Page Valley’s Top 10 stories of 2021

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Chief Dean and Winum
Stanley Police Chief Ryan Dean presents Officer Nick Winum with an award during his five years with Stanley PD.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Dec. 31 — Top 10 lists always seem to draw a lot of attention. They are popular this time of year as readers enjoy reflecting on the past 12 months, and media outlets like having something prepared to carry them through the holidays.

The thing to remember about these lists — and news in general — is that it is subjective; what is an important story to one reader will be completely ignored by another. Everyone has their personal interests, and certainly their opinions. Page Valley News offers this perspective on 2021 as simply a retelling of the collective experiences the community shared in the past year. The particular order of their presentation does not strengthen or weaken their importance to the lives they touched.

It should be noted that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was excluded from this list because it has become a part of daily life, and not therefore a unique story in and of itself. While PVN will continue to track and report COVID data on a regular basis, it did not make this particular list. Other “Honorable Mentions” are listed at the end of the Top 10.

For those who greatly disagree with the inclusion, omission, or order of any issues or incidents that occurred in Page County in 2021, consider posting an original Top 10 list or suggested changes in our comment section.

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#1 Stanley officer killed in line of duty

“It was with heavy hearts this evening that we must inform our community of the line of duty death of one of our own: Officer Dominic “Nick” J. Winum.”

Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 ~ Facebook post by Stanley Police Chief Ryan Dean

This Facebook post made by Stanley Police Chief Ryan “Beaver” Dean would reverberate across the Page Valley, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and across the nation. Hundreds of sentiments of sympathy and willingness to help poured into the Town of Stanley. An almost constant line of EMS, law enforcement and citizens showed their respect as the hearse passed by carrying Winum’s body — first from the state medical examiner’s office in Manassas back to Page County where hundreds attended his funeral at Bulldog Field, and then on to his native New York for burial. Nearly a year after the shooting, Nick’s widow continues to receive condolences and gifts from various organizations and individuals from all across the U.S.

The report from the Virginia State Police stated the following:

Town of Stanley Police Officer D.J. “Nick” Winum observed a 2002 Honda Civic that matched the description of a Be On the Lookout issued for a suspicious person with a gun. At approximately 3:15 p.m., Officer Winum activated his marked patrol vehicle’s emergency equipment to initiate a traffic stop. The Honda Civic pulled over in the 600 block of Judy Lane.

Before the officer could exit his patrol vehicle, the driver, Dakota G. Richards, got out of his vehicle and began shooting at Officer Winum’s vehicle. Officer Winum succumbed to his injuries at the scene. Richards, 29, of Stanley, Va., fled into the nearby woods on foot. A handgun was recovered from Richards’ vehicle.

Law enforcement personnel responded to the scene and assisted with tracking Richards. He was later located hiding out in a barn in the 700 block of Marksville Road. There, Richards made a threatening movement and was shot by Page County Sheriff’s deputies. Richards succumbed to his injuries at the scene. A Smith & Wesson M&P-15 rifle was recovered in his possession.

#2 Shooting ends hostage situation

“Drop the gun De’Shon, drop the gun.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2021 ~ Police can be heard repeatedly shouting this prior to opening fire

Law enforcement officials pleaded again and again with 39-year-old De’Shon J. Hill of Luray before opening fire on him as he exited Page Convenience on West Main Street in Luray with what appeared to be a rifle pointed at police. A little over an hour earlier, he had entered the store with a long gun and barricaded himself inside with two hostages.

“For an extended period of time, law enforcement personnel worked to verbally engage the armed male subject via a loudspeaker,” reads a report from Virginia State Police. “The man refused to cooperate with law enforcement’s repeated commands to put down his weapon and safely exit the building. During the course of the attempted negotiations, he did come to the front of the store and open the door and then retreat[ed] back inside.”

