CHARLES TOWN – He may have been Jefferson County’s most effective champion of land and landscape conservation.
But Paul Rosa was much more than that, operating both above and below the surface of civic events. He was involved in or keenly aware — he always kept an emergency radio scanner on hand — of nearly everything that was happening in the county. And he was quick to lend a hand or to advise on topics nobody else had the knowledge or experience to share.
“Paul has given back to the community in ways that I’m not sure people realize,” said former Charles Town mayor Peggy Smith, who has been Rosa’s neighbor for several years.
Rosa, who recently received a terminal cancer diagnosis, died Saturday morning in the care of hospice caregivers at his Charles Town home. He was 70.
Confined to a motorized wheelchair for the last eight years of his life, Rosa stood out, racing nearly daily to appointments with friends or unannounced drop-ins to public officials throughout Charles Town. His favorite meeting spot was a corner table at the McDonald’s restaurant on Washington Street.
“I met him there many times on many occasions to talk about issues of the day,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty. “His mind was sharp and he never held back on telling you what was needed.
“I marveled at how active he was, putting 10,000 miles on his wheelchair before he got a replacement.”
After medical treatment for a spinal infection in 2011 left him paralyzed from the waist down, Rosa became an articulate advocate for providing better public access for the disabled, so much so that he knew many people around Charles Town blamed him for the controversial “bump out” handicapped ramps the West Virginia Division of Highways constructed at the corners of intersections. He had nothing to do with the replacement ramps.
Rosa lived an exceptionally full and active life, given depth and dimension by a broad range of experiences that informed his abiding commitment to public service.
“He knew a lot about a lot of different things, unexpectedly different things,” said John Maxey, a past Jefferson County Planning Commission chairman and a former Jefferson County Democratic Party chairman.
His career experiences ranged from serving as town attorney in Oregon to investigating civil cases for the Oregon Department of Justice, training Federal Express workers to use portable computers and working as a research consultant where he taught historians how to file effective Freedom of Information Act requests.
A proud former Army officer who served in Vietnam, Rosa fought hard to support military veterans. As a longtime volunteer ambulance driver responding to midnight calls, he was known as a persuasive and productive fundraiser for nonprofit organizations and civic causes.
Rosa was also a former volunteer board member during the early years of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency for which he an outspoken observer on local government decisions.
Once an adventuresome backpacker, he scaled the Matterhorn in Switzerland during a Boy Scout trip when he was 14 and Mount Adams in Washington state along Mount Hood in Oregon three times. Rosa also climbed The Three Sisters’ North Sister Mountain, and Three- Fingered Jack, a volcanic spire in Oregon’s Cascade Range, in which the only way down was to rappel. As a young man, he once got past 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier before a ferocious whiteout sent him and his team scrambling down, guided only by their compass.
Generous in sharing his considerable knowledge, Rosa was a contemporary Renaissance man in a ball cap and dungarees and his articles on topics ranging from technology innovation to spying to travel appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and a number of other newspapers and magazines. As a citizen activist, he immersed himself in the details of national and local news, often freely sharing his tips, knowledge and candid opinions with public officials and reporters alike.
“Leading communities toward positive change requires the acquisition and sharing of knowledge,” he once wrote in an article for the Land Trust Alliance.
But he could also be feisty and persistent and impatient when he thought government could do better or an agency wasn’t responsive. He was willing to confront officials he considered wrongheaded, opportunistic or arrogant. And he developed a few adversaries along the way.
“He was a guy who always fought for the rights of the underdog,” explained Randy Hildebrandt, Rosa’s adult foster son in Oregon. “He cares about society as a whole.”
A skilled and formidable lawyer, Rosa made a conscious career choice to apply his legal knowledge in battles against corporate and bureaucratic institutions on behalf of everyday people and civic causes, his friends and family members said. For example, he used his legal skills to help veterans navigate the complex rules of the Department of Veterans Affairs for their benefits and disability claims.
“You see what spirit these veterans have and how they fight back, how they struggle and it’s very moving,” Rosa once explained.
A self-described former military brat to a father who served in three military branches, Rosa spent time growing up in Germany and France with his two brothers, both of whom went on to have long military careers. He followed in his father’s military footsteps by enlisting in the U.S. Army the day after he turned 18 in 1967. He went on to serve with the Fourth Infantry Division as an intelligence analyst and prisoner of war interrogator in Vietnam. He was discharged in 1968.
