At its October 6 work session, Warren County officials dealt with a second emergency services funding issue – this one equipment related, rather than personnel as in the Chester Gap Fire & Rescue discussion. In fact, Chester Gap Chief Brown stayed for this discussion as it impacts his department along with all the County’s emergency service responders.
The equipment at issue are two microwave communications towers, one at Guard Hill Road on the north-central side of the county, the other in Bentonville to the south. The towers are crucial to station to field communications with, not only fire and rescue personnel, but law enforcement officers responding to sometimes life-threatening situations, as well as interdepartmental communications. That details of those emergency response situations are available to first responders on all fronts is crucial to their safety and the public safety, Sheriff Mark Butler explained.
“I told you I wouldn’t come to you (for money) unless it was a need – this is a need,” Butler said.
“A real serious need,” Chester Gap Chief Brown added. And it appeared the most serious problem is with the Bentonville tower in his neighborhood, which was referenced as being essentially dysfunctional since August 25, to the point where fire and rescue and the sheriff’s office can’t communicate in that part of the county.
As with the earlier Chester Gap and countywide discussion, short and long-term solutions were on the table. Short-term, a $93,000 cost was cited to replace the two antennas showing current signs of failure. Longer term, to upgrade the entire emergency communications system a $2 million to $2-1/2-million price tag was estimated.
Interim County Administrator Ed Daley told the board that the microwave communications tower replacement costs in the short term would become the number one priority on the CARES Act public safety funding allotment, with courthouse upgrades second.
A consensus was reached to move immediately on the short-term issue to assure the complete restoration of service in the Bentonville-Browntown area and improve the communication gap situation countywide. However, it was stressed that movement on the entire system upgrade was needed to begin in the near future, as the aging system is facing periodic interruptions across the board.
A two-week turnaround in the order with installation in less than three months was cited on the replacement work.
See the discussion of another vital aspect of countywide emergency services in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Front Royal’s Economic Development Authority has inaugural meeting
The newly formed Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) met for the first time, at 11 a.m. Thursday morning, January 20, 2022, in the second-floor Town Hall meeting room. Royal Examiner was notified that what was primarily an orientation meeting and the first gathering meet and greet of the town council-appointed FREDA Board of Directors would not be livestreamed or videotaped by the Town, leading to the presence of the Royal Examiner camera to visually document the occasion.
The meeting was chaired by Town Manager Steven Hicks, who has been tasked by the Town Council to also serve as FREDA’s executive director. The meeting began two of seven board members short, with Nick Bass and Rick Novak both arriving a few minutes after the 11 a.m. starting time. Final arrivee, Royal Cinemas owner Novak, explained a concession stand equipment malfunction had delayed his arrival.
The now fully manned board took on a four action-item agenda, including presentation of draft bylaws for review; setting dates for a FREDA retreat (March 8), as well as its next meeting (Feb. 17, indicating a third Thursday rotation of regular monthly meetings); and Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) General Counsel Sandy McNish’s remotely presented PowerPoint overview of EDA functions and state legal parameters for EDA operations, including financial lending utilizing public funds to stimulate economic development for a public good.
McNish noted Virginia as a Dillon Rule state in which localities and political subdivisions like EDA’s cannot exceed authorities “expressly granted by the General Assembly”. She also noted that municipally created EDA’s are independent entities from the municipalities that create them and utilize their services in economic development initiatives and assistance in financing economic development projects.
In prefacing the FREDA board for the VDEP presentation, Town Manager/FREDA Executive Director Hicks said, “Today is obviously our first overall meeting. We’ve got a pretty decent agenda, more of just an intro of what we’re going to do. We’re going to talk about EDA 101 … and also I would kind of like to go around the table and have everyone introduce (themselves) with a brief bio of who you are, as well. And then I’m going to introduce the staff that will be supporting the EDA as we go forward.”
Those FREDA Board of Director introductions included (in the order listed in the agenda packet summary of their backgrounds):
Isaac Rushing (1-year term), owner of Honey and Hops Brew Works at 212 E. Main St., also cited as “a former supervisor with the Town of Front Royal” though no department was included in his profile;
David Gedney (1-year term), owner of Element Restaurant (317 E. Main St.), also a current member of the Town Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), who has past experience “in planning/growing a recycling effort for VCU” (Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond);
Mark Tapsak (2-year term), owner of Mountain Music (217 E. Main St.), also cited as “a medical device research scientist and consultant with Diabetic Health Inc., as well as a university (unspecified) teacher of biochemistry and chemistry courses.”
