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Board of Zoning Appeals approves variance requests for homeowners in flood zones

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Pricillia and Mark Perko requested and received variances from the Board of Zoning Appeals. Photo by Kim Riley. Video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

FRONT ROYAL — Pricillia Perko, who along with her husband Mark Perko owns waterfront property in a flood zone on the Shenandoah River, on Thursday night literally asked members of the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to help save her life.

The couple appeared during the BZA’s first public hearing session regarding their variance requests for a steel pavilion that covers part of the carport at their Avalon Drive property in Shenandoah River Estates (SRE).

“Our carport, as silly as it may seem to others, actually serves as a lifeboat for me in the winter,” Pricillia Perko said in a statement read by her husband to the BZA during its October 3 meeting.

“When I have flare-ups, I can’t wait for an ambulance and can’t take a chance that it would not be able to get to me or not be able to get me out once it arrived if the roads were bad, as they have been many times.”

Pricillia Perko, a lung cancer and heart attack survivor, currently suffers resulting health conditions that have severely impacted her breathing. One of the ways that Mark Perko tried to help improve her quality of life and to proactively prepare for emergencies occurred in 2015 when he erected the pavilion, which serves two purposes: as a canopy that allows Pricillia to enjoy the outdoors without being baked by the sun, and for car shelter during inclement winter weather when she may need emergency transport to the local hospital.

The community’s roads are not maintained by either the County or State, making travel difficult for ambulances during winter weather, said Mark Perko.

“Ice and snow events are the types of situations that scare me,” according to Pricillia’s statement. “My husband keeps our truck emergency-ready with chains on it when ice is forecast.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to wait for him to clean off snow and ice or get a vehicle road ready. In those cases, I need to leave very quickly. This is when the carport becomes a lifeboat for me by keeping a vehicle emergency ready.”

The problem with the permanent structure, however, was that the pavilion didn’t meet certain Warren County zoning requirements, according to Matt Wendling, the County floodplain manager and planner II, who toured the Perkos’ property during a community assistance visit this spring with a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“This is how Mr. Perko’s pavilion was discovered,” Wendling wrote in his September 23 staff summary for the BZA. “Planning Staff requested Mr. Perko to apply for a building permit, which he did and was approved by the Building Inspections office to be flood proofed. However, zoning could not approve the permit because the pavilion does not meet the zoning ordinance setback requirements.”

Ultimately, Wendling told the Perko family that they needed to request a variance to Warren County Code Section 180-12(B)(4)(b) and 180-22(H)(1)&(3) to allow an accessory building to be located within the front yard at a front setback of 19 feet in lieu of the required 50-feet setback. They also needed to request a variance for another County code regarding the number of accessory structures on a property less than one acre in size located in the County’s special flood hazard area.

But Wendling also noted in his staff summary that the pavilion’s location “does seem to be the only location on the Perkos’ property where they could place the pavilion” because the parcel is a small lot (0.16 acres) where there’s also a house, shed, septic system and well.

The Perko family requested variances to County codes for their pavilion and shed. Photo from County file

Nevertheless, before requesting their variances, the Perkos experienced months of what Mark Perko called “high anxiety” as they jumped through bureaucratic hoops.

“I personally think that the citizens of the flood zone areas want to obtain permits and follow the due process,” Mark Perko told BZA members, “but our experiences have been that the current attitude of the County forbids that from happening when one has specific needs or wants to improve their home or property in these communities.”

That sentiment was echoed by several of his neighbors from Shenandoah River Estates who also attended the BZA meeting to support the Perkos’ request, voice their own concerns, and offer suggestions for improving zoning processes and codes.

Eva Challis, for instance, who is vice president of the SRE Civic Association, pointed out what the group considers a key discrepancy between residents and County planning and zoning officials: the variance issue regarding what constitutes a front yard.

Waterfront homeowners consider their front yards to be facing the Shenandoah River, while the County refers to a front yard as being on the side of the house facing the street.

“Our community was created as a waterfront community because the view should be the river, not the road,” Challis said. “To have a beautiful view of the river it wouldn’t make sense to want to put sheds, carports, a garage or whatever is allowed in front to obstruct your view. It would make sense in our specific community that the back of your house faces the road.”

SRE formerly was part of Happy Creek Farm and was developed in the flood zone in the 1950s when lot-size requirements didn’t exist. Most lots were purchased for a standard 50-feet wide with varying lengths, which subsequently have changed due to erosion caused by the Shenandoah River, Challis said.

“If it’s possible, it would be great if we could be considered as some sort of an exception,” suggested Challis, noting that if the residential zoning for SRE could be changed to agricultural, then SRE would be allowed more variances or exceptions.

“Just because we don’t fit the current subdivision definition, perhaps you could consider changing the code to help us to fit into perhaps some other categories,” she added.

Another resident supporting the Perko family variance request sent an October 3 letter to BZA Secretary Cindy Kodernak, Mark Perko, and Thomas Sayre, vice chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, whose Shenandoah District includes SRE.

SRE “residents should not be limited by unrealistic stringent planning and zoning rules as our neighborhood is unique and was built this way,” wrote Sally Long, who lives on Harris Drive. “We need clear guidelines to follow that apply to our riverfront community and reflect the way it was originally established by the developer. We need special exemptions to the code.”

