Following an hour and 40 minutes behind closed doors to open a 6:30 p.m. work session Monday evening, August 8, an unknown portion of that time spent discussing the performance of both Town Manager Steven Hicks and Interim Town Attorney James Cornwell Jr., in a dramatic roll call vote the Front Royal Town Council, with Mayor Chris Holloway casting the tie-breaking vote, by a 4-3 margin terminated the contract of Town Manager Steven Hicks. Following Holloway’s vote, Hicks rose quickly from his seat at the far end of the meeting room table facing the mayor and simultaneously, Councilman Joseph McFadden stood up and stated, “I resign.”
At that point, Hicks, accompanied by Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis, went to clean out his office at the far end of the Town Hall second floor, leaving by a back stairway without comment to media. Leaving the meeting room with Hicks was Councilman Joseph McFadden, who had voted with Letasha Thompson and Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell to retain Hicks in his town manager’s position.
“This is a kangaroo court,” McFadden said as he tossed down what appeared to be council credentials, turning over other materials to IT Director Grant Autry on his way into the hallway behind Hicks and the police chief.
Part of the aforementioned drama came after the first two votes were cast on Gary Gillispie’s motion, seconded by remotely connected Amber Morris, to terminate Hicks’ contract. With Cockrell and Gillispie having cast the first two votes, the roll call reached recently appointed member Zachary Jackson at 1-1. Leaning back in his chair, his head looking upward, Jackson paused for 30 seconds before quietly voting “yes”. It may have been that from the closed meeting discussion the newest council member may have known his would be the decisive vote in either sending or not sending a 3-3 tie to the mayor.
That the mayor would vote for termination seemed to be indicated by McFadden’s brief statement to Royal Examiner reporter Roger Bianchini on his way out of town hall. After repeating that what had transpired had been “a kangaroo court,” McFadden suggested the media “investigate some on council and the mayor.”
In a somewhat anti-climatic subsequent vote, council voted 5-1, Cockrell dissenting, to terminate the services of Interim Town Attorney Cornwell of White Stone, Virginia. That would appear to leave Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett now in charge of the town’s legal department.
Hicks’ termination as town manager also leaves the unilaterally created Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) without a director, one of the additional management hats Hicks had been given by town council to wear during his tenure.
Council appointed Assistant Town Manager Kathleen Leidich to take on operational oversight of the Town Administrative Office on a temporary basis.
Upon hiring Hicks to what was his second town manager’s job, Front Royal officials had heaped praise upon him for his experience, declaring him “the perfect selection.” Former Interim Mayor and Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick stated, “To date, I have had a very limited time getting to know Steven, but this much I have already observed, he appears to be the perfect selection for our Town. Well done Town Council.” Tederick wasn’t alone in his praise of Hicks.
Then Mayor-elect Chris Holloway commented, “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.”
Then Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock said, “Finding the right candidate took longer than we expected. The 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.”
Hicks began his tenure as Town Manager on Dec. 7, 2020, in the wake of some organizational, departmental, and departmental directors flux during Tederick’s tenures as Interim Mayor and Town Manager.
When a council debate arose some time into Hicks’ tenure about the expense of continued use of a consultant “executive search” firm in the hunt for a new town attorney to replace the suddenly resigned Doug Napier, Councilwoman Letasha Thompson asserted that expense would be money well spent, noting, “They got us, Steven.”
But what passes for experience and credentials in some people’s eyes may not be so elsewhere. Royal Examiner discovered that in his first town manager’s job in Selma, North Carolina, after which he came here, Hicks left under a cloud of controversy after less than a year on the job. According to a published report in the Johnston County Report, a Selma-area newspaper, Hicks agreed to resign after just nine months on the job.
The July 30, 2020, issue of the newspaper stated that the council had scheduled a special called meeting for 5:30 p.m. that evening to discuss personnel matters. However, the meeting was canceled after a deal in which Hicks apparently agreed to resign under specific conditions was reached earlier that day.
The Johnston County Report story said, “Sources say the deal will require Mr. Hicks to resign on August 3rd. In return, he will receive his full salary for the next six months, including contributions to his retirement and health benefits. Vacation and sick leave will stop on August 3rd, but he will receive all accumulated time. He will also be allowed to seek employment elsewhere before the six months severance ends.”
The Town of Front Royal press release announcing Hicks as the town manager stated, “Hicks has over 25 years of state and local government experience. He was previously the Town Manager of Selma, N.C., that provided a full range of services, including Solid Waste, Water, Sewer, and Electric, as well as Police and Fire. During Hicks tenure, he was able to develop a transparent operational budget and manage the Town’s enterprise funds delivering positive operating revenue. As part of the budget process, Hicks was able to establish Selma’s first-ever 5-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) with major emphasis in addressing groundwater and stormwater (I&I) that enters into the Town’s sewer system for treatment. Hicks also partnered with Eastfield Crossing Developers and Duke Energy to amend the 400-acre mixed-used development and incentive agreement to increase the Town’s tax base and create 3,100 jobs.”
