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INDEPENDENCE — An 18-month legal battle appears to be over in Grayson County following approval of a special use permit for the Oracle Institute on Tuesday night.
The tone Tuesday night was completely opposite of that at a public hearing held 18 months ago in the same courtroom, where an estimated 175 people turned out in June 2010 and most speakers opposed Oracle’s application to build a non-denominational spiritual center on its property in the Wilson District.
On Tuesday, 65 citizens were in attendance and only eight of those took to the podium to address both the planning commission and board of supervisors during a joint public hearing.
The board’s rejection of the permit request last year resulted in a religious discrimination lawsuit against the county.
Laura George, president of the Oracle Institute, addressed the supervisors first, regarding her plans for building a facility called the Peace Pentagon in the western end of the county. This building would host things such as educational retreats, seminars, classes and other events as needed throughout the year.
George expressed that the building was meant to be a community center and would be open for all to take part in the various events.
The institute is an educational charity dedicated to promoting spiritual enlightenment through study of the scriptures and the teachings of the world's religions, according to its website.
Speaking on behalf of the Oracle Institute, George talked about her pride in being an American and even more so a Virginian. The source of that pride, she said, was the fact that many of her favorite founding fathers — such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington — walked this land before her.
“For the last 18 months it has been my position that the governing supervisors of Grayson County violated [my right to religious freedom]," George told the board during her time. "For the past year and a half, I have felt forced to use the courts to allow the supervisors to rectify a wrong [decision]."
George was referring to the lawsuit filed on the Oracle's behalf weeks after the permit application was denied by the board of supervisors in June 2010. After the initial rejection, supervisors offered to re-hear George’s request last summer, but by then she already had filed the lawsuit.
"With the humility of one who also has made mistakes and needed to rectify them, it is with sincere gratitude that I stand before the supervisors and accept the terms they have offered me," George said, referring to the 15 proffers that were attached to the amended application. "Thank you for the opportunity to become part of this community and provide the first inter-faith center in Grayson County. "
The planning commission last summer had recommended approval of the request for a special use permit. However, in June 2010 the Grayson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to deny the permit request, citing a danger to the "health, welfare and safety" of county residents, and concerns regarding an access road and parking.
Prior to opening Tuesday’s public hearing for comments, Supervisors Chairman Larry Bartlett instructed the audience that political or religious objections would not be pertinent to the hearing and would not be appreciated.
(George’s lawsuit claims that supervisors considered only the religious opposition to the Oracle Institute’s request when they denied the permit. Such comments can not be considered in making a zoning decision. Therefore, she said her First Amendment rights were violated.)
The planning commission accepted comments and eight individuals spoke during the 37-minute hearing Tuesday.
The first speaker was Mary Young, an adjoining property owner who had the same concerns she had last year.
Young stated that the Grayson zoning ordinance uses the rural farm designation to preserve and protect the rural character of the land and that the surrounding area near the proposed facility includes more than 2,100 acres in conservation easements.
Young said that the county is rich with beautiful mountains, rivers, hills and valleys and those need to be conserved so that future generations can enjoy it as they do today.
“This is not the place to be changing zoning," Young told the board.
She added that this development was not appropriate for the location and that it should not be allowed.
Althea Estes spoke next and expressed her belief in freedom of religion. Speaking about a potential site once considered for a state prison in the county, Estes noted that a correctional facility would have done more of an injustice to the appearance of the New River than the proposed Peace Pentagon — yet many people were not in opposition of that.
"I think it would be a wonderful thing to have her organization here," Estes said of George.
Pastor Derek Cowan spoke at the original hearing 18 months ago. On Tuesday, Cowan mentioned no religious opposition to the institute, but instead questioned why his church was required to be zoned commercial and meet stricter standards while this application was allowed to go through with less code enforcements.
Cowan said his church was glad to comply with everything the county asked it to do, but wondered why these same standards were not set for the Oracle Institute.
He agreed with Young in questioning whether this was an appropriate place for a commercial property and said that when zoning is changed it can be hard to regulate later on.
Not all speakers heeded Bartlett’s warning about religious opposition.
Jacob Hicks was the only speaker who argued against George solely based on religious beliefs.
He said he served only one God and that there was only one true religion and that was a true faith in Jesus Christ.
“We have a lot of confused children out there already and I don ft see how this is going to help them," Hicks said. "It's not that anyone is trying to take anyone's freedom of religion away — the religious freedom is being taken away from the Christians here."
Up next to speak was Joe Snyder, who simply said that while people often fight change, growth happens. "I think it's good for Grayson County to have some variety," Snyder told the boards.
Susan Utt felt that George was being deceptive in her intended use of the property.
Citing the Oracle Institute’s website — something that was done quite often during the previous public hearing — Utt questioned George's intentions and commented that suing the county over not getting approval the first time did not show any peace and spirituality.
Pastor John Duvall spoke next and noted that, while he may not agree with what George is planning on doing at the Oracle Institute, he would "be willing to give [his] life for her right to do it."
Duvall quoted John Wesley — the spiritual father of the United Methodist Church, of which he has been a pastor for 54 years — as saying that the Bible most clearly teaches that Christians are to learn to think and let others think.
Jerry Young spoke about the type of application sought. Young felt that a commercial recreation use was not the right type of zoning and, while he had nothing personal against George, he felt the proposed zoning didn't match the actions that would be taking place there.
One other comment was sent in by letter from Norma Osborne, who questioned how the development would benefit the county and whether or not George would seek tax-exempt status.
Following the public hearing, the planning commission opened the floor for discussion among members.
Commission Member Mike Maynard questioned if the special use permit went with the land if it were sold later.
County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said that the permit would be tied to the land so it would stay in place with a change of ownership. But, if there were a violation, the permit would be nullified regardless of the owner.
Maynard then questioned the commercial recreation wording and asked if the Oracle Institute would be charging for any activities.
George said that under the county’s zoning ordinance, the recreational classification appeared to encompass all of the planned uses for the facility and that some events would have fees associated with them — such as rent for the cabins.
Commission Member C.D. Hines questioned if George would seek tax-exempt status.
George said the Oracle Institute is a tax-exempt organization, but some activities — such as overnight accommodations — would not be tax-exempt.
With no further comments the planning commission voted 5-2 to recommend approval of the application to the board of supervisors.
No further comments were made during the supervisors’ discussion and Vice Chairman Doug Carrico motioned to approve the recommendation. The motion was seconded by Supervisor Joe Vaughan and passed unanimously.
Court proceedings are in continuance at the consent of both parties, according to both George and Sweet. A trial had been set for November, but “was postponed to allow for this settlement,” George said last month. “Our lead counsel’s illness also was a factor.”
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, last year filed a suit in Grayson County Circuit Court on behalf of George, The Oracle Institute and Amethyst Acres, a limited liability company. The suit alleges that the Grayson County Board of Supervisors violated George's rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and equal protection of the law in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.
“The parties intend to formally and finally resolve this matter at the hearing, such that the concerns of all adjacent neighbors are satisfied; the health, safety, and welfare of the county are protected,” George said in a statement last month.
With the approval of the permit application Tuesday night, the county appears one step closer to settling the pending law suit.
In a press release on Wednesday, George said the hearing "represented the final stage of a settlement that had been worked out in advance between Oracle’s attorneys and the county."
She also reflected on the case and its legal implications. "It took 18 months, but it was worth the wait. An important lesson was learned by all, including myself: Our Constitution is in jeopardy and we had better protect it at every available opportunity… or else."
George said she understood why so many people spoke out against the Oracle Institute last year based on religious differences. "Grayson County is home only to Christian churches, and most of them are Evangelical. By definition, fundamentalist fervor is the core tenet of this sect of Christianity, which holds that there is one — and only one — path to God. Everyone else be damned (literally)."
Given the overwhelming religious opposition stated by citizens who spoke at the 2010 hearing, she also understands why the supervisors might have let those voices sway their decision.
"On behalf of Oracle, I thank the supervisors for their courage in the face of heretofore unprecedented religious tension in Grayson County," George wrote on Wednesday. "I also thank the residents of this county who understood the profound principles at stake and offered me personal support."
George also said that taxpayers should know that the case was costly to them, though she did not say how much Grayson would have to pay. "Taxpayers and county insurance will foot the bills of three law firms and one legal foundation... The Oracle Institute did not ask for nor receive one penny in this settlement."
Oracle permit has several conditions
Along with the approval for the application came 15 specific proffers that will limit building size and maximum people at the location.
The proffers include:
1. Construction shall be limited to: (a) one central multipurpose retreat center; (b) 10 campsites; and (c) two bath houses. The 10 campsites may be converted at a later date to either 10 cabins or two multi-bedroom lodging units of equivalent capacity.
2. The retreat center shall not be larger than 8,000 square feet. The tents or cabins shall not be larger than 20' x 25' each. The bath houses shall not be larger than 20' x 30' each. In the event two lodging units are built instead of 10 cabins, the lodges shall not exceed the aggregate square footage of the proposed cabins or 2,500 square feet each and the occupancy of both units shall not exceed 20 persons.
3. All improvements will be located and constructed in accordance with the site plan(s) submitted and approved by the County as part of these conditions.
4. No building shall be constructed closer than 25 feet from any property boundary.
5. There shall be a natural, wooded area remaining undisturbed of 25 feet in depth along any property boundary. Along property boundaries not now wooded, trees shall be planted and maintained to establish such boundary protection.
6. The road accessing the property and all internal roads shall be constructed and maintained in conformity with the Virginia Statewide Fire Protection Code.
7. The average number of staff working at the retreat center shall not exceed five persons per day. Regularly scheduled community classes shall not exceed 50 persons per class. Retreats shall not occur more than 10 times per year with occupancy not to exceed 25 persons per event. Special events may occur up to five days per year with maximum occupancy of 100 persons.
8. All parking shall occur on the property. No parking shall be offsite. No parking shall occur on the roadways. Parking shall be in the parking lot as shown on the site plan(s) with overflow parking for special events located in the area designated on the site plan(s).
9. No amplified noise or live bands using amplification shall be permitted outdoors on the property on the days of Monday through Thursday, and no noise shall exceed 60 decibels as measured at the nearest adjacent neighbor's property line.
10. Outdoor lighting shall be indirect and shaded to prevent glare going off the property.
11. All health department requirements for water and sewer shall be met.
12. All VDOT requirements for a commercial access permit for the connection of the road serving the project to Virginia State Road 711 shall be met.
13. All provisions of the Virginia Statewide Building Code and the Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code shall be met in the construction, operation and maintenance of the project, including all structures and roads.
14. Construction of the project shall commence within nine months of approval of the special use permit or within six months of issuance of the building permit (whichever last occurs). Construction shall be completed on all roads and a certificate of occupancy granted on the retreat center within 24 months of issuance of the building permit. In the event the retreat center is not commenced or completed within the time requirements as herein required the special use permit shall lapse and terminate.
15. These proffers shall be binding on the property and all current and future property owners. A copy of these proffers shall be recorded among the land records of the Circuit Court Clerk's Office in Grayson County and indexed in the name of the name of the property owner as grantor and Grayson County as grantee.