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Zoning hearing turns into religious debate

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After hearing from dozens of detractors, Grayson rejects Oracle Institute's plans for spiritual community

By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — An application for a special use permit in Grayson County turned into a religious debate on Thursday night, as an estimated 175 citizens turned out for a public hearing regarding a proposed spiritual educational community in the Wilson District.
The Oracle Institute's plans involved an 11-acre retreat teaching spirituality and ethical environmental practices.
After hearing from more than two dozen citizens — most of whom opposed the non-profit Oracle Institute's plans on religious grounds — the county board unanimously rejected the application based on the vague reasoning that it could somehow be detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the citizens.
(Last month, the Grayson Planning Commission voted to recommend the project for approval.)
Other than a few concerns over a road accessing the property and worries about developing the county's agricultural land, the talk at the lengthy meeting centered on differences of religious philosophy — which the county officials could not consider in making a decision.

'Valley Of Light'
Laura George — president of the Oracle Institute — told the board of supervisors how the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed her life forever.
Prior to that day, she was an attorney. After the terrorist attacks on America, she said she knew she should be doing something different with her life.
After starting what she described as an educational institute, George explained she had two primary purposes. The first was to publish books, one that addressed the five primary religions in the world and another that was a collection of stories on love of Earth, family, community, unconditional love and love of God.
The second purpose was to hold classes to educate people on what the Oracle Institute feels is going on in the world. While some have religious themes, George told the crowd that the classes are much broader in scope than that.
She explained that in this “critical juncture in human history, if we don’t start taking care of this planet, we’re not going to make it.”
George’s proposed “Valley of Light” project in the Wilson District included 10 cabins with a two-person capacity per unit and a recreational center to hold seminars, classes and activities.
“This wouldn’t be a situation where you could look in the Yellow Pages and rent a cabin,” she said. “This would be organized groups that would come with a goal in mind. It might be a team-building event, or a writer’s workshop or a spiritual retreat.”
The center could also be used as a recreational center and to host kayaking and canoe trips down the New River.
Last month, the Grayson County Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of the plan and George noted that many of the neighbors' concerns had been addressed. “The impact on the surrounding area is going to be minimal, the site is completely wooded. Most of the year, people aren’t going to see this.”
The projected occupancy at the site would be a daily average of two to four employees, with a spike up to 20 to 25 for community classes and up to 50 people for special events.
After hearing from the project's architect, Janis Reed, who would direct the center, told the board that she’d like to be able to earn money in Grayson County and be able to serve the county by giving it a way to build and grow.
She added that the retreat center would build the community and that “God help us… it won’t be a cult center.”
In an e-mail to The Gazette prior to the meeting, Reed said the institute's students "come from all walks of life, from sitting senators to Secret Service to active and retired military and even a few pastors... Our students are quite acceptable human beings and not crazies."
In the e-mail, she pitched the Grayson project as a way to bring in tourists — and their dollars — to seek spiritual enlightenment in the county's natural beauty. "People from all over are willing to pay a premium to get to visit it. I think we should let them give us their money."

