At its regular meeting of Monday evening, June 27, the Front Royal Town Council faced two issues with potential long-term consequences for the town’s future land use and utility infrastructure needs and costs. Those were public hearings on a Short-Term Rental Special Use Permit (SUP) request under the Town’s new ordinance guiding such quasi-commercial uses in Residential Districts; and on an Ordinance Amendment proposal that would allow Data Centers as a By Right use in Industrial-2 Districts.
In the first case, despite significant citizen and neighborhood opposition, countered by significant support, a 5-0 council majority (Gary Gillispie absent) decided to move forward with approval of the request within the new town ordinance guidelines. That approval was for Alexandria-based Bridget Scanlan’s SUP request for a maximum four-person Short-Term Tourist Rental at 108 Virginia Avenue at its three-way intersection with First Street.
However, on the second matter of allowing energy and water-gobbling Data Centers with a generally low job creation outlook as a “by-right” use rather than on a case-by-case Special Use Permitting review basis, council appeared to reverse its previously chosen course of action. After a first speaker in opposition to the “by-right” aspect of the ordinance proposal, followed by nearly unanimous council concurrence with that concern, council voted 5-0 to return the matter for additional review and re-advertisement for a vote on approval of Data Centers as an Industrial-2 District use by Special Use Permitting. We will focus on this second decision here while exploring the Short-Term Tourist Rental debate in a second story on Monday’s meeting.
The primary public hearing speaker was Darryl Merchant, who noted he was appearing as a private town citizen, not in his role as chairman of the town planning commission. But private citizen Merchant’s comments (beginning at the 1:37:15 mark of the below LINKED town video) echoed the recommendation of the planning commission, which was to require a Special Use Permit review of any Data Center application for a town industrially zoned location. Merchant began by commending the planning department staff for its background work in setting performance standards for Data Center reviews, adding, “I’m certainly not opposed to Data Centers other than I think it should be a special use and not a by-right use.”
Noting that Data Centers were currently a hot item on the economic development front across the commonwealth, Merchant noted that, unlike many established industrial-zone businesses, data centers were a relatively new and quickly evolving entity. He pointed to the generally huge size of the buildings – “They are massive both in square footage and in height” before moving to the utilities aspect: “Energy consumption is another concern we have. I know I’ve read some public comments from council regarding some of the electric blips (outages) that we’ve currently had; as well as water usage. You know water is a finite resource,” Merchant pointed out of the strain data centers can pose on a host municipality’s public utilities the entire community, industrial, commercial and residential, depend on.
He told council he believed the industry was taking steps to try and reduce that usage in the future, but cautioned that how successful those efforts would be is still an unknown. Merchant also observed that it was somewhat ironic the Town was placing Data Centers in the I-2 District with businesses generally providing a significant employment base for a community, while data centers generally provide a relatively small number of jobs for the local work force.
As to any fears that imposing the additional SUP review criteria might deter major players from considering Front Royal as a possible data center destination, Merchant pointed east. “You know Amazon just recently … submitted an application for a Warrenton site; and Warrenton does use the Special Use provision for approval,” he said in closing.
Having filed to run for a seat on council in November’s Special Election to fill the remaining two years of Scott Lloyd’s vacated term (current appointee Amber Morris filed to run in the three-seat general election), Tom Sayre followed Merchant to the podium for one of his three campaign, we mean public comment, trips to the podium. Sayre acknowledged his agreement with Merchant’s observations on the low employment numbers data centers provide. He estimated an average of 5 to 20 jobs, with 20 being a “high side” estimate, he observed. “So, I suggest you take a hard look at data centers,” Sayre concluded.
The public hearing completed, Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell again chairing a meeting for absent Mayor Chris Holloway, put the matter to council. Amber Morris made an initial motion to “defer the item to a work session”. Cockrell seconded the motion, opening the matter for council discussion. Morris opened that discussion (at the 1:42:55 mark of linked video) noting a 20-year gap in council review of Industrial-zoned properties in town, calling them somewhat “random” in nature at this point. She also suggested not jumping the gun on major zoning decisions with the current Town Comprehensive Plan Review underway.
