At the August 23 Front Royal Town Council meeting, Councilmember Letasha Thompson raised questions about her colleague Scott Lloyd’s potential conflict of interest regarding his “representation” cited in a recent media report of Valley Health nurses fighting their employer’s mandate that all its health service workers be vaccinated against the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. Those questions were voiced in the wake of Lloyd opening the meeting by requesting his second proposed “Emergency Ordinance” prohibiting employers in the town limits from mandating employees be vaccinated against the COVID-19 pandemic, be removed from that evening’s agenda.
The reason, Lloyd explained, were as-yet unanswered questions regarding a potential conflict of interest he may have, that was submitted to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. As reported in our initial story on that August 23 council meeting – “Council divide over legal boundaries surrounding COVID vaccination mandates widens” – Lloyd’s effort to remove the item failed. Consequently, his latest initiative to pass legislation the Town Attorney has judged unenforceable in Virginia with multiple layers of legislative precedents against it was later rejected by the three-member majority (Cockrell, Thompson, Gillispie). That majority has held sway on the now five-member council since the Town legal staff opinion that Lloyd’s anti-vaccination-mandate effort was legally unenforceable in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia.
Lloyd and his lone council ally on the issue, Joe McFadden, claim council’s only private-sector attorney has found legal precedent within the Town Charter giving the town government authority to set guidelines for hospital and medical operations despite Dillon Rule parameters that municipal governments can’t exceed authorities directly granted to them by the state government. At the August 23 meeting, McFadden read a statement on the issue into the meeting record. It appeared to contend that since the Town Charter dating to 1937 was approved by the Virginia General Assembly, a passage in Chapter 5, Section 18, paragraph 8 stating “the town council … can regulate hospitals or other medical or health-related facilities (operating within town limits),” the municipal authority to enforce Lloyd’s proposed prohibition on Valley Health’s COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) vaccination mandate has been granted by the State to the Town of Front Royal.
And while the legal battle wasn’t engaged that evening, the likely counterargument in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia would be those legislative initiatives authorizing state imposition of vaccination mandates in public health crises, and legal precedents on private-sector authority to do the same built on cases over the last 84 years would hold sway over an obscure sentence in a Town Charter dating to 1937. And the council majority consensus has been the Town does not have the time and resources to fight that legal battle to the Virginia Supreme Court, if not further.
McFadden responded to an emailed query to him and Lloyd on these conflicting legal perspectives with this observation: “The entire effort is dead. It’s over. Not sure why you are pursuing a dead horse. An ordinance voted on is dead for a year. Our legislative process is intact is it not?” Our follow-up question on the “dead for a year” contention – If true, how did it crop back up on August 23 after being defeated July 26, you simply reframe the parameters a bit and reintroduce as new legislation, right? – was unanswered by submission for publication, and remains unanswered.
As alluded to in the above-referenced story, Lloyd and some of his supporters took offense at Thompson’s re-questioning his motive or the council majority, his legal opinion, in continuing to publicly beat what that council majority, including the mayor, believe is a dead legislative horse. That questioning peaked on August 23, after Thompson cited nurses quoted in a media story saying that Lloyd “represented” them. Following Lloyd’s comments that he did not speak to the NVD reporter who wrote the story, suggesting the media can’t always be trusted to report accurately, Thompson pointed out that Lloyd had declined to respond to the reporter’s question about his role with the group. – “I asked what was your end game? – Was it to win a lawsuit?” Thompson asked with her updated information on Lloyd’s involvement with Valley Health nurses fighting the vaccine mandate.
In response at the August 23 meeting, Lloyd cited uncompensated “advocacy” as opposed to direct legal representation in his professional role as a self-described “policy attorney”.
Social Media escalates the debate
On her Facebook page two days later, Thompson reported on what she had discovered online about Lloyd’s connection to the anti-vax health care workers. She posted information on the creation of an employee advocacy group called Valley Health Workers Association, with Lloyd listed as the “Registered Agent” and what she believes is Lloyd’s home address as the corporation’s “Principal Business” address. The founding date is listed as July 21, five days prior to council’s first vote rejecting Lloyd’s initial Emergency Ordinance proposal targeting employer, particularly Valley Health’s, vaccination mandates.
