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Rehoboth’s Clear Space Theatre regroups after commissioners reject new buildings

Opponents say officials failed to submit ‘code compliant’ application

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(Blade file photo)

The Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners voted for the second time in eight months on June 30 to overturn a decision by the beach resort city’s Planning Commission to approve plans by the Clear Space Theatre Company to build a larger theater and adjacent rehearsal theater in a new location.

Supporters of the theater project, including many of Rehoboth’s LGBTQ residents and summer visitors, expressed outrage over the Board of Commissioners 4 to 3 vote to reject the Planning Commission’s approval and deny the Clear Space application to build its proposed new theaters on Rehoboth Avenue, which serves as the city’s main commercial boulevard.

The four commissioners voting to overturn the theater’s approval were Rehoboth Mayor Stan Mills, gay Commissioner Patrick Gossett, and fellow Commissioners Susan Gay and Jay Lagree. The three who voted against overturning the approval were gay Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski, lesbian Commissioner Pat Coluzzi, and Commissioner Richard Byrne.

The controversial vote to overturn the theater project approval came in response to an official appeal against the Planning Commission’s Feb. 26 approval of the project filed by 63 Rehoboth homeowners or renters, including D.C. gay attorney Harvey Shulman, who owns one of the homes near where the new theater buildings were to be built.

Shulman said at least 15 percent of those who signed on as appellants are gay. He and other opponents have said the two proposed theater buildings — a 14,949-square-foot main theater and a 9,950-square-foot rehearsal theater — are unsuitable in the three lots on Rehoboth Avenue where they were proposed to be built. Opponents say the two theater buildings would abut a residential neighborhood that would suffer undue noise, traffic congestion, and parking problems caused by the theaters.

Clear Space submitted the two-theater building proposal after the Board of Commissioners refused to approve an exception to the zoning code requested by Clear Space for an earlier plan for one larger 25,599-square-foot theater building. City officials noted the zoning code required any building larger than 15,000 square feet to provide 100 or more indoor or onsite parking spaces, which Clear Space said it did not have the financial resources to fulfill.

In a development that angered the opponents, Clear Space submitted a new plan for the two smaller buildings, which under the zoning code does not require Clear Space to provide any parking spaces for the project.

Clear Space has said its site plan would address noise and parking issues and it complies with the city’s zoning code. Others supporting the theater have argued that anyone who chose to buy a home adjacent to a busy commercial street like Rehoboth Avenue should expect to deal with some noise and parking issues, which for years residents of the popular beach resort town have managed to deal with.

The commissioners who voted to overturn the Planning Commission’s approval of the project cited as their main concern the contention by Shulman and the other appellants that the Planning Commission approved the project without ever having received or seen a code-complaint application, including a code-compliant set of drawings or plans for the project. The appellants said the Planning Commission allegedly only had in its possession an earlier application that was not in compliance with the city’s zoning code.

Wesley Paulson, executive director of Clear Space Theatre Company, and Commissioner Chrzanowski each told the Washington Blade that the Planning Commission was informed by the city’s building inspector that the Clear Space application and building site plans fully complied with all city codes.
The two pointed out that the building inspector, in consultation with the Planning Commission, set several conditions based on an earlier Clear Space application that had a minor code violation related to ceiling heights in one or more stair wells that should be corrected. Paulson and Chrzanowski pointed out that those changes were made.

Chrzanowski said he and his fellow commissioners who voted against overturning the project’s approval strongly disagree with the rationale by Mills, who serves as mayor, and the other three commissioners that the Planning Commission acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in its decision to approve the theater’s application.

“It is my opinion that they were not acting any way in that fashion,” Chrzanowski said of the Planning Commission. “The fact of the matter is these appellants, they don’t care whether or not a drop ceiling in a stairwell needed to be reduced by six inches or not,” he said.

“They just oppose the project because they don’t want it in their back yard,” he told the Blade. “It has nothing to do with a process or a code. They just don’t want it in town, and it’s unfortunate.”

Shulman disputes that claim, saying existing Rehoboth law requires that the Planning Commission could not legally approve an application that never came before it and never became available to the public for review.

“This is not a question of whether you like the theater or you don’t like the theater,” he said. “There is a process that has to be followed. And the public has a right to have input. And that didn’t happen here.”
Among the Clear Space supporters who have criticized the Board of Commissioners who voted against the theater is longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights advocate Peter Rosenstein, who has a residence just outside the Rehoboth city boundary. Among other things, Rosenstein dismisses Shulman’s claim that a significant number of gay residents wanted the Board of Commissioners to overturn the theater’s approval.

“He’s got 20 gays that don’t support it and there are 3,000 that support it,” said Rosenstein. “They can find any excuse they want,” Rosenstein said in response to claims that the Planning Commission never received the theater’s final, revised application.

“The Planning Commission didn’t make any mistake,” he said. “The theater was code compliant. They met every condition the Planning Commission wanted. Technicality or not, they were going to find an excuse to turn it down.”

Paulson, the Clear Space executive director, said he remains hopeful that Clear Space will be allowed to resubmit its final, fully code complaint application to the Planning Commission for another quick and legally mandated approval without having to start the application process over again from scratch.

