Eye on *STAR*: too many people; too little done

By Susan Gibbs

Last week Eye on Greene posted an editorial calling for accountability titled “A little transparency, if you please.”

Stanardsville Town Hall with a STAR on its door -- who is running the show?

This week, because Stanardsville Area Revitalization (*STAR*) is applying for yet another grant that this time may very well affect the lives of those who live in and around the Town of Stanardsville; because over the course of the last several years its leadership has become part of so many other organizations; and because it seems that so very little has actually been accomplished, Eye on Greene is having a little look-see.

First, the demographics: The Town of Stanardsville itself occupies a geographic total area of 0.3 square miles and has a population, as of the 2010 United States census, of 367 people. It has a mayor heading up a four-member town council, a corporation (*STAR*) with four directors elected by the membership, six directors appointed by the local government and nonprofit organizations, seats for four directors to chair standing committees, and an executive director to run it –along with help from the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Currently, the president of *STAR* is also chairman of its planning and economic development standing committee, Greene County’s representative to Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), where, according to that organization’s Web site, he sits on the CEO Selection Committee and chairs the Business Development Committee and the Finance Committee, and, he is a member of the Greene County Economic Development Authority, serving as that panels secretary and treasurer. He is also partnered with the mayor of Stanardsville in a private Limited Liability Company called Starpower, LLC.

Also currently, the mayor of the Town of Stanardsville is *STAR*’s secretary as well as chairman of its design and implementation standing committee, Greene County’s representative on the Blue Ridge Committee for Shenandoah National Park Relations, chairman of the Greene County Republican Committee, president of the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association, which has been embroiled in lawsuits for years, and, as stated above, partnered with the president of *STAR* in a private Limited Liability Company called Starpower, LLC.

*STAR*’s executive director is also an executive committee member of the Piedmont Environmental Council and a former chairman of the Greene County Democrats.

In addition, one of the members of the Stanardsville Town Council is also *STAR*’s treasurer.

Now, the history: According to *STAR*’s Web site, the organization “originated in 1984 when a community organization, Stanardsville Pride with Action (SPWA), was formed to build community spirit and contribute to community services and activities.”

In 2002, the SPWA established itself as a 501(c)(3) organization for tax purposes. The organization then broadened its focus to include the physical revitalization and economic development of the Town.

On January 12, 2004, according to information available on the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) Web site, TJPDC staff met with the Stanardsville Town Council to make a plan for the town’s betterment, and to apply for grants that might enable the achievement of that end. TJPDC staff reviewed the Town and County comprehensive plans for content relevant to the types of improvements discussed as part of this project, including a desire for walkability, infill for new business, use and preservation of old buildings, trails, and much more.

On January 31, 2004, a public workshop, attended by 20 or so local “residents, elected officials, and staff was held, where participants discussed overall goals for the town, took a walking tour, and then marked ideas for improvements on maps of the town.”

Participants were divided into three groups, out of which came “brainstorm” results, including but not limited to:  new or improved sidewalks; crosswalks; the removal of some signs and the erection of others, the removal of mailboxes and other obstructions; the construction of walking trails and bike paths, the planting of trees and flowers; the erection of attractive street lights and the installation of benches; the replacement of Section 8 housing and empty buildings with businesses; the burial of utility and cable lines; the creation of a youth center, an arts and cultural center, a historic district and shops geared to Shenandoah National Park tourists; changes in the flow of truck traffic; and the expansion of town boundaries.

On February 9, 2004 the Stanardsville Town Council passed a resolution to provide a $1,500 cash match for a Phase I Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Transportation Equity Act (TEA) grant application and expressed its desire to identify an in-kind match. The Town Council stated that it would like to work with the county to determine which projects should be funded in the initial phase.

On February 24, 2004 the Greene County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in support of the project and offering $1,500 in cash match for the town council’s Phase I   TEA grant application. The project list was reviewed with Town Council members in a work session before the meeting, and it was agreed to pursue a school crosswalk and sidewalks along Main Street and State Route 230, Madison Road.

Two days later TJPDC published its Draft of Town of Stanardsville Safety, Circulation and Beautification Plan – which is 18 pages long and includes, among many, many other things, the possibilities of the expansion of Town boundaries and the imposition of annexation fees.

