Author archive: Roger Bianchini

Local News
Evacuation, searches as social media threats target Warren County Public Schools
February 22, 2018
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Skyline High School /Courtesy image.

FRONT ROYAL – One day after students around the nation rallied to demand legislative action on gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead, Warren County Public Schools dealt with a series of reports of social media threats to system schools.  Shortly before 1 p.m., Thursday, February 22, Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher summarized the status of those reports.

Drescher confirmed that Warren County Middle School had been evacuated around 9 a.m. after it was determined a bomb threat posted against that school should be taken seriously.  Students at that school were bused to Warren County High School.  After the middle school was swept with bomb sniffing dogs and other law enforcement, it was cleared.  Students were returned to the middle school by 12:30 p.m.

Initial reports of online threats to a county public school began coming in late Wednesday evening, Drescher said.  Those reports were cited as being observed on SNAP chat and/or Facebook and were aimed at “SHS”.  While Skyline High School was not specifically mentioned, the school system and county law enforcement decided to beef up security Thursday morning as students and staff were arriving.  Drescher reported that Front Royal Police assisted the Warren County Sheriff’s Office with perimeter security, during which backpacks, vehicles and personal searches occurred.

Considering the logistics involved, Drescher reported the precautionary security went off efficiently with Skyline High fully operational for the school day by 8:20 a.m., just 20 minutes after its scheduled starting time.

Other social media reports of threats aimed at Warren County High School and Skyline Middle School were determined not to pose actual threats, Drescher said.

A press release on the situation was being prepared, Drescher said, but would not be released till later in the afternoon to assure that no additional developments surfaced over the course of the remainder of the school day.

According to a subsequent press release from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, a student identified with a verbal reference to a bomb at the middle school was identified, interviewed by school resource officers and released to the custody of their parents.Any person with information pertaining to these incidents is asked to call WCSO Sgt. Daniel Maxfield at (540) 635-7100 or (540) 635-4128.

In addition to the Front Royal Police and Warren County Fire and Rescue, assisting the Warren County Sheriff’s Office with K-9 and bomb technician units were the Virginia State Police, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Manassas Park Police Department, Prince William Police Department.

 

Local Government
Differing perspectives, a common goal for county public schools
February 21, 2018
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School Superintendent Greg Drescher makes his case on priorities in the FY 2019 public school budget. Photos/Roger Bianchini

FRONT ROYAL – While no hard final totals were presented, lots of financial subcategory numbers were during the first joint Warren County Board of Supervisors and School Board budget work session for Fiscal Year 2019. Also at the forefront of power points presented from the county and public school perspectives were variables and budget goals that will impact those final numbers.

At the top of those lists from the public school side were rising health care costs and a desire to increase operational funding, particularly to make teacher salaries more competitive with surrounding localities. A health care hike estimated at 20-percent was impacted by 19 large claims last year, school administrative staff noted. As for about $2 million in staff salary increases, the number is a result of the system remaining behind surrounding localities in average teacher salaries.

Of one non-personnel, operational increase of $32,000, Drescher said, “I bring this up because of what happened last week in Florida.” His reference was to the semi-automatic weapon attack on a Parkland Florida high school that left 17 students and teachers dead. That budget item was to increase door security at Warren County’s schools.

Summarizing system operational needs, including moving toward a 1-to-1 student-computer ratio (cost estimate $133,300), bringing desired new system funding to about $4 million, Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher lamented, “We know that’s not possible.”

It is at least in part not possible because the county supervisors have a stated intent of keeping taxes, particularly revenue-driving real estate taxes, flat in the coming budget cycle. The county’s current real estate tax rate is 65-cents per $100 of assessed value, which is comparable (60-cents to 71-cents) with surrounding communities other than Fauquier County’s rate of $1.04.

On the bright side, Drescher pointed to about a million dollars in revenue that will come available to the school system through the retirement or defection of longer-tenured teachers. While that still leaves the system about a million dollars short on desired pay hikes, he also suggested the use of some unspent, carryover funding.

Drescher noted that as the County has been at the forefront of school system capital improvements over the past 10 to 12 years, it has continued to lag behind in operational and staff funding.

County Administrator Doug Stanley noted the trend in his presentation, preceding Drescher’s. Stanley presented numbers showing that Warren County ranked seventh of seven neighboring localities in operational funding of county public schools. Shortly after presenting those numbers, Stanley said county government, “Understood the need to shift focus to addressing operational needs of the school system over the next five years,” at least till the next capital improvement project – a new elementary school becomes a priority.

Drescher pointed out that of surrounding, western Shenandoah Valley communities, Warren ranked ahead of only Page County in average instructional staff salaries. He added that with all surrounding county governments considering 2-percent to 3-percent salary hikes for staff, Warren was in danger of falling further behind if it does not at least match other county government hikes in teacher salaries. Teacher attrition to higher-paying school systems remains on ongoing concern for Warren Public Schools.

The school superintendent also observed that a recommended 10-percent hike to supplemental salaries totaling about $46,000 targeted stipends for extracurricular activities like coaching. No increase in those supplemental salaries has been given since 2003, Drescher noted.
“The point I’m making is that we need to make increases to personnel budgets beyond cost of living and STEP increases,” Drescher told county supervisors and staff.

North River Supervisor Dan Murray injected that he felt that any pay hikes in the school system go to teachers, rather than administrators. – “Sometimes leaders must sacrifice for their staffs,” Murray said, adding, “The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’ve lived through it.” Murray is a retired Interbake departmental manager.

“That is a valid point,” Drescher replied.

