Citizens to town council: Are you listening or are your minds made up?
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”.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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;
2 – the introduction of the police department’s new communications officer, Brittni Dennis;
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:
Council OKs hike in EDA civil litigation fees to $250,000, ponders long-term change to Property Tax due date, among other business
The Front Royal Town Council opened its work session of Monday, June 5, with review of a number of items either scheduled for upcoming public hearings — four out of six on short-term rental permitting requests — or inclusion on Consent Agendas for routine matters not requiring further council discussion. Council then delved into several matters of broader general interest to town citizens.
Among those were funding for needed repairs to the Prospect Street bridge over Happy Creek at South Commerce Avenue; officially changing by Town Code amendment the June due date on Personal Property taxes after five consecutive years of delayed mailing out of those tax bills and a consequent pushing back the June 5 due date; and finally prior to adjourning to closed session, authorization of an increase in the amount of legal fees to be paid to the Alexandria-based Damiani & Damiani law firm for its representation of the town government in the dueling civil law suits launched by council in November 2019 over liabilities and damages related to the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority financial scandal.
That increased cap on EDA civil legal fees is $250,000, according to the staff summary up $50,000 from a level of $200,000 set by a previous council on November 25, 2019. There was some confusion as the staff summary also noted that council had previously “allocated” an additional $158,139 to the original cap “for potential legal fees” but had not yet “authorized payment” of that amount, leaving the $158,139 “budgeted and unspent.”
Town citizens, whose General Fund tax revenue is being used to pay the EDA civil litigation bills, may recall that the council decision to sue the joint Town-County EDA and the County as opposed to accepting an offer of “good-faith negotiations” to determine exactly who was owed what or liable for what in the estimated $26-million financial scandal was made over the objection of then-recently installed Mayor Eugene Tewalt as Interim Mayor Matt Tederick (May-Nov. 2019) was transitioning into his run as interim town manager (Nov. 2019-Dec. 2020). Tederick, who has office space in proximity to Damiani & Damiani’s in Alexandria, made council aware of the potential availability of the law firm to handle the hostile civil litigation if council chose that path.
After some discussion (beginning at 58:14 mark of linked Town video) and Mayor Cockrell’s explanation that council could take action at the regularly scheduled work session, on Amber Morris’s motion, seconded by Vice-Mayor Wayne Sealock, council approved the $50,000 increase to a cap of $250,000 by a 6-0 vote.
Council then convened into Closed/Executive Session to discuss personnel matters, including the “Town Attorney and appointments to the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals.” There was no action or announcement out of closed session.
On the matter of when, not only the Town, but also the County, has been able to get their Personal Property Tax billings out, town staff has recommended council consider a code amendment officially moving the initial payment due date without penalty to June 20 from June 5. Council member Morris noted the link between County and Town taxes — “We can’t do ours without the County part,” she observed.
With that link it was recommended that council take the matter to the Town-County Liaison Committee for discussion on a joint move in that direction to accommodate both municipalities tax billing schedules to what they are able to accomplish as the new fiscal year looms every July 1.
The staff summary noted that: “The mailing of first installment Town personal property tax bills have been delayed for 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023; the first installment for Town real estate tax bills have been delayed for 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2023.”
On the Prospect Street Bridge repair front, staff notes a recent total cost estimate of nearly $1.5 million. Were the Town to be approved for the V-DOT Revenue Sharing Program, the Town “could receive 50% of matching funds from the revenue sharing program in FY27-28”. However, such approval remains an unknown variable, and the time frame seems counter-productive to the relative immediacy of the need of repair to the largely wooden structure. Flat tires were reported by some after driving over the bridge, and termites in sections of the wood were noted. That led to questions of liability for the town or state were the bridge to collapse with a vehicle on it.
The staff summary observed: “Effective with the FY24 Budget, the Town will have allocated a total of $630,000 to the Prospect Bridge Rehabilitation Project ($300,000 in current FY23 and coming FY24) and will need an additional $925,137 to fund the project.”
