FRONT ROYAL – Despite two tries and a 3-2 majority on Monday night, March 12, the Front Royal Town Council failed to include a first reading approval of a one-cent real estate tax hike as part of the Fiscal Year-2019 budget. While Eugene Tewalt, William Sealock and Jacob Meza outnumbered no-tax-hike voters Chris Morrison and Gary Gillispie, a 4-2 supermajority is required for approval of such high-dollar or tax-related budget items.
It was unclear to several of his colleagues polled after the meeting, Meza and Sealock, how the absent John Connolly’s vote might have gone had he been present. While a supporter of the new police station, Connolly has been generally conservative on tax increases, though measured in addressing the need to provide funding for approved projects.
The $110,000 of revenue a one-cent real estate hike would provide would have been committed to debt service payment on one or several capital improvement projects either underway or on the table for approval. At the top of that list is the $10-million-plus new Front Royal Police headquarters under construction on Kendrick Lane across from the Royal Phoenix Business Park site. Also up for consideration of a portion of that initially-voted down tax revenue are the West Main Street connector road through the Royal Phoenix Business Park and Phase 2 of Happy Creek Road improvement project.
The Town’s current real estate tax rate is 13.5-cents per $100 of assessed value.
Only one person, Joe Andrews, addressed council during the public hearing on the proposal. Andrews opposed any tax increase, calling any budget shortfall he cited at an estimated $80,000, a product of “frivolous spending” rather than an issue of revenue shortfall.
In addition to raising the real estate tax from 13.5 cents to 14.5 cents, other portions of the tax proposal voted down Monday included keeping personal property taxes flat at 64-cents per $100 of value; setting a personal property tax relief rate of 60-percent of value on the first $20,000 of assessed value on qualifying vehicles assessed at over $1,000 of value; and a corresponding tax relief rate of 100-percent for qualifying vehicles assessed at $1,000 or less; and adjustment of town codes to accommodate any changes.
Sealock made the initial motion to approve the tax rates as presented, Tewalt seconded the motion. After the failure due to the super-majority requirement, Meza asked the two councilmen who voted against the tax increase for their reasoning so that he could attempt to adjust the motion to gain at least one of their votes.
With debt services on the horizon, Gillispie said he saw no need for a tax increase this year. Morrison indicated he believed the countywide real estate reassessments now underway would eventually provide enough of a revenue increase to cover what was being sought by the one-cent hike this year. Later queried on his confidence assessments would increase values, Morrison said he based that on a continued rising of the value of his home property. Asked about the necessity of municipalities to equalize the tax rate so that higher assessments do not automatically increase municipal tax revenue above what has been approved, Morrison indicated that it would be easier to achieve a tax increase following such an equalization reduction in the tax rate.
Meza took another shot, adding a “sunset clause” to Sealock’s original motion, stating that once the police station debt service was paid off, this one-cent added to the town real estate tax rate would come off. However, Meza’s motion failed by the same 3-2 for margin as Sealock’s, again failing to net the required supermajority.
The matter was set of council’s work session next week, prior to a second attempt to reach a compromise.
Councilman Tewalt was the most scathing in criticizing his colleagues voting against the tax hike. After reminding them he had been against the $9-million to $11-million price tag eventually put on the police headquarters, he noted they had supported the project. And once the majority had approved that capital improvement project, Tewalt noted that he had supported incremental tax increases to provide the revenue to pay off the debt service.
He estimated that debt service initially, if financed through the New Market Tax Credit program that would see the first nine years in interest only payments, at $275,000. When the full debt service kicks in Tewalt said the annual payments would be in the $700,000 to $800,000 range.
“We can’t keep pulling money out of our reserves … if we add one cent tonight we won’t have to add four or five cents all at once in the future. You can’t just wait until the money is needed – if you vote for a project and not to pay for it,” Tewalt hesitated in frustration before adding, “I don’t know how some people on this council run their homes.”
Morrison said rejecting what he called an “old way of doing things” as far as financing “will force us to be more creative” in coming up with funding solutions.
We’ll see what creative financing idea Councilman Morrison has up his sleeve at council’s March 19 work session.
Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee Chair tells county supervisors they are poised to repeat EDA financial scandal mistakes
As promised, sports fans – coverage of another side of the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting of November 16th, including Public Comments following the feel-good opening revolving around the life-saving actions of Skyline High students Parker McGann and Carson Richardson. Four Public Comments speakers followed Fire & Rescue Lt. Austin Cucciardo’s opening acknowledgment of the teens to the podium, all four addressing Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District issues. First two up, John Cermak and Kathleen George, addressed specific topics related to sanitary district properties, which we will get to below. But it was the final two speakers who raised troubling issues surrounding the board’s management of the Farms Sanitary District and plans for its accumulated tax revenues currently cited at $3.2 million dollars.
Could the supervisors be ignoring the next financial-scandal powder keg brewing under their noses despite information being brought to them by two successive advisory groups, one of those speakers asked. Continuing with the sports-writing metaphor, last batter up, but first on the “Where did that ball she hit land? – And was it fair or foul?!?” Public Comments speaker list was Sarah Saber. Formerly vice-chair, Saber is now the supervisor-appointed Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee chairperson in the wake of the November 3rd resignation of initial Chairman Bruce Boyle at the conclusion of his final meeting that night.