She also posted from a related group, “Unified Non Compliance Public”, that Lloyd appeared to be involved in, as well, as it focused on organizing “strikes” or demonstrations against Valley Health’s approaching September 7 deadline that its employees at least have a first vaccine dose to maintain their employment status.
Of Lloyd’s apparent involvement Thompson wrote, “He’s representing Valley Health employees, organizing strikes, and his group is also working to form a union. All of this is happening while he’s creating an ordinance specific to Valley Health and subsequently voting on it. Voted at 7/26 meeting.” Why, she wondered, hadn’t Lloyd disclosed these activities during multiple public and private discussions about his initiatives and motives?
Comments on Thompson’s social media page reacting to her information on Lloyd’s role with these groups reflected the deepening divide apparent during public comments on August 23, when a 5-4 split in support of Lloyd’s efforts was voiced beginning at the one-hour-and-40-minute mark of the Town video of that meeting.
A number of commenters commended Thompson for her digging to find information Lloyd had declined to publicly disclose. Below are some of those:
“Thanks, Councilman Letasha Thompson. If this is all so innocent, then why hide it? He had ample opportunity to disclose what he’s doing but has not,” Alane Yates wrote.
“Thanks for asking the hard questions and shining a light on these issues,” Julie Greer Chickery added.
“Thank you for continuing to ask the questions that no one wants to answer!” from Kimmee Hancock LaCross.
“They gave Bebhinn Egger much grief for asking questions. If only they had listened and done a bit of due diligence. Keep going, and thank you!” – Franziska Brautigam Tamas.
“Great job!! Don’t ever stop asking questions!” – Kris Collins Nelson.
“You are right. There is something wrong with using your public position to accomplish your private goals.” – Shawn McClosky.
However, others weren’t so enamored of Thompson’s efforts, or votes against Lloyd’s initiatives in this regard, raising the specter of evil, corruption, corporate conspiracies, and even Satanic motivations in her public questioning and social media follow-up on Councilman Lloyd’s activities on the issue:
“Unfortunately when satan gets ahold of people they are unable to hide it. They must try to stop anything they think is of God. They will work hard to try and dissolve anything good. Even cutting their own nose off to spite their face. I will pray for you Ms. Thompson,” Penelope Pope wrote followed by five praying-hand emojis. Thompson later questioned Pope as to having a fake social media profile.
“Pope’s”, or whoever they may be, Satanic suggestions brought several responses in defense of Thompson – “wow! How dare you?” from Stevi Hubbard and “Penelope Pope, I, personally, thank God for people like LeTasha Thompson, who are willing to be transparent, genuine, and honest. I also know LeTasha to be one who ‘Loves the Lord her God with all of her heart, soul and mind’ … LeTasha lives out her faith. She doesn’t use it as a convenience for political gain … I will pray for you, ma’am,” followed by one praying hands emoji from Michael Williams (Williams is a local Lay Anglican Minister).
Then Thompson’s motivations were questioned:
“Who bought you out? Which big pharma company pays you on the side? Who is lining your books? That is what we want to know,” Aimee Toffee posted accusatorily. Thompson replied that she was bought out by no one, and was simply working on established legal principles at play.
“Do you work for the people of Front Royal, or for Valley Health? It sounds to me like you’re the one with the conflict of interest. Remember, you work for the people, not the medical oligarchs … When the people of Front Royal vote to take out the trash, you will understand why you are out of a job,” Brad McDowell wrote, drawing a chiding from another commenter – “no they don’t (in response to McDowell’s assertion a majority of town and county citizens support Lloyd’s “Emergency Ordinances” against private sector vaccination mandates) and your comment about taking out the trash is ugly though not surprising,” Lissa Hubbard said in Thompson’s defense.
Even a recently appointed Warren County School Board member chimed in: “What’s your issue with this? A councilman actually HELPING people. Selfless actions to help others and not line pockets. Novel idea,” Melanie Salins wrote of her perception of Lloyd’s activities.
There was plenty more, sometimes reflecting the August 23, and before that July 26, meeting public comments, showing the deep philosophical divide on the issue, as well as the religious overtone of some anti-vax-mandate supporters. In fact, the propensity of religious-toned comments and prayerful support on the “Unified Non-Compliance Public” website led to one post asking, “What religion is against vaccines?”
