Tensions with property owners come to a head. Could the park’s dark skies accreditation be at stake
The Propers finally had enough.
The family, whose property backs up to Rappahannock County Park, have endured for years what they described as mistreatment at the hands of the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority (RCRFA), the body that oversees the park.
To start, their home address was mistakenly placed on promotional park material in print and online, creating unwanted attention for them, Leslie Proper said. Her husband, Jeremy Proper, was met with what they described as rude responses when he called in May 2019 to request that park board members amend the error. Their address was removed from the website after multiple discussions over several weeks with the park board.
At the park, a renown designated dark sky site, visitors stayed after sundown without a permit to bask under the starry skies, sometimes disrupting the Propers. Mrs. Proper said she pleaded for change at park board meetings and sent letters to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, but no action was immediately taken.
While the bodies at-large didn’t at first act on her pleas, Supervisors Keir Whitson, of Hampton District, and Christine Smith, of Piedmont District, as well as RCRFA Vice Chair Missy McCool and President Robert Yowell were all individually supportive, Mrs. Proper said.
The Proper family also alleged they were trolled on social media by a former member of the park board who posted since-deleted memes on the body’s Facebook profile in seeming opposition to a fence that is being built to separate the park from residents’ yards.
The conflict came to a head when Torney Van Acker, a former member of the park board who spearheaded the dark skies initiative, trespassed on the Proper’s property to clear invasive plant species.
Then, one night this past May when the park authority held a sanctioned dark sky event, Van Acker crossed into the Proper’s yard to cover with trash bags their fence-mounted solar lights, which pointed toward the ground, in an effort to block their brightness, according to a police report.
The Propers resorted that night to calling the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, resulting in Van Acker later being charged with trespassing.
“When it boiled down to the night we called the sheriff’s department … we felt like, I don’t know what else to do,” Proper said. “I have asked him, and asked him, and asked him … I’ve tried to follow the proper chain of command here. It was very upsetting and it was definitely an invasion of privacy.”
“The point that people are missing is he knowingly, willfully crossed the property line in the dark and tampered with our personal property. Yeah, it was little solar lights, [but] it could have been my vehicle. It could have been my children,” she said.
Van Acker declined to comment for this report.
Following his arrest, the Propers ultimately agreed to drop the charges after Van Acker wrote a formal apology and admission of guilt, paid the couple $1,000, resigned from the park board and was restricted from the park for 30 days, according to documents obtained by Rappahannock News.
In an attempt to remedy the situation for the Propers and other residents in the area, the park board approved construction of a fence to delineate the line between residential properties and the park, and to block car lights and noise generated by late-night star gazers. It’s not clear when the fence will be completed, McCool said.
The future of the park’s prestigious dark skies designation is unclear with Van Acker removed from the board because he’s no longer able to leverage his experience and connections to help meet the annual qualifications required to retain the title, including hosting events. Many members of the park board, most of whom are volunteers, simply lack the time and resources needed to prop up the program, McCool said.
All of the dark skies amenities, including permits for people to come on weekends to study the night sky with telescopes, have halted since Van Akre’s resignation, said Whitson, who represents the area.
“I fully support retaining the designation, and we should do everything possible to retain it … with the fence, again, it should really work because now hopefully the neighbors won't have headlights shining in their house. They won’t have random people showing up on their front porch. They hopefully won’t even see anybody in the park,” Whitson said.
The fate of the title rests on a volunteer stepping up to bear the responsibilities of managing the requirements, he said.
The park board has informally discussed passing the authority of retaining the designation over to the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP), where Van Acker serves on the board of directors as the dark skies committee facilitator.
“I’m not convinced [the designation is] in danger,” RLEP President Rick Kohler said. A potential partnership between the entities may be discussed at the park board’s planned meeting today (Sept. 9) since no formal proposal has been made, McCool said.
McCool said she's in favor of fighting to uphold the park’s dark skies title so long as its neighbors are satisfied. “I’m not OK with causing somebody to not enjoy their own property or their own home,” she said.
“It’s an honor that we have [the designation] in our little park, but the problem is, if it makes us really crappy neighbors to our really good neighbors, then maybe we shouldn’t have it.”