Of options in providing the additional funding, it was added: “The Town could delay secondary paving in the amount of $262,000 and delay the transportation plan in the amount of $150,000 to allocate an additional $412,000 toward the Prospect Bridge Rehabilitation Project; but the additional $412,000 will not provide enough funds to complete the project immediately. An additional $513,127 would be needed if both paving and the transportation plan funding were delayed. Additional funds could be allocated when preparing the FY25 budget for next year and by that time the Town may have a better idea of additional funds that could be reallocated toward the Prospect Bridge Rehabilitation Project.”
With the potential VDOT revenue sharing not available until Fiscal Year 2027/28, Town Manager Joe Waltz said that a self-funded rehabilitation of the bridge project could conceivably begin in July of 2024 at the beginning of Fiscal Year 2024/25.
Noting it as a Town Public Works priority and the potential of moving from limited use to being closed to all traffic, a consensus appeared to be to move toward repair as soon as possible, with the additional needed funds being earmarked to facilitate that FY-2025 target date of July 2024 to begin repairs.
The short-term rentals discussion that kicked off the meeting focused largely (4:15 mark of the video) on The Trellis multi-unit project on the 1100 block of John Marshall Highway, which encompassed three of the four short-term rental Special Use Permit applications poised for public hearings. While some questions were raised about the multi-uses tied to a main structure, “Events Center” tied to the smaller short-term rentals, council’s overall reaction was positive. It was noted the applicant has lengthy ties to the community and a vested interest in improving the ambiance of the town to both visitors and residents.
However, a future work session to discuss mixed-use issues and the range of variables tied to short-term rental permitting was promised to Councilmen Rappaport and Rogers, who raised the bulk of those issues. Though, as noted above, even with their general permitting issues raised, both Rappaport and Rogers expressed support for the Trellis project overall.
Two other coming public hearing items discussed were a short-term rental permitting application at 211 South Royal Avenue and a special exception to parking regulations at 15 Chester Street for commercial use, both of which got positive receptions. In another action item, Planning Director Kopishke was appointed to the Town’s non-elected member role with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC). It was pointed out that Vice-Mayor Sealock is the elected representative to NSVRC.
Click here to see all or part of these and other discussions in the Town video.
Supervisors approve series of permitting and other requests with little to no public input in monthly public hearing meeting
At 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, the Warren County Board of Supervisors held its now third monthly meeting to handle an increase in the number of public hearings it faces fueled largely by short-term tourist rental requests. Following are the seven public hearing items on this agenda and board actions taken.
C. Public Hearing – Lease with Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging, Inc.
A summary and explanation of the lease parameters was given by Assistant County Attorney Caitlin Jordan: “Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging, Inc. (“SAAA”) has leased the County-owned building located at 1217 Commonwealth Avenue, also known as the Senior Center, since approximately May 2001. When the last lease was executed, it was anticipated that the SAAA would move to the Health and Human Services Complex (“Services Complex”) once improvements were complete. While the Services Complex is owned by the Warren County School Board, the County currently leases the Services Complex through a lease agreement dated October 18, 2011 that granted permission to the County to lease a portion of the Services Complex to the SAAA. Now that the improvements are complete, the SAAA would like to lease a portion of the Services Complex for a period of five (5) years, beginning June 1, 2023 and ending on May 30, 2028.”
No one spoke at the public hearing. On a motion by Vice-Chairman Cheryl Cullers, seconded by Delores Oates, by a 4-0 vote, Walt Mabe absent, the supervisor approved a motion to “authorize the County Administrator to execute a lease for a designated area of the Health and Human Services Complex with the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging, Inc. for a period of five years, beginning June 1, 2023 to May 30, 2028.”
D. Public Hearing – Proposed Amendment to Warren County Code §172-2 “Designation of Certain Private Roads as Highways” to include Blue Ridge Shadows.
Summary and Explanation, again by Assistant County Attorney Jordan: “Lieutenant Seal of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office received the enclosed letter from Scott R. Kresjes, President of the Blue Ridge Shadows Home Owners Association, requesting that the private roads within the Blue Ridge Shadows subdivision be designated as highways for law enforcement purposes. On March 17, 2023 Sheriff Butler submitted a letter to the County Attorney’s Office stating that he was in agreement with the Board of the Blue Ridge Shadows HOA request … Virginia Code Section § 46.2-1307.1 permits the Warren County Board of Supervisors to adopt ordinances designating private roads within any residential development containing 50 or more lots as highways for law enforcement purposes. Blue Ridge Shadows contains 233 lots and may be listed specifically in § 172-2 of the Warren County Code.”