About 1:15 p.m., the male suspect exited the front door, immediately raised his weapon and was shot by police. Law enforcement working the outer perimeter ordered a few dozen bystanders near the road blocks to “get down” and take cover. The shots lasted only a few seconds, as the suspect died at the scene.

Neither of the two hostages inside the store — reportedly a cashier and a delivery man — nor law enforcement on the scene were injured during the incident.

Reports by those who knew him indicate that Hill was suffering from mental health issues and had suffered a recent death in his family. His mother, Sharon Hill, passed away earlier in the month. Since the shooting, a program called Mental Health Mondays has begun offering help and resources to both youth and adults twice a month at the West Luray Rec Center.

#3 LHS wins 1st state title in girls basketball

“We know to win the state championship, it has to be a team effort.”

Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 ~ LHS head coach Joe Lucas 3 days before winning state title

A 33-year span that saw only two state titles added another banner on Feb. 20, 2021, as the Luray High School girls basketball team captured the 2A title over Gate City — the school’s first-ever state championship in girls basketball.

It was the second consecutive meeting between the two teams in the state championship, with the Blue Devils winning the first matchup in VCU’s Siegel Center the same day Governor Ralph Northam shut down the state over COVID-19 in March 2020. But this year, despite having to travel more than five hours to play Gate City on their home court, it would be the Bulldogs bringing home the title. However, much like the previous year, the game could have gone either way…

The 2A championship was tied 54-54 with 1:37 left. Senior Brynlee Burrill (now playing for Roanoke College) then scored four of her nine points on the night within a span of 15 seconds that turned the game in Luray’s favor. Two quick layups by Burrill off tunovers, including a steal by Burrill, put Luray up 59-54 in the final minute.

Luray claimed its first 2A state title in girls basketball with a 61-56 win over a tough and experienced Gate City team that had only lost two games that season. Luray completed a shortened, perfect season at 13-0 and posted a two-year mark of 42-2.

The Virginia High School Coaches Association named LHS junior Emilee Weakley Virginia’s 2A girls basketball “Player of the Year,” and LHS head coach Joe Lucas the Commonwealth’s 2A girls basketball “Coach of the Year.”

Weakley earlier earned honors as the Bull Run District Player of the Year and the Region 2B Player of Year after averaging nearly 30 points per game through her junior year. She scored more than 90 points in the Region 2B tournament and 54 points in the state tournament.

#4 Page County bringing broadband to everyone

“This is a moment, and I say shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this moment.”

Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 ~ Board chairman Morgan Phenix during a special meeting of supervisors in the parking lot behind the government center

In September, the Page County Board of Supervisors voted, 3-1, to proceed with a state grant application that will commit $7.8 million in to a project aimed at bringing broadband to every home. In December, Governor Ralph Northam announced a series of grants totaling more than $722 million to develop broadband in 70 localities and close 90 percent of the commonwealth’s digital divide.

Within those grants is more than $95 million in Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) funds awarded to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission and All Points Broadband to provide fiber broadband to 37,357 unserved locations and achieve universal coverage in Augusta, Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham and Warren counties.

Specifically in Page County, the project looks to reach between 3,000 to 4,000 unserved locations at a total cost of $29.8 million. The VATI grant will cover 39 percent of the project, or $11.7 million; All Points Broadband will kick in $10.3 million as the service provider (about 35 percent); with the remaining $7.8 million in local funds (26 percent of cost).

A majority of the county’s local share will be covered with $4 million in remaining American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, with the remaining $3.8 million cost of the broadband project being drawn from the county’s “reserve” in its general fund. The county’s share will be paid out over a 24-month period following approval of the VATI application in December and the signing of a more formal agreement with the regional commission about 90 days later in spring 2022. The project is targeting completion within two years, at which time, 90 to 95 percent (or more) of Page County will have access to high-speed internet.

“I’m just afraid if we don’t take advantage of the application, it won’t come around again,” County Administrator Amity Moler told supervisors before their September vote, noting the wave of state and federal money available to support broadband infrastructure. “This is one of the largest complaint areas that we get because people need service, and we really found that out over the last 18 months. You ask, what can you do to leave an impression [with the influx of federal funds for infrastructure]…this is it.”