In explaining his resignation on November 3rd, Boyle expressed frustration at the Advisory Committee’s lack of success in receiving support from the board of supervisors on the committee’s advice concerning which road capital improvement projects should be pursued as the best “bang” for the Farms’ residents’ “bucks” of tax revenue paid to the County, versus conflicting opinions of county staff, Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt and Public Works Director Mike Berry. In fact, Boyle told his committee and others present November 3rd , including November 16th public speaker Joe Andrews and the supervisors’ Farms Advisory Committee liaison Walt Mabe, that he and his wife are planning a move out of Shenandoah Farms and Warren County.
But apparently Boyle is not the only one feeling such frustration levels. Previously, Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) member Joe Longo resigned from the Warren County Planning Commission amidst his concerns the supervisors were running the Farms Sanitary District “like a criminal operation”, concealing information on how and why the district’s tax revenue was being spent as it was over the objection, initially of the POSF Board of Directors, and now it seems contrary to the supervisors’ own appointed advisory committee’s advice.
Enter Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee Chairperson Sarah Saber at the 14:55 mark of the linked County video of the November 16 supervisors meeting. Remember, she’s got three minutes to make her case.
Why have an advisory board if you won’t listen to their advice?
“You all know who I am because you put me on this advisory board after you dissolved our citizen-elected board, which I also was at one point in time a part of,” Saber opened, noting she had left the POSF board in the hope of making a difference within the structure the supervisors had chosen to take, cutting POSF out of the Sanitary District management equation. “Since then I have gotten nothing but blatant unwillingness from you, Delores; from you, Cheryl; from you, Vicky; especially from you, Walt,” she said pointedly to the supervisors’ representative to the Farms Advisory Committee, adding, “Jay as well,” of the absent Jay Butler. “So, I’m done staying involved in the outright, blatant misuse of funds – this is not some conspiracy, this is well-documented. We’re bringing these issues to you and you are allowing your paid employees to look the other way.”
Saber’s reference to “conspiracy” theories appeared to be an acknowledgment that it seems to be individual Farms residents and anti-POSF conspiracy theorists that have the county’s elected officials’ ears more so than their designated Farms advisory groups; first, the community-elected POSF Board of Directors, and now the supervisor-appointed advisory committee Saber chairs. In fact, later in her comments Saber alluded to apparent consequences of certain Farms resident’s anti-POSF allegations.
“And you, Cheryl, have done nothing after you and Delores made such a stink and stomped down to the POSF Inc. office (to) ‘audit us now’ and you want to sit there till 10 o’clock at night and audit our books. And you found nothing (indicative of wrongdoing). But I’ve handed you an illustrated disregard and misuse of funds on a silver platter, and you’ve looked the complete opposite direction. In fact, you’re telling us that we’re wrong. Do you realize how absurd that is?” Saber asked board Chair Cullers, reminding her that she has not attended one of the supervisors-initiated Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee meetings. “You haven’t been to a single one. Do you remember what I said when I sat down at the interview when you hand-appointed me to the position? So, where’s the involvement, where’s the oversight??” Saber asked.
“Now all of you want to be unassociated with the embezzlement scandal, and all of that,” Saber said broaching the “reform” aspect, particularly of the three, three-year tenured supervisors Cullers, Oates, and Mabe, regarding their campaigns for office in the wake of the EDA financial scandal and alleged embezzlement of EDA resources. “But you’re standing here seeing it happen again, and you’re doing nothing. Do you want that on you? Because we’ve got $3-million dollars at stake right now,” Saber said of the Farms Sanitary District’s reported tax revenue account balance ($3.2 million) and the ongoing Farms stakeholders debates with county staff over the direction of that balance’s future use, particularly on road upgrade and maintenance projects.
“And it’s another million every year that you’re watching them piss away. And you’re being told they’re pissing it away and you’re ignoring it,” at which point Board Chair Cullers interrupted Saber to warn her about her use of language to which Saber replied, “Excuse me, piss is not a curse word,” to which Cullers responded, “I know, but let’s remember where we are.”
“Yeah, we’re in front of the government that’s been put in place to not allow our taxpayer funds to be thrown in the trash,” Saber observed, continuing to confront the supervisors over their past financial scandal “reform” image.
“I mean, you’re allowing it to happen again, you’re allowing it to happen. I’ve told you the issues are there. You’ve said ‘Take it to Ed Daley’. Whose employee is Ed Daley? Who has oversight over him? Isn’t that your job? Isn’t that the full reason you’re sitting up there?” Saber pressed her point as Cullers informed Saber her three minutes of Public Comment time had expired, at which point Saber glared at board of supervisors’ advisory committee meeting observer Mabe, offering a parting and less-than-favorable opinion of his liaison work between the board and its advisory committee. At that point Cullers told Saber to leave the podium or be escorted from the premises by Sheriff’s Office security, as Saber returned to her seat with a final held glare Mabe’s way.
