At its regular meeting on July 20th, the Front Royal Planning Commission edged out a late effort by the Front Royal EDA (FREDA) to get the commission to revert to an earlier version of an Ordinance to define and set rules for data centers in the town. In its June meeting, the commission considered a change that would have allowed a data center by-right and instead voted to forward a modified ordinance change that will require a Special Use Permit (SUP) for siting a data center. Subsequently, in its June 27th meeting, Town Council appeared to agree with the Planning Commission’s stance on the Special Use Permit and returned the ordinance change to the planning commission to incorporate the wording the commission had suggested. That was the version before the commission on Wednesday for their recommendation.
Rick Novak, Chair of the Front Royal EDA, addressed the commissioners during the public hearing, followed by Vice-Chair Mark Tapsack. Novak had provided a package to the commissioners at the beginning of the meeting that recommended the adoption of the original by-right language.
Among other information, the package listed Town revenue estimates from Real Estate and Personal Property taxes averaging $122,500 annually, without listing any expenses the town would incur in supporting a facility of this type. Industry research provides a wide variety of data about this rapidly spreading business, in which developers typically look for sites that can provide low real estate costs, ready access to utilities, and capacity for power and water. Relative to the size of facilities, data centers employ very few people on-site, usually between 5 and 30 full-time equivalents (FTE). That can cut both ways, as it means less impact on local schools or roads, but it also means that jobs – a large part of building a community’s economic health, are relatively few, even though they are generally well-paying. Combine that with rosy projections for tax revenues, and it is easy to see why many localities are signing on to the trend. During his presentation, Novak said that data center developers don’t like to share too much data, as the business environment is extremely competitive. That means that recruitment and negotiations with potential employers are often shrouded in secrecy and that consequently contributes to citizens’ mistrust of the process.
Technologies are rapidly evolving that reduce the power and water demands of these facilities, and more can be expected, but even with those increased efficiencies, data centers still impact the community and its resources. Land use decisions also can have unintended consequences.
Ultimately, the Commission voted to recommend its own version of the Ordinance with the provision for Special Use Permitting of Data Centers to the Town Council. The commission did not indicate in any of its discussions that it is opposed to data centers, only that there should be an opportunity for oversight and public input on a case-by-case basis.
The commission also conducted public hearings for two new short-term tourist rentals.
- Joy Allen and Patrick Masch for a commercial (C-1) zoned property at 425 North Royal Avenue
- Jerry and Martha Britton for a Commercial (C-2) zoned property at 18 East Stonewall Drive.
There were no speakers for either public hearing, and both applications were unanimously recommended for approval.
Ramzi Beidas has applied for a Special Use Permit (SUP) for two apartments on the ground floor of his Commercial (C-1) building at 650 W. 11th Street. The property is the former Royal Village Laundromat. There were no speakers for this public hearing, and the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
A fourth application from Poe’s River Edge LLC for a Special Exception for a new proposed private street to improve traffic flow through parcels at 508 Kendrick Lane was withdrawn prior to a public hearing for some engineering revisions.
The commission’s Consent Agenda was for three authorizations to advertise for a public hearing for short-term tourist rental SUPs:
- 107 Highfield Lane, by William and Melissa Gordon
- 12 Chester St., by Lea Justice
- 124 Luray Avenue, by Phillip Vaught
The commission voted to approve the authorizations to advertise unanimously, and the public hearings will be held on August 17.
Town Council Meets to Address Issues That Range from Poultry to Vacation and Sale of Public Rights-of-Way
On Monday, September 25, 2023, at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Government Center, the Front Royal Town Council met to vote upon issues that included the number of chickens that residents are permitted to keep within town limits as well as a vacation of rights-of-way and sale of that access, parallel in part to Grand Avenue.
After Front Royal student Mia Miller led the gathering in the pledge of allegiance, Mayor Lori Cockrell presented an award to departing public servant Darryl Merchant for his service and acknowledged B.J. Wilson for his excellent work as the Town’s finance director. Then, the council members moved on to address an ordinance to amend the town code related to urban agriculture, specifically the keeping of chickens within town limits. Among other adjustments, it would change the limit on ownership of chickens from six to ten, based on the square footage of the coop and run space.
Speaking on behalf of her operation, Barbara Martin briefly addressed the council, saying, “I have been inspected and cleared for the six I now have.” But she lamented that under the present rule, she cannot free range her “girls” as she would like but must keep them “constantly confined.” After Martin spoke, Amber Morris moved that the ordinance amendments be denied. There was no second, and the motion died. Then Duane Rogers moved that the ordinance be accepted, and the motion was seconded by Melissa Dedomenico-Payne.
Morris explained her position. “This was an initiative of a former council; my former councilmember Scott Lloyd dedicated a lot of time and energy to this initiative, and I promised him that I would continue to bring it back forward. As a rural agricultural town, I think that it’s extremely important to protect the liberties and freedoms of families who wish to use urban agriculture to supply their family with a food source.” Because of the ongoing demand for eggs and because of the available space for this enterprise, Morris thinks it would be advantageous to allow urban agriculturalists the opportunity to keep more chickens; however, because of the regulations attached to the proposed amendment, she feels that the problem would not be solved and people who have already gone through the process of getting approved for their operations would find themselves suddenly in violation of new rules. She proposed that the issue be sent back to a work session.
Bruce Rappaport described himself as being on the other side of the pendulum from Morris. He thinks six chickens are “quite enough.” He went on to say, “We’re becoming more urban than rural.” Joshua Ingram echoed Morris in recommending a return to the work session for this agenda item. He cited the current limitations on free-range potential and consideration of all the nuisances inherent to having chickens confined in one spot. Apparently, there are already limitations in the code, and at least some of the regulations under the proposed amendments would supply additional limitations. While the number of chickens would increase, those owning chickens would be unable to run them as they wish.