#5 LFCC cuts ribbon on Jenkins Hall

“This is the best site for a community college in Virginia.”

Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 ~ Dr. Glenn DuBois, 20-year chancellor of Virginia’s community colleges

In September, state dignitaries and local officials gathered with Lord Fairfax Community College representatives and a crowd of nearly 200 to commemorate the grand opening of Jenkins Hall.

The $4.7 million project marks the first permanent structure that the regional community college has built in Page County. Classes began in January after LFCC’s Luray-Page County Center moved from its North Hawksbill Street home in December 2020.

The 8-acre site donated by the Jenkins family sits between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountains, just behind Walmart off Route 211 in Luray. The 13,000-square-foot building contains five classrooms, a computer lab, a student commons area, a small conference room, a testing center and employee space, as well as a rooftop terrace. Three of the classrooms — Caverns A, B and C — can be combined to form one large conference room. The campaign committee for the project began in October 2017 and had raised $3.5 million as of September. 

Russell A. and Rodney A. Jenkins and their family were honored at a special event in May 2019 for donating the acreage at their development, Luray Landing, for the building that now bears their family’s name.

Jenkins Hall will be the site of several new programs being offered by LFCC, including a heavy equipment operator license, HVAC certification and this fall, a physical therapy assistant program. Scholarships were made available for the PTA program through the generosity of Patricia Dougans of Page County.

#6 New leadership in education

“I don’t take for granted the work you’ve entrusted me to do moving forward.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2021 ~ Dr. Antonia Fox, superintendent of Page County Public Schools

During a special meeting on May 26, the Page County School Board announced that the next superintendent of Page County Public Schools would be Dr. Antonia Fox, previously the assistant superintendent of Poquoson City Public Schools.

The three-year contract of former superintendent, Dr. Wendy Gonzalez, expired on June 30. On Jan. 13, Dr. Gonzalez notified the school board that she would not be seeking a renewal of that contract. Dr. Fox entered a similar three-year agreement that began July 1 and extends through June 30, 2024.

After starting off in the classroom teaching biology and chemistry at York High School for a decade, Dr. Fox served as a principal at the middle and high school levels, including recognition as the Virginia High School Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals in 2012. The next year, Dr. Fox received the School Administrator Professional Learning Award from the national organization Learning Forward. The Virginia Student Council Association recognized her as High School Administrator of the Year in 2010.

Prior to becoming assistant superintendent for instruction and support services at Poquoson in July 2016, Dr. Fox served as the director of curriculum and instruction for Portsmouth City Schools.

“I’m a little bit nervous, but I’m excited.”

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 ~ Megan Gordon on Election Night after winning chairman of the Page County School Board

After an unsuccessful write-in campaign in November 2020, Megan Gordon took a 3-to-1 margin of victory at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 2 over Jason Scott Breeden, the incumbent chair of the Page County School Board.

Gordon captured 74 percent of the ballots with 6,157 votes — compared to Breeden’s 2,082 votes (25 percent). There were 77 write-in votes cast in the race for school board chair.

Gordon serves as program director of Page Alliance for Community Action (PACA) and has worked with the school system for several years through PACA programs. She also previously worked in the division’s central office as deputy clerk for the school board for several years. Gordon believes these experiences, along with being a parent of three students educated in local schools, allows her to bring “a lot of different perspectives” to the school board.

Breeden was appointed chairman by the school board in the summer of 2020 to replace James “Jim” Grimley through Dec. 31, 2020. The November 2020 special election carried that appointment through the remainder of Grimley’s term, which expires Dec. 31, 2021.

Gordon’s current four-year term begins in January and extends through Dec. 31, 2025.

#7 Tourism marketing shift, new TOT committee

“There’s plenty of room to work this out, because it is a change…and there’s varying degrees of who said what when.”