We asked Lloyd about the membership of the Valley Health Workers Association. Lloyd put us in contact with another board member, Brittany Watson, who said the group currently has six members, three nurse practitioners and three RN’s (Registered Nurses), two of whom work at Winchester Medical Center, and one of whom is a nursing supervisor.
Asked about any hope of legally challenging the approaching employee vaccination deadline Valley Health has announced, Watson told us, “I don’t think there is a way to stop or get in the way of the firing. We have been picketing about three times weekly at the WMC (Winchester Medical Center) entrance one. We have a lot of support from the community. I don’t think VH is willing to listen to our concerns. It appears they are going to lose a good amount of staff. Currently, they are having trouble with staffing and this is why there have been 8-hour waits in the ER. There is no staff upstairs to place the people in the ER and this is before staff is fired.”
We also asked if the recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine might soften some of the protesting health care workers’ objections to being vaccinated. “The FDA will not soften the groups’ stance at all,” Watson replied, adding, “This is the fastest approval on a vaccine ever. The other vaccine that was pushed through the quickest was 5 years and that was the ebola vaccine. The mRNA has never been used in humans and the trials are still in the process until 2023. The vaccine has been pushed out in 8 months. This is not enough time to have studies for long-term effects. Many things have been approved by the FDA which were pulled off or have big warnings.”
And so the debate continues in municipal meeting rooms, social media platforms, and on the streets outside Valley Health facilities as the clock ticks toward the September 7 first vaccination deadline the regional medical and health care provider has given its employees to make a final decision on their continued employment. It is a decision that will be made as the region, like the nation, deals with the Stage Four, more contagious Delta variant COVID-19 surge now termed by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”. As previously reported, the CDC has cited 98% to 99% of all new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths as occurring among unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated people.
Of course, if you don’t believe anything that comes out of federal, medical, scientific, or news agencies about the pandemic, such characterizations are little more than baseless “Deep State” propaganda designed to build fear to cause people to risk their health, rather than protect it, by becoming vaccinated.
In loosely related news, this weekend Senate Intel Committee Chair Mark Warner issued a release commenting on the publication of an unclassified Intelligence report summary on conclusions about the origin of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. See Warner’s statement and the full text of the Intelligence report.
No announcements out of Town Planners Closed Session with town attorney
The Front Royal Planning Commission adjourned to Closed Session shortly after 6 p.m., Thursday, October 21st, for discussion with legal counsel. No announcement or action followed the Closed/Executive Session with Town Attorney Doug Napier. Vice Chair Connie Marshner convened the special meeting and closed session in the absence of Chairman Doug Jones, who arrived shortly after the commission entered the Executive Session behind closed doors.
The Notice of the Special Meeting cited the Closed Session topic as “a specific matter(s) that very recently came up before the Planning Commission and to consider making recommendations which may need to be addressed by the Front Royal Town Council.”
That wording was altered slightly in the motion to go into closed session read into the meeting record Thursday evening, citing the subject as: “matters that came up before the Planning Commission and which may require recommendations by the Planning Commission to Town Council, pursuant to Section 2.2-3711. A. 8. of the Code of Virginia”
What that “matter” or “matters” may be remains to be seen, as no announcement or action followed the closed session before the special meeting’s adjournment.
Joint Town Planning – Council Meeting kicks off Comprehensive Plan rewrite push
The Front Royal Planning Commission did not consider any new permit proposals this month, and instead met October 20 with the Town Council in a Leadership Forum to hear from the consultant team that will help the Town with a major rewrite of its Comprehensive Plan. The current plan dates from 1998. In that version of the Comprehensive Plan, the Town sought to address the problem of an increasing number of community residents who had to commute to the Washington DC metropolitan area leaving a bedroom community without a strong economic base or community character. The plan also identified the loss of the rural character of the area by residential developments in rural areas or mountain development as slowly robbing town residents of the public values contributed by surrounding farms and natural areas. Many of the themes and emphasis areas in the old plan are even more relevant in 2021.
Summit Design and Engineering, the firm that the town has tapped to provide expertise and staff to conduct the rewrite, provided an overview of the schedule and areas of concentration for the joint session, as they had in a one-on-one meeting with council the previous day. Ann Darby, the Summit Design representative, explained that the Comprehensive Plan is a guiding document that envisions what the future of a community looks like and outlines steps it takes to get there. A particularly important point is that although the plan itself does not have the force of law, it should lead to changes in the official zoning map and the Zoning and Subdivision ordinances that bring legal weight to the adopted guidelines.
Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke outlined the results of a Town Council session held on October 19 where council members identified their vision for the town. That vision included:
- An abundance of retail options
- A walkable community
- Riverfront Development and Access
- Preserve and enhance Downtown
- Natural Resources
- Small town charm and architecture
- Community Appearance
- Lodging Options
- Public Transit options
- Small area planning for key areas.
During the October 19 meeting, Council also identified areas that the members felt should be revisited during the Comprehensive Plan rewrite:
- A Road Diet, described as a review of the roadways in the town and how they can be made appropriate to the traffic levels
- Expansion of the entrance corridors
- Minimization of trip time for basic necessities
- Location of Industrial Zoning
- Desirable vs. undesirable uses
- Traffic Concerns
- Bike/Pedestrian safety
- Public Transport expansion
The vision and goals identified during the process of rewriting the Comprehensive Plan are really only the beginning of the process. A useful Comprehensive Plan is the product of, not only the team assembled by the Town with participation of a consultant, council itself, and the Planning Commission, but the largest and most challenging part – public participation.
The traditional permit process used for individual projects or permit requests includes advertisements in the neighborhoods affected by the granting of a use permit, public hearings, and council approval, but it was noted the Comprehensive Plan needs much more. To properly address the small-town character, economic, environmental, and housing sustainability, tourism, mobility and accessibility, public health and safety, responsive and accountable governance, and public services, the plan needs input from citizens, businesses, and even visitors, in addition to the planning experts and government staff. The Town Planning Department will be reaching out to the public with a variety of tools to gather public input. The team will use public input sessions, an interactive website, online and paper surveys, comment sessions for draft documents, and vision statements to reach the widest population of those citizens, business owners, and visitors who will be impacted by the decisions made in the review and rewrite.
Because the plan must be grounded in current reality, the team intends to spend the initial months of the process gathering information on existing conditions. It must take account of what is working, and not working, Darby said. The plan will be ultimately organized around 11 general areas:
- Community Appearance
- Land Use
- Economic Development
- Capital Improvements
- Parks & Open Space, Development Areas
- Goals, Vision, and Future
The benefits of both the Comprehensive Plan and the ensuing Subdivision and Zoning Ordinances are for both citizens and businesses – Companies want to locate in places where their employees would want to live, and citizens want an active local economy for employment and supply for their everyday needs. A good plan builds realistic expectations, better transparency, and a healthier community. Work is expected to continue on the Comprehensive Plan into February of 2023.
‘Ghosts of EDA Loans Past’ come back to haunt county supervisors
The most interesting part of Tuesday evening’s Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting was likely behind closed doors after the board adjourned to Closed/Executive Session for a legal-based answer to North River Supervisor Delores Oates question as to what benefit to the County and its taxpayers there was in approval of a Resolution admitting a “moral obligation” to continue to pay the debt service on bank loans made by the EDA during its developing financial scandal, circa 2016 or so. There was one of three loans at issue of particular interest – the $10-million-dollar loan to Truc “Curt” Tran’s ITFederal company poised to jumpstart commercial redevelopment at the 149-acre portion of the former Avtex Superfund site known as the Royal Phoenix Business Park.
Of particular interest, because the “moral obligation” for that loan was initially believed covered by the Town of Front Royal, whose elected officials agreed to provide a $10-million-dollar “bridge loan” requested by then EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald to indicate to First Bank and Trust that “the community” stood behind the loan and proposed project it supported. That request for and Town show of financial support for the ITFed project came despite the fact the company showed virtually no assets other than the three acres at the Royal Phoenix/Avtex site valued at slightly over $2-million-dollars that was “gifted” to the company by the EDA behind closed doors for one dollar.
A clue to what the county supervisors heard over about 15 minutes in Closed Session may have been offered by the board’s action out of it. After some hesitancy in response to the Chair’s call for a motion on the Resolution, Oates’ motion for approval of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, seconded by Walt Mabe, passed by a unanimous roll call vote. The vote commits the County to continue to absorb those “moral obligation” payments through the Fiscal Year 2021-22 at an estimated cost of $214,000.
