Archive for August, 2005

See you in San Francisco this Friday!

Monday, August 29th, 2005

Deb Kuglitsch, my executive assistant, and I will be flying to San Francisco this Wednesday morning for national Deaf Seniors of America conference. I will be giving a presentation this Friday at 10:50 a.m. to 12 noon.

I’m definitely looking forward to sharing more information with conference participants, and you can bet that two of us will be enjoying great sushi, Thai, Koren and Chinese food there! :-)

Say, hey… any suggestions on really good restaurants for the above categories in downtown San Francisco? E-mail them to me.


Monday, August 29, 2005 at 04:53 PM

Monday, August 29th, 2005

A sheet of paper, along with partial copies of old court case, was circulated in some places in McCook County recently said:

“Information concerning lawsuit by M.E. Barwacz against the Michigan Department of Education in the late 80’s to pay for her daughter’s transportation to & from school. She was already getting EVERYTHING free but she wasn’t satisfied with that. Did you know that her daughter is now in an institution out of state? Sometime this summer she couldn’t take all this BS anymore so they (mother & husband) didn’t want to deal with it.”

This was definitely a sucker punch. We are disappointed and shocked by the nature of the attack.

My wife has been struggling with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder for quite some time now, and this year has been especially difficult and challenging for us as a family. There is no mental health facility in South Dakota that is accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. After some struggle in getting the services we needed in South Dakota, Jen and I both decided that her needs would be met by a highly acclaimed, and thus far world’s first and ONLY residential mental health facility designed for deaf and hard of hearing people at National Deaf Academy in Mount Dora, Florida. Many of the professional staff there are deaf and sign fluently, eliminating the need for interpreters.

It was there where my wife received accurate diagnosis within matter of weeks, something the area doctors, psychiatrists and therapists could not in years. This was simply because the communcation there was direct.

Her stay there was tremendously benefical, and the irony was that she was physically farther away from us, but she was close to us and our family because of low-cost videoconferencing capability made possible by D-Link i-2-eye. We were able to communicate face to face often.

She’s now home with us, and we are thrilled to be together again. The road ahead of us is still difficult. We’re so grateful for our neighbors and supporters sharing their kind words of encouragement and love.

As for the court case, M.E. filed a lawsuit against the local school district because she knew there were other families who would not be able to afford the cost of flights. Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Washington, D.C. was the largest high school program for deaf and hard of hearing kids in the country with over 400 kids in enrollment then. [Today its a bit over 200]. The local school programs and state school for the deaf did not really provide good — or even “acceptable” education, in our opinion, and their only viable option was the school in Washington, D.C. The judge wholeheartedly agreed with M.E. on the placement for the school, but he was unable to rule in her favor.


New Planned Development Ordinance in works

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

The new ordinance will be brought to Commissioners’ table on August 30th for their review and they plan to have first reading on September 6th then second reading on 13th. Everyone is generally pleased with the new ordinance including the concerned citizens of McCook Citizens United. We all sat at the table together to discuss our views and concerns with how we want to protect the county’s prime agriculture lands yet enable growth to come in a better fashion.

We’re looking forward to the meeting on August 30th. We also would encourage you to come and join us on Tuesday, September 6th for the first reading of the new ordinance. The meeting usually starts at 1 pm and it takes place at the McCook County Courthouse on third floor.

On not so great note, this does mean The Laurent Company will not be able to break ground this fall. We are now prepared to break ground in early Spring of 2006. We are optimistic of the town’s growth and success as well as its positive impact on the county as a whole in terms of greater tax base, lower tax burden for everyone, greater choices in shopping, entertainment and dining, and more economic opportunities for everyone.


Working with the County on Ordinance

Wednesday, August 17th, 2005

As you can see below, KDLT-TV gave more accurate coverage of what happened yesterday. The Laurent Company wanted the County Commissioners to table the ordinance again, but this time, they would hold a meeting tomorrow with representatives from supporters and opposition groups as well as members of our company to iron out the differences and write a better and stronger ordinance that will serve the County well for a long time to come.