Rick Novak (2-year term), as previously noted owner of Royal Cinemas (117 E. Main St.) and Royal Family Bowling Center (430 Remount Rd.), also cited as a former owner of the Blue Ridge Motel and Royal Family Amusement Arcade;
Frank Stankiewicz (3-year term), owner/manager of Green to Ground Electrical LLC (316 Warren Ave.), also cited as “President of local (unspecified) networking organization”;
James Crowell (3-year term), owner of Quecon, Inc. IT Engineering Co. (134 Peyton St.) “that specializes in cybersecurity, software engineering and telecommunications” who is also cited as “Graduated from Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business program (10KSB), Veteran’s Institute of Procurement (VIP), VA Scaling for Growth (S4G), Small Business Administration (SBA) business development.”
Nick Bass (4-year term), cited as “Geotechnical and construction consultant; experience reviewing construction contracts and subcontractor agreements to identify risky language; marketing experience and communications skills.”
In her presentation to the newly created FREDA Board of Directors, VEDP General Counsel McNish, who noted a 14-plus year tenure at VEDP, said, “So, what’s an EDA? You’re enabling legislation is the Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act. You’re a political subdivision of the Commonwealth, much as the VEDP is; you are a separate legal entity, as the VEDP is. You’re not the town that created you, the town that created you is not you. You have a separate subdivision, you are a different thing.”
She continued to note that EDAs “are usually created by one locality but they can … be created by two or more, as you know. And authorities, even if they’re from separate localities, can, indeed, work together in a cooperative way on projects.”
One might hope that as an evolving independent subdivision of the Town of Front Royal, that type of inter-EDA cooperation will develop, as has been offered by the WC EDA Board, despite the total cut off of all communications, other than civil litigation, example that has been set in recent months by the Front Royal Town Council and its town management staff.
“You have very broad powers under the Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act. And you can do most anything, so long as you do it under your animating purpose, which is to promote industry and develop trade by inducing manufacturing, industrial, governmental, etc. facilities to locate in or remain in the Commonwealth.
“Now if you’re providing a branch or something to somebody or helping with a developmental plan, that’s certainly going to benefit a private company. But that’s okay because that’s not why you are doing it. You’re doing it for a public purpose,” McNish pointed out of attracting business or industry to an area as a general economic benefit to the community in which the EDA operates.
Town Planning Commission considers short term rental ordinance and update on Town’s Comprehensive Plan process
The Front Royal Planning Commission entered the new year with a quiet and businesslike first meeting on January 19th with all commissioners in attendance to consider a topic that has taken up a good deal of its attention (no, not the fiery allegations of the last meeting) – rather, the proposed ordinance change to address short-term rentals. In November the Town Council requested the planning commission to develop a proposed ordinance that would assure a uniform process for approval of conditional use permits for this use, as distinguished from hotels, motels, and bed & breakfast establishments. The planning staff adapted a proposed ordinance from that used by the County to establish standards and conditions for short-term rentals, and Planning Director Lauren Kopishke submitted it to council earlier to get feedback.
Since the topic of this ordinance amendment was postponed at the December Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Darryl Merchant asked Planning Director Kopishke for an update on the proposed text. The Planning Director referred the commissioners to a version in their packages that had been sent to Town Council for their January 10 meeting. Council’s only change was a request to remove the prohibition on street parking in the draft version. There followed some discussion about what the Town Council’s intent was – the original draft prohibited parking for short-term rentals in yards or along public right-of-ways, which would effectively bar a guest from parking along a street even if a marked parking place. Many properties in town have no other parking than on the street.
Commissioner Merchant observed that conditions in town are different than those in the county, and that it could be worthwhile to consider whether different zones in the town are not appropriate for this use. Permitting short-term rentals in all zones may not be appropriate, he reasoned. Vice-Chairman Connie Marshner said that several citizens have approached her with doubts about whether short-term rentals should be allowed.
