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A gay

Jul 07, 2023Jul 07, 2023

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As soon as she spotted the lifeless vermin, Tiffany Foster had a hunch about how it appeared near the trash bins behind the Front Porch Market and Grill in The Plains, Va. The general manager went inside, pulled out her phone and reviewed security-camera footage. Her suspicion was confirmed: The dead rat had been tossed onto the property.

The suspect? Mike Washer. The businessman and his wife, Melissa, first complained to the Front Porch proprietors about pre-dawn vendor deliveries in 2019, not long after the conservative Christian couple moved their financial firm right next door to the restaurant, which flies a gay Pride flag. The renovated building doubles as the Washers’ residence, where they have a front-row view of the Front Porch’s operation.

By the time the rat appeared last summer, the relationship between the two businesses had devolved. A year earlier, the Washers had started filing complaints about their neighbor’s trash with the health department. Fed up with what they viewed as harassment, the Front Porch owners filed a no-trespassing order against their neighbors. The Washers responded by installing signs to prevent diners from parking in spaces the Washers own in the shared lot. They confronted or towed drivers who ignored the signs. Their attorney threatened legal action against the restaurant’s suppliers if their trucks continued to “trespass” in the lot. The same attorney wrote a town official, challenging the restaurant’s right to operate under its existing permit.

Still, when she spotted the rat last August, Foster was not prepared for what she saw on the video: Mike Washer flipping the rodent onto the Front Porch’s property and taking photos of it, in what she assumed was a staged effort to flag health officials about an infestation. Foster remembers thinking, “I cannot believe that someone would stoop so low to try to put someone out of business.”

The Washers don’t deny Mike’s actions but dispute the motivation: They say they have no interest in closing the Front Porch. They claim the rat was first dumped near their back door by restaurant employees, and Mike was returning the favor.

What’s more, the Washers say, the dead rat was just one more insult that the couple, who once planted an “all lives matter” sign in their front yard, have endured since moving next door to a restaurant owned by a gay couple. They are not the harassers, the Washers argue. They are the harassed. They say they are being treated unfairly because they are conservative. They say they have been insulted by staff, including Foster, have lived with a bright security light shining into their home, and have found used chewing tobacco next to their car doors.

“We still feel like somebody put it there to, excuse me, eff with us,” Melissa Washer said about the rat. “Because they had done so many other little s---ty things to us.”

This conflict has dragged on for years, creating friction where friendships used to be and often forcing residents to pick sides. The conflict has dragged on so long that some people in The Plains, population 250 or so, have been left to develop theories about what’s driving it, some perhaps more rooted in reality than others: Some fear the Washers’ actions could break the town financially with hearings, lawsuits and paperwork. They even fear the couple’s legal challenge could end up compromising The Plains’ ability to maintain its old-world charm.

“Part of what makes our community special are long-standing social networks and special traditions built on trust,” the Rev. E. Weston Mathews, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, said in a statement to The Washington Post.

“But like so many places in our country, our community is not immune to dangerous conspiracy theories, extremism and tribalism,” Mathews continued. “In my view, what began as a difficult dispute between two neighboring businesses has become something much greater, is accelerating through social media and is damaging our sense of trust in each other as neighbors in a close-knit village.”

The Washers — the newcomers in a village where families that have lived there 20 years still feel like outsiders — say they’re misunderstood. They love this tiny town. They’re not out to destroy it, or remake it.

The business neighbors occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Mike, 54, and Melissa Washer, 53, are conservatives who have an “Only JESUS can save America” sign on their back railing. On her Facebook page, Melissa posted a photo of herself, her husband and their son, Regan, outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the building to prevent a peaceful transfer of power, leading to multiple deaths.

“It WAS an AMAZING day in DC!!” Melissa wrote in the post, which she has since taken down. “Truly an unforgettable experience everyone was peacecful [sic], kind and friendly with one another, no matter their race, nationality, socio-economic level, background or religion.” She later told The Post the family did not enter the Capitol. “We didn’t actually even know anything that was going on until we got home that night,” she said.