Supporters say starting over could take six months or more to obtain another round of approval from multiple city agencies and inspectors, a process that would add to Clear Space’s financial burden. They note that the application process has already taken three years since Clear Space first proposed to move from its current location in a rented former church on Baltimore Avenue near the city’s boardwalk.

Paulson said another option under consideration is to take the matter to court in a lawsuit to challenge the legality of the Board of Commissioners action. But he said he would prefer not to take that action if another option becomes available.

Paulson points to Board of Commissioners member Susan Gay, who voted to overturn the Planning Commission’s approval of the project but who stated in an interview on a Rehoboth radio show the day following the Board of Commissioners’ vote that she didn’t believe the theater would have to begin a new application process.

“So, Susan, do they have to go back and start this process all over like a six-month plan again,” Radio Rehoboth talk show host Jeff Balk asked Gay in an early morning interview on July 1.

“No,” Gay replied. “So, part of Plan B is they can submit code compliant plans today,” she said. “I understand they do exist. If that’s the case, submit them. And at that point, I would hope the Planning Commission would expeditiously review it in compliance with the site plan review and it would result in a unanimous approval,” Gay said in the radio interview.

But both Chrzanowski, who wanted the city to approve the theater’s application, and Shulman, one of the lead opponents, each said that under existing Rehoboth law, a project like this must start the application process over again from scratch if it has been rejected twice by the Board of Commissioners.

“When you reject a decision by the Planning Commission for a second time, it’s dead,” Chrzanowski told the Blade. “You need to start from scratch,” he said. “There may be an administrative thing the city could do to help move it along faster, but that certainly is not Commissioner Gay’s decision,” he said. “So, she very much misspoke when she made those statements.”

Shulman told the Blade that if Clear Space chooses to start the application process over again, he believes the opponents of the project would be open to favorably consider the new application.

“If they come back with a new application, everyone will see whether it is code compliant,” he said. “I believe and the opponents have always said this – we will sit down with Donna West, who is the chair of the [Clear Space Theatre Company] board, and try to reach some agreement on what a code compliant application would be, so there is no opposition or, so the opposition is minimized.”

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District of Columbia

D.C. Public Schools’ LGBTQ+ program helps ensure students feel safe

More than half of queer students experience bullying, harassment

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According a study from Theirworld of LBGTQ+ Gen-Z youth, students feel unsafe in schools. D.C. Public Schools is trying to combat the problem in the District. 

“Research shows that the way schools and families respond to LGBTQ+ youth can affect their physical health, mental health outcomes, academic outcomes, and their decision-making later in life,” said DCPS’ LGBTQ+ Programming Specialist, Adalphie Johnson. 

DCPS’ LGBTQ+ Program started in 2011 after a 2009 survey from GLSEN revealed that 9 out of 10 queer students reported in-school harassment. 

In response, they have created extensive programming to ensure students feel safe at D.C. Public Schools. In 2015 they created a trans and non-binary policy that included guidance on LGBTQ+ terms, locker room accommodations, gender-neutral dress codes, and more. 

In addition, they host an annual conference for queer and trans DCPS students. 

“The “Leading With Pride” conference increases networking, and builds the leadership capacity of our students and faculty advisers to implement school-level LGBTQ programming,” Johnson said. 

In 2023, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures according to HRC. This year, Theirworld’s survey found that more than half of LGBTQ students experienced bullying and harassment at school.

Johnson said that students feeling safe in school requires creating an environment where all students can thrive. 

“We encourage students to report incidents without fear of retaliation and ensure that reports are taken seriously and investigated promptly,” she said. 

Johnson also pointed out that as a result of discrimination, students are more likely to miss school, which can lead to low grades, along with impairing cognitive responses. So, she said, it is best for schools to respond with action swiftly. 

However, Johnson and the LGBTQ+ programming team acknowledge that not all students come from supportive backgrounds. 

As a part of their trans and gender-nonconforming policy, staff are expected to work closely with students to determine how involved parents are with the transitioning student, before contacting parents. 

Johnson gave parents eight steps to ensure the safety of their child, if they are in the LGBTQ community.  

8 Steps For Parents

1. Educate Yourself. Learn about LGBTQ+ identities, issues, and terminology. Understanding the basics can help you provide better support and avoid misunderstandings.

2. Listen and Communicate. Create an open and non-judgmental space for your child to express themselves. Listen to their experiences and feelings without interrupting or offering unsolicited advice.

3. Advocate for Them. Stand up for your child in situations where they may face discrimination or misunderstanding. Become actively involved in the PTA and other parent groups within the school.

4. Seek Support. Lead or organize programming with/for other parents of LGBTQ+ children can provide  valuable insights and emotional support.

5. Respect Their Privacy. Allow your child to determine their own level of outness at school. Don’t share their identity without their permission.

6. Create a Safe Environment. Inform the school of any homophobic or transphobic remarks or behavior from others.

7. Inform school about their needs. Recognize that each LGBTQ+ person’s experience is unique. Ask your child what they need from you and how you can best support them. Communicate those needs to the school. This would be a great opportunity to develop and share a Safety Plan for the student while at school. 

