It was a spirited, informative and occasionally contentious Front Royal Town Council Work Session Monday evening, November 4, at Town Hall.
The work session opened with a presentation by new recycling contractor Republic Services clarifying some do’s and don’ts of the Town’s new single stream recycling contract – the uptake being that following some basic guidelines it may not be as complicated a transition to the new system as it initially seemed.
Prior to adjournment to Closed Session to conduct an exit interview with departing Town Manager Joe Waltz whose final day here is Friday, the work session concluded with Councilman Gene Tewalt revisiting issues he has with the negotiating process on the contract that will install Interim Mayor Matt Tederick as Interim Town Manager succeeding Waltz for as long as six months.
As discussion turned to the inclusion of a tax shelter arrangement allowing Tederick to transfer his contract to an unnamed LLC under his control, Tederick observed, “I can’t be part of this conversation,” handing the meeting chair over to Vice Mayor Bill Sealock.
Tewalt again noted that he had not seen a draft of the contract prior to a vote on its approval. That led Councilman Jacob Meza, who was apparently more directly involved in the contract negotiation, to state that there had been copies on the table prior to the contract’s approval, which came as news to Tewalt.
“Why are we paying an LLC?” Tewalt pressed of the LLC transfer option Tederick previously told Royal Examiner could save him as much as $7,000 in tax payments.
“Why, do you think it’s illegal?” Meza asked.
Tewalt replied that it had an appearance of illegality.
Sealock said that when he inquired about the LLC option the Town Attorney didn’t have an issue with it, so he had voted to approve the contract as presented.
However asked about his involvement in development of the contract, Napier restated what he previously told Royal Examiner – “I do not give tax or business advice” but adding that the LLC/tax arrangement did not substantially change the nature of the contract as it applies to the interim town manager’s duties and responsibilities in overseeing the administration of the Town governmental apparatus.
Councilman Chris Holloway then observed that during earlier closed session discussion Tewalt had thrown his hat into the ring as a potential candidate for the interim town manager’s job. Tewalt, a past director of the Town Public Works Department, later confirmed that he had offered his services in the interim town manager’s role before realizing the Town Charter prohibition on council members being appointed to Town staff positions for a year after their service on council would prevent it.
Tederick offered that by not having tax deductions or benefits written into his contract he was saving the Town about $4,000 a month on his contract arrangement and called the tax/LLC aspect of the contract a “red herring”.
But when Tewalt observed the whole contract process reminded him of the EDA situation, Tederick reacted by calling the comment “out of order”.
Between that meeting-ending drama and the opening recycling explanation, council also revisited the Crooked Run West central water-sewer request and potential impacts on the Town’s water policy in the Route 522/340 North Commercial Corridor; adoption of a “Spot Blight Abatement Ordinance” mirroring one in place in both Leesburg and Loudoun County that would give the Town authority to finally begin a legally-established method of forcing property owners’ to correct problems with structures cited as a danger to public safety, health and welfare; and pedestrian safety improvements on Kerfoot Avenue in the vicinity of the youth soccer fields and skatepark.
More on these Council discussions in upcoming Royal Examiner stories; however, spoiler alert on the Crooked Run West request for Town central water-sewer – a clear council majority indicated no interest in extending that central utility to facilitate primarily residential development at Crooked Run West. A vote on the request was scheduled for the upcoming council meeting. We’ll see how that clear, stated majority holds up over the next week …
Watch all of those work session discussions and presentations in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Council debates ‘Medical Freedom’ versus obtrusive, perhaps illegal, governmental overreach
After being in the middle of a firestorm of controversy nationally during the southern border child separation policy and subsequent court orders reversing that policy, former Trump Administration Department of Refugee Resettlement Director Scott Lloyd got off to a rocky start on the Front Royal Town Council with his proposal to rename a prominent town street in honor of his former boss, the 45th president of the United States. For some that seemed a historical jumping of the gun while Mr. Trump remains under multiple state criminal investigations.
At a June 14 Town Hall work session, the first-term councilman found himself again under the scrutiny of colleagues, as well as town legal staff, with new town code proposals.
Draft One of Lloyd’s so-called “Medical Freedom in the Town of Front Royal” Ordinance proposal “would prohibit any business or entity … operating in town from requiring its employees, volunteers, members, etc. to receive any of the COVID vaccines as a condition of employment, membership, etc.” the agenda packet summarized.
Under a “POLICY” heading, the draft version of the ordinance elaborates that “The residents of Front Royal have a natural right to be secure in their persons and to be free of economic or moral coercion to take actions with which they disagree, including and especially actions that involve the violation of one’s person.”
Later, perhaps with a nod to the Town perspective on the recent County and Sheriff’s Office investigation into possible illegal or fraudulent dumping of commercially treated solid waste with residential trash at the County’s Bentonville solid waste transfer station, Lloyd’s Option 1 (“COVID-specific”) draft continues of the above-stated “natural right” – “They are furthermore at the heart of laws prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, battery, sexual violence, assault, defamation, and harassment.”
This reporter is not sure where the final five on that list of illegal actions against a person originates in this anti-vaccination proposal. – Is the councilman equating a medical vaccination with “battery, sexual violence, assault” etc.?
But as to the opening personal offense on the above list – “unreasonable searches and seizures”, readers will recall that the Town legal department publicly asserted on May 24th that the Town garbage truck crew questioned for about 40 minutes by Sheriff Butler and his deputies at the County’s Bentonville solid-waste transfer station about the load they were carrying on April 20, were subject to an “unreasonable search and seizure” in violation of their Fourth Amendment Constitutional Rights.
