At times it seemed like a 3-way “Cage Match” of the professional wrestling variety, though with only one side having access to the ringside microphone – for the most part – and one having been banished from the venue prior to the start of the match. “The match” was Front Royal Town Council consideration of Memorandums of Agreement (MOA’s) with Warren County on, first, work session discussion of joint tourism efforts involving a third party, initially the Joint Tourism Committee and ultimately a 501 c6 Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) known as “Discover Front Royal”; and second, Special Meeting discussion of – to make another sports analogy – the passing of the baton of departmental responsibility for in-town-limits building inspections and permitting back to the County from whence the Town took it on January 3 of this year.
But issues with fees soaring high above County levels quickly drew the ire of county builders, who indicated they might stop taking jobs in town due to what they considered exorbitant fees, sending council back to the drawing board.
Those fee levels were a result of council’s decision to make the department self-supporting through its fees, as opposed to what Warren County, apparently like a majority of municipalities across the Commonwealth of Virginia do. What Warren and others have elected to do is subsidize that departmental budget partially through general taxpayer revenues due to the positive community-wide economic impact of new construction on expanding a community’s residential-and-commercial-tax revenue base.
Seven local builders were patiently present through the 7 p.m. work session and an hour-and-three-quarter closed meeting convened at the 8:30 p.m. conclusion of the work session.
So, if the builders might have been spoiling for some action when the one-topic Special Meeting convened at 10:15 p.m. they might have been forgiven as the “cage match” resumed in an open meeting setting.
But they were quietly polite as they listened to council members criticize county officials, particularly County Administrator Ed Daley and Interim County Attorney Jason Ham, for the late, post-5 p.m. afternoon delivery of an adjusted MOA from the one council apparently believed had been agreed upon at the Town-County Liaison Meeting of March 3rd.
That late delivery of a post-liaison committee meeting MOA led to some speculation of nefarious motives, perhaps even sabotaging of a joint municipal solution to the council’s self-created building permitting plight. Primarily of issue for council was the inclusion of a 5-year minimum on the length of time the County Building Department would maintain the in-town permitting and inspection function. Council believed a bypassing of what was initially a 10-year-minimum timeframe offered in the County’s draft MOA, then adjusted down to five years, and finally to a 60-day notice with no minimum amount of time before that 60-day notice could be enacted, had been achieved at the four-hour liaison committee meeting of March 3.
However, the 5-year minimum was part of the draft MOA language presented to council Monday evening. Consequently much subsequent discussion revolved around the Town maintaining its own department, while subsidizing 50% of the existing fees through general taxpayer revenues to soften the financial burden on builders and their clients.
But eventually council unanimously approved a motion returning the draft MOA on the County’s re-assuming of the permitting function without any minimum timeframe other than the 60-day notice by the Town that it was withdrawing from the MOA to re-establish its own building department. That decision didn’t come before much debate over whether council should continue to play “political ping pong” with the County over MOA conditions. Some on council even wondered if the county’s elected officials were aware of the draft forwarded to them by the county administrator Monday.
Builder questions raised
As the discussion moved toward a motion to return a signed MOA to the County with the five-year minimum time frame removed, two builders were acknowledged for comment. First, Chris Ramsey rose to wonder at the agenda of the aforementioned 1-3/4-hour closed session. After acknowledging the presence of an attorney, Mr. Lloyd, on council, Ramsey wondered at the legality of discussion that took place behind doors closed to the public and media. “There’s an awful lot of discussion here that should never have been taking place in that closed session,” Ramsey theorized of apparently overlapping closed and open session topics related to the building department situation.
Town Manager Steven Hicks responded that the closed session discussion revolved around personnel matters related to the building department in flux among others, and that would become apparent as the open session discussion progressed. However, as one builder observed after the meeting, it didn’t seem that clarity ever became apparent during the subsequent discussion leading to the unanimous approval of the MOA being returned to the County without the minimum five-year timeframe reference.
The motion into closed session in question forwarded to Royal Examiner by town staff the following day – it was not in the packet copied from the town website earlier that day – cited personnel matters “specific to the Town Manager’s performance in his role as Interim Building Code Official” among other current departmental or commission vacancies.
