full answers. They must not accept sound-bite responses. The problem is bigger than a dance recital or a fun festival.

Stop. Listen. Think.

Sincerely,

Annie Guttierrez
Front Royal, Virginia

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Opinion

Commentary: The gas stove culture wars come to Virginia

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Gas stoves have been in the headlines a lot recently. On the heels of a study quantifying their contribution to childhood asthma, Consumer Product Safety Commission member Rich Trumka, Jr. issued a tweet suggesting the agency might take them off the market, a comment he later walked back.

Too late: cue the outrage from the right. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands,” tweeted Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas. A number of people tweeted back that they were eager to see this happen, but then it turned out no one in the White House actually wants to ban gas stoves, anyway.

What kind of stove you use might seem an odd contender for a culture war issue, but the outrage beast needs constant feeding. The ranting leaves no time for anyone to point out that electricity powers the great majority of U.S. stoves, methane gas isn’t even an option in much of the country, and — eh — we Americans don’t really cook that much, anyway. If we were arguing over microwave ovens, more of us would have a dog in this fight.

But the mere fact that you never gave your stove much thought before does not excuse you from taking sides now. If you are a Democrat, you must drool over induction stoves, even if you aren’t sure what they are or how they work. If you are a Republican, you must support burning fossil fuels in the kitchen and weep for the plight of Michelin-starred chefs whose restaurants you can’t afford to go to (and indeed, many of whom have been won over by induction, the ingrates).

One of the difficulties the gas industry faces in politicizing stoves is that it wins over the wrong people. An Energy Information Agency map shows the percentage of households that cook with gas is highest in a bunch of blue states like California and New York, and lowest in the deep-red South and the Dakotas.

The reasons are pragmatic, not political. Gas utilities in rural states like North Dakota are much less likely to have invested in the expensive network of distribution pipelines needed to bring service to far-flung communities. The rural geography problem affects much of the South as well, but weather is a factor, too. Since furnaces, not cookstoves, are the big fuel users, the relatively warm winters of the South make it a less lucrative market than the colder North. Thus, electricity dominates heating as well cooking in southern states.

If gas companies have chosen not to serve areas where they would make less money, who can blame them? On the other hand, with gas furnaces increasingly unable to compete with more efficient heat pumps, they now risk losing their northern customers to electric alternatives. Either they sit and stare into the abyss of an all-electric future in which they are obsolete, or they have to do what they can to slow their inevitable decline.

And so they set out to convince state legislatures to prevent local governments from barring new gas hookups in their communities, as many left-leaning cities have been doing in the interests of climate and health. Gas stove diehards are the industry’s unwitting (and sometimes witting) poster children.

On the face of it, the gas industry has been successful: at least 20 states controlled by Republican legislatures have enacted gas ban preemption laws. Sadly for the gas utilities, the wins have occurred in those southern and rural states where they don’t have as much business to protect anyway.

That’s what makes Virginia an important next target. Almost one-third of Virginia households are customers of natural gas utilities, and only a handful of rural Virginia counties have no gas service at all. There is certainly room for growth. Yet a number of urban and suburban localities have adopted climate goals that call on their governments to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The gas industry fears these localities may decide banning new gas hookups could be one step towards the goal.

The risk seems slight. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, meaning local governments have only the authority delegated to them by the General Assembly. Given the difficulty Virginia localities have had even getting authority to ban single-use plastic bags (they still can only tax them, not pry them from your cold, dead hands), it seems unlikely they would seek, or get, authority to ban new gas hookups any time soon.

Indeed, when the General Assembly first considered legislation to preempt gas bans last year, the focus was on the City of Richmond and the incompatibility of the city’s 2050 carbon-neutrality pledge with its continued operation of its own gas utility. The city itself didn’t seem to be thinking that far ahead, and climate activists have since complained that Richmond is more intent on upgrading its gas infrastructure than in phasing it out. Still, the gas industry had a target to point to.

