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The Caroline County Planning Commission will consider amending the county’s zoning ordinance in order to allow boarding schools, a move that would allow Abundant Life Academy a second chance at getting permission to relocate to Caroline.
The Planning Commission only briefly touched on the issue during its regular work session on Wednesday evening this week. The county’s planning staff has not drafted any language to amend the zoning ordinance yet, but the commission is expected to take up the issue again at its Jan. 9 work session.
Although amending the zoning ordinance to allow boarding schools may pave a new way for the academy to relocate to Caroline, it is likely the academy still would be required to obtain a special exception permit, noted Commissioner Les Stanley, who represents the Bowling Green District.
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 in August to deny a special exception permit for the school, which is now based in Utah, then voted 4-2 in September against a motion to rescind its earlier decision. Abundant Life Academy is a Christian boarding school catering to troubled teens.
Paul Branning, CEO of the academy, was unaware the Planning Commission was preparing to take another look at the issue of boarding schools.
“I can appreciate that, but I don’t how that would help us,” said Branning when reached by phone in New Jersey on Friday.
Unless some of the supervisors change their mind about the school, “I can’t see where that’s a plus,” he added.
“Then again, I could be wrong,” said Branning. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
Charles Payne, a Fredericksburg attorney representing the property owners and who attended this week’s commission work session, said after the meeting that amending the zoning ordinance to allow boarding schools would enable county officials to address issues related to the academy that were raised earlier. In addition, if the zoning ordinance is amended, academy officials would not have to wait until August to submit a new application.
Remuda Ranch is located off Passing Road about seven miles east of Sparta. It was previously operated as a residential therapeutic treatment program for women suffering from eating disorders and other ailments.
The property is owned by a corporation, Beverly Run, that is controlled by Hanover County businessman A.D. Whitaker and associates.
When contacted by phone Friday, Payne declined to say if the property owners were acting in hopes of Abundant Life Academy getting a second opportunity to come to Caroline. “I can’t comment on that right now,” he said.
“It’s a great facility,” observed Payne. “We’d love to have an end user.”
“We all kind of learned something from it,” added Payne, referring to the Abundant Life Academy’s earlier failure to win the backing of a majority of the Board of Supervisors.
He would be agreeable to renew his efforts to bring the academy to Caroline if the zoning ordinance is amended in a favorable way, Branning indicated.
“We were always hopeful we could come back there,” said Branning. “I like the community. The people are great.”
The academy still has not found another suitable site and is still looking, said Branning.
When asked via e-mail if the property owners had asked planning officials to consider amending the zoning ordinance to allow boarding schools, planner Angeline Pitts responded, “We have had discussions with various parties related to the proposed boarding school text amendment.”
Although the academy’s request won unanimous support from the Planning Commission following a public hearing in July, some residents of the rural Sparta community subsequently were troubled by the prospect of the school and were fearful of its clientele. About a dozen opponents signed a petition that was presented to the supervisors at their August meeting, and Sheriff Tony Lippa also raised questions about the academy’s plans, although academy officials later provided him with information that satisfied his concerns about public safety.
The decision of the Board of Supervisors prompted emotional appeals from parents, citizens, and Bowling Green officials at the board’s next meeting. The series of votes against the school also prompted an outpouring of letters to the editor of The Caroline Progress in favor of the school and criticizing the four supervisors – Wayne Acors, Calvin Taylor, Floyd Thomas, and Reggie Underwood, particularly for their reluctance to publicly declare why they were opposed to the school.
The academy tentatively had hired nearly 20 people locally, including a former state police officer, and made plans to hire others and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the area, according to school officials.
Abundant Life Academy was founded in 2000. The school serves teens who are academically unmotivated, have experimented with sex, alcohol, or drugs, rebel against parents, reject their Christian upbringing, or exhibit other problem behavior. The academy accepts teens ages 13-18; they normally attend for one year.