In turn, Vice-Mayor Cockrell (video 1:44:08), Joseph McFadden (1:45:55), Zach Jackson (1:46:47) agreed with the planning commission and private-citizen Merchant suggested change to requiring Special Use Permit review for data center applications into I-2 zoned properties.
But with council poised to vote on Morris’s original motion to return the matter to council work session discussion, Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett suggested more precise motion wording to forego the necessity of a second public hearing, with the advertised public hearing having been closed. Morris gave it another try, amending her original motion to defer a vote on the proposed ordinance amendment to the July 25 council meeting following discussion at a July 11 work session. With council again poised for a vote, McFadden, who had seconded Morris’s reworked motion, wondered at the necessity of a month’s delay on a vote.
Noting an apparent consensus on the change to requiring the SUP review for data center applications, why not just go ahead and vote on an amended motion requiring SUP review of data center applications, McFadden asked. Town Manager Steven Hicks replied that the additional time would allow staff additional time for a review of standards, which led Morris to point to the planning staff review and subsequent planning commission recommendations that had already been made. McFadden also worried that “if we kick it down two meetings … politics comes into play …” as to influence on council’s decision-making process.
But after a brief conversation with Assistant Town Attorney Sonnett, Town Manager Hicks informed council that due to the way the proposed ordinance amendment had been advertised as a vote on by-right approval, a newly worded proposal would have to be advertised for another public hearing anyway. With additional questions looming (1:52:20), Hicks elaborated that following council work session discussion, the staff recommendation would be that the ordinance amendment proposal be returned to the planning commission. Planning Director Lauren Kopishki noted that would likely throw the matter into August for council approval of an adjusted ordinance amendment on data centers.
So, Morris went again, withdrawing her earlier amended motion to be replaced by one reading “That council send back Public Hearing item 7-E, an Ordinance Amendment to Town Code Chapter 175 to add Data Centers to make this by Special Use Permit only.” That motion was approved by a 5-0 vote – and here we go again.
McFadden: Resigned or is he? Hicks: Fired or is he? Legal questions follow Aug. 8 council work session – or was it a meeting first?
Joseph McFadden was philosophical in discussing second thoughts on his sudden resignation on August 8 in the wake of the Front Royal Town Council’s 4-3 vote to immediately terminate Town Manager Steven Hicks. During a Saturday, August 13th phone conversation McFadden confirmed a letter he sent the previous day to Town Hall asking the mayor and council to rescind his resignation as not having been properly submitted by Robert’s Rules of Order.
“It looks like I can withdraw my ‘motion’ to resign … with no acknowledgment by the chair or vote by the members (to accept his resignation) does my motion to resign die on the floor?” McFadden asked of Robert’s Rules of Order guidelines presented to him following his verbal resignation in reaction to the Hicks’ termination.
While standing by his original comments the following day that it was somewhat of a relief to have removed himself from an increasingly contentious political situation within Town Hall, McFadden said that after being approached by a number of constituents and two fellow council members about disappointment in his decision to resign in protest of the majority vote to immediately terminate the town manager without what he considered substantiation of the accusations made against Hicks in closed session, he would be willing to return to council were he allowed to. However, he added that if his request to withdraw his resignation as not properly acknowledged by the mayor and presented to council for a vote accepting it was denied, he would not seek court action to reinstate him.
“This whole thing is a debacle – my resignation was a debacle,” McFadden observed of legal questions that have been raised concerning both Town Manager Hicks’ termination and his subsequent verbal resignation. In fact, McFadden wondered if Hicks was legally terminated as town manager, does he remain the council-appointed Director of FREDA, the Town’s unilateral Economic Development Authority.