According to Selma’s public records, the solid waste was contracted out to a company called GLF when Hicks was town manager though he did oversee the water, sewer, and electric departments cited on his resume.
A Selma source stated that the budget Hicks developed, in fact, required “a bit of hands-on work” by that town council after its initial presentation. The source stated that the “positive operating revenue” cited in that Front Royal press release existed prior to Hicks’ tenure as town manager. Selma public records support that fact as well.
Selma’s public records also indicate that the Eastfield Agreement was amended and significantly changed in 2021.
Prior to the Selma stint, Hicks served as director of the Durham, N.C. City’s General Services Department from October 2015 to July 2019.
More will be forthcoming on this story as additional information and comment from involved parties becomes available. Following the two action item votes, council went directly into its scheduled work session agenda, largely reviewing Special Use Permit applications for advertisement for public hearing, allowing no time for a Q&A with members on the reasoning for their votes.
As County-directed EDA develops detailed Strategic Plan for the future, it moves toward joint meeting with Town counterpart
The still legally named Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (FR-WC EDA, more commonly now referenced as the WC EDA in the wake of the Front Royal Town Council’s circa 2019/20 withdrawal from participation*) held its regular monthly meeting for September, Monday afternoon the 26th, at the Warren County Government Center. With no action items on the agenda, the focus of County EDA Director Joe Petty and the five EDA Board of Director members were committee reports concerning discussion of a cooperative path forward and procedural adjustments surrounding a reworked Strategic Plan.
Asked about the EDA’s direction in the wake of the meeting, now full-time County EDA Director Petty said, “The meeting was productive in getting the Board of Directors thinking about assigned tasks for the upcoming Strategic Planning Session. There has been a lot of positive movement in the past few months and the Board is looking forward to continuing that momentum into the session by planning for the future. This includes having a cooperative relationship with the Town, FREDA, and County for economic development initiatives.”
Board Chairman Jeff Browne launched the cooperative tone during his opening Executive Committee Report. He sought input on a preferred date for, and legal advice regarding, a largely social “get-to-know” each other meeting with the newly created Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) Board of Directors. With the meeting planned chiefly as a “getting to know each other” session with no business or action items scheduled, Browne inquired of EDA attorney Sharon Pandak, present remotely, if it would require the same legal notification as regular board meetings. Pandak said that with the intent that the two full boards be present, yes, published public notice of the date and time of the meeting would be required as usual.
Later Browne noted a recent meeting with Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell to discuss cooperative efforts between the now divided Town and County EDAs. And with Mayor Chris Holloway’s announced retirement from politics Cockrell is also essentially the Mayor-in-Waiting as the only person on the ballot for the mayor’s seat in the coming November Election.
Cooperative movement to a mutually agreeable end was also evident in discussion of a utility easement across WC EDA property at the Avtex site to allow Town crews to perform storm-water management work on existing infrastructure as needed in the future. A consensus was reached to put approval of at least a short-term agreement outlining what work and access is anticipated to eventually be on the table, on the EDA’s next regular monthly meeting agenda in October.
Also, during his Executive Committee Report, Browne noted an upcoming meeting with a senior member of the Council for Competitiveness regarding American companies, particularly supply chain businesses, planning to relocate from overseas seeking favorable locations in the U.S. “It seems like we’d be a really great location for them,” Browne said of the county with its Interstate Highway system crossroads location, as well as the Inland Port connection to the Norfolk Port Authority system.
After a brief discussion of some EDA properties insurance coverage issues forwarded by Jorie Martin, Jim Wolfe summarized work towards establishing goals for an upcoming Strategic Planning meeting slated for 8 a.m., potentially thru lunch time, on Friday, October 14. Chairman Browne pointed to a preparatory meeting envisioned for the previous Friday, October 7, where individually assigned tasks for board members related to the Strategic Plan update, budgetary and marketing matters would be reviewed to give the following week’s meeting a stronger jumping off point. Of the two-pronged October assault on the evolving Strategic Plan, Browne described a strategical perspective: “Focusing ultimately on the big picture – how do we assess competing priorities and reconnoiter them in terms of importance and their immediacy.”
That discussion segued into the Asset Committee Report of Greg Harold, who led off with the good news that with the Baugh Drive warehouse sale being finalized, that property was no longer on the EDA’s asset list. As to its remaining land assets, Harold pointed to the EDA’s recruitment of ULI (the Urban Land Institute) for assistance, particularly as to developmental and marketing issues with the redevelop-able 150 acres of the old 467-acre Avtex “Brownfield” site looming behind the EDA office complex on Kendrick Lane.
Queried later about ULI, County EDA Director Petty explained that “ULI is the oldest and largest network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts in the world.” Of ULI and its membership, Petty pointed to a goal of “delivering the mission, shaping the future of the (real estate/land use) industry, and creating thriving communities around the globe.”