Under a substitute motion, the urban agriculture issue was postponed for discussion at a work session on November 6, 2023. Only Rappaport and Rogers voted against it. A motion to vacate and sell a public right-of-way passed unanimously, surrendering a portion of North Street as well as a portion of an alley between Orchard Street and Grand Avenue, after which the council heard public comments; councilmembers were then given the opportunity to make general comments followed by a report from Mayor Cockrell, whereupon council passed the consent agenda without discussion and proceeded to go into closed session to discuss EDA litigation.
Literature, LGBTQ Rights, and Local Governance: Residents Speak Out
At the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting of September 19, 2023, the public comment period was opened with a reminder of the rules, which allow citizens to give input on issues not already scheduled for a public hearing. The total time allotted for this session is 60 minutes, with each speaker given a maximum of three minutes. Speakers are heard in the order they signed up. (The Royal Examiner apologizes if the names are not spelled correctly.)
Sarah Downs, a resident of the North River District, addressed the assembly. She criticized various board members for their actions and stances related to funding the library and alleged discriminatory practices. Her comments particularly emphasized the perceived lack of integrity and commitment to the community’s diverse representation. She also questioned some board members on their Christian beliefs, citing a verse from Psalms in the Bible found in the public library and challenging them on their fears. The overarching theme of her speech was demanding accountability from the board members.
Kelsey Lawrence from the Fork District spoke as a representative of the group “Save Samuels.” She emphasized the continuous presence and dedication of concerned citizens, most of whom are parents and library cardholders, in contrast to a different group she described as predominantly single, older men. Lawrence stressed the credibility and high standards of Samuels, a non-profit C3 organization, which she described as more accountable than the local government. She criticized the government’s inefficiencies and cautioned against any attempts to control or oversee private institutions, likening such actions to practices in communist China. She emphasized that libraries are essential venues for the free exchange of ideas and warned against censorship. Quoting activist Audre Lorde, Lawrence urged elected officials to uphold and protect freedom of expression as outlined in the First Amendment. She concluded by warning the officials of the community’s intent to hold them accountable in upcoming elections.
Robert Hill, a former member of the Election Board and history teacher, took the opportunity to reflect on the history of religious freedom in America. He highlighted the formation of colonies based on the pursuit of religious freedom and how that quest was ironically accompanied by instances of religious intolerance, citing examples from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Drawing from his Jewish background, he alluded to the religious intolerance that played a role in the formation of the Confederation of States, which paved the way for the American Revolution. Hill emphasized the idea, “A house divided will fall,” and shared a personal anecdote about his sister taking shoes from a nun to highlight the importance of caring for one another. Lastly, he mentioned President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to separating his religious beliefs from political decisions and the JFK Library in Massachusetts that honors individuals for their courage. Hill concluded by stressing the importance of representing and standing for everyone, not just specific groups.
Samantha Good, a resident of the South River District, expressed her concerns over the controversy surrounding Samuel’s Public Library. Despite being a social worker, former children’s therapist, small business owner, mother, and avid reader, she had to wait for a significant amount of time to address the board. Samantha criticized the board’s alleged intentions to defund or close the library due to external pressure for book bans. She cited statistics demonstrating the library’s success in 2022, including a significant increase in patrons and exceeding fundraising goals. Samantha emphasized that banning books is unlawful, referencing the First Amendment, Virginia Human Rights Act, and Virginia Values Act of 2020. While the library offers tools for parents to oversee their children’s reading materials, she argued that it’s a parental responsibility, not the library staff’s or the board’s duty. Samantha closed by highlighting the library’s significant role in the community, especially for families like hers who depend on its resources. She urged the board to reconsider any potential actions against Samuel’s Public Library.
Bruce White, a resident of Shenandoah District and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley, addressed the board, urging them to fully fund Samuel’s Public Library, maintain its collection, and approve the Memorandum of Agreement proposed by the Library Board of Trustees. He highlighted that a similar agreement has been successfully in place for around 70 years, which has contributed to the library’s success. Bruce also provided the board with letters from fellow church congregants who supported his stance. As Unitarian Universalists, they emphasize the significance of recognizing the inherent worth of every individual and promoting justice, equity, and compassion. He mentioned that the library has addressed concerns about books with LGBTQ themes by introducing additional library card levels for parental oversight and establishing a new adult section for specific books. Bruce stated that he read several of the contested books and found them to promote tolerance and understanding rather than containing inappropriate content. He urged the board to support the library and its initiatives.
Lauren Si addressed the Board of Supervisors, asserting her status as a taxpayer and voter while emphasizing her expectation for the library to be fully funded. She highlighted that a minority (less than 1%) of the community is urging for the library to be defunded and criticized the board for succumbing to their demands. Lauren accused this minority of being an elite, prejudiced group with substantial influence. She criticized the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would grant control over the library to these individuals and noted the community’s awareness of this issue. Lauren accused these individuals of harassing and slandering librarians and demanded that the board fund the library and offer a fair MOA. She warned the board members that their decision would influence their political careers and reputations. Furthermore, she emphasized that this isn’t about party politics as all political groups in the community, whether Democrat, Liberal, or Republican, agree on the issue.
