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No. 1 in local news: The courthouse / January 01, 2018
The year’s most important local news is crowned by the reigning champ: the Courthouse Renovation Project, which leads the list of the News & Record’s Top 10 stories for a second consecutive year in 2017.

Progress towards — and wrangling over — the restoration of the historic but fading courthouse dominated the past year’s headlines, but 2017 was more than simply a case of the same old-same old. The year also thrust Halifax County into the forefront of solar energy development in Virginia, and brought some fresh faces with the appointment of a new school superintendent and the election of several first-time local officeholders.

Here ‘s our top-to-bottom list of 2017’s biggest news stories:

1. Reconstruction of the courthouse. Holding on to the No. 1 spot after earning honors as the N&R’s top story of 2016, the courthouse project prompted action and reaction throughout 2017. Under the heading of “action,” there was the work to construct temporary quarters for the county court system in the old industrial arts building at the Mary Bethune Office Complex. The end of the year brought another major marker: the return of bids to complete the expansion and renovation of the original early 19th century courthouse and its 1960s addition. The low bid: $14,824,000, by Blair Construction of Gretna. The only other bid of $15,941,395 was submitted by J. E. Burton Construction of South Boston. Supervisors are expected to take up the bids at their Jan. 8 meeting.

In the “reaction” category, the project continued to draw heated criticism from Town of Halifax officials who complained about the impact on the downtown district; from historical preservationists who decried the closely-held design process; and from taxpayers upset with the project’s cost.

In 2016, Supervisors borrowed $16.6 million from the Virginia Resource Authority to carry out the courthouse project, which was estimated to cost around $17 million. Late in 2017, county officials learned that the first stage — the renovation of the Bethune Annex temporary court building — would cost more than $2.4 million, rather than the $1.8 million prior estimate.

Landing somewhere in between “action” and “reaction” was no action at all — which describes the Board of Supervisors’ current position on the future of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s building. Prodded by Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin to address the deplorable state of the century-old building, the supervisors are studying four options — renovations or construction of a new facility, ranging in cost from $631,000 to $1,517,600.

(2) Solar power pours in. Up to nine industrial-scale solar farms have been proposed for Halifax County, with plans in various stages of development. According to Halifax County Planner Detrick Easley, Halifax now has more applications for solar farms than any other county in Virginia.

In the fall, county supervisors passed an ordinance to guide the development of solar farms — with provisions to determine setback distances from adjoining property owners, vegetative buffers, decommissioning the sites after their effective lifespans, and how densely solar farms can be concentrated within a five-mile radius. At year’s end, board members were having second thoughts about the density requirements, which are set to come back up for a public rehearing.

Supervisors in December delayed granting approval for solar farms until all issues surrounding their operation are resolved. Applications are pending for solar installations in the Alton, Cluster Springs, Crystal Hill, Scottsburg and Nathalie areas.

3. Halifax County looks to get into the broadband business. Supervisors in October approved a plan to bring high speed internet service to remote areas of the county, with the Nathalie and Vernon Hill communities set to become the first to gain access in mid-2018. The board unanimously approved a contract with SCS Broadband to erect two telecom towers at a cost of around $70,000, which will be paid from existing funds in the County’s Capital Improvement Project budget. The contract with SCS projects a potential customer base of 1,268 residences and 95 businesses located in the Vernon Hill, Meadville and Nathalie communities during the first phase of the project.

Under Phase II, an estimated customer base of 512 homes and 77 businesses will have access to the system in the Saxe, Randolph and Clover areas by the third quarter of 2018. Phase III would follow, bringing internet access to the communities of Cluster Springs and Alton which has a potential customer base of 1,005 homes and 73 businesses.

4. Halifax gets a new school superintendent. In May, the Halifax County School Board announced a four-year contract with Mark Lineburg to fill the position of school superintendent following the retirement of Merle Herndon. Lineburg was chosen from among 31 applicants for the position.

A career educator with stints as a teacher, football coach, high school principal and administrator, Lineburg vowed to improve student learning, develop a plan to modernize Halifax County High School and raise morale and build esteem for the county school division. Prior to accepting the Halifax position, the Martinsville native served as superintendent of Bristol and Winchester schools.

5. School accreditation struggles. Also on the new superintendent’s priority list is improving the performance of HCPS on state accreditation measures. Halifax County had only four of its nine public schools fully accredited as of September: three elementary schools, South Boston, Cluster Springs and Sydnor Jennings, and Halifax County High School. A subsequent review by the state Department of Education found that Halifax County Middle School also met the requirements for full accreditation in the 2016-2017 school year.