During the pandemic, Melissa posted anti-mask and, later, anti-vaccine statements on Facebook. For weeks, the Washers had posted two placards in the front yard of ICS Financial: One was a campaign sign for son Regan, a managing partner in ICS Financial, who’s also a Republican nominee for the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors. The other was a sign designed like an American flag, and it listed the things “we believe,” including the Second Amendment, “unborn lives matter” and “all lives matter.” Both signs have since been removed.

William Waybourn and Craig Spaulding, both 76, owners of the Front Porch, have been a couple since 1973, when they worked at the Dallas Times Herald, a newspaper that closed in 1991. They married in 2020, five years after they opened the Front Porch, which quickly became a destination in The Plains.

The Front Porch has been flying a Pride flag on its patio since 2016, not long after a gunman killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando. The flag is a symbol of Waybourn’s solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, which he has nurtured — and fought for — since the 1980s.

Waybourn was president of the Dallas Gay Alliance when it sued Parkland Memorial Hospital for failing to provide readily available medicines to AIDS patients. In 1991, he launched the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund (now the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund) to elect openly gay politicians to office. He served as managing director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, which he helped turn into a national group. He owned gay newspapers in Houston, Atlanta, New York and Washington. Last year, the Dallas Voice called him a “living legend.”

Over the course of his life as an activist, Waybourn says, he has been shoved, spat on, insulted and had objects hurled at him. “I had so many threats against me that even the Dallas police stationed squad cars outside our home,” Waybourn said.

As an activist, Waybourn says, his goals were clear: same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians in the military, access to lifesaving medicines. His conflict with the Washers is murkier.

“This is hard for me,” he said, “because I don’t know what I’m fighting for.”

The Washers and Waybourn disagree on just when their neighborly tensions turned into a serious conflict.

The Washers say it happened in early September 2021, when sheriff’s deputies served them. A couple of days earlier, Mike had offered the Front Porch two parking spaces to use for a dumpster, Melissa said. The Washers thought the idea might resolve the dispute: It would move the restaurant’s trash from under the couple’s window — and out of smelling distance.

Instead, an officer appeared at their front door on Sept. 5 with no-trespassing orders, requested by Waybourn. “We were completely blindsided by that,” Melissa said. “Completely.”

“It just felt like …” Melissa added, then paused. “I don’t know. I felt criminal.”

The orders immediately deprived the Washers of a regular haunt in a town with only a few dining options. In various situations, the Washers or their attorney, Whitson Robinson, have claimed the couple spent $30,000 to $40,000 at the Front Porch before they were banned.

Later that day, after they were handed the no-trespassing orders, Mike allegedly stopped a server on her way into work at the Front Porch and announced, “Let the games begin,” according to a text message from the general manager on Sept. 5, which Waybourn forwarded to The Post. The server did not want to talk for this story.

Four days later, the Washers responded with no-trespassing notices of their own. Their attorney also informed the Front Porch owners that no one — not Waybourn or Spaulding, not their employees, not their diners — could use the parking spaces that the couple own but once shared as a courtesy with the neighboring businesses.

By mid-September, the Washers had installed signs in the lot that said, “Reserved for ICS Financial Visitors Only.” Later, the couple added smaller signs underneath to reinforce their point: “No Front Porch Parking.”

In November, Robinson started sending letters to Front Porch vendors, including its produce supplier, trash collector and uniform company. The letters said the vendors were prohibited from unloading in parking spaces not owned by the Front Porch. At the time, the restaurant owned only two, the ones closest to the back entrance. These spots were often hard for delivery drivers to access, because Mike parked his large GMC Sierra Denali truck next to them, Waybourn says.

What’s more, multiple people say, the Washers regularly patrolled the lot for violators.

“They were trying to stop every vendor,” said one delivery driver who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to hurt his business. “It was every vendor, even their food suppliers.”

Melissa said she and her husband closed off their parking spaces as a direct response to the no-trespassing orders.

