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HRH-Sentara marriage tops list / December 30, 2013

2013 was a year for a change in the guard — for the community’s health care system, within the halls of local government, for Halifax County as a whole.

It was also a time for putting old controversies to rest, or at least on hold, while new ones sprung up with little or no advance warnng to take their place.

In oher words, it was a busy year in the news business. Looking back, here are the News & Record’s picks for the Top 10 stories of 2013:

HALIFAX REGIONAL HEALTH SYSTEM CHANGES HANDS — Exactly 60 years to the day after the opening of Halifax Regional Hospital on July 1, 1953, HRHS completed its merger with Norfolk-based Sentara Healthcare. Sentara assumed all assets of the local hospital system, which in turn will receive $115 million over a ten-year period from Sentara.

By partnering with a larger hospital chain, HRHS will be better positioned to grow in the future and weather broad changes in the health care system, hospital officials argued in making the case for the merger.

The mid-year deal with Sentara, after more than two years of studying a possible sale of the hospital and its related assets, was not the only time HRHS landed in the headlines in 2013.

The local health system made waves earlier in the year when it purchased South Boston Manor, taking over its 54 beds and demolishing the Manor’s physical facility. The hospital will allocate 36 of those beds to an expansion of The Woodview; the other 18 are being shifted to MeadowView Terrace in Clarksville.

Construction at the two HRHS nursing homes is expected to begin in the spring of 2014, creating an additional 40 jobs.

2. THE NOVEMBER ELECTION — The November ballot decided a fierce race for the job of the county’s top law enforcement officer, Commonwealth’s Attorney. After a hard-fought campaign, challenger Tracy Quackenbush Martin won by a near 2-1 margin over incumbent Mike Freshour.

That was not the only competitive race in Halifax County as the retirement of two supervisors, ED-3 William Fitzgerald and ED-6 Wayne Conner, opened the field for a number of candidates hoping to take their place. In ED#3 Earl Womack narrowly defeated Ray Owen for the Board of Supervisors seat, with Arthur Reynolds coming in a distant third. In ED-6, Larry Giardano dispatched John Voss.

There was also competition for two seats on the Halifax County School Board. In ED-2 incumbent trustees Karen Hopkins won re-election over challengers Ida Terry and Lisa Hatcher.

In ED-6 history was made in Halifax County as incumbent trustee Fay Satterfield and challenger Rita Best received the same number of votes. Satterfield retained the seat in early December after Electoral Board members held a drawing of names from a box to break the tie.

3. NOBLIN GUILTY —In mid-July, former Halifax County Sheriff Stanley Noblin entered guilty pleas to five counts of embezzlement of some $103,930 earmarked for law enforcement purposes. The plea agrement marked the beginning of the end for a long and painful saga for Noblin’s family and friends and for the law enforcement community that he once headed as sheriff.

In October, Noblin was sentenced to ten months in jail and ordered to make full restitution of the funds he stole. The plea agreement negotiated by Noblin’s attorney, Glenn Berger, and special prosecutor Eric Cooke, Southampton Commonwealth’s Attorney, came after State Police Investigator William Talbert received a confession from Noblin — who said he took the money after coming under heavy financial pressure, intending all the while to repay it, but was never able to come up with the funds to do so.

4. URANIUM MINING PUT ON HOLD AFTER LOSSES IN THE POLITICAL ARENA — With financial support from the Halifax County Board of Supervisors, South Boston Town Council, Halifax Town Council and the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority and outside communities, foes of uranium mining geared up for a legislative battle to maintain the state’s longstanding ban on the industry. The fight in the General Assembly coalesced around a bill sponsored by Powhatan Republican Senator John Watkins to establish a regulatory framework for uranium mining at the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County. After much lobbbying by both sides, the bill eventually died without a vote in the Senate Agriculture Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, where members were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the ban.

However, Virginia Uranium, the company seeking to mine Coles Hill, asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to draft regulations for the industry using his executive authority. Yet McDonnell declined to act, and pro-uranium forces suffered a major setback in the November election, with Democratic Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe saying he would veto any bill to allow uranium mining during his four years in office. Virginia Uranium responded by telling investors it would not press for legislation to overturn the ban for the foreseeable future.

5. LORP CONTROVERSY — A group of 105 recent school retirees sued the Halifax County School Board to restore the Local Option Retirement Plan, an early retirement incentive program that trustees cancelled in July 2013, citing its high cost and impact on tight budgets. The suit claimed that the School Board had altered the terms of LORP only one month before canceling the program in order to deprive retirees of benefits that had been promised to them It also charged that the School Board breached its contract with LORP beneficiaries “deliberately, willfully, arbitrarily and capriciously.”