During his presentation Harold noted that ULI’s team of professional land developers could help the EDA determine, not only a highest or best-use of a given property like the aforementioned “Brownfield” Avtex site, but also “the most realistic” and achievable uses.
“It’s not free – it costs money,” Harold pointed out to his colleagues. But with a worldwide track record of success for its members, it could be money well-spent in jump-starting the long floundering Avtex/Royal Phoenix site redevelopment, Harold noted. “I’ve come to the realization that for me Avtex is too big for me to try to figure out what to do with,” the Asset Committee chairman observed of the gorilla in the room of EDA property assets.
“What you’re talking about, is where needed bringing a level of additional professionalism into it, to help make us make good decisions and avoid things that we may not, just from a lack of experience, know about,” Browne observed of the benefit of ULI input.
The Future, if not NOW – flashing back to coach George Allen’s “The Future is Now” slogan for his Washington NFL team – certainly appears to be on the horizon for the WC EDA.
*FOOTNOTE – Against the advice of then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, during the term of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick, circa 2019/20, the Town Council elected to ignore offered “good-faith negotiations” to determine who was owed exactly what in the wake of the estimated $26-million joint-Town-County EDA financial scandal, in favor of hostile civil litigation over the Town’s unilaterally claimed losses.
Council approves short-term rentals, one contingent on special exemption from parking
The Front Royal Town Council at its regular meeting Monday evening approved three short-term rentals, though one applicant must obtain a special exemption from the parking requirement before the property can be legally rented.
Vice Mayor Lori A. Cockrell, who led the meeting in Mayor Chris Holloway’s absence, and council members Gary L. Gillispie, Zachary Jackson, Amber F. Morris and Letasha T. Thompson voted unanimously to approve a special-use permit allowing a short-term rental in the Historic District, at 12 Chester St. The panel made the approval of the permit contingent on the applicant, Lea Justice, obtaining a special exception from the parking requirement.
Council members discussed speeding up the process by approving the exception so Justice can begin renting the apartment during the peak “leaf-peeping” season. Justice applied for the permit so that she could rent an upstairs apartment to no more than four people.
Justice already applied for the special exception from the parking requirements. Planning Director Lauren Kopishke told the panel that the special exception application must be considered by the Planning Commission—at a work session, followed by a regular meeting –for potential action.
Following that process, the council would need to act on the exception before Justice could legally rent the property on a short-term basis. Town Attorney George Sonnett Jr. advised council that they should follow the procedures for a special exception rather than approving the request at the same time as the permit.
Bruce Rappaport spoke in favor of Justice’s application, saying he was “pleased to hear” that the property would be a short-term rental. He cited the fact that Downtown Front Royal was a destination as well as the fact that it was zoned commercial C-2.
Council approved a short-term rental application for 12 Chester Street, owned by Lea Justice, with the contingency that she obtains a special exemption from the parking requirement. /Courtesy photo.
The council also considered and approved two other short-term rental proposals. Members voted 5-0 in favor of a motion to approve a special-use permit requested by William and Melissa Gordon for a short-term rental at 107 Highfield Lane, zoned residential R-1.
Mr. Gordon addressed the council during the public hearing, stating that he would cap rentals of the five-bedroom home to 10 occupants. The property provides onsite driveway parking for up to four vehicles. The Planning Commission recommended that the council approve the permit with no conditions.
Doug Hovest and Marlene Lundberg, both residents of the neighborhood, each said at the public hearing they opposed allowing a short-term rental on the street because visitors unfamiliar with the street might not obey the speed limit and could endanger children. John Lundberg addressed the council, asking they consider postponing a vote on the permit so that he and other neighbors could talk with the Gordons and address concerns.
Thompson said she understood the neighbors’ concerns about child safety, though visitors would be in the neighborhood with or without short-term renters. She suggested warning signs to alert drivers to children in the neighborhood.
Morris said she didn’t think the neighborhood would see more than a few vehicles at a time, and any complaints filed with the Planning and Zoning Department would be reviewed and addressed as necessary. She indicated that the council could revoke a permit if necessary.
Council members approved a special-use permit requested by Philip Vaught and Vaught Real Estate LLC for a short-term rental at 124 Luray Ave. zoned residential R-3. Vaught plans to rent five rooms to no more than 10 people. The property provides onsite driveway parking for up to seven vehicles. The Planning Commission recommended that the council approve the permit. West Main Street resident Bruce Rappaport voiced his concern regarding the property becoming a short-term rental. He told the council that a “transient aspect” might occur that could affect the value of surrounding homes if the permit was approved.
Also at the meeting, council voted to approve:
- An ordinance to amend Town Code Chapter 4 on the administration of government with changes to time of council meetings, remote participation by electronic means and residency requirements for certain town employees. No one spoke at the public hearing.
- An increase in the fiscal 2023 budget of $19,976 in funds from the Virginia Tourism Corporation and to allocate the money to Discover Front Royal. The town will remit the funds to Discover Front Royal once it has established itself as a 501C-6 non-profit organization and established a bank account.