After hearing Blue Ridge Shadows HOA President Kresjes summarize the subdivision’s desire to have all its roads classified as VDOT system “highways” for law enforcement purposes, the board on a motion by Ms. Cullers, seconded by Jay Butler, approved “the amendment to section 172-2 of the Warren County Code to include Blue Ridge Shadows” roads by the “highway” designation by another 4-0 vote.
E. Public Hearing – Conditional Use Permit 2023-03-01, Shelly Cook for a Short-Term Tourist Rental Located at 0 Lee Burke Road and Identified on Tax Map 27E, Section 7, as Parcel 3.
Summary and Explanation presented by Zoning Administrator Chase Lenz: “The applicant is requesting a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental for the property she purchased in December of 2015. The subject property is currently under development and is accessed by a private access easement through the adjacent 42.9143-acre parcel also owned by the applicant. The owner is constructing a single-family dwelling on the property to be used as a ‘honeymoon suite’ for her Rural Events Facility approved for her adjacent parcel.”
It was noted in the agenda summary that by a 4-0 vote on April 12, the county planning commission had forwarded the request with a recommendation of approval, with conditions as cited in the packet.
After hearing from the applicant on details of how this “honeymoon suite” short-term rental parcel fits into her overall plan for her Rural Events Center and Vineyard operation, on a motion by Ms. Oates, seconded by Ms. Cullers, by a 4-0 vote the board approved “the Conditional Use Permit request of Shelly Cook for a Short-Term Tourist Rental with the conditions as recommended by the Planning Commission and staff.”
F. Public Hearing – Conditional Use Permit 2023-03-03, David Cressell for Gunsmithing Services Located at 275 Gary Lane and Identified on Tax Map 15D, Section 2, Block 5, as Parcel 206.
Explanation and Summary again by Zoning Administrator Lenz: He explained that the request was in a Residential-One zoning district in the Shenandoah Farms subdivision River View section; and that County codes define Gunsmithing Services as a commercial enterprise where a gunsmith performs repairs, renovations, safety inspections, modification alterations for special uses, and appraisals of firearms and that sales are allowed with proper permitting. But due to state and federal regulations it is not considered a “Home Occupation”.
However, in a residentially zoned location in order to preserve the character of the neighborhood certain conditions were required. Those include no change in the outside appearance of the property. And since the shooting of firearms in the Shenandoah Farms subdivision is prohibited, “all test firing will be conducted offsite and there will be no discharge of firearms associated with the gunsmithing services operation on the property.”
The applicant was present but did not address the board and there were no public hearing speakers or board discussion. On a motion by Mr. Butler the board presumably, since Butler’s microphone was either off or so far from his mouth his voice was not audible, approved the permitting request by a 4-0 vote.
G. Public Hearing – Conditional Use Permit 2023-03-04, Michaun Pierre for a Short-term Tourist Rental Located at 726 Harmony Orchard Road and identified on Tax Map 38C, Section 1, as Parcel 6
Summary and Explanation was by Planning Director Matt Wendling despite the chair’s continued call to a “Mr. Welding” who did not appear to be present. But however you pronounce his name, the planning director explained that Ms. Pierre was requesting the Short-Term Rental Conditional Use Permit for a property she purchased in January of 2023.
She has explained her family is from neighboring Rappahannock County and that she has wanted to move back and own property in the Shenandoah Valley. She told planning department staff that her current work and family situations require her to be transient, so she doesn’t stay at the property full-time and would like to rent it when she’s not staying there. Her long-term plan is to settle here in the future when her life is less transient. She told planning staff she will manage the rentals remotely and hire a local handyman or property management company to handle cleaning and maintenance and be available for emergencies and general property issues. She has submitted a property management plan for review by County staff.
The planning commission forwarded the request in April with a unanimous recommendation of approval with conditions as suggested in the packet.