Part of council’s self-identified “libertarian majority”, Lloyd also managed to take the claimed “natural right” to do as one pleases in public situations, including during a global viral pandemic that as of June 15 is attributed with claiming over 3.8 million lives worldwide; nearly 606,000 nationally; and 59 fatalities of over 3,000 cases reported in Warren County over the past year and a half, into the religious and constitutional spheres: “This principle is at the heart of laws ensuring the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly and association,” Lloyd’s Option 1 (COVID-specific) proposal asserts.
Aborted “Broader” option
A second original draft proposal – Lloyd’s “OPTION 2 (Broader)” – would have extended the above prohibitions on businesses and any other “entity” operating in the Town of Front Royal from requiring virtually ANY medical procedure, including drug tests and temperature-taking, diagnostic medical or health information, from its employees, volunteers or members.
Lloyd’s original Option 2 states: “It shall be unlawful for any entity operating within the Town of Front Royal 1/ to fail or refuse to hire or confer any lawful public or generally available benefit or service, including education and medical service or care, to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because such individual has declined to take a vaccine, a drug test, or a medical test, or any other medicine or medical or diagnostic intervention …”
Lloyd continues here into a realm of intrusive medical procedures targeting various bodily orifices to this reporter’s knowledge not on the table for COVID testing, vaccinations or general medical disclosures in Front Royal or Warren County – “… or has declined to take any other action involving the acceptance into one’s body, including the threshold of any orifice, any food or foreign substance or object …”
Perhaps a clue to the above references is offered in a 2-1/2 page draft “opinion” piece Lloyd included in support of his original proposals and analysis of a “natural right” for people not to be subject to employment or other public consequences for their own medical decisions, even when fatal public health consequences could be a result of those decisions. In his draft Opinion titled “Liberty and the Coronavirus” Lloyd writes: “Now that China has begun using penetrative anal coronavirus swabs, the invasiveness of these preventative measures has come into focus …”
Okay dear readers, raise your hand out in virtual land if you have been asked to take a “penetrative anal coronavirus swab” by an employer, school, store, or other places of public gathering related to Coronavirus pandemic precautions in Front Royal, Warren County, or elsewhere in the U.S. – And please let us know if you raised your hand.
Lloyd, a self-described “policy attorney” by trade, told his colleagues he modeled the language of his ordinance proposals on “the Civil Rights Act”. That is the 1964 federal legislation that made discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” illegal in educational, workplace, and other public arenas.
While “natural rights” and “liberties” are repeatedly referenced in Lloyd’s “Medical Freedom” Ordinance drafts, nowhere was there a reference to a “natural right” of people in Front Royal to be physically safe from the spread of a potentially fatal disease by those refusing medical precautions, or perhaps even social distancing guidelines, to avoid passing on such viral contamination.
And in summarizing his intent during the June 14 work session discussion Lloyd seemed to offer a mixed message on the pandemic and his proposal: “What I’m trying to do is be proactive as a government entity to get out there and say, you know, as far as we’re concerned, we want people within our town limits to be protected; and lets’ be clear if you don’t want to take this vaccine, as a matter of law you are protected from having to take it. And that to me seems straightforward and the best approach.”
Okay readers, another show of virtual hands if this proposal seems “straightforward” or “clear” regarding “we want people within our town limits to be protected”. Of course, the councilman fell short of specifying “protected from what”. – Perhaps rather than the COVID-19 Coronavirus, he meant “protected” from science and medical technology.
However, Lloyd may have done a little pre-work session survey of his colleagues’ perceptions of his proposals. By 7 p.m. Monday evening Lloyd had backed off his original “Broader” Option 2 draft in favor of one limiting his Option 1 COVID vaccine prohibition to Town employees – “Option 2 (Town-specific version)”.
About that Dillon Rule …
But as to his surviving Option 1 (COVID only) town-wide legislative proposal, first Councilman Jacob Meza and Councilwoman Letasha Thompson, then Town Attorney Doug Napier, questioned the Town’s authority to legislate against private-sector businesses/employers and other entities being able to make their own rules on how their employees must respond to a public health crisis.
“The biggest question in my head, and this is for Doug (Napier), can the Town actually tell other businesses that you cannot mandate a vaccine for your employees?” Meza, a Valley Health employee asked, adding, “And I don’t believe that’s the case. So, that’s why I struggle with this.”
“We’re going to get a lawsuit out of it,” Thompson offered of her appraisal of the Town attempting to legislate by what rules the private sector and even non-profits and social clubs may run their businesses or operations, in this case regarding public health concerns.
With both state and federal governments weighing in on COVID-related public health measures, Town Attorney Napier questioned the Town’s jurisdiction to attempt such a legislative mandate. He noted “hundreds” of examples of case law stretching back to the 1890s, only a portion of which he’d had time to review; however, offering a perspective from that initial research.
“It seems to me what the law is, and I want to make sure I understand it, the status of the law is it’s within the police power of the State to require vaccines for communicable diseases unless you have a demonstrable religious reason not to get immunization or you have a demonstrable health reason that getting a vaccination would be detrimental to your health,” the town attorney told council. Napier added that he would like additional time to review that extensive case law before making a final judgment as it applied to Lloyd’s proposal.
But Napier’s initial reaction to what he had read is likely particularly true in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia. The Dillon Rule, which dates to 1896 in the Commonwealth, being defined as the “legal principle that local governments have limited authority, and can pass ordinances only in areas where the State General Assembly has granted clear authority”. An additional Dillon Rule explanation cites a legal “bottom line” which is that “If there is a question about a local government’s power or authority, then the local government does NOT receive the benefit of the doubt. Under Dillon’s Rule, one must assume the local government does NOT have the power in question.”
