Controversy is swirling in the waters of Lake Monticello.
After residents of the Fluvanna County gated community discovered that a member of the homeowner association’s board of directors had been posting bigoted messages in right-wing Facebook groups, there were calls for his resignation or dismissal, a petition with more than 400 signatures calling on him to step down and a unanimous vote to censure him.
But Don Polonis is defiant.
“I am a Christian, and I hold traditional Christian views. As a Christian, I believe in God, I believe in Satan and I believe that homosexuality is immoral,” Polonis told a crowd of assembled residents at a Tuesday meeting. “People disagree with these views, and I disagree with them. I seek to do them no harm though my beliefs may offend others and I stand by my beliefs.”
Polonis has refused to leave office or apologize for his online posts calling homosexuals “demonic” and “satanic.”
He has, however, offered an apology for sharing the names and addresses of Lake Monticello residents who have condemned him and his homophobic rhetoric.
“The complaint against me is for what I did in my personal capacity. I did not violate the established confidentiality policies of this corporation,” Polonis said. “It was a mistake to publish a person’s home address, and I apologize for it, but I apologize because it was imprudent, not because it was illegal. It is not confidential.”
But that’s been little comfort to the residents who Polonis has targeted.
“When Don Polonis published my name, my husband’s name and our address in a Facebook group full of gun enthusiasts and called us satanic, I too started feeling afraid for my safety. We have a toddler. We want to feel safe in our community,” Kelsey Cowger said at the meeting. “We are just as much members of the community as Don Polonis, and he is charged with representing all of us, whether he likes us or not.”
It wasn’t even a minute into the public comment period of the meeting Tuesday when things became heated.
“What you are doing is hate speech. Your words are intended to harm, vilify and express hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community,” Sean Johnson told Polonis. “You are openly intending to incite hatred and possible violence against the individual and the LGBTQ+ community. You may argue that that’s not the case, but as we all know, actions are not without consequences. As we have seen in many, many examples throughout very recent history.”
Johnson said he was so outraged at Polonis that he could not look at him when making his remarks.
Polonis time and again defended his words as protected free speech.
“I wish to remind the board that I sit on this board as an elected representative, and my qualifications for this post is one of the privileges arising from the sale of the property,” Polonis said. “This association is not allowed to discriminate against me with respect to that privilege because of my religion under both state and federal law.”
But several residents pointed out that there are limits to freedom of speech, especially if that speech incites or prompts violence against targeted individuals.
Residents did not have to look far for examples.
“Less than 30 minutes from here, the Ku Klux Klan trespassed on people’s private property to drop homophobic literature in the dead of night because they hoped their words would intimidate,” Millie Fife said, referencing recent flyers left on Charlottesville properties calling on straight, White residents to band together against the LGBT community.
Members of the LGBT community were present at the meeting, where they told the board that Polonis’ posts are more than just words; they have a real impact on the functioning of the board and the community.
“Imagine that I, whom Mr. Polonis, associated with Satan without even knowing, had business before this board. How in the world could I expect a fair hearing?” asked Matthew Carter.
Carter has been mastering the ancient Greek language of the New Testament and soon will be an ordained minister, and he went on to criticize Polonis’ interpretation of the Bible.
“With what small clerical authority I do possess, I wish to say with respect, but more than a little sass, that Mr. Polonis has not ever read the Bible,” Carter said. “He has read a translation of the Bible, and with that level of ignorance, humility starts looking like a good idea.”
Shannon Redmon echoed that sentiment.
“When people demonize a group of people for who they are and how they love, they make it unsafe for that group of people and history shows us that over and over and over,” Redmond said. “He has made this community unsafe for 700 members. He has made this community unsafe for the LGBT youth and children that are growing up here.”
In the face of so much criticism, Polonis evoked the philosophies of local Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
“Nearly 250 years ago, the voice of our independence, men like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, fought for the right of religious freedom in this state. Religious freedom is the right to disagree on the most fundamental of issues: the matter of God and what he commands us to do,” Polonis said. “Disagreements are not violence. Disagreements are not hate. Freedom of religion is the right to believe and speak our beliefs, even when we disagree.”
In stark contrast to Polonis’ summation, while Jefferson and Madison were proponents of free speech they were also famously fearful of religious sects gaining a foothold in American politics. Jefferson was the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and Madison shepherded the bill through the General Assembly.
The tense meeting on Tuesday underscores just how much things have changed at Lake Monticello since its founding as a retirement community in 1969.
Over the years, and especially during the pandemic, the lakeside community and its lower property values have attracted younger, more diverse residents, many of whom are far from retired and commute to Charlottesville or Richmond.
“Lake Monticello is an increasingly young, multicultural community full of people with lots of ties to Charlottesville but can’t afford to buy there,” Cowger said.
That newer population now appears to be butting heads with an older guard.
However, what happens next is unclear.
Every other member of the seven-person board of directors has called for Polonis’ resignation and unanimously voted to censure him.
But according to board bylaws, that is pretty much all they can do. There is no way to immediately dismiss a sitting board member.
And many residents and members of the homeowner association found that ironic.
“I know that if I had a pink roof, you’d find a way to get me out of here,” Jay Cole said. “So, if you can’t find a way to get him off the board, then there is a root failure at the heart of the whole structure of this organization.”
Still, board members emphasized they would find a way to boot Polonis from their ranks.
“You heard this board unanimously. We don’t condone it. We’ve asked for resignation. There are rules and processes that unfortunately we have to follow, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to find a way,” Larry Henson said. “This was the action of one board member. The rest of this board does not tolerate it or condone it, so you need to know that we will do whatever we can do to make it right and to make you safe.”
Residents, though, do not plan on waiting around for the board to act.
“I understand that this is a situation that the board has never been in before. This is new territory, but censure is not acceptable. His removal is the only acceptable solution to this, and we will not go away until he is gone,” Jennifer Richardson said. “We will come to every meeting, we will talk to the media, we will talk to the Realtors and tell them it is not a safe place to sell to live, we will tell all of the people that fit Polonis’ description that this is not a welcome place for you because the board can’t even defend your safety.”
There is also talk of a special election.
But in order for Polonis to get kicked off the board, it will require an unprecedented turnout among residents in said special election. If a vote were to take place, at least half of all Lake Monticello residents would need to vote for the election to even be valid, much less have enough support to fire Polonis.
According to residents, no vote in the community’s recent history has gotten anywhere close to having a turnout of more than 2,000 residents. If they cannot get residents to vote, many think the last resort could be to pursue legal action.