In open session, responding to questions about the Resolution in support of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, County Administrator Ed Daley mentioned consolidation of three loans, including the above-mentioned ITFederal loan (at $9,551,500), as well as a First Bank and Trust Line of Credit ($8,691,600), and a First Bank of Strasburg loan ($3,450,000). Contacted later, Daley cited one condition that would bring the EDA’s payments to the bank on the ITFederal loan in line with what ITFederal pays the EDA monthly at about $42,000. Before the EDA payments fluctuated to more or less than the ITFed payments, sometimes as much as $7,000 a month more.
Despite the commitment to an estimated $214,000 in payments through this fiscal year, the board’s unanimous vote in support of its moral obligation payments likely reflects negative consequences were the County to bail on covering an EDA debt mid-fiscal year. But again, the agreement is only to the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2022. What might the future of “moral obligations” related to the “Ghost of EDA Loans Past” bring in FY-2022-23? – Stay tuned for another seasonal episode of “A Front Royal-Warren County EDA Carol”.
Thermal Shelter bathrooms
County Administrator Daley was also prominent in responding to another matter raised by three speakers during Public Comments about things, not on the meeting agenda. That was the elimination of two bathrooms in the Health and Human Services Complex at the old 15th Street middle school utilized by the County and involved churches and civic organizations to house the community’s homeless indoors at night during the winter. Opening that discussion was First Baptist Church Pastor Christy McMillin-Goodwin, followed by Aneita Bryant and Jim Bunce.
That trio said an alternate plan for mobile outdoor restrooms was unadvisable due to security and additional personnel to monitor out-of-building night trips, as well as potential severe weather issues. Noting a replacement plan that would not have new indoor facilities in place in time for this winter’s thermal shelter setup, these speakers wondered how the removal plan had been initiated without notice to those involved in helping the County operate the thermal shelter. Bryant suggested allowing access to the next closest indoor facilities.
In responding, Daley said he had been at point for the County in initiating the bathroom removal due to failing pipes that caused toilet backup issues. He said he had envisioned a much quicker turnaround in replacing the removed indoor facilities in that section of the building than ended up being the case. He promised to work proactively with those involved to see that an adequate alternate overnight option was available when the thermal shelter opens as winter arrives.
Also Tuesday following public hearings, the board unanimously approved three Conditional Use Permit applications, two for short-term tourist rentals and one for a private use campground. Following application summaries by Planning Department Deputy Director Matt Wendling the first two CUP applications, Charles and Lou Ann Dotson’s for the Private Use Campground on their property on Burma Road in the Man-Da-Lay Subdivision; and Jacob W. Lott Jr. and Sandra J. Kiepfer for a short-term tourist rental on their 1.6-acre lot on Little Indian Road in the Blue Mountain Subdivision in Linden went to a vote with no public hearing speakers. Wendling did note that a letter from the chairman of the Blue Mountain Property Owners Association had been received, expressing “no problem” with Lott and Kiepfer’s short-term tourist rental application.
Up last were Nicole and Sean McMinn with a short-term tourist rental permit application for their 2.42-acre property on Sagar Drive in the Highland Estates Subdivision in the Fork District. Again, there were no public speakers after the applicants responded to the board chair’s offer to summarize their request. The D.C.-based couple told the board they had run into little opposition from neighbors, and what opposition there had been from neighbors was not from those closest, but with property over a thousand feet from theirs.
And while there were no public speakers, the McMinns noted a number of letters to the board from supporters of their short-term tourist rental CUP application, which they asked to be read into the meeting record. Board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi then read nine letters of support, including one with “25 to 30” signatures. Several of the letters, including one from the owner of the Downriver Canoe Company, noted positive impacts on tourism-related businesses from short-term renters. One letter noted, “They come; they spend; they leave”.
The board then made its final unanimous vote of approval on a motion by Archie Fox in whose district the applicant’s property lies, seconded by Walt Mabe.
Following that vote, Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter noted a “Bless you” included in one of the letters read by the clerk that was well-timed to a sneeze by someone present in the government center meeting room.