Again there were no other speakers than the applicant. On a slightly more audible motion by Mr. Butler, seconded by Ms. Oates, the board approved the Conditional Use Permit request of Michaun Pierre for a Short-Term Tourist Rental with the conditions as recommended by the planning commission and staff.
H. Public Hearing – Subdivision Variance #2023-03-01, Erica Baker – for a subdivision variance to Warren County Code 155-3.B(1)(b) of the Subdivision Ordinance, Located at 64 Tara Road, identified on Tax Map 15 as parcel 2C2.
Staff summary again by Planning Director Wendling, who noted that existing County Code §155-3.B(1)(b) of the Subdivision Ordinance requires “that the property owner requesting a subdivision shall have held fee simple title to the property to be subdivided for a period of five years prior to the filing of the family subdivision application with the county.” At this time, staff noted that Ms. Baker and her family have held the property since January 6th, 2022 (approx. 1 year and 2 months). This date was when their father passed away and the property was willed to Roger Smith, Erica Baker, Alise Barton and Alfred E. Smith, Jr.
After hearing from the applicant, there were no other speakers, the board did discuss the matter with the planning director who gave some background on the history of similar requests, though generally not related to a family inheritance based on a death and inheritance division among family members. Then on a motion by Ms. Oates, seconded by Ms. Cullers, approved the subdivision variance “with the condition as recommended by the Planning Commission and staff, that the lot shall not be voluntarily transferred to a non-immediate family member for nine (9) years after approval of the family subdivision plat. This would be in lieu of the required five years and make the time frame approximately ten years.” With those conditions the planning commission forwarded the matter on a 5-0 vote with a recommendation of approval.
I. Public Hearing: re: Warren County Fair Association CUP request for a Motor Freight Terminal.
The evening’s final public hearing was the item added at the meeting’s outset, the Warren County Fair Association’s request for use of a portion of its property as a Motor Freight terminal for overflow trailer parking by the nearby, across Fairgrounds Road, Family Dollar warehouse and distribution center. Planning Director Wendling explained the use was anticipated as a seasonal one around certain holidays, as opposed to a steady year-round use. He noted that Dennis Grove was present representing the Fair Association but did not address the board and no questions were directed his way.
Again, without any public hearing speakers, on a motion by Ms. Cullers, second by Ms. Oates, the board approved the CUP application by a 4-0 vote.
With no new “New Business” on the agenda the meeting was adjourned at 6:36 p.m. Click here to view all or portions of the meeting in the Board of Supervisors Special Meeting.
Mayor and Council acknowledge 2023 Front Royal Scholarship recipients
As noted at the end of our lead story on the Front Royal Town Council’s regular meeting of Monday, May 22, recipients of three annual Town scholarships to graduating seniors from the community’s high schools were announced at that meeting (9:45 video mark). In fact, two of those recipients present at the meeting’s outset led council in the Pledge of Allegiance opening the meeting.
Following are Mayor Lori A. Cockrell’s remarks introducing the trio of Benjamin Windt (R-MA), Tyler Burhams (WCHS), and Landon Pond (WCHS) to council and the public that evening.
“The town awards three scholarships each year to deserving seniors who live in the Town of Front Royal. Both Councilwoman Morris and Councilman Ingram serve on the scholarship committee.
Applications have names and addresses removed before the committee reviews the applications. I believe that choosing just three recipients was very challenging from all of the applications the town received.
“The application requires students to respond to the following areas: post-high school education plans, plans for employment once completing their post-high school education, extra-curricular and community activities while in high school, honors and awards earned, and describing how living in Front Royal has influenced their future plans.
“The first recipient is Benjamin Windt. Benjamin attends Randolph-Macon Academy. He plans to pursue a career in advancing the world’s space capabilities and aeronautical design. While in high school, he was involved in Air Force Junior ROTC, captain of the tennis team, and served as the Student Life Committee’s treasurer. He also is very involved in the local Izaak-Walton League.
Benjamin noted that he has never missed a Festival of Leaves, goes to every Christmas and Firemen’s Parade, the Fourth of July events at 4-H, and baseball games at ‘The Bing’.
