The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Caroline Board says no again to teen center
By Portsia Smith
Despite being rejected by the Caroline County Board of Supervisors for the second time, Paul Branning said he is going to keep the faith.
The CEO of Abundant Life Academy, an evangelical Christian boarding school for troubled teens that wants to locate in the Sparta area of Caroline, says the rural community just south of Bowling Green is where God wants his school to be.
“I don’t know what the Lord will have for us, but we’ll patiently wait,” Branning said Tuesday night after supervisors did not reconsider or rescind their earlier vote that denied a special-use permit for the school to operate on 75 acres at the former Remuda Ranch location off Passing Lane.
The board had voted down the project last month after hearing from a handful of Sparta residents who were concerned about their safety if troubled teens moved into their neighborhood.
The school, described as a 12- to 18-month therapeutic program for teens who have begun to rebel, is currently based in St. George, Utah. It is also an accredited high school, which would have initially enrolled 33 students and had tentatively hired 17 local employees in case it moved to Caroline.
School officials estimated that the school would generate about $51,000 a year in county real estate taxes and significant personal property taxes.
More than a dozen people spoke in support of the school’s moving to Caroline during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting, and all asked the board to reconsider the earlier vote.
“I think it’s a win–win without any downsides,” said Kevin James, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Sparta, “We’re on the road to having a good business that’s going to bring money to the county, jobs, and would put Caroline on the map.”
Bowling Green Mayor David Store and members of the Town Council came to support the school, saying it would be a “good corporate citizen,” especially during a time when many businesses in the town have closed and buildings are vacant.
Charles Albert, who lives adjacent to the Remuda Ranch property, said he attended the Planning Commission meeting at which the plan was approved unanimously, and happily thought it would be a done deal. He was surprised that it was turned down by the supervisors.
“Reconsider this vote and give these guys a chance,” he said.
Parents Hope and Robert Larsen from South Carolina spoke in favor of the school and gave a firsthand account because their son Jacob attends Abundant Life.
Hope Larson gave a heartfelt story of how her son, who developed a rare disease and was bullied in school, has transformed from an emotionally absent teen into a happy person again.
“Jacob has been at ALA since June, and his progress has been amazing,” she said, on the brink of tears. “Just last week as we talked to him on the phone, we could hear happiness in his voice. It’s been a long time since we had the heartwarming feeling that came with hearing our son laugh.”
Her husband, retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Larsen, asked the board to seize the opportunity to be a part of something big.
“We see our country’s youth begging for help from issues like the bullying that seems so prevalent today, and we hear them and adults begging for change. Now when faced with the opportunity to provide change there are some here saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’” he said. “This distinguished council has an opportunity in front of it, an opportunity to be the example, to lead the way, to be the change that the children of this nation, children like my son Jacob, need to grow into healthy, happy, God-loving Americans.”
Cheryl Dudek of Columbia, Md., told the board about the destructive path her 15-year-old daughter was on and how Abundant Life picked her up from a downfall.
“One thing I know is that my daughter would not be alive today if it weren’t for ALA,” she told the board. “Are you prepared to be a part of a miracle? Because my daughter is nothing short of a miracle.”
Supervisor Jeff Sili, whose Bowling Green District includes the school property, made a motion toward the end of the meeting to rescind last month’s vote, but it failed.
Sili and Western Caroline District Supervisor Jeff Black were in favor of rescinding the vote. The four supervisors who had earlier voted to deny the permit, Wayne Acors, Floyd Thomas, Reggie Underwood and Calvin Taylor, were not, and the motion failed.
A short moment of silence was ended when Hope Larsen burst into tears.
Gene Self of Bowling Green called for everyone to walk out of the auditorium, and a crowd of disappointed citizens followed behind him.
“What planet are you on?” former Bowling Green Town Council member Glen Lanford shouted to the board.
After the meeting, Bowling Green resident Frank Gee asked Taylor how he, as a former educator, could not support a program that helped children.
“I question whether they need to be in office with the leadership that’s being currently shown,” Gee said after the meeting.
Mayor Storke said he has respect for the board members, but has zero respect for the decision they made.
“How could anybody who heard the comments that were made, especially those parents, go and make a decision without even having a discussion?”
Robert Larsen said he and his wife, who frequently drive across the country to visit their son, are unhappy about the decision.
“It’s very disappointing from my perspective that the game of politics outweighed the opportunity the board had to benefit the county and children in need,” he said. “It’s a shame they turned down the opportunity to bring jobs and money into the county to play politics.”
Sili echoed those sentiments.
“The vote [Tuesday] night is most unfortunate, and reinforces the already held belief by local folks as well as regional leaders that Caroline is not open for business,” Sili said in a written statement. “ALA was self-sufficient, on a facility used for many years for a similar purpose which did not need water, provided 40 jobs and opened the door to other families coming to Caroline to buy homes and frequent our businesses.
“Its rare that a project makes good business sense, does not require infrastructure and helps people along the way,” Sili said. “There is no doubt in my mind that another locality will snap up ALA whose leaders are more than willing to work with a community to address concerns and make it a win–win for the kids and the residents. Its just sad that locality is not Caroline.”
Board Chairman Acors declined to comment other than to say, “I think we are pro-education and we’ve shown that.”
Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419