Following Ramsey’s observation on the seeming overlap of closed/open session agenda topics, Warren County Builders Association President George Cline was acknowledged at Councilman Lloyd’s suggestion. Cline has been very critical of the Town process in creating its own department without any communication with the building community or its county association. Monday he questioned council criticism of the return of an adjusted MOA by county staff. Noting council’s critical discussion of the County drawing the Town into a “ping-ponging” of the MOA back and forth, Cline said, “Quite frankly, the County’s doing the exact same thing you all have done – if you really want to look at the ping ponging.
“I say that because on Friday, somebody from here sent another agreement over to the County. Who did that?” Cline inquired. As Lloyd began to respond with a palms up gesture, Hicks responded: “I did. It was part of the package I sent out to council to show them what’s in the package.”
“That agreement that you sent Friday had one year in it. It’s not this agreement,” Cline replied, apparently waving the MOA with the five-year minimum timeframe found in the agenda packet, presumably the one received by Hicks after 5 p.m. that afternoon that had raised such ire among some on council, including Amber Morris.
“Well, I don’t know what you have there. I know what we forwarded over to the County, the same agenda package that went out,” Hicks asserted. When Morris noted that she had not seen a draft MOA with a one-year minimum timeframe, Cline told council, “I can probably produce that for you tomorrow.”
An attempt to verify production of that version of a draft MOA received by the County was still pending at publication.
Both Mayor Holloway and Vice-Mayor Cockrell attended the meeting remotely, giving council a full complement of members for the special meeting and work session. Comments indicated the absences were due to illness.
Drug Court funding debate
In addition to the back and forth with the builders on issues surrounding the in-town permitting process and resolution of those issues, and general discontent with development of the Joint Tourism MOA, there was some in-house sparring – verbal of course – over funding a $40,000 share of a three-way $120,000 funding split (Town-County-Valley Health) to support establishment of a local Drug Court focused on rehabilitation helping opioid addicts, in particular, exit the drug recidivism lifestyle.
This in-house “Battle Royal” featured Scott Lloyd on the “not another well-intentioned governmental social safety network program draining hard-earned dollars from taxpayers” on one side; and Letasha Thompson, Gary Gillespie, among others on the “we have a serious and too-often fatal drug problem in this community that needs a unified intervention with a higher success rate than traditional court prosecution, conviction, jail and prison (12% to 15%). Nearby Winchester/Frederick County’s Drug Court success rate of 37% removed from the downward spiral of drug addiction was cited as the model for a local Drug Court a joint Town-County Committee has been researching for some time.
In the end even Lloyd seemed to come around somewhat, calling his colleagues’ advocacy “well researched” and the drug court program perhaps an exception to the type of governmental-overseen social safety net programs he began by vilifying.
See these discussions and others, including some proposed upward adjustments to Town sewer service rates, and the future of Town water utility extension into the County’s North Corridor, in the Town video.
On that latter note, it seemed resurrection of discussion of a Town annexation of some county land in the Route 340/522 North Corridor might be on the horizon.
Staff briefs Supervisors on Reassessment Appeal process and scheduled Airport Capital Improvements – And about that proposed Code of Conduct…
How to behave and dress as an elected or appointed county official; and how to appeal real estate reassessments one feels were unjustly high, were among items reviewed at a January 31st work session of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. Also on the agenda were scheduled Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) over the next six years at the County-overseen Front Royal Airport (FRR). Prominent in that presentation by Public Works Director Mike Berry was a chart illustrating which projects would be eligible for potentially large infusions of federal and/or state funding – the answer being all but one of 13 listed projects.
With a February 3rd deadline to file appeals on real estate reassessments looming the most pressing of these issues, at least for landowners, may have been notice of the February 3rd filing deadline along with relevant information to present to the appeals board when one’s hearing is scheduled. It was also noted that those reassessment appeals hearings are slated to be completed by February 17th. That deadline is to help the supervisors have final numbers upon which to base the legally required resetting of an “equalized” real estate tax rate for the coming fiscal year. As previously reported, when real estate reassessments result in a greater than one-percent increase in municipal real estate tax revenue, a public hearing must be held to determine at what tax rate revenue would become “equalized” to what it was prior to the reassessment. The current Warren County real estate tax rate is 65.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. New assessments have been cited by some county staff in the +40% to +60% range from previous levels.