The superintendent concluded his presentation as he began it, pointing to a common goal for all in the room. “There is not anybody in this room who doesn’t want to do what’s best for this community,” he said.

To open his presentation Drescher noted past cooperation between the boards on school capital improvements, preceding the consequent need to increase operational funding to keep new and renovated school buildings staffed and working to their utmost potential.

“I know we may have different needs – but we will be there with you (developing the FY 2019 public school budget) with the best interest of our kids and our community in mind,” Drescher said to those in control of the county’s funding streams.

Local News
Flat-Trump returns to his flock as Russian influence questions mount
February 19, 2018
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As they move toward their respective one-year anniversaries, a Valentine’s Day view of Front Royal’s dueling demonstrations for and against the Trump presidency. Photos/Roger Bianchini

 

 

FRONT ROYAL – On February 14, 2018, with temperatures climbing into the 50’s at least one person identified as a faith-based supporter returned to join Ralph and Michael Waller on the Trump side of Chester Street in Historic Downtown Front Royal.  The occasion, other than an expression of Valentine’s Day love for the president, was Front Royal’s dueling weekly perspectives on exactly what the Trump presidency means for the nation.

To bolster the pro-Trump contingent, flat-Trump, a life-size cardboard cutout of the president, also returned in the company of his faith-based handler.  As for signs indicating issues on the pro-Trump side in mid-February the Waller’s held several featuring immigration concerns, fears of social engineering and Trump’s Electoral College victory.

As they move toward their respective one-year anniversaries, a Valentine’s Day view of Front Royal’s dueling demonstrations for and against the Trump presidency. Photos/Roger Bianchini

 

Across the Chester Street political divide about a dozen anti-Trump Vigil for Democracy participants also displayed signs about immigration and the 2016 presidential election result, albeit from different perspectives – pro-immigration and DACA, and the fact Trump lost the popular election by about 3-million votes.  Other prominent issues included Trump and Congressional Republican efforts to cut Medicaid and Medicare benefits; what the president may have known and when about Russian efforts to assure his election and Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016.

Above, the Valentine’s Day Vigil for Democracy crowd refocuses on issues of health care, immigration law and Russian election interference on behalf of Republican nominee Donald Trump; below, the Trump side works foot traffic on their side of the street.

Related to the latter, was Vigil organizer Len Sherp’s sign questioning whether Trump’s clearly pro-Russian, pro-Vladimir Putin public stances on economic sanctions and election interference may indicate that the president himself is a national security risk. – And those questions were posed two days before Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller handed down indictments against 13 Russian people and 3 Russian “entities”, most prominently among the latter the so-called “Internet Research Agency”, regarding direct pro-Republican, anti-Clinton meddling in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Those special prosecutor indictments led Trump’s own National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster to state there was now “incontrovertible evidence” of Russian interference in America’s electoral processes leading up to the 2016 election.  Perhaps ironically, McMaster replaced Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn.  Flynn has been indicted by the special prosecutor and pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts.  Flynn remains at the point of Special Prosecutor Mueller’s Russian meddling investigation.

 

Above and below, Rhea Howarth turns faith-based support of Trump on immigration around while others, including vigil founder Len Sherp below, question implications of Vladimir Putin’s preference for a Trump presidency and Trump’s stated preference for Putin’s word over the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment about Russian election interference.

 

 

Some on the vigil side noted that Flynn was so highly thought of by Trump that prior to being fired as FBI director James Comey said the president suggested any FBI investigation into Flynn’s Russian contacts be dropped.

However, on the Trump side of the street such details are taken in stride, dismissed as irrelevant or part of a sour-grapes effort to discredit the president and his administration.

Local Government
Fatal kennel fire applicant granted second delay by county planners
February 17, 2018
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Lorraine Smelser, left, ponders the consequences of denial of a second Tenney request of a 30-day delay in a planning commission decision on re-forwarding a recommendation on her breeding kennel permit to the board of supervisors. Ralph Rinaldi is to far right. Photos/Roger Bianchini

FRONT ROYAL – Wendy Tenney, operator of a breeding kennel destroyed in a fatal fire in which 16 dogs died last year, has been granted a second extension on consideration of a request her kennel conditional use permit (CUP) be re-approved. A letter from Tenney attorney Jay Neal received 10-1/2 hours prior to the February 14 Warren County Planning Commission meeting explained his client was not yet prepared to present the requested materials asked for by the county planners on January 10.

At the January 10 public hearing Tenney’s attorney sought the first 30-day delay on an official recommendation by the planning commission to allow him more time to review background on the permit and the planning department’s initial recommendation it be revoked. At the January meeting Planning Commissioners Ralph Rinaldi and Hugh Henry asked that Tenney produce a building plan for a new kennel structure and a business plan for future kennel operations.

Of the status of that request on February 14, Neal wrote Planning Director Taryn Logan, “Wendy’s idea of a business plan was basically a listing of the conditions of her SUP (sic, CUP), but we discussed what I felt the PC is looking for – accurate business details about the operation – and I’ll need to meet with her to get all of those details.” Neal also cited issues with determining a contractor to build a new kennel since he reported according to his client price quotes “seem to be all over the place”.

While the vote to allow another 30-day extension was unanimous, it was not without some dissent and asides about past Tenney communications to the county government in the wake of the March 6, 2017 kennel fire.

“I don’t think we should do another 30 days – she certainly has the capability of writing something as she has shown. I’m through with it, but I’ll go along with whatever you all think,” Shenandoah District Planning Commissioner Ralph Rinaldi said of the requested extension.