As the discussion progressed, Napier quoted a related U.S. Supreme Court decision: “The establishment and enforcement of standards of conduct within its borders relative to the health of its people is a vital part of the State’s police power. So, I want to make sure that we as a town, have that authority. With all due respect, I do question strongly whether we have the authority as a town to enact an ordinance like that.”
Despite this apparent bulk of legal precedent against such municipal legislation, in response to Meza’s assertion he did not believe the Town had such legislative authority, policy attorney Lloyd disagreed. “I can’t think of anything that would prohibit us from doing that. If we wanted to ban mopeds or dog walking or something, it’d be unreasonable,” Lloyd countered, referencing a “list” of obsolete town codes that are sometimes found on the books – “It’s illegal to walk on Sunday on your hands and those sorts of things,” he offered in defense of his preferred Option 1 town-wide proposal against employment consequences from one’s COVID-related medical decisions.
“In the absence of either a federal or a state-wide mandate, then I would think we’d be free to do what we want until the State speaks or the feds speak,” Lloyd said in attempting to rally support for his preferred town-wide mandate as discussion wound down.
A council consensus appeared to be that, yes, one can assert that people should be free to make their own medical decisions. However, attempting to legislate locally that those decisions could not have workplace consequences, particularly in applying for a job or in a job taken after the Coronavirus and workplace public safeguards mandated at the state or federal levels were in place, may not be within the realm of municipal legal authority.
Even for his fellow council libertarians, Lloyd’s proposal that they collectively take the personal freedom of private-sector employers, including it was specifically noted national companies like UPS, away, seemed a step too far. Consequently, a council majority appears to have put the brakes on their policy-attorney colleague’s most aggressive interpretation of what it means to be a municipal lawmaker and free American in Front Royal, Virginia, circa 2021.
Were he to face a tiebreaking vote, Mayor Holloway made it clear where he stood on the Option 1 ordinance proposal: “Well, I’ll tell you right now, we don’t do it at the store. But if we wanted to do it we’re not going to have the Town saying you can’t. It’s my business, not yours. If they don’t want to work there they can go somewhere else and work,” the mayor reasoned of private-sector employees adhering to company policies.
Shortly after that comment, Holloway asked if there was any support for moving Lloyd’s COVID-specific “Town-wide recommended” Option 1 Ordinance forward. Lloyd’s colleagues responded with collective silence other than Thompson’s “No, not me.”
Pursuit of the amended Option 2, “Town (employee) specific” directive as a Resolution, gained enough support to be taken to a public vote, likely at the June 28 meeting. And council’s stance there seemed in support of Meza’s take on offering town staff options – “Give them all the info, make it as easy as possible to get (vaccinated), but don’t require it.”
Dogged by the details: Town Planning Commission mulls zoning and ordinance changes while waiting for a new Planning Director.
The Front Royal Planning Commission met June 16th for its regular session with only one application from the public for a zoning change which easily obtained a recommendation for approval. Jason and Christie Sine own a lot on Crosby Road which is currently zoned limited industrial (I-1), to utilize the lot to construct residences. They are requesting a change to R-2, medium-density residential zoning.
The application states that “There is a severe shortage of land in town to build “affordable housing”. It would benefit the town that a vacant, odd-shaped piece of land would now be generating more in real estate taxes if there were residences on there.” Commissioner Merchant asked the applicants if setbacks from the adjoining railroad had been considered. Applicants confirmed they had, and that they had consulted a surveyor who recommended that they downsize their structure from 4 units to two, given the shape of the lot and proximity to the railroad right-of-way. They intend to eventually subdivide the lot into two approximately .37 acre pieces.
Commissioner Merchant then reminded the applicants that this site adjoined the site of the annual fireman’s carnival and Bing Crosby Stadium, and that noise and light from those activities could affect residents. He urged the applicants to ensure that potential buyers be made aware of those factors. He noted that the applicants had not made any proffers with their application, which is unusual, however, given that there is already street access to the site and no other traffic changes are needed, no proffers might be appropriate.
The planning department, in its analysis of the application, indicated that the town comprehensive plan of September 1997 included residential use of that area along the railroad track as medium density residential. Once the questions were answered, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the request.
The Chairman then turned to the zoning Ordinance change that was requested by a resolution of the Town Council in February that directed the planning department to prepare an ordinance amendment for a public hearing and a Planning Commission recommendation for approval by the Town Council. The amended ordinance mainly rescinds or loosens some restrictions on developing apartments in the Downtown Commercial District (C-2). The Royal Examiner has reported on the previous deliberations of the commission.
In this meeting, the commissioners were presented with a revised version of the ordinance text change. Where the first draft of the ordinance allowed for the conversion of existing commercial or residential structures to increase the number of dwelling units to not more than 8, applied exemptions for minimum lot size, building height, parking space, and other restrictions to the entire downtown business district, the new version restricts those exceptions to properties fronting east Main Street from Royal Avenue to Happy Creek, Chester Street from East Main Street to East 2nd Street, and East Jackson Street from South Royal Avenue to Church Street.
One person spoke during the public hearing. Bill Barnett, a longtime developer, and property owner in the downtown spoke in favor of the ordinance. He saw it as a motivator for developers to invest in the development of underutilized second-story space for living quarters for a mixed population – seniors, young people starting out, and downtown business owners. He contrasted the situation in the early 1960s where many buildings had upstairs dwellings and shop owners and others routinely occupied apartments in the downtown.
