POWHATAN – The decision by the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors to eliminate the Residential-Commercial zoning district, which existed for 35 years and helped shape the way the county has developed in recent years, is the top story of 2019.
The increasing desire by the supervisors to better control how Powhatan develops in the future continued to be a major part of their discussions and debates in 2019. The banner cry on many issues among supervisors and residents – and even in the 2019 General Election – was the desire to keep Powhatan rural and “not let it become another Chesterfield County.”
The R-C zoning district was created in 1984 as an economic development tool for the county. But the issue of its effectiveness was discussed at length during previous board meetings and by two special work groups the supervisors appointed to try to find solutions.
While the board had removed most of the R-C zoning district’s teeth in 2018 by severely cutting back its allowed by-right uses, it was still seen as an albatross by some that needed to go.
The board voted 3-2 in favor of eliminating the controversial R-C zoning district at its meeting on April 24 in a decision that was the culmination of months of work by staff, the planning commission, the supervisors, and the public. The decision affected more than 500 parcels that were zoned R-C at the time.
David Williams, who represents District 1, Larry Nordvig, District 2, and Carson Tucker, District 5, voted for the elimination. Chairwoman Angie Cabell, District 3, and Bill Melton, District 4, voted against it.
If the board though the decision to eliminate R-C marked the end of the issue, they were wrong. A lawsuit was filed on May 24 challenging the decision to eliminate the zoning district, brought on behalf of several entities and individuals who had owned land formerly zoned as R-C or had an interest in properties.
A judge ruled in August that the case could go to trial, but as of last week, no trial date had been set. However, one of the plaintiffs said last week the trial will be moving ahead.
2. Karina Rafter found guilty of killing husband in 2016
The body of John Richard Rafter Jr., 48, was found in his Powhatan home on Dec. 9, 2016, having died from an apparent gunshot wound to the head. A few days later, his death was declared a homicide.
However, it would be more than two years before authorities brought charges against John Rafter’s estranged wife, Karina Rafter, indicting her on Feb. 6, 2019, for one count of first degree murder and one count of use of a firearm in the commission of a murder.
The case went to trial the week of Oct. 21 to 25 in Powhatan County Circuit Court. The prosecution used 22 witnesses to lay out a case that examined the relationship between the Rafters, a mounting fear John Rafter told friends he had of his wife, and Karina Rafter’s disputed claim that she was no longer in possession of the shotgun that killed her husband. They also focused on what they showed was uncharacteristic behavior by Karina Rafter in the days surrounding the homicide.
The defense argued repeatedly that the Commonwealth had provided “zero evidence” that placed her at the crime scene or even in Powhatan at the times when her husband’s death could have occurred. The defense’s case also involved trying to raise doubt in the jury’s minds by presenting them with alternative theories – including suicide and murder by someone other than Karina Rafter.
Ultimately, the jury determined the Commonwealth had met the burden of proof, finding her guilty of both counts and recommending a sentence of 23 years in prison. A formal sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 19, 2020.
3. Curtis family donates $400K to Powhatan County Public Schools
On Aug. 26, local resident Karla Curtis and a team of division staff visited all five Powhatan County Public Schools to announce that she and her husband, Bob, were planning to donate about $400,000 to the division. This was part of their plan to reinvest a piece of the roughly $500 million they made from the sale of their Powhatan-based company, PIEtech, earlier this year into the school system.
Karla Curtis said at the time of the original announcement that the sale of PIEtech gave them the opportunity to support the community where they live.
“There are few things that are as important to this county as the public school system. It is critical for economic development. It is critical for building future citizens of this county,” she said.
The donation was divided into three sections, and by the far the biggest reaction among staff members came when they learned that each teacher and counselor would receive $1,000 to use for their classrooms and students. They were also ecstatic to learn the couple planned to set up a $25,000 scholarship fund for Powhatan High School and give an additional $45,000 grant to be split between the school district’s music, CTE, and STEM programs.
Because they had to wait until some terms of the sale of PIEtech were met before accessing the funds, the actual presentation of the checks to the school was made on Nov. 18. Teachers and counselors began submitting their plans for their funds soon after. The only outstanding funds, the scholarship money, will come in 2020 along with application guidelines.
4. Supervisors adopt Second Amendment Sanctuary status
The most recent event on the list took place Nov. 25, when the supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of passing a resolution declaring Powhatan a Second Amendment Sanctuary county. Cabell, Nordvig, and Melton voted for the resolution, and Williams and Tucker voted against it.