Sayre also attended the BZA meeting to support the Perkos’ request.

“I think it makes a statement that a County supervisor cares enough about the citizens under his authority to take his personal time to attend this meeting and hear his constituents’ concerns,” Mark Perko told the BZA.

Following the Perkos’ public hearing session, the BZA considered their variance requests, with BZA Vice Chair Lorraine Smelser motioning to accept an accessory building to be located “within the front yard at a front setback of 19 feet,” and to allow two accessory structures on the property “with the condition that the applicant meets all building and zoning permitting requirements.”

The motion was seconded by BZA member Robert Conway and unanimously approved by the Board — action that generated audience applause.

BZA members then held two more separate public hearing sessions for similar variance requests for setback increases, as well as increases to the number of accessory structures on properties less than one acre in size.

Gang Li (left) and Helen Xiaohui Wu (center) discuss their variance request with Warren County Floodplain Manager and Planner II Matt Wendling (right). Photo by Kim Riley

In each case, the Front Royal residents said they previously received incorrect information about whether they needed certain County-required documents to construct certain structures on their properties.

For instance, Helen Xiaohui Wu and Gang Li, who live on Old Dam Road on the Shenandoah River, had to request a variance to Warren County Code Section 180-12(B)(4)(b) and 180-22(H)(1)&(3) to allow a garage and deck to be located within the front yard with no front setback in lieu of the required 50-feet setback and a side setback of 6 feet in lieu of the required 10-feet setback.

Warren County planner Wendling reported that in March, when County planning staff and a FEMA floodplain manager made site visits to locations around Warren County, they “observed a garage, deck and storage shed” on the Xiaohui/Gang property as they drove through the subdivision.

“These structures appear to be placed there a number of years ago, but we have no records of it being permitted,” wrote Wendling in a June 21, 2019 letter to Xiaohui and Gang, adding that without the required permits, “the property would be in violation … and may make you subject to zoning enforcement actions.”

Xiaohui apologized to BZA members on Thursday for being “ignorant about how the building process works which is why I hired a contractor to take care of the necessary details. I now know that this contractor did not comply with the standard process for building projects.”

Similarly, Kent Wager in 2017 built a carport on his Valley Retreat Road property on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River that a formerly employed County building inspector told him didn’t require a permit. But then this year Wendling told him the structure did require a variance for the 19-feet front setback in lieu of the required 50-feet setback.

Each variance request for both applicants also sought to allow for the number of accessory structures on a lot of less than one acre in size to be increased to four in lieu of two.

The BZA approved both requested variances with the condition that each applicant meet all building and zoning permitting requirements.

And BZA Chairman David Feiring told Xiaohui to make sure that any future contractors she hires understand what’s required by the County before they conduct any work.

Watch the BZA meeting in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:

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Citizens to town council: Are you listening or are your minds made up?

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With scheduled reports on County, Commonwealth’s Attorney and Town Police business on its Monday evening agenda, the Front Royal Town Council expected to begin its February 24 meeting listening. However, it was six citizens who delayed receipt of those scheduled reports with ongoing “Public Comment” questions and criticism of the council’s budget decision-making processes.
A remaining question for those citizens was, “Do you hear us?”

And beginning with opening speaker Gary Kushner, for several the answer appeared to be “We don’t think so”.

Gary Kushner took the leadoff spot in critiquing council choices early in its FY 2021 budget process – that critique was not positive. Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

“The interim manager is already advertising for staff positions reflecting the implementation of his Planning and Tourism reorganization and has begun discussions with potential outsource businesses, which all but precludes council’s serious consideration of opinions that keeping the prior structure would produce better results. Those actions give the appearance that the council doesn’t sincerely value citizen input. Continuing such a practice will only encourage greater apathy by the public when they consider that any effort on their part is mostly useless because decisions have already been made,” Kushner told the town’s elected officials, minus the absent Jacob Meza.

Following Kushner to the microphone were Kenneth Dameron, Janice Hart, Linda Allen, Paul Gabbert, and Bruce Rappaport. Several of those speakers echoed the opening speaker’s concerns about a seemingly established ideological path being chosen by council that is immune to reconsideration or factual analysis that contradicts council’s and/or Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick’s preconceived ideas about reducing the organizational function of town government by downsizing – termed “right-sizing” by Tederick – combined with outsourcing or privatizing certain departmental functions. Is it just a means for the council to be able to say “we have reduced taxes – re-elect us” some wondered after analyzing the numbers.

Mounting debt
“I don’t want my taxes lowered – said no one, never,” Hart said to begin her comments to the town’s elected officials.

However, she continued with a plea to reconsider that half-cent tax real estate tax rate reduction in the face of mounting expenses, including the Town’s undisputed debt of $8.4 million in principal payments to the EDA for construction of the new Front Royal Police Headquarters.

“We have an $8-million note on a brand, new police department that, on which so far, no real solution on paying for it has been revealed,” Hart pointed out, observing, “The EDA has offered a decent loan percentage on the balance; and while the council gambled and lost on a lesser percentage amount, we must take the bull by the horns and face this issue … How does the council propose to pay for this police department by reducing taxes? Lowering the tax rate for even one year isn’t going to make this go away.”