Mr. Barnett also alluded to a presentation that he had made to the Board of Architectural review regarding an apartment concept for the old Murphy theater, for a 6-story building with 60 apartments. This appeared to come as a surprise to the commissioners, and Commissioner Marshner asked if a copy of the presentation was available. Mr. Barnett indicated he would make it available. There have not been any permit requests or any other official actions regarding a project of that kind. The idea is only in the conceptual stage, and, of course, rumors run rampant in the absence of facts.
Mr. Barnett indicated he had heard stories of 6, 60, 600, even 6,000 units. Any building project must go through a series of approvals from planning and zoning through the site development and building permits, many stages of which provide opportunities for public hearings and input. None of those things have been initiated in this case.
Once the public hearing had closed, the changes to the previously presented document seemed to stimulate more questions about the definition of “apartment development” and more fundamental questions about the practice of adding dwelling units in the downtown business district. Commissioner Merchant indicated he was neither for nor against the idea of apartments in C-2 zoned areas, but indicated that there would be many challenges.
In the absence of a town planning director, the commission agreed to postpone further action on the ordinance text amendment for a work session on June 30 to hammer out any further needed changes. The planning staff was asked if there was any news on a replacement planning director. The short answer from the planning staff: “No.”
Next, the commission revisited another potential hornet’s nest ordinance change, again from its previous meeting and work session. The Town Council has asked the Planning Commission to weigh in on the proposed ordinance change to the Front Royal Town Code covering Abatement of Blighted buildings. In accordance with the commission’s last meeting instructions, the planning staff produced a “red-line” revision of the ordinance for the commission to consider. The public hearing for the document revision was extremely short since no member of the public spoke.
Commissioner William Gordon addressed the issue of a time limitation when a property has been determined to be nonconforming. Shouldn’t a process be in place to bring a property into conformance during the two-year period? The committee agreed again that the wording of the ordinance was produced by the former Planning Director during his last week on the job, and that a work session by the commission would allow the right language to be crafted. The commission agreed to a Work session on June 30 and include the blighted buildings and downtown apartments’ ordinance changes on that agenda.
The commission then dealt with a brief consent agenda that included a sign permit request for Performance Sport and Spine at 1100 North Royal Avenue. Without discussion, the Consent agenda was unanimously approved. A consent agenda is a board meeting practice that groups routine business and reports into one agenda item.
Finally, the commission took up as new business another resolution from Town Council some revisions of the permitting and approval authorities for subdivisions, land development, and zoning. Commissioner Merchant pointed out several issues in the resolution that need to be clarified regarding the Planning Commission, so as before, the commission agreed to add the resolution to the June 30 Work session.
Special Events permitting in the ‘Matrix’ – Is it real and what does it mean?
Town staff met with about 20 downtown business people Thursday morning, June 17, as part of its informational exchange in the runup to the anticipated June 28th vote on establishment of a code regarding Special Events permitting on Town-owned public property. Draft copies of the 4-1/2 page, including cover page, “Permit Application, Policy and Procedures” document were available for review by participants.
Present to answer questions from the Town were Town Manager Steven Hicks, Provisional employee Matt Tederick who will be handling business retention and expansion matters for the Town in the future, Purchasing Agency Alisa Scott and Town Police Chief Kahle Magalis, along with IT and Communications Director Todd Jones. Downtown Business people from both the pro and con sides of the downtown walking mall or special event street closing debate were present at the new Town Pavilion in the Village Commons ground zero of community special events, and a positive dialogue appeared to be established between those two private sector contingents and Town staff present.
Perhaps it was portions of “Ground Rules” for the gathering that opened with “No swearing” (damn), followed by: Be kind to one another – attack the problem, not the person; among others designed to keep the event constructive and civil.
In response to one question it became clear that the Town does not plan to reinitiate its regular weekend downtown walking mall concept that was popular with some downtown businesses, restaurants in particular, as well as locals and tourists drawn to the outdoor seating and pedestrian-friendly downtown as COVID pandemic inside gathering and social distancing restrictions were being dealt with last year.
But the primary focus was on exactly what a 10-category “Special Events Matrix Criteria” by which permit applications will be scored for eligibility and priority rankings meant.
Michelle Mattieu, who was a co-organizer of the first “Hope Arising” festival last weekend, pointed out that as a first-time event, Hope Arising would likely not have been able to qualify for permitting in the suggested Matrix system because of an inability to reference past attendance and a “history of success”, among other criteria the matrix scoring system is based on.
The back and forth between several attendees and staff indicated that a variety of variables, including discretionary judgements by the town manager, or his designee, could help bypass some seeming problems in the policy. It was also noted that the draft is, in fact, a work in progress. As reported in the Royal Examiner story “Council ponders variables in Special Event permitting and Credit Card fee waiver proposals” a public hearing and town council action on the draft Special Events code proposal is slated for the June 28th evening meeting at the Warren County Government Center.
Several people noted that the Matrix scoring system seemed weighted toward events designed to draw tourists, with increased overnight bookings into local motels and hotels and their added tax revenue benefits getting higher ranking than events aimed at the local population. While there was some dispute that was true, no clear answer on that Matrix dynamic appeared given to the satisfaction of those questioning the Matrix ranking system. As noted in the above-referenced story, a minimum Matrix system ranking of 33 is required for permit approval. Scores of 33 to 42 are categorized as “Community Special Events”; 43 and above are categorized as “Tourism Special Events”; and events scoring above 40 “are eligible for discretionary Town support”.
The now-completed, 10-category “Special Events Matrix Criteria” are: 1/ Purpose – Community & Destination Benefit; 2/ Demonstrated History of Success; 3/ Evidence of Partnership – multiple businesses participating; 4/ Attendance Figures; 5/ Organization Structure & Management Capability; 6/ Business Benefit – Direct Spending; 7/ Funding Capacity; 8/Overnight Stays/Room Nights; 9/ Target Market Alignment; 10/ Evaluation & Measurement Plan.