Although counties across the state had been passing similar Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions, when the Powhatan meeting started, sanctuary status technically wasn’t even on the agenda. Nordvig had presented the board with a resolution that discussed the supervisors’ oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution without specifically seeking to adopt a Second Amendment Sanctuary designation.
During the public comment period, Jean Gannon, chairwoman of the Powhatan County Republican Committee, presented the alternative resolution, which took a stronger stance and vowed opposition to potential bills being proposed for the next General Assembly session that supporters say would infringe on their Second Amendment rights.
The Village Building auditorium was literally overflowing with men and women during the meeting, and when one of the public speakers asked for all in favor of adopting the sanctuary status, the vast majority of the room stood up.
The board initially appeared split in the opposite way, with Nordvig supporting Williams and Tucker in their requests to meet with Dickie Cox, commonwealth’s attorney, and Brad Nunnally, sheriff, to help the board and the public understand what it means and how it would be enforced. The discussion carried on until the final vote, when Nordvig was the tie-breaker, saying the members of the public who came to speak had swayed him.
After the vote was taken at that meeting, no further mention was made of meeting with the two constitutional officers to discuss the implications of the resolution. At the board’s Dec. 16 meeting, one of Melton’s last comments as a supervisor mentioned citizens still wanting the new board to hold that workshop.
5. Large development project denied
Change doesn’t always go over well in Powhatan County, especially when it comes on a large scale. Residents pushed back this fall when the board was reviewing a neighborhood near the Chesterfield County line with homes proposed at $300,000 to $400,000.
East West Communities proposed to build a mixed-used development proposing up to 249 dwellings on the north side of Page Road at its intersection with Anderson Highway. The project, called the Ellis Farm Development, would have included single-family detached and townhouse dwellings as well as a commercial development on the end of the project closest to the highway.
Some of the main issues residents raised with inviting such a large new development into the county included traffic concerns on both Anderson Highway and other roads, distrust of a traffic mitigation effort that isn’t currently found in the county, demands on county water, impact on school capacity, draining county resources such as fire and rescue, and negatively impacting existing neighbors.
The project was discussed by the board of supervisors at its Oct. 28 meeting, when the issue took up three hours, including a developer presentation, 38 citizen comments, and speeches by the supervisors. While the board initially discussed deferring action on the rezoning application, they ultimately voted 3-2 in favor of denying the project. Williams, Nordvig, and Tucker voted to deny the project, while Cabell and Melton voted against the denial.
The Ellis Farm Development was the biggest residential development case considered in 2019, but it was also an example of a growing attitude in Powhatan to slow down or stop further development and pay more attention to preserving open spaces, which played a big role in the 2019 General Election.
6. General Election sees 59 percent voter turnout in Powhatan
While the General Election only lasts a day, residents are bombarded by reminders of the impending event for months ahead of time.
Compared to the 2015 election, which had a 51.4 percent voter turnout, participation was up in 2019 with 59 percent of registered voters casting a ballot. But while 2015 saw 35 candidates running for 19 state and local offices, the 2019 numbers were much lower. The ballots showed 24 official candidates vying for 18 open seats. Many of the offices had only one candidate and two of the races – school board District 1 and one of the Monacan Soil and Water Conservation District director seats – were filled by write-in candidates.
Director of elections Karen Alexander said it was a busy election, especially considering how many candidates were on the ballots and how many races were uncontested.
The election saw some upsets, with Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant Jr. losing his seat representing the State Senate’s 10th District to democrat Ghazala Hashmi. Locally, only one incumbent was unseated – James Kunka lost the District 2 seat on the school board to challenger Susan Smith.
The results of the board of supervisors’ races, which had three contested seats, could mean a shift in priorities in the next four years. All of the winning candidates have advocated slow, smart growth and preserving rural spaces, which could influence the way the county develops – or doesn’t develop – in the near future.
7. Powhatan 911 goes live in new center
The completion of the courthouse expansion and its dedication on May 1 could have been on the list as the last of the county’s five major 2016 bonded construction projects to be completed. The project cost $3.623 million and took about a year and a half to complete. When it was done, it had added additional space to the General District Court clerk’s office and courtroom space and a sally port for the sheriff’s office.
However, in terms of steps forward and far-reaching impact, having the county’s emergency 911 communications center go live on April 16 in its new space on the second floor of the expansion edged it out.
Seeing the new center go live at 10:56 a.m. was one moment, but it took years to reach it, said public safety communications director Tom Nolan. Previously, three 911 dispatchers operated out of a single room in the sheriff’s office. With the courthouse expansion project, the center basically got its own wing, complete with six consoles, which allows for additional staff in the future or extra staff in times when a high volume of calls is expected. They also now have a server room, a break room, a conference room, and three offices so all supervisors and administrators can be in the same location.