“The second recipient is Tyler Burhams. Tyler graduated from Warren County High School last week. Tyler plans to pursue a career in engineering, specifically computer science. Tyler enjoys discovering how things work! In the last couple years, he has learned how to metal cast with a propane furnace, making different types of metal alloys. He noted that living in Front Royal has given him an appreciation for the land, especially the mountains. He enjoys camping, the forest, and wildlife and still has aspirations of a career in preservation, even though he feels engineering is where his strength lies.
“Our third recipient is Landon Pond. Landon also graduated from WCHS last Thursday. He plans to study cybersecurity and computer science. While in high school, he was a member of DECA, National Honor Society, and Wildcats Live and played on the golf, basketball, and baseball teams. I hope Landon doesn’t mind me sharing his comments about living in Front Royal.
“He said, ‘Front Royal will always be an integral part of my story. I am a Southerner, a small-town boy, and a Wildcat for life. No matter where my life’s journey takes me next, Front Royal will remain an emotional landmark filled with all of my firsts, my accomplishments, failures, beginnings, losses, and the fondest of memories. Front Royal embodies all of what truly matters and will forever be the place I call home.’
“Congratulations to all you gentlemen, and I hope all of you always feel a connection to Front Royal and know that your community supports you on your journey and the next chapter of your life,” the mayor, whose career has been in public education, concluded.
Following her remarks council left the dais for congratulatory handshakes and a photo op with these three outstanding students and community members selected from a pool of such students/citizens. As Mayor Cockrell observed in calling the agenda item, it was a very difficult task narrowing that pool down to just three recipients from the Class of 2023.
Good luck to all those students in that pool, the three recipients, and not only Front Royal but all of Warren County’s Class of 2023 graduates. Remember, the future is always only a moment away.
To be or not to be? THAT was the question posed to town council on the future of joint tourism promotional efforts
Front Royal Mayor Lori Cockrell and the town council she chairs may have gotten more than they bargained for after the mayor introduced the “Public Comments” on non-agenda topics section of the regular council meeting on Monday, May 22nd. It was a one-two punch to put up or, if not shut up, to at least inform those involved of the Town’s real intentions moving forward on joint, or not joint, tourism efforts. Those verbal “punches” were delivered by Discover Front Royal (DFR) Chairman Clare Schmitt and Downtown Front Royal (the other DFR’s) board member Ellen Aders.
They came after council had conducted the agenda’s two rather routine public hearings, first approving an ordinance to amend Town Code Chapter 175-137 on Fees, Charges and Expenses to Add the Application Fee of $400 for Processing a Local Board of Building Code Appeals (LBBCA) application; and second, an ordinance to amend a Town Code Chapter (98-2) regarding Business, Professional and Occupational Licensing to add the definitions of “Mobile Food Unit” and “New Business” and related to include additional information to Chapter 98-3 regarding License Requirement to add “Mobile Food Unit” to Chapter 98-61 on Licensing Peddlers and Itinerant Merchants “to incorporate additional legislation enacted by the Code of Virginia § 58.1-3715.1 regarding mobile food units.”
It was perhaps a surprise that no speakers addressed implementation of a $400 fee necessary to challenge any Town Property Maintenance Official’s rulings on derelict or deteriorating properties after council moved toward implementation of the process under discussion for — is it a decade yet? — with the January 2023 establishment of a Local Building Code Board of Appeals. With no speakers at that building code of appeals fee implementation public hearing council may have thought it was going to be a smooth sail through public concerns for the evening. But it wasn’t to be.
Discover Front Royal Board Chairman Schmitt opened by noting the topic of “tourism agreements with both the County and DFR” (Discover Front Royal) was on council’s closed meeting agenda at the open meeting’s end. The closed session motion cited legal advice by counsel towards “1) proposed agreements for promotion of economic interests and tourism with Discover Front Royal, Inc. and Warren County” as one of three closed session topics, another being the dueling civil litigations launched by the Town several years ago against the County and the still legally named Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority.