Beyond the Matrix
Questions were also raised about the future of downtown business-driven decorations in the Gazebo-anchored Commons area as have occurred over recent years for example, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. White Picket Fence proprietor Sue Laurence pointed to recent Valentine’s Day decorations and asked if the current permitting draft would NOT allow such decorations to be placed if someone decided to play Valentine’s Day curmudgeon and issue a complaint against the proposed decorations.
Again, the discretionary judgement of the town manager or designee was cited as a preventive from such arbitrary decisions, as well as insurance in place to cover potential accidents as one speaker noted could occur with such decorations in place over a period of time.
A final pre-June 28 council meeting community feedback session will be held at Town Hall Monday, June 21, at 5 p.m., leading up to the June 28 public hearing on the proposed Special Events ordinance and a council vote on its adoption.
‘SHAME!’ – Supervisors reverse course on Linden Sheetz rezoning
From a virtual viewing of the Tuesday, June 15 meeting of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, it appeared at least one member of the public while exiting yelled “Shame” at a majority of the county’s elected officials for their 3-1 vote, Mabe dissenting, Fox absent, reversing a 3-2 February decision to deny the Dudding Commercial Development LLC’s rezoning request to enable the construction of a Sheetz gas station/convenience store at the foot of the Apple Mountain neighborhood in Linden.
Despite a restating of the overwhelming (13 of 13 public speakers this time addressing the matter) neighborhood concerns about the project – public health: fuel oil leakage-contaminated groundwater feeding the subdivision water supply; public safety: children catching a school bus near a potential predator’s quick access to an Interstate escape route prominent among those – perhaps the writing was on the wall that a turn was coming from the February 10th, 3-2 vote denying the enabling rezoning. One of those original votes of denial, Archie Fox, was absent; and another, Tony Carter in whose district the rezoning is requested, had suggested the matter be reconsidered a bare three months after the initial vote.
Then, one of the two dissenting votes against the February rezoning denial, Delores Oates (along with board Chair Cheryl Cullers) seconded Carter’s motion to approve the rezoning.
What does this political math add up to? A 3-1 vote, Oates and Cullers duplicating their February votes, and Carter, who appears to have abandoned any idea of a run for re-election in the Happy Creek District where the rezoning is proposed, joining them.
With the original decision based on the February Public Hearing at a joint County Planning Commission-Supervisors meeting up for “reconsideration”, there was no new public hearing scheduled to precede any action on that reconsideration.
So the 13 citizens addressing the matter spoke at the Public Comments portion of the meeting generally designed for input on non-agenda matters, or as in this case a matter for which there would be no other opportunity for public input.
Much of that comment was very pointed at the political process and the potential role of money above a public good in the board’s decision to reconsider.
Referencing earlier meetings on the matter she has attended, including a “five-hour meeting” where she noted, no parent had spoken in favor of the Dudding/Sheetz proffer of maintaining a school bus stop on the property adjacent to the proposed Sheetz, Felicity Smoot asked the board, “Given that, how is this even being brought back for reconsideration is just baffling to me. The people have spoken, you all have voted – why are we still talking about this? This feels like an underhanded attempt to tire people out, so this can quietly be passed when everyone stops paying attention.”
Referencing the cancellation of a School Board-Transportation Office-neighborhood meeting scheduled for June 8, to discuss the public school bus stop situation – usage of the existing bus stop on the property in question was withdrawn by the property owner following the February vote blocking the rezoning and sale of a portion of the property to Sheetz – Smoot wondered why.
“It does not seem that this issue is being handled with transparency and honesty. Please do what you were voted into office to do: act in a trustworthy way, honor your word from February, and do not consider rezoning,” she concluded.
Francis Williams followed Smoot to the podium, noting he lived within 200-feet of the proposed Sheetz location. – “This has been an ongoing thing for almost a year now,” he began, calling the proposal “a threat” to the community.
“And I take it as a personal threat to my family. I’ve got a little boy that’s starting to walk. What happens if he wanders down there when he’s three or four and disappears? I’m sure these guys won’t care, Williams said gesturing to the trio of applicant representatives sitting two rows behind the podium, offering an unkind assessment: “All they care about is money.”
Williams even offered to dedicate a portion of his property to the County for a new school bus stop – “If it’s going to come down to building a Sheetz or having a school bus right in my front yard, I’d much rather have a school bus stop,” he told the supervisors. As to his level of commitment to the issue, Williams told the supervisors he bought his home property at Apple Mountain “a little over a year ago” adding, “And now I’m thinking about moving out – and I know a lot of people are.”
Williams, like others, wondered what had changed in such a short time span to mandate the board’s reconsideration of its initial 3-2 vote of denial. Representative local government, he reasoned, was in place in the interest of the citizens’ elected officials to represent, rather than “financial, personal interest, private-commercial – whatever” he broke off in frustration.
On the public safety end, he referenced another citizen’s research indicating that the Town had received 93 calls, apparently about suspicious activity at the new Sheetz location in town; and apparent issues with Emergency Services and county law enforcement understaffing.
“I really hope you guys are for us, not for them. They can find another place – we can’t or it’s not going to be as easy.
Another Apple Mountain resident, Sue Kenyon, followed Williams to the podium, noting she, like some others who had preceded her, had not intended to speak publicly to the issue. However, she pointed to a gap in one potential long-term consequence of approving the rezoning and the Sheetz project landing in eastern Warren County.