Commissioners Josh Ingram and William Gordon also commented that the ordinance established a standard for a special use permit. Consequently, each permit must be reviewed by the commission for a recommendation to the town council for approval. So, decisions of appropriateness are made on each application on a case-by-case basis and an ordinance is not a blanket permission for property owners to start offering short-term rentals by right.
At length, rather than voting to recommend approval of the ordinance, Commissioner Merchant offered a motion to postpone action and refer the subject to a Planning Commission work session on February 4, so that it could be discussed and alternatives identified prior to a final vote. The commission unanimously approved that motion.
The commission then turned its attention to a presentation by the Assistant Town Manager, Kathleen Leidich, on the Fiscal Year 2023-27 Capital Improvement Plan. The Plan is a forward look at capital projects the Town foresees in the upcoming five years. The $2.5 million plan for streets in FY 2023 incorporates primary and secondary street repaving, new sidewalk construction, replacement of the 8th St. bridge, and rehabilitation of the Fleet Maintenance building. The plan also identifies projects that are further into the future, such as a Leach Run flyover, an east-west connector, further improvements to Happy Creek Road, and various trails and road extensions.
$1.5 million in planned improvements to the Town’s water system in the upcoming fiscal year include replacement of undersized water lines between Colonial Drive and Leach Run Parkway, and waterline replacement throughout the town in conjunction with the town’s paving plans.
The Electric Department projects $1.1 million for its improvements in this fiscal year to expand the Happy Creek substation, replacement of transformers that have reached or exceeded their service life, and further funding for the Automated Metering Infrastructure, (AMI) which allows remote meter reading and service connects and disconnects. It will eventually mean all meters throughout the town will be replaced.
After being briefed on the plan, the commission discussed its own role in the process as it provides feedback to the town staff and then makes recommendations to the town council as part of the budgeting process. Commissioner Gordon wondered what the ultimate role of the commission was in the CIP process, and how the commission could be of help to the Town in establishing priorities and identifying needs. “It seems like we’re being asked to rubberstamp a budgeting process that’s already been done,” he observed.
Assistant Town Manager Leidich responded, “In general, town staff brings the CIP to planning to get feedback. Ultimately it is the town council that approves the CIP.”
The emerging consensus from the Commission was that earlier involvement will mean better knowledge of the proposed priorities, and that for this cycle, it was better for the commission to recommend approval and then work with town staff in a more collaborative process for the next budget cycle.
The Commission ultimately voted unanimously to recommend approval of the CIP.
The final order of business was an update on the Comprehensive Plan rewrite process by Planning Director Kopishke. The staff and its support contractor have produced an Existing Conditions Report.
The report packs a lot of information into its 35 pages. It outlines statistics such as population, business, income, employment, and education, as well as useful information about infrastructure and services. The Commission and the planning department are continuing work on the plan. You can find the report, as well as links for your input, here.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:30 p.m.
After work session discussion of Town building permit function, supervisors approve 3 CUP requests, 2 for short-term tourist rentals
The Warren County Board of Supervisors agenda of Tuesday, January 18, began with a no cameras, caucus room work session highlighted by a presentation by County Building Official David Beahm on implications of the Town of Front Royal taking over the building and maintenance inspection function within town limits. It is a long-discussed on the Town side shift, that began in the first decade of the 21st century if memory serves. But after hearing about constantly shifting variables on interpretation and enforcement of stormwater management and erosion and sediment control aspects at the state level, one might wonder if the Town might want to reconsider its decision to finally move into the in-town inspection world.
“That’s ridiculous,” North River Supervisor Delores Oates chimed in with a colorful declaration after hearing Beahm’s description of ongoing shifts in State interpretations of its own rules on parameters of municipal enforcement of state rules on these aspects of building variables. Responding to questions, Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke estimated full town inspection department enforcement, including stormwater and erosion and sediment control by June. The Town department was officially enacted on January 3rd. Dynamics of in-town inspection records being shifted to Town control from the County system was discussed, as was alerting in-town property owners to seek those records from the Town when they were transferred.
County Finance Director Matt Robertson also presented a look at new online links to a budget development site for easier member and staff access during the budget cycle.