We’re definitely looking forward to tomorrow’s meeting.


KDLT TV: Decision Postponed

Wednesday, August 17th, 2005

McCook County officials have put off a decision on a sign-language town near Salem.

By Andrew Gibson


USA - Commissioners agreed to table it so a professional planner can clean up the ordinance. [The] Laurent Company CEO ME Barwacz says she supports the decision because after so many changes, some things don’t make sense.

“McCook Citizens United” attorney Todd Epp would like to see the state step in and help with the ordinance.


Better Kind of Development in McCook

Friday, August 5th, 2005

The opposition group has been vocal in saying that building Laurent in “middle of farm field” makes no sense, and we would like to quote Mark Miller of Nederveld Associates who shared with us in a recent e-mail:

“It looks as though this is the same issue that we have in many places where rural land is up against development.

When we want to preserve rural land, in conventional society we typically zone it large lot (2 to 3 acres). This is the way we preserve the rural character of a place. Many well intentioned planners have created this type of ordinance in addition to forcing large setbacks. Large setbacks have been determined to preserve the rural character as well. By setting a building back 50 feet and placing a landscape berm in front of it, it is thought that we can maintain the rural feeling of a place.

This has proven to be false. Three acre lots and large setbacks have not preserved rural character, the have perpetuated sprawl. Conventional Suburban Development is like a cancer. You can see it chewing up farm land AND you can see it growing in our cities (a strip mall on a corner where a zero lot line building once stood is a good example.)

Urbanism enables ruralism, they go hand in hand. You really can not have one without the other.

Conventional Suburban Development (CSD) is only CSD, it seeks to make our cities low density, auto dominated monoculture places and it does the same to our farmland.

I have vacationed in the Northwest part of Michigan, where some really great small towns exist, right next to some really great farms. There is a distinct edge. In many cases these small towns, the farmland and the hard edge is being blurred with CSD. I have seen farms that have been left for dead, with the barns falling down and the farm implements rusting away, while the pristine homes on two acre lots surround them. This is an epidemic. Everywhere. I can not imagine that South Dakota is any different.

We never really addressed this much at the charrette, but it may well be time. What would McCook Co. look like if growth occurs in conventional terms vs. with traditional fabric? What if all this farm land is compromised around the interchange with big box stores and the obligatory housing pods. It will not be contained in the 300 acres that you have proposed. Maybe the interchange at Mitchell is a good example?”

Argus Leader: Decision about Laurent delayed

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

McCook County officials react to emotional debate about proposed town for deaf


[email protected]

Published: 08/3/05

SALEM - Permission to build a sign-language community near Salem will have to wait at least two more weeks after McCook County officials chose Tuesday to postpone action that would have let the town’s planners proceed.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to table until Aug. 16 an ordinance that would set new rules about development in the rural eastern South Dakota county.

The ordinance would govern all future projects in the county, but the occasion slipped into an emotionally tinged discussion specifically of Laurent, a town promoters visualize building from scratch as a haven for deaf residents.

Marvin Miller, co-founder of the proposed community, said that if the ordinance had passed, the next step would have been filing a formal application and preparing economic, traffic and environmental impact statements.

The intent is still to break ground by this fall on 275 acres southeast of the intersection of Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 81, but Tuesday’s session showed residents are far from unanimous in their support.

Carl Koch, a lawyer from Mitchell representing Lacey Farmacy, a property near the Laurent site, said promoters have made too many unsubstantiated statements about the size of the community.

“They started at 1,200 people,” Koch said. “It grew to 2,400. Then it was 4,000, and now it’s 8,000 people. … They say they have financing in place for $200 million. Why should we believe them?”

Dan Kappenman, 54, who raises cattle west of Montrose, said Laurent is unnecessary and that the proposed ordinance would lead to undesirable development scattered about the county.

“Those people are welcome to move into any town in McCook County. We already have five towns here,” Kappenman said.

Cherene Zapp, 56, questioned such talk.