Joe Andrews sets the table
Prior to Saber’s pointed assault on the supervisors lack of attention to Advisory Committee advice from Sanitary District stakeholders and blind adherence to staff counterpoints to that advice, Joe Andrews stepped up to the podium to address the supervisors: “I’m here tonight to talk to you about sanitary districts in general – I ask that the County get out of the public’s business. I don’t personally live in a sanitary district. I fear that one day I would. In any one of the neighborhoods where I own property, I’d hate to see the overreach I see in some of these sanitary districts,” Andrews said in opening.
“In Shenandoah Farms what I’ve witnessed is an elected board (POSF) being pretty much done away with. You folks have appointed your own advisory board that you neglect to listen to – That’s a fact, it’s not an opinion. You’ve got a few people between you and the advisory board that are stonewalling you and giving you misinformation. That’s a fact – I witnessed it at the last advisory board meeting (of Nov. 3),” Andrews observed in an apparent reference to involved county staff, as noted above County Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt and Public Works Director Mike Berry, both present as Andrews spoke.
“I would say at this time you really need to keep an eye on the folks you’re putting all this trust in. I see them asking you to spend money on unnecessary equipment; I see them purchasing materials that are improper for the job; I’ve seen them lie and say the materials are cheaper than the alternatives – not the case,” Andrews asserted with a negative head shake. He continued to question an apparent staff recommendation to add a road, Dry Run Court, into the Farms Sanitary District. “That road is going to be a headache for you. It’s something you probably better look into a whole lot more than your trusted folks are telling you. They’re telling you that it’s okay, it’s no big deal. It’ll take a little shoeshine, this road’s going to be okay. Trust me, it’s not the case.
“What I’d like for you folks to consider is getting rid of sanitary districts – get out of it, get out of the business. Let’s give these people their money back. Show them where the books are, show them the books (on sanitary district tax collection balances and revenue expenditures), have some transparency, give them all their money back and get out of the business,” Andrews suggested with an observation he said was offered without malice, only to illustrate why his suggestion should be taken seriously.
“I don’t think you’re equipped … you folks don’t know the road business. You have no business telling these people how to spend their money. And if they spend it the wrong way – let ’em do it. But you can’t tell them how to spend it when you, yourself don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. And the people that are feeding you the information don’t know,” Andrews concluded with a thank you for his three minutes to present his case.
Softer(?) Farms Sanitary District issues
Earlier Public Comments speaker and Farms resident John Cermak asked the board to deny the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) request of Jeffrey Steven Taylor for Private Use Camping on property located off of Howellsville Road listed under “Unfinished Business” in the meeting agenda. Later, after board and staff review of past issues with stored materials and inoperable vehicles on the property, as well as flooding threats to materials that might be kept for camping uses, the board denied the permitting by a 4-0 vote (Butler absent).
Kathleen George then addressed the board concerning “Common Properties” of general use to residents of the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District. She noted the importance of these properties to residents and the necessity of their upkeep and facilities’ public availability regardless of who had ownership or management authority.
Currently those properties are under the ownership and management authority of the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF). POSF, which has been a voluntary membership group creating issues around its status as a POA, was the Farms Sanitary District’s first management entity, circa mid-1990s to 2010/11, and for the next decade official advisors to the County on management issues and Capital Improvement Projects after turning what had climbed to a six-or-seven figure annual Sanitary District management budget over to the county government for direct oversight in 2011. However, the supervisors now appear reluctant to fund POSF for any Sanitary District oversight activities in the wake of POSF’s effort earlier this year to regain management authority by voiding the 11-year-old management agreement between POSF and the County.
That effort, according to POSF officials, was motivated by several years of a lack of financial accounting, and a lack of responsiveness to POSF budget and management inquiries by the new county board majority – Cullers, Mabe, Oates, elected three years ago as “reform” candidates in the wake of the EDA financial scandal. But rather than reinstate POSF as the Sanitary District’s manager, as noted above the county board created its own appointed Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee, while maintaining Farms Sanitary District management authority, cutting POSF out of the equation, other than the aforementioned Common Properties ownership/upkeep.
Perhaps in a hint of what was to come, that supervisors’ reluctance to fund POSF for its existing common properties management in the Farms comes despite the recommendation of its own Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee for at least one year of funding of POSF at $52,000 to cover its existing Common Properties ownership, management responsibilities. No action was taken on this matter Wednesday night.
In other agenda action items, by successive 4-0 votes the board approved one rezoning request and three Conditional Use Permit applications following public hearings. All four were forwarded by the County Planning Commission with recommendations for approval. Those were:
Ray Pennington and W.P. Associates rezoning request from Residential 1 (R-1) to Agricultural (A) for several lots totaling 640+ acres, with as staff noted 741 “previously platted parcels” that are part of a conservation easement accepted by the county in 2012. The staff agenda packet summary noted that: “The applicant is proposing the rezoning to allow for agricultural/forestal land uses and construction of buildings that conform to the Agricultural Zoning district for the large lots which are also consistent with and conforming to uses and development allowed by the conservation easement.” Despite the concern of some neighbors, including Public Hearing speaker Kathleen Mancini, in the vicinity of the property located off Reynolds Dr., Switchback Rd., Elseas Farm Rd., and High Top Rd. in Linden where some past logging activities have occurred, following the background explanation of Planning Director Matt Wendling, on a motion by Supervisor Cook, seconded by Oates, the rezoning was approved by a 4-0 vote.