“Sheetz can build anywhere. They don’t have to build at the bottom of Apple Mountain. They could build at the northeast corner on (Routes) 79 and 55 – that’s been for sale forever,” Kenyon observed, becoming emotional as she noted her 33-year residency on Apple Mountain – “Raised my five children going down to that bus stop.”
She then theorized an endgame previously unmentioned by either side: “The long-term effect … I believe Sheetz wants a truck stop, I don’t know if you know it, but the property right across Apple Mountain Road on the other side, is also 15 acres. Once they get one side commercial, they’ll get the other side commercial. And then what will we look like?” Kenyon asked, her voice again quivering with emotion.
“So, please reconsider – think long term. They want a truck stop, that was their original intention,” Kenyon concluded of her perception of the company’s long-term design on the I-66 Linden Exit area at the foot of the rural mountain neighborhood.
Following two more speakers rising to object to the rezoning, Board Chair Cullers called the 60-minute time limit on the Public Comments portion of the meeting, which was already once divided to facilitate the 7:30 p.m.-scheduled Public Hearings. The final of the 17 total speakers, 13 addressing the Sheetz rezoning reconsideration, another Apple Mountain resident, Richard Frazier, posed a legal question to the board concerning the proffered school bus stop adjacent to the Sheetz location just off the Linden I-66 interchange: “I’m also concerned having the bus stop right at 66 – if a child was abducted, you’re right on the highway, you’re gone. And I’d like to ask, if the board forces us into having the bus stop there, are you going to be liable if that happens?”
Unfinished business: Sligo Estates & Sheetz
And on that unanswered note, the meeting moved on to board and staff reports. Thirteen minutes later the board reached the final agenda items, two of the three being the “Unfinished Business” of the Sheetz rezoning reconsideration, preceded by the other major Public Comments topic, the Sligo Estates Short-Term-Rental Conditional Use Permit request of Northern Virginia-based John and Anna Carpenter. Having reheard neighborhood opposition to that latter request from Sligo Estates POA President Caleb Johnson and two other residents, all who referenced that the Carpenters had signed off on the neighborhood covenants which prohibit such commercial or quasi-commercial uses, and had also promised to drop the request if the subdivision majority opposed it, the board approached this decision delayed from May 18th.
Walt Mabe made the motion to deny the request, seconded by Delores Oates, who earlier noted that the county board was not in the business of enforcement of neighborhood covenants. The motion to deny the Carpenter CUP request then passed by a 4-0 roll call vote, Fox absent. Could this be a positive sign for the Apple Mountain contingent, with only three Sligo Estates residents speaking in opposition to the Carpenter request, compared to the 13 in opposition to the Sheetz-enabling rezoning?
Planning Director Joe Petty summarized the background, including the joint February meeting at which the planning commission recommended approval of the rezoning by a 3-1 vote, which the supervisors reversed with the 3-2 vote to deny. Following Petty’s presentation, Cullers’ call for board discussion was met by about 10 seconds of silence. Culler’s then called for a motion.
Tony Carter, in whose Happy Creek District the property at issue lies, responded by reading the motion to reconsider and approve the rezoning request into the record. Oates seconded the motion, which then passed by the 3-1 margin noted above, with only Mabe dissenting and Fox absent.
That led to the unhappy exit of the Apple Mountain contingent with shouts of “Shame, shame” directed at the board majority.
With the majority of the public gone from the room, the board then approved a 20-item Consent Agenda as presented under “New Business” as its final order of business for the evening. That vote of approval on a motion by Oates, was 4-0, as was the vote on Oates’ motion to adjourn the meeting at 8:28 p.m. the evening of June 15.
Council ponders variables in Special Event permitting and Credit Card fee waiver proposals
Money makes the world go round – but how do you make it work to the best effect for all involved? That seemed to be the theme of discussion surrounding two proposed alterations to Town policies at a Monday evening, June 14, Front Royal Town Council work session. And citizens will have several more chances to weigh in on these issues heading toward scheduled decisions on both on June 28.
At issue were proposed policy changes to permitting and fees for Special Events held on Town property and an initiative to remove credit card fees from payment of Town utility and tax bills. The latter of those is forecast by the Town Finance Department to cost the Town about $140,000 or more “in expenses associated with credit card fees for the FY-21-22 Budget” with a three-year trend of a 17.6% average annual increase in those costs appearing to continue into the current FY-2021 Fiscal Year, staff noted.
Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson utilized a formula combining that above revenue loss estimate with the number of Town utility account customers (8,481) to average a $1.77 hike to utility bills over the course of a year to theoretically cover that lost revenue. However, contacted Tuesday Wilson explained the current plan wouldn’t actually tag that $1.77 on to coming utility bills if the fee waiver is approved by council next week. Rather, the plan as it stands is that the Town would absorb the loss spread across its various utility Enterprise Funds, making that absorption less painful to the Town Budget.
Several council members noted negative feedback from citizens who do not pay with credit cards to the notion of absorbing the fee waiver revenue loss in any way.
Councilman McFadden said he personally supported the change, reasoning that it offered the Town more options in changing systems on the technical end of the Town’s software and billing equations, but noted some “unknown variables” factoring into a final decision.
That decision, like the one on changes to the Special Events permitting and fees, is slated for council’s evening meeting of Monday, June 28, at the Warren County Government Center.
Councilman Meza expressed some opposition to credit cards being used to pay tax bills but cited private sector energy companies and oil and gas vendors, none of which charge fees for credit card use. Questioned by Vice-Mayor Cockrell on the difference between private-sector companies that work for profit versus municipalities that can only charge rates to cover expenses, Meza responded that the Town could charge profit-making rates on its utility Enterprise Funds. He cited large reserve amounts in Town Enterprise Funds to support his contention they operated for profit.