In 2005 *STAR* was formed as part of SPWA to apply for grants that would be used to improve the Town, with Stanardsville resident Don Pamenter at its helm as president.

And then, as fate might have had it for the good of the revitalization effort, in June 2005 Fried Companies Inc. (FCI), considered developing a parcel of between 15 and 20 acres abutting Grace Episcopal Church property and stretching southward behind homes along Main Street. The property was put under contract and FCI’s engineer designed a project that consisted of 160 townhomes priced in the mid $200,000 range.

Soon afterwards, appearances came into play:

On October 31, 2005 Stanardsville Auto was cited with three zoning violations by the county’s zoning department: Its screening fence was 50 linear feet longer than approved; vehicles without state licenses and county decals had been kept in the storage area; and the service bay did not match the architecture of the existing structure.

These alleged violations were addressed on February 13, 2006 when a regularly-scheduled meeting of the Stanardsville Town Council was cancelled due to a lack of quorum and the Stanardsville Board of Zoning Appeals (SBZA) took over the time slot to discuss them.

Attorney Waverly Parker, who was present to represent Stanardsville Auto, announced a de novo hearing on the matter. He admitted that the fence was too long and said it would be shortened within 10 days, and that the service bay was now in compliance. Regarding vehicles without sticker or license: “I don’t think there is going to be any evidence that vehicles are salvage,” Parker said. “But even if they were, they are subject to vested right under statute 15.2-2307 of the Code of Virginia …”

In his concluding remarks Parker told the SBZA, “You can’t drive somebody out of town because you don’t like the way they look.”

It bears noting here that *STAR*’s goal is to better the town, that the Greene County Historical Society is supporting those efforts, but that the *STAR* president’s wife, Jackie, who is president of the historical society, is also a member of the SBZA.

So it could be said that appearances were already an issue when, on March 13, 2006 the chairman of the *STAR*’s design and implementation standing committee, Gary Lowe, who was at the time also chairman of the Greene County Planning Commission and its liaison to the county’s economic development authority, was appointed to the town council. In addition, Lowe was, at the time, chairman of the Greene County Republican Committee and president of the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association, which, as reported by The Hook the previous year, was embroiled in several lawsuits

At the time of his appointment to the town council Lowe said he had checked with an attorney before accepting the appointment and had been told there was no conflict.

Less than a month later, on April 3, 2006 SPWA merged with *STAR* and soon enough, appearances would again come into play.

This same month a property at 275 Main Street in Stanardsville came on the market. The location was significant because there were two possible entrances to the property FCI was considering for development.

One of those, off Ford Avenue, would not have been suitable for the additional traffic a 160-unit residential property would have generated. But one could have been constructed at the 275 Main Street location, where the ground is level.

The property came on the market and was purchased for $239,000 on May 4, 2006 by Starpower LLC, a limited liability company  consisting of:  Pamenter, who was, in addition to being *STAR*’s president,  chairman of its planning and economic development committee; Pamenter’s wife, Jackie, who, as previously stated, was president of the Greene County Historical Society and a member of the SBZA; Lowe, who was now chairman of the Greene County Planning Commission, president of the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association, chairman of the Greene County Republican committee, Stanardsville Town Council member and chairman of *STAR*’s design and implementation committee; Lowe’s wife, Karen; and Blanche Whitlock of the Blanche F. Whitlock Trust.

FCI then offered to purchase the property but was unable to structure a deal.

When the limited liability company and FCI’s offer to purchase it were brought to the public’s attention more than three years later by the Greene County Record, Pamenter explained that the purchase was made because plans had already been laid for the entrance to a walking and bicycling path at the 275 Main Street address, and it was seen as an opportunity for the town to protect access for the path if the property was subsequently developed.

That’s all well and good, but the town was not a part of Starpower LLC.

Pamenter also told the Greene County Record that FCI had expressed a willingness to create such a path if they decided to proceed with their development, but that the developer “dropped its plans for the development, due to the lack of water and sewer.”

But Steve Jones of FCI said the company was willing to work with the Rapidan Service Authority to upgrade the water and sewer lines. He also said that FCI and Starpower LLC had not been able to agree on a price for the 275 Main Street property.