Janice Hart asked if the council is not setting citizens up for future large tax increases by implementing a small decrease amounting to about $17 of annual savings per $350,000 of real estate value.

Hart also questioned the town council’s increasingly adversarial stance toward a revamped EDA that is trying to right its ship that capsized under both the County and Town’s economic involvement and watches over the past five years.

“Cooperation with the EDA, which is trying to help is a must – but it doesn’t appear they are getting any cooperation,” Hart said of the town council’s choice to litigate rather than negotiate. “I appreciate that the council is trying to be good stewards of our tax dollars in working out a deal on this new (police) facility – it was desperately needed. A lower percentage rate is always a good thing – but it is not a reality – and we need to make a deal with the EDA,” Hart said.

She echoed comments of other citizens in recent weeks, observing, “The only people who win in a lawsuit are the lawyers – present company excepted,” Hart said with a nod to Town Attorney
Doug Napier out of whose hands the Town’s civil litigation against the EDA has been taken and into the private sector legal hands of the Alexandria-based Damiani & Damiani firm.

Fiscal shortsightedness?
Council’s previous decision to lock in the half-cent real estate tax deduction early in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget process without even knowing how much revenue will be needed to balance the final budget proposal got particular scrutiny from Hart and Gabbert – and Gabbert continued Kushner’s theme of a council beyond the influence of the citizens they are elected to serve.

“The tax rate of 13 (cents), since you already advertised it you can’t go back to 13-and-a-half – you’re stuck with the 13 because you’ve already advertised it,” Gabbert said of the half-cent reduction to the real estate tax rate authorized to be advertised as part of the FY 2021 budget. “You undercut yourself before you even know what the budget is going to be. I don’t get it. You’ve got suggestions from everybody but you don’t listen too well – you don’t listen. You stare at all of us when we come up here but you do not listen.

“We are trying to help you all – but all you can do is listen to the town manager … This town has gone bonkers,” Gabbert surmised of its governing function.

Maybe it’s not his fault – below, Bruce Rappaport at podium wonders if it is the town council that has set Interim Town Manager Tederick, above, to the task of reducing taxes in the face of increased debt and revenue needs.

However, Rappaport wondered if it wasn’t a council majority that had put Tederick in what he called “a tough position” of cutting revenue in the face of mounting expenses.

Previous council comments, particularly from the absent Meza, have indicated a distinct preference for downsizing the town government to reduce its revenue needs, as opposed to raising or even keeping Town taxes already 3 cents below the state town median, level to accommodate current departmental service needs.

Tax cut: hollow gesture?
Gabbert then continued a point made earlier by Hart and touched on by Dameron as well, noting that the impact of the council’s planned half-cent reduction of the real estate tax rate from 13.5 cents to 13 cents was savings of $17.50 per year on a home property valued at $350,000.

Of the $16.78 number she had come up within studying the half-cent tax reduction on a specific piece of property apparently valued slightly under the $350,000-mark, Hart observed, “Hardly a deal-breaker for the average homeowner”.

Hart asked the council how its commitment to this year’s half-cent real estate tax decrease might impact future budgets.

“And finally, should the tax rate be reduced this year, would citizens be subject to a BIG increase to be brought before the community next year? How can accomplishments be made by a tax reduction? Not this year, but certainly an increase is in the future for town residents. What scares me is how much?” Hart concluded.

Dameron asked the council why it was preoccupied with the redundant water line into the County’s north commercial corridor.
“You guys seem to think that 522 North is your domain, and it’s not. This is the Town of Front Royal, not the County of Warren or 522 or Dominion Energy,” he told town officials despite the presence of town utilities beyond the town limits.

Retired CPA Kenneth Dameron had a novel idea to end the Town’s interest rate dispute with the EDA on the FRPD construction project – utilize the Town cash ‘slush fund’ reserve to pay the $8.4 million in principal off without taking out a 30-year bond issue.

Of redundant water line costs Dominion Power has promised to share due to its high, water usage needs for its power plant cooling system, Dameron suggested an alternative course for the town government, “Just say ‘no’.

“If Mr. Stanley and the County want to build it, let them build it; let Dominion build it. We don’t have to build it,” Dameron concluded before moving on to the EDA topic Hart would revisit in her comments.

“We’re having all this trouble with the EDA, they’re having their money problems, you don’t want to pay them for the police department, this, that and the other. You owe them the $8.3 or .4 million, there’s no quarrel about that. Why don’t you just pay them in cash? You got the money, you closed last year with $28 million dollars in cash. Just pay them the $8 million bucks, eliminate the debt service for the next 30 years and save all that (interest) money,” Dameron, a retired public accountant, suggested of a way to resolve the Town’s interest rate dispute with the EDA on the police station construction project.

Now, why hasn’t somebody thought of that before?