Following those two presentations the supervisor adjourned to closed session for discussion of advisory board appointments and real estate transactions outside the town limits.
Then it was on to a rather straightforward regular meeting agenda featuring three public hearings on Conditional Use Permit (CUP) requests, one for a guesthouse off Buck Mountain Road in the South River District’s Stone Subdivision by Joshua Branson, and two for short-term tourist rentals on Riverview Shores Drive in the Shenandoah Shores Subdivision.
The first of those latter two was submitted by experienced and multi-county short-term, Air B&B style rental operators Gillian Greenfield and Richard Butcher; the second by a property neighbor of Greenfield and Butcher, Terry Hartson. Hartson told the board that he had taken his business management plan lead from his more experienced neighbors. Hartson spoke in support of his neighbors’ request, as they did in support of his. With acknowledgment the Branson guesthouse would not be used as a commercial endeavor, and detailed management plans for the two short-term rental requests in place, all three were approved by unanimous consent with little or no opposition submitted to the board prior to the public hearing.
About five minutes into the meeting during Public Comments the Town’s recent “interim man” returned to the dais to play word games to repeat still-unsubstantiated accusations against County and Town officials, as well as gripes about the Royal Examiner and its reporters not covering “news” as he desires it to be covered – apparently unsubstantiated, without first-hand verification, and without an objectively critical eye toward the documented actions of public officials, particularly within Town Hall.
See the above discussions, public comments, as well as board member reports, and approval of a four-item Consent Agenda, including more coyote bounty awards, and discussion of a removed consent agenda staffing search item, and two late agenda additions in this County video:
‘Grandfathering’ or not? County Planning Commission foresees the need to address Non-Conforming Properties
At its regular meeting on January 12, the Warren County Planning Commission confronted a nagging issue that members expect will increasingly come up in the future, that of property owners in older subdivisions whose dwellings were built long before there were local zoning ordinances or even building inspections. Even though building codes date back to the Babylonian King Hammurabi, and rudimentary standards in the late 18th century, most large American cities didn’t begin enacting or enforcing them until 1900 or so, and in most smaller localities they were not widely enacted until the 1970’s, and even after that not uniformly enforced. In Warren County, for example, many small “summer cabins” were built near or on the river in the 1940’s or before, when that requirement did not exist. They weren’t originally intended to be permanent homes, but rather vacation places. In modern times, local zoning ordinances would preclude many of these from being built at all, or certainly sited where they are.
The continuing challenge for the County is to strike a balance between a property owner’s investment in his property, the need for uniform enforcement of the building code, and common sense. More and more requests for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) for short-term tourist rentals, for example, show that property owners, sometimes with “nonconforming lots”, still want to rent their cabins out to tourists. But the standards of the County’s short-term tourist rental ordinance require things like 100-foot distance between dwellings. So, the commissioners spent some time discussing what the right approach to that challenge is. Zoning law is where the term “grandfathering” is often found – provisions that allow some deviations from standards where the original construction predated the standard. It’s certain that the commission and the county board will have to eventually develop a solution that can be applied fairly and uniformly.
An example case will likely be considered at next months meeting, when the commissioners will be looking at a request from Alvand Khoshgavar for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for his residentially zoned property at 668 Old Dam Road in the Shenandoah District. His property doesn’t meet the 100-foot setback requirement, so that requirement would have to be waived for a permit to be issued. The request was approved for advertising the public hearing, but the commissioners agreed that the topic of these properties will need to have a better solution. The County can waive provisions of an ordinance, but every waiver creates a precedent.
Meanwhile, this month, John LaVoie is requesting a CUP for his residentially zoned property at 1196 Old Oak Lane in the Shenandoah District. Deputy Planning Director Matt Wendling briefed the commission on the details of the application. The proposal meets the County short-term rental supplementary regulations, and comments were received from the County Building Official and the Department of Health. There were no citizen comments during the public hearing, and no comments or objections were received from neighboring property owners by the County Planning Department.
With no other comments by commission members, the vote to recommend approval was unanimous. The permit request will now go to the County Board of Supervisors for final approval.
The consent agenda for the meeting consisted of authorization to advertise public hearings for seven Conditional Use Permit requests and one zoning ordinance change. Those items will be on the agenda for next month’s meeting on February 9th.