8. Promote Inclusivity. Encourage, support and inform inclusive policies and practices in your child’s school community. 

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District of Columbia

SMYAL for Summer returns July 25

‘Their hard work, resilience, and identities are valued and celebrated’

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A scene from last year's SMYAL for Summer. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

SMYAL for Summer is back at Franklin Hall on July 25, where the youth services organization will honor the next generation of change makers in the LGBTQ community. 

“In a tumultuous year for policy against LGBTQ+ youth, celebrating the achievements of our scholarship winners sends a powerful message that their hard work, resilience, and identities are valued and celebrated,” said Caro Vordndran, SMYAL’s Development Coordinator. 

At the event, SMYAL, the D.C. queer and trans youth advocacy organization, will honor recipients of its Youth Leadership Award and the Sophie’s Live Out Loud Scholarship. Plus, the event will feature a drag performance from Mia Vanderbilt. 

One of the scholarship recipients, Lion Burney, said that in addition to the scholarship they were most excited for the community they will continue to seek in SMYAL’s safe space. 

“The SMYAL community means a lot to me. From found family to open expression to endless support — I am beyond grateful to be a part of this experience,” Burney said.

This is SMYAL’s 12th annual SMYAL for Summer event and the 40th year of creating community for D.C.’s youth. Given SMYAL’s history, alumni like Nathan Handberg often come back to keep traditions alive. 

Handberg was an awardee in 2019 and served on the selection committee this year. They said they felt great about their continued involvement with SMYAL.

“Being a previous winner really gave me insight that helped with the process of choosing the winners this year and I like that I have the ability to help shape future leaders in our community,” they said. 

Tickets for the event range from $10 for students and $20 for general admission, up to $500 for Platinum Supporters. Tickets for the event will contribute to funding for SMYAL’s year-round youth advocacy programming. The event will run from 6-8 p.m.

“They have housing programs for queer youth… they’ve done queer sex education classes filling in critical gaps that are left by our education curriculum,” Handberg said. “Honestly they do so much more, I could write multiple pages on my experiences with SMYAL and all they do.”

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District of Columbia

Congressional budget amendments target D.C. Office of LGBTQ Affairs, Human Rights Act

U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced proposals

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U.S. Capitol
Two Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced budget amendments that would defund the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and prohibit the city from using its funds to enforce the D.C. Human Rights Act in cases of discrimination against transgender people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced separate amendments this week to the D.C. budget bill that would eliminate funding for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and prohibit the city from using its funds to enforce the D.C. Human Rights Act in cases of discrimination against transgender people. 

The two amendments, along with as many as 10 other amendments introduced by GOP House members targeting the D.C. budget, were expected to come up for a vote in the House Rules Committee, which is now considering the D.C. budget bill, during the week of July 22.

Congressional observers have said the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, as it did last year, was expected to reject most of the House amendments to the D.C. budget bill if they were to pass in the full House.

Under the D.C. Home Rule Act, in which Congress established D.C.’s home rule government consisting of an elected mayor and City Council, Congress retains full authority to approve, change, or reject any laws passed by the city, including its annual budget. 

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) introduced the amendment calling for eliminating funding for the Office of LGBTQ Affairs. U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced the amendment calling for ending funding for enforcing the D.C. Human Rights Act regarding discrimination based on gender identity and expression. 

Spokespersons for the two House members couldn’t immediately be reached by the Washington Blade for comment on what prompted them to introduce their amendments. 

Sharon Nichols, a spokesperson for Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Norton strongly opposes the two amendments and will be urging her House colleagues to oppose them. 

The amendment introduced by Gosar calling for defunding the LGBTQ Affairs Office states “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act, including titles IV and VII, may be used for the salaries and expenses of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Affairs established under the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs Act of 2006 (Sec. 2-1831 et seq., D.C Official Code.”

The D.C. Council on June 12 gave final approval for D.C.’s fiscal year 2025 budget that includes $1.7 million in funds for the Office of LGBTQ Affairs. Among those who will lose their salary if the full Congress approves the amendment would be Japer Bowles, the LGBTQ rights advocate who currently serves as director of the LGBTQ Affairs Office. 

The amendment introduced by Mace would prohibit D.C. from using federal or local funds to enforce the part of its municipal regulations that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression, which pertains to trans people. The regulations in question pertain to the D.C. Human Rights Act. 

“It is no surprise to me that Republicans filed two anti-LGBTQ+ amendments to the D.C. appropriations bill,” Norton told the Blade in a statement. “D.C. has some of the strongest non-discrimination initiatives in the country, including regulations protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Norton said.

“The Republican amendment that would prohibit funds from being used to enforce anti-discrimination regulations and the amendment to defund the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs are disgraceful attempts, in themselves, to discriminate against D.C.’s LGBTQ+ community while denying D.C. residents the limited governance over their local affairs to which they are entitled,” Norton told the Blade. “I will do everything in my power to prevent these amendments from being included in the final bill.”

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