- An increase in the fiscal 2023 budget of $23,494 from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Highway Safety Program and to allocate the money for reimbursement of overtime funds spent for speed and impaired driving enforcement operations.
- An increase in the fiscal 2023 of $2,276 from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services Local Law Enforcement Block Grant Program and to allocate the money to help support public safety and crime prevention efforts.
- A contract amendment with Imperio Construction and to transfer $81,696 in the fiscal 2023 budget for the company to replace curb and gutter and install sidewalk along part of South Commerce Avenue, from Prospect Street to South Street.
- A sole-source procurement of services from Evoqua Water Technologies at a cost of $87,337 to make repairs to Clarifier #4 at the Wastewater Treatment Plant.
- A task order for CHA Engineering for $49,000 to complete the development and implementation of a water backflow prevention program to meet state waterworks regulations.
- A bid award for de-icing road salt at a cost of $89.09 per ton to Morton Salt Inc.
- Bids for fiscal 2023 water and wastewater treatment chemicals.
- A contract amendment to Dominion Energy’s water and sewage service agreement with Front Royal to speed up payments from the company to the town totaling $3.5 million.
- The conversion of one custodian position from part-time to full-time. The town pays the part-time position $15.66 per hour for 28 days per week. Converting the position to full-time will cost an additional $30,996.
- A resolution to approve the form and authorize the execution of the 2022 Locust Ridge Energy Schedule with American Municipal Power Inc. (AMP) Avingrid offered a 3-year power purchase agreement for wind power from its Locust Ridge Wind Project in eastern Pennsylvania with a fixed price of $47.50 per megawatt hour beginning in October through September 2025. American Municipal Power recommended that Front Royal commit to a 2-megawatt purchase to help hedge against the volatility of the wholesale power market and provide replacement power for a scheduled fall outage at the Prairie State Coal Fired Plant.
- A deed of easement granting the town easements for existing and new stormwater drainage infrastructure on property between Luray Avenue and Cherry Street owned by the Front Royal Presbyterian Church.
Council met in closed session to consult with legal counsel and discuss personnel.
Supervisors approve Outdoor Sports Facility over recommendation of County Planning Commission, add to the Short-Term Tourist Rental count
The Warren County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting September 27th, largely to process a list of nine actions that were not able to be covered during the regular meeting on September 20.
The Board quickly approved two leases of county property, one for a property at 229 Stokes Airport Road to Skydive Front Royal, LLC, for $600 per month, and the other for an apartment at 136 Hillidge Street for $725 per month to Raymond K. Freeman. There were no public comments on either lease, and the Supervisors approved both unanimously.
After a lengthy public hearing, on a 3-2 margin, the Supervisors approved a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for Cole and Danielle Haase for an outdoor sports facility on their property at 19959 Fort Valley Road. In July, the County Planning Commission held a public hearing and ultimately recommended denial of the permit, citing traffic and neighborhood concerns. Since that time, the applicants have downsized the proposal and worked to allay the concerns of the neighborhood. They intend that the majority of the activities will be inside and scaled back outdoor activities to daytime only. The Haases are also local business owners. The property was formerly used as a church and multi-activity center by Master’s Touch Ministries.
Public comment was brisk with 24 individuals either speaking in person, or submitting letters, e-mails, or videos. Eighteen were in favor of the permit and six against. Neighbors inveighed against possible traffic increases near an accident-prone intersection at Fort Valley Road and Route 55. Supporters praised the applicants’ commitment to youth sports, as an important factor in developing teamwork, athletic and social skills for young people. Sue Russell, whose property adjoins the site, opposed the permit and is worried about the effect of any groundwork or excavations resulting in flooding on her property.
Some of the supervisors recalled when outdoor concerts and events were held at that facility. Supervisor Vicky Cook appeared to be the leading opponent of the proposed permit, calling into question the applicant’s parking and traffic estimates. At the end of the discussion, Supervisor Oates offered a motion to approve, seconded by Supervisor Mabe, and the motion passed, 3-2. Chairman Cullers, joined by Supervisors Oates and Mabe, Aye, Supervisors Cook and Butler, No.
Michelle Moriarty is requesting a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for the property at 96 Cappy Road that she recently purchased in April of 2022. The applicant will use a local property manager and local professional services for emergencies, maintenance, cleaning, garbage disposal, and guest screening/reservations. There was one speaker who opposed the permit on the grounds that the area is residential, not business. However, the Virginia General Assembly and the courts system have specifically determined that short-term rentals are a residential activity, rather than a business operation. Under questioning by the board, the applicant indicated that she had already spoken with all the nearby property owners and provided contact information should any need arise.
Planning Director Wendling indicated that there had so far been no complaints or calls related to these properties. Supervisor Cook questioned whether the County Sheriff would necessarily know if there was a problem with a short-term rental. County Administrator Edwin Daley suggested that the County could investigate developing a registry list for approved short-term rentals to allow law enforcement in the Public Safety Communications Center to know who to contact if there was a problem. Finally, on a motion by Supervisor Oates, seconded by Supervisor Mabe, the Board unanimously approved the permit.