Chairman Myers adjourned the meeting at 7:45 p.m.
Town of Front Royal prepares for its 2nd, oh wait – 3rd winter storm of season
On January 14, 2022, the operations team that includes Public Works, Energy, Fleet Management, Finance, and the Police Department met to discuss the upcoming snowstorm forecast to drop from 6 inches to a foot or more of snow here. Public Works crews are treating primary roads now in preparation for the winter storm now predicted to begin around 1 p.m. on Sunday. Road crews and Fleet will begin working 12-hour shifts over the weekend to continue treating streets and plowing snow as needed.
The Police Department is asking citizens to stay off the roads during the storm if possible. Road crews are better able to cover streets with less traffic. The Town is asking residents to use off-street parking this weekend if available.
Town Energy Services crews are prepared and will be working this weekend to cover possible power outages. Power outages after work hours should be reported to Front Royal Police at (540) 635-2111. If you have internet connectivity during working hours, please report outages at frontroyalva.com/FormCenter.
As always in an emergency call 911.
Public Works and Energy Services also have contractors on standby if additional crews are needed.
The Virginia Department of Transportation Staunton District is preparing for forecasted snow and some sleet to occur during the daytime on Sunday, January 16, and into overnight hours, ending by early Monday, January 17. VDOT crews began brine operations at 8 a.m. on Friday, January 14 and will conclude this work later in the day.
In the Staunton District, around 900 – 920 pieces of equipment will be deployed for snow removal operations. VDOT crews will be out to plow and treat roads as the winter weather begins. Wreckers will be pre-staged to assist with vehicle removal at traffic crash locations along interstate roads. Tree crews are ready to assist as needed during and after the storm.
Travel during the storm should be avoided and local forecasts should be monitored. Winter weather with wind and snow rates can change quickly, causing dangerous driving conditions and possible white-out situations.
Travelers should be prepared for emergencies. Travel emergency kits can include flashlights and batteries, ice scraper, cell phone and charger, jumper cables, blankets or quilts, first aid kit, bottled water, non-perishable food, abrasive material for traction, and a shovel.
(The Front Royal Public Information Office updated its release on the above preparations to acknowledge this will be the third, rather than second snow of the season to hit the town.)
After lengthy closed session, council ponders its role in regulating short-term-tourist rentals
The Monday evening (Jan. 10) Front Royal Town Council Work Session began with a two-hour-plus Closed Meeting at which first, “probable litigation” involving a claim of damaged private property by unidentified Town operations was discussed; followed by discussion of personnel matters including “… performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining, or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees … specifically of the Town Planning Commission, Town Board of Zoning Appeals, and the Local Board of Building Code Appeals”, as well as a late added “and other personnel”.
As there was no meeting scheduled, no announcement or action followed the closed session.
The open portion of the work secession featured a wide-ranging conversation about establishment of a Town Code on regulating Short-Term Tourist Rentals. Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke opened by telling council that no one had showed up at a December Planning Commission Public Hearing on the matter, so there was no public input on parameters or preferences to fit town residential patterns interacting with the increasingly popular “quasi-commercial” use of personal residence as a money-making short-term rental endeavor.
After an overview from Kopishke of the draft proposal based on the existing County Code, opinions of elected officials on levels of regulation went in wide and varied directions. Letasha Thompson opened by expressing concern over a requirement that all short-term rental parking be in driveways, and not allowed on streets. – “Some people don’t have driveways” she worried over that segment being prohibited from qualifying for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) to allow them to profit off renting their properties out.
Kopishke responded that such conditions were included to protect normal neighborhood parking patterns and would ultimately depend on the number of cars short-term rental customers would bring to bear on a location.
Amber Morris wondered if the Town should initiate any regulations on the use, noting that there were statewide codes. “Where in the Town Code are short-term rentals specifically prohibited? Because I have been approached recently that it is not specifically against code. And in the state of Virginia it’s pretty blanketed. And my concern with this is … that we’re kind of going above and beyond and we’re adding unnecessary measures to the entire thing as a whole,” she told the planning director, later wondering why after “10-plus years” of non-enforcement, why start regulating now?