“I’m crippled. I’m a person. It doesn’t make sense to me to say ‘those people,’ ” said Zapp, who has multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane. She said Laurent would be a huge boost to local tax revenue that could, among other things, let the county install an elevator to the third-floor courtroom where Tuesday’s meeting occurred.

“Why are you turning down fresh money?” said Zapp, co-owner of a Main Street hardware store.

Miller, 33, who is deaf, communicated through Monique Roberts, from Phase II Interpreters for the Deaf of Sioux Falls.

“Obviously, emotions are running high in the room,” Miller told commissioners. “We’re still committed to this, because we will be neighbors. We’re not going anywhere.”

A layout for the community, named for French communicator Laurent Clerc, was presented in March at a retreat west of Madison. Miller said the weeklong series of meetings, called a charrette, cost $310,000, which he and his family covered. The town itself could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but he won’t say where the money is coming from.

Laurent, on land measuring a mile long and a half-mile wide, could have room for 8,000 residents. An initial commitment is from 129 families, said Miller, a Michigan native whose wife and four children also are deaf.

The two-week delay will give Roger Gerlach, the county’s state’s attorney, time to add language to the ordinance that would allow the public to vote in a referendum on zoning applications such as Laurent’s.

Giving county residents final say on such projects appealed to Commissioner Orville Hofer, who seconded Bill Smith’s motion for the delay.

“I like the idea of people having a choice. It takes a lot of pressure off the county commissioners,” said Hofer, an opponent of the Laurent project.

M.E. Barwacz, Laurent co-founder along with Miller, said later that such reasoning lets elected officials bypass their responsibility.

“Make a good ordinance, then elect people and expect them to do the job, to make decisions for the county,” she said.

It’s unclear, however, whether state law would allow such an ordinance. Legislative decisions by local boards can be challenged in a public vote, but administrative actions on zoning permits might be off-limits.

“Typically, the devil is in the details in those kinds of deals,” Larry Long, South Dakota attorney general, said in a phone interview later Tuesday. He said he couldn’t speculate on the merits on the McCook County ordinance.

Todd Epp, a Harrisburg lawyer representing McCook Citizens United, a group opposing Laurent’s proposal, said the additional language was appropriate.

“If the Legislature believes in local control, they should allow you to define what’s legislative and what’s administrative,” Epp told the commissioners.

The validity of such language was just one legal detail discussed Tuesday. Epp’s group said an 80-acre segment of the 275-acre Laurent site is zoned for agriculture use and not for commercial purposes. Using the land to build a town would first require rezoning that would be subject to public referendum, Epp said.

John Knox, the county zoning administrator, disagreed. He said the land in question has been commercial since at least 2002 and some of it since the 1960s. Some is rented for raising corn, but he said that is an agricultural use protected by a grandfather clause and would not be an obstacle to plans for Laurent.

Reach reporter Jon Walker at 331-2206 or 800-530-6397.

Associated Press: Man Wants to Create Town for the Deaf

Monday, August 1st, 2005

By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer Sat Jul 30, 2:42 PM ET

SALEM, S.D. - Even when the rain pelts the prairie, the soil thickens to mud and the pungent smell of cattle lingers in the air, Marvin Miller thinks this is the perfect place to be a pioneer. The location is good, the people are friendly and, Miller says, open to new ideas. And Miller has one very bold idea: He wants to build a new town where there is none, a community that would be carved out of the farm fields and draw hundreds of people from across the nation � maybe even the world.

What would set this town apart is it would be home to deaf and hard-of-hearing people who want to live together. They’d raise their families here, send their kids to school and share a common language: sign language.

Police and politicians would sign, so would teachers and shopkeepers.

Miller says people who are deaf, as he is, often are isolated and frustrated by a hearing world that wields the power that shapes their lives. By forming a town, he says, they’d have the unity and political clout they’re lacking now.

“This will allow us to make decisions on what happens to us as a whole,” he says through a sign-language interpreter. “Don’t like something? It’s up to us to make the change. Today we can’t do that. The whole point … is to create a choice that we currently do not have.”