And once again, appearances came into play.

In January 2007 Lowe was not reappointed to the Greene County Planning Commission, but he retained his seats on the Stanardsville Town Council and *STAR*.  And then, in March 2008, the Town Council appointed him mayor of Stanardsville, following the death of Mayor Jerry Bortner. In addition to that new duty, Lowe retained his seat on *STAR*’s board of directors, as well as his presidency of the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association, which continued to be embroiled in lawsuits.

In 2008 Roy Dye, a former Capitol Hill lobbyist and board member of the Piedmont Environmental Council, was named executive director of *STAR*.

In June of this year the county was asked to sponsor *STAR* and refused. At the time, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Steve Catalano explained that the entire financial management of the project would be placed on the county, and that the county would essentially have to serve as a bank.

*STAR* entered into an agreement for a sponsorship with TJPDC but experienced another setback in 2009 when a proposed development fell just short of being written into a grant application without the actual property owner’s consent.

Here’s what happened: *STAR* had been working with JABA to help attract grant moneys to Stanardsville, according to Chris Murray, JABA Director of Business Development.

Murray explained that JABA’s proposal to build affordable senior housing in the center of town included a key element for grant approval – a demonstration that the funds would have been of direct benefit to help low and moderate income persons.

The land in the center of town Murray referred to consists of about nine acres at the corner of Main street and Ford Avenue in a downtown area included in the *STAR* project. The land is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and, according to Grace Episcopal Vicar Jane Piver, was not for sale.

About a year earlier, Piver, who, in her words, is “authorized to engage in discovery-type conversations,” entered into a memorandum of understanding with JABA. The agreement stated that the land would not be sold while the property was studied, and so, she said, was “taken completely by surprise” when informed that a proposed development on diocese-owned land was to be included in a grant application.

“From its inception over a century ago Grace Episcopal has been only a steward of the church facility and the surrounding nine acres,” she explained. “The Diocese of Virginia is the designated owner of both the church and the property. Knowing this, church officials and I are simply authorized to engage in discovery-type conversations.”

“Members of Grace Episcopal Church and I were willing to listen to initial ideas which involved community development because the church is an active contribution [sic] – but not a primary participant – in the growth and betterment of Stanardsville,” Piver explained at the time. “But to be a viable partner in a community development corporation would take the consent of the Diocese and an appropriate business presentation for the Bishop’s consideration.”

And once again, appearances came into play: not only did it appear that *STAR* had jumped the gun, but Dye, who was – and still is — *STAR*’s executive director, was an active member of the Grace Episcopal Church congregation, and certainly should have been able to ensure clear communication.

On January 14, 2010 the 2006 negotiations between FCI and Starpower LLC were brought to light in an article I wrote for the Greene County Record titled “County comp plan update considered.”

The following week, on January 21, 2010 Pamenter responded in a letter to the editor headlined, “Story had half-truths, innuendos.”

“The article on the front page of the Jan. 14 edition of the Greene County Record titled ‘County comp plan update considered,’ wove half-truths, innuendo, incorrect facts and editorial commentary into a story that merited more serious reportage, Pamenter wrote. He claimed that the article did a “disservice to the town, the county, the residents and the revitalization effort.”

He also pointed out that since *STAR*’s beginning in 2005 it had received enthusiastic support from public bodies, including Greene County, Stanardsville Town Council, the Greene County Economic Development Authority, the Virginia Main Street program, and VDOT. He also noted that “all our local, state and federal political officials (Rob Bell, Emmett Hanger, Tom Perriello, Virgil Goode and Robert Tata) have supported the revitalization effort;” that “local residents, businesses, government bodies and foundations have contributed more than $200,000 to this effort” and that *STAR* had received grants worth more than $700,000 to support the revitalization effort.”

In that same response, he referred to the property at 275 Main Street as “the Gibbs property,” though it did not belong to me.

Most recently, *STAR* has attached itself to Greene County Commonwealth Attorney Ron Morris’ Stanardsville Safety Initiative (SACSI), which got underway in December 2011 when Tim Heaphy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, and Gwen Mason, Heaphy’s community outreach coordinator, kicked the effort off at the Greene County Courthouse.

