Rick Kohler speaks before the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority, offering to manage the dark skies program.

Neighboring property owner expresses concerns about late night stargazers

Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority last Thursday requested that its members and representatives from the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) investigate how to manage the requirements for the park to retain its renown dark skies designation and potentially even amend the program. 

The request was made after RLEP President Rick Kohler offered to have members of his organization manage the four yearly events required by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) to be held at the park, and oversee the permitting process that allows visitors on Friday and Saturday nights to come peer into the starry skies.

With little time left in the year to hold the required dark sky events, the body stopped short of granting the RLEP full authority to take over the program on Thursday after neighbors of the park expressed concern with Kohler’s proposal.

“I would like to figure out a way to make this program happen,” park board Chair Robert Yowell. “I agree with that. It’s not a decision I think we can make tonight, unfortunately. I get the timeline to try and have more events — I get it. But, I don’t think we’re ready to do that. I don’t think we’re ready to vote on these proposals that it needs to be passed [onto RLEP]. And things need to be reviewed.”

Although, the park board did agree to allow RLEP member Joyce Harman to submit to the IDA by Oct. 29 the park’s required yearly report, which is critical to retaining the designation.

Kohler in an interview said he left the meeting feeling that the park board was unsure of how it wanted the dark skies program to be managed moving forward. “If you don’t have any manpower and none of your current board members are familiar with [the dark skies program] … we would like to help to keep it going because we think it’s an important thing for the county,” he said.

The future of the park’s prestigious dark skies designation was tossed in limbo in recent months after former program manager Torney Van Acker agreed to resign from the park board in exchange for charges being dropped against him after trespassing into the yard of the Proper family, who are neighbors of the park, to cover with trash bags their fence-mounted lights in an effort to block their brightness while a sanctioned dark sky event was being held.

As a result, the park board is no longer able to leverage his experience, connections and resources to help meet the annual qualifications required to retain the dark skies title. Many members of the park board, most of whom are volunteers, lack the time and resources needed to prop up the program, Vice Chair Missy McCool previously said.

Residents concerned with the dark skies program on Thursday included John Proper, the father-in-law of Leslie Proper, who called authorities on Van Acker, resulting in his eventual removal from the park board. He’s wary that holding dark skies events late at night could pose liability threats for the county if somebody were to be injured.

Mrs. Proper was worried that with RLEP taking over the program, Van Acker, who serves on the organization’s board of directors, could influence the dark skies program that he was severed from after the trespassing charge was dropped.

The park board in recent months approved construction of a fence to delineate the park property line from neighboring residences, including the Propers, and to block car lights and noise generated by late-night star gazers. Since July, the park board, and by extension the county, has spent more than $4,000 on its construction, according to a report from Treasurer Debbie Knick.

Some in attendance were also concerned that most visitors who obtain a permit on weekends to gaze into the skies primarily come from out-of-county. Some wondered whether the program contributes anything meaningful to Rappahannock’s economy, especially considering the investment the park has made in the fence, which is deemed essential for dark skies programming to proceed by maintaining the privacy of concerned neighbors.

Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith, who serves as the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors’ liaison to the park board, suggested that the RLEP request help from Businesses of Rappahannock, or another local nonprofit, in paying for outstanding portions of the fence. 

She also floated the idea of approving a member of RLEP to serve the park board so that the dark skies program can be managed internally without involving an outside organization.

Mrs. Proper said she and her husband, Jeremy, are still not comfortable with strangers visiting the park nearby their property late at night. Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, also in attendance, suggested that the RLEP consult with the IDA to determine whether it’s possible to hold additional dark sky events and slash the late-night permitting process altogether while still retaining the dark skies designation.

Moving forward, the park board will either call an emergency meeting to determine the fate of the dark skies program, or the issue will be taken up at its regularly scheduled October meeting.


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