2019 in review: Franklin and Southampton County

Published 6:07 pm Friday, January 3, 2020

[Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts]

FRANKLIN

While the Western Tidewater region saw no change to its General Assembly representation, Democrats took control of the state legislature for the first time in more than 20 years. In late November, owing to the anticipated passage of new gun laws when the new Democratic-majority General Assembly convenes in 2020, Southampton County passed a unanimous resolution declaring itself a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” The term refers to localities that pledge not to enforce laws and/or pledge not to use local tax dollars to enforce laws that curtail the right of citizens to bear arms as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. In December, Franklin passed a similar resolution in support of gun rights, which proclaimed the locality a “Constitutional City.”

Later that month, Sheriff-elect Wyche also went on record as pledging that his office would not enforce any gun laws “deemed unconstitutional.” Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Lt. Camden Cobb clarified this statement to mean that the Sheriff’s Office will not enforce laws that Wyche, in his professional judgment as sheriff, believes to be unconstitutional.

Additional news to occur in 2019 included:

Enviva gets new air permit for planned expansion. In November, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued Enviva Pellets Southampton LLC a new air permit, which will allow the company to modify and expand its wood pellet manufacturing facility. Citing letters between Enviva officials and the DEQ, The Tidewater News had reported earlier this year that the company’s December 2018 expansion announcement may have been made with the intention of delaying a DEQ investigation into allegations that the Southampton plant had, for years, been producing emissions in excess of its then-current DEQ air permit, and possibly also in excess of a threshold set fourth in the federal Clean Air Act to differentiate between major and minor sources of pollution. The paper’s investigation of this matter revealed that in July 2018, during a meeting with DEQ Director David Paylor and other agency officials, Enviva representatives had claimed to have expansion plans for the facility that predated the DEQ’s June 12, 2018 request for hazardous air pollutant (HAP) and volatile organic compound (VOC) testing, and would include pollution controls to significantly reduce total HAP and VOC emissions. The company subsequently negotiated an agreement with the agency to be allowed to delay the testing until the planned expansion was completed.

Bon Secours buys Southampton Memorial Hospital. Bon Secours Mercy Health announced in a press released in late October that it signed an agreement with affiliates of Community Health Systems Inc. to gain ownership of Southampton Memorial Hospital, Southside Regional Medical Center and Southern Virginia Regional Medical Center.

S.P. Morton’s accreditation status downgraded. At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, the Virginia Department of Education downgraded S.P. Morton Elementary School’s status from “accredited” to “accredited with conditions” for the 2019-2020 school year. Under Virginia’s new accreditation standards, which the VDOE implemented in 2018, public schools are now classified as either “accredited” or “accredited with conditions” based on three indicators: Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, achievement gaps and chronic absenteeism.

Dorian begins crawl up the coast. Hurricane Dorian, which was once a category 5 storm, made its way up the east coast in early September after battering the islands of the Bahamas, but fortunately for Franklin and Southampton County residents, steered clear of the Western Tidewater area.

Housing Authority board removes director. Philip Page Jr., who had served since 2011 as executive director of the Franklin Redevelopment and Housing Authority, was let go from his position in late August. Franklin Councilman Linwood Johnson, who serves as one of two City Council liaisons to the board, confirmed that the FRHA had been having financial issues, to include having the power and phone service turned off at the FRHA offices more than once this year for non-payment of utility bills. The FRHA’s accountant, Victor Mitchell, then confirmed during an FRHA board meeting that the authority owed more than $111,000 in unpaid bills for August and September. In September, the paper also learned that the FRHA may owe over $300,000 in back taxes to the City of Franklin.