CUP request of Ryan Wesley Eshelman for Combination of a Single-Family Dwelling Unit and a Commercial Repair Garage & Wrecking Service located at 1034 Rivermont Drive. The staff summary noted: “The property was formerly used as a commercial garage by the applicant’s father, Mark Eshelman who was issued a conditional use permit in October 1987. His father closed the business in 2009 and the permit has since expired. The applicant will be using the existing 36’X 50’ garage shop for repair and will use the existing sign, parking will be along the driveway to the shop on either side. He states that hours of operation will be Monday thru Friday 8:00AM to 5:00PM and that his wife will be the only other employee of the business as an office manager and bookkeeper. All parts and materials related to the auto repair business will be stored inside the garage and storage containers for fluids will be adequately labeled.” On a motion by Oates, seconded by Mabe, the CUP was approved by a 4-0 vote.
CUP request of Cindy L. DuVall for a Short-Term Tourist Rental located at 197 Marissa Court, on a motion by Mabe, seconded by Cook, approved 4-0.
CUP request of Jay Newell for private-use camping (non-commercial) located off Avalon Drive, also approved unanimously on motion by Cook, seconded by Oates.
The board also approved a meeting schedule for calendar year 2023. On a suggestion by Supervisor Oates, the board approved a third scheduling option not submitted by staff, without 9 a.m. meetings scheduled in part to facilitate outside agency monthly updates. Oates noted her and the absent Supervisor Butler’s daytime work schedules in offering the suggestion. Despite some question about its impact on outside agency staff, particularly those traveling from out of town, the board approved the morning-less schedule by a 4-0 vote.
Town Planning Commission punts to December on approval of N. Royal Ave. Short-Term Tourist Rental
The Front Royal Planning Commission met Wednesday November 16 and considered a request by Aaron Hike for a Special Use Permit (SUP) for a short-term-tourist rental for a commercially zoned property at 1116 N. Royal Avenue. The property is under renovation, and the applicant had earlier applied for a permit for a single room in the 5-bedroom dwelling but withdrew that application in order to resubmit a short-term tourist rental application for the entire building for up to 10 occupants. At the public hearing, Dr. Jeremy Bush, an adjoining property owner, complained that construction debris and equipment parked or stored on the lots between were unsightly and adversely impacting his practice. There are five lots in the parcel, and parking for the property is not on the same lot as the gravel parking area. He stated he had repeatedly tried to address the issue with the applicant but had not been able to contact him on the site.
The applicant stated that he was hoping to complete the renovations within 4 to 6 months and had resubmitted the application in the hopes of opening one room for rental while the remaining rooms are being completed.
Commissioners expressed concern about several issues with the proposal, even though it was agreed that a short-term tourist rental was not an inappropriate use for the property.
Commissioner Josh Ingram asked if the permit could be contingent on completing the necessary work and inspections. Deputy Zoning Administrator John Ware responded that completion of the work could be added to the conditions for the SUP, but previous cases where approval was granted in that way had proven to be “messy” if the conditions were not met.
Chairman Daryl Merchant questioned the parking arrangements for the proposed use. Potentially, some of the lots could be sold off in the future, leaving the facility without adequate parking. And the North
Royal Avenue entrance to the parking area is unsafe because of the sight distance on the southbound lanes. Entry to the parking area would be much safer from the alley, but the sketches in the application package don’t clearly show how the parking would be arranged. The zoning ordinance specifies that off-street parking for short-term tourist rentals must be within 300 feet of the facility, and the adjacent lots fulfill that requirement.
Further discussion ensued, and the commissioners, on a motion by Commissioner Ingram, seconded by Commissioner Daniel Wells, voted to postpone action on the permit application until the December 21 meeting. This should allow the planning staff to work with the applicant to resolve the questions the commission had about the finished project. The ordinance requires an application to be acted on within 90 days of referral to the commission.
The Commission’s revised Consent Agenda consisted of five items to be advertised for public hearing:
Yaohua Gu has requested an SUP for short-term tourist rental for a property at 309 E. Prospect Street. The property is zoned Residential Multifamily (R-3) and is in the Historic Overlay district.
Tabatha Luskey has requested an SUP for a property at 302 Blue Ridge Avenue. The property is zoned Residential Multifamily (R-3) and is in the Historic Overlay district.
Philip Vaught has requested an SUP for a Lodging House located at 140 Chester Street. The property is Zoned Downtown Business District (C-2) and is in the Historic Overlay district
NVR Ryan Homes has requested a rezoning from Residential Estate (R-E) to Residential (R-1A) According to the town’s zoning ordinance, “The R-1A District is designed to accommodate single-family residential development of a medium density on smaller individual lots. The standards for this district are designed to stabilize and protect the character of the designated areas and to protect and encourage a suitable environment for family life.” The applicants have submitted a concept plan that shows the development of up to 142 single-family dwellings.
HEPTAD, LLC has submitted amended proffers for its subdivision proposal for a Housing Development off Leach Run Parkway. The Swan Estates proposal has been floated in various forms since at least 2006. At one time it included 98 Acres and up to 450 homes.