On July 1, retired Pittsylvania County Judge Charles L. Strauss granted a School Board motion to dismiss the lawsuit which would have reinstated LORP, saying the case was flawed because the 105 retirees who brought the action could not seek redress with a group claim for declaratory judgment. His ruling left the door open for the plaintiffs to pursue individual breach of contract suits against the school board, although no such lawsuits have been filed.

6. NOVEC PLANT OPENS — A new wood-fired power plant opened for business in South Boston, capable of generating 49.9 megawatts of electricity for the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative and its development partner NOVI. By burning wood chips as fuel, the plant, located at the old Georgia-Pacific plywood site, will provide enough electricity to power 16,000 homes in northern Virginia, while creating a market locally for wood waste — chips and smaller branches (slash) that normally would not be used.

On November 14, NOVEC celebrated the grand opening of Halifax County biomass plant in South Boston, announcing 26 fulltime positions at the plant with an annual payroll in excess of $1.5 million and adding $600, 000 in new property tax revenue for Halifax County.

7. MOLD AT THE HIGH SCHOOL — Mold spread through parts of Halifax County High School last fall — the result, officials believe, of a wet, humid summer, coupled with roof repairs over the A wing of the building. The mold infestation created a potential health hazard with parents complaining that their children suffered from severe headaches or stomach problems. Following a meeting with School Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon, School Board Chairman Kim Farson and High School Principal Albert Randolph, a plan to address the mold outbreak was approved. “We are bringing in an outside consultant who specializes in this kind of problem to test our air quality,” Farson reported. “We will then decide on what our next step will be, depending on the data he gives us from his inspection.” In December, the School Board voted to hire Robert Bouknight to present them with both a short range plan to alleviate the problem which could crop up again in the spring, as well as giving them a long range plan to permanently remedy the problem.

8. COURTHOUSE RENOVATION — County supervisors, sued by local judges over the deteriorating conditions of the historic old Halifax County Courthouse, began mapping plans — not yet finalized — for renovation of the building. The governing body in December announced plans for the relocation of several agencies that will be necessary to carry out the Courthouse renovations. As a first step, the basement area of the Bethune Complex, which has been home to special education offices of the school system, will be cleared for the County Administrator, building and zoning officials to move into, while the current County Administration building on Main Street in Halifax will be expanded to serve as the Sheriff’s Department (the building next to the Courthouse which currently houses the Sheriff’s Office will be torn down.).

The Industrial Arts building, adjacent to the Mary Bethune Complex, will be renovated to serve as an interim courtroom facility while the Courthouse is under construction. The alternate education classes now held in the Industrial Arts building will move to renovated classrooms at the back of the STEM Center in Halifax. Construction and renovation of the Courthouse is not expected to be completed until late 2016.

9. NEW FACES TAKE CHARGE — Leadership positions in the community saw changes with retirements and deaths. In February, South Boston Vice Mayor Ed Owens moved into the Mayor’s seat, succeeding the late Carroll Thackston. Owens was elected for a full four-year term in the November general election. With the retirement of Clerk of Court Bobby Conner, Cathy Cosby will serve as Interim Clerk until an election is held for the position. Retiring General Registrar Judy Meeler will be replaced by Heather Harding, who for several years worked as deputy registrar for Charlotte County. Retiring Recreation Director Brad Ballou will turn his duties over to Bill Shortt, who has worked with the program for many years. Halifax County will get a new library director next week as Jay Stephens takes over for Joe Zappacosta, who moved to the Danville Library. Also, the South Boston library has a new branch manager, Christopher Thompson.

South Boston Town Council has two new members, Margaret Coleman and Winston Harrell. Halifax Council also has a new member, Janice Powell, who fills the seat vacated by Tom Brown.

10. VIR GROWS — Virginia International Raceway grew as a major driver of tourism, business and sports in Halifax County. VIR landed one of 12 races nationwide on the new Tudor United Sports Car Series on Aug. 24. .

VIR will make its mark when the United Sports Car Series visits Southside Virginia. VIR is part of the same touring series that will be featured nationally at such legendary racing venues as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and Watkins Glen.

NASCAR is also returning for its second-ever sanctioned event at VIR on Aug. 16, as the developmental K&N Pro Series East drivers compete here. VIR also announced a series of upgrades to the facility, including a repaving of the 3.270-mile road course and paving the north paddock.

This year, VIR also lost its iconic Oak Tree, which fell on July 2. The Oak Tree Turn had served as a picturesque reminder of the unique feel to VIR. Plans continue to properly memorialize the Oak Tree, which had been a prominent feature in the south end of the road course.

AMONG THOSE LOST IN 2013: Two longtime members of the Sheriff’s Department died early in the year, Steve Cassada and Larry Fears, leaving behind a lifetime of service to residents of Halifax County. Later in the year the deaths of Judge Frank Slayton, Medical Examiner Dr. Phil Ward, former Halifax Mayor Dennis Osborne and sports coach and enthusiast Addison Marable left voids that will be hard to fill.

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