The new center is a good place to fully utilize the features offered by the computer aided dispatch system the office added in 2018 and allows for continued innovations, Nolan said. On Aug. 1, local 911 communications took another step forward in increasing its capability of helping people by adding text-to-911 capability.
Better emergency communications will continue to improve as the county moves forward on updating its land mobile radio (LMR) system. Nolan spoke to the supervisors on Dec. 16 giving an update on the new LMR system, which the county will work to build with L3Harris over the next two years to finally replace Powhatan’s outdated and unsupported current system.
8. A change in fire and rescue chief
While it later came out that relations within Powhatan Fire and Rescue hadn’t been as good as everyone would hope for quite awhile, the situation came to a head this spring.
A week after receiving a proposal for a balanced fiscal year (FY) 2020 operating budget, supervisors heard a request from then fire and rescue chief Steven Singer to almost double the department’s budget to bring on additional paid staff. The request represented an additional 3.5 cents on the tax rate. The need, he said, was tied to fire and EMS coverage in the county and not having enough people – paid or volunteer – to respond effectively.
In the weeks that followed, the issue expanded beyond budget talks as questions were asked about volunteer morale, communication, and how Singer’s actions and attitudes might have done damage to both. Tensions boiled over in April when volunteers expressed anger and dismay that an idea to eliminate funds for their uniforms and rent monies to volunteer companies to help pay for the proposal was even considered. Volunteers continued to be increasingly open and vocal about their poor relationship with Singer.
The board met with volunteers and some paid staff on May 6 to figure out a way forward for the department. With fire and rescue’s input, members decided to increase the amount in the budget to add paid staff but at a much lower number.
The details of Singer’s split from the county were not disclosed, but after serving as acting chief for several months, Phil Warner was appointed as the new chief on Aug. 1.
Warner said last week that out of those meetings in the spring, the department has been focused on its goals to better track and report levels of service to help make informed decisions and to have a senior policy group review all policies to gauge their effectiveness. He also has worked on his personal goal to attend two to three company meetings each month to listen and keep an open dialogue.
9. Board adopts comprehensive plan
On June 24, after almost three years of work and review, the supervisors voted 3-1 in favor of adopting the 2019 Long-Range Comprehensive Plan. Cabell, Melton and Tucker voted to adopt the plan, and Williams voted against it. Nordvig was absent.
The bulk of the comprehensive plan was easily agreed upon by the board, so most disagreements focused on a few key sections, especially the Future Land Use Map.
The topics that were particularly of interest in these discussions were targeted growth areas and where they should be located.
A small committee had previously made big changes to the map, taking it from having 92.5 percent rural areas to 95 percent, with the other 5 percent being growth areas. But individual suggested changes to certain parcels in different parts of the county continued to cause discord among board members throughout the process. One such round of changes had led to more public meetings to allow residents to comment on them, but a few similar changes were made at the final meeting without additional public input.
How the new board of supervisors will embrace the comprehensive plan and its vision for the county remains to be seen.
10. Community rallies behind Cooper Stuart
Many Powhatan residents pride themselves on living in a community where neighbors help each other. That can be especially true when a family is going through a time of sickness or crisis.
This year, one little boy’s story captured hearts not only in Powhatan but around the world. Cooper Stuart, the son of Renee and Ray Stuart, was less than two weeks away from his 12th birthday when he unexpectedly passed out and started having seizures on June 6, was rushed to the hospital, and was later diagnosed with a tumor in his brain the size of a small orange.
Cooper had to undergo two brain surgeries to completely remove the tumor and numerous other procedures and was in the hospital for several weeks recovering. Even after he was released, he had to undergo occupational and physical therapy sessions two to three times a week to relearn basic tasks and help him build up his strength.
The Stuarts were completely humbled by the amount of people who helped them through the ordeal in some way, including family, friends, churches, local business, Pocahontas Elementary School families and staff, and strangers.
Several individuals and businesses held fundraisers, people sent cards and donations of gift cards and funds, and prayer chains were started that stretched around the world, Renee Stuart said this summer.
Cooper started his sixth-grade year doing homebound schooling in September, but he got good news in December. He was able to start half days at Powhatan Middle School on Dec. 2 and is expected to go to full days when the winter break is over in January 2020. Cooper and his brother Reece were also thrilled to start the Pulse Basketball season this month, both because of the normalcy it brings and because it is one of their favorite shared pastimes.