These five items were approved for an authorization to advertise for public hearings at the Planning Commission’s December 21st regular meeting.
In separate discussions after the Consent Agenda, the Commission heard an update on the status of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan update, which is nearing completion as a final draft. The Commission will hold a Work Session on December 7th, and Chairman Merchant reminded the commissioners that there may still be public comments and suggestions from the session held on November 7th that the Department should make use of as the final version is prepared. The draft Comprehensive Plan is here.
Interim Town Manager Kathleen Leidich gave the commission an update on progress of the Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) for the current fiscal year. The CIP report is a 5-year look forward primarily of infrastructure improvements that benefit the town. Of current interest is the Primary Paving Plan, which is scheduled to be completed by mid-December. A total of 24 Streets were projected to be resurfaced, of which all but 7 are complete.
After adjournment of the regular meeting, the commission held a work session to review a Rezoning application submitted by Chris Holloway Construction, the mayor’s company, on behalf of Randolph-Macon Academy to rezone a 6.2 acre parcel along West Main Street from Residential (R-1) to Residential (R-3) The R-3 Residential District is composed of medium-to-high density concentrations of residential uses. A sketch of the proposed improvements on the parcel show a group of 6 townhouses on a side hill at an angle to West Main Street. It’s unclear whether the Town’s Zoning ordinance will allow a development without dividing a parcel into townhouse lots. The Commission will have to determine with the Planning department whether an SUP would be required since the property is part of the R-MA campus. The Town would have to provide sewer connection from West Main Street, but access to the homes would come from existing paved roads on the campus. A public hearing on the request will be held on November 30th.
Former town manager Steven Hicks lands, loses top job in Louisburg, NC
Former Front Royal Town Manager Steven W. Hicks, who was recently offered a job as town administrator of Louisburg, NC, apparently had the offer rescinded prior to his Nov. 7 start date.
In an about-face, Louisburg’s finance director of 14-plus years, Sean Medlin, was offered the job, which he accepted.
The Louisburg Town Council had apparently been searching for several months for a new manager before narrowing the field to four applicants, according to a source familiar with Louisburg’s search process. Both Hicks and Medlin were among the final four candidates.
Hicks was apparently selected by the Louisburg Town Council during a six-hour executive session on Monday, Oct. 31. When the council returned to an open meeting that evening, Hicks was announced as the new town administrator, though no formal vote was taken.
Because no vote was recorded during the Monday meeting, the council held a Friday, Nov. 4 special afternoon meeting. By the meeting’s end, the panel had moved to withdraw Hicks’ offer and instead extend an offer to Sean Medlin, who has served over 14 years as Louisburg’s finance director.
A source familiar with the events of the special meeting said it began with Mayor Christopher Neal asking the council to honor the consensus he said it had reached at the closed session Monday meeting, noting that all had agreed on the selection of Hicks at the time.
However the Friday roll-call vote shows that only Mayor Neal and Council members Emma Stewart and Bobby Dickerson voted “yes” for Hicks. Council members Tom Clancy, Mark Russell and Silke Stein voted “no,” resulting in a 3-to-3 tie. Council member Betty Wright was absent.
At that point, according to a source who was at the meeting, Mayor Neal acknowledged a Nov. 3 edition of local newspaper, The Franklin Times, which detailed some unflattering information regarding Hicks’ tenure as town manager of Selma, NC and also regarding his time as Front Royal’s administrator.
Mayor Neal said the town had done a “thorough background” search on Hicks and told the panel he believed Hicks was a solid choice who had “excellent qualifications.”
At that point, Councilman Russell pointed out that Hicks had either been fired or asked to leave his last two jobs — and said the council’s second choice “was a proven town employee.” He then made the motion to offer the job to Medlin. Council then voted 4-to-2 to offer the job to Medlin — who quickly accepted when the mayor called him following the meeting.
That Franklin Times’ story cited published reports from news stories in both Selma, and Front Royal, Va. newspapers, as well as interviews, as the source of its information on Hicks.
The newspaper detailed Hicks’ short tenure as Selma, NC’s town manager and his resignation under pressure from several council members. It quoted Selma, N.C. Mayor Byron McCallister’s September, 2020 statement to the press that said, in part, “I began hearing from citizens and town staff (who) were concerned about the performance of our town manager. The truth is that most of the council at that time felt Hicks was not taking Selma in the right direction.”
McAllister said at the time that he and another council member asked Hicks to resign, in part, because “Hicks pushed a budget that shrunk our police department and cut maintenance funds for emergency responders.”
The article relayed that McAllister referred to Hicks a “low profile leader” and said “residents were complaining about not seeing our town manager in town.”
“I visited town hall regularly to find that Mr. Hicks had often not shown up to the office by 10 a.m.,” McAllister said. “I do not believe Hicks was the right fit for Selma.”
On Dec. 7, 2020, Hicks was hired as Front Royal’s town manager, and was lauded by town officials.
The Franklin Times detailed Front Royal’s then Vice Mayor Bill Sealock statement that the council knew about Hicks’ problems in Selma, and felt that Hicks’ departure from the Selma town manager’s position “was a political issue” largely revolving around “personality,” to which the vice mayor added of Hicks potential management style, “He is quite pushy.”
