Pittsylvania County made national and local news this year with the story of Sharswood, a former tobacco plantation about 10 miles from Gretna. A descendant of one of the plantation’s former slaves purchased the property in 2020, and this year, invited the community to celebrate Juneteenth on its grounds and tour the buildings, to include former slave quarters.
A Tunstall High School graduate turned professional baseball player was named to the National League All-Star team to the delight of local residents and county officials.
Locally, turmoil on the Board of Supervisors made the headlines here this year, which began in early January with the firing of former county administrator David Smitherman. Relations among board members polarized to the point where a judge was needed to replace a member of the Board who had resigned. As the Board moves into the new year, it still does not have a replacement for Smitherman, and is currently relying on its county attorney to conduct those duties. The problems on the Board have led it to be nicknamed a clown show,” with Westover Supervisor Ron Scearce once wearing a clown shirt to a meeting to emphasis the point. Other top stories this year included the passage of the 1% sales tax referendum for school infrastructure, economic development announcements, renovations at the Gretna Library, the conviction and sentencing of the Fair shooter and the invalidation of the county’s property reassessment.
Although Smitherman was fired just four days into 2022, his name continued to figure prominently in Board of Supervisors’ meetings and beyond. Shortly after being terminated, Smitherman received a severance package of more than $200,000, including nine months of pay and unused vacation time. His name again made headlines in August due to an altercation at Smith Mountain Lake. Smitherman allegedly confronted Chris Baker, the manager of the boat rental store, “The Dock,” for splashing Smitherman in a “No Wake Zone.” Baker alleged that Smitherman, “swiped his middle finger across my face,” during the confrontation, and Baker responded by allegedly shoving Smitherman in the lake. Both men have filed assault and battery charges against each other, and the cases are still pending.
County administrator search
The search for Smitherman’s replacement has proceeded with fits and starts. The majority voting block that got rid of Smitherman also brought back a former administrator, Clarence Monday, to fill the job on an interim basis. Monday left in August a bit earlier than expected, and the job was added to the duties of county attorney Vaden Hunt.
Initially, the Board announced that it would look nationally for a permanent replacement, but then switched to a local search and sought applicants from the immediate region. However, a few days before the three finalists were to be discussed in a closed session, the name of one of the candidates was allegedly leaked on Facebook, and the process fell apart. The Board then opted again for a national search, hiring consulting firm, the Berkley Group, to find candidates. In mid-October, the Board began interviewing finalists from the 23-candidate pool, though the county did not release any information about the number of finalists or where they’re from.
Banister District Supervisor Jessie Barksdale resigned in September, citing personal reasons, leaving the Board split into two camps — Supervisors Vic Ingram, Darrell Dalton and Tim Chesher on one side, with Ron Scearce, Tim Dudley and Bob Warren on the other. Due to that ongoing division, it was thought that Barksdale’s replacement could become the swing vote needed for a majority decision.
The county took applications for Banister residents to fill the seat in the interim until the November 2023 election. However, three supervisors — Scearce, Dudley and Warren — boycotted the first closed session to discuss potential candidates. At the second meeting — this one public — the Board could not agree on an agenda, with Ingram’s bloc supporting the inclusion of public comments and Scearce’s side arguing against having residents speak. Since each side had three supervisors, all votes were tied and failed. The Board met again on Oct. 25, and heard from six candidates, but elected not to appoint a replacement. Instead, they punted the decision to Circuit Court Judge Stacey Moreau, who selected the Rev. Robert M. Tucker, who was sworn into office the first week of November. At his swearing in, Tucker said did not see the seat as the swing vote.
Turmoil on the DSS Board
In April, Ingram nominated himself to the county’s Department of Social Services Board. Westover Supervisor Ron Scearce countered this move, by nominating his brother, and frequent Ingram critic, Jim Scearce, to the DSS Board. Jim Scearce was voted through when Barksdale broke ranks with Ingram’s four-vote majority and supported the nomination.
After months of back-and-forth — including a number of accusations over turmoil at the DSS in 2018 that involved Ingram and Ron Scearce — the situation came to a head in September when Ingram announced his intention to have Jim Scearce removed from the DSS Board by state officials. However, on the eve of his trip to Richmond in October, Ingram stepped back and resigned from the DSS Board, in a bid to de-escalate the situation.
However, the tension between the Scearce brothers and Ingram has not dissipated. Last month, Jim Scearce was escorted out of a Board meeting by deputies as he spoke during the public comment period, stating that fire and rescue squads were Ingram’s favorite special interest group. Ingram called for his removal.
1% sales tax referendum approved
Pittsylvania County voters approved a 1% increase in sales tax this November by a 52% – 48% margin — representing the second and last attempt allowed under enabling state legislation. The increase will help pay for infrastructure improvements within the school division by providing around $3 million in revenue per year for 19 years, with the money earmarked for capital projects. According to county officials, the added revenue is equivalent to a 9.5-cent increase in the real estate tax rate. Slated among the infrastructure work are HVAC and electrical updates, the elimination of mobile classrooms, and further work on the Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center. The increase is expected to take effect in July 2023, with renovations beginning in the summer of 2024.
Property reassessment thrown out
The Board of Supervisors voted to invalidate the 2021 property reassessment conducted by Brightminds in March, due to concerns with the assessment’s compliance, data integrity and equitable application of values. The concerns led to a visit from the Virginia Department of Taxation to verify property values.
The Brightminds reassessment cost the county $539,588. However, when the county opened the door for new bids for a fresh reassessment, Pearson’s Appraisal Service was the only bidder, as all other state-authorized appraisal firms were already contracted by other localities. According to county officials, this allowed Pearson’s to “name their price” — which is estimated to be $1.5 million.