As council applauds, Jason Neal and family pose with Mayor Tewalt, right, and Interim Town Manager Tederick following the solid waste department driver’s ‘Star of the Month’ recognition. Tederick read two letters lauding Neal’s interactions with citizens young and old illustrating outstanding service to the community ‘above and beyond’ the town manager observed. Photos by Roger Bianchini, Royal Examiner.

That business included:

1 – presentation of Town “Star” employee of the month to Jason Neal for service above and beyond in the solid waste department;

Chief Magalis introduces his department’s new communications officer Brittni Dennis.

2 – the introduction of the police department’s new communications officer, Brittni Dennis;

It only hurts when I smile – FRPD’s newest Sargent, Brian Whited, flanked by wife Erin and Chief Magalis after his new badge was pinned with only slight difficulty by Erin.

3 – the promotion of FRPD Officer Brian Whited to sergeant, new badge pinned by his wife Erin;

4 – the County business report of County Administrator Doug Stanley;

5 – Commonwealth Attorney John Bell’s response to council inquiries on where the criminal line might be crossed in online posts of a threatening nature;

6 – votes of approval of sign guidelines for Valley Health’s new hospital;

7 – and the first vote of approval of a new Blighted Property Abate.

Watch the meeting on this Royal Examiner video:

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EDA in Focus

Town reversed initial commitment to cover Afton Inn ‘winterization’ costs

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During an update on the status of various properties at a Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Asset Committee meeting, Friday morning, the status of the on-hold Afton Inn “winterization” project two months into the winter of 2019-20 was broached.

In the agenda summary the project, described as once “a high priority” of the town government, was now observed to apparently be dead in the cold winter elements.

Why?

According to Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, Town staff apparently did an about-face on responsibility for, or the necessity of, covering the winterization costs.

Harold told those present that since the Town approached the EDA about working together with Afton Inn redeveloper 2 East Main Street LLC in November to get the stabilization project underway to prevent further deterioration of the 151-year-old brick and wood building shell, he had a record of communications with Town Attorney Doug Napier indicating Town responsibility for, and intent of, paying for the winterization work.

Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, center, traces the status of EDA properties, including the Afton Inn and its now apparently-abandoned ‘winterization’ project. The bottom line as from left, Doug Parsons and Ed Daley listen – the Town decided not to fund those stabilization and safety measures. Photos by Roger Bianchini. Video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

At various points in those communications a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dating to the 2014 transfer of ownership from the Town to the EDA for marketing and redevelopment purposes was referenced; as was Napier’s written expression of a “moral obligation” of the Town to provide for the “safety and welfare” of its citizens as pieces began falling off the building; and former Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp’s written notice of the apparent availability of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the Main Street façade improvement work that could be utilized by the Town to pay for its own staff to work on the winterization project.

Consequently, Harold noted the EDA spent $3,500 on an engineering report to get a cost estimate on the project to the Town. However, several subsequent emails from the Town indicated logistical complications discovered by its staff leading to the likelihood of increased costs.

Harold observed that Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick had stepped in at a mid-December EDA board meeting to state that earlier communications indicating the Town would cover the winterization costs were a “mistake”.

Harold noted that his response to Town Attorney Napier asking for substantiation to support the interim town manager’s assertion was forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Damiani & Damiani, handling its civil claims against the EDA with no further communications.

However, EDA Board Treasurer Jorie Martin interjected by phone hook up that she had one initial communication from Damiani & Damiani stating that they “would get back to us” after which there were no further communications.

In that December 19 email to Napier forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Harold wrote, “I have read the MOA, and I am not able to find any subordination clause or other languages that strips Front Royal of this requirement (of funding),” adding, “Contrarily, there are 2 paragraphs which explicitly detail and reaffirm the town’s commitment.”

One of those paragraphs from the MOU dated June 23, 2014, is quoted stating, “The Town agrees that during ownership of the Afton Inn property by the EDA, the Town shall not require the EDA to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition of any part of the Afton Inn building unless the Town agrees to bear the costs of such repairs, maintenance or demolition.”

The following paragraph describes the Afton Inn’s close proximity to Town Hall at the head of the East Main Street Historic Downtown Business District, observing, “The Town has clearly identifiable interests in the use to be made and in the appearance, of the Afton Inn property … As such, the Town has an appropriate, identifiable interest in keeping the Afton Inn property in both a viable safe physical condition and an aesthetically pleasing condition.”

I guess it depends on how you define ‘Safe’ and ‘Pleasing’ – gets harder the closer you get.

It was again noted that 2 East Main Street LLC continues to express hope of maintaining its interest in the Afton renovation project now stalled by the EDA’s financial dilemma tied to the financial scandal asserted in the County-EDA funded Cherry Bekaert forensic audit of EDA business in recent years.

And put up a parking lot?

However, it would appear in this season of the interim town manager and a new council majority committed to cost and tax reductions despite $29 million in capital improvement funding needs in the coming budget year, those steering the ship of Front Royal Town government have simply decided the Afton Inn’s appearance, condition and redevelopment are no longer fiscal priorities.

As the discussion moved to the collection of bad debts, EDA Board Vice Chairman Jeff Browne noted that since the involvement of the EDA’s contracted attorney, the first check from a debtor had been received – “We just have to pick it up … so, we’re already starting to see results,” Browne told the Asset Committee, leading Board Chairman Ed Daley to quip, “Was this a large check from a municipal corporation that owes us a very significant amount of money?”