Front Royal’s media release at the time of Hicks’ hire indicated that he had been chosen after a year-long search involving 80 candidates.
Sealock said, “Finding the right candidate took longer than we expected. Council knew what they wanted in a manager and was patient to find the right town manager for our community. I believe our efforts have paid off by having the best candidate possible. I’m excited to see what Steven will bring to our town government, businesses, and community.”
Upon announcing Hick’s appointment, Mayor-elect Chris Holloway stated, “Hicks was selected because of his impressive leadership in operations, bringing business in communities, developing fiscally conservative budgets, managing enterprise departments, and delivering complex infrastructure projects on-time and on-budget.”
However, less than two years into his job, Hicks was terminated in August, 2022, following a 90-minute executive session discussing the performance of both Hicks and Interim Town Attorney James Cornwell Jr. Council, with Mayor Chris Holloway casting the tie-breaking vote, by a 4-3 margin terminated Hicks’ contract. Cornwell’s contract was also terminated.
The Franklin Times reported that Hick’s problems in Front Royal began when Front Royal Town Attorney Douglas Napier conducted an investigation into whether Hicks had expedited a subdivision application by Mayor Christopher Holloway.
The paper cited Napier’s report, “In this case, it is clear from all staff reports that the town manager in effect personally “carried the ball” for Holloway’s application by the town manager himself making sure that the Planning and Public Works Departments and their staffs knew that the town manager was overseeing the subdivision application for Holloway and the town manager wanted this application expedited as quickly as possible.”
The town attorney said that the interim planning director felt there was at least an implicit pressure to sign the (mayor’s) subdivision plat as soon as it was presented to him.
“It was presented to him by his boss, the town manager, in the presence of the mayor, the interim planning director did not feel he had the time, nor did he take the time, to review the town code to be certain the correct town code procedures were being followed,” Napier wrote in his report.
Hicks would have earned a salary of $130,000 per year plus medical, dental, vision, life insurance, a five-percent contribution to a 401(K) supplemental retirement plan and enrollment in the local Government Employees Retirement System. He was also approved for relocation expenses up to $2,500.
Royal Examiner reached out to Louisburg Mayor Christopher Neal regarding the town’s abrupt decision to renege on its job offer to Hicks, but the official did not return our call.
Regarding his selection as Louisburg’s town administrator, Medlin said, “It is an honor to be the next Administrator for the Town of Louisburg. I look forward to working with Mayor, the Town Council, staff, and citizens to accomplish projects as we move the Town of Louisburg forward.”
‘Keep your expectations low’ Gillispie warns newest Councilman Rogers on revisiting EDA dynamics towards end of council work session
The Front Royal Town Council work session of Monday evening, November 14, began with just over 42 minutes of work session discussion of fairly routine matters. Those included authorization of several Special Use Permit (SUP) applications for public hearings on, guess what – two Short Term Rentals, one at 200 East Main Street (upper floor rentals) and another at 206 Lee Street (currently listed as 24 Stonewall Drive, full home rentals) – as well as one SUP application by Life Point Church to re-institute a daycare center at its 1111 North Shenandoah Avenue location; and a longer list of nine matters scheduled for Consent Agenda approval of more routine, if occasionally expensive budgetary, authorizations. All were approved for inclusion on the November 28 regular meeting agenda.
Two other agenda items were then addressed and authorized by council without dissent (Zach Jackson absent). First was an update to the Employee Handbook, adding “Juneteenth” (June 19th) as an official holiday commemorating notice of the post-Civil War end of slavery. Second was the donation of a “Retired” bucket truck to the Warren County Public Works Department. Responding to questions about the truck’s value, cited by Councilman Gary Gillispie as once about $100,000, and Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell from one source more recently at $15,000, Interim Town Manager Kathleen Leidich noted that with its length of service and accumulated mileage, the bucket truck was now “fully depreciated” with essentially no assessed value. On a side note, a line item in the “FY23 Budget Amendment for Outstanding Purchase Orders” section of the agenda indicated a current price of $180,000 for “Replacement of Bucket Truck”.
With the County Public Work’s interest indicating its being seen as of some value today, likely for restoration maintenance or spare parts, Vice-Mayor and Mayor-elect Cockrell, chairing the meeting for absent Mayor Chris Holloway, called the donation a positive indication of cooperation between the town and county governments. At a time when the Town continues to pursue hostile civil litigation against the now-County overseen FR-WC EDA over disputed liabilities and lost assets from the financial scandal circa 2014-2018, such gestures may be more valued.
Town EDA suit legal costs
On a side note, that the Town’s civil litigation against the FR-WC EDA is running up some expenses was indicated, if not directly addressed by council, in Monday’s meeting agenda packet. Under Item 2D – “FY23 Budget Amendment for Outstanding Purchase Orders” on page 13 of the agenda packet, page 1 of the Budget Amendment package, under “Legal Dept.” budget line item 2201, are listed “LEGAL FEES EDA COURT CASE – $158,139” and “AUDITING SERVICES TO SUPPORT EDA CASE – $26,155” for a total of $184,294 of taxpayer money. As has been previously reported by Royal Examiner, that civil litigation was launched by council over the objection of then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, circa 2019/20, despite a reformed FR-WC EDA staff and Board of Directors offer of “good-faith negotiations” to determine who was owed exactly what from what was cited as the unauthorized movement of EDA, Town, and County assets to personal gain alleged by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and co-conspirators during the 2014-2018 time frame.