“If we can’t come into your restaurant anymore, why would we share our parking spaces — which is our property that we pay taxes on — with you and your patrons?” Melissa said.

The Washers’ offer to provide space for a dumpster was naive, Waybourn said. The Front Porch owners once had a dumpster across the street, and it had required a secured enclosure, architectural review board approval, permits and enough space for a truck to get in and out of the lot. Even so, the dumpster was subject to outsiders tossing garbage in and around it. Waybourn was routinely fined for other people’s messes.

Waybourn says he prohibited the Washers from setting foot on his property because he had had enough of them. By Waybourn’s way of thinking, the Washers had decided to live in a village commercial district that includes heavy traffic, noise and “congestion of people and passenger vehicles,” according to The Plains’ codes. But not long after moving in, the Washers started complaining about delivery trucks rumbling into the lot in the pre-dawn darkness, disturbing their sleep.

Once the pandemic hit, the relationship became more fraught. When the Front Porch partially reopened for indoor dining in June 2020, it followed state-mandated protocols requiring diners to wear masks when not eating and drinking. Front Porch staffers and others in The Plains say the Washers never wore masks at the restaurant.

The issue led to conflicts. Like the day when Lisa Vella, owner of Baileywyck Antiques, was waiting for a takeout order at the Front Porch. She said she saw Mike enter without a mask and offered him one of hers. (Melissa recalls the story differently: She said Vella called Waybourn to tattle on Mike for not wearing a mask. She said her husband had pulled his shirt over his nose and mouth until he got a mask from the front desk.)

The next day, as she was walking to the coffee shop, Vella said, Mike confronted her. “He came flying after me, pointing, spitting and yelling at me. Seriously, a half-inch from my face,” Vella said. He was screaming, she said, that no one can tell him what to do. Vella said no one witnessed the encounter, but she immediately told a friend, Danielle Green, who confirmed her account to The Post.

In an email to The Post, Mike said, “I have never spoken to her about that incident.”

Melissa said the incident was the only time masking was an issue at the Front Porch for the couple, who would get face coverings from the host if need be. “I didn’t like masks,” she said. “Hell, no. But I wore them, all the time. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you don’t do it.”

The incident was apparently the same one that prompted an email from Waybourn to Mike on Jan. 22, 2021. Waybourn forwarded the email to The Post. “This is not the first time that I (and others) have asked you to respect this requirement, as entering without a mask puts both our health permit and liquor license at significant risk,” Waybourn wrote.

The following day, Waybourn recalls, Mike entered the Front Porch again without a mask. Waybourn said he banned him. But the Washers say they continued to frequent the restaurant, and they forwarded to The Post a report that they say itemizes more than 40 expenditures there from Jan. 22 to Sept. 2, 2021, three days before they were served no-trespassing notices.

Even as the couple frequented the Front Porch, they had started complaining to the health department. In late June 2021, the Washers alleged that 25 trash bins were emitting a foul odor. “You come in and you buy the property, much like the Washers did, fix it up, make it look nice, and then all of the sudden, you get trash cans with rotting flesh there left throughout the week during the middle of the summer months,” their attorney, Robinson, said at one public hearing.

When an inspector visited, they found nine bins, “all freshly washed,” according to the complaint. The department considered the issue resolved.

The Washers continued to complain. By the summer of 2022, “it was getting out of hand with the emails,” said Whitney Wright, senior environmental health manager at the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District. So Wright visited the Washers last June and told Mike there were no laws against foul smells.

Virginia regulations, Wright explained, require trash bins to be kept on solid ground. “Are they properly kept? Do they have tightfitting, closed lids? Those types of things, which, when we inspected, were the case every time,” Wright told The Post.

“I jokingly told Mike, I said, ‘Well, be glad that you’re not beside a seafood restaurant,’” Wright said.

Much like the health department, the town’s then-zoning administrator, Steve Gyurisin, found no problems when reviewing the Front Porch’s special-use permit. In a January 2022 letter to Gyurisin, the Washers had questioned whether the restaurant had enough parking to legally operate. In response, Gyurisin ruled that April that the Front Porch met all the permit’s conditions, including parking.