Kendra Hansen, Kathryn Stuart, Simon Sarver, and Michael Cherubin have applied for a CUP for for a Short-Term Tourist Rental Located at 97 River Overlook Road. The owners plan to use the property themselves throughout the year, but they would also like to be able to make the property available for short-term lodging for visitors of the Warren County area when they are not occupying it. The applicants will manage the property personally. There were no speakers for or against the application, and no discussion from the supervisors. On a motion by Supervisor Mabe, and seconded by Supervisor Cook, the motion passed unanimously.
CAZA Legacy, LLC has requested a CUP for short-term tourist rental for the property located at 241 Wildcat Drive. The applicants, Robert Chevez and Erin Kavanagh, purchased this residentially zoned property as an investment property and currently are renting the property long-term for over 30 days since purchasing it in February 2022. They do intend to also use it for themselves as a get-away from their homes in Northern Virginia. The applicants are requesting a waiver to the setback requirement of 100-feet from dwelling to dwelling. The dwelling to the west is 50 feet and the applicants submitted a letter from their neighbor giving his support of the application. The applicants will be contracting a local property management company to maintain the property and as realtors they will be marketing and managing the rental. The property was the subject of an approved permit for short-term tourist use in 2018, however the use was never established and that permit expired.
Two letters from neighboring property owners were submitted. One was in favor of the permit issuance, and one was opposed. There were no speakers at the public hearing, and on a motion by Supervisor Mabe, seconded by Supervisor Cook, the Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the permit.
Matthew Williams and Jay Gilbert have applied for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental located at 244 Delicious Road, Linden. The applicants plan to manage the property personally with assistance from local professional services for cleaning and landscaping. The closest dwelling unit is 115 feet to the northeast. There were no comments from the supervisors or the public. One letter supportive of the use was submitted. On a motion by Supervisor Oates, seconded by Supervisor Butler, the Board unanimously voted to approve.
Matthew Williams and Jay Gilbert have also applied for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental in an agriculturally-zoned property located at 115 Lonesome Flats Road. The applicants plan to manage the property personally with assistance from local professional services for cleaning and landscaping. The closest dwelling is 313 feet to the north. The planning department provided a letter by a neighbor, John Croft, who opposes the permit. Mr. Croft alleges that the Road is private, on his land, and has not granted permission to use it for guests. After a discussion regarding the legal status of an access easement to the applicant’s property, the supervisors decided to approve the permit, subject to verification that an access easement does exist. Supervisor Cook made a motion to approve, seconded by Supervisor Mabe. The vote to approve was unanimous.
Thomas Pigeon has applied for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental Located at 540 Lakeside Drive. The applicant will contract a local property management company, Shenandoah Valley Property Maintenance LLC, to manage and maintain the property if the use is approved. The owners plan to manage the rental of the property through Airbnb and will review any renters for a positive online ranking. All the required conditions for permitting are complete. On a motion by Supervisor Butler, Seconded by Supervisor Mabe, the Board voted 4-1 in favor of approval. Chairman Cullers expressed her concern and continued opposition to properties being purchased by owners with no connection to the area for this use.
The Meeting adjourned at 8:50 p.m.
Town Planning Commission adds a member, another short-term tourist rental; sees another attempt on Main Street micro-housing on the horizon
The Front Royal Planning Commission introduced its newest member at its regular meeting on September 21. Daniel Wells joins the commission, replacing retiring former Chairman Douglas Jones, who served on the commission for 15 years. Chairman Daryl Merchant expressed the commission’s appreciation for Mr. Jones’ hard work and long service.
A consent agenda portending a wave of new short-term tourist rental applications was approved for authorizations to advertise public hearings. The following public hearings would be at the Commission’s regular meeting on October 19:
- For Doug Ichiuji, a special use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 200 East Main Street in the Historic Overlay District.
- For Aaron Hike, a special use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 1116 North Royal Avenue in the Entrance Corridor Overlay District.
- For the Minick Group, LLC, a special use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 206 Lee Street in the Historic Overlay District.
Also on the consent agenda for authorization to advertise was a special use permit for SeeSuu, LLC, to convert an existing commercial structure at 131 E. Main Street in the Historic Overlay District to a greater number of dwelling units up to a height of sixty feet. The project description was very short on details, but the preliminary sketches look similar to proposals floated earlier in the year for a large-scale overhaul of the old Murphy Theater building on East Main Street to create a six-story building with 40 housing units as small as 320 square feet (s.f.), none larger than 640 s.f.
The proposal also states that valet parking will be acquired to meet any needed parking space. The description indicates that the first two stories are potentially retail/commercial spaces.
Regardless of how the project plays out, the conversion of such a prominent building in the Downtown Historic District would have a broad impact on the entire downtown and is certain to attract public feedback.