Barry Cochran introduced himself, noting his move to Front Royal five years ago after having to retire from nursing due to a disability. To occupy his time, he got a library card from Samuels, downloading and reading mostly LGBTQ+-themed books on his digital devices. He compared the explicitness of these books to popular authors like Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele, pointing out that the LGBTQ+ books had no more sexual content than theirs. Barry questioned the bias of wanting to ban LGBTQ+ books but not ones with explicit content by heterosexual authors. He mentioned many of the books he read were actually written by heterosexual women. Barry wore a necklace with the phrase “Only God Can Judge Me” and expressed his belief that book availability at the library shouldn’t be determined by a narrow-minded group or the Board of Supervisors.
Michaele Davis shared her journey of moving to Warren County 20 years ago, having been raised in a conservatively religious culture. She understood the feeling of oppression but was determined to foster a space for her children to learn and grow. Despite her initial reservations about the town, she grew to appreciate its community and scenic beauty. Her son got his library card at age five, and her daughter volunteered at Samuels Public Library, greatly benefiting from the experience. Michaele proudly declared that all three of them identify as queer. She emphasized the positive upbringing she provided for her children and their resultant successes. Expressing her disappointment with the recent issues surrounding the library, she called out the Board for potentially violating First Amendment rights by linking library funding to content regulation. Michelle labeled it a ploy by a small group with political intentions and warned of the broader implications this might have on the Board’s reputation.
Michelle Kerns expressed her anger, frustration, and sadness regarding the actions and decisions of the Board of Supervisors. She cited the loss of faith in the county leadership due to the EDA scandal and expected the current leadership to restore trust with honesty and transparency. However, she felt that this expectation had not been met. She highlighted conflicts of interest, especially Mr. Butler and Ms. Cook. Michelle criticized Mr. Butler for requesting book removals when his board controls the library’s funding. She called out Ms. Cook for not clarifying that Mr. Butler’s statements did not reflect the board’s position and also for her role on the Library Board of Trustees. Michelle emphasized that the core issue isn’t about the books but about hate, power, and control. She staunchly defended the First Amendment, urging the board to celebrate differences and uphold the values of kindness, acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. She concluded by urging the board to stop letting bigotry, hatred, and intolerance negatively influence decisions about the library.
Joanna Artone introduced herself, highlighting her roots in Warren County and noting her connection to the community. She presented statistics from Samuel’s Public Library for the month of August, emphasizing the critical resources and services the library provides, including books, programs, services, and public space. She argued against the defunding of the library, asserting that the controversy is based on unfounded claims about inappropriate content. Joanna stated that no pornographic material exists in the library and argued for the importance of having representation for the LGBTQ+ community. Sharing her personal experience, she mentioned the struggles she faced as a queer individual growing up without resources that discussed queer issues. Joanna emphasized the increased risks LGBTQ+ youth face, such as self-harm and suicide, often due to the negative perceptions created by extremists. She concluded by urging the community to support the library, maintain LGBTQ+ resources, and allow parents the freedom to choose books for their children rather than imposing decisions upon them.
Connor Marcella addressed the Board with a candid and passionate statement. He expressed his frustration towards those who use anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, falsely accusing the community of grooming children or pushing a so-called “transgender agenda.” Marcella shared an author’s statement from Jessica Love, the writer of “Julian is a Mermaid,” to illustrate that the book’s intention was to celebrate diversity and accept children as they are. Jessica Love’s words emphasized the importance of representation and the emotional damage that can be caused by demonizing such books. Marcella also criticized individuals who bullied a child with autism for wearing a skirt, noting that the child did so to fulfill sensory needs, not because of any “agenda.” He condemned the Board for seemingly condoning such behavior by not taking a strong stance against these detractors. Marcella concluded his address with a rebuke, expressing deep disappointment and calling out the perceived complicity in the mistreatment of vulnerable children.
Charles Stewart, a parent and resident of Shenandoah District, Samuels Library patron, attorney, and voter, voiced his concerns about potential civil rights litigation. He highlighted that the ongoing issues seem rooted in objections to LGBTQ content in books. Citing legal precedents and laws, including the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment, Charles detailed how book bans could violate these rights. He further mentioned the 2020 Virginia Values Act, which expands protections against discrimination. Charles urged the Board not to succumb to the demands of a small but vocal group and to fully fund the library.
Janet Bram, a resident of the South River District, reflected on the growth of the library over the past 40 years. She emphasized the importance of not reverting to a time of lesser resources and cautioned the governing body against being manipulated by particular groups. Janet expressed her surprise and dismay at the Board’s decision to fund the library for only one more quarter and urged the Board to reconsider this decision. She emphasized the value of the library as a community resource.
Tom Howarth spoke passionately about the division in the community surrounding the ongoing situation. He emphasized that Christianity and Catholicism are about the “power of love” and not the “love of power.” He expressed his dismay at how the Board handled the situation with Michelle Ross, suggesting they should apologize for their perceived complicity in her mistreatment.
Howarth criticized the local Catholic Church, labeling it as “ultra-traditionalist,” and mentioned that even the Pope had used the term “backward” to describe such views. He expressed concern about regressing to older times when discrimination against the gay community was rampant. He ended by urging the Board to think of moving forward, to embrace love over power, and to resist those who have brought division and conflict to the community.
Valerie Mintier introduced herself and noted that she was from Front Royal. She read a letter from Eliza Lane, the author of one of the books challenged in an attempt to defund Samuels Library.
Eliza condemned the overt bullying targeting gay, trans, and gender non-conforming children evident in the debate. She emphasized that restoring the library’s budget is crucial, not only for the services the library offers to all, especially the low-income and unhoused but also for ensuring a safe community for LGBTQ children.
Drawing on public data, Eliza highlighted the increased vulnerability of LGBTQ students to depression, sexual assault, and suicide. She shared her personal experience of facing homophobia, stating her motive for writing children’s books was to comfort them and assure them they were not alone.
