The Red Barn. Courtesy of Long and Foster Real Estate.
The Red Barn. Courtesy of Long and Foster Real Estate.

A special prosecutor tasked with untangling an ongoing legal dispute between Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Pulaski County over alleged zoning violations relating to the Big Red Barn, an event venue that she acquired in June of last year to host agritourism affairs and political stump speeches, has absolved the county from any wrongdoing in the case. 

 County officials have been feuding with March for more than a year over her refusal to bring the 10-acre property at 4241 Lee Highway, which she purchased for $400,000, into compliance with local zoning laws. March, however, sought a criminal investigation by the state, claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by County Administrator Jonathan Sweet and other local officials attempting to harm her business interests in Pulaski.

But Andrew Nester, the commonwealth’s attorney of Henry County who was appointed special prosecutor for this case, did not agree with March that the county’s actions were in violation of a state law aimed at protecting businesses from conspiratorial actions to harm them, concluding that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant such investigation.

“I cannot find the existence of any conspiracy, or even a hint of one that could be proven, on the part of the Pulaski County officials to harm Ms. March’s business, reputation, etc. that would violate this statute,” Nester wrote in a Nov. 15 letter to the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation obtained by Cardinal News. 

“Further, I firmly believe it is the absolute duty of the Pulaski County officials to ensure that all business owners operate by the same rules; and that includes being properly licensed by the county to conduct business. Thus, the fact that the county administrator properly, and politely, notified Ms. March of her need for a business license, and any potential ramifications of operating without one may bring, is certainly not illegal and could in no way be viewed as a way to injure her reputation, business, etc.”

County officials said in September that they had no idea what kind of businesses March was running from her property, and that they had received multiple complaints that various land uses violate several sections of the Pulaski County Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which allows potential purchasers of property to know in advance the uses they may make of their own properties and anticipate the uses that may be made of neighboring properties.

They also identified safety concerns with ingress and egress at March’s property – a concern shared by some neighbors. They have since asked her to submit her plans for the property so it could be determined if it was zoning compliant or not, and emails show that March repeatedly refused cooperation. 

While the property has since received a business license and a change in use permit for agro-tourism and worship services, March has yet to seek a special use permit for the various functions that she hosts at the Big Red Barn, such as weddings, Sweet said.  

Tensions between the state delegate and the county escalated further last month when Brenda Blackburn, the property manager of the Little Red Barn, alleged to local law enforcement that Sweet may have been responsible for letting loose several mules from behind a fence on March’s property in the middle of the night, and that the broken free animals caused damage on the fourth hole green of the nearby Thorn Spring Golf Course.

March has since deactivated the Big Red Barn’s website and has listed the property for sale for $715,000, although as of two weeks ago on her Facebook page she was promoting a “Fun Pre-Christmas Celebration” scheduled for Dec. 16 at the venue. She also owns Due South BBQ and Fatback Soul Shack in Christiansburg

In his report to state police, Nester wrote that a “thorough review” of the materials – which included dozens of emails between the parties – “clearly shows a disagreement” between March and county officials. 

”As an outsider, unfamiliar with the government and political landscape of Pulaski County, reading these threads of messages, they seem to center on the fact that Pulaski County officials are attempting to work with Ms. March to secure a business license for the activities conducted at her multi-purpose venue,” Nester found. 

The email thread, he continued, “appears to be a contentious, back and forth, exchange about the exact activities taking place at this location. In addition, there also appears to be a great deal of concern – perhaps legitimately – regarding the traffic pattern around this venue and the safety concerns that such presents when events are held at this property.”

Nester also noted that the messages he saw have “a coarse, churlish and, at times, an unprofessional tone,” but having read through them on more than one occasion, he did not find the existence of any conspiracy, “or even a hint of one that could be proven, on the part of the Pulaski County officials to harm Ms. March’s business, reputation, etc.” 

In closing, Nester wrote that he found nothing in the provided documents that would offer “even reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause, and certainly not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, for a violation of this statute.” Therefore, he continued, “unless additional, legally admissible, evidence is brought forward concerning this matter, no further action or resources need to be devoted to this complaint.”

When asked to comment on Nester’s report for the state police, Sweet said that he had not been aware of an inquiry for a criminal probe into his handling of the March case. 

“I’ve only had a suspicion because of the threats of Marie March and Brenda Blackburn, but there was no way of me being officially aware of their efforts to criminally pursue me and ultimately try to ruin me and my career and put me in jail,” Sweet said in a phone interview Monday. 

Sweet added that it appears as March has gone as far as to “inappropriately attempt” to abuse her position of authority and power to “wrongfully pursue me both criminally and potentially civilly” for professionally doing his job. 

“We simply treated her like we would any of our valued members of our business community, and for that she attempted to have me charged with a crime and to ruin my career,” Sweet said. “This is a state delegate, she is supposed to be someone we trust and can call upon to support the community’s needs. Instead, she only pursues her personal and political agenda and looks to literally destroy people and bring harm to the district.” 

While it wasn’t immediately clear who attempted to initiate a criminal probe into the county officials from Pulaksi, Nester told Cardinal News Monday that the complaint he received from Virginia state police alleged that March was the victim in this case and that she had forwarded the materials he reviewed. March did not respond to a request for comment. 

First elected to the House of Delegates in 2021, March has proven during her first year in office that she is no stranger to controversy. In September, she swore out a warrant against her colleague, Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, alleging that he assaulted her at the 9th Congressional District Gala in Wytheville. 

Williams, who has denied the allegations, is due to be arraigned at the Wytheville County General District Court next week. The two Republican freshman delegates are facing each other in a highly competitive nomination battle next year after having been drawn into the same district in what political observers expect to be an ugly contest.

In November, March made news once again when she called for ousting Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who was re-elected for a sixth term in Congress by securing a record vote on Nov. 8. Claiming that it was time for generational change in the representation of Virginia’s 9th Congressional District, she stopped short of announcing her own challenge.

And last week, March stirred up another controversy by attempting to politicize the death of Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, criticizing him for his efforts to protect abortion rights as Virginia Republicans and Democrats put aside their partisan differences and together mourned the veteran lawmaker. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.