Schmitt, recently appointed to succeed Kerry Barnhart at the helm of the independent 501-c6 Destination Management Organization (DMO) Discover Front Royal, jointly created by the Town and County to oversee joint tourism efforts, urged council to come out of that closed session discussion with a clear message to all involved on its intent on the future of tourism promotion in the community.
“I’ve heard many of you publicly say, either from this dais or during the liaison meeting or other venues, that you support a joint tourism effort with the County for our region and that you want to move forward with DFR and with the County.
“And so I guess what I’m asking for you all to do is put your money and your vote where your mouth is and move this forward,” Schmitt added pointedly of the conflicting messages she perceives coming from the Town side of the joint tourism equation. Of that mixed message, Schmitt observed that she had heard that some on council, perhaps a majority, did not want to move forward with the joint tourism effort.
“That’s okay … and you won’t hurt my feelings, and you won’t hurt any of my board members’ feelings if you decide to just do your own thing. But what we would ask, if that is, in fact, what the majority wishes, is to stop wasting time and just move forward and say that — say, ‘We don’t actually want to work with the County, and we don’t want a joint tourism effort, and we don’t want to work with you guys.’ Or maybe even ‘We do want to work with the County, but only the County and we don’t want to work with you, DFR.'”
Schmitt reiterated that such a move wouldn’t be taken personally by her board, noting, “This is volunteer work, and frankly, the last few weeks and months have been pretty thankless, especially since we don’t seem able to get anything done since this doesn’t seem to be a priority,” Schmitt told the town’s elected leadership. She continued to make it clear her and her board’s preference was the joint path forward she again reminded some council members they have publicly supported.
“If you do choose to have separate, individual tourism efforts for the Town and County, I would just ask you to make that decision and explain to the citizens the ‘why’ of your decision and not just continue kicking the can down the road. There is a little bit of an expiration (date) on this — we’re starting a new fiscal year (July 1) … and I think it’s time to make a decision. So, I would just ask you come out of tonight’s meeting and do that,” Schmitt circled back to her opening request for clarity from the town’s elected officials on their intent moving forward on tourism promotion.
Downtown Front Royal’s Aders was up next to carry forward Schmitt’s theme, if from a different DFR perspective to the same end of not keeping joint tourism efforts in a political limbo. “And I want to echo everything that Clare just said,” Aders began. “I’ve been at work sessions, I’ve been at council meetings, I’ve talked to some of you on an individual basis. And it seems at every turn you guys are supportive of it — you want to work with DFR, you want to work with the County and get those tourism dollars here to be spent in Front Royal.
“But somewhere along the way, there’s a breakdown, or seems to be a breakdown in communication because we’re three months out from disengagement, and we don’t seem to be any closer to re-engaging,” Aders pointed out of the dissolution of the Town’s Memorandum of Understanding with the County on joint tourism that led to the creation of Discover Front Royal as the point entity for both municipalities on that effort. As we understand, one of Discover Front Royal’s roles as the 501-c6 Destination Management Organization (DMO) in that effort is to apply for state tourism-directed grants the municipalities themselves are ineligible for.
“We get positive feedback from you all and a path forward, and then that gets passed off to staff, and then things just kind of stall. So, I’m not really sure what happens. Either we’ve misunderstood what your intentions are or the communication to your staff is different than what we think (we’ve heard) … But either way, all of us involved seem to be chasing our tails around this a little bit,” Aders said of the lack of forward movement on joint tourism promotion.
Aders pointed to the acquisition of a grant, she did not specify by which DFR, part of which she said had been spent on the still unilaterally run Town Visitors Center, another portion earmarked for phase two of Visitors Center remodeling, and another portion committed to marketing and advertising that Aders said must be spent by the end of the year. — “I wasn’t sure you were aware of that,” she said of the deadline on grant spending.
Aders concluded, again echoing Schmitt: “So, tonight I just would ask you to make a decision, communicate it clearly to our community, the County, to our board, so that we can either move forward with success or terminate the DMO (Destination Management Organization Discover Front Royal) and just move on and quit talking about it,” Aders concluded. Then like Schmitt, she thanked council for the time to make her case for definitive messaging on the future of joint tourism efforts in this community.