The House was willing to adopt the full gas preemption ban, but a Senate committee reworked the legislation to focus on the problem at hand. The law that passed imposed a requirement that any municipality with a gas utility notify its customers and put the utility up for sale before exiting the business. All parties pronounced themselves satisfied, declared victory and went home.

This year the gas industry has no threat to point to but is nonetheless again trying to get the preemption bill passed. The bill language includes a kind of culture war code term, a declaration that “energy justice” means you have the right to buy gas if you can afford it and the gas company has the right not to supply you if you can’t, or if serving you isn’t profitable for the company.

The better description for this, surely, is the free market, which is quite distinct from justice. So, is it justice or merely irony that even if it were to pass, many Republicans who voted for the bill still wouldn’t get gas service for their constituents because serving rural areas is not in the interests of the industry?

As it did last year, the Republican-led House has passed the industry’s bill along party lines. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, though, matters get interesting. This year the gas industry secured a Senate patron, Democrat Joe Morrissey. Though Morrissey is hardly popular in the party, he is still at least one Democratic vote for the bill in a closely divided chamber.

It seems obvious enough that the preemption ban is on the wrong side of history, at a time when our burning of fossil fuels is already causing climate chaos. It’s also not going to stave off the inevitable for long. Building electrification will continue. Over time, more consumers will choose heat pumps and induction stoves over methane gas, not for political reasons but for health reasons and because the technology is better.

But if we agree the gas industry will lose out in the end, is it really a big deal if Virginia localities are barred from doing something they don’t seem to have authority to do anyway?

Well, actually, yes. Even if Virginia localities can’t make a blanket prohibition on new gas connections, it’s not hard to imagine that a locality might choose to reject a particular gas connection to a particular construction project or subdivision where the gas line would cross parkland or wetland, or be problematic for some other very specific, very local and very legitimate reason.

Virginia’s balance of power has always recognized that land-use decisions should be made at the local level. This legislation hands a cudgel to the gas industry and developers to override a legitimate local land use decision.

For that, legislators should have a better reason than taking sides in a culture war.

 

by Ivy Main, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Is your child in middle school? Take time now to review survey being asked of our children

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URGENT Message for Parents re: 2023 Virginia School Survey of Climate & Working Conditions

Please find attached a copy of my address to the Warren County Public School Board last evening, Feb. 1, 2023. I was the ONLY public participant to address the Board and could not fully complete this message within the 3-minute limit. I politely stated that since I was the only one, could I please be able to finish? The Chair declined and said I could email them. I had the packets ready for all 5 Board members and left them with the clerk, which included:
*My address (speech)
*The letter to SMS Parents
*Superintendent’s memo #191-22
*Full survey questions (102)
*VA Code 22.1-279.8 B
*HB30 Item 135

I am a “passionate” driven individual, and I left feeling as if I failed the youth in making sure their parents were aware of this taking place, and ask you to PLEASE publish my address ASAP so parents to have still the opportunity to opt out their students if they wish to? I am aware that our SMS hasn’t taken the survey just yet, and the window is Jan. 9 – Feb. 24 (but no specific date) is being told. I, like other parents, have to make time to go online and click “links” to find out what this is all about, and some don’t have the time, but I feel if this is put out with a strong caption – they’ll be able to take notice.

Presented to the Warren County Public School Board – Feb. 1, 2023.
I am here this evening to present my concerns about the 2023 Virginia School Survey of Climate & Working Conditions that is being presented to 6th – 8th-grade students.

I am confident that this Board is aware of this survey and want to express my gratitude for receiving the parent’s letter in December from Interim Director Shamika McDonald and the school Principal providing the survey link and informing us that we will not have access to our child’s survey answers, even as parents, and gave the option to opt-out.

After reviewing the survey questions, I began a thorough online search and found the Superintendent’s Memo #191-22 from the VDOE, dated August 26, 2022.

• It states the VDOE and VA Dept of Criminal Justice Services are in partnership to coordinate the survey, which meets both VDOE’s legislative requirement and VDCJS’s mandate, but through reading the Legislative Item and the Virginia State Code listed on the memo.