“She’ll probably file a lawsuit as the next step if we don’t – I’m willing to go 30 more days,” South River Commissioner Lorraine Smelser told her colleagues.

Not my fault – yours!

Communications from Gethsemane Mountain Ranch kennel proprietor Wendy Tenney to county officials in the wake of the fatal fire have been contentious at best. In a series of letters Tenney aggressively shifts blame for the fire on county officials and codes, declining to accept any responsibility for what happened in her kennel despite county staff findings she illegally heated the kennel and that heating was the source of the fire.

Among county warnings about violations at her kennel prior to the fatal fire was a concern by animal control about use of a space heater in the kennel with frayed wiring believed caused by dog chewing. Of that concern, Tenney wrote County Planning Director Taryn Logan on October 20, “(Animal Control) Deputy Gomez expressed concern of using a space heater, yes, and told of a sheep barn burning recently because of the use. I expressed concern of having to use a heater in the first place, but explained that it is a condition of the kennel CUP permit holders as I was told from the beginning, so what choice do any of us have?”

The referenced zoning regulation highlighted in a staff response concerning heating in kennels states, “Animals shall be confined within an enclosed soundproofed, heated and air-conditioned building from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.”

A letter to Tenney four days after the kennel fire from County Planner Matt Wendling expresses “condolences over your loss” adding “but this could have been prevented by addressing matters brought to your attention during previous visits by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office Animal Warden Deputy Gomez.” Wendling observed that, “County Planning staff has found no electrical permits for the accessory structure which housed the dogs.”

County Emergency Services Officer Raymond Cross filed the official report on the fire. Cross contacted Tenney upon arriving at the fire scene. He reported her telling him she had been awakened by “fire personnel knocking on the door.” She told him that the fire crew had managed to save three larger dogs, but that seven adult dogs and nine puppies had been lost in the fire. Cross then proceeded to investigate the scene.

“I was able to follow the burn patterns back to the area of the electrical space heater and found the wires and some components of that. I did speak with the male at the scene in reference to the breaker this power was on and he advised that he was unable to locate where it came into the panel and if it even did, again his friend wired it with no county inspection or permit,” Cross’s report states.

Contacted for this story while off duty, Cross said without his 11-month-old report in front of him he could say only he was fairly certain the referenced “male at the scene” was Wendy Tenney’s husband.

However, in her October 20 letter to County Planning Director Logan defending her operation, Tenney wrote, “And again, for the record, the night of the fire I was in complete compliance according to Warren County Code. And, my dogs were up as it was after 10 p.m., according to code; and they had heat, according to code. They couldn’t escape and it Killed Them. They died adhering to Warren County Code.”

However, the above-referenced county zoning regulation regarding HVAC to a kennel does not appear to cite space heaters or illegally wired electric to facilitate their use as the preferred means of providing adequate heating and cooling to kennel animals.

Even so, in an April 25 letter to the members of the Warren County Board of Supervisors Tenney cited her perception on procedural issues and processes to claim the County, not her, was responsible for the fire and death of 16 dogs on her property. At the point of her ire was County Planner Matt Wendling, author of the March 10 staff letter to Tenney four days after the fire. She cited a lack of harsh, certified-letter reprimands about alleged permit violations prior to the fire as an indication she had been

in compliance when the fire occurred. Tenney also referenced the planning department recommendation to revoke her kennel permit as indicative of an innate prejudice against the county’s small landowners. The Tenney property is 3.17 acres.

“I realize that as being an owner of only one property in the Agricultural section of the South River District may make me appear less than significant in your eyes, but I can assure that what is being done to me and my family is very relevant to others within the county,” Tenney wrote the supervisors. She urges the county’s elected officials to act of their “own volition” rather than upon the recommendation of their planning department and its research into her operation, research she terms “harassment”.

In concluding the March 10, 2017 county planning department response to the fatal kennel fire, Wendling wrote, “Again my condolences in regard to the loss of life and if you have any questions regarding this matter and any correspondence I will be available to assist you. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation of the County’s position in this matter.”

See what YOU did!

Above, on Jan. 10 attorney Jay Neal told county planners his client is not adversarial in seeking reissuance of a commercial kennel permit following a March 2017 fire that killed 16 dogs; below, Wendy Tenney, center, her children and mother listen on Jan. 10.

In her response to Wendling’s post-fire notice of 60 days in which to respond with reasons her kennel permit should not be revoked, Tenney assails the county planner personally while describing in detail the condition of some of the dogs that died in the fire.

“Mr. Wendling, although you expressed your condolences in your letter to start revocation, I am having a hard time believing that you understand the grief that my family and I are going through … you will never understand that Grief has no understanding in a hurting heart … Your condolences mean naught to a teenager that just lost his pet and saw him laying where fire consumed him with enough pressure of heat to split his head open. My closest one to me was lying there with her feet and ears burned off. All of the children had a favorite dog. One was so bad that only the county dog tag/license that you pushed me so hard to get, that was under him told which one he was. If you really want to be understanding, and help and assist, let me rebuild and get on with my life, because this was a big part of it,” Tenney wrote, signing off, “In God Almighty’s Hands”.

In her attorney’s January 10 comments to the planning commission, Neal contended his client was “not adversarial” and disputed what he called public accounts the Gethsemane Mountain Ranch kennel operation “as a train wreck waiting to happen.” Neal noted the Tenneys home-schooled their children and said the kennel business was a convenient commercial use that the family enjoys.