When the Washers appealed in May, they also filed several Freedom of Information Act requests, asking the town for documents and nonprivileged communications related to the Front Porch and Gyurisin’s opinion. One of their requests asked for information dating back 10 years, before the restaurant opened.

In a town with a tiny operating budget, an all-volunteer council and mayor, and only a few people to conduct day-to-day business, the FOIA requests monopolized much of the village’s time and resources, several business owners said. “The town is not fully able to function because the energy is dealing with this problem,” said Lynn Wiley, a real estate agent and business owner.

Locals say the combination of FOIA requests, the Washers’ constant pressure and the fear of litigation contributed to the sudden departure of both Gyurisin and Joseph Pricone, the town attorney; neither would speak for this story. In fact, no one connected to the town — the mayor, the clerk and treasurer, the new zoning administrator, the new attorney or the council members contacted — would talk about the conflict. They either declined outright or never returned phone calls.

If there’s one thing the Washers and the Front Porch owners agree on, it’s that the town has been AWOL during the conflict. Daniel Bounds, an attorney representing the Front Porch, says the town could have quashed the Washers’ permit appeal from the start. The attorney argues that despite their claims to the contrary, the couple have no standing because they have not been harmed in any direct way by the restaurant’s operations. (Waybourn, incidentally, estimates he has spent about $53,000 in legal fees to fight for the Front Porch’s right to operate as is.)

For their part, the Washers say town leaders have regularly ignored their complaints and play favorites. As evidence, they point out that the Front Porch, with seating for 60 people inside, is not required to have off-street parking. Yet in a building behind ICS Financial, one of the Washers’ tenants runs a small pizza and sandwich shop, 2Kyles, that seats only 20 people but is required to have 15 parking spots, the Washers say. The couple suggest race might be a factor in the town’s demands because one of the 2Kyles owners is Black. Town attorney James Downey did not respond to an email requesting comment on that allegation.

“I think the town is very culpable in quite a bit of this,” Melissa said, “and they have not applied rules equally across the board.” (The Washers forwarded the town’s parking estimate to The Post; the 15 spaces were based on the square footage for the entire building, including an apartment and office spaces, not just the shop.)

For decades, the town has prided itself on its rural way of life, with a comprehensive plan to keep it that way. Leaders have been largely able to maintain the town’s character via regulations and a communal desire not to become the next Middleburg, a once-quiet town now seen as a tourist destination, said a Plains businessman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to get in the middle of the fight.

This kind of limited growth and limited government has worked as long as most everyone agreed to the same set of values, the businessman said. But times have changed, he said, and The Plains — 30 miles from Dulles International Airport in the middle of horse country — is seen as ripe for development. “It’s not 1976, and things change,” he added. “There’s much more at stake.”

At a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting in April of this year, when the panel heard arguments on the Washers’ appeal, current zoning administrator Bruce Reese explained to the gathered crowd why The Plains would want to grant a special-use permit to the Front Porch that required no off-street parking. “Unless you’re building a new building. . . we’re not going to require you to have any parking at all,” Reese said.

“So why would they do that? Because it’s The Plains,” Reese added, to scattered applause and laughter. “The anticipation was that the charm of the town is such that we don’t want to force parking everywhere. We don’t want to have to have a building removed in order to make room for parking.”

Since buying the former dentist’s office at 6479 Main St. in 2019 and converting it into their business and home, the Washers purchased another nearby property (where 2Kyles is located) the following year under the company name ICS Financial Properties 2. According to people in town, including Waybourn and other business leaders, the Washers have looked into purchasing other properties, including the Front Porch.

This is where, as the pastor of Grace Episcopal Church noted, conspiracy theories have started to take root. Some in The Plains see the Washers’ real estate purchases, combined with the family’s political ambitions, as the potential dawn of a new, more development-happy era in The Plains. They’ll note that Melissa ran for town council in 2020, a year after the family moved to The Plains. (She finished fourth and didn’t earn a seat.) The couple’s son, Regan, recently won his Republican primary for a seat on the county supervisors board.

