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BY PORTSIA SMITH
The possibility of an evangelical Christian boarding school for troubled teens coming to Caroline County has the community torn.
The school was the hot topic at Sheriff Tony Lippa's constituent meeting at the Sparta Volunteer Fire Department Thursday night, which drew about 30 people.
The meeting came two nights after a 4-2 vote by the Caroline Board of Supervisors to deny a special-use permit for the school, which wants to use the former Remuda Ranch location off Passing Road near Sparta.
Mattaponi District Supervisor Floyd Thomas said at Thursday's meeting that if residents' concerns are eased, the board could revisit the decision.
That was a different tune from Tuesday's meeting.
"I think it's an outstanding program, and I like the concept," Thomas said before moving to deny the request. "I just think it's in the wrong location."
Based on comments from a few senior citizens and a petition signed by neighbors of the 346-acre Remuda property who were worried about their safety, the majority of supervisors voted to deny the permit.
"I cannot guarantee these people that they will not be in danger," said Port Royal District Supervisor Calvin Taylor.
Supervisor Jeff Sili, whose Bowling Green District includes the property, and Western Caroline District Supervisor Jeff Black supported the permit.
On Wednesday, Caroline residents commenting on a number of Facebook discussions expressed disbelief that supervisors had turned down a proposal that would have brought about 40 jobs to the county. Some criticized the sheriff because they believed his comments at Tuesday's hearing might have influenced the vote.
But Lippa told the crowd Thursday that he had never been against the school. He said he wanted to have more information about the security measures the school planned to have in place.
Marcus Hamaker, director of operations for Abundant Life Academy, said that residents shouldn't be worried because teens who would enroll aren't dangerous.
"The kids that come in are suffering from emotional hurt, were adopted, broken kids, started hanging out with other kids and went sideways," he said. "Not kids on crack or heroin."
He said they have been in talks with vendors for security cameras and other equipment for the property, which he said is a "perfect facility" for their school.
The school, described as a 12- to 18-month therapeutic program for teens who have began to rebel, is currently based in St. George's, Utah. It is also an accredited high school, which would enroll about 90 students.
To be accepted, teens can't have a violent history, can't have attempted suicide or have been in a psychiatric ward and can't have been incarcerated.
Abundant Life representatives also attended the sheriff's meeting and will continue to try to win approval.
The Remuda Ranch property, assessed by the county at $7.2 million, has been vacant since the eating disorder treatment facility closed in March 2011. It had employed 73 people.
Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419