Eliza referenced the tragic loss of a generation of gay people due to an alleged “government genocide.” She expressed the pain of losing her gay family and parents, emphasizing her commitment to advocating for LGBTQ children.
Concluding, she directed a strong message to homophobic individuals, stating the weight of guilt they’d bear if their behavior led to tragic outcomes for these children. She thanked the board and pledged her commitment to resolving the situation by restoring the library’s budget.
Jennifer Rittenbach, a resident of Front Royal, addressed the board regarding the attempted censorship of books that represent the LGBTQ community. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, she emphasized the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech. She pointed out that the books under challenge are not pornographic but are targeted because they represent LGBTQ individuals, terming the act as religious discrimination.
Drawing upon historical incidents, Jennifer highlighted the dangers of banning books, referencing the violent attack on Salman Rushdie due to his controversial book “The Satanic Verses.” She cited Penn America’s current legal action against a Florida school district for a similar censorship attempt.
Rittenbach underscored the purpose of the First Amendment: to protect citizens from theocratic and authoritarian control over information and speech. She voiced her belief that theocratic attempts to regulate reading material and access to information should be combated, emphasizing that individual choice and parental guidance should dictate reading decisions, not religious bodies.
Jennifer stated her frequent use of Samuels Library and its importance in her work with two special needs men. She concluded by urging the board to uphold their duty to protect the First Amendment rights of their constituents and to provide full funding to Samuels Library.
Daniel Silsby from the South River District spoke before the board, initially offering an apology to Supervisor Butler for a previous heated phone call. He recalled his history in the town, noting his family moved there in 1989, and shared a personal experience of flying over the town in a C-130 plane during his time at RMA.
He recalled a gay classmate who faced discrimination and violence during the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. Daniel emphasized the kindness he received from various LGBTQ individuals in his life, from friends to bosses, and lamented the treatment they’ve received in return from the county.
Strongly critical of the board’s decision to withhold funding, he blamed them for contributing to the harassment and endangerment of the Samuel’s Library staff, including the resignation of Director Michelle Ross. Silsby enumerated the apologies he believed the board owed to various parties, including a public one, for their political missteps. He specifically addressed Mr. Butler, urging him to ensure the government stays out of personal lives as he had once promised.
He concluded with a hope that the withheld funds would be released, expressing concern for the future of the county and republic.
Bethany O’Neill from Front Royal, a 14-year county resident and Samuel’s Public Library cardholder, shared her views about the ongoing controversy around the library’s book selection. As a mother of three and a parishioner at St. John’s, she voiced her concerns against the group CUSS, stating they do not represent her views. She criticized the group for their hateful rhetoric and for focusing on sexually explicit content that isn’t even always available in the library.
Bethany praised the library staff for their dedication to the community and mentioned the measures they’ve taken to address concerns, such as the creation of a new adult section and age-restrictive library cards. She cautioned against potential discrimination lawsuits if books representing protected minority groups were removed or segregated.
She mentioned her personal journey of reading the books under contention and concluded that the real issue for CUSS wasn’t about the safety of children but rather a rejection of diversity. She mocked the idea of removing books based on CUSS’s narrow definitions and criticized the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would see the library under the county’s control.
In her closing remarks, Bethany asked the board to release the library budget and affirm that they weren’t siding with the bigots. She ended by quoting author Ada Salazar, assuring young readers of their value and place in the world.
Gene Kilby from Front Royal, Virginia, expressed his deep sadness and concern about the division happening in the county regarding the Samuel’s Library controversy. He compared the current division to an earlier one in 1956-57 when students of different racial backgrounds faced challenges in attending schools in Morin County. Although he clarified that he wasn’t equating the two struggles, he found them similar in essence.
Kilby emphasized the importance of the pledge of allegiance, specifically highlighting the phrase “liberty and justice for all,” and questioned why the county wasn’t upholding these values. He asserted that the dispute wasn’t purely about children, considering the library had made efforts to give parents more control over their children’s reading materials. He believed that the concerned group wanted books referencing LGBTQ removed entirely and challenged their labeling of these books as pornography, suggesting that if they genuinely believed that, they should report it.
Towards the end of his speech, Kilby raised concerns about “taxation without representation,” suggesting that people were being taxed without their interests and concerns being adequately represented. Before he could further elaborate, his speaking time was up.
Steve Foreman, a resident of Fork District, voiced his concerns about the actions and credibility of the Warren County Board of Supervisors concerning the Samuels Public Library controversy. He criticized the Board for trying to bully the library, holding its funding hostage, and attempting to control its Board of Trustees with their own appointees. Foreman believed the Board’s decisions were politically motivated, especially with an election on the horizon.
Foreman praised Samuels Library trustees and staff for quickly implementing a sensible solution when faced with the demands of a vocal minority. However, he pointed out that their efforts were not acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors or the discontented minority. Despite the solution, the Board continues to threaten the concept of a free public library.
Foreman emphasized the negative publicity this has brought both on a national and international level, leading to potential reputational damage for the county. He questioned the motivations of the Board, hinting at possible political reasons and prior misguided decisions involving funding a consultant who orchestrated a public display of feigned outrage and prejudice.
Foreman appealed for an end to the ongoing issue, emphasizing the importance of free speech, and called for the restoration of Samuels Public Library’s honor and its crucial role in serving the community.