Miller has a name for his town: Laurent, for Laurent Clerc, a French educator who co-founded the first deaf school in America.

He has a reservation list, too: About 125 families, from New York to California, along with a few from foreign countries have signed up. Most are deaf or have deaf relatives, but everyone is welcome.

Miller’s plan is still very much that � a plan. But on Tuesday, county commissioners will vote on a proposed zoning change that could help smooth the way for Laurent.

But it surely will not end the debate. The prospect of building Laurent has not only divided folks here over whether it would bring prosperity or headaches, but it also has raised a larger cultural question:

Is this a good idea for deaf people?


It’s a Herculean job to create a town.

Bringing Laurent to life would require tens of millions of dollars, years of work and a few thousand pioneers willing to leave their homes and move to a wind-swept prairie where cattle outnumber people by more than 7-to-1.

Some doubt Laurent will ever come to be. Miller does not.

He and his partner, M.E. Barwacz, who also is his mother-in-law, began studying possible locations four years ago. They formed The Laurent Company in 2003 after deciding on McCook County, which is typical of South Dakota � lots of land, few people (5,864 residents, about 10 per square mile).

It fit the bill in other ways, too: It was just an hour west of a large city, Sioux Falls, had a major highway, Interstate 90, and was in a state with no personal property or income tax.

In 2003, Miller and Barwacz began making the rounds, wooing elected officials, answering questions � and winning over some skeptics.

“At first, I thought there’s no way on earth this could fly,” says Geralyn Sherman, the county auditor. “But then you see it in black and white and you can see the vision if you just take yourself out of the box you live in day to day.”

This spring, the Laurent owners invited the community to a week of hearings with developers, architects and prospective residents as they drew up plans for the town.

Carolyn and Larry Brick, retired educators who are deaf, traveled from Pennsylvania to attend after their son, a lawyer and longtime Miller friend, told them about Laurent.

“When I first heard about it, I grabbed my husband and said, ‘We have to go there. We have to give our support,’ ” Carolyn Brick said in interviews conducted by e-mail and through an interpreter who relayed questions through a video hookup.

The former teacher was immediately sold on the idea, saying it would be a thrill to be able to talk with a postman, participate in a neighborhood meeting and just feel part of a community. “Nothing is lonelier than being with people you know, who can’t communicate with you and who don’t really care,” she says.

She and her husband are now on the reservation list.

So is Steve Peterson, a 40-year-old deaf woodworker from Michigan, who also came to the meetings. “It sounds wonderful to me � not having prejudices on daily basis,” he says.

The plan is to build Laurent over 15 or 20 years on a relatively compact 320 acres of farm fields. Land has been optioned, but not purchased. The town would be located three miles south of Salem, the county’s largest community, and be nearly twice as big with a population of 2,500.

While hearing people would live there, the town would be designed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing: Lots of open space so people could see each other signing. More flashing lights on emergency vehicles. And a video service with interpreters signing phone conversations to deaf people who have monitors in their homes.

While all that is appealing, Miller says Laurent would have something far more important: role models.

“When I grew up, I never saw a deaf mayor, a deaf garbage man or a deaf barber,” he says. “I knew that I was different. I knew the kind of message society was sending to me was, ‘You don’t fit here.’ “

Miller has convinced many local folks that Laurent would be a good fit for the county. Supporters � including the school superintendent and some business owners � say it would bring people, money and jobs, all desperately needed commodities around here

“The opportunity is tremendous, the risk is low,” says Joe Bartmann, director of the Greater McCook Development Alliance, a business group.

Like so many rural areas, he says, the county has struggled with the loss of small farms, the exodus of young people searching for work and the disappearance of Main Street businesses � hardware stores, car dealers and lumber yards have all shut their doors.

Eager as he is for new investment, Bartmann admits he had doubts at first.

“When someone talks about bringing a new town to a county that has been in decline for 70 years, yeah, you certainly question whether it could be for real,” he says. “We’ve been beat up so long, we forgot how to dream. … It’s hard for people to believe something this good could really happen in McCook County.”