“While it’s not defined in our zoning ordinance – all we have defined are lodging homes. And these do not permit short-term stays under 14 days. So, to allow this we have to at least define it in our ordinance,” Kopishke responded, adding, “The state does permit it, which is why it makes sense for us to adopt something, because the state just defines what it is and explains how they’re going to tax it. It doesn’t explain how to regulate it.”
Morris countered that the draft seemed “a little over-regulated” in its existing form. Planning Director Kopishke noted that with such a broad state code it made sense for each jurisdiction to establish its own regulatory code to accommodate its community structure, so as not to allow a new quasi-business use to disrupt the lifestyle of existing neighborhoods.
“Every jurisdiction has something a little bit different. So, what I took just for simplicity’s sake was Warren County’s because that’s what people around here would be used to. I looked at Strasburg, Strasburg’s just a little bit more complicated – Winchester, Fauquier County, they have more regulation to it. So, this is bare bones,” Kopishke said of the draft structure presented to council for an early review.
“This leaves a lot up to our discretion, right?” Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell observed.
“The way it’s written gives you as council a lot of control. If you want less, we can put less prohibitions in there. It’s how council would like it to be done,” the planning director explained. This led Councilman Joseph McFadden to note that many people who might be attracted to the idea of making money off short-term rentals of their home or other structures might not think through a business plan – “This just gives them something to think about. I think it’s great there are some (guidelines) in here. Like you said, we decomplicated it, uncomplicated it as much as possible, keep it bare bones, I’m all for it,” McFadden said.
However, Morris continued to voice concern over any attempt at regulation, noting that in the absence of a code, a number of town citizens have been operating this type of rental use for a number of years. – “But we haven’t gone after them,” Kopishke noted. She observed that were its council desire, the Town could initiate legal actions to stop those operations until a code is established and permitting obtained. – “It could be considered a Class 3 misdemeanor,” the planning director pointed out, adding that it did not seem a desirable approach to label people “criminals” for pursuing a use in a vacuum of town guidance or regulation.
“That’s not the concern, but the concern is we’ve been doing this for 10-plus years and it hasn’t been enforced, why are we adding new (regulations)?” Morris continued in questioning why bother to regulate now. McFadden responded that some people who would like to initiate such an operation were not because they wanted “to operate within the law”. Establishing legal parameters to protect short-term tourist operations, as well as their neighbors’ interests in a more “bare-boned” manner as described, seemed an optimum path forward, he reasoned.
“I think we should do less regulation,” Morris injected, without explaining what was “less” than the no regulations or enforcement the Town has been operating under.
Among regulations on the table were the necessity of short-term tourist rentals having landline phones to assure the ability to contact emergency services if necessary, limitations on number of rental occupants (two per bedroom), vehicles and parking, and a one-time application fee of $400.
“I look at this as protecting our citizens, the people who live here every day … that their quality of life in their neighborhood, their children, whatever, that it doesn’t affect them because somebody next to them wants to do this,” Vice-Mayor Cockrell observed as the conversation wound down. The entire discussion lasted for nearly 20 minutes (33:50 to 52:00 minute mark of the Town video). As to a path forward, Kopishke told Royal Examiner she would remove the driveway parking restriction and forward the newest draft ordinance to the planning commission for further review and a recommendation on final action to council.
See this discussion, as well as others, including parameters for Vape/Vape Oriented Businesses (following the short-term tourist rental discussion); the Order of Business” at regular council meetings – one proposed switch was having Public Comments on non-agenda items after Public Hearings; two committee appointments; options forward in the employee health care insurance pool; pending Capital Improvement Projects; and a Sole Source Purchase of Neptune Water Meters at a projected cost of $65,523.
Not on the agenda
One other unscheduled item that occurred just before the work session’s convening around 6 p.m. was serving of a no-trespass order on Mayor Holloway by a representative of his Virginia Ave. neighbor Cheryl Langlais. As noted toward the conclusion of Norma Jean Shaw’s story on Holloway’s dog-containment fence construction and permitting issues, Holloway had refused to accept a registered letter serving him with the notice in the wake of his and other social media posts concerning his discontent with his neighbor’s report on his dogs running loose and her in-home business licensing issues.