The Opposition
The supervisors opened the floor up to the citizens who had packed the courtroom.
Zoning Administrator Lisa Barker said the county received five phone calls and three letters, all of which were in opposition to the project.
During the next hour of the hearing, 29 Grayson residents spoke about the project. Some were county natives, while others were transplants into what they said was a welcoming and beautiful community.
Many of the speakers were pastors and most had strong religious views about why the Oracle Institute should not be allowed in their community.
Each that spoke about religion made note that they understood the board could not make a decision based on religious convictions, but the cultures and views of the Oracle group didn’t mesh with the predominantly Christian community.
Many pastors quoted the Bible and spoke about how George and her proposed organization went against God, while others simply asked the board to do what was in the best interest of the citizens.
Several speakers quoted from the institute’s Web site, expressing how the Oracle Institute's teachings went against Christian philosophies.
But, in the end, the board had to consider the issue based on the county's zoning regulations, not the applicant's religious beliefs.
Some speakers, such as Doug Stoneman, simply stated that citizens feel it is in the best interest of the county to not allow the organization to come to Grayson County. While he said it wasn’t a threat, Stoneman made clear that he felt that, if the Oracle Institute was given approval, this would be the last term for the board members.
“You all are here to serve the best interest,” he continued.
Others, such as Faye Young, are neighbors of the proposed site and simply oppose the project because they oppose any development in the area.
“All the surrounding area is agriculture,” she said. “Most of the surrounding area is under conservation easements so our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to see it as it is. The zoning is not appropriate for this rural farm area.”
Many speakers worried about the Oracle Institute's potential influence on youth in the county and thought that, in these trying times, children needed no more “negative” forces trying to pull them in.
“My great concern, is as you can see in this room tonight, the controversy it is going to bring into the community,” said Pastor Derek Cowan. “Vote no for this. It will change more than just the property, but change our community in a very bad way.”
Many speakers felt the image that Oracle backers presented for the supervisors at the meeting was very different from the one on the institute's Web site.
“They painted a really beautiful picture of what a great deal this was going to be,” said citizen Jimmy Osborne. “A lot of things they’re showing you aren’t going to be that way.”
James Anderson agreed and called the Oracle organizers “hypocrites” for painting such a different picture than what the center would really become.
It was after Anderson’s remarks that Supervisors Chairman Larry Bartlett told the crowd that inflammatory remarks are unnecessary and disrespectful.
Of the 29 speakers, only two backed the project.
Sandra Jennings was one of the supporters. She said she is a Christian and believes in God, but has always enjoyed learning about other religions. She had done missionary work throughout the world and welcomed the Oracle Institute the county.
“I think it will add to the community and I’m not scared of new things coming into the community,” Jennings said. “I feel comfortable in my own religion, so it doesn’t threaten me. I’ll come.”
After more than an hour of testimony, the public hearing was closed.

Not A Cult
Later in the meeting, George attempted to dispel some of the rumors that Oracle was a cult or a community that would secede from the “union” and form its own government.
“The world is going to look very different in 20 years,” George told the board. “I don’t think it’s going to come down the way it says in some of these holy books… Jesus wants us to hold hands. The world is changing and we have the ability to move into the future gracefully or treat our neighbors like barbarians.”
George continued to say that she wanted to bring the institute to Grayson because of the caring people in the area.
“I was looking for a community like this because I believe that the people here are not only resilient and self-sustainable, but they love God so much that they can tell when someone does the same,” she said. “I felt this would be a good community to bring this project to… and now I’m very, very confused.”
She closed by promising that the organization was not a cult and that instead it was about doing your best to serve God and taking care of everything He has to offer.
“What’s coming is huge and if we can’t prepare for it together with love in our hearts… we’re not going to make it.”
In an e-mail letter forwarded to The Gazette prior to Thursday's hearing, George explained that her plans never involved starting a church, as some rumors in the community had suggested.
"In truth, Oracle does not promote any religion, nor are we trying to start one. We simply believe the time has come to 'hold hands' across all religious lines."

Zoning Issues
Bartlett began the supervisors’ debate and explained that he has received more calls regarding this matter than he did when the county was exploring the options of bringing a state prison to Grayson.
“I find that the testimony reflects that this Oracle Institute will affect other property in our community adversely,” Bartlett said. “It will also affect the public health of our community adversely and particularly the safety and protection of our own and those in the Oracle [Institute].”
Bartlett turned the conversation away from the religious debate and focused on the zoning issues that the county had to address in considering Oracle's application.
He added that much of the information provided by Oracle was not consistent, nor factual, and he believed the construction would affect the viewshed of the New River.
County officials directed several questions to George, some of which involved the road leading to the property.
George explained that she would meet all the requirements that the Virginia Department of Transportation set forth and could improve upon those requirements as supervisors deemed necessary.
The county had a concern whether the roadway into the property provided adequate room for safety vehicles.
George said she felt the improvements to the road would be suitable and said things could be changed if needed.
Eventually, Bartlett asked for a motion in the matter and Supervisor Joe Vaughan motioned to deny the application based on the interest in protecting the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the Wilson District.
Supervisor Brenda Sutherland seconded the motion and, after additional discussion, the board voted unanimously to deny the permit.