In civil litigation the now-County overseen FR-WC EDA has been awarded, on paper at least, about $23 million of the estimated $26 million in assets cited as misdirected as part of the financial scandal. However, on the now dueling Town/FR-WC EDA civil litigation fronts both sides have only legal expenses to show for their efforts with little, if any, time yet spent in a courtroom. And town residents, as dual town-county citizens, find themselves in the position of paying taxes to support both sides’ legal costs.
But perhaps we jumped the gun above in stating that council didn’t “directly address” the potential expense of its decisions regarding its former half-century-old joint EDA and current unilaterally created Front Royal EDA (FREDA). Because after the first six work session agenda topics, the final of those being an “Update of Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) by Interim Town Manager Leidich, council reached the “Open Discussion” portion of the meeting. That is for non-agenda items of concern to council members. And among those were several from recently appointed Councilman Skip Rogers on topics he said had been brought to him by constituents, including: “About FREDA and the Front Royal-Warren County EDA”.
Rogers told council he had been discussing the topic with Councilman Gillispie, and has broached it in a preliminary manner with council as a whole. “I really do want to have an opportunity to try and open up a communication line and to just sit down and kind of talk about things, whatever that might be … And I would like Gary to join me and kind of see what we can do – and it may go nowhere,” Rogers admitted, adding, “But just for me in my time on council, it’s one of those things I want to address” at which point Gillispie entered the conversation, reminding Rogers of something he told him during their one-on-one conversations on the topic.
“I told you to keep your expectations low,” Gillispie said, drawing some laughter from his colleagues.
“We’ll see,” Rogers replied, perhaps remaining as optimistic as a shorter-tenured (as in weeks) council member might be on such topics that may have developed a litigious or municipal momentum of their own regardless of operational costs or likelihood of legal success. The conversation then segued into discussion of the topic of blighted properties and illegal activities that may occur in or around them, such as drug use in the community.
“I really do like the conversation we’re having on blighted buildings … and I want to move it further than blighted buildings,” Rogers said, gaining a head of steam for what he pointed out is the last 11 months of his 12-month appointed tenure. “I really do believe there’s something we can do to approach some of the areas that may be problem areas … and let’s see what we may be able to do – and we may not be able to do anything. But I want to make a real effort to identify those areas that seem to be consistent with drug use, drug arrests, and overdoses.”
Surviving the chair’s humorous reminder that, as he had noted, he only had 11 months left for his initiatives, Rogers then tackled one close to council’s collective interests – the partisan political committee endorsement of elected town office candidates in what by Town Charter is supposed to be a non-partisan town election.
“I want to start an open conversation … I would really like us to address the Town Charter, the non-partisan elections, and whether or not we’re really following our guidelines in this town as it relates to identifying non-partisan elections as it relates to engaging the entire community and not maybe isolating some of them because of Hatch Act and other things,” Rogers said acknowledging federal laws disqualifying federal employees from participation in politically partisan elections.
Subsequent discussion on these final two topics raised concerns first, on a blanket policy regarding blighted structures negatively impacting poorer segments of the community not involved in such illegal activities as cited. Vice-Mayor Cockrell suggested involving as many “stakeholders” as possible, including county and town law enforcement, landlords and motel owners, to try and rectify the situation without a blanket effort that would ban poorly kept residential properties often a last resort for lower income individuals and families. Rogers agreed, noting previous discussion with some of those stakeholders.
On the partisan election topic, Councilwoman Morris herself, like Mayor-elect Cockrell and all but independent conservative Bruce Rappaport, an incoming Warren County Republican Committee endorsed candidate in this November’s town election, cited the party line on such charter violation concerns. That line is that there is a legal distinction between an “endorsed” candidate and one “nominated” by a political party, nomination resulting in an “R” or “D” by a candidates’ name on the official election ballot. How that line may be blurred by sample ballots with party designations handed out at polling places on Election Day, or a published offer by a WC Republican Committee recruitment official to fully handle “endorsed” candidates’ campaigns, has not yet been addressed by a partisan endorsed-dominated council or its legal staff. Might it be over the next 11 months? Stay tuned, sports fans.
See the work session’s six action items, including budget status and transfers for coming and delayed Capital Improvement Projects, discussed over the first 42-plus minutes of the linked Town video. The Open Discussion” begins at the 42:50 mark, with Councilman Rogers’s Open Discussion remarks starting at the 52-minute video mark.
Warren County: Notice of taxes due
Warren County tax bills for the second half of the year 2022 have been mailed. If you have not received a bill for Personal Property, Real Estate, Sanitary District for Blue Mountain, Cedarville Heights, High Knob, Lake Front Royal, Linden Heights, Osprey Lane, Riverside, Shangri-La, Shannon Woods, Shenandoah Farms, Shenandoah Shores, Skyland Estates, South River, or Wildcat Drive please contact the Treasurer’s Office at 540-635-2215.