• The VDOE’s legislative REQUIREMENT – Item 135-G does NOT require that students be surveyed. In fact, it makes no mention of students, only licensed personnel.

• The Virginia Code 22.1-279.8 B that the VDOE & VDCJS are using to back the “mandate” of this survey . . .is about the Virginia School and Campus Safety. It says . . . The Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, in consultation with the Dept of Education, shall develop a list of items to be reviewed and evaluated, including incidents reported to school authorities and school inspection walk-throughs using a checklist. Each school board requires all schools to annually conduct school safety audits in collaboration with the chief law enforcement officer of the locality. Requiring a floor plan of each school building sufficiently detailed and accurate, etc.

• VA Code 22.1-279.9 C, which is not listed on the Memo, but is next in line in the VA Codes, states: the Superintendent shall establish a school safety audit committee to include representatives of parents, teachers, local law enforcement, emergency services agencies, local community service boards, and judicial and public safety personnel to review the completed safety audits and submit plans as needed to improve our schools’ safety. – Is there a Committee of such here in Warren County? What does it comprise? And is it active?

This survey is said to be a component of the annual school safety audit, and this audit itself is what is required. This survey is also said to be a tool provided by the VDOE & the DCJS to schools to help them meet their audit requirements. They claim it’s valuable information to assess student/teacher perceptions and can be used to improve school discipline and student support practices in order to maintain a safe and orderly school environment conducive to learning. I ask – has this Board looked to see if there are other possibilities out there to use instead of this survey that will help meet the audit requirements for the safety in our schools?

And the reason I ask is that this survey consists of 102 questions. It starts out positive, then takes a HUGE left turn! The following are just a few questions that are being asked of our 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students (ages 11, 12 & 13) . . .

  • The things I learn at this school reflect multiple cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and identities?
  • Questions 58-63 ask if students at this school are being bullied about their race or ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their physical appearance, they’re having too little or too much money or their disability.
  • Questions 81-88 – ask the student if they ever feel sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks in a row. Then ask them to rate it on a scale, then goes on to ask whether the adults in the school care about their mental health.
  • Question 90 – asks if they ever seriously considered attempted suicide in the past 12 months. If they answer yes, they get asked “how many times?” and whether they have participated in suicide prevention or mental health training.
  • Questions 98-102 asks the student to clarify themselves. How do you describe your gender? Is your ethnic background Hispanic or Latino? What best describes your race? Do you have any of the following educational plans? IEP, 504 or LEP Plan? How old are you?

This Superintendent memo states that any schools with regular education programs serving students in grades 6-8 are required to administer the student survey, but the laws they use for backing this requirement do NOT state such.

The VDOE strongly encourages schools to achieve a participation rate of 80% for both students and adults, stating that low rates may mask areas of concern and celebration. For that reason, the random sample option of the survey has been eliminated! The window dates for schools to conduct this survey is January 9 – February 24, 2023.

The Interim Director of WCPS gave parents until December 21, 2022 (right at the start of Christmas Break) to opt-out if requested. That reason alone is so the VDOE could receive back a percentile of how many students each school district is going to survey. I strongly encourage parents to make time to review this survey before your child is administered this, and should you disapprove, contact your school’s principal immediately to opt your child out.

Leslie Mathews
Warren County

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Commentary: Let’s keep the Shenandoah clean

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Paddling on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in the George Washington National Forest. (Virginia.org)

For years, herds of cattle wading and defecating in our rivers caused pollution and rendered the waters disgusting and, in some cases, dangerous for contact by those seeking recreation and drinking water. That’s why in 2020, Virginia passed legislation providing farmers with increased funding to fence herds of cattle out of streams and a deadline of 2025 by which to complete the process. Most farmers took advantage of funding and put in exclusionary fencing, which protects public health, the health of the river, the hospitality industry, and even the cattle themselves from getting mastitis from standing in a contaminated stream.

Now, as reported in these pages, a small group of those who failed to act responsibly to put in fences using those cost-share dollars want to delay the benefits of clean water for the rest of us by extending the deadline to 2030.