A history of warnings

Citing multiple violations of conditions of her original conditional use permit in the wake of the fatal fire, the county planning department forwarded a recommendation to the board of supervisors that her kennel permit be revoked. Issues cited in that revocation recommendation included:

· The warning from Animal Control about a space heater in the kennel with frayed wiring from believed dog chewing

· No electrical permit for the kennel building

· Accumulated trash and feces in the kennel, the former cited in rapid spread of the March 6 fire

· Septic drainage toward neighboring properties and a consequent strong odor coming from the kennel property

· A failure to license kennel dogs over a two-year period 2015-16

· Exceeding the maximum number of 11 permitted dogs by housing as many as “approximately 19” adult dogs

· Inoperable barking suppression collars

· Repeated cancellations of scheduled county staff or animal warden visits without effort to reschedule

However in the wake of the series of letters to, or copied to, the county’s elected board criticizing its planning staff’s assessment of her operation and county codes related to kennel permits, the county supervisors returned the matter to the planning commission for further review after it came before them on November 7, 2017.

And so on March 14, 2018, just over one year after 16 dogs died in the Gethsemane Mountain kennel at 63 Limeton Church Road, the Warren County Planning Commission will try to ascertain why its initial recommendation of revocation of Wendy Tenney’s conditional use permit for a breeding kennel should be reversed.

County Planning Director Taryn Logan asserts that her department has not singled Tenney out for any scrutiny that would not be applied to any permitting application.

Local News
One angry Christendom alumni calls for President O’Donnell’s resignation
February 13, 2018
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John Connolly made an impassioned plea for Christendom College’s president to resign in the wake of revelations of minimal administrative reactions to reports of rape by and of students over nearly two decades. Photos/Roger Bianchini

FRONT ROYAL – Christendom College alumni John Connolly, Class of 2008, has blasted his alma mater, the school president and board of directors regarding past failures and current direction in response to recent revelations about issues surrounding reports by female students of sexual assaults and date rapes by male students at the conservative Catholic college.

Connolly took the opportunity of “Requests and Inquiries of Council Members” during the February 12 meeting of the Front Royal Town Council to express “disappointment in the organization” of  Christendom College, located on Front Royal’s east side. That disappointment was directed at, not only the revelation of past administrative inaction surrounding sexual assault and rape reports dating back as far as 1999, but at the intention of then and still Christendom President Timothy O’Donnell to remain in that position; as well as the apparent willingness of the Christendom Board of Directors to allow him to do so.

As first reported in the Northern Virginia Daily and then other local media outlets including Royal Examiner, in early-and-mid January Catholic blogger Simcha Fisher published a two-part account of the stories of two former Christendom female students, one named and one not, about their experiences of sexual assault or rape by male student boyfriends. But most troubling for many, including John Connolly, was the description of what appeared to be an uneven and ineffectual handling of the women’s reports of these crimes to the school administration. See related story here

In an initial response, O’Donnell alleged “misleading information and serious inaccuracies” in the Simcha Fisher blog posts, but then went on to apologize to past victims of such incidents within the Christendom student body. In a subsequent response Christendom Executive Vice-President Kenneth Ferguson promised the school would do better in the future and offered to meet with student victims, past and present. Ferguson even thanked Simcha Fisher and her husband Damien for shedding light on the problem.

“We have failed some of our students,” O’Donnell admitted in the second response.

For John Connolly that was not enough.

“I attended the school from 2004 to 2008 and have been involved in the school in some capacity or another for 14 years. It is the lack of response and support for victims that is a heinous scandal and open sore for years that remains. It is not lightly that I must express my disappointment with the gross lack of responsibility and accountability in the college that has been uncovered through the many heart-rending accounts by victims of sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape at the school,” Connolly said in opening his remarks.

The Christendom Advocacy & Support Coalition formed in support of student victims and survivors of sexual assault and rape by fellow students confirms 18 known cases between 1999 and 2016, but adds it believes there to be more. On Monday night, Connolly agreed with that assessment, saying following the meeting he believed there are more victims coming forward in light of the recent publicity.

Pointing to 1999 as a point at which Christendom’s administration became aware of the early reports of such criminal incidents involving students, Connolly noted that the school did not develop even “a rudimentary policy to handle sexual assault cases until 2013. The lack of institutional response is stunning, especially for an organization that has long prided itself on having a sacred bond between students, their families and the college,” Connolly continued in reading from a prepared statement.

He said as he watched the situation evolve over the past three to four weeks he had “truly hoped the leadership of the college would hold the administration accountable for its failures.” However, Connolly said subsequent comments in the media attributed to the chairman of the school’s board of directors “indicate otherwise” as far asking for Christendom President Timothy O’Donnell’s resignation.

“I firmly believe that this permanently erodes any vestige of trustworthiness for the college and will likely destroy the college’s viability as a place of faithful Catholic higher education in the future,” Connolly said in a scathing appraisal of his alma mater.

At stake, Connolly believes, is Christendom College’s continued viability as a trustworthy center for Catholic higher education.

“If he truly loves the college, he must step down,” Connolly said of the school president. He added that failing a voluntary resignation, “the Christendom Board of Directors must save the college by making that decision for him.

For the rest of our local community, I invite you to join me and everybody who has been concerned to see this issue in lifting our thoughts and hearts in prayer for the victims and for the college to find the guidance to act with justice,” he concluded of Christendom College’s path forward.

Another perspective
However, one person of influence in the Christendom community does not agree with Connolly’s assessment of the questions raised by the Fishers’ blog “Are Students Safe in Christendom’s bubble?” Anne W. Carroll, widow of Christendom founder Warren H. Carroll, sent a letter of support of O’Donnell’s continued leadership of Christendom to alumni on February 8, four days before Connolly made his public call for O’Donnell’s resignation or ouster by the school’s board of directors.