Harold displays documentation on referenced EDA assets, as from left, Jeff Browne, Doug Parsons, Ed Daley, Cheryl Cullers and others invisible by phone link, listen.

“The answer would be no,” Browne replied, dashing the hope the Town had decided to make good on at least a portion of its undisputed $8.4 million debt to the EDA on the principal for the Town Police Department construction project, if not on Afton Inn winterization costs.

See this discussion just past the 38-minute mark of the linked Royal Examiner video, as well as other topics in the entire meeting video. Among topics discussed were bids received on removal of the solar panels on the EDA’s Kendrick Lane office complex; a pending closing date of February 28 on the Stokes Mart property sale; and re-acquisition of the Workforce Housing parcel, hopefully, at the same $10 price, it was inexplicably transferred to the Cornerstone LLC branch of the Aikens Group in late November 2018 for.

After initially being “gifted” to the EDA for $10, due to unmet, publicly undisclosed deadlines not being met, the EDA acquired the property at a cost of $445,000, with additional resources allegedly being committed to the project leading to the property being written off as a $600,000-plus loss.

In addition to Harold, Daley, Browne, and Martin, the latter by phone hookup, present at Friday’s Asset Committee meeting were EDA attorney Sharon Pandak, also by phone connection, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons and South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers.

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Town Planning Commission, Town Council Advance A.S. Rhodes Temporary Classroom Project

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In a unique shared session, the Town Planning Commission and the Front Royal Town Council combined forces to quickly approve the temporary siting of modular classrooms at A.S. Rhodes Elementary School on Strasburg Road, as part of the larger renovation project that will soon be underway. There were no public comments regarding the request.

Acting Superintendent Melody Sheppard answers questions from Planning Commission members. Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

School officials and project managers answered questions from the Planning Commission and Council members regarding the temporary classrooms. Commissioner Dr. Cee Ann Davis asked if the Project Team had consulted with the County Health Department regarding the modular building. Acting Superintendent Melody Sheppard acknowledged they had not. Once the commission had completed its questioning, the Commission unanimously approved the request, leading to an unusual lateral pass of the request to the Town Council.

Councilman Lori Cockrell informed the Mayor that she would be abstaining from discussions or votes regarding the School request due to her 30-year career in the School Department. Councilman Chris Holloway voiced concern about student traffic between the modular classrooms and restrooms in the school itself. He questioned the WCPS representatives closely about the location of restrooms in relation to the proposed structure. When a council motion for approval was offered By Councilman Letasha Thompson, seconded by Councilman Bill Sealock, Councilman Holloway offered an amendment to the approval motion that would have required School Officials to add the requirement for restrooms within the modular structure itself. His amendment died for a lack of votes before the original motion went on to approval.

Following the approval of the A.S. Rhodes project by both the Planning Commission and the Town Council, Chairman Doug Jones, and Mayor Eugene Tewalt adjourned their respective bodies, and each met separately for work sessions.

The Town Planning Commission Work Session was largely devoted to a preliminary review and discussion of a potential new facility for the House of Hope, a service to homeless men in Front Royal. The commission received a presentation on the mission and objectives of the Program, feedback from the Commission members regarding necessary steps in working with the town to provide an improved facility for its services. Commissioner Daryl Merchant urged the House of Hope representatives to seek a location that was compatible with Town zoning ordinances. Planning Staff was asked to research property and zoning to support the commission in evaluating future requests.

Aaron Hike from Hike Construction addresses the commission regarding a project to build a set of townhouses on a lot currently occupied by a blighted house.

Aaron Hike from Hike Construction then addressed the commission regarding a project to build a set of townhouses on a lot currently occupied by a blighted house. The lot proved to be slightly smaller than would allow the construction, and the company hoped to either to reduce the side setback through a zoning variance or to propose a zoning ordinance amendment to reduce the minimum width of a townhouse from 20 to 18 feet. They had also initiated an action with the Board of Zoning Appeals for the variance in addition to their presenting a proposal to the Planning Commission to amend the zoning ordinance.

Commissioner Merchant clarified that amending the zoning ordinance to accommodate a smaller lot size would conflict with the requirement for each townhouse to provide two parking spaces a minimum of 10 feet in width. The discussion then centered on the need for planning staff to research what an amendment to the zoning ordinance would entail. The commission agreed that language for an ordinance change would be the likely next step for the Commission to consider. Commissioner Davis reminded the attendees of unintended consequences of ordinance changes.

The commission members then discussed various strategies for helping continuing services during a period of reduced staffing at the Town Planning Department. The town is currently recruiting for a Director of Community Development and Planning.

Watch the joint meeting in this first Royal Examiner video and the Planning Commission work session in the second.


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Council majority moves to lock in half-cent real estate tax decrease

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Perhaps the most telling moment in the Front Royal Town Council’s multi-faceted Wednesday evening did not occur at a Special Joint Meeting with its Planning Commission called to facilitate permitting to allow the installation of modular classrooms to allow A.S. Rhodes renovation work to proceed on schedule, nor during a dizzying council work session discussion of financial variables that threaten to jeopardize a $700,000 matching State/Federal funded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) committed to physical redevelopment of downtown business frontages and the Village Commons and Gazebo area.

