Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty years

Site of fatal shot (Bob Warwick photo)

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, about half way through social studies, the next to the last class of the day, Walter Langhorst announced to his class that the president of the United States of America had been shot in Dallas. A few minutes later, the president's death was announced over the public address system. School was closed, sending everyone home until after the holiday.

The expected exuberance of adolescents freed from the shackles of the school room was replaced by a nervous quiet. Conversations were held in low tones barely louder than a whisper. No one knew what to think. Death was something that happened to elderly relations, or unknown uncles killed "in the war."

The news was almost impossible to absorb. The president was dead. Our parents remembered the death of another president not quite a generation earlier. But that, everyone seemed to agree, was different. That president had been ill and was older.

Dallas was in Texas, a place we associated with cowboys and the Alamo. It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.

A sense of unease permeated the land. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a recent—and terrifying memory. The adolescents learned to “duck and cover” in kindergarten. Annihilation by nuclear bomb was an accepted possibility.

America gathered around its television sets and watched the same snippets of film over and over. Everything was cancelled, except church. Citizens exercised their freedom of religion to attend worship services and pray for the repose of the soul of the young president. Tuning in to watch throngs files past his coffin as he lay in state in D. C., they were in time to see the purported assassin himself gunned down leaving way too many unanswered questions.

On Monday, the world watched the funeral replete with tradition, dignity, and pathos. The nation wept as one when the little boy in the blue coat saluted his father one last time.

Families gathered for Thanksgiving, all too aware of the fragility of life. Things got back to normal and life went on.
Before the decade was over, America would deal with two more assassinations. An ugly, incomprehensible, and far away war would become a daily staple on the nightly news.

Fast forward a half century to Dealey Plaza, the site of the Dallas assassination. The adolescents of 1963 will soon be pensioners. America has been to the moon and back.

Built as a WPA project during the 1930’s, Dealey Plaza seems frozen in time. Standing behind the pillar where Abraham Zapruder filmed the crime of the century gives the sensation of being in a video game.

Two large crosses are painted in the center lane to denote the exact position of the presidential limousine when the shots were fired. Tourists routinely dodge traffic to pose for pictures where the kill shot hit its target in 1963.
Tourists dodge traffic for macabre mementoes of Dealey Plaza (Bob Warwick photo)

A museum about the assassination occupies the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have built a sniper nest. Countless alternatives to the official scenario exist. We may never know what really happened, or why.

The iconic words spoken by John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961--ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country—are tragically ironic in the America of 2013 where far too many contribute nothing and expect much.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The resolution?

On November 5, Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner dismissed a case brought against Benedictine College Preparatory School (BCP) and the county by neighboring property owners who contended that the plan of development for the River Road property was improperly approved and did not adequately address downstream storm water runoff.

Andrew Thexton, who lives on the north side of River Road several hundred yards to the east, presented compelling evidence during last summer’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) hearing that changes made to the BCP entrance, including turn lanes, resulted in storm water being channeled into the crawlspace of his home after heavy rains.

Sanner also ruled that the BZA had no jurisdiction in the matter and that the neighbors had no standing to challenge the POD nullifying the entire BZA proceedings.

The county has incurred legal bills greater than $100,000 since the start of 2013. Goochland County and BCP began working on the POD process shortly after the conditional use permit allowing the relocation of the venerable educational institution from Richmond to Goochland was approved in December, 2011.

Sanner explained that he spent “considerable time” reviewing briefs and exhibits submitted to the court by both sides in the dispute. The judge commented that he sympathized with the plight of a homeowner who, through no fault of his own, incurs possible damage to his house caused by activities on nearby land.

He said that there is no basis in state or county law for neighbors who are not a party to a POD are considered “strangers” and not eligible to contest it. Sanner also remarked that he found the applicable sections of the Code of Virginia written in “unusually opaque language.” If the statute is trying to provide a remedy, it should be more explicit, he said.
Attorneys on both sides presented their version of “harmonizing” of conflicting applicable laws from the general to the specific and back again.

Sanner suggested that the parties might want to encourage their representatives in the General Assembly to craft specific and understandable statues to guide local government in this kind of situation. Indeed, legislators on both sides of the aisle need to stop their attempts at social engineering and pass useful and understandable laws.

The county’s POD process has been upheld. Classes began at BCP in September. Those residents of the River Road corridor that opposed having the school in their midst have likely not changed their mind, and the sun came up in the morning.
The POD process is quite complicated and can involve securing approval from state agencies including the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!”.

If indeed the changes to the BCP entrance resulted in an increase in the amount of storm water runoff being channeled onto Thexton’s property, the situation must be mitigated. The BCP move has generated much bitterness, which further complicated land use processes. Regardless of culpability, the county has an obligation to ensure that development does no harm to neighboring properties.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Supermarket ads are starting to feature turkeys. Hostesses are counting plates and digging out family recipes. Before we go full tilt into the cranberry-pumpkin holiday frenzy, we need to stop and give thanks tomorrow to those who made it all possible--our veterans.