Locals fear that a successful challenge to the Front Porch’s operating permit — which was in place for years without complaint — would take away “the bricks that hold up the foundation of the town,” said Wiley, the real estate agent.

Or as Mark Ohrstrom, who leads a family investment firm in The Plains, pointed out, “Any time you disrupt zoning and the comprehensive plan, it’s an issue, right? It’s a real problem because basically it means that you have to have a new one, almost immediately.”

The Washers say many in town have ascribed motivations to their actions that simply aren’t there. They’re not trying to disrupt The Plains, Melissa said. They have no desire to change the character of the town, either. They like it the way it is. Their challenge of the Front Porch’s permit was their way of “questioning our town,” Melissa said, because they “felt like the town was delivering the rules unfairly.”

In a conference room at ICS Financial, Mike elaborated on his frustrations. “We, a conservative family, the Washers, are subjected to a set of rules that’s the by-the-book rules,” he said. “But if you’re not conservative, you are subjected to the town council letting you have special-use permits that accommodate whatever they want. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s not right.”

But after years of dealing with his neighbors’ actions, Waybourn doesn’t see a couple fighting for equal application of town laws. He sees parallels between the Washers’ targeting of his restaurant and Republican legislatures and governors targeting transgender rights across the country. To the activist, it feels like a step backward after a lifetime of fighting for gay rights.

An incident that Foster, the Front Porch general manager, shared with Waybourn still sticks with the owner. As Foster relates the story, Mike Washer once told a pair of Front Porch employees that trucks were on the way to tow customer cars parked in ICS spaces. The employees ignored him. “I don’t know if that irritated him or what, but he was like [to one employee], ‘I like you, but the faggots you work for, I can’t stand,’” Foster told The Post.

Neither of the workers wanted to be identified out of fear of retribution, but one confirmed the comment from Washer via text.

“I haven’t been called a faggot in years,” Waybourn said, fighting back tears. He had to stop the interview to gather himself.

Mike denies he ever said this. “I have quite a few gay friends, clients and a family member, and I have patronized a gay-owned restaurant for years,” he emailed.

Asked whether the Washers are trying to remake The Plains into their image of America — White, conservative, Christian — Melissa said, “I can see where you’re coming from.”

But, she added, “this, to me, is not political. There is no politics in this. There is no race. There is no sexual orientation. … We like that this town is a mixture of all different kinds of people. We do.”

A month after its first hearing on the case, the Board of Zoning Appeals denied the Washers’ appeal on May 4 during a standing-room-only meeting at Grace Episcopal Church. In a 3-2 decision, the board said the couple had “not carried its burden of proof” to overturn previous opinions on the Front Porch’s special-use permit, including the new zoning administrator’s assessment during an April 6 hearing. Waybourn was relieved, but he noted that had one vote gone the other way, his restaurant could have been shut down, if temporarily.

Many in The Plains had hoped the board’s decision would settle the dispute and allow the town to return to normal.

But on June 2, a Friday, the Washers appealed the decision in Fauquier County Circuit Court. The lawsuit is directed at The Plains itself but identifies the Front Porch as a third party.

Regardless of the appeal, Mike said, he and his wife are “done” with the Front Porch owners: “I don’t give two s---s about them.”

Added Melissa: “We just coexist. That’s their lane, and this is our lane.”

The following Monday, Waybourn’s attorney, Bounds, was prepared to tell his client the news about the lawsuit, even though he knew Waybourn had back surgery scheduled that day. But when Bounds called, the Front Porch owner was struggling to talk.

Waybourn was suffering a mini-stroke — during the call. The stroke, Waybourn said a day later, was the result of going off blood thinners for surgery, although stress may have contributed to it. The Front Porch owner said he was already feeling better, at least about his health, but not so much about the future of his restaurant, which may not be in his hands for long. In February, he and his husband put the Front Porch up for sale.

Story editing by Joe Yonan. Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory. Copy editing by Jim Webster and Emily Morman. Development and design by Cece Pascual.