As for the county’s other schools, Scottsburg Elementary is partially accredited and making progress towards full accreditation, while Clays Mill and Meadville Elementary, both partially accredited, received a “warned” rating. Sinai Elementary has been denied accreditation. Overall, the results marked a regression from the previous year, when six of nine county schools were accredited.

6. November races bring new faces. The fall general election produced two new Halifax County supervisors — write-in winner Stanley Brandon in ED-6, and unopposed first time candidate Jeff Francisco in ED-2 — while incumbent supervisor Hubert Pannell won without opposition in ED-3.

Three new trustees were elected to serve on the Halifax County School Board, only one of whom faced competition for the seat.

Sandra Garner-Coleman won in ED-3, getting 885 votes to 344 for Clinton Boone in the race to succeed Kim Farson. In ED-2, Roy Keith Lloyd ran unopposed for the seat vacated by Karen Hopkins, while Todd Moser won without opposition in ED-6, succeeding trustee Fay Satterfield. Interim trustee Monty Lowery also was elected to fill out of the term of ED-7 trustee Dick Stoneman who resigned early in 2017 due to ill health.

The November general election also saw heated competition for Virginia’s top three statewide offices — Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General — with the Democratic slate of Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring sweeping to convincing victories. Halifax County voted the other way, delivering wins across the board for the Republican ticket. Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee, carried the county with just over 60 percent of the vote. Also winning easily was House of Delegates representative James Edmunds.

7. Yawning school facilities needs. With the condition of Halifax County High School decried as “an embarrassment” by supervisor Hubert Pannell, the Board of Supervisors and School Board say they will decide whether the current facility can be adequately renovated or if a new facility should be built.

Estimates on the cost of building a new high school and adjacent football stadium range from $60-75 million, while renovation of the current building is estimated to cost around $30 million. A facilities committee is studying various options, not only looking at the cost but also the effective life of renovations versus new construction. Supervisors and school trustees are set to meet in late January to consider their options.

8. The future of Clarkton Bridge. Officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) are recommending that the historic Clarkton bridge that connects Halifax and Charlotte counties near Nathalie must be demolished. VDOT officials noted that the old iron trestle, built in 1902, poses immediate safety concerns— including to paddlers who may cross under the bridge on the Staunton River. One VDOT official said in June “the bridge has it own timeline (to fall down) and we don’t know that that is.”

Local stakeholders have entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with VDOT that calls for exploring options for saving the bridge or preserving the bridge. However, the many millions it would cost to save Clarkton Bridge has deterred local governments from getting involved. In the meantime, Halifax civil engineer Jack Dunavant has asked VDOT to gift the bridge to his non-profit 501 C group “We the People,” pledging to take over the ownership of the bridge and work toward saving the historic old structure. Dunavant has sought the support of the governing bodies of both Halifax and Charlotte counties while he awaits word from VDOT about what they will do to help with the bridge’s preservation.

9. Riverdale glooding returns. At the end of April the Riverdale community suffered a four-day flood — the worst reported since 2003. The floodwaters destroyed tens of thousands of dollars in inventory and left business owners weary and frustrated with National Weather service advisories that underestimated the Dan River’s quick rise. Motorists had to be detoured around the intersection of US 501/58 while business owners struggled to get water and mud out of their buildings,

(10) YMCA merges with the YMCA of South Hampton Roads. The merger, completed in late December, paves the way for the local facility’s future growth after it flirted with bankruptcy a few years earlier. The affiliation with South Hampton has been instrumental in completing improvements to the local Y — including an upgrade wellness and fitness center, and renovations to the swimming pool — and will allow the South Boston Y to grow programs such as the “learn to swim” program, where all pre-K and ninth-grade students get two weeks of free swim lessons, as well as youth sports and healthy living offerings. The board will continue to focus on financial responsibility, ensuring resources stay in the community and that the Y remains a place for everyone to be a part of, at every age and stage of life.

2017 saw the loss of several community leaders whose deaths have left a void in the community. Among those who passed were the county’s first pediatrician Dr. Harold Crowder; WWII veteran Pete Myers, who survived the invasion of Normandy Beach; local businessman Bo Thomasson; longtime Turbeville Fire Chief Ricky Hicks, local historian James Sheppard and Virgilina society correspondent Hannah Hite.

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