As to the emotion involved in his decision, McFadden confirmed that he was not in a good emotional place following what he termed a “very difficult closed session” following planning commission interviews completed after about the first half hour of the one-hour-and-35 minute closed door session. The fact that the meeting fell on the third anniversary of his mother’s death, which has been an emotionally trying day for him each year since her passing, didn’t help either, he said.
“Personally I’m glad to be off. But it’s never been for me. I’m only here trying to represent people – all the people, not just one political party or philosophical group. I was most relieved to get off initially – it is a burden, but it is also a service,” McFadden said of the renewed sense of responsibility he feels to those who voted for him and wish to see him serve out his full 4-year term.
About that termination vote
As for questions surrounding the legality of a motion and vote out of closed session to terminate the town manager, those revolve around whether council was in a meeting or a work session out of the closed Executive Session on August 8. It has been pointed out that public bodies can’t take action at work sessions, only at meetings.
This reporter discussed that dynamic with Deputy, soon-to-be Interim Town Attorney George Sonnett the day after Hicks’ termination and McFadden’s resignation. And while the August 8 gathering of council was advertised as a “Special Work Session” with an added closed Executive Session attached, Sonnett’s opinion was that by town code Closed Sessions must be convened at an open meeting of council. Consequently, when council came out of Executive Session on August 8, it was to the open meeting they convened the closed session from. Hence, action could be taken before convening to the Special Work Session.
Royal Examiner contacted the mayor and council about these divergent theories on whether they were in a meeting or work session when the vote to terminate Steven Hicks was taken. The only answer we have yet received was from Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell, who voted with McFadden and Letasha Thompson not to terminate the town manager on August 8.
“With respect to your question regarding the legality of voting during a work session, since I am not an attorney, I am forced to rely on the opinion of the town’s legal council who was present during the work session. Although, I must admit I do not ever recall voting on any matter during any previous work sessions while serving on council. Therefore to respond to your inquiry, I have requested that the interim town attorney provide a written legal opinion to the council and to the local news media explaining why taking a vote during that work session was within council’s legal rights and responsibilities. I am hopeful that his response will clear up any questions or concerns that citizens may have,” Cockrell, who is the only candidate for mayor on the November ballot replied by email.
As to McFadden’s resignation, Cockrell added, “Since Mr. McFadden was elected by the citizens of Front Royal, I am uncomfortable with removing him from office. However, some members of council believe the withdrawal of the resignation was legally ineffective. As a result, I have requested a consensus of my fellow councilmen to seek an impartial opinion by the Virginia Attorney General concerning this matter. I think this course of action best insures the continued trust of our citizens in the electoral process.”
County Planning Commission: No letup in Short-Term Tourist Rental Permit Requests
The Warren County Planning Commission held a work session prior to their regular meeting on August 10. The work session focused on the ongoing work on the County Comprehensive Plan. The Planning Department staff provided a variety of demographic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, which will be updated and included in the plan. Unfortunately, 2020 Census Data, which was scheduled to be released in April 2022, has now been delayed until November, and at the same time, decisions about growth and direction must be made. When asked if the final Comprehensive Plan would be able to incorporate the new Census data, Planning Director Matt Wendling said, “The data in the plan will be the most up-to-date we can get.”
The work session included an extensive discussion of the wage range and population makeup statistics that did not yet include an age breakdown, which, as Vice Chairman Hugh Henry pointed out, is vitally important when planning land use. Senior housing needs are significantly different than working families, and understanding trends will help the County and potential developers find the right mix of homes and employment opportunities. Planning Director Wendling acknowledged that a good part of the analysis of available data is data mining, which is time and labor-intensive. Commissioner Kersjes suggested that the planning staff investigate enlisting help from local colleges as a useful project, perhaps as an internship. Given that current projections indicate Warren County will near 50,000 population by 2040, housing, infrastructure, and employment opportunities will have to grow along with it.