“Speaking as the person who intimately knew Dr. Carroll’s mind and heart, I know his support for Dr. O’Donnell never wavered and never would waver. It would not waiver now,” Christendom’s founder’s widow wrote. Mrs. Carroll credited O’Donnell with continuing her husband’s vision for the school and urged an outpouring of alumni support for the Christendom president.

“Dr. O’Donnell’s profound Catholic faith, his sincere love for his students, his commitment to Christendom’s goal of restoring all things in Christ, and his brilliant leadership has made Christendom what it is today. I can only hope and pray that he is able to lead Christendom for many, many more years because that is exactly what Dr. Carroll would want … Christendom College is a premier educational institution. But far more than that, it is a living Christendom – a place where Christ is King, it would not be so without Dr. O’Donnell. Therefore Timothy O’Donnell deserves the undying gratitude of all of us who love the college,” Mrs. Carroll concluded.

We now know that at least one alumni not directly impacted by sexual assault in the Christendom community, along with many who were, do not agree with Mrs. Carroll’s assessment.

As the debate continues, one is left to wonder whether in Mrs. Carroll’s opinion as her husband’s vision for Christendom College was expanded into the 21st Century, would Christ have directed more time and effort into protecting those most vulnerable and victimized among his flock than some believe Timothy O’Donnell did over the past 19 years?

Christendom College President Timothy O’Donnell may not have Councilman Connolly’s support, but he has gotten a continued endorsement from the widow of college founder Warren H. Carroll.

Local Government
Council approves proffer changes on FRLP’s 149-acre residential project
February 13, 2018
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Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp, at far left, goes over power point of proposed FRLP proffer changes on a 320-residential unit project on town’s eastside. Photos/Roger Bianchini

 

FRONT ROYAL – At it’s meeting of Monday, February 12, by a vote of 4-0 the Front Royal Town Council approved proposed changes to the proffer package on Front Royal Limited Partnership’s initial residential development plan. That plan would allow construction of as many as 320 residential units on 149 acres on the town’s east side. John Connolly made the motion to approve, seconded by Gary Gillespie. Eugene Tewalt and William Sealock joined in making the vote unanimous by those present. Councilmen Meza and Morrison were absent.

The involved project is not to be confused with FRLP’s second and larger proposed development on 604 acres in the vicinity of Mary’s Shady Lane off Happy Creek Road, also on the town’s east side. That larger parcel was brought into the town limits in a friendly 2014 annexation process with Warren County. The 604 acres has a maximum build-out of 818 residential units, though actual numbers will be approved, likely in phases during future rezoning applications. Original plans also call for commercial and recreational components, as well as road infrastructure.

The original proffer package on the 149-acre parcel already in the town limits was negotiated in 2010. The bulk of the proposed changes, which were recommended for approval by the town planning commission on November 15, remove “dollar for dollar credits” offered to the developer by the Town, in exchange for removal of some cash proffers offered to the Town by the developer. The changes are essentially viewed as a balancing act – or a “push” as it’s called in gambling circles.

FRLP principal David Vazzana, yellow shirt, and project consultant Bill Barnett to his right, at the Dec. 4 work session.

Of the proposed changes as a whole, following December 4 work session discussion Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp told Royal Examiner, “The existing proffers have some degree of balance between credits the Town pays FRLP and cash proffers paid to the Town by FRLP. Both the credits and cash proffers are proposed to be removed and FRLP would simply build what they are required to by Town Code and pay the County their cash proffer towards schools. Proffers related to impacts on the public school student population are not affected at all.

Specifics

Among changes are:

· The addition of per-unit cash proffers designated for costs of the new police headquarters;

· Elimination of cash proffers toward construction of Leach Run Parkway;

· Widening of a proposed on-site trail;

· Elimination of Energy Star Certification requirements for the units.

Among the deleted credits are: tap fee payments over $10,000; land value costs on both right-of-way for the access road to the property and piece of land along Shenandoah Shores Road needed for future road improvements in the vicinity of the development; and on engineering and construction costs associated with Phases 2 to 4 of an East-West connector road running through the property, if the Town follows through on construction of Phase 5 of that road.

The town planning director previously explained to Royal Examiner that that latter road-associated credit could equal or exceed all of FRLP’s proposed cash proffers. He also noted that removal of the tap fee credit locks FRLP into paying the going rate on tap fees, a rate currently in the vicinity of $15,000.

“Under the proposed proffers, FRLP would still be obligated to build and dedicate ROW for the portion of the access road (east-west connector) on their 149 acres,” Camp told Royal Examiner in December, adding, “As proposed, the rest of the road would be addressed with (development) of the future 604 acres.”

Local Government
Council nixes Property Maintenance Code revisions
February 12, 2018
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Not even upgraded property maintenance standards – on Feb. 12 council voted down a revised property maintenance code. Photos/Roger BianchiniFRONT ROYAL – Somewhat surprisingly on Monday, February 12, the Front Royal Town Council voted down revisions to its Property Maintenance Code by a 4-0 vote. Councilmen Meza and Morrison were absent.

Work session discussion since a January 8, 6-0 vote defeating the first-reading vote of a new Property Maintenance Code with a Rental Inspection District attached, seemed to indicate a majority intent to move forward with changes to the property maintenance code without the rental inspection district. An estimated cost of $150,000 for a code official to handle the joint property maintenance and rental inspections was made as far back as July 2017. That cost had appeared to be a deterrent for a council majority as far as creating the joint property maintenance-rental district code revisions.