Failure to receive a bill does not relieve the taxpayer of the penalty for late payment. Tax bills are due on December 5th, 2022. When the due date falls on the weekend, bills will be due the following business day. Penalty will be added December 6th, 2022, if not paid or postmarked on or before December 5th, 2022.
Treasurer’s Office hours are 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday.
Jamie L. Spiker
County Planning Commission taps the brakes on some Short-term Tourist Rentals
The County Planning Commission held its regular meeting on November 9. Vice Chairman Hugh Henry was absent. A lone land–use protester who wouldn’t provide his name paced back and forth across the entry to the County Government Center, his hand-lettered sign decrying the use of down-zoning to enable nefarious activities on Agricultural land that has been placed in a conservation easement. At last month’s meeting, the Commission recommended approval of a Down-Zoning request for a tract of land in Linden that is part of a 600-plus acre conservation easement. This protest appears to relate not to that action, but to an earlier rezoning action on another part of the same easement that was approved in May 2021. The protester indicated that the property owner had set up a “shooting range” on that property, and that the nearby property owners were not happy.
The protester did not claim to represent those property owners but clearly believed he was representing a majority opinion. At that point, County Planning Director Matt Wendling emerged from the building and invited the protester to verbally presenthis concerns (his sign being barred from the meeting room by the board’s public hearing rules) to the Commission during the public comment part of the meeting, but he demurred. A “Public Comments” period is provided each meeting for members of the public to address their planning concerns for topics that are not on that meeting’s agenda.
The commission had three Conditional Use Permit (CUP) applications to consider. Maura And Daan De Raedt have requested a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for their property at 54 Arrowood Road in the Happy Creek District. The .7-acre property is zoned Residential (R-1) and is part of the Skyland Estates subdivision. The Planning Department received a letter from the Skyland Community Corporation recommending denial of the request, citing the Commission’s policy of prohibiting investor-owned properties from being used as short-term rentals. In addition, the applicants were seeking a waiver to the zoning ordinance’s required setback of 100 ft since this property has only a 42-foot setback from the neighboring dwelling. During the public hearing, two speakers voiced their opposition to the permit. Both Gary Smullen and Maureen Diaz opposed the non-owner-occupied nature of the rental, citing the Skyland Community Corporation policy. At least one nearby short-term rental permit had been denied on the basis of the non-owner-occupied prohibition, Mr. Smullen asserted.
When the public hearing was closed, the applicant had the opportunity to address the issues raised by the speakers and respond to questions from the Commissioners. Mr. De Raedt indicated that he and his wife wanted only to create ties to the community through giving renters a great experience, not detract from it. He indicated that additions to the property, including the surrounding fence and shrubs and trees to define the property boundary and noise monitoring mechanisms would mitigate the concerns and enhance privacy.
Despite this rebuttal from the applicant, on a motion by Commissioner Kaylee Richardson, seconded by Commissioner Scott Kersjes, the commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of the permit.
Wendy C. Willis is seeking a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for her residential property at 154 Woodthrush Way in the Shenandoah District. The property is zoned Residential (R-1)and is in the Blue Mountain Subdivision. The Blue Mountain Property Owners Association indicated they had no objection to the permit, and there were no speakers either for or against the proposed use. Hearing no objections, on a Motion by Commissioner Kersjes, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the commission unanimously recommended the permit for approval.
The third CUP request was also for a short-term tourist rental by Anthony Constable for his property at 195 Old Oak Lane in the Shenandoah Farms Subdivision. The property is zoned residential (R-1) and is in the Shenandoah District. The property is served by an Alternative Discharging Sewage System (ADSS) and a private well. The Health Department provided approval for a maximum occupancy of four persons. With little comment, on a motion by Commissioner Richardson, seconded by Commissioner Greg Huson, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
All these CUP applications will be forwarded to the County Board of Supervisors for final action.
The Commission unanimously voted to approve a Consent Agenda consisting of authorizations to advertise seven CUPs for public hearings at the next planning commission meeting. Those included:
Jacob Horowitz – A request for a CUP for a Short-term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 5433 Gooney Manor Loop in the South River District.
Jeffrey May – A request for a CUP for gunsmithing service. The 5-acre property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located at 425 Valley in the Happy Creek District.
Lydia Freeman – A request for a CUP for Short-term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 400 Chipmunk Trail Lane in the Shenandoah District.
Sergiu Luca – A request for a CUP for a Short-term TouristRental. The residentially zoned property is located at 104 Marino Lane in the River View section of Shenandoah Farms.
Stacy Weng – A request for a CUP for a Short-term TouristRental for her property at at 5 Oakwood Drive in the Shenandoah District
Matthew Williams & Jay Gilbert – A request for a CUP for Short-term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 1862 Khyber Pass Road in Linden. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) in the Happy Creek Magisterial District.
Matthew Williams & Jay Gilbert – A request for a CUP for Short-term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 1424 Khyber Pass Road in Linden. The property is also zoned Residential One (R-1) in the Happy Creek District.
The meeting adjourned at 8:05 p.m.