Rosa was a longtime member of the VFW and American Legion posts in Charles Town.
Bob Shefner, executive director of Jefferson County Community Ministries, recalled how Rosa often stopped at the nonprofit group’s headquarters on Saturdays simply to talk and get to know some of the people there.
An avid baker, Rosa would bring a cake or pie he made and a newspaper to share over breakfast and coffee and conservation with those involved with the ministries’ programs.
“He would just drop in and kind of chat,” Shefner said, typically rolling in wearing a ball cap in his motorized wheelchair and offering his standard greeting, “May I approach.”
“Over time, he had got to know some of our folks who were without homes,” Shefner said, noting he also befriended a homeless veteran, treated him to meals and looked after him.
“He was interested in what we did here and I believe really cared about what we could do, what the challenges were,” Shefner said. “He had a good enough sense of boundaries so that he knew that he couldn’t get too deep himself into those issues, but he was, I think, very wisely doing what he could to make a contribution.
“He had a big heart,” Shefner said. “He didn’t let his big heart get him into some stuff that was beyond his capabilities to do. Yet, he wasn’t allowing his disability to keep him from doing what he could do.”
Considered an expert at filing Freedom of Information Act requests, Rosa, viewed crafting FOIAs as an art. He prided himself on submitting information requests that were ironclad and got results. And he gladly and freely assisted others in prying documents from reluctant government officials.
“He considered it a civic duty,” Maxey said.
Practical and unassuming, Rosa rarely confided to others that he was a lawyer, even if asked, Hildebrandt said.
It was in protecting land, landscapes and natural resources that Rosa excelled. He applied his legal training and skills, as a citizen and — as he put it — a “professional conservationist,” to get the job done.
Rosa moved to Jefferson County more than 25 years ago, first to Bolivar and then to Charles Town. He was captivated by the area’s natural beauty. “I live where I live so I can see mountains,” he once said. “I have to be able to wake up in the morning and be able to see them.”
Rosa’s conservation efforts reach back about 45 years to his days in Oregon after the military. There, he led an effort to stop the demolition of a forest ranger lookout in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. His efforts produced a solution that resulted in the lookout being protected as a natural historic resource.
“I reached a point in my life where I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ and I knew I wanted to do meaningful work that has enduring value,” Rosa once told the Spirit.
Rosa helped found both the Potomac Conservancy in 1993 — once convincing a helicopter crane crew to remove abandoned steel girders from an island in the river — and the Harpers Ferry Conservancy in 1998. Those organizations saw Rosa dealing with land use and environmental issues in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland and through those organizations, he was a driving force in preserving hundreds of acres of battlefield land.
He also established a telecommunications consulting firm in Silver Spring, Md., just as the cellular industry began to blossom in the consumer marketplace. He quickly became a telecommunications expert and consultant where he fought to preserve historic sites and landscapes from unnecessary modern-day intrusions from cell phone towers.
While recognizing how wireless devices would become the dominant mode of communications, he wanted to see cell tower infrastructure expand sensibly.
“The leap to wireless comes at a price,” he wrote in a Land Trust Alliance publication in 1995. “The infrastructure required to support the network threatens to disrupt natural settings and suburban and rural landscapes.”
As a consultant to governments and communities throughout the East Coast, Rosa opposed what he feared would be a proliferation of “metallic monoliths” and he fought proposals to build strobe-lighted cell towers at high as 260 feet tall. His solutions included zoning rules that require creative use of existing structures, such as church steeples, highway signs, grain silos or light poles, on which to cluster wireless transmission antennas. He also promoted downsizing and camouflaging cell towers as trees or other unobtrusive “stealth” structures.
One cell phone battle went all the way to the West Virginia Supreme Court before plans were called off. That case prompted Rosa to propose draft changes to the county’s zoning ordinance that requires cellular towers to be placed on existing structures whenever possible, Maxey said. Rosa made sure the ordinance required companies that obtained permits to build a cell tower to also lease space on the tower to other cell phone companies.
“What that does is it increases coverage without increasing the physical number of towers in the county,” Maxey said. “The cell phone tower ordinance, Paul pretty much wrote that pretty much himself,” he added. “It’s still beneficial today.”