Work session discussion on February 5 indicated no apparent hard opposition to the stand-alone property maintenance revisions. In fact, the intention of approaching the Town of Strasburg about joint funding of a code official to handle property maintenance inspections in both municipalities was put on the table. At that work session staff noted that Strasburg had passed a similar code to the revised Town proposal two or three years ago, but had yet to enforce its code because the Strasburg council had yet to budget a staff position as the enforcement arm.
No cost estimate with or without Strasburg’s involvement was included in the agenda packet summary of the proposal presented on February 12. The staff recommendation presented at the February 5 work session was “adoption of the draft amendment when Town Council has the funding to administer it.”

There were no public hearing speakers and no council discussion pro or con after Gary Gillespie’s motion, seconded by John Connolly, to affirm the ordinance amendment. The motion was then voted down on the 4-0 voice vote.

Having gotten an early draft budget from Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson on February 5, a clear council majority has expressed a desire to approve a balanced Fiscal Year 2019 budget with NO tax increases attached.

“We’ll see if our council will belly up with a tax increase,” Mayor Tharpe said during a July 2017 work session discussion of the joint property maintenance-rental inspection district proposal. At the time, Connolly pointed out that revenue from one-cent of a past real estate tax hike had already been committed to fund a position that could handle enforcement duties, leaving only a half-cent hike necessary to fully fund a position to enforce the joint code revision at the $150,000 estimate.

But even with the estimated $105,000 annual revenue from that previous tax hike available for an enforcement position, council has chosen at this point to abort the proposed upgrades to the existing code.
The absent Councilman Morrison has been council’s leading proponent of including a rental inspection district with property maintenance code revisions. However, after making the motion to approve the joint revisions to the town code on January 8, he voted against his own motion. Morrison’s January 8 “no” vote was a tactical move that will allow him to reintroduce the renter protections code at a future date when passage would seem more likely.

But until such a time arrives, renters with serious complaints about the condition and circumstance imposed by some landlords had hoped the revised property maintenance code alone could assure some basic living standards are provided to town renters. That had been Morrison’s hope in the short term.

Now it appears even that hope has been dashed in the coming FY 2019 budget cycle.

Chris Morrison has been passionate about protecting town renters – but a council majority appears to have deemed even increased property maintenance standards too expensive to enforce at this time.

Local News
EDA Director Jennifer McDonald parlays casino winnings into real estate investments
February 8, 2018
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Jennifer McDonald displays envelopes of tax receipts from Charles Town’s Hollywood Casino winnings. Photo/Roger Bianchini

FRONT ROYAL – “Do you want my Charles Town winning story or is that too light – should I give it to a competitor?”  Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Director Jennifer McDonald asked in a late January text.

“Give nothing to ‘no one’ other than your old pals at Royal Examiner,” came this reporter’s stern reply.  How light of a story, was the follow up question as the competitive juices settled a bit.

“Somebody saw me win big at Charles Town on Sunday (Jan. 14) and is now telling everyone,” McDonald replied, expressing a desire to see the story told accurately.  “What, you don’t trust social media and word of mouth to accomplish that?” I wondered.  “What did you do, hit a Trifecta on the ponies,” I asked.  No, rather it was an $18,000 slots jackpot at Charles Town’s Hollywood Casino.

“WOW, how many days and dollars were you up there pulling those one-armed bandits before THAT happened,” I asked by phone a short time later.  The answer, delivered the following day at her office with some support documentation, was not what was expected.

With questions having arisen in the past year about real estate investments she made in recent years under the banner of her personal real estate company “Da Boyz” (named for her favorite NFL team, which she said I could note WITHOUT my descriptive team adjective), McDonald thought this series of events offered an opportunity to clear the air, not only about her Sunday, January 14 winning trip to Charles Town and Hollywood Casino, but what she explained were about three or four years worth of comparable visits.

Do what – comparable how?!?

McDonald explained that she used to spend a little money playing the penny slots, taking home an occasional payout of $300 or so now and then – enough to keep you interested.  She credits her sister with development of a strategy that when a penny slot win would come in, to take $100 or $200 of that up to the next level slot, the dollar machines.

“I did that and started to win $1200 to $1500 and then she said, ‘Take $100 or $200 of that to the next level; and on her advice I kept doing that and it just has worked for me,” McDonald said.  We asked if the “system” worked for her sister as well as it has for her – “No,” McDonald replied with a sympathetic laugh.

She said winning hits on a dollar machine can come in around $1,200 to $2,500, and the $5 machine payoffs can come in anywhere between $3,000 to $15,000 – and of course there is the potential for one of the specialty jackpots hovering around $18,000 to $75,000.

Okay I reasoned, that is the theory that keeps people returning to casinos the world over – that BIG payday just over the horizon – but you know what they say about “a sucker born every minute” and “the house always wins in the end”.

McDonald explained that she will utilize “free slot play” or house money that regular customers may receive as an incentive, and “no more than $200 of my own money, and if I don’t hit anything with my free-slot play or my $200, I leave.  About the last four years I have been extremely lucky with this system I have right now,” McDonald said.

How lucky, we asked.

McDonald slipped a sheet of paper across her desk with a series of typed dates and numbers.  Scanning the sheet, I realized that the 22 lines taking up about half a page reflected only four days, November 22 and 26, and December 3 and 10; the payout amounts ranged from $1,500 to one of those apparent jackpots of $36,000.  The most hits in one day were 12 on December 10 – the first five on that date ranged from $1,270 to $3,000, followed by $8,000 and that $36,000 jackpot, followed by five more payouts between $2,000 and $6,000, totaling around $71,000.  Some late calculating indicated the total on the page for the four days shown was just over $102,000.