After a third speaker, former Councilman Scott Lloyd, more playfully addressed the cooped-up chicken limit of six inside town limits, hoping for an expansion to nine or even 12, at least in more open areas of the town limits, council moved through the rest of its agenda.
First up were staff and member reports, then unanimous approval of a five-item Consent Agenda without discussion. Those Consent Agenda items involved three previously discussed departmental purchases, approval of the writing off of bad debts deemed uncollectable in current Fiscal Year-2023, and a current FY-2023 Budget Amendment.
That budget amendment was explained in the agenda packet: “Council is requested to approve a FY23 Budget Amendment in the amount of $480,000 to account for revenues that exceeded FY23 budgeted amounts and to approve a FY23 Budget Transfer in the amount of $248,000 from the General Fund to Street Fund. This proposed FY23 Budget Amendment and Transfer will allocate additional funds for the Town to move forward with a transportation Plan, allocate funds to be used for Criser Road Sidewalk Project and allocate additional funds for Paving Projects.”
With no new business on the agenda, council then convened to the much-discussed Closed/Executive Session at about 8:03 p.m. The third topic of discussion was the filling of vacancies on FREDA, the Town’s unilateral and currently on-hold Front Royal Economic Development Authority, created in the wake of the launching of the hostile civil litigations against the County and FR-WC EDA several years ago. According to town staff, there were no announcements out of the closed session, which, as noted above, was said to have adjourned after 10 p.m.
The full meeting is viewable on the Town Council video link below, with Public Comments beginning at the 22:30 video mark. And in a teaser for a related story, the meeting opened with some recognitions, including of this year’s three Town Scholarship award winners: Benjamin Windt (R-MA), Tyler Burhams (WCHS), and Landon Pond (WCHS).
Click here to see all those acknowledgments at and near the outset of the Town Council video.
Town approves Dynamic Life Ministries Special Use Permit to facilitate burial of late Pastor Rogers on church grounds
After a month-plus of trying to expedite action to allow Dynamic Life Ministries to bury its late pastor and co-founder W. Carlton Rogers on the church property, in just eight minutes on Monday evening, May 22nd, the Front Royal Planning Commission and Town Council joined forces to conduct a public hearing and successive votes approving the Special Use Permit request to facilitate that burial.
Other than Pastor Rogers wife, Elvi, who was invited to the podium by Mayor Lori Cockrell to comment on the process, there were no public hearing speakers. At the podium, Elvi Rogers commended town staff and boards for expediting action on the matter.
The public hearing closed, first on a motion by Commissioner Connie Marshner, the planning commission voted 4-0 (Commissioner Wood absent) to recommend approval of the request. Council followed a motion by Amber Morris to approve the SUP request.
And now Pastor Rogers may be laid to rest on his and the ministry’s choice of locations on the property he helped found and develop into a vibrant spiritual part of its community. The staff agenda summary noted that the cemetery plot would be just 10 feet by 10 feet on Dynamic Life’s expansive property and would not come within 250 yards of any residential properties and therefore be in compliance with the performance standards set forth in Town Code Chapter 175-107.4.
And with that accomplished, the Special Joint Meeting was adjourned by both bodies at 6:48 p.m.
The planning commission was then done for the evening while the council prepared for its regular meeting, slated to start at 7 p.m.
Watch the 8-minute-plus video of the meeting here.
Warren County: Notice of taxes due
Warren County tax bills for the first half of the year 2023 have been mailed. If you do not receive a bill for Personal Property, Real Estate, Sanitary District for Blue Mountain, Cedarville Heights, High Knob, Lake Front Royal, Linden Heights, Osprey Lane, Riverside, Shangri-La, Shannon Woods, Shenandoah Farms, Shenandoah Shores, Skyland Estates, Shangri-La, or Wildcat Drive, please contact the Treasurer’s Office at 540-635-2215.
Failure to receive a bill does not relieve the taxpayer of the penalty for late payment. Tax bills are due on June 5th, 2023. When the due date falls on the weekend, bills will be due the following business day. Penalty will be added June 22nd, 2023 if not paid or postmarked on or before June 21st, 2023.
Treasurer’s Office hours are 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday.
Jamie L. Spiker
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