This sensible legislation, passed with bipartisan support, was necessary because having cattle in our rivers and perennial streams is a trifecta of bad things. First, cattle hooves destroy the streambank and cause erosion; the resulting mud makes life difficult for critters living on the river bottom. Second, the direct deposit of cattle fecal matter in rivers adds to elevated bacteria levels. Third, the nitrogen and phosphorus from cattle manure contributes to the significant rise in algal mats we have been experiencing throughout the Shenandoah River system – dangerous enough that in 2021, more than 50 miles of the North Fork were closed to human contact because of floating mats of the stuff.

 

Algae in the North Fork of the Shenandoah in August 2021. (Matt Kowalski/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Those supporting an extension plead that the COVID-19 pandemic created the need for delay. However, on the Shenandoah River’s Main Stem and North and South Forks, farmers have succeeded in reducing the number of cattle herds with access to the waterways from almost 80 down to single digits; this was accomplished over a period that included the pandemic.

And the pandemic is an easy excuse – but how about evidence that it really is the basis for a needed delay? Why doesn’t the soil and water conservation district make at least a preliminary investigation to determine whether the delay is warranted? If the facts show that there has been progress but supply chain issues impeded, fair enough. But if an investigation shows nothing but inaction, we should not reward laziness with an additional delay.

Any extension is unwise and unwarranted and should not be supported. We already know that the longer cattle stay in the river, the longer the persistent problem of algae growth will go unanswered. What’s the cost of that? In addition to making the Shenandoah, one of the nation’s most attractive waterways, undesirable to be near, there is the economic impact.  River users who support the region’s considerable river outfitter economy will stay home – and who then is paying the price? The river outfitters and fishing guides. An even more dramatic and pervasive impact will result from a downturn in tourism, as those who want a day in the Valley will stay at home rather than facing the sight of disgusting mats of algae in the waters where they had wanted to wade, swim and paddle.

We also should not ignore the real health problem associated with algae in the river. In 2021, when Virginia’s Department of Health closed 50 miles of river on account of it, there were also scores of reports filed with the same authority regarding potentially dangerous algae elsewhere. Small children and pets are particularly susceptible to harm because of their enthusiasm and lack of caution; is this a worthwhile risk?

Further, the money has been allocated to support farmers to create fencing. What possibly can be gained by waiting five years when those same dollars will buy much less as a result of inflation?

To his credit, Gov. Youngkin’s current budget contains far more in agricultural cost-share dollars than any previous Virginia budget, including $81 million for Chesapeake Bay watershed cost-share best management practices, $15 million for soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance to farmers and $11 million to bolster operations and maintenance needs.

The Governor is also on record that Virginia will not meet the Chesapeake Bay 2025 cleanup goals, which the cattle exclusion would go some way to achieve. Pushing back the cattle herd deadline by five years will only worsen the problem. The commonwealth has no reason to sit on its hands for five years, especially when a cleaner Shenandoah River is within our sight and we have exercised the will to make it happen.

By Mark Frondorf

Mark Frondorf joined Potomac Riverkeeper Network in 2015 as the official Shenandoah Riverkeeper. Having guided on the Shenandoah and Potomac for almost twenty years, Mark Frondorf comes to the Shenandoah Riverkeeper position used to hard work and recognizing the importance of a hands-on approach to protecting our rivers. 


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Closing the Fitness Center is a poor decision – we deserve better

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Valley Health is taking away another community outreach and wellness program in order to increase the Corporation’s profit. In a letter dated Jan.16th, 2023, Valley Health’s Director of Fitness Services, Jeffery Jehren, abruptly announced that Valley Health would permanently end Front Royal’s popular fitness program, incidentally firing several trained and skilled healthcare professionals in the process.

Where are our elderly, or those of us with Parkinson’s Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, and other like diseases and/or injuries, going to go to work against our declining health issues without the valuable health care benefits provided by our Fitness Center? I am 69 years old. Other local fitness centers cannot provide the same services that we are losing because of this ill-timed callous decision.