On its action agenda, the commission held a public hearing on a request from Vesta Property Management for a short-term tourist rental at 30 Fairview Court on property zoned Residential One (R-1). The Vesta representative, Chloe Phillips, answered commissioners’ questions. Chairman Merchant asked “for the record” if the rental was going to be owner-occupied. The Chairman has previously voiced his concerns, in particular during the development of the Zoning Ordinance amendment, about non-owner-occupied properties as short-term rentals. The answer was “No.”
Commissioner Gordon noted that the application indicated the applicant intended to rent the whole house, a maximum of six guests, and wondered if the parking would be adequate if the driveway only accommodated two vehicles. There followed a discussion about the language of the ordinance requiring parking “in driveways or other designated areas”. In many neighborhoods, on-street parking is allowed for residents; however, a question remains as to whether on-street parking can be considered a “designated area” for the purpose of short-term rentals. The Vesta representative indicated that the language of the ordinance did lead to confusion about which requirements were applicable to short-term rentals as opposed to bed and breakfast facilities or hotels/motels. Under those sections of the ordinance, owners must provide one parking space per guest room.
After the commissioners had discussed the difficulty of nailing down a specific requirement for parking for short-term tourist rentals, Planning director Lauren Kopishke agreed to take a look at the language of the ordinance to see how it can be made clearer.
On a motion by Commissioner Gordon, seconded by Commissioner Ingram, the Commission voted 4-1 in favor of recommending approval of the application. Chairman Merchant was the dissenting vote. The application will now go to the Town Council for final action.
Chairman Merchant announced that there will be a Civic Pride workshop entitled “Revitalize or Die” sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce on September 27 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Royal Cinemas on East Main Street. The event will feature consultant Jeff Siegler, and tickets are available at the Chamber office at 201 East 2nd Street.
Planning Director Kopishke gave the commission a summary of Planning Department activities for August – 26 zoning permits, 31 Code Enforcement Cases, seven land use applications, four sign permits, and 22 business licenses. Thirty-four new dwelling permits have been issued so far in 2022.
The meeting adjourned at 7:34 p.m.
Additional Public School Budget requests approved as part of Supervisors Consent Agenda
At its regular meeting on Tuesday, September 20, the Warren County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a 10-item Consent Agenda that included three appropriation requests from the Warren County Public School system (WCPS). Approval of the requests, including the transfer of $1,500,256 of $5,714,541 already appropriated into the school system’s Fiscal Year-2023 budget into four specific budget categories, comes in the wake of discussion by the Joint Finance Committee recently established to improve communications and the supervisors understanding of the public schools budgetary processes.
And the fact those requests weren’t pulled for additional discussion would seem to indicate that Joint Finance Committee is successfully accomplishing its mission of improved communications between the school administration and the supervisors who control the local portion of the public schools’ operational and capital improvement budgets.
In addition to the above-cited transfer of $1.5-million already appropriated funds into Administration, Attendance, and Health; Pupil Transportation; Operations and Maintenance; and Technology categories, the supervisors approved the transfer of $1,677,113 from the public schools’ FY-2020/21 surplus to three specific uses; and additional appropriations totaling $207,633 from outside funding sources to Operational/Maintenance and Instructional category use.
The outside source revenues included $38,500 from a “recently awarded Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) grant” to Operations and Maintenance that will allow the school division to contract with a third party to create digital maps of each school that can be used by school administrators and first responders in emergency situations. Another $20,000 received “from additional State Medicaid reimbursements” (to Instruction) will be used to provide a $5,000 annual stipend to instructional assistants with an active Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license.”
And a final $149,133 “from a greater-than-anticipated Federal Title VI-B funding” will be divided in the Instruction category: $33,133 to fund one Special Education Instructional Assistant position, with the remaining $116,000 used to cover special education costs for contracted services and instructional supplies.
The transfer of $1,677,113 in surplus funding from the last fiscal year was authorized for use: To the County’s Capital Improvement Fund for School Projects ($1-million); To the County’s Asset Replacement Fund for School Buses ($409,913); And to be retained by the County in the General Fund Contingency Reserves ($267,200).
Other matters included in the Consent Agenda approval were:
“Approval of the FY-2023 Performance Contract with Northwestern Community Services Board” and “Adoption of a Concurring Resolution Regarding a Financing by the Northwestern Community Services Board”;
“Approval of a Transfer Request and Award Notice” to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office for four vehicle replacements. The previously awarded contract to Hall Automotive of $164,358.60 was approved, along with the transfer of $1,597.86 from an FY-2023 budget line item. The staff agenda summary also noted a previously authorized funding total of $260,000 for the vehicles and operational accessories, with the final cost of $261,597.86 requiring that late line-item transfer.
“Award for Senior Center Phase 1 Restrooms and Mechanical Renovations” in the amount of $393,300 to Lantz Construction Company of Winchester. The Senior Center is being relocated to the 15th Street Health and Human Services Complex at the old middle school site. The staff agenda summary noted a total project cost estimate of $850,000.