July 20, 2021 ~ Dr. Morgan Phenix, chairman of the Page County Board of Supervisors

In one single vote cast one month after the formation of a new tourism council, all tourism marketing efforts for the county as a whole (including the three towns) was shifted from the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce to Page County’s office of Economic Development and Tourism lead by Director Nina Long Fox.

The action by the Page County Board of Supervisors seemed to come as a surprise to Chamber leaders as their request of Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds was cut by $175,000. A group of cabin owners, who say they contribute the most TOT revenues, were appointed to take control of the committee that makes recommendations to supervisors on the allocation of those funds.

Fox was hired by the county on March 8, originally as Business Retention and Development Director, before officially becoming the Director of Economic Development and Tourism effective April 5, according to a previous interview with County Administrator Amity Moler. Fox was promoted after the late March resignation of the former coordinator of the department, Liz Lewis.

Chamber president Gina Hilliard assured Chamber members that this “will not affect anything we do on the Chamber side,” adding that the cuts basically shut down the organization’s tourism council and marketing. The funding changes affect the Chamber’s current budget, which began July 1.

This year’s projected TOT revenues are $1.5 million — the most ever in Page County. Those tax revenues represent an estimated $30 million being spent on short-term rentals in the county over the next year, mostly in cabins.

#8 Outlanders’ approval for sale, $30M expansion

“With an investment expected to be more than $30 million, we aim to build upon Page County’s beauty and excitement with our development plans at the Outlanders River Camp.”

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 ~ Letter from Blue Water Development Corporation, based in Ocean City, Md., to Page County officials

In November after nearly three hours of discussion during a joint meeting with the planning commission, the Page County Board of Supervisors passed two motions paving the way for the sale and $30 million expansion of Outlanders River Camp along Route 211 just west of Luray.

Blue Water Development Corporation, based in Ocean City, Md., plans an expansion that will offer an additional 59 “safari/glamping” sites, 80 cabins and 153 RV sites, according to a report by Page County Zoning Administrator Tracy Clatterbuck. However, an additional presentation by Tyler Austin of Racey Engineering stated that the applicant was requesting 370 total sites under a revised concept plan, rather than the original figure of about 350. 

The existing campground offers 40 RV sites, three cabins, 28 campsites and 18 primitive campsites approved under a special use permit issued in 2008. While the county’s campground ordinance was rewritten in 2013, the Outlanders site was still governed under the original ordinance and permit until the new permit was approved in November.

Supervisors and members of the planning commission spent about two hours going through each of 12 requirements outlined in the special use permit. The biggest issue — the buffer — remained at the minimum requirement of 50 feet, rather than the 100 feet requested by neighboring landowners. A key element of that buffer will be two layers of fencing with an eight-foot berm covered in trees and vegetation in the middle.

The planned campground expansion would add a total of 81 acres to the current 100-acre retreat featuring nearly a mile of frontage along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

The county’s economic development office projects that the project will bring in more than $520,000 in Transiency Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds annually, along with more than $180,000 in real estate taxes. It’s also projected to create between 40-45 full-time jobs.

To date, Blue Water owns six campgrounds, 12 hotels and three attractions, with properties in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire. According to its website, Blue Water has been “creating elite assets and exceeding guest expectations” since 2007.

#9 Gordon and 8-U All-stars light up World Series

“It’s been a little frustrating. I just told myself nothing else matters except that at bat.”

Thursday, June 3, 2021 ~ Kate Gordon to ESPN analysts after hitting a game-winning home run against #1 Oklahoma at the 2021 College Softball World Series following a 2-for-24 slump

In the Dukes’ first appearance in the NCAA World Series, former Page County High School standout Kate Gordon hit a go-ahead, solo home run in the top of the eighth inning to give James Madison University a 4-3 lead over #1 Oklahoma. The fifth-year senior then caught the final out in left field to clinch the series-opening victory that shocked the world of college softball.

Oklahoma (50-3) entered the game as the heavy favorite — in the game and the World Series. The Sooners’ potent offense was averaging 11 runs per game and has been dubbed the “best-ever” in college softball. However, JMU hurler Odicci Alexander fanned nine Sooners on the day — more than any opponent the No.1 team had faced all season. Oklahoma had only suffered a dozen strikeouts in the entire postseason before Thursday.

Prior to the game-winning round tripper, Gordon had gone 2-for-24 and had not gotten a hit in her last 14 at-bats. Then the Page County native hit her second home run in two days of the Women’s College World Series (WCWS), as the Dukes remained undefeated with a 2-1 win over #5 Oklahoma State. With the win, JMU became the first unseeded team to ever enter the WCWS and start off 2-0.

Unfortunately, the Dukes would then lose two in a row, including one to #1 Oklahoma (the eventual winner), and exit the World Series — but not before making the JMU stars national names.

“The girls might not have walked away #1 here BUT they will always walk away #1 to me!!”

Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021 ~ Parent Josh Turner after the final loss by the Shenandoah 8-U All-Stars at the 2021 Babe Ruth World Series in Treasure Coast, Fla.

In August, the Shenandoah 8U All-Stars made history as the first team in that age division of softball to represent the Shenandoah Recreation League at the World Series. They reached the Series after outscoring their opponents 37-2 in the state tournament they hosted in July.

After a 5-0 start at the 2021 Babe Ruth World Series, the Shenandoah 8U All-Stars were forced to play two games in just over two hours early on their final day in Treasure Coast, Fla. Wet weather and cancellations forced a tight schedule to end the World Series.

Players on the Shenandoah 8-U All-Stars got to meet former ballplayers, trade pins with other teams, see the sights and get treated like big-time players for nearly a week. In the tournament, they earned third place at the World Series, but many said their experiences will last a lifetime.

Trinity Craun and Berkeley Comer were named to the All-Defensive team for the 8-U World Series, while Jayden Blosser, Avery Hilliard and Kinsley Housden were named to the All-World Series team.

#10 Cockfighting sentence toughest in nation

I hope this strong sentence will send a message to anyone who plans to participate in cockfighting that it will not be tolerated in Virginia.”

Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021 ~ Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring

After the exposure of cockfighting operations in Page County more than a decade ago, Virginia imposed new animal fighting laws that drew attention nationwide. Now, once again, Page County is at the center of the cockfighting discussion as a Stanley man received the largest sentence for cockfighting in the history of both the commonwealth and the nation.

Dale Comer Jr., 42, of Stanley, received a five-year jail sentence from Judge Clark Ritchie in Page County Circuit Court on Dec. 8. He was convicted of 26 counts of felony animal fighting, 20 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty, and one count of felony drug possession. Additionally, Comer has 86 years of suspended time hanging over his head after he serves his five-year sentence, has a lifetime ban on owning animals of any kind, and was ordered to pay $29,714.51 in fees.

The Page County Sheriff’s Office confiscated 335 birds at Comer’s home in 2019, not far from Stanley Elementary School. Many of the birds had been “altered or dubbed” for fighting, according to the AG’s press release. Additionally, two of the animal fighting charges involved Comer allowing his children to be involved in animal fighting — even giving them birds of their own, teaching them how to train the birds, and taking them to cockfights in West Virginia and Kentucky.

According to evidence presented in court, Comer participated in cockfighting at his home on Aylor Grubbs Avenue. The Sheriff’s Office made three separate visits to Comer’s home, according to the press release, and each time they found that Comer had set up a cockfighting yard and found hens, roosters, and cockfighting paraphernalia including gaffes. On their final visit to Comer’s property, authorities also found a plastic bag with methamphetamine residue.