There was also a total at the bottom – “These numbers obviously don’t total THAT number,” I observed.  “Look under that page,” she suggested.  Six more full pages of dates and payouts were listed.

“THOSE add up to THAT number,” I guessed of the final page total of over $800,000, a number she explained reflected her winnings from her visits to Hollywood Casino in 2017.  And if not as good, her totals from the previous two years were also significant, both totaling over $500,000, she said.

“I have taken the money that I’ve won and I have paid for the educations of my stepdaughter, two of my nieces and my stepson.  I bought myself a truck; and the remaining I decided last year that I was going to start investing the money, rather than just letting it sit.  So, I started to acquire investment properties … and I’ve been able to make significant deposits on them,” she said of her real estate investments under Da Boyz banner – at least somebody using that nickname is good at something, I suggested, drawing a scowl.

As she has explained before to Royal Examiner, in her position as the EDA executive director, McDonald is forbidden from investing in commercial real estate.  However, with her background in real estate, she may invest in residential property.

My goal for this year is to win enough money to invest in some additional properties,” she added.  In addition to that January 14, jackpot hit for $18,000, she produced photos on her phone of hits of $6,000 and $24,000 on January 2, pointing out there were others she had not photographed.

Happy New Year, indeed!!!

Okay, while not a gambler by nature even your humble reporter can see that something beyond luck is at play here – I pressed her for a hint at the “system” she must not be sharing – “There’s got to be more to it; can you whisper it in my ear? Just between us. – You can trust me, I’m a reporter,” I reminded her.

But other than a favorite “quick hit” dollar machine, McDonald said there wasn’t a system other, apparently, than Lady Luck.  Speaking of luck, she said she did hit one $75,000 jackpot on that favorite “Quick Hit” dollar machine – I guess it is her favorite!!!

JACKPOT!! – McDonald said her favorite ‘Quick Hit’ dollar slot once paid off to the tune of a $75,000.

Looking at these winning-date visits averaging three to maybe six a month at Charles Town, we suggested some teetotalers might suggest she has a silly, little gambling problem.  Of course, I think a wise man once said “it is only a problem if you are losing,” not if you’re threatening to break the casino bank.  McDonald estimated that she may leave empty handed about a third of her visits, usually being able to net at least several hundred dollars in winnings.  She said her visits are dictated by work and personal schedules.  As for leisure time, when you’re hot, why not? – And if you’re not, go home early.

With such a disciplined approach, we asked how much she had to spend to reach the level of winnings she was describing for the past several years.  She produced another tax reference with a worried look – no wonder, it read $666.

“Well, THAT explains a LOT!!!” I offered.

“You have assistance from the dark side – at least you’re not averaging $666 in annual expenditures, are you,” I asked edging my chair closer to the door.  She explained that amount was an adjustment to her taxes to cover her own money spent above what the casino had deducted when it took taxes out upon payment of winnings.

After a little research she estimated averaging about $1,000 of her own money per year to achieve her winnings.  Recalling her system of moving up the slot ladder with lower-tier winnings, we asked if she thought she might actually be spending more house money than her own to realize her winnings.

“I most definitely have. They sometimes have drawings over there and I have won additional free slot play through those – anywhere from $250 to $1000 free slot play in addition to my weekly free slot play.  I love winning on their money,” she concluded with a smile.

Other than developing a “system” where she may be utilizing more house money than what she brought with her, what draws her to Charles Town’s Hollywood Casino, we asked.

“I have tried other casinos and I have not found a place that has a staff that is as polite, and helpful as Charles Town.  I feel safe when I go over there; they know you by first name – I just love going there because of the atmosphere,” she said.

HEY, what’s not to love about an atmosphere of personal dominance, where in the end only the house is supposed to dominate?  Our guess is she may love going there more than they love seeing her coming these days – or not.

Chances are the unlucky on any given night at Hollywood Casino outnumber the lucky – and hearing this story, that number is likely to go up – THAT ought to be worth a few more “free slot” plays, think …

 

 

Local News
Mayor urges serious movement on Royal Phoenix pumping station
February 8, 2018
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‘Déjà vu all over again’ – Town staff, council and the mayor discuss Royal Phoenix infrastructure costs at a Nov. 20, 2017 work session. Photo/Roger Bianchini

“We need to get off the pot and move forward with this,” Mayor Hollis Tharpe told the Front Royal Town Council at a February 5 work session. The object of the mayor’s attempt to propel timely movement from his colleagues was the wastewater pumping station that will serve, not only the first commercial client at the former Avtex Superfund site, but essentially the first half of commercial redevelopment in the site’s 147-acre Royal Phoenix Business Park.

Late in 2017, council began dragging its feet on the estimated $300,000 to $400,000 cost of a project the previous town manager and council appeared committed to. Work session discussion last fall even resurrected the idea the Town might be better served if the site’s first commercial client, tech and government contractor ITFederal, build its own pumping station to serve its needs.

That idea faded only when EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald reminded council that $150,000 ITFederal committed to construction of Phase One of the West Main Street access/connector road through the site came after the apparent Town commitment to construct a wastewater pumping station to serve multiple customers on the north half of the Royal Phoenix site.

With phase one of its access road plan now in place, Town Manager Joe Waltz told a January 18 liaison committee meeting that the Town was poised to move forward on the pumping station project. EDA staff had cited delays to the start of ITFederal construction last year as the Town’s plan for phase one of the West Main Extended access road was awaited, followed by hesitation on a decision about the pumping station.