In fact, facing a future out of the public eye politically – Carter did not file to be on the ballot for reelection to his Happy Creek seat in November – Carter appeared at times Tuesday to be auditioning for Comedy Club spots during his member report and at various other times during the meeting. In fact, his coming local election, Halloween costume advice during his member report led three of his four colleagues to decline to try and “follow that act”.
See all the fun, business, and other public perspectives, including opening Public Comments speaker Michael Williams question as to whether a recent church-sponsored candidates forum in which the moderator was shown prior to the forum to have contributed to one church-associated candidate’s campaign could threaten that church’s tax-exempt status on U.S. Constitutional separation of church and state guidelines, in the County video:
EDA gets McDonald company property as part of settlement agreement
On Wednesday, October 20, Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne verified the EDA’s acquisition of the 41-acre “Happy Creek Road” parcel owned by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s Moveon8 real estate LLC. Acquisition of the undeveloped property assessed at just over a million dollars according to county court records is part of the $9-million-dollar no-fault settlement agreement reached between the EDA, McDonald, and the Harrisonburg Bankruptcy Court handling McDonald’s 2020 bankruptcy filing. The EDA will now be able to market the property as a developable EDA asset. It is located near the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway.
Browne said that in addition to receiving full value on the Happy Creek parcel, the EDA was in line to receive a percentage of the sale price of other McDonald assets distributed through the bankruptcy court proceeding. Exactly how close those percentages might get the EDA to the $9-million-dollar settlement figure remains to be seen. It was not immediately clear as to whether the EDA will have an outright full value claim to any other McDonald-held properties or assets.
McDonald is the central figure in the EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-to-late 2018. She resigned in December 2018 under mounting pressure from her board of directors. She has been accused in civil and criminal court of utilizing her EDA position to misdirect EDA assets to her and others personal benefit. Western District of Virginia federal authorities have taken over the criminal side of the EDA case after a state special prosecutor’s office in Harrisonburg dropped criminal charges against McDonald and as many as 23 co-defendants due to speedy trial concerns as it wrestled with the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. With charges against some defendants originating with the county commonwealth attorney’s office that initially handled the criminal investigation during Brian Madden’s tenure heading the department, failure to meet speedy trial timelines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of criminal charges against the defendants.
On August 31, 2021, federal prosecutors made their initial move, handing down a 34-count indictment against McDonald. Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?
At least two supervisors willing to revisit continuation of coyote bounty program in more open forum
Seeing the continued awarding of $50 bounties for the random shooting of coyotes in Warren County following a November 10, 2020, work session presentation by County legal and animal control staff seeking an end to the practice as counterproductive to its intent of thinning coyote pack numbers, Royal Examiner recently sought information on the Board of Supervisors apparently unanimous decision to continue the bounty awards.
In early October this reporter emailed Board Chairman Cheryl Cullers with copies to the other four board members in case there was a divergent opinion on the matter that has not, to this reporter’s knowledge, been publicly discussed. The only initial reply was from the board chair: “… but there are those that don’t agree with that information,” Cullers replied of the information presented to the board on November 10, 2020, by Warren County Sheriff’s Office Animal Control Officer Laura Gomez and Assistant County Attorney Caitlin Jordan.
“That information” was addressed in Royal Examiner’s November 11, 2020, story “County headed to public hearings to end coyote bounty payments and expansion of loose dog prohibitions”. It included the following information: “The biggest issue with (coyote bounties) is we have documentation showing it’s not effective in any way. And removing the coyote bounty would not prevent people from still being able to protect their property and their livestock … And they’re showing in that letter that it has over a 150-year failure,” Animal Control Officer Gomez noted of the proposed ordinance amendment ending the bounty program.
“That letter” referenced by Gomez to the county supervisors on November 10, 2020, stated among other things that: “Coyote bounties have been tried throughout the United States for more than 150 years. There is not a single documented instance of a bounty
program temporarily or permanently reducing coyote populations or livestock depredation problems,” Michael L. Fies of VDGIF (Va. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) wrote in response to a November 2016 inquiry by Bath County Animal Control officials included in Tuesday night’s agenda packet,” Royal Examiner reported at the time.