We urge you to let Valley Health know that closing the Fitness Center is a poor decision and that we deserve better treatment from our healthcare providers as a community.

Doug & Lyn Bement
Warren County

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Commentary: Credit company’s laxness jacked up my info; I got a lousy 5 bucks

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Equifax’s financial mea culpa arrived in my mailbox the other day. I eagerly tore open the envelope the credit reporting firm sent me.

Would the check be a cool $125, as the feds originally touted in helping reach the class-action settlement? Or, given the humongous number of claimants, something much, much less?

The company’s inattention to detail led to a massive data hack in 2017. The intrusion compromised the personal data of 147 million people – nearly half the U.S. population.

I had to file a claim and keep abreast of developments. It took several years for the payouts to start.

In 2019, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said that, despite knowing about a key vulnerability in its software, Equifax didn’t fully patch its system or replace software that monitored its network for suspicious activity.

I was among 4 million Virginians affected. Our names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers were imperiled, though Equifax still says there’s no proof the data “has been sold or used.”

We’ll see.

Would the settlement check let me go on a mini-shopping spree? Or could I barely afford a combo meal?

Drum roll: It was a measly $5.21.

With millions of plaintiffs, class-action lawsuits like this one usually mean individuals receive negligible amounts. Besides, the lawyers representing the class get a major cut.

A $425 million consumer restitution fund was established as part of the Equifax settlement, but the “fine print” said just $31 million was being used for reimbursements. If more than 248,000 people submitted claims – a tiny percentage of 147 million – payments would be lower than $125 to each person. Folks could opt for free credit monitoring instead.

I tried reaching Kenneth Canfield in Atlanta and Norman Siegel in Kansas City, two of the attorneys representing consumers as part of “class counsel.” I wanted to know, in part, how much they received. Neither responded to my messages by Tuesday afternoon.

A legal website noted plaintiffs’ counsel often “receives 25 to 33 percent of the amount of damages as their attorney fees.”

A spokeswoman for Equifax directed me to a company statement on the disbursements and the settlement administrator’s website.

You bet I’m cashing the check.

And cursing Equifax for its cavalier and cheap response to data security.

 

by Roger Chesley, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Warren County Democrats candidate interest open house Saturday. January 28th

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As Chair of the Warren County Democratic Committee, I am excited to announce our Candidate Interest Open House on Saturday, January 28, from 10-2 pm at the Warren County Community Center. This event is designed to be a service to members of the community and not a closed-door, partisan exercise. The open house is not a place for rehashing political debates but one where interested parties can come in good faith to learn if the public office is right for them. One might ask why the chair of a Democratic committee would share helpful information about how to seek office without requiring party pledges.

One part of the answer is that our community is no place for the kind of partisan divisions and theatrics that hound Washington. We need problem-solvers who care about their neighbors more than any political party. That means providing this publicly available information to as many citizens of Warren County as possible. Too many people in recent years have tried to bring divisive drama to our School Board and other local offices, but that is not how we move our community forward.

Warren County has a long history of voting for Republican candidates, but whether you are a multi-generational native like myself or a newer resident, most people would agree that there is room for improvement in how local government meets the needs of business owners and working families. We can change the nature of our local governing body to reflect a more diverse set of experiences. Whether you studied law at a prestigious college, got a job at the local grocery store right out of high school, or like many, are still trying to find your passion, you might the person to bring a perspective to our local or state political system that helps kickstart a new era of vitality for the residents of Warren County.

Our community will only thrive when our School Board and Board of Supervisors are made up of people who are passionate about making our schools top-notch and ensuring that our growth is environmentally sustainable. People whose kids attend our schools should know how they can be a part of shaping educational outcomes. Folks living with the limitations of affordable housing and job opportunities can and must be part of how decisions are made for managed growth.

Even attendees of the event who do not decide to run for office can now leave with more information about the duties of their elected officials. This knowledge is important for holding our officials accountable.

Paul Miller
Chair, WCDC

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