At 11 a.m. On Monday, November 11, Goochland American Legion Post 215 will hold its annual Veteran's Day observance at Goochland High School.  There will be music and flags and a speaker. The audience will be peppered with those who, as veritable youngsters, answered their country's call.

Perhaps next year, our soon to begin Marine junior ROTC will handle color guard duties. Happy 238th birthday Marines!

Not that long ago, it was the custom for everything to stop at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the guns in "the war to end all wars" fell silent, to remember the fallen.

After 95 years of many different wars, including the one against global evil that still rages, honoring those who serve is still appropriate.

Our World War I vets are all gone. The kids who left farm and factory to fight, and die, in places they hardly knew existed in World War II are leaving us at an alarming rate. The guys who "participated in the police action" in awful places like the frozen hell of the Chosin Reservoir aren't far behind. 

The Viet Nam era vets, whose treatment by the spoiled brat members of the anti-war movement when they returned home must never be repeated, are also getting a little long in the tooth, as are those who served in Desert Storm.

Recent returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan are taking their place in the long line of ordinary folks who put on the uniform to protect our way of life. They do not make the decisions about when and where to fight, that is left up to the politicians elected by a steadily shrinking number of citizens.

As you settle into the day's football after worshipping--or not--in the church of your choice, remember those who left the security of home to serve.

It's not hard to find a vet to thank. They come home and enrich their communities in ways large and small. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


After spending most of the past two years putting out inherited fires, Goochland’s Board of Supervisors is now looking to the future by appropriating funds to hire a consultant to help in the creation of a short term (three years out) strategic plan.

Strumpf Associates: Center for Strategic Change was retained to handle the task. Principal Lori Strumpf, who has worked on regional workforce groups with District 4 Supervsior Bob Minnick, has been conducting citizen focus group sessions to gather information about what stakeholders—people who live and work, including county employees, in Goochland—believe are the most important issues facing the county in the near term.

Unlike some other consultants that have “advised” Goochland in the past, most notably the clueless clowns from Charlottesville foisted on us by VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “oops!”—as part of the failed urban development initiatve, Strumpf “gets it.” She has worked with a number of jurisdictions in essentially the same boat as Goochland.
On Monday, October 28, the supervisors and County Adminsitrator Rebecca Dickson, spent most of the day in a workshop with Strumpf. The session was one of exploration. “No problem solving today,” Strumpf admonished at the start.
Strategy, said Strumpf, is identifying known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns.  Dealing with the last category requires being able to see around the curves and be flexbile enough to deal with them.
To ensure that an organization meets and exceeds expectations, focus should be on continuous quality improvement.

Ned Creasey District 3 contended that people want transparaency in government, but do not participate in government and spread misinformation rather than try to understand what os going on.

Indeed, citizen engagement or a lack thereof, was a thread that wove through the entire day’s discussion.

Manuel Alvarez, Jr., Distirct 2 commented that citizens fill public hearings when matters that concern them are on the agenda, but pretty much ignore what county government is doing most of the time. He cited the kerfuffle about proposed revisions to the ordiance regarding nusisance companion animals. 

This board is scrupulous about restricting its closed session deliberations and live streams all meetings in an effort to be transparent. The county and school system put their check registers on the county website for easy perusal, yet few seem to take advantage of this openness.

Going forward, an engaged citizenry is needed to support and maintain policies put in place now to ensure that the positive momentum generated by this board continues. It will also supply future leaders to ensure continuity of sound policies being put into place right now.

The board listed outside forces, over which it has no control, and pose serious threats. These included: continued devolution of services and functions from the state to local level with no funds to ease the transition; unfunded mandates in general; ensuring that economic development keeps pace with an escalating debt burden; how to balance the burgeoning demand for services (law enforcement, fire-rescue, and schools)generated by growth with the ability to fund them; national economy; and stresses between the rural and not so rural parts of the county. The proposed dog ordinance is a clear illustration of this.

One comment that surfaced in many of the small focus groups (one public one was held that evening) was that Goochland needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. The alternatives include: bedroom   community; a rural community or a business community. The supervisors did not seem inclined to choose one over the other, but favored all three in appropriate areas.

Strumpf also reported that very few respondents were totally against any growth. Most believe that some growth is necessary, but that it must be the right kind of growth that does not impinge on the rural nature of the county. She also stated that the term “rural” needs a  concise definition.
The question of what kind of business is acceptable and who makes that decision was also raised. Many people, she contended, would be happy to see a WalMart headquarters in West Creek but do not want a WalMart store in the county.

This board has so far opted to support core functions of the government—law enforcement, fire-rescue and schools—as it determines the role of local government.

Some focus group participants favored the county funding internet deployment to the entire county; supporting farmers markets, wineries, and festivials to bring in agritourism.

Board chair Ken Peterson, District 5, contended that it is the county’s job to “set the table” to encourage a wide range of economic activity.

Indeed,ideally, local government’s job is to act as a catalyst and create an environment that attracts private capital. The county should not be in the internet business, or the farmers market business or any other business driven by market forces. Entrepreneurs are able to react to changes faster and better than hide bound government entities. an infusion  of tax dollars won’t fix a strugggling enterprise.