Still with four members since June, when former Shenandoah District Commissioner Joe Longo resigned, the commission convened its regular monthly meeting following the work session. They heard from Planning Director Wendling that a proposed new member is pending approval by the Board of Supervisors. That would bring the commission back up to full strength.
The Commission held six public hearings for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs). All six were applications for short-term tourist rentals. They included:
Michelle Moriarty – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 96 Cappy Road. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1), located in the Happy Creek Magisterial District. With no public objection, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval.
Kendra Hansen, Kathryn Stuart, Simon Sarver & Michael Cherubin – A request for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental on R-1 zoned property located at 97 River Overlook Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. During the public hearing, one neighbor, Claire Fay, objected to the presence on the property of several fire pits, and expressed concern about the fire danger if guests were to carelessly use them. Applicant Simon Sarver responded that they had already removed all but one of the fire pits, and the remaining one was a moveable metal one. The commission members discussed the challenge of enforcing what is already prohibited (open fires) in the supplemental regulations for short-term rentals. Eventually, Vice-Chairman Henry asked the applicant if it was possible to lock up the moveable fire pit when guests would be present, and the applicant agreed that it could be locked in a storage building. With no further objections, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
CAZA Legacy LLC – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for a property at 241 Wildcat Drive. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. This application contained a waiver request to reduce the required setback from neighboring properties from 100 feet to 50 feet. In support of the request, the neighboring property owner had submitted a letter supporting the permit and the requested waiver. With that support from the impacted neighbor, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
Matthew Williams & Jay Gilbert – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 244 Delicious Road on Residential One (R-1) zoned property in the Happy Creek Magisterial District. The commission heard comments from the planning director that all requirements had been met, but an Apple Mountain Lake Subdivision Home Owners Association letter of “no objection” had not been received. The commission then unanimously voted to recommend approval.
Matthew Williams & Jay Gilbert – Their second request for a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental was at 115 Lonesome Flats Road. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the Fork Magisterial District. This application had generated a single letter objecting to the use from John Croft, who lives on the same road. His objections fall along familiar themes – short-term rentals are bad for the neighborhood, short-term tenants are not good neighbors, dangers from shooting, noise from parties, or other illegal activities. The Chairman pointed out that these concerns were why the County added supplemental regulations for short-term tourist rentals to prohibit these and other problematic activities. He noted that the permit can be revoked if a property owner fails to inform guests and enforce the regulations. The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the request.
Thomas L. Pigeon submitted a request for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental at 540 Lakeside Drive. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) and located in the Fork Magisterial District. This application drew two speakers who raised concerns about the on-site septic system. Barbara Sealock also acknowledged that the supplemental regulations answered some of her questions, but she also remained concerned about whether guests’ pets would be unconstrained in the neighborhood.
Katsiaryna Holder told the commissioners that she owns an adjoining property and is building a house there. Her concern was the septic system as it was built could have an impact on her home, for which a building permit was just issued.
The commissioners reviewed the documentation provided with the application that identified the alter native discharge system on the applicant’s property, and it is a state-regulated system that mandates additional maintenance and monitoring. Properly maintained, it should have no impact on other properties. The commissioners discussed the permit requirements, including continued compliance with State and local Health department testing and reporting. Concluding that sufficient safeguards were in place, the Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
The Commission’s Consent Agenda consisted of authorizations to advertise public hearings for Conditional Use Permits for five short-term tourist rentals and two private use camping:
- Gillian Greenfield & Richard Butcher – CUP for a short-term tourist rental at 1164 Riverview Shores Dr. in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- Elizabeth A. Saman – Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 431 Cindys Way in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- Jaden & Tori Walter – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 80 River Oak Drive in the South River Magisterial District.
- Vesta Property Management – Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 194 Venus Branch Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- Vesta Property Management – Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 86 McCoys Ford Road in the Fork Magisterial District.