However with the road plan in and plans for the pumping station being developed, progress at the ITFederal site has re-emerged with footers being laid as February began.

Above, looking toward ITFederal’s pad 1 site on Nov. 16, 2017 (site is behind and to the left and right of the small tree at right of entry road); below, a closer view two-and-a-half months later, Feb. 1 – Photos/Roger Bianchini

Queried about the status of the pumping station following the February 5 council work session update, Waltz elaborated on existing cost estimates. The base cost for the pumping station is $161,000. However, factoring in other infrastructure variables, including stormwater facilities and drains; water and force mains, the cost climbs into the originally-estimated $300,000 to $400,000 range, now cited at some loose change ($2.50 to be precise) under $336,000. The Town will recoup much in costs from hook up and tap fees.

Waltz said an earlier estimate the Town-constructed pumping station would serve about seven commercial pads and 4,200 people at Royal Phoenix remains accurate. He also said that while the eventual connection of the new FRPD headquarters to the pumping station is a goal, an alternate plan to initially hook the police facility into existing wastewater infrastructure in the area was now on the table.

Initial infrastructure costs

Town staff is estimating initial Royal Phoenix infrastructure costs in the $1.2 million range. Previous work session and meeting discussions have indicated the Town has about $450,000 set aside, primarily for the West Main Street extended project. Those annual set-aside tax revenues (about a third of a penny of real estate tax) were an initiative pushed by former Vice-Mayor Shae Parker about four to five years ago.

There was an original $2.5-million to $3-million estimate for the entire West Main Extended access road project, with the first phase now forecast at $1.3 million. However, projected VDOT matching funds, as well as ITFederal’s $150,000 commitment reduce the Town’s initial on-site road infrastructure share into the ballpark of its set aside funds – plus that $336,000 pumping station investment.

An even closer view of the ITFed pad 1 on Feb. 1; according to EDA staff, the first ITFederal construction will be a 10,000-s.f. office building. Photos/Roger Bianchini

Local News
Volosin brings his 6th District nomination campaign to county Democrats
February 8, 2018
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From left, event co-host Jorge Amselle, 6th District candidate Peter Volosin, Christine Illich and Rick Tagg – Photo/Roger Bianchini

FRONT ROYAL – On Thursday evening, February 1, Warren County Democrats gathered at the Middle of Main Building in Historic Downtown Front Royal to hear from what we believe to be the longest-announced candidate for Bob Goodlatte’s Sixth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, unlike others in his own party or eight Republicans gathered for a forum at the Warren County Government Center two days later, Democrat Peter Volosin expressed his intention of challenging incumbent Robert Goodlatte prior to the November 2016 state house election and subsequent Goodlatte announcement days later that he would not seek re-election in 2018.

Following his appearance before a room full of about 35 to 40 local Democrats – with a nod from organizers to Beth Waller for the loan of the space – we asked Volosin if his hopes were buoyed in the Sixth by the November 2017 state House election. That election saw a 16-seat House Republican majority fall to one, 51-49, with only a blind name draw on a court-ruled tied election fall the 4th District Republican incumbent’s way preventing a 50-50 power sharing situation.

“That was a great election for Democrats, I won’t lie,” Volosin replied. However, showing a sense of political realism, the Democratic hopeful refused to read too much into the 2017 state result as a measuring stick for 2018, particularly in a District Republicans have held since 1993. “The reason I got into this race is I’m worried about our economic future in this area. And it doesn’t matter what happened in November – 2018 is a whole other year with another set of candidates.

“We’re very excited about the open seat, as a Democrat that makes it more viable. But beyond that it’s the same thing here – my vision is for us to move our area into a 21st century economy – investing in our people, our environment and our infrastructure. We really need to be able to connect into the 21st century; and that also includes improving our agriculture as well: How can we move up the value chain? How can we make small farmers more viable again?

“Another part of our campaign will be about affordable health care. We need to be making sure that we join the rest of the industrialized nations of the world and have affordable, quality health care for all our citizens.

“And the third major message of our campaign is bi-partisanship, to be honest. I think people are kind of tired of having one bunch of people get in and we go far right or far left, and it depends on whoever is in power. Our country works best when we compromise and when we work together,” Volosin reasoned.

“If I get into Congress, the important part is creating solutions to our problems. I think we have a lot of issues that have been sitting on the backburner because we don’t come up with an actual solution for them – immigration is a very present one right now, where we have this big mass of different immigration laws that have been added on, and added on, and it’s this monstrosity. We need to come up with an actual solution so that we can be focused on what will be coming down the pike in the future.

“And so we’re just really focused on sharing our message of what we can do in this district to move ourselves forward and make sure that people can get jobs that allow them to buy a home; to put their kids through college; to put food on the table. There are a lot of people in our district for whom it is not a good time right now. And Wall Street may be doing great* but that doesn’t mean everybody in the Sixth District is doing great.”

Peter Volosin fields questions from county Democrats about his priorities for the Sixth Congressional District.. / Courtesy Photo

The February 1st meet the candidate event was hosted by Jorge Amselle and Peter John. According to Warren County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Foreman, county Democrats hope to partner with other local Democratic committees to host their own Sixth District Candidates’ Forum in the near future. At least one other Democrat, Sergio Coppola, has expressed an intention to seek the party’s Sixth District nomination. Coppola was slated to appear before the county Democrats for a Q&A at their monthly meeting on Saturday, February 10.

* FOOTNOTE:  Wall Street was “doing great” at the time, a day prior to the 666-point, Nunez memo-day drop, followed by Monday’s 1,175-point downer; but the market roller coaster was headed back up by mid-week; stay tuned …