But Bartmann says the more he heard, the more he liked the idea.

So did Pattie Mayrose, whose family farm is next to the proposed location for Laurent. “I don’t see anyone else jumping at our doorstep, wanting to bring 2,000 people into our county,” she says.

Opponents say that’s precisely the problem. They don’t want a few thousand new neighbors.

Some farmers worry Laurent could cramp their expansion plans. Other people fear heavy traffic, a drain on schools and services and complaints or even lawsuits from newcomers annoyed by the agricultural setting.

“We’re trying to plant suburbia out in the middle of a field,” says Eric Lacey, who works in his family’s agricultural supply business. “It’s not going to mix � the smells, the sounds, the equipment.”

Todd Epp, a lawyer representing a group of opponents, puts it more bluntly: “They want to put a town in the middle of a bunch of cows and pigs, and cows and pigs stink.”

Epp also says he’s concerned because The Laurent Company has no track record for development � Miller’s previous jobs include running a national newspaper for the deaf � and won’t identify their investors.

Barwacz says $300,000 in family funds have been invested in the planning, and financing is being arranged by the father of a deaf girl who liked the Laurent plan and organized a group of “angel investors” to guarantee loans. She says the group is working with the First Dakota National Bank, but wouldn’t provide any details.

Neither would John Isley, president of the Salem branch of First Dakota.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of planning to get this thing off the ground,” he said. “Whether the finances fall in place, it’s hard to say at this point.”

If Laurent is built, it would a one-of-a-kind community in America.

Even so, it’s not a new idea. Deaf people have long yearned for a place of their own, dating back to the early 19th century when activists talked about forming their own state.

Large numbers of deaf people also have lived in certain communities, most notably Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, where they and their hearing neighbors both used sign language in everyday life for 250 years. The practice faded by the early 20th century, according to H-Dirksen Bauman, professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Signing communities still exist in Israel and Bali, Bauman says.

The Laurent idea revives age-old questions about assimilating deaf people into the hearing society.

Bauman says there have long been contentious debates over whether deaf people should use sign or spoken language, attend special schools or be mainstreamed with hearing children and more recently, have cochlear implant surgery to improve hearing.

K. Todd Houston, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, doesn’t like the Laurent idea.

“If someone says just because a child is born with hearing loss or is born deaf that they automatically have to use sign language to be accepted � I don’t see that with today’s technology,” he says. “There have to be choices. Spoken language should be a choice.”

Houston’s group supports spoken language and hearing technology and says parents of deaf children are increasingly choosing those options. “I don’t think the answer is further isolating yourself,” he says.

But the National Association of the Deaf has endorsed Laurent, and Bauman is on board, too.

“It would increase the chances for the deaf community to be integrated into the American political system,” he says, “and that would be much more difficult if people were scattered.”

“The experience of being deaf in America is almost like being a foreigner,” Bauman adds. “This is creating a sort of homeland where these people don’t have to feel like foreigners.”

Miller, whose wife, Jennifer, and their four young children (ages 2 to 8) are deaf and use sign language, also rejects the isolation argument

“My kids are already separated,” he said in an e-mail. “We lead completely parallel lives with the rest of the world now.”

He insists this town would include everyone, including hearing parents of deaf children.

Jan McQueen, 57, plans to move from her Maryland home with her two adult sons, both of whom are deaf. She has a personal connection � she’s a longtime friend of Barwacz, Miller’s business partner in Laurent.

McQueen says her sons, both in their 30s, have struggled to find good jobs and when she mentioned Laurent, both said they’d like to open businesses there. “It’s like a seed was planted,” she says, “and they realized they had the possibility of a lot more opportunity.”

Carolyn Brick, the retired teacher, sees it that way, too.

In an e-mail, she wrote that Laurent would broaden, not limit, her life.

“I can hardly imagine living in a place where we could communicate with everybody we meet,” she said. “Right now it is just a dream, but one I’m willing to work for.”


On the Net:

The Laurent Company:

National Association of the Deaf:

Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing: