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   20140901MetroCastweb

County opens $9M judicial center

The new Westmoreland County Judicial Center — a facility that has been in the planning stages for 25...

Longtime educator takes over at W&L High School

Longtime educator takes over at W&L High School

When Dashan Turner was a boy growing up in a small town in Mississippi, one of his teachers told him...

Montross council productive July meeting

On July 22, Montross Town Council quickly took care of electing officers for the new fiscal year. R....

Westmoreland County’s Parker Farms Supplies Produce to East Coast

Westmoreland County’s Parker Farms Supplies Produce to East Coast

Parker Farms, headquartered near Oak Grove with 2,000 acres of produce growing along the Rappahannoc...

“Bridge Closed” signs up on Rt 205

“Bridge Closed” signs were posted this week on State Route 205 in Westmoreland County as the Virgini...

14-year-old equipment endangering lives

Oak Grove VFD Chief Mike Gutridge recently advised that he is very concerned about the decaying cond...

 

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O’Gara Group proves faithful to Westmoreland County

   O’Gara Group was in the news last Thursday in another part of the state. A Westmoreland resident had found an April 16 reporting in The Northern Virginia Daily that offered hope that the paramilitary training entity had shifted its plans from the 350-acre location immediately east of Montross to 1,000 acres in the upper Shenandoah Valley.
   On April 17 the Journal received an email from a reader whose identity was unclear but whose message was worthy of pursuit.
   “I see from the recent article by Mr. Knight,” wrote Nomercs, “that the mercenary company O’Gara Group, not content to outrage just the citizens of Westmoreland County and the Town of Montross, is at it again, using one of their surrogate mercenaries, Dave Dolan, listed as a branch manager of the company, to apply to build a facility in Shenandoah County under the guise of the ‘Shenandoah Valley Training Center.’
   “How stupid does O’Gara think we are? They have previously sent Dolan, as an overt representative of the O’Gara Company, to deal with the citizens of Louisa and Essex counties (where he was promptly sent packing from both) and now, while still negotiating in ‘good faith’ with the secretive, greedy, and non-representational county leaders in Westmoreland County who are apparently lured by the Siren’s Song of cash for a trash ‘shell building’ that should never have been built in the first place, and the promise of lots of jobs (yeah right, lots of former Navy SEALS living in Westmoreland), they are attempting to do an equally treacherous deal with the good citizens of Shenandoah, apparently as a back up Play B when they ultimately get run out of Westmoreland.
   “Well, duh, O’Gara, ever heard of Google? Just because some of us live in rural counties doesn’t mean we don’t have electricity and can’t do research!
   “O’Gara already has one training center in Virginia near Danville. They have apparently placated most of those folks and should be happy with that. They sure haven’t done anything but to show deception to those of us in Westmoreland and now, apparently, our brothers and sisters in Shenandoah.
   “This,” the emailed messenger then concluded, “is the business equivalent to inviting two girls to the prom. Well, no thanks. We both need to sit this dance out!”
With electric power and Google in service in rural Westmoreland, the April 16 article was only a few computer strokes away. Residents in Shenandoah County were reportedly concerned about the military training center the O’Gara employee proposed to build and grass-roots opposition was immediate.
   According to the report, the O’Gara opponents’ Keep Westmoreland  Rural web page quickly became a model for the Keep Shenandoah rural web page created by the O’Gara employee’s opponents in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
   Efforts are being made to raise money to hire a lawyer to oppose establishment of the proposed paramilitary training facility in the valley. The Shenandoah County Planning Commission will entertain Dolan’s request as soon as May 7.
   Dolan’s proposal includes amenities such as driving course and the multiple shooting ranges that are central to O’Gara’s Westmoreland County plans. But O’Gara has not invited another girl to the dance.
   Instead, an April 20 article published in the Northern Virginia Daily reveals that Dolan is no longer an O’Gara employee. On April 16 that paper reported that “Joyce Wegryniak, the county’s zoning subdivision administrator, said Wednesday that Dolan filed his [special use] application Monday night and had wanted to be incorporated before doing so, but he was rushed to meet a deadline to May’s Planning Commission agenda.”
   According to members of Westmoreland County’s local government, O’Gara Group will never need to file a special use request to establish the facility it envisions for the 350 acres in this Northern Neck jurisdiction.
   According to Westmoreland officials, the O’Gara facility would be a school and schools can locate on the properties O’Gara has contracted to purchase in Westmoreland County as a matter of right.
   The O’Gara project’s final site plan would be administratively approved by Bob Fink, the new zoning and subdivision official whose position was approved by the Westmoreland Supervisors during an April 13 meeting of the Board.