In 2015, Attorney General Herring created the nation’s first OAG Animal Law Unit to serve as a training and prosecution resource for state agencies, investigators, and Commonwealth’s Attorneys around the state dealing with matters involving animal fighting, cruelty, and welfare. Illegal animal fighting is closely tied to illegal gambling, drug and alcohol crimes, and violence against animals has been shown to be linked to violence towards other people. To date the unit has handled thousands of matters, including trainings, prosecutions, and consultations.

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HONORABLE MENTION

ONGOING PANDEMIC — The data related to COVID-19 makes the news nearly every day in one form or another, from forecasting the next surge to encouraging the public to get vaccinated. It has almost become a part of daily life in many ways, and therefore is drawing less attention — good for those trying to get back to normal, bad for health officials trying to control it. Currently, Page County has some of the highest positivity rates and lowest vaccination rates in Virginia.

SOLAR ISSUE GOES ROUND AND ROUND — While requests by Urban Grid to develop solar farms in Page County have been the focus of many citizens for more than two years, the issue never seems to get resolved. There were a few “plot points” in the ongoing saga this year, from the acceptance of a second application for Cape Solar while a moratorium was in place, to the removal of that moratorium, to the enactment of a second moratorium. The county still has no solar ordinance in place after denying the two-year efforts of the planning commission and an outside consultant.

LFCC TO BECOME LAUREL RIDGE — On June 3, Virginia’s State Board for Community Colleges approved the name Laurel Ridge Community College for LFCC, ending a process that began in 2020. While the name change was controversial among some, the much bigger news came when LFCC committed to a brick-and-mortar presence in Page County, thus confirming its long-term commitment to the local community.

BRIDGE NAMED FOR VIETNAM VET — More than 100 people gathered on Thursday, Aug. 5 near the bridge that crosses over Route 211 at Luray’s western edge (Mechanic Street) to rededicate and rename the structure in an effort to memorialize a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country. On July 9, 1966, Emmett Arthur Dougans was killed in action by small arms fire while engaging hostile forces in South Vietnam. He would be the first of five Page County natives killed during the Vietnam War.

In LURAY…Stephanie Lillard was appointed to the Luray Council in January and ran unopposed in November to keep her seat another year; Jackie Elliott was named the new program director for the Luray Downtown Initiative in February; the Town sold the former Brown’s Restuarant and Old Bridge Theater for $50,000 to IBR Corporation in February; a dozen or more ribbon cuttings were held for new businesses; and 36-year treasurer Mary Broyles retired in December.

In STANLEY…the Town purchased the Quarles building behind town hall for use as a new police station; the Stanley Homecoming returned after a two-year hiatus along with the unveiling of the Pioneer Bank Performance Center at Ed Good Park; and Horizon Goodwill opened its doors in June.

In SHENANDOAH…Shenandoah’s ADA nature trail at Big Gem was selected as one-of-four Trail Access Grants in Virginia; the Town recognized youth in the area with “T.R. Williams Day” on Aug. 16 and “Kate Gordon Day” on Sept. 20 to mark their accomplishments in sports — Williams a Virginia Tech signee to play D-I baseball and Gordon a fifth-year senior at JMU who stood out at the College World Series in June; new playground equipment was installed at Wigwam Village; and two ribbon cuttings were held for new businesses on First Street.

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RELATED ARTICLES

‘We lost our brother’

Police fire on suspect as he exits store, no other injuries, two hostages safe

Luray wins third state title since 1988 with thriller over Gate City

Governor’s $722 million to develop universal broadband includes Page County’s plans

LFCC cuts ribbon on Jenkins Hall

Poquoson administrator named new superintendent of Page County Schools

Gordon wins school board chair, GOP ticket dominates Page County ballots

New tourism council cuts Chamber funding, limits tourism operations to Visitors Center

Supervisors approve rezoning, permit for Outlanders’ sale and $30M expansion

Gordon hits winning HR in 8th to beat #1 Oklahoma in World Series opener

Shenandoah 8U All-Stars place 3rd at 2021 Babe Ruth World Series

Stanley man sentenced to 5 years for animal cruelty and teaching children to cockfight

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