With Lori Cockrell abstaining due to her career in public education, the full Front Royal Town Council (right) and Planning Commission (left) minus one absence agreed after some debate on safety issues, to permit classroom modules during A.S. Rhodes Elementary School renovations in the coming year.  Photos by Roger Bianchini. Video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

While those two discussions dominated much of the council’s attention, it was a third discussion near the work session’s end related to the funding of the coming Fiscal Year 2021 budget that was an eye-opener on the council’s thought process for the coming budget cycle.

Despite ongoing uncertainty among some on council about the plan to privatize and outsource the Town’s Tourism marketing function in the wake of scathing public and impacted business owner criticism of that plan; and the seemingly unavoidable presence of $29 million in physical capital improvements in the coming budget year, a 5-1 council majority committed to advertising a Real Estate Tax Rate of 13 cents per $100 of assessed value in the coming year.

That rate will maintain Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick and the council majority’s desire to implement a half-cent Real Estate Tax rate cut in next year’s budget. Tederick has commented that implementation of a tax cut despite the coming capital improvement needs will be a sign of the Town’s economic strength despite the $15 million in lost assets it has thus far claimed in the Economic Development Authority (EDA) financial scandal.

Only Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock asked that council at least keep the option of maintaining the existing 13.5-cent Real Estate Tax Rate and Town governmental revenue stream where it is. Sealock explained he had serious concerns about the plan to outsource the Town Tourism function and suggested the $64,000-plus of revenue that half-cent of Real Estate Tax would provide could help fund Visitors Center operations in the next budget year.

To left, Mayor Tewalt and Vice-Mayor Sealock found themselves outnumbered 5-2 on keeping a flat real-estate tax revenue option at least available to the council.

As Mayor Gene Tewalt noted in also expressing a desire to keep the flat tax rate option open, once advertised a tax rate can be adjusted down, but not up. Following the work session, Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson told Royal Examiner that one option available should it become apparent that the Town will need to keep its current revenue stream to fund coming fiscal year capital improvements and operations, would be to re-advertise a tax rate higher than the 13-cent one currently poised to be put forward.

However, several council comments seemed to indicate that as an unlikely option.

Newly-appointed Councilwoman Lori Athey Cockrell said she was in favor of “keeping taxes as low as they can (be)” in voicing support for the half-cent real estate tax decrease being committed to this early in the budget process.

Then Jacob Meza pointed a path forward for council should it do an about-face on the Tourism Department – that path cuts to other town governmental functions to allow the half-cent Real Estate Tax reduction to stand.

At center between Letasha Thompson and Chris Holloway, Jacob Meza may have spoken for the council majority when he said, if not tourism then another town department should be earmarked for outsourcing or cuts to its budget to facilitate a half-cent decrease to a real estate tax rate already 3.5 cents below the median level for Virginia towns.

“If the council wants to change something, I’d rather instead of keeping tax rates high or increasing taxes, figure out what other areas of the budget need to go … I want the council to find the areas that we’re willing to do without or willing to change. So again, if Tourism is the hot-topic button right now if that’s the direction the council wants to go, fine. Let’s figure out what other reductions we can have in the budget … because I can support some of the changes that we’ve made whereas the justifications were reducing some of our tax bases, not find other reasons to spend the money and increase it again,” Meza said.

Following Meza’s call to reduce the town governmental function in some, even as-yet-undetermined way, rather than keep tax revenue at existing levels, Mayor Tewalt polled council on its preference on a rate to advertise. And as noted above, only Sealock expressed support of keeping the option of a flat Real Estate Tax open to the council as a means of funding the Visitors Center function.

Beginning with Cockrell’s call to keep tax rates as low as possible in support of the 13-cent rate advertisement, Gary Gillespie, Letasha Thompson, Meza, and Chris Holloway all concurred to advertise the 13-cent rate, cementing in the $64,629 of lost Town revenue in the coming budget year.

Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson, seated blue shirt, and other Town and County staff, citizens and downtown business owners listen to consultant Craig Wilson traverse the complex and expensive bidding ground of Community Development Block Grant programs and processes. Stay tuned as the interim town manager was instructed to keep council posted on developments as a mid-September deadline approaches and a ‘materials only’ option on façade and other improvements are considered to reduce an exorbitant bid price.

The following day we called Town Finance Director Wilson to see where the Town of Front Royal ranks statewide with its municipal real estate tax rate. While he did not have specific rankings, Wilson noted that the Median Real Estate Tax Rate for Virginia towns is 17 cents per $100 of assessed value. So, the Town’s existing 13.5-cent rate was 3.5 cents below the Virginia town median; the proposed cut will take that to 4 cents below the median level.

According to staff numbers included in the work session agenda packet, the revenue produced at the 13.5-cent real estate tax rate in FY 2020 was $1,744,970. The proposed FY 2021, 13-cent rate will provide $1,680,341, or as observed above, a $64,629 reduction.