Several personnel matters rounded out the Consent Agenda. They included:
The reappointment of Art Saffelle and Thomas McFadden to the Warren County Board of Building Code Appeals, for four-year terms ending September 30, 2026;
The appointment of Gregory Huson to the Shenandoah District seat on the Warren County Planning Commission to fill the remaining portion of the four-year term of Joe Longo, expiring on December 31, 2023. Longo resigned recently over what he called a lack of transparency from the county government regarding the use of Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District tax revenue he asserted may have been transferred, perhaps illegally, to uses outside the Farms Sanitary District.
And the nomination of Christy McMillin-Goodwin for reappointment to the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging Board of Directors for a four-year term ending September 30, 2026.
Earlier in the meeting, one person appeared to address the board on non-agenda matters during Public Comments. That was Linda McDonough, who was critical of a recent “News Letter” she said had been issued by the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) critical of the County’s management of the Farms Sanitary District. And surprise (not really) – long-time POSF critic McDonough berated POSF for the content of its News Letter and lauded the County’s management of the sanitary district.
Following board and staff reports and its approval of the Consent Agenda, at 7:28 p.m., the supervisors moved into Executive/Closed Session. The motion to close indicated discussion of EDA legal matters related to “possible liabilities of the EDA, the recovery of EDA funds and assets, and the outstanding indebtedness of the EDA” as well as the dueling litigations initiated by the Front Royal Town Council over lost asset claims. While the County and EDA had a big month of July with civil case rulings in the EDA’s favor for the return of about $15 million in assets and punitive damages, attorneys for all four civil case defendants found liable have filed motions to overturn the jury verdicts, requiring additional legal expenses to counter those filings. There were no announcements or actions out of closed session, and the meeting was adjourned at 8 p.m.
County Planning Commission recommends data center zoning ordinance amendment to allow data centers by right in industrial and light industrial zones
A combined work session/regular meeting of the Warren County Planning Commission was held Wednesday, September 14. The work session consisted mainly of discussing ongoing work on the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Planning Director Matt Wendling provided the commission members with a sheaf of background information, much of it made available from the 2020 Census data, which has begun circulating for Federal, State, and local government agencies to use for planning and decision making.
Some of the statistical data come with a caveat, however. The margin of error for some categories is 10% of the total value with the warning: “Take care with this statistic.” According to the Census data, the county population is just under 41,000 people, almost exactly half of whom are women. The median household income is $70,000. Warren County lags behind the Commonwealth of Virginia median by over $6,000. Census data for the county can be found here.
The commissioners also discussed the increasing number of applications for short-term tourist rentals in the county. The phenomenon is sweeping the country, and Warren County has more than 100 properties either approved or in the approval process. The Royal Examiner has previously reported on this movement. Investors from the Washington D.C. Metro area find the combination of relatively low sales prices, relatively low property taxes, and the area’s natural attractions as advantages of purchasing properties in Warren County and converting them to tourist rentals.
The question is, what are the long-term impacts on the community? Will property prices be driven up? Will vehicle traffic increase? Will working people who want a home to live in be priced out of the market? What about crime? It really is too early to tell, but some facts should be considered. A short-term tourist rental could bring a property owner between $15,000 and $50,000 annually by renting only weekends. As far as traffic is concerned, transportation studies indicate that short-term tourist rentals actually reduce traffic dramatically over full-time occupied dwellings. And in Warren County’s experience, crimes reported related to short-term tourist rentals so far have been limited to one complaint about on-street parking.
Meanwhile, short-term tourist rentals account for .006% of the housing units in Warren County. For decision-makers and county residents, It is worth continuing to watch for signs that the positives of increasing tourism, improved property condition, and tax revenue are not outweighed by the negatives of inflated property prices, reduced availability of housing for residents, or additional burdens on infrastructure.
Immediately following the work session, the 4-member Commission held its regular meeting and began by considering amendments to the County’s Zoning Ordinances, carried over from its August meeting. In previous public hearings, the commission was urged to require a Conditional Use Permit for such uses as Data Centers to ensure a review process and public hearings for each permit application. The Town Zoning Ordinance amendment eventually approved by Town Council did require a Special Use Permit for such development.
However, the County commissioners chose a different approach than the Town in recommending approval of the Zoning Ordinance amendments by inserting language that made Data Centers a by-right use in Light Industrial (LI) and Industrial (I) zones. All development projects will still require zoning permits, building permits, Health Department and environmental clearances, site plan review, and Board of Supervisor approvals, so citizens will still have input opportunities.
In the entrance corridor Overlay District, if the proposed building would exceed 50,000 square feet, the Zoning Ordinance text amendment would still require a Conditional Use Permit and a public hearing for it. Chairman Robert Myers recused himself from the vote citing his involvement with the development of data centers, and Vice-Chairman Hugh Henry called for the vote, which passed by a 3-0 vote, Myers recused, and one seat was still vacant.