- Stacy L. Lockhart – Conditional Use Permit for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). The property is located at Harris Drive in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
Jeffrey Steven Taylor – Conditional Use Permit for Private Use Camping (non-commercial) on Howellsville Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
The Commission unanimously approved the Consent Agenda, and the meeting was adjourned at 8:10 p.m.
Teachers remain uneasy about ongoing delays in approval of FY-2023 Public Schools Budget
The final in a series of three presentations on departmental Fiscal Year-2022/23 budget requests at Tuesday evening’s Warren County Board of Supervisors work session was the briefest at about six minutes of the 84-minute work session. However, post adjournment discussion among Warren County Public School employees present, but not allowed by Board Chair Cheryl Cullers to offer input during the work session, indicated that it is likely to remain the most scrutinized and debated budget as the county’s elected leaders approach a decision on what appears to be plans to cut the county’s public schools local operational budget request by 25%, or as much as $7.4 million in local funding.
The agenda packet included numbers brought to the board by a county-schools liaison committee recently formed to clarify and hash out public school budget variables. Among a 37-item list of cuts totaling $1.8 million under the header “Potential $6.9m Reductions” were: 1-English Language Teacher; 2-Elementary Art Teachers; 2 Elementary School Counselors; a Director of Communications position; 2-Library Assistants; Senior, Junior, Sophomore, and Freshman Class Sponsor Stipends, among others.
However, a sub-list of six cuts apparently already on the table totaling another $5.7 million included some EYE-OPENERS: Eliminate Extra-curricular Events and Athletics (saving $1,040,782); Do not fill eight vacant teacher positions (saving $596,928); Cost of 5% Salary Increase (saving $2,324,206); Furlough all 200 day + staff three Professional Development Days (saving $727,317), and two others eliminating a December bonus ($864,430) and elimination of “Remaining Supplements” ($160,878).
One graphic indicated a “Final Proposed FY2023 Operating Budget” for public schools of $71,108,401, an increase of $2,960,856 over last year’s budget of $68,147,545. However, as one school employee present later observed to this reporter, the requested “Increase in Local Funding” to achieve that budget was $0 (zero dollars), as State and CARES funding would entirely cover the increase.
During the brief staff and board discussion, Board Chair and South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers tried to assure those public school employees present that teaching positions and salaries were not under threat by the proposed cuts. Glancing at the agenda packet and noting the presence of such staffing and salary cuts, Cullers, a former public schools nurse, stated: “Teachers salaries were never a consideration for us. We value the teachers in this community, just as much as we value the fire admin people who were here,” Cullers said referencing Fire & Rescue Chief James Bonzano and staffer Jane Meadows, present earlier asking the board to approve additions of $2,600 to $7,250 to base pay for various levels of staff EMT Certifications.
Cullers continued to point out that the supervisors had more control over county departmental budgets like Fire & Rescue or the EDA, the latter also present Tuesday, August 9 (seeking the board to authorize compensation to EDA board members for the monthly meetings they conduct in furtherance of community economic development), than the supervisors do over the Public Schools budget. Cullers compared the supervisors’ ability to approve or deny specific staff-related financing items as were brought to them by Fire & Rescue and the EDA that evening, versus the County funding of public schools where a total budget is presented for approval as the new fiscal year approaches. After that supervisors approval of the total budget, internal adjustments to that budget can be pursued by the Warren County Public School Board and administrative staff. Cullers and her board have appeared especially skeptical of proposed school system transfers of previous fiscal year reserves between departmental or operational uses.
“That’s why we have looked at things, tried to categorize them, so that if we give money that’s supposed to go for a particular pay scale, it has to stay there and be used for that pay scale and not be pulled and put somewhere else. We’re trying to protect your salaries, not take away from it,” Cullers told the public school system contingent present.