Council decided to keep the Personal Property Tax rate flat at 64 cents per $100 of assessed value. That rate provided $597,872 of tax revenue to the Town last year.

See the full Town Council-Planning Commission Special Meeting and council work session in linked Royal Examiner videos:

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Local Government

EDA: Request for qualifications for the provision of an FY18 and FY19 audit

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on

The Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority (“EDA”) is soliciting proposals for Auditor Services (“Services”). Sealed proposals for this work will be accepted until Friday, March 6, 2020, at 12:00 p.m.

Please submit one (1) original and three (3) copies of your proposal in a sealed envelope marked “Auditor Services,” with the Proposer’s name and address marked on the outside of the sealed envelope, no later than 12:00 p.m. EST, Friday March 6, 2020.

Send to:

Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority
P.O. Box 445
Front Royal, VA 22630
ATTN: Gretchen Henderson, Administrative Assistant


Questions regarding this Request for Qualifications (“RFQ”) should be directed to:

Doug Parsons, Executive Director,
Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority
540-635-2182
dparsons@wceda.com

To access the full RFQ, including Scope of Work and Terms and Conditions, please click here. You can also visit the EDA website to learn more.

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Local Government

Local pro-militia group vows to support, protect

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A band of local 2nd Amendment advocates concerned about the Commonwealth’s proposed gun safety laws returned to state their cause during the Warren County Board of Supervisors (BOS) February 18 meeting.

“A few weeks ago, I actually delivered a resolution to you all,” said Sam Haun of Front Royal, Va., during the general public comment period of the BOS meeting. “I’m not going to beat a dead horse and ask you to pick it back up, however, there is a group locally that has been operating out of Warren County and we’re trying to maintain 100 percent transparency for everybody.”

In fact, Haun brought that proposed resolution — which seeks “Promoting the Order of Militia Within Warren County” — to BOS members during their January 7 meeting, saying it is a Constitutional right for Warren County citizens to have a militia. The BOS to date has not acted on the resolution.

Sam Haun said on Tuesday night that his group’s intention is to support local law enforcement and first responders in helping residents during any mass casualty events or natural disasters.

“We’ve even gone so far as to meet with the local sheriff’s department, the town police department and we’re making arrangements now with the local fire department and EMS for additional training for all the members,” said Haun.

At the same time, Haun told the supervisors that he wanted to keep them in the loop about what his group is doing as it progresses.

“The way that things are going, we don’t want to pick up a bad name, so every few weeks, once we’ve accomplished something, we’ll come back and let you know exactly what’s going on,” he said. “That way, you feel a little bit better because you know what we’re doing, and it keeps us in the public view.”

Paul Aldrich, a Front Royal resident who said he handles communications for the pro-militia group, also spoke during the general public comment period of the BOS meeting and presented an ordinance for their consideration.

Specifically, the proposed ordinance relates to State Senate Bill 35, which would grant local governments the authority to ban the possession of firearms in public spaces during events that require a permit, like protests. The Virginia Senate in December 2019 passed the bill, 21-19, along with a party-line vote and the measure is under consideration by the Virginia House of Delegates.

After traveling on February 17 to Richmond, Va., to hear debates on the proposed legislation and to speak with district representatives, Aldrich told the supervisors that he was putting forth what he called “a simple proposed ordinance” that would “handle Senate Bill 35.”

Aldrich said the ordinance states: “The County shall not exercise any ordinance pursuant to Virginia 15.2-915 Section E and Section F.”

“That literally eliminates [the] bill even being an issue here” in Warren County, he said.

Board Chairman Walter Mabe, who represents the Shenandoah District, asked that Aldrich provide them with a copy of the proposed ordinance, which Aldrich agreed to email.
“Our goal is to improve the community, bring the community together, and protect it at the same time,” Aldrich said about the pro-militia group.

For example, during recent flooding in Tazewell County, Va., Aldrich said guys from their group were dispatched to bring supplies — including water, blankets and food — to needy residents. A second group went down on February 17 with more supplies to help out, he said.

At that point during the comment period, Chairman Mabe said he had a question.

“The group that you’re trying to get together, I understand that, and I understand you working with the sheriff,” said Mabe. “Are you working with other groups that are within the area that are trying to do exactly what it is that you’re trying to do?”

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, Mabe said he had spoken with another group that said it had never heard of Haun’s and Aldrich’s group. “I believe there has to be an effort put forth so that everybody knows what everybody is doing,” he said.

Aldrich agreed.

Mabe continued: “If I would want a militia — and I don’t like the word militia, everybody knows that, because it denotes a bad connotation — again, I would like to know who’s in charge, who’s funding it, who’s vetting it, and the 2,800 other questions I have about this very thing.”

Mabe also said that if the County were to “put people out there, they’ve got to be safe and we’ve got to protect the people who, honestly, don’t want a militia. If we don’t do that, we’re behind the curve.”

Additionally, according to the BOS chairman, communications must be key.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much you have to be involved with everybody so that you’re not confusing everybody,” he said.

Aldrich agreed and said his group has proposed an April volunteer day to the Town in which “we’re going to bring the volunteer community together,” including law enforcement from both the County and Town, 4-H, Boy Scouts, the fire department, and search and rescue, among others, so that everyone can share what they do and for their pro-militia group to recruit potential participants.