The speaker, identified as Steve Hisey from Blue Mountain, raised two main concerns regarding recent actions taken by the Warren County governing bodies:
- Library Funding Issue: Steve expressed displeasure towards the Library Board’s rejection of the funding agreements. He accused the Library Board of disrespecting the community they purportedly represent and took their rejection as an offensive gesture to both the governing Board and the broader Warren County community. As a response, Steve advocated for defunding the library and posited that after two years of such action, the library would face bankruptcy. Subsequently, he proposed that the Board should acquire the library facility, with the aim of establishing a library that would be genuinely accountable to Warren County’s residents.
- Asset Forfeiture Concern: Steve addressed an Equitable Sharing Agreement and Certification that the Board voted on and signed on September 5th. He was concerned that the actual subject, asset forfeiture, was not explicitly mentioned in the agenda. He urged the Board to reconsider their vote due to the potentially detrimental impacts of asset forfeiture on the community. Drawing from various instances, he explained how the introduction of this law can shift the focus of the police from serving the community to seeking opportunities for arrests to confiscate property. Steve emphasized cases where innocent individuals lost their property because of misunderstandings, like parents having cars confiscated due to drugs left behind by their kids or farmers, wrongly assumed to be drug dealers. He stressed that the burden falls on the individuals to prove their innocence to retrieve their properties, a situation he finds contradictory to the foundational principles of the country.
Hisey pressed the Board to reflect on the ramifications of asset forfeiture and requested a comprehensive study of its effects.
Jackie Marcello from the Fork District expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the Board’s response, or lack thereof, to community concerns. Jackie’s primary points included:
- Lack of Communication: Jackie voiced disappointment with the Board members who didn’t respond to her previous communications. While she acknowledged that public service roles can be challenging with varying opinions, she highlighted the importance of at least acknowledging constituents.
- Library Issues: Emphasizing the significance of the library in the community, Jackie criticized the apparent inconsistencies in societal values. She pointed out the paradox where same-sex couples can legally marry but can’t have books reflecting their experiences on library shelves.
- Bullying Incident: Jackie referenced a disturbing incident where a 4-year-old child with autism was cyber bullied by a group of individuals because he wore a skirt. She highlighted that the child’s choice was due to sensory preferences typical of those on the autism spectrum. She denounced such actions as harmful to children and contrary to the claims of those who say they want to protect children.
Jackie urged the Board to restore the library’s funding and emphasized that by doing so, they could bring an end to the recurring public discontent expressed in their meetings. She wrapped up her speech with a plea to “give the library back to us.”
Supervisors Approve 2nd Quarter Library Funding, Then Get an Earful on Past Stances on Library Issues
On Tuesday, September 19, at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Government Center, the Warren County Board of Supervisors gathered to address several agenda items, one of them being a fully packed community participation hour in which twenty-two speakers spoke concerning the ongoing question of whether Samuels Public Library should be fully funded; with a three-minute time limit on each speaker, only one person spoke in favor of not fully funding the library.
Opening the meeting and having discussed it in closed session, the board added to its agenda a temporary funding agreement regarding an appropriation of $256,000 to Samuels Public Library to cover the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2023/24, ending December 31. On a motion by Jerome Butler, seconded by Cheryl Cullers, the board voted unanimously in favor of the continued operational funding of its contracted public library.
The board then proceeded to listen to the community on the library matter during Public Comments. Many of the speakers referred to the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that the freedom to read what one pleases and to see on library shelves books that represent LGBTQ+ themes is a constitutional right. Some went as far as to say that the absence of such material could be alienating for children who identify with LGBTQ+.
Of all the impassioned speeches in support of the library and its full funding, the most impassioned was delivered by Sarah Downs of Defense for Democracy. “Why are you okay with politically posturing to extremists?” she asked the board, “And how much are you willing to sacrifice for their bigotry?”
She addressed each member of the board individually. She asked Walter Mabe, whom she perceives as having assumed a position of neutrality: “What about discrimination is neutral?” She expressed astonishment to Delores Oates, whom she perceives as at least claiming to be an advocate of “mothers” but has, in Downs’ eyes, aligned herself against the library, which she believes supports a majority of the county’s mothers. To Vicky Cook, she posed this question about accessing a past meeting: “Why are you running to and from your car? What are you running from? You say you want open discussions, but then jet on an open meeting.” She asked Cheryl Cullers: “Have you been complacent to the discriminatory actions of your fellow board members? We know you support the library, but your silence on the actions of fellow board members speaks volumes.” Finally, to Jerome Butler, she said: “Well gladly, I don’t have any questions. We know who you are. Someone who actively advocates and supports discrimination.” She assured the board that they would be held accountable at the polls.
Interviewed after the meeting, Sarah Downs described Defense for Democracy as “a non-partisan organization that is working to ensure that extremism doesn’t take root in our county.” Keeping public systems intact, like public school systems and public libraries, is their focus. Being present at meetings like the one held on Tuesday evening is important to them. During the interview, she likened the board’s attempt to control the appointment of library trustees to the communism of Red China, and near the end of the interview, she quoted Psalm 27: “Whom shall I fear?”
Each board member had the opportunity to share his or her thoughts in response to the community participation segment. They described their ongoing efforts to address the dispute over content at Samuels and funding for the library. “I have not spoken out in public because I’m listening, and I’m trying to respond individually,” Cheryl Cullers remarked. She also remarked that Jerome Butler submitted two reconsideration requests in which he checked the box for organization and filled out as Warren County Board of Supervisors. “I was and am continue to be upset and angry that you would do that,” Cullers continued. “You did not have my permission and did not speak for me on this matter.” She went on to lament the division this dispute has created in the community. “Both sides own their own share of disrespectful behavior that is not conducive to this process. Let’s all take a breath, please, and let both boards work together for a contract that is acceptable to both.”
Delores Oates spoke in favor of the changes that Samuels has made and said, “I fully support parental rights and ensuring that parents alone make decisions on raising and educating their children.” She described a loophole in the Virginia state code that forbids “obscene content” unless the body in question is a library, a museum, or a school. “It is my plan to have that as my first piece of legislation I carry, to remove this exception and protect our children,” she said, referring to her campaign for a state delegate’s seat in the November election.
The board addressed several other agenda items and adjourned.
Board of Supervisors Hears the Case of ‘Agreed Upon’ Easement
On Wednesday, September 12, at 6 p.m. in the Warren County Government Center, the Board of Supervisors met for a work session in which they heard the case of a property owner who, within the past three months, has taken steps to dissolve a memorandum of agreement pertaining to an easement on a portion of his property that compels him to give access to the building of a gas pipeline. The board has the power to dissolve the MOA.
In his address to the board, William Long, manager of Long Pine Holdings, LLC, and owner of the sixty-foot parcel under easement at 6768 Winchester Road where Washington Gas has been planning to build a portion of its pipeline for ten years, explained that he felt coerced into the agreement, as he was offered ten thousand dollars for his cooperation with the tacit understanding that in the absence of his cooperation eminent domain would give the gas company the rights they require. Thus, the “agreed upon easement” was established, where the MOA substitutes for the full force of an official easement, which the board can dissolve if they wish.
Long owns the Auto Care Clinic at that location and has operated under a conditional use permit since 2013, the same year in which the MOA was established. The MOA agreement is between William Long and Warren County. The county has worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in matters pertaining to this case.
In a letter dated June 7, 2023, Long and his wife, who is also a manager of Long Pine Holdings, wrote to Warren County’s Planning Director Matt Wendling, saying that “it is our understanding that there are no plans for future development,” regarding the sixty-foot parcel to which Washington Gas currently holds a claim, “and therefore, this right of way is no longer necessary.” The letter continues in the first person. “I have plans to expand my business, Auto Care Clinic, Inc., in the future, which would not be possible without the recission of the right of way.” The letter ends with a request that the County of Warren rescind the agreement for sixty feet right of way, “effective immediately.”
This letter comes on the heels of another letter to Wendling from Dewberry Engineers Inc., writing on behalf of Washington Gas, dated May 15, 2023. In it, the Dewberry representative says he is not aware of any requests by Warren County to dedicate the sixty feet right of way, but he believes the reservation is still valid. “As you may know,” he writes, “Washington Gas is in the final phase of a twenty-mile pipeline replacement project that commenced in 2014.” Without utilizing the sixty-foot parcel on Long’s property, Washington Gas will not be able to complete its replacement project.
This communication from Dewberry is followed by another from them on June 16, 2023, nine days after the communication to Wendling from Long. He writes that the Longs have communicated a willingness to work with Dewberry. Further adjustments need to be made to the agreement. “We are still seeking written confirmation from Warren County,” he writes, “that underground gas pipeline(s) may be constructed in a portion of the sixty-foot right-of-way reservation to support completion of this project.” A letter from VDOT to Wendling dated July 12, 2023, reads, “We have reviewed the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) request, and we do not support dissolving the joint access easement.”
The property Long currently owns, which he purchased from Evelyn Payne, a transaction that transpired alongside and was associated with the 2013 MOA, after a different CUP he had under her ownership dating back to 2007, will revert to his sole possession if the Board of Supervisors agrees to dissolve the 2013 MOA.
Having completed their closed session, which addressed personnel issues pertaining to the Airport Commission before the work session, the board heard a report on delinquency in tax collections from the Warren County Treasurer’s Office; they also heard a tourism update concerning the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as well as a brief report about personnel proceedings from the Warren County Information Technology Department. After these agenda items were processed, the meeting adjourned.
Town Council Considers Renewable Resources in Anticipation of Upcoming Meeting
On Monday, September 11, at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall at 102 E. Main Street, the Front Royal Town Council met for a work session in which they heard a presentation concerning the town’s power portfolio.
Mike Migliore, Vice President of Power Supply Planning at American Municipal Power (AMP), of which the Town is a regional municipal member, guided the council through a PowerPoint presentation, explaining their options and desired outcomes for 2024 through 2026, specifically defining what vendors are currently providing the town with power, what vendors could potentially provide the town with power, and how much the town is currently paying and can expect to pay in the future for those power supplies. This work session comes in advance of a Town Council meeting at Front Royal’s Government Center on September 25, in which the council will make several key decisions impacting the town’s energy options.
Beginning his presentation, Migliore compared the power portfolio to retirement planning, in which diversification is all important. Immediately diving into the details of the PowerPoint, he explained that Front Royal uses 182 million kilowatt hours per year. Seventeen percent of the energy the town currently uses is renewable resources, and Migliore believes that trend will continue into next year. “Is that pretty standard?” Mayor Lori Cockrell asked about the percentage for renewables, and Migliore replied yes, “most of the AMP members are in that category.” AMP has 134 members, mainly in Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
In the case that AMP has not purchased blocks of energy for Front Royal in advance, the net market or open market is the pie slice of the portfolio that is vulnerable to whatever blocks of energy happen to be available at the moment, which Migliore says is likely to be more expensive, especially with rising demands for energy in the town, winter demanding more heat and summer cooler air. Entering 2025 and 2026, that category becomes wider, thus illustrating the need for AMP to facilitate cost-effective purchases. As blocks of energy drop off soon, that need for cost-effective purchases becomes more urgent.