According to a series of Greene County Record reports by Pat Fitzgerald, Morris began the effort in the wake of several high-profile drug arrests, as well as arrests in the burning of a church and a high-profile triple murder case, and that he stressed that the ultimate goal of the initiative is to keep people out of jail.

But you won’t read that on *STAR*’s Web site. What you will read is that SACSI sponsored a community-walk around and block party last April 28 – and that *STAR* is not only directly involved in organizing the initiative, but that its board of directors agreed to accept tax deductible donations to *STAR*, earmarked for SACSI, to pay expenses associated with the block party.

Further, you will not read on *STAR*’s Web site that the Greene County Department of Social Services also offered to accept tax deductible donations earmarked for SACSI but that its offer was refused. You will also not read that Dye and Morris are both members of the Grace Episcopal Church congregation, which is active in the SACSI effort.

Again, appearances should be considered, especially in light of the intended goals of the two organizations – SACSI’s, to keep people out of jail, and *STAR*’s, to revitalize the Town of Stanardsville.

What exactly, is the connection between the two efforts?

Consider this: A conflict of interest is generally said to occur when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in another.

And, that while conflicts of interests may not necessarily be legal issues, it’s appearances that should be of concern, according to Stuart C. Gilman, Ph.D., a former president of the Ethics Resource Center, whose near-40-year career has focused on integrity and anticorruption systems in government and the private sector and includes positions in universities, government and non-profit organizations.

“Any society that cannot effectively address or prevent conflicts of interest will soon find its democracy and its free markets in states of collapse,” Gilman has written, and perhaps, just perhaps, that is why, in the nine years since the Town of Stanardsville first started laying its plans for the betterment of the community, it has accomplished virtually nothing.

Yes, there have been improvements to the Town of Stanardsville since *STAR* began its efforts way back when.

Property owners such as the Branch Corporation, Alan Pyles, George Foley and Richard Herring have made several very noticeable improvements to their buildings and commercial enterprises have moved in. FCI spearheaded an effort to bring a Piedmont Virginia Community College Center to town. Lillian Baird opened The Palette Art Gallery and was a driving force in the formation of the Art Guild of Greene – but for all the publicity it has garnered, what has*STAR* actually accomplished?

On Monday, February 11 the Stanardsville Town Council held a meeting on its proposed grant application to the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for funds that Dye says will physically and economically revitalize the downtown area by helping property owners and small business.

He explained that *STAR* is helping the Town prepare this grant application due March 28, and citizen participation is a key element of that process. Evidence of active citizen involvement carries great weight in DHCD’s evaluation of grant proposals.

In fact, according to the Virginia DHCD Web site, a grantee must develop and follow a detailed plan that provides for and encourages citizen participation, and the sign-in sheets at these hearings, as Dye said, become part of the grant application.

If citizens missed the February 11 meeting on *STAR*’s proposed grant application, another is scheduled on the same subject on March 11.

Prior to meeting, Eye on Greene is calling on the Greene County Board of Supervisors to look into the possible conflicts of interest cited above, and for its members to ask themselves – and then report to the public —  whether or not all these interwoven relationships are not just suitable, but productive.

It’s beyond time for them to do so. The residents of Stanardsville, the area surrounding it, and all the citizens of Greene County have a right to know what might have been by now if an outside agency — such as the Piedmont Housing Alliance, which also does community development, has access to grant moneys, and whose board members report potential conflicts of interest – had been called in nine years ago to help with the revitalizations of Stanardsville.

In the meantime, Eye on Greene will be calling on other nonprofits to discuss their policies regarding conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof.

Editor’s Note: The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and the Greene County Board of Supervisors publish minutes of meetings online. The Town of Stanardsville, the Stanardsville Board of Zoning Appeals and *STAR* do not. Old issues of the Greene County Record can be seen at the newspaper’s office on Main Street in Stanardsville, or on microfilm at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library.

To learn about grants awarded by Virginia’s DHCD visit http://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/. Visit *STAR*’s Web site at http://stargreene.org/. To view the 2004 Draft of Town of Stanardsville Safety, Circulation and Beautification Plan that got it all started, visit http://tjpdc.org/pdf/rep_comm_stanardPlan.pdf.

Posted in: Editorials

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