However, Cockrell pointed out those reserves can only be used to support repair, maintenance or expansion work on those specific utility infrastructures and are not actually profit reserves that could be applied anywhere in the Town budget. With the amount of utility infrastructure work the Town has undertaken recently, some state or federally mandated, Councilman Gillespie later noted the crucial role those Enterprise Fund reserves played in the Town being able to accomplish upgrades without tax hikes or even higher utility rate adjustments. Some rate adjustments have ensued at the recommendation of cost-analysis consultants so that all the Town utilities can cover expenses and keep needed reserve streams at necessary levels.
Councilwoman Thompson noted a difference in the use of credit and debit cards, the latter essentially being plastic checks, pointing out “we’re calling everything credit cards” in the fee discussion.
However, Finance Director Wilson later noted that all plastic transactions, including debit cards, are hit with processing fees.
Pointing to her own monthly auto-withdrawal payment plan directly from her bank to the Town, Vice-Mayor Cockrell wondered how many citizens knew that option was available. As to reducing staff paperwork, she also wondered at the necessity of still receiving monthly paper bills from the Town with an auto-withdrawal payment plan in place.
Mayor Holloway injected that in the previous conversation on Special Events permitting a council consensus on a flat $250 fee appeared to be reached as an alternative to a list of specific costs for various staff or utility services the Town would provide for differing events across a broad range of time, space and services necessary. – “So, what happens if it costs the Town $500, $600 or $1,000 dollars, who’s going to pay that?” the mayor asked of relative overheads in the two discussions. It was noted on the Special Events front that the Town often sees a return on investment from special events related to increases visitation of downtown businesses, including but not limited to sales tax revenue, including by tourists drawn for some of the larger seasonal events.
And on the Special Events front, Town Purchasing Agent Alisa Scott presented a rating system developed as part of a review of Special Event permitting and impacts on neighboring businesses, property owners, and citizens beginning in October 2019 and continuing to this day. It was noted that the process is continuing with “A series of both in-person and online informational meetings hosted by Staff to garner feedback from business owners, property owners, and citizens.
The first of those was cited by Town Manager Hicks as occurring at the New Town Pavilion in the Village Commons Thursday, June 17, at 10 a.m.; a second will be held at Town Hall Monday, June 21, at 5 p.m.
As noted above, that process of continued public input leads up to Council’s June 28, 7 p.m. meeting at the Warren County Government Center at which a Public Hearing will be held to receive a final dose of public input prior to council’s vote on the matter.
Three primary special event categories were listed in the draft code:
1 – Community – “Events geared toward Front Royal/Warren County community attendance” with applications accepted “between 12 months and 30 days prior to the event”;
2 – Tourism – “Events geared toward visitor attendance” with “applications accepted between 12 months and 6 months prior to the event”;
3 – Municipal – events that can be “hosted, co-hosted, or sponsored by the Town at any time” with applications accepted between 12 months and 30 days prior to the event”.
Following that list, it was noted that “Applications shall not be accepted for events geared toward an invite-only, private, or a select group of people.”
A 10-category “Special Events Matrix Criteria”, currently at 7 categories, is being established to qualify events for permitting. A minimum ranking of 33 is required for permit approval. Scores of 33 to 42 are categorized as “Community Special Events”; 43 and above are categorized as “Tourism Special Events”; and events scoring above 40 “are eligible for discretionary Town support” the new code summary explains.
The draft changes note that the Town Manager or that nebulous “Town Manager’s designee” “may impose, as conditions to granting a permit, such further requirements and restrictions as will reasonably protect the health, safety, welfare, peace, and order of the participants, spectators or general public” the draft outline adds.
Perhaps tellingly in the wake of the apparent abandonment of last year’s “Weekend Walking Mall” downtown concept, under the draft “Policies and Procedures” section it is stated that “All events shall … not unreasonably interfere with the normal use of property, right-of-way or facility by the Town or general public.” Could that be an indication that much of the privately gathered input over the past year has been in opposition to a patterned closure of any portion of East Main Street to vehicular traffic?
A downtown and Village Commons area “Code of Conduct” must also be observed in conjunction with all events, essentially prohibiting rude, annoying, or illegal behaviors, including alcohol or portable sound system use, unless authorized by Town permitting for the event.
Potential fees regarding insurance liability coverage and various services the Town might provide, like electrical, sound, and other amenities drew quite a bit of discussion. Rather than appear to be “nickel and diming” applicants into a higher fee range than might be doable for some, the council concurred with Councilman Meza’s proposal of instituting “a $250 all in” blanket application fee.
As noted above, both matters are slated for council discussion and action at the 7 p.m. June 28th meeting at the WCGC. We’ll see how the public weighs in on these matters if they choose to before the final council decision is made.
In other business, town officials got a presentation and offer, also received by the County, to join in the Shenandoah Rail to Trail Program. Sixteen municipalities are already involved in the effort to convert abandoned railroad right-of-ways into usable by a variety of means of recreational transportation pathways in and adjoining involved communities. The reception was very positive.
Town Attorney Doug Napier briefed council on the coming legalization of recreational marijuana effective July 1, and some confusing surrounding regulations which continue to make the sale or transport across state lines illegal for several years. Napier also gave an update on options involving the continued lack of successful marketing or use of old Town Hall by the owner involved in the swap for the Afton Inn property in 2014.
Napier noted that owner Frank Barros is required to maintain the property to a certain physical standard. It was observed that when last the Town demanded an inspection, the owner had simply initiated repairs to bring the building into compliance, offering at a sale price around $1.3 million far above its assessed value.