Betsy Ficklin

 

Concerns about O’Gara remain unsatisfied

   A paramilitary training establishment known as The O’Gara Group wants to establish its operations on a 350-acre stretch of ground in Westmoreland County and nearby residents have become increasingly concerned.
   As long ago as January 12 O’Gara Group contracted to buy 25 acres and an empty industrial shell building from the county government to complement the adjacent 325-acre tract car dealer Bryan Chandler has agreed to sell.
   Prior to execution of the January 12, 2009 sales agreement, private citizens and most members of Westmoreland’s Industrial Development Authority had no knowledge that O’Gara had begun negotiating its purchase of the county’s property as long ago as 2007.
   A Westmoreland Zoning Administrator developed a set of notes in 2008 supporting the supposition that the proposed paramilitary training establishment is in fact a school as defined in local ordinance. The establishment could accordingly locate on the referenced 350 acres without becoming the subject of any public hearing.
   Three months have passed since O’Gara Group’s intentions became known the tiny group of citizens who attended the late night Board of Supervisors meeting on January 12. During that interval one citizen appealed the past Zoning Administrator’s determination that the facility O’Gara Group proposes meets the criteria associated with local ordinance’s definition of a school.
   The appeal was withdrawn, but opposition to O’Gara Group’s intention has continued to rise. Last Thursday evening District 3 Supervisor Lynn Brownley met with local residents and was bombarded with concerns about O’Gara’s Westmoreland County plans.
   This Monday afternoon unhappy Westmoreland residents staged a protest rally on the courthouse green. Those citizens later marched from the old Montross courthouse to the George D. English Building, where a Board of Supervisors meeting was in session.
   On Thursday night Supervisor Brownley, a Westmoreland County native, entertained criticisms from residents whom he had not previously met. New voices expressed their displeasure to the Board of Supervisors during this Monday night’s Board meeting.
   As was previously reported, not all members of the Westmoreland County Citizens Association believe a paramilitary training establishment would be bad for Westmoreland County.
   Most Citizens Association members have nonetheless been adamant that the county officials were inappropriately secretive during the eighteen-month period in which the as yet unidentified members of the local government attempted to recruit the paramilitary establishment to locate on the industrial park’s 25-acre remnant.
   Individuals associated with the Citizens Association found themselves in a minority when Brownley held his constituents’ meeting last Thursday. New people had come forward to criticize the actions of their local government.
   This Monday night Board of Supervisors Chairman Darryl Fisher, another Westmoreland County native, exhibited difficulty deciphering the new names that appeared on the meeting’s public comment sign-up sheet.
   The afternoon rally provided an opportunity for individuals to become better acquainted. Some of the people who attended Brownley’s Thursday night meeting in the George D. English Building swapped phone numbers and names and gathered as a smaller group on Saturday morning in a private residence.
   Internet web pages and new email addresses have been and are being established for the sole purpose of disseminating information on the O’Gara subject. A second protest rally is already in the works for May and the O’Gara opposition is becoming increasingly diverse.
   During this Monday night’s Board of Supervisors public comment segment, resident Robert Quinn was the first county resident to speak. Quinn had been quiet since his arrival in Westmoreland County approximately seven years ago, but O’Gara Group’s arrival would change his life and he felt the time had come to make that feeling known.
   Quinn struggled to find something in O’Gara Group’s intentions that would compel the county government to bring the question to the people in an advertised public hearing.
   Kathy Scott was similarly unknown to the members of local government prior to this week’s meeting. She brought with her a copy of the county’s latest efforts to craft a modern comprehensive plan.
   Scott related that the text in hand purported that any decisions the Westmoreland Supervisors make can be expected to significantly impact the county’s future, especially decisions associated with new development.
   She noted the text’s finding that the county government must find ways to improve its communications with local residents. Scott then shared her own observation that the county government had not been appropriately transparent when efforts were made by public officials to bring O’Gara to Westmoreland.
Recruiting O’Gara is not the kind of economic development that reflects the visions of this community, Scott told the Board of Supervisors. She suggested that county officials found O’Gara Group’s intentions acceptable because no one else had come forward to purchase the unoccupied industrial shell building and the surrounding 25 acres of publicly owned land.
   Scott then told the Supervisors that if her perception is in fact correct, the local government’s action is a disservice to the community.
“We want smart development, not companies that want to come to Westmoreland County because it’s a place that will allow them to do anything they want. If you gentlemen allow O’Gara to come, you’re opening a can of worms. I ask my own representative, Russ Culver, to vote no on this,” said Scott.
   Don Neeley followed Kathy Scott to the podium. Neeley had not before addressed the Westmoreland County Board and he had lots to say about what can be expected at an O’Gara training facility because he is an alumnus of multiple training establishments whose programs are not unlike the O’Gara Group offerings.
   “Having attended many different academies of this type, I’d like to tell you O’Gara Group would not be a good thing for a small community that will have to listen to the noise.
   “O’Gara Group is in business to make money. I’ve looked at their training schedule in Danville. The cycle of classes overlaps and is repetitive. They would bring in the kind of people you wouldn’t want to have in your community.”
   “Believe me,” he told the Westmoreland officials, “if O’Gara comes, these are the people who will be part of you. They will be in your face for a long, long time, eating pizza and drinking coffee with you in your restaurants.
   “I encourage each and every one of you to go out and talk to others who have already been through this sort of thing!” Neeley told the members of the Board.   More next week.

Betsy Ficklin

O’Gara closing date is extended but its standing as a school is unresolved

   The Westmoreland County Board of Zoning Appeals gathered for the 9 o’clock meeting this Monday morning but the session ended almost as soon as it began. On March 27 Joe Thompson’s lawyers withdrew the appeal whose consideration had been the purpose of that special meeting.
The county government maintained that it officially received the letter from the attorneys on Monday morning. On Monday afternoon the county’s Industrial Development Authority met with The O’Gara Group’s attorney, Senator Richard Stuart, and voted to extend the purchase contract’s closing date from April 1 to July 1, when O’Gara Group is also expected to close on its purchase of an adjacent tract.
   It became understood on Monday that O’Gara Group had initially expected to close on its purchase of both the Chandler property and the county government’s industrial shell building and surrounding 25 acres on April 1.
   According to Senator Stuart, O’Gara Group will pay car dealer Bryan Chandler $2.5 million for the 325-acre tract. Westmoreland County expects to receive $629,178 for its unoccupied industrial shell building and the last 25 acres of the park’s as yet undeveloped publicly owned land.
   Westmoreland residents and most members of the county’s Industrial Development Authority knew nothing about the local government’s 18-month negotiations with O’Gara Group until a late night meeting on January 12, when the Authority approved an initial sales agreement.
Public opposition to the self-described security training facility’s intentions to locate in Westmoreland County was immediate. Two years earlier another corporation engaged in similar paramilitary training operations drew fire from local residents and subsequently withdrew its interest in a possible purchase of the industrial park and Chandler properties.
   During 2007 a paramilitary-styled training establishment known as Crucible sustained a setback in Stafford County when questions were raised concerning the proposed facility’s ability to satisfy the local zoning’s definition of a school.
   The question initially before the Westmoreland County Board of Zoning Appeals this Monday contained echoes of the years-old Stafford litigation whose outcome is still pending in the courts.
   Westmoreland County’s local government is in possession of a twenty-some page opinion paper that carries a September 2008 date and is being attributed to the jurisdiction’s late Director of Planning, Gary Ziegler. The document maintains that the facility O’Gara Group hopes to establish is a school.
If the facility is in fact a school, O’Gara Group can locate on the unoccupied industrial shell building property and Chandler land without ever having to go through a public hearing process. Its intended operations would be a by-right use.
   On Monday afternoon Senator Stuart revealed that O’Gara Group and the county government anticipated a Board of Zoning Appeals’ concurrence with the Ziegler opinion when that afternoon’s Industrial Development Authority session was scheduled for the purpose of gaining time to resolve a likely appeal of the Board of Zoning Appeals’ determination in the courts.
   Some O’Gara project opponents previously expressed concern that the Board of Zoning Appeals proceeding would be no more than an exercise in futility because county officials knew which way the vote would go before the meeting was convened.
Another source close to The Journal maintained that a local Board of Zoning Appeals had no statutory authority to even entertain Joe Thompson’s question concerning the Ziegler opinion that O’Gara’s intended establishment is in fact a school.
   The Thompson attorneys’ March 27 letter withdrawing the appeal keeps the central question open. The opinion document attributed to Ziegler is characterized as “only a generalized decision about land uses for schools and military forces.”
   According to Thompson’s attorneys, the document attributed to Ziegler contains other defects that support the local government’s need to develop a more detailed rationale for maintaining the proposed facility’s characterization as a school that can be established on those properties by right.
   Thompson’s appeal to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the March 27 letter additionally explained, was withdrawn at least in part because the county government could not provide the Board of Zoning Appeals with the documentation it needed to render a relevant decision. Its members would be asked instead to engage in futile speculation.
Thompson’s lawyers advised the local government of their intention to “seek a future decision from the zoning administrator based on the specifics of the O’Gara proposal.”    The attorneys will ask the county government to provide them with a copy of the letter of compliance that the county promised to issue to O’Gara Group in the January 12 and March 30 purchase agreements.
   Such a “letter of compliance” would provide O’Gara with the local government’s assurance that the land O’Gara purchased could in fact be used as the site of the intended tactical training facility.
   Late on Monday afternoon County Attorney Tom Bondurant told The Journal and a Westmoreland County Citizens Association officer that there isn’t going to be any future opinion on the pending question concerning the proposed establishment’s ability to meet local ordinance’s definition of a school.
   “Then we’ll have to pursue our legal options,” homeowner Joe Thompson said when apprised of Bondurant’s response still later on Monday afternoon.
   Westmoreland Industrial Development Authority members Paul Tsompanas, Bryan Oliff, Dick Allison, Jimmy Latane and Rebecca Gillions attended the 3 o’clock meeting on Monday afternoon. All four men voted to extend the purchase contract. Rebecca Gillions declined to participate in the March 30 vote.
   The English Building meeting room was packed during that session. Three uniformed Sheriff’s Office deputies were present and it was understood that most of the private citizens attending the session were unhappy about the O’Gara Group’s intentions to consummate the deal.
   O’Gara Group’s Jim Noe had meet with local residents several weeks earlier. Citizens characterized Noe as a very personable young man but few if any of the 75-100 private citizens attending that highly cordial question and answer session went away convinced that O’Gara Group would be good for the people of Westmoreland.