The Commission then turned to the advertised public hearings for permit applications:
1. – Gillian Greenfield & Richard Butcher have requested a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for their Residentially zoned (R-1) property at 1164 Riverview Shores Dr. in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. The applicants cited their experience with Short-Term Rentals, owning and managing multiple properties in Winchester City and Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties. There were no speakers during the public hearing, and on a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval.
2. – Elizabeth A. Saman has applied for a Conditional Use Permit for a Short-Term Tourist Rental at 431 Cindy’s Way. The property is zoned Residential (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Planning Director Wendling told the Commission that the property does not meet the setback requirements outlined in the Zoning Ordinance and that a waiver for that would be required. The property is 85 feet from the nearest dwelling rather than the required 100 feet.
The applicant told the Commission that she had purchased the property as a residence but that her father was undergoing cancer treatment in Northern Virginia, requiring her presence there more regularly, so she made the decision to offer it as a short-term rental to help offset expenses. In contrast to the previous application, this public hearing generated five speakers, all of whom were opposed to the short-term rental. Jonathan Lopez cited repeated instances of guests pulling into his driveway confused about which property was their destination. The applicant’s property is in a cul-de-sac. In the end, on a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry and seconded by Commissioner Scott Kersjes, the commission unanimously voted to recommend denial of the application based on the lack of setback distance. Vice Chairman Henry commented, “The ordinance specified the setback requirement for a reason.”
The application will now go to the Board of Supervisors for a final decision.
3. – Stacy L. Lockhart requests a CUP for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). His property is on Harris Drive in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Planning Director Wendling told the Commission that the applicant was wanting to bring the property within zoning compliance and would be required to maintain the property in compliance with all Health Department requirements, which include storing all associated materials in a neat and orderly fashion, removing them when not in use, obtain building and zoning permits for any development, structure, or fencing, and post the property with a lot or parcel number for Fire/EMS services. The requirements also direct that there be an emergency egress plan for the removal of Recreational Vehicles or portable commodes before any predicted flood event. There was one letter of support from a neighboring property owner and no other public comment, so on a motion by Vice Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the application.
4. – Jaden & Tori Walter – A request for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 80 River Oak Drive. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the South River Magisterial District. Planning Director Wendling told the Commissioners that the applicants had provided all required documents and the property met the Zoning Ordinance setback requirements. There were no speakers at the public hearing, and the Commission voted, on a motion from Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, unanimously to recommend approval.
5. – Vesta Property Management has applied for a CUP on behalf of the property owner, Dori Greco Rutherford, for a Short-Term Tourist Rental at 194 Venus Branch Road. in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. The applicant supplied all required documents, and the property meets the zoning ordinance requirements. There were no speakers for the public hearing, and the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval. The motion was made by Commissioner Richardson, Seconded by Commissioner Kersjes.
6. –Vesta Property Management has also requested a CUP on behalf of owners Chad and Donna Marie Anthony for a Short-Term Tourist Rental at 86 McCoys Ford Road. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the Fork Magisterial District. The Application package was complete, and the property met all other requirements. There were again no public speakers, so Vice-Chairman Henry offered a motion, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, and the Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
7. – Jeffrey Steven Taylor has applied for a CUP for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). The property is a vacant lot located on Howellsville Road. and zoned Residential (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. This application drew significant opposition from neighboring property owners, who cited the present condition of the lot as an eyesore as the rationale for opposing the permit. The applicant acknowledged that the property’s appearance needed to be improved but that he had been wrestling with several issues with registering the RV on the site and with the cleanup.
His intentions were to use the property recreationally, but his personal circumstances have precluded him from doing that so far. Planning Director Wendling told the Commission that approval of a permit would allow the applicant to bring in power for his camper and build an accessory storage structure with the issuance of a building permit. In the end, the voices of the neighboring property owners prevailed, and on a motion by Commissioner Kersjes, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the Commission voted to recommend the denial of the permit.
The Consent Agenda was for Authorization to Advertise three Conditional Use Permits and a Rezoning request for public hearing:
- For Ryan Wesley Eshelman – A request for a CUP for a Commercial Repair Garage with Single Family Dwelling. The property is located at 1034 Rivermont Drive in the Fork Magisterial District.
- For Cindy L. Duvall – A request for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 197 Marissa Court in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- For Jay Newell – A request for a CUP for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- For W.P. Associates –c/o Ray M. Pennington III – A request for rezoning from Residential One (R-1) to Agricultural (A). The properties are located in the Blue Ridge Reserves subdivision and are vacant lots in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
These applications will be advertised for public hearings at the next planning commission meeting on October 12.
Finally, the Commission reviewed a final plat for a class B subdivision of 9 lots for Strawberry Fields Farm, LLC off Route 631 (Gooney Manor Loop) in the South River Magisterial District. After a brief discussion, the Commission unanimously approved the plot plan.
The Commission adjourned at 8:15 p.m.