Haun added that he’s contacted other groups and plans to bring them together for a February 28 meeting, though he didn’t provide details. And he said he’s spoken with the sheriff about possibly running background checks locally rather than having to send potential members down to Richmond for them.

“If we bring the community together, we’re better off across the board, in my opinion,” said Aldrich.

“I believe this county is doing better,” Mabe said, “and it’s because of the new board and I believe we’re doing the right things. We have a request from the people who come in front of us to do the right thing, as well.

“The connotation that you’re putting forward is a tough situation and we have to get past that,” he added. “I don’t want to approve anything that I’m going to have to pay for that’s going to scare people.”

“And we wouldn’t ask you to pay for something that’s going to scare people,” Haun responded.

Similar to the pro-militia group’s stated goal, Mabe said he also wants to help the community and he also wants to remain involved. “And I’m happy to talk with you anytime, anytime. Just let me know,” he told them.

Watch the general public comment period of the Warren County Board of Supervisors’ February 18 meeting at the end of the meeting on this Royal Examiner video.

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Upcoming Events

Feb
27
Thu
10:00 am Day of Giving @ Samuels Public Library
Day of Giving @ Samuels Public Library
Feb 27 @ 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
Day of Giving @ Samuels Public Library
In conjunction with “Love Your Library Month,” Samuels Public Library will hold its first “Day of Giving” on Thursday, February 27, 2020. Thanks to an anonymous donor, all donations made in-person at the Library or[...]
10:15 am Toddler and Preschool Story Time @ Samuels Public Library
Toddler and Preschool Story Time @ Samuels Public Library
Feb 27 @ 10:15 am – 12:00 pm
Toddler and Preschool Story Time @ Samuels Public Library
10:15 Toddler story time | 11:00 Preschool story time Wednesday, February 19 and Thursday, February 20: Come in for some great stories, songs, and a craft about our feathered friends, Birds!  Siblings welcome. Wednesday, February[...]
Feb
28
Fri
9:00 am Veterans Benefit @ Able Forces Foundation
Veterans Benefit @ Able Forces Foundation
Feb 28 @ 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Veterans Benefit @ Able Forces Foundation
Able Forces Foundation will once again be hosting a visit by Andre Miller, Resource Specialist, Virginia Veteran and Family Support, Department of Veteran Services, Commonwealth of Virginia, and Danielle Cullers, Homeless Veteran Advocate-Volunteers of America[...]
7:00 pm Love Revival – FREE Monthly Comm... @ Love Revival Ministry Center
Love Revival – FREE Monthly Comm... @ Love Revival Ministry Center
Feb 28 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Love Revival - FREE Monthly Community Dinner @ Love Revival Ministry Center
Free Community Dinner for everyone! Come enjoy a hot meal on the last Friday of every month at Love Revival Ministry Center.
Feb
29
Sat
10:00 am Loom Knit a Kitten @ Strokes of Creativity
Loom Knit a Kitten @ Strokes of Creativity
Feb 29 @ 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Loom Knit a Kitten @ Strokes of Creativity
Loom Knit an adorable kitten. In this beginner’s class for teens and adults, you will work on a 24 peg loom to knit a small stuffed toy. *Instruction will be right handed. No prior knitting[...]
11:00 am Kooky Chefs Cook It Up: Soups @ Samuels Public Library
Kooky Chefs Cook It Up: Soups @ Samuels Public Library
Feb 29 @ 11:00 am – 1:00 pm
Kooky Chefs Cook It Up: Soups @ Samuels Public Library
Nothing is more comforting than warm soup on a chilly day! Learn how to make some yummy soup, and do some taste-testing to choose your favorite. For ages 8 and up. Registration begins January 29.
11:00 am Trauma & Resiliency Training for... @ Samuels Public Library
Trauma & Resiliency Training for... @ Samuels Public Library
Feb 29 @ 11:00 am – 12:30 pm
Trauma & Resiliency Training for Early Childhood Providers @ Samuels Public Library
Statistics show us that one in four children will experience trauma by the age of four. This trauma could be abuse, hunger, homelessness, witnessing violence, medical trauma, or grief. We know that a child’s greatest[...]
1:00 pm Bingo Fundraiser @ Elks Lodge
Bingo Fundraiser @ Elks Lodge
Feb 29 @ 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Bingo Fundraiser @ Elks Lodge
 
2:00 pm Speed Dating with Books @ Samuels Public Library
Speed Dating with Books @ Samuels Public Library
Feb 29 @ 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Speed Dating with Books @ Samuels Public Library
Do appearances, of people or books, influence you?  How much time does it take for you to decide that you are/are not interested? What criteria determines interest? Come spend time in a “speed dating” atmosphere,[...]
Mar
2
Mon
10:00 am Read Across America Day @ SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke
Read Across America Day @ SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke
Mar 2 @ 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Read Across America Day @ SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke
Monday, March 2nd, 2020, is National Read Across America Day. Students of all ages are invited to come to the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke’s pet adoption center, located at 111 Featherbed Lane, to[...]