Betsy Ficklin

BZA will entertain O’Gara question Monday

The Westmoreland County Board of Zoning appeals will decide next Monday if the security training facility O’Gara Group hopes to establish on a 325-acre agriculturally zoned property fits the zoning ordinance’s definition of a school. Schools are allowed on agriculturally zoned property. On Monday the BZA will decide if the zoning definition’s definition of a school is broad enough to embrace the shooting ranges, urban warfare simulation area and driving courses O’Gara Group hopes to develop on land it contracted to purchase. The appeals proceeding will begin at 9:00 a.m. in the English Building’s General District Courtroom and O’Gara Group’s Jim Noe encouraged local residents to be present at the meeting. In addition to interpreting a zoning ordinance definition, a sales contract between O’Gara Group and the county government is pending. O’Gara agreed to buy the county government’s empty industrial shell building and 25 surrounding acres of Westmoreland Industrial Park property if other considerations support O’Gara Group’s purchase of car dealer Bryan Chandler’s adjacent 325-acre tract. On March 10 O’Gara Group’s Jim Noe told county residents that purchase of the Chandler land remained uncertain. A toxic plume from the nearby Superfund Site had invaded ground water that had encroached further into the Chandler land than had been previously known. The property may or may not be suitable for O’Gara Group’s intended use. Private citizens have begun expressing opposition to O’Gara Group’s intentions to locate the facility in a rural area of Westmoreland. If the BZA rules next Monday that the proposed O’Gara establishment is not a school, a special use permit or a zoning change will be required. In either instance, public hearings would have to be held before approval could be issued. Many private citizens expressed concern that O’Gara Group’s eighteen months of negotiation with one or more members of the local government demonstrated a desire to avoid transparency. Freedom of Information Act requests have been placed with the county government requesting documentation that many residents hope will shed new light on the local government’s intentions. Some residents assert that they have no problem with having O’Gara Group establish its facility in Westmoreland County. Instead, they fault members of the local government for keeping the matter from the public for so long. Citizens learned of O’Gara’s plans when the local government agreed to move forward with its sale of the shell building and 25-acre tract. On March 10 residents learned from O’Gara Group spokesperson Noe that the shell building may be in too severe a state of disrepair to salvage. When the Westmoreland County Citizens Association met this Monday evening, one resident suggested that the county government’s eagerness to sell the building and land to O’Gara Group resulted from those officials’ appreciation of the unoccupied shell building’s impaired condition. During that March 23 Association meeting The Journal additionally learned that a family cemetery is located on the land O’Gara Group expected to obtain for use as its new establishment. The facility currently located in Alton, Virginia would be moved to the Westmoreland site. On March 10 O’Gara Group’s Jim Noe told county residents O’Gara Group would find another location if the people in Westmoreland County make it known that they don’t want O’Gara Group to come. Noe additionally counseled that O’Gara opponents should attend next Monday’s BZA meeting in order to make their feelings known. Betsy Ficklin

W’md School Board approves budget

Federal economic recovery act fills the void
   The Westmoreland County School Board met Monday and approved the upcoming school year’s $17.7 million budget. The dire set of cost reduction measures envisioned earlier to offset major reductions in state support became unnecessary when a million in federal economic recovery funding was allocated to support Westmoreland schools.
   During the first weeks of 2008 it was understood that Virginia’s contribution to the Westmoreland school division would be reduced as much as $420,000. Revenue associated with sales tax collections in Westmoreland County had plummeted and reductions in teacher salaries became a serious consideration. An across the board pay reduction of 1 percent would have generated $400,000.
   There were other cost saving measures that were seriously contemplated, including incentives for older teachers to retire, virtual elimination of pre-school programs, field trips and after school activities and major reductions in administrative staff that would have included the division’s assistant principal positions.
   “These will be some of the toughest decisions we ever had to make,” Division Superintendent Elaine Fogliani said of the austere measures that were being entertained earlier this year.
   By February 23 it had become apparent that a one-time infusion of a million dollars from the federal government would allow teacher salaries to be funded at current levels and crucial programs to be continued through the 2009-12010 academic year.
Earlier projections of the county school division’s share of the federal government’s economic recovery contribution were sharply lower than the level of federal relief reported on March 16.
   On February 23 Superintendent Fogliani struggled to balance a budget that had an identified $78,000 shortfall. At that time the federal economic recovery package was expected to cut the previously identified division deficit by $535,432. Westmoreland’s contribution to county schools would rise as much as $193,084, bringing the county’s share of support to a high of $7,457,758.
   This Monday the final draft of the budget adopted by the Westmoreland School Board required a local funding increase in the amount of $129,219.
New in 2009-2010 is a half million dollars from the federal government to increase support for special education and the division’s Title 1 programs that address students with special needs and children from low income families.
   In addition to consolidating bus routes, as many as two of the school division’s central office positions have been eliminated from the budget the 2009-2010 school budget. More cuts could follow when the budget goes to the Westmoreland Supervisors for that Board’s consideration.
   On Monday Dr. Fogliani reiterated what she had stated previously concerning the difficulty of preparing a budget during such an economically challenged period. She delivered a warning that things may be more difficult next year.
   The federal government’s economic recovery allocation to support Westmoreland schools was a one-time occurrence, an emergency action that was taken by Congress as part of the national effort to prevent a massive economic catastrophe.
Aware that sales tax revenues have already dropped in Westmoreland County by a reported $403,065, Fogliani shared concerns that next year’s school division budget may be even more difficult to prepare.
   “We don’t know what will happen next year,” Dr. Fogliani told the people who gathered for the March 16 Westmoreland School Board meeting.

Betsy Ficklin

BZA will hear O’Gara appeal March 30

   The Westmoreland County Board of Zoning Appeals will hold a specially scheduled meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 30 in the George D. English meeting in order to entertain and act on a challenge brought by Joseph W. Thompson that concerns the county government’s January 12, 2009 contract with The O’Gara Group.
   According to the contract, the local government would sell its unoccupied industrial shell building and a surrounding 25-acre tract to O’Gara Group for development as a security training facility.
   Thompson’s appeal challenges the local government’s assertion that the O’Gara establishment is in fact a school as defined in the Westmoreland County zoning ordinance.
   If the county government’s determination stands, O’Gara Group can build its security training establishment on the referenced 25 acres and an adjacent 325-acre tract the Group also intends to buy without ever having to solicit input from county residents.
   At 7:15 p.m. this Tuesday an O’Gara Group representative will meet at Carmel United Methodist Church with interested county residents.
   Public sentiment ranges from acceptance or apathy to publicly stated displeasure with the local government’s lack of transparency during a previous negotiating period and, in some instances, staunch opposition to O’Gara’s plans to establish its facility in Westmoreland County.
   Thompson’s appeal includes an assertion that the O’Gara project’s land disturbance footprint would cover more than one hundred acres of the 350-acre tract.  The appeal is expected to include arguments that the footprint associated with the O’Gara facility does not equate with the footprint of a typical school.
   Members of the public will not be allowed to address the BZA during the March 30 proceeding but the public will be permitted to attend.

Betsy Ficklin

W’md BZA asked to rule on O’Gara facility’s designation as a school

   April 27 is the Westmoreland County Board of Zoning Appeals hearing date given to property owner Joseph W. Thompson, whose February 11 application questions county government’s ability to classify the security training facility O’Gara Group expects to develop in Westmoreland County as a school.
   On January 12 the county government agreed to sell its unoccupied industrial shell building and the 25 surrounding acres to O’Gara if the buyer additionally purchases Bryan Chandler’s 325-acre tract.
   The property developed as an industrial park by the county government is an upper remnant of the larger Chandler tract. The agriculturally zoned is largely wooded and is situated between the industrial park and the upper reaches of a Nomini tributary.
   Joe Thompson’s land is on the creek and he was one of many unhappy residents who spoke against creation of the O’Gara Group’s training facility when the Westmoreland Supervisors met last Monday night.
   Thompson is a natural resources consultant and land management specialist. He is a state certified nutrient management planner and the name of the business he operates is Smart Creek Enterprises, LLC.
   Services offered by Smart Creek Enterprises include land use analysis, farm planning, wildlife habitat management, soil evaluation, erosion and sediment control and pasture and grassland management.
   On February 9 Joe Thompson told the Westmoreland Supervisors that he shares the concerns of all the Westmoreland residents who preceded him to the podium in order to express displeasure with the local government’s intentions to accommodate the wishes of the O’Gara Group.
   Thompson warned the Supervisors that the O’Gara’s plans call for development of as much as one-third of the approximately 350-acre tract.
   “A land disturbance footprint of over 100 acres doesn’t equate with [the footprint of] a typical school,” said Thompson.
   Thompson additionally noted the history of a similar training facility’s effort to establish a location in Stafford County. The courts, he noted, have been asked to deliver a ruling on the proposed establishment’s conformity to that jurisdiction’s adopted definition of a school.
   Thompson urged the Westmoreland Supervisors to delay closing the local government’s deal with the O’Gara Group. The judicial ruling on the Stafford County question would have clear relevance.
   Thompson told the Supervisors that he lives downstream of the property where O’Gara expects to locate.
   “My wife’s family has been here for over a century,” he explained. “I am here because I love the rural lifestyle.”
   Thompson said he had no clear information about the composition of the prospective O’Gara trainees other than the certainty that those individuals would be transient, with no vested interest in preservation of the immediate area’s quality of life.
“I know these are dire economic times and I can well understand that having someone walk up with cash in hand would be enough to turn anybody’s head,” Thompson told the Supervisors.
“I also believe that if this county can continue to maintain its quality of life, more appropriate industries

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