For those with a memory of the origins of Town issues with Barros, it appears the Northern Virginia developer continues to revel in punishing the Town for a previous council’s suit filed against its own Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that had granted Barros an exemption to the local Code prohibiting any downtown building from being constructed above the height of the Warren County Courthouse, blocking his plans for the redevelopment of the Afton Inn in 2007. Installation of a first-floor fountain was going to require the upper floors and roof structure to be redesigned to about 10-feet above the courthouse. Following that legal reversal of the BZA waiver, it all went downhill between Barros and local officials.
In a final open session item that will be explored in more detail in a coming Royal Examiner story, a new Scott Lloyd proposal to create a “Medical Freedom Ordinance” that would prevent any business or entity operating in town from refusing to hire or continue the employment or certain assignments of existing employees over a refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, gained little traction. However, a resolution in support of a watered-down second ordinance option not requiring town employees to be vaccinated appears headed toward a vote.
County Planning Commission, up to full strength, endorses second new storage facility
The Warren County Planning Commission, finally up to full strength with the addition of its newest commission member, Kaylee Richardson of the South River District, met Wednesday night for its regular monthly meeting.
Although the agenda was extensive with three conditional use permits, 10 requests for authorization to advertise, and one site plan for approval, the meeting proceeded without any controversy. No citizens made any presentations to the committee during non-agenda Public Comments, so Chairman Robert Myers launched into the public hearings portion of the meeting.
Three conditional use permits were requested for 9700 Court, LLC, regarding a commercially zoned site on the west side of Winchester Road, north of the Crooked Run Shopping Center, to build an enclosed storage facility, and an adjoining storage yard for cars, boats, and RVs. The property is in the North River Magisterial District. The commissioners had been given an extensive briefing at a previous meeting, so Planning Director Joe Petty provided a quick overview of the project, which will incorporate a 3-story climate-controlled building totaling 63,000 square feet, and to the rear of the property, an outside storage yard. A second building of two stories, with the same ground footprint may be added later if business justifies it.
The third CUP request was necessitated by the Warren County Code requiring additional permitting if the size of the facility is projected to be over 50,000 s.f. There were no public comments on the project for any of the three permit requests. Commissioner Kersjes asked if the facility would be capable of storing antique or classic cars in the storage units. The permit documents indicate that project representative did not address that question directly but did indicate that some ground floor units were designed for drive-up access with contractors in mind, so the issue could be addressed with the architects. The planning director did say that the requirements of the permit for the outside storage area would include a provision that all vehicles be tagged and inspected to be stored there. With no further discussion, the commission voted unanimously in all three cases to recommend approval of the Conditional Use Permits to the County Board of Supervisors.
The commission agreed to advertise public hearings for 10 Conditional Use Permits for its July meeting, which means that meeting will likely be a long one. There were three applications for Conditional Use Permits for short-term tourist rentals. John Suh is seeking a permit for his agriculturally zoned property at 515 Corron Drive in the Fork District, Neal Sutliff is seeking the same for his residentially zoned property at 1720 Khyber Pass Rd on the Happy Creek District, and Melissa Halko is requesting a permit for her property at 261 Sunset Village Rd in the Junewood development. The commission approved all three for authorization to advertise public hearings.
Along with the rise in short term tourist rentals, review activities in the planning department of private use camping permits has led to a spike in applications for that use on lots used for recreational purposes. Chad and Charleen Backstrom, Shawn and Christine Tsanganelias, and James Humphries have all applied for private-use camping CUPs for their properties on Burma Road in the North River District. In addition, Randall Lewis and Monica Stover have requested a private-use camping permit for their property on Farms Riverview Road in the Shenandoah District. All these properties are zoned R-1, and the Commission unanimously agreed to advertise for public hearings on the requests.
Mountaintop The Church at Skyline has applied for a CUP for a private school on their property at 7655 Stonewall Jackson Highway in the South River District. The school would operate from August to May, Monday through Friday, and would accommodate 30 or fewer students. It would not expand or change the existing use of the church. The church was constructed in 1992, and that use was permitted by right prior to the adoption of the current ordinance. The commission unanimously voted to approve the authorization to advertise the public hearing.
Ken Colton has requested a conditional use permit for the storage of cars, boats, and recreational vehicles on his industrial zoned property on Winners Court in the North River District. The commission voted unanimously to approve advertising for that public hearing.
In an action of interest to residents of the Waterlick area, Kimberly Countryman has requested a CUP for a Country General Store at 4536 Strasburg Road in the North River District. According to the applicant, it will serve as a country style neighborhood grocery, food carryout, with country gift items, homemade food and vintage items. The hope is to reopen the store as it was operated prior to 2008. The commission unanimously approved the authorization to advertise a public hearing on the proposal.
Five Nine Design group has submitted a plan for the commission review of a public utility storage structure at 5985 John Marshall Highway, and will be used to support an underground fiber optic network. The structure will not include antennas, towers, or dishes on the site and will be surrounded by a fence and accessed only by service personnel. It will sit between Interstate 66 and John Marshall Highway. The commission voted unanimously to affirm that the structure was substantially in accord with the County’s Comprehensive Plan.
Planning Director Joe Petty reminded the commissioners that work on the County Comp Plan is scheduled to begin in earnest in July, and while it will be a major task, some work has already been completed.
The members of the commission welcomed their newest colleague, Kaylee Richardson, who replaces Crystal Beall in the South River District. Commissioner Richardson lives on a 32-acre farm in Bentonville, and grew up in Warren County. She says she is looking forward to what she recognizes as a “lot of work” in helping the County exercise good stewardship over the resources we sometimes take for granted.
The Commission adjourned at 8:15 p.m.