However, with the new liaison group’s agenda summary pages before them, Cullers verbal assurances were received with some skepticism following the 7:24 p.m. adjournment of the 6 p.m. work session. One employee who raised their hand to ask permission to react to Cullers verbal assurances versus what was on paper in front of them, was not allowed by Chairman Cullers to speak. This reporter’s lengthy experience with municipal work sessions has been that unscheduled public input has generally been allowed within stated parameters at the chairman’s discretion. In fact, work sessions have often been seen by local municipal boards as a means to allow more direct give and take between the public and their elected officials than meeting rules generally allow. However, the current board of supervisors chair has been consistent in not allowing people not on the agenda to offer input at work sessions.
North River Supervisor and County-Schools Liaison Committee member Delores Oates also noted that the supervisors were taking into consideration coming and past public schools Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and related debt and debt service, as they consider the Public School System’s FY-2022/23 Operational Budget. But rather than ease school employees minds, that mingling of CIP debt service as a factor in approaching and justifying reductions in the school system’s operational budget request seemed to add to the post-work session employee anxiety. Were future operational budgets going to be limited by past or current board decisions to build new or renovate aging school facilities, some wondered as they headed for the WCGC parking lot.
Supervisor Oates noted that the new BOS-WCPS liaison group would meet again this Thursday, August 11 for further discussion of the FY-23 public schools budget proposal. According to county administrative staff no date has yet been set for a vote of approval of the FY-2022/23 public school budget. One school staffer leaving the government center Tuesday evening asserted that Warren County was the only public school system in Virginia without an approved budget nearly six weeks into the fiscal year. – “We are a laughing stock,” they observed of the county’s ongoing unresolved public school budget.
See the full work session discussion of its four agenda items, including a recommendation on abandonment for now of Old Oak Lane Phases 4 and 5 projects by the newly appointed Shenandoah Farms Advisory Committee’s Chairman Bruce Boyle, in the Aug. 9 County Work Session video. That Farms Advisory Committee recommendation in favor of more cost-effective projects servicing more residents vehicular trips appears to go against the board and sanitary district staff’s plan to continue with the Old Oak Lane projects despite huge cost increases and the minimal number of residences, eight, directly impacted.
Following the work session, the supervisors adjourned to closed session to discuss personnel matters related to the newly appointed five-member Farms Advisory Committee. It was a closed-door discussion of which the Farms Advisory Committee chairman appeared to have no previous notice or knowledge.
After 20-month tenure Steven Hicks ousted as Front Royal Town Manager
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.
Town Planning Commission moves to officially join Council at Aug. 16 special work session to allow group feedback on contractor Summit Design’s Comp Plan update
After getting new electronic tablets from IT Director Grant Autry as part of a municipal move away from paper material expenses, and approving four items for advertisement for public hearings, a three-person quorum of the Front Royal Planning Commission got an August 3rd briefing from Planning Director Lauren Kopishke on the status of the Comprehensive Plan update currently underway. Present for that briefing were Chairman Darryl Merchant, Vice-Chair William Gordon, and Commissioner Connie Marshner. It was explained that former Chairman Douglas Jones, who is retiring at the end of the month, had a scheduling conflict and that Josh Ingram was dealing with a family medical emergency.
Pointing for commission feedback on the Comp Plan draft by the end of the month and both commission and council public hearings on approval of a revised Comp Plan by October, Kopishke suggested that commission members attend an August 16 Special Work Session called by the Town Council that includes a presentation on the status of the Comp Plan update from consultant Summit Design and Engineering.
So that commissioners can participate in the work session Q&A with Summit and council it was suggested that the planning commission join council in the call for the Special Work Session, making it a joint session the planners can legally participate in as a group, as opposed to one designated representative.
“You all need to be there,” Kopishke told the commissioners of the 6 p.m. special work session on Tuesday, August 16. “We want to be more involved than last year,” Gordon told his colleagues of what was described as minimal, if any involvement of the planning commission in the launch of the Comp Plan review and update process last year.