And it was not simply the abandonment of bounties, but the implementation of what was called more “successful targeted control” programs in place of bounties, suggested at the state level that was brought to the supervisors late last year:
“Since coyote bounties are ineffective, our Department has consistently recommended against these programs in favor of targeted control efforts around farms with a history of coyote damage. This approach has been successfully used by USDA Wildlife Services to reduce livestock losses in other portions of the state,” VDGIF’s Fies wrote in the above-referenced 2016 letter to Bath County officials presented to Warren County’s elected officials by animal control and legal staffs in late 2020.
It might be noted that this reporter’s headline on the referenced story on that November 10, 2020, presentation on coyote bounty programs contained one glaring inaccuracy – “County headed to public hearings to end coyote bounty payments (and a related animal control issue on dogs running loose in the county). For no public hearing was there to be, nor to this reporter’s knowledge, any open work session or meeting discussion by the board of the information it was presented with by county staff on November 10, 2020, nor of any expressed citizen disagreement with that information.
Rather, on January 5, 2021, coyote bounties were presented for continuation as part of the Consent Agenda for matters considered “routine business” not requiring public discussion or scrutiny by the board prior to a vote of approval. And while other Consent Agenda items were pulled for discussion that evening, continuing the coyote bounty program was not one of them.
But that could be poised to change. Contacted about the approval process, first Board Chairman Cullers expressed a willingness to revisit the issue. “I would be glad to have a future discussion on this issue. I understand the side that feels it is not effective, but there are those that don’t agree with that information. Again I will be glad to readdress the issue,” Cullers replied to this reporter’s emailed inquiry about the initial approval process.
And “readdress” would seem a wise course for this board majority. Because that initial approval process, essentially done out of the public eye, other than the vote to continue it without a public hearing or public discussion other than one meeting public comment favoring continuation of the bounties that Cullers cited, seems to run contrary to the process of a board majority carried into office over a year and a half ago on campaign promises of ending political “business as usual” out of the public eye – a process cited as contributing to the EDA financial scandal the county is still recovering from.
In fact, we reached out a second time to North River Supervisor Delores Oates following her comment at the October 5 Board of Supervisors meeting to County Administrator Ed Daley regarding the effectiveness of air purification machines the County is pondering the purchase of for use in county government buildings. – “We want facts, not opinions,” Oates told Daley of a final decision on the air purification device purchase for Warren County Government buildings.
And yes, facts, as they are available, would be valuable in ascertaining the effectiveness of the air purification machines in limiting the spread of contagious viral or other airborne illnesses. But why not the same standard of “facts, not opinions” in the decision to continue a coyote bounty program found locally, state-wide, and nationally to be counterproductive to its intent of thinning coyote packs anywhere over 150 years of experience?
And Oates too expressed a willingness to revisit the issue prior to publication.
“I would be happy to discuss. If memory serves me correctly, there were no alternatives offered to control the population of coyotes at that presentation. I believe we postponed a decision to learn more about what options were available to reduce the coyote population,” Oates responded to our email inquiry.
“I stand on my facts, not opinions statement,” she added, pointing to myriad other issues the County has faced in the past year: “On this topic, we didn’t revisit as I suspect many other issues have taken precedent. With COVID and the IT breach, the coyote topic didn’t seem urgent. I am not opposed to revisiting the alternatives to bounties in the near term,” Oates wrote Royal Examiner, adding, “Perhaps we needed to understand what targeted control meant. I will be honest it’s been almost a year since we heard the presentation. We wanted to understand what the cost was to farmers with a targeted control approach. I know there were lingering questions which is why we just didn’t eliminate the program.”
And with a perhaps building board consensus, it appears the county supervisors may be revisiting the coyote bounty issue, and exploring alternatives such as those referenced “targeted control efforts around farms with a history of coyote damage” that Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Michael L. Fies referenced in his 2016 letter on the subject to Bath County officials. As we told Supervisors Cullers and Oates during our discussion, it seems counterintuitive to continue to pay people in a bounty program cited by wildlife professionals as not only ineffective but achieving the opposite effect of often increasing coyote numbers, rather than reducing them.
And if there are citizens who disagree with those conclusions of wildlife professionals, it would be nice to publicly hear what facts, if any, those disagreements are based upon.