At the same time, the delay in fresh appraisals is expected to cut into the county’s revenue stream, as Pearson’s reassessment — which is expected to show an average increase of 30% in property value, and thus an increase in tax revenue — will not take effect until fiscal year 2025. One bright spot, however, is that the Board of Supervisors were able to construct a fiscal 2023 budget with no real estate tax increase.
Pittsylvania County, along with the City of Danville, had several large economic development announcements, to include Aerofarms and Axxor, both of which were a joint effort between both localities. Pittsylvania County is also working with the newly revamped Danville Tourism Division to market the region for visitors, particularly with the coming of Caesars Virginia. The county also announced that Tradesman Trucking, Commonwealth Home Health Care amd Amthor were expanding, adding jobs and putting offices in the county. Tradesman Trucking is opening an office in Gretna, while Commonwealth Home Health Care is moving to Blairs. Amthor just announced infrastructure investment plans and more jobs at its plant in Gretna. In Hurt, construction is ongoing for Staunton River Plastics.
Dog hoarding case
A story this year concerning a house full of hoarded dogs had a happy ending.
In April, Helen Marie Metzger was charged with five counts of animal cruelty after nearly 70 dogs were rescued from her Hurt home. The resulting deluge of dogs closed the Pittsylvania County Pet Center for several days as staff focused on caring for the rescues.
It took two weeks for the county to formally obtain custody of the animals, after which the dogs were cleaned, vaccinated, spayed, and neutered — a process that took another five to six weeks. Save for five transferred to no-kill shelters, most of the 68 dogs found new homes.
Support for the rescue effort came in the form of a $10,000 grant from the Bissell Foundation, which was matched by $10,000 in donations from the community. Pittsylvania County residents also gave cleaning supplies, including shampoo, blankets, bleach and more.
Metzger was convicted on four of the five charges of animal cruelty, and received a six-month suspended sentence for each charge.
In 2020, Frederick Miller was on the lookout for a place for his extended family to gather back home in Pittsylvania County when his sister, Karen Dixon, stumbled on a “For Sale” sign on the old Sharswood plantation around 10 miles from Gretna. Miller, a retired Air Force civil engineer living in California, purchased the property that May, and he and Dixon began digging into the estate’s past. Separately, their cousins, Dexter Miller and Sonya Womack-Miranda, had also been exploring the family tree, and together they discovered two ancestors who had once been enslaved on the land Frederick Miller now owned.
This year, to celebrate Juneteenth — the holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last enslaved people in Texas — the Millers invited the public to the estate. More than 1,000 people attended, and the family estimated that they gave more than 200 tours to visitors.
For Frederick Miller, owning the property his ancestors were once enslaved upon — and celebrating the end of slavery — feels as if life has come full circle. He believes that he was meant to obtain the property and it will now become his focus.
The story was picked up by a number of national outlets, including the acclaimed CBS program “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post.
Tunstall High School graduate turned professional baseball player Joe Mantiply was named to the National Baseball League All-Star team last summer, where he served as one of five relief pitchers for the game. Although the National League lost 3-2 to the American League, Mantiply pitched a scoreless 1-2-3 inning with one strikeout.
Mantiply, who plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was also named to the Pittsylvania County Sports Hall of Fame, and in November, the Board of Supervisors designated July 19 as Joe Mantiply Day.
Gretna Library expansion
Work began this year on expanding and updating the Gretna Library, which will include an outside children’s reading garden, outdoor workstations, separate children, teen and adult reading areas and a new circulation desk, among other improvements. The remodel and expansion will also allow the library to increase its operational hours. The roughly $2 million project has received sizable contributions from Pittsylvania County and the Danville Regional Foundation. The project has also benefitted from private donations.
The interior renovations are expected to be completed by spring 2023, with landscape projects being added as funding becomes available.
In June, eight people were shot at a house party in Sutherlin. Two victims were reported to be hospitalized with significant injuries and five with non-life-threatening injuries. One man, Jerome Jaheim White, died of his injuries in a Roanoke hospital.
Despite investigative support from the Virginia State Police, FBI, and ATF, among other agencies, the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office has not reported that any individuals have been arrested for the crime and the motive remains unclear. While it is believed there was more than one shooter, the type or number of guns used is not known.
The crime would fall under most definitions of a “mass shooting,” which is typically defined as an incident where three to four people are injured or killed in a single event. However, there is no consensus definition, and when asked if he would characterize the situation as a mass shooting, Pittsylvania County Sheriff Mike Taylor replied “We have multiple gunshot victims and we’re treating it as such.”
In early April, Tito Nathaniel Cobbs, 17, pleaded guilty to the September 2021 killing of Joshua Rone of Yancyville at the Danville-Pittsylvania County Fair.
According to prosecutors, Cobbs shot Rone in the back with a .22 caliber pistol after an altercation over a girl at the fair. Cobbs was arrested a month later, and admitted under questioning to firing a shot but said it did not hit anyone. When Cobbs’ lawyers failed to have that statement suppressed at trial, Cobbs switched his plea from not guilty to guilty and confessed. He was charged and sentenced as an adult.
At a sentencing hearing in July, Judge Stacey Moreau sentenced Cobbs to 70 years in prison for first-degree murder, 30 of which were suspended. Cobbs was also sentenced to at least three years for illegal possession of a firearm, as he was 16 and on probation at the time of the killing.
Star-Tribune Editor Diana McFarland contributed to this report.
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