After review of the consultant’s draft packet, Planning Director Kopishke observed, “So far – knock on wood – there is nothing controversial in it.” She pointed to a summary page near the outset of the draft Comp Plan citing four major “Big Themes” based on public feedback:
- Preserve Downtown and Create more of what we Love (though exactly what that collective “we” loves was not immediately apparent);
- Improve Town Aesthetics;
- Enhance Safe Mobility and Choice;
- Increase Access to the River.
Those four themes were supported by 10 specific “goals and objectives” which were:
- Small town character;
- Economic Sustainability;
- Environmental Sustainability;
- High Quality Development;
- Housing sustainability;
- Public Health & Safety;
- Reliable Utilities and Services;
- Responsive and Accountable Governance.
Well, okay then.
After reviewing the draft Comp Plan update, Commission Chairman Merchant wondered if a town-wide projected future land use map would be included. Vice-Chairman Gordon offered, “I like the ideas, not the execution” of portions of the graphic presentations in the draft packet.
“And from this we start the ordinance process,” Merchant observed.
“That’s why it’s important we wrap this up by October, November at the latest,” Planning Director Kopishke observed. And on that note the 6 p.m. work session was adjourned at 6:46 p.m.
Prior to that adjournment and the Comp Plan conversation, as noted above the commission authorized four matters to go to public hearing on August 17. First up was Poe’s River’s Edge LLC and Eagle Sky Industrial Park LLC’s request for a Special Exception on the zoning-recommended width of a private street to service the River’s Edge LLC parcels listed at 508 Kendrick Lane and originally proposed for camp site development. The applicant cited a precedent in the town government’s granting of a similar special exception as justification for its application. While not stated, it would appear the referenced previous exception was to Mayor Holloway for his subdivision private road in town.
After some discussion, Merchant noted the circular pattern of the narrower 20-foot width as opposed to the zoning-recommended 36-foot width street through its service area. “I have no problem with it. We’ll see what the public thinks at the public hearing on the 17th.”
The other three applications were for Special Use Permits (SUPs) for short-term tourist rentals at 107 Highfield Lane in an R-1 zone (by William and Melissa Gordon); at 12 Chester Street in a C-2 Zone (Lea Justice); and 124 Luray Avenue in an R-3 zone (Phillip Vaught/Vaught Real Estate LLC). Vice-Chairman Gordon recused himself from discussion of his and his wife’s SUP request.
Supervisors reject tourism friendly Route 211 Bike Route designation, tables decision on Sheriff’s Office replacement of four vehicles
In addition to a number of sometimes eye-opening monthly reports, including from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, the County Department of Social Services, and VDOT, at its first monthly meeting of August, Tuesday morning August 2nd, the Warren County Board of Supervisors tackled some “Unfinished Business” and several items removed from a lengthy Consent Agenda for additional scrutiny prior to adjourning to an expanded Closed Session.
As for that Unfinished Business, despite receiving fairly strong assurances from County Attorney Jason Ham that it would be protected from litigation from accident victims on the local portion of a proposed regional US Bike Route 211, the board by a 4-0 vote, Happy Creek Supervisor Jay Butler absent, denied approval of a Resolution of Support for the bike tourism-friendly initiative. Warren joined southern-most involved county Augusta, as the only two of nine involved municipalities rejecting the designation. According to the staff agenda summary, approving it have been Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties, the City of Waynesboro, and Towns of Strasburg, Woodstock, New Market, and Grottoes.
Safety for bikers from motor-vehicle traffic remained a primary concern for the board. Former Planning Director and current County Director of Economic Development Joe Petty gave the supervisors an update on the status, potential local or state signage, and VDOT involvement including large yellow “Share the Road” signs for the project. Petty’s input included his having taken his bike and ridden the involved county portion of the route.