See the full November 10, 2020, presentation and discussion in the linked Warren County Work Session video Nov 10, 2020 Board of Supervisors Work Session – Warren County, VA (swagit.com):
County Planning Commission reviews Fire Department Capital Improvement Plan, also faces upsurge in permit activity
The Warren County Planning Commission met on October 13 in a work session to review a Capital Improvement Plan submission for 2021-2025 for the County Fire and Emergency Services Department. Chief James Bonzano told the Commission that calls for service for 2020, the last complete year, increased by over 3%, continuing a trend that began in 2013. This increase impacts response times, budget costs, and equipment availability, he explained. Calls were split between Fire, at 14%, and EMS (Emergency Medical Service), at 86%. EMS vehicles are called out more than 4 times as often as fire apparatus, have longer runs, and as a result, wear out that much sooner.
The National Standards for fire department equipment govern when it should be placed on the reserve list or removed from service. According to Chief Bonzano, the current fleet has 18 units of its 65 that are over 15 years old, and two over 25 years. In Warren County, there is currently no capacity to place vehicles in reserve. The chief also identified facility improvements needed, live-fire training, and firefighter cancer prevention as priorities in the submission. The Chief oversees a nearly $6 million annual combined budget.
Several commissioners suggested ways to extend budgets by alternative financing or leasing. The Chief acknowledged he is looking into these mechanisms but cautioned that many of them assume a fleet that allows for residual values when turning in a vehicle at the end of the lease. Much of the current fleet is far past the age where it would have any residual value as used equipment. The Fire/EMS Department is also pressed for volunteers – not only operational but associates – helpers of all kinds, including fundraisers. The Fire and Rescue Services capital investment submission will now be fed into the County’s budget process.
The regular Planning Commission meeting followed immediately after the work session, and the commission considered two Conditional Use permits (CUP) requests.
Terra Site Constructors, LLC, is requesting a Conditional Use Permit for a contractor storage yard at 6986 Winchester Road in the North River Magisterial District. The property is zoned Industrial (I). Planning Director Joe Petty reviewed the recommendations for approval of the request for the commission members. There were no public comments on the proposal, so Commission Chairman Robert Myers closed the public hearing. The site will primarily be used for the temporary storage of heavy equipment. After a brief discussion, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the permit. The request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Gordon Lee Birkhimer has requested a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for his property at 52 Forest View Drive, an Agriculturally zoned property in the Fork Magisterial District. Mr. Birkhimer is planning a sailboat trip around the world and expects to be absent for up to two years. He has engaged a professional management firm to oversee the rental activity, and a local citizen to do maintenance and upkeep.
When Chairman Jones opened the floor for public comment, Pamela Rhodes addressed the commissioners and outlined her opposition to the permit. As a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, she expressed the opinion that the applicant would have no control over what kind of people would be renting the property and as an absent property owner would not care. She was opposed to long or short-term rental for the property. In addition, one neighboring property owner, Phyllis Wright, had written to the planning department and opposed the permit being issued. Her concerns were for personal safety, fire danger, and the potential for crime.
Once the Public hearing was closed, Vice Chairman Hugh Henry commented that the community’s experience with short-term tourist rentals has been very good – an asset in a neighborhood, particularly since strict rules govern the issuance of a permit. Tourist rentals must be well maintained or guests won’t rent them. A long-term renter is a much greater risk, since a property owner can rent his property to anyone he chooses, and neighbors have no recourse. Management companies do generally perform background checks, and a written set of guidelines in the property management plan assure that guests know what the rules are.
Given the growing experience with the issuance of short-term tourist rental CUPs and the concerns of neighbors, Vice Chairman Henry asked the applicant if he would agree to two additional conditions: A prohibition against the use of ATVs on the property or roads around it, and a prohibition on discharging firearms. The applicant agreed. The commission then voted unanimously to recommend approval. The request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
The commission faces a steep climb at its November meeting with 10 CUP requests for a variety of uses, including short-term tourist rentals, a cluster housing development, an Outdoor Recreation Operation, two Rural Events Facilities, a gunsmithing service, and a campground, as well as two proposed Text Amendment changes to the Warren County Code Chapter 180. Commissioners approved authorizations to advertise all these requests.
Planning Director Joe Petty told the commission that the Comprehensive Plan review work sessions will resume in January, and he thanked the commissioners for their time and work so far on the new plan. Meantime, the Planning Department will be meeting with the contracting firm that is helping with the rewrite to prepare for the next steps.
Chairman Myers then adjourned the meeting.