Strumpf said that some respondents believed that the current real estate tax rates are too low and need to be increased to fund new schools and sufficient law enforcement. The supervisors understand that no all property owners are able to absorb a tax rate increase, and higher taxes make Goochland less competitive with its neighbors.

There is a conflict between those who want local government increase regulation to protect residents from actions taken by others that adversely affect them versus those who want more freedom to do as they please on their own land. This issue will get more contentious as the county’s population density increases. The dog noise and brewery road issues are the latest examples of this.

Goochland Schools, contrary to widely held public beliefs, actually rank highly in most metrics of  local education quality. Strumpf said that some focus group participants contended that perpetuation of that belief controls residential growth. Others contend that busting that myth will help to attract businesses to locate here.

There is concern that an influx of new homes filled with young families could swamp the school system. The school board is trying to predict the number of students generated by the new subdivisions on the horizon. As the county’s population ages, the potential for homes owned by older folks to be bought by families with children is very real, and probably impossible to gauge. Susan Lascolette, District 1, contended that young families add stability to a community and should be viewed as an asset, rather than a liability.

An analysis of strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat(SWOT) ensued.

Perhaps the most important current strength is that the supervisors work well with each other, the school board, and the county staff, a paradigm shift from the previous regime. This too could be a weakness, because the personal dynamic of this group could change.

Susan Lascolette, District 1 said that the massive turnout in county leadership that resulted from the 2011 elections turned out well, but could have been different. She hoped to find a strategy to ensure continuity in leadership going forward.

Strumpf encouraged the supervisors to craft a vision to help citizens understand--and buy into--the county's focus.

The supervisors will continue to meet and discuss the strategic plan and present the product to citizens early next year.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Trial by jury

Uriah Harris of Henrico, accused of savagely beating a Goochland special education teacher in the parking lot of the middle school last December 5, requested a trial by jury as is his right.

That trial, at which Harris represented himself after firing several court appointed attorneys, took place in Goochland Circuit Court on October 31, Halloween.

Court spectators included some teachers, representatives of the Richmond media, which only comes to Goochland for bad things, District 3 school board member John Lumpkins and, briefly, Dr. James Lane, superintendent of schools.

The bizarre manner in which Harris conducted his own “defense,” seemed appropriate for the date.
Under our system of law, opting for a jury rather than a bench trial, when the judge hears the evidence and arguments before pronouncing a verdict, provides an opportunity for the defense to create enough reasonable doubt about guilt to lead to acquittal. 

The Harris jury, comprised of eight women and two men, reached a unanimous guilty decision less than 15 minutes, and swiftly recommended a prison sentence of 16 years.

Goochland’s Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney, D. Michael Caudill acted as prosecutor. Among the evidence he presented as proof that Harris was guilty as charged, was a video recorded by the security camera from the Middle School parking lot, where the crime occurred on December 5, 2012. This clearly showed the victim walking out of the school, Harris driving up and attacking her between parked cars.
Harris, who has been incarcerated since he was arrested last December, appeared in court in a business suit. To ensure the safety of all present, at least 10 Goochland deputies surrounded him at all times. He contended that his Constitutional rights under the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments had been violated. He repeatedly insisted that the wording of his indictment was incorrect.

Jurors watched this video twice in open court, once when the victim was on the stand, again during testimony of one of the teachers who came to her rescue.

The rescuers, husband and wife middle school teachers of slender build, who did not hesitate to intervene heedless to their own safety, gave their students a real life object lesson in good citizenship.

According to convincing testimony by the victim and her rescuers, Harris grabbed the victim, pushed her to the ground and beat her with his hands and fists and pounded her head into the asphalt of the parking lot, displaying “greater rage, anger, and violence than I had ever seen before.” Eventually, Harris walked away and drove off.

The husband described screams from the victim as sounding like a hurt dog. Both said that in comparison to Harris, who is a tall, muscular man, the victim looked like a middle school student.

Deputy Stephen Creasey, the first on the scene, helped EMTs stabilize and prepare the victim for transport.
While rolling the victim to her side in order to put her on a backboard, a he found a knife lying under her.
An emergency room doctor from the MCV trauma center testified that the victim was concussed and needed nine staples to close a scalp wound.

Although he said in a brief opening statement that the whole truth would be revealed during, the trial, Harris offered neither a shred of evidence nor a syllable of refutation of testimony in his defense. In a brief cross examination of the victim, he alluded to texts sent by the victim, but failed to produce proof that they existed.
During the penalty phase of the trial, when his previous convictions were disclosed to the jury, Harris held up a copy of his criminal record and said “that’s a hell of a rap sheet.” He professed his love for the victim, but failed to explain how that affection resulted in a beating. Harris also told the jury that he had two children and did not want to be away from them.

Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner, who worked hard to ensure that Harris’ rights were protected, told the jury that it was empowered to recommend a sentence of not less than five, nor more than 20 years and a fine up to $100,000.

The victim testified that she still has some neurological deficits resulting from the beating, including vertigo and memory issues.

Final sentencing will take place on January 7, 2014. Harris seems to have indicated that the verdict will be appealed.