With VDOT signage a variable, if not endorsement based on safety concerns, Petty pointed out an oddly counterproductive VDOT-based variable. With narrow or a lack of road shoulders for bike lanes a safety concern, Petty noted he encountered a portion of the road with “generous shoulders” where VDOT had installed “rumble strips” which while waking up a sleeping and drifting motorist, also forces wide-awake bicycle riders out of the “generous shoulders” into traffic lanes, unless they want to dismount for a walk along the side of the travel lanes.
As to dangers inherent in endorsing physically active tourism initiatives, Petty also noted the community’s promotion of itself as the “Canoe Capital of Virginia” with all the dangers inherent in water sports. But despite the lack of litigation over any past canoeing mishaps and what the county attorney termed “the highest level of immunity” offered to the board by “Sovereign Immunity” codes dating back to English Common Law protections for British monarchs, liable or not, the board’s concerns about the safety of Route 2011 touring bikers held the day, if somewhat hesitantly. A long pause followed Fork District Supervisor Vicky Cook’s motion to deny the Resolution of Support. Finally, Board Chair Cheryl Cullers broke the silence with an “I’ll second it” leading to the 4-0 vote of denial.
About those Chevy Tahoes
On the County’s own motor vehicle front, one of four items pulled from the 14-item Consent Agenda for discussion was the Sheriff’s Office request for approval of two co-operative contracts entered into with the Virginia Sheriff’s Association (VSA) and Fairfax County facilitating the purchase and “upfitting” of four 2022 Chevrolet Tahoes. Board Chair Cullers led the questioning of the contracts totaling $223,742: $159,124 to RK Chevrolet for the four vehicles; $44,618 for the purchase of additional equipment and lights to bring them to law enforcement standards; and an estimated $20,000 to complete “upfitting” of the vehicles.
With Sheriff Mark Butler not present, Deputy Finance Director Alisa Scott whose department would handle the contracted purchases, presented the proposal to the board. Despite the nature of the cooperative contract arrangement through VSA, Chairperson Cullers wondered at the absence of a cost comparison analysis, particularly with Ford Explorers, which she asserted got better mileage than Tahoes.
The agenda packet staff summary notes: “Section 2.2-4604 of the Virginia Public Procurement Act authorizes the County to cooperatively contract through a solicitation issued by VSA and the County of Fairfax on behalf of other public entities. VSA and the Commonwealth competitively solicit goods and services which the County can procure directly from the awarded vendor” adding of these two competitively solicited contracts: “Contract 2205-0917 was awarded to RK Chevrolet, Inc and Contract E194-89772 was awarded to Dana Safety Supply, Inc.”
But with a lack of a direct cost comparison to Ford Explorers on the table, the three supervisors present sided with their chairman in tabling a decision pending further explanation from Sheriff Butler on why the supervisors should trust the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Commonwealth, and Fairfax County to get them the best deal available on new vehicles, apparently available for immediate delivery and outfitting to law enforcement standards.
So, on Delores Oates (North River District) motion, seconded by Vicky Cook (Fork District), the board voted 4-0 to table the matter until a September meeting for additional information.
Also pulled from the Consent Agenda were two items related to transfers of Warren County Public School (WCPS) funds related to Operating Expenses from one fiscal year to the next. After extensive discussion and explanations from WCPS Finance Director Rob Ballentine, all submitted transfers were approved. A commitment to improved communications between the schools and county administrative finance departments as budget-year variables arise was promised by both sides.
A fourth Consent Agenda item, authorization for Public Hearing of a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) by Cole and Danielle Haase for a Commercial Outdoor Recreational Operation, was also pulled to delay that public hearing to September 27 to facilitate the schedule of the applicants.
See these discussions, the outside agency reports, board and staff reports, and a revised motion into a four-topic Closed Session in the County video. Following reconvening and adjournment of the open meeting, the board convened to a work session review of FOIA standards and a report on planned renovations to the 15th Street Health and Human Services Complex to facilitate the move of the Warren County Senior Center into expanded space there.