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Posted September 4, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Pastor asks for blessing on sign

Crosses marking the site of Pastor Jay Ahlemann's Church of the Valley loom over exit 298 of Interstate 81 as nighttime traffic zips by. Rich Cooley/Daily file

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- The church leader behind the giant crosses on Interstate 81 west of Strasburg is asking for the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors' blessing when he asks the Virginia Department of Transportation for a highway sign directing motorists to his church's park.

Jay Ahlemann, pastor of Church of the Valley, appealed to the supervisors' public safety and code committee Aug. 25.

The sign on Interstate 81 would direct drivers to Freedom Memorial Park and give a radio dial location, according to a letter from Ahlemann to the supervisors.

"I believe as the park is developing, it's going to become a major tourist attraction in Shenandoah County," he told the board.

The park's development is ongoing, Ahlemann said.

"There's no timeline," he said. "We see this going on forever."

Memorial bricks and walls continue to be placed in the park, which features American flags and three crosses, the largest of which is 150 feet tall.

"We didn't build those flags and crosses for the Church of the Valley," Ahlemann said. "We built them for the community. Obviously, everybody [who] drives up and down Interstate 81 sees them. We have a steady stream of traffic, of cars pulling in there to see what it's all about.

"We still owe $200,000 on the crosses. That was a $750,000 project. We believe every penny was worth it."

He said the church realizes VDOT needs to approve the highway sign request.

"But, we want your support, and would like to have a letter of support," Ahlemann said. "I would hate for us to go to the department of transportation and our [own] county saying we don't want it."

He thanked the supervisors for approving the crosses and flags.

Since the crosses got a thumbs up from county planning commissioners, the county code has been changed to limit structures, not just buildings, to 35 feet.

"People say, 'Do you get any negatives?'" Ahlemann said.

Last summer, he went to 1,200 homes in the Strasburg area looking for people to attend his church.

"Ninety-nine percent of people said, 'We love those flags and crosses,'" Ahlemann said. "So, we're really thankful for it. It's a statement for God and country."

The park, which honors those in the military, is a place for reflection, remembrance and rest, he said.

District 4 Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli, who is not on the public safety committee, was the only board member to voice concerns about the endorsement request.

When asked Monday if it was the local government's place to endorse such a request from a church, Baroncelli said, "Very good question."

"My concern with this issue is if one organization has the request, it opens the door for many to have this request as well, and is [it] our place to endorse signage on 81 outside of a tourist-specific establishment?" she asked. "[I] have no problem or issue with the memorial itself. It's just, is this something the board needs to be involved with?"

The committee sent the request to the full Board of Supervisors with a recommendation for endorsement.

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