COURTHOUSE — Landing-Zone Grace Warriors Retreat, a planned charitable destination for members of U.S. special operations forces who return from combat, faces an uncertain future because some planned activities on its land in Back Bay are restricted by a program designed to protect farming in rural Virginia Beach.
In 2008, a previous owner of the property sold development rights through the city’s agricultural reserve program. Lynnette Bukowski, whose late husband served as a Navy SEAL, in 2014 purchased the farm for L-Z Grace. Bukowski said she was not aware of those limitations of the property until she met with city officials.
In an interview on Friday, Aug. 21, Bukowski said some activities are now taking place on the property, such as training service dogs, but she is not sure when the retreat will be able to open as she envisioned it and described it to supporters.
After the charity received its designation as a non-profit in 2014, Bukowski applied to the city to have two of three parcels that comprise the farm exempted from property taxes. The goal was to open this past January, according to the application, which the city provided to The Independent News.
“Our program is to provide a confidential and secure environment for warriors to decompress so they can reenter family and civilian life with purpose,” the application read.
The exemption, sought more than a year ago, has not yet been approved. There is uncertainty over whether L-Z Grace would get conditional use permits it needs to operate. Bukowski on Tuesday, Aug. 18, addressed the City Council, which approves the exemptions, during a hearing about the application. The council did not consider the application during that meeting.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk about it lately, but it’s a mission of the heart,” Bukowski told the members of the council. “It’s not a rehabilitation center. It’s not a mental health facility. It’s not a facility at all. It is a family farm run by people who intimately know the challenges that veterans and their families face.”
She said nothing planned on the property is at odds with the reserve program.
City Councilmember Bob Dyer, who represents the Centerville District, spoke supportively of the retreat.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Dyer said. “My hope and prayers are we don’t get bogged down in regulations and look at the intent of the program.”
Media reports last year said L-Z Grace would offer “traditional and nontraditional methods of therapy,” as well as mentors to get people talking. Service members would be able to bring family members, as well.
Bukowski’s efforts have earned national and local media attention – The Independent News profiled Bukowski this past spring – and raised funds and benefitted from volunteer work by community groups, individuals and city employees, including public safety workers.
In an interview, Bukowski reiterated that “nothing I have planned at L-Z Grace goes against the ARP,” as the reserve program is commonly called.
“I just want the city to be supportive rather than combative,” she said.
Karen Lasley, the city’s zoning administrator, said Bukowski would need a conditional use permit for a group home to open the retreat, as it has been described.
“She can’t do that because the property is in the agricultural reserve program,” Lasley said.
Lasley said city officials have met with Bukowski to discuss the issue since The Virginian-Pilot profiled L-Z Grace in 2014, including a meeting with Henley. Sticking points include people rotating in an out of the property, living there for stretches of time.
“She could have people come in for a day and work on the farm,” Lasley said. “It can’t be a retreat. You can do anything a normal farmer can do.”
Lasley described L-Z Grace as a great project that, unfortunately, is planned for land governed by the program.
“The reality of it is, with the agricultural reserve program, those rights were bought and paid for,” she said.
Lasley also said that people who have questions about projects they want to develop on their land or land they are buying can call planning and zoning officials to check on what is or might be allowed on their properties.
“It breaks my heart,” Lasley said. “It could all be prevented if people would ask.”
Bukowski said she believed that only a portion of the farm was encumbered by the reserve program.
David Trimmer, director of agriculture for the city, said he could not speak specifically about activities planned by the charity, but he discussed the purpose of the reserve program, in general.
“It’s to preserve agricultural land for farming,” he said. “You’re protecting an industry, is what you’re doing – the industry being farming. … The land is what it is, and the ordnance is what it is.
Bukowski said she has modified aspects of the vision to be compatible with reserve program restrictions.
“I initially wanted to build cabins out here,” she said, speaking of housing for guests and families. “I know I can’t do that, so I won’t.”
A note at the L-Z Grace Facebook page prior to the hearing asked supporters to surround the hearing with prayer and work to “change the hearts of politicians who oppose providing respite to our Warriors on agricultural land. There is only one that I know of, but the influence is mighty.”
Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, received an angry call from a California man critical of her perceived stance on L-Z Grace.
A reporter asked Bukowski about Henley, a farmer and supporter of preserving farmland through the reserve program. Bukowski said she bears the councilmember no ill will.
“She’s simply trying to protect Pungo, and I get it,” Bukowski said.
Bukowski said she cannot stop working toward her goal, the dream she said she shared with her late husband. She hopes for a positive outcome for L-Z Grace.
“People have put their hearts and souls into this,” she said.
Henley, in an interview on Wednesday, Aug. 26, said she was surprised by feedback that suggested she opposed the idea or, by extension, veterans. That notion, she said, is “a low blow.” Henley said city officials in the meeting with Bukowski explained the limitations of land in the reserve program.
Henley said L-Z Grace might provide services or activities that do not conflict with restrictions. “I think the main thing is we can’t destroy the ARP. … We cannot do things that are not in compliance,” she said.