This two to three-year plan is unusual for the council, who are more accustomed to dealing with ten-year plans. In part because of the war in Ukraine and the market disruption that caused in 2022, the council is being proactive in terms of purchasing blocks ahead of 2025, when those purchases will go into effect.
In addition to solar and wind, hydro plants on the Ohio River, as well as in the Smokey Mountains, are an option. Although they are affected by drought, they have long-term durability, and Migliore anticipates that the debt can be paid by 2049. “These are our most expensive power supplies,” said Migliore. He also said, “Your grandkids will be happy that they have debt-free green power.” Despite the challenges that America faced post-coronavirus and the onset of conflict in Ukraine, particularly surviving last winter with unstable gas prices, fossil fuels like coal and natural gas currently represent roughly fifty percent of Front Royal’s portfolio. At eight cents per kilowatt hour, AMP projects a cost of 15 million dollars in annual power rates for the town of Front Royal.
After Migliore finished his presentation, the council addressed its consent agenda items and then moved to a closed meeting to discuss personnel issues and EDA litigation.
Library Funding/Content Battle Rages on at County Supervisors Meeting
Once again, a now familiar non-agenda item dominated the Tuesday, September 5, Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting, both outside the Warren County Government Center (WCGC), where a pro-library contingent demonstrated for an hour or more prior to the open meeting’s 7 p.m. start, and inside the board meeting room which was filled to capacity leading to overflow into the hallway. That non-agenda item is the continued funding of Samuels Public Library amidst the public battle between mainly self-identified Catholic critics of the inclusion of LGBTQ-themed books in the library’s adult or children’s sections and supporters of continued funding of the library and the inclusion of such books in the library under increased parental control guidelines the library staff has been working to achieve.
For detailed background on the public debate, we suggest visiting the Royal Examiner’s OPINION page, where both sides have stated their positions extensively in recent weeks. The public comments, again taking the maximum hour’s time allotted to non-agenda items, begin at the 6:15 mark of the County video linked below, concluding at the 1:06:45 mark.
Coincidentally, this revisiting of the library funding and management debate occurred the evening before the initial civil court hearing on a $5,000 defamation of character claim brought by Mark Egger, a principal figure in the CleanUp Samuels effort, against two members of the Save Samuels contingent. In fact, the two people targeted in Egger’s defamation claim, Stevi Hubbard and her daughter Cameron, were the 16th and 17th speakers of 19 at this meeting’s Public Comments, during which almost every speaker used their full three minutes of the allotted time.
This debate over public library function, operations, and funding has now not only garnered national attention, as pointed out by our contributing writer and retired AP (Associated Press) correspondent Malcolm Barr Sr.’s story on coverage in The Washington Post, but now also international scrutiny with a piece in Barr’s native England’s The Guardian, another newspaper of international readership.
Why all the attention?
It would seem Warren County’s elected officials’ handling and prospective handling of its public library’s funding and function in the wake of what appears to be a largely religious, faith-based criticism has attracted a worldwide audience as a pending decision on library funding — which was discussed with legal counsel in Closed/Executive Session prior to Tuesday’s open meeting — may now raise questions among a worldwide audience about the U.S. Constitution’s mandated separation of church and state in the conduct of U.S. governments at all levels.
Center stage in that upcoming political drama on the side seeking the removal of any book with a positive or supportive spin on LGBTQ lifestyles they see as “pornography” appears to be a significant portion who are Christendom College affiliated, both students and staff past and present, many also aligned with Front Royal’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (see more on that below in reference to Kelsey Lawrence’s comments).
Several consistent themes were heard from those “CleanUp” Samuels speakers. Among those were:
— Support of the board of supervisors taking control of the non-profit 501-c3 Samuels Public Library’s Board of Trustees, as was proposed in the County’s initially submitted revised Memorandum Of Agreement (MOA), also referenced as “the Funding Agreement.”
— “No taxation without representation” was another oft-quoted statement of the anti-Samuels as it currently exists contingent, reflecting their belief their tax dollars should not go to support something they don’t agree with.
A Nightmare Scenario
But if some themes were familiar, one speaker was not. Final Public Comments speaker Naomi Egger (1:03:40 video mark) seemed to summarize the darkest potential consequences of acceptance of the “T” (Trans) portion of the LGBTQ lifestyle. She quoted from a memoir about tragic physical consequences experienced by a young teen girl she cited as Chloe Kohl after her parents sought medical advice in the wake of their then 12-year-old daughter’s expression of sexual identity confusion as she reached puberty.
Commenting on her sexual identity dilemma, that girl stated that she told her parents she “felt like a boy” but added in retrospect, “All I meant was that I hated puberty. That I wanted this new-found sexual attention to go away. That I looked up to my brothers a little more than I did to my sisters … (then) we all became victims of so-called gender-affirming care,” Egger quoted from Kohl’s memoir. That memoir continued to cite the negative physical consequences of first, “puberty blockers” at 12, and then at age 13 her first “testosterone injections”, and eventually a “double mastectomy” at 15, all leading to life-altering consequences it appears she will suffer from the balance of her life.
This nightmarish tale seemed to be more a condemnation of the medical industry’s reinforcement of trans-sexuality and its willingness to recommend and institute irreversible medical procedures on one so young than of library material normalizing alternate-sexual identity lifestyles. However, the underlying theme of alternate gender identity reinforcement was a connecting link. But it must also be noted that at no point in Ms. Egger’s presentation of the Chole Kohl memoir was reinforced by reading material, library or otherwise, referenced.
Expanding support & numbers games
But beyond the segment of the Catholic community that seems to be the dominant force in the Clean Up Samuels movement, we have also been made aware recently of a letter of support for the Clean Up Samuels initiative from five non-Catholic religious-affiliated individuals, including pastors from Browntown Baptist Church and Living Water Christian Church of the Shenandoah Valley; a “Bishop” with no church affiliation listed; a lay representative of the Shenandoah Christian Alliance; and one Islamic Imam of the Khatme Nubuwwat Center.
And while this now somewhat more diversified group claims to speak for a majority of this community, the opposing side has disputed that contention. In fact, when Stevi Hubbard addressed the board (55:05 County video mark, with her daughter following her at the podium), she unfurled what she said was a long social-media generated signature list of library supporters, some of whom she said while not showing up at meetings, will be motivated to vote in coming elections due to the board’s seeming siding with what they believe is a radical, religious minority of county residents. Queried later about that list she unfurled on the meeting room floor to the displeasure of Chairman Vicky Cook, Hubbard said that at the time of the supervisors meeting, it contained 4,111 signatures, 1,948 confirmed as county residents. By Friday, Hubbard said the total signature list had climbed to 5,461, though she did not have an updated number of verified county residents.
After the first 14 speakers were heard in support of the “CleanUp Samuels” effort — see more on a brewing sign-in controversy at this story’s end — the first speaker in support of the library’s material and full funding came to the microphone (51:47 video mark). That was Kelsey Lawrence, a Save Samuels advocate and co-chair of the Warren County Chapter of Defense of Democracy. Lawrence addressed the numbers game she believes is being played by the defund and overturn control of library operations anti-LGBTQ contingent.
Lawrence opened her remarks with a quote attributed to World War II era German Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” That is her perception of the strategy being employed by the anti-library, anti-LGBTQ support materials contingent, a contingent she described as “93 far-right, radical extremists on a … maniacal mission to defend Samuels Public Library.”
Then, further addressing the “majority” numbers the Clean Up Samuels (CUS) contingent cites, she told the supervisors, “First, CUS wants you to believe that they are the majority of library cardholders and voters in Warren County,” Lawrence began, adding this statistical analysis of un-cited origin, “A mere 33-percent of the county identifies as religious, I’m included in that, and only 7-percent as Catholic. St. John’s own pastor has claimed these people represent 1.5 percent of St. John’s parishioners. They represent less than half a percent of Warren County’s total population,” Lawrence told the supervisors. Royal Examiner could not verify St. John’s stats regarding the proportion of library activists among its congregation.
As to the “taxation without representation” argument of the Clean Up Samuels contingent, Lawrence said, “Lucky for them, they’re not,” explaining, “This claim too is based on a lie. County funds are not used to purchase library books. State funds and endowments are used for that.”
So, what do we find socio-politically on the Lawrence, Hubbard, and other Save Samuels supporters’ side? Judging from self-descriptions from letter writers to Royal Examiner’s Opinion page, among others contacted, it seems that group includes not only people identifying with that alternate sexual-identity lifestyle but also traditional heterosexuals, some even self-identifying as fundamentally conservative, who just don’t believe such an alternate sexuality lifestyle conducted with personal integrity, true love, and affection, condemns one to Hell. In fact, some observers of the current library book content debate have pointed out to this reporter that a softer tone on the spiritual fate of homosexuals appears to be the perspective of current Catholic Pope Francis. In 2013, shortly after assuming the papacy, when asked about the spiritual fate of those of a “gay” lifestyle, Pope Francis responded: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”
That group of pro-library county residents is urging the county’s elected officials to pull back from what appears to be threatened defunding and an attempt to gain appointed membership control of the independent 501 c3 non-profit Samuels Library Board of Trustees in order, they believe, to accommodate the religious-driven claims that any reference to alternate sexual lifestyles is “pornography” that must be removed from library shelves. Some have warned the supervisors of possible litigation to challenge such moves they see as religiously driven censorship in the conduct of the county government and its public library function.
Could we be on the verge of “EDA 2” as some have described potential financial paths the county government may have or be poised to follow? At least in the library case, it wouldn’t be stolen money but stolen rights of intellectual diversity and reading material access in the operations of a municipally contracted public library.
Stay tuned, sports – I mean court fans.
PS – Early sign ins?
One aspect of Tuesday’s Public Comments attracted the notice of several pro-library people who unsuccessfully tried to sign in to speak, one who said mid-afternoon, three to four hours prior to the open meeting’s start. The issue raised was that despite what appeared to be a significant majority of those present inside and outside the WCGC being supporters of the library’s full funding and operational independence, the first 14 of what ended up being a total of 19 Public Comments speakers who made it within the allotted hour were from the Clean Up Samuels Library (CSL) contingent. One of the pro-library groups said they were told a number of the anti-Samuels Library contingent had shown up at the WCGC as early as 9 a.m. that day. They wondered if those library opponents had been allowed to sign up to speak at that evening’s meeting as much as 9 to 10 hours prior to the meeting’s convening. It was not clear after speaking to several county officials whether that could have occurred with or without the county staff’s knowledge.
See the linked County video for the full public comments, as well as the post-public comments on regular meeting agenda topics. Among those agenda topics were approval of a Resolution on drought-related Warren County Disaster Relief to agricultural operations, a Rail Trail Letter of Support presented by County EDA Director Joe Petty, and a Financial Agreement with the Rivermont Volunteer Fire Department, Inc.
The concluding passage of the Disaster Relief Resolution states: “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Warren County Board of Supervisors that the County Administrator is directed to make a formal request to the State FSA Executive Director Dr. Ronald Howell that Warren County be declared an agriculture disaster area and that any and all appropriate State and Federal disaster relief and assistance be made available to the farmers in Warren County.”