Any increase in county government revenue from the equalization number the board resets the real estate tax rate at is treated as a tax increase. And if there is one thing the current county board majority has made clear, it is that they are not prone to raise taxes, increased public service costs due to soaring national and global inflation rates or not.
Code of What Conduct?
Which perhaps gives us a nice segue into that “how to behave” work session topic – a Code of Conduct to be adopted by the board for its own membership, and one for its appointed boards, commissions, and committees. The agenda item was presented by County Administrator Ed Daley. He noted those drafts were based largely on a Manassas City Council Code of Conduct included in the agenda packet. A number of other Virginia municipalities’ codes were also included for review by board members. Daley told the board they could tweak and approve the drafts as separate items or consolidate them into one with wording changes noting the single code applied to the supervisors, their appointed boards, commissions, and committees, as well as employees, if so desired.
The overall intent of the recommended Code of Conduct appears positive – its “Introduction” straight out of the Manassas City Code of Conduct states: “The intent of the Code of Conduct is to encourage fair, ethical, and accountable local government in the County of Warren, Virginia. The community expects its elected officials, specifically the Board of Supervisors, to be objective, and thoughtful in their judgement and actions and to conduct County business openly and in an atmosphere of respect and civility …” It continues to note an expectation that public officials “comply with both the letter and spirit of the laws of” the nation, the state, and adopted municipal codes and policies.
Mixed Message: Full Understanding but No Questioning?
However, one of the numbered Code of Conduct categories attracted our attention. That was number 5 in both the elected and appointed board drafts under consideration for approval by the supervisors, perhaps as soon as their next meeting of February 7th. It reads in its entirety below with portions that attracted our attention underlined:
“The professional and personal conduct of the Board of Supervisors/Members (of appointed bodies) must be above reproach and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Members shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges, or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of the other members of the board/commission/committee, elected officials, County staff, or the general public.”
Being taken under consideration immediately after a discussion of an agenda item that will be before the supervisors at their February 7th meeting concerning “Board Goals” for the coming year, including gaining an “understanding of the full extent” of the FR-WC EDA financial scandal and its numbers, we wondered how such a full understanding might now be achieved, or for that matter ever have been uncovered, if “personal charges … upon the character or motives of other members, elected officials, County staff, or the public” were to be prohibited then or now.
As a reminder, the circa 2014-2018 then joint Town-County EDA financial scandal alleged an estimated $26 million in FR-WC EDA, County, and Town assets moved to personal benefit by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and believed co-conspirators in the public and private sectors. McDonald made an out-of-court, no-fault settlement for the transfer of an estimated $9-million in real estate assets to the EDA. She is still facing trial on multiple related criminal charges in federal court in the Southern District of Virginia (Harrisonburg) now scheduled for May. In civil trials of alleged co-conspirators last summer, jury liability verdicts were handed down against five people and two companies totaling just over $15.1 million, raising the total of assets recovered, at least on paper, by the EDA to just over $24.1 million.
In introducing the Code of Conduct discussion County Administrator Daley observed, “The board had discussed in Closed Session some concerns that they had for the actions and statements of some people representing portions of the County in terms of boards and commissions. And upon the recommendation of your attorney, it was felt that we should have a Code of Conduct as to what the board expected for the behavior of their representatives.”
Questions OK, but watch how phrased
We initially contacted Daley about the seeming paradox of seeking full understanding of situations like the EDA financial scandal but limiting “personal charges … upon the character or motives of other members, elected officials, County staff, or the public.” Daley said he believed the intent was not to limit questions being asked about questionable situations, but rather to control the public tone of that questioning as reflected in the wording of “refrain from abusive conduct … or verbal attacks” regarding such questioning. If the draft code needed some tweaking with legal counsel to assure that legitimate public questioning presented in an approved manner were not prohibited, that could be addressed prior to a board vote to approve a final draft, Daley reasoned. Presentation of a Code of Conduct was cited as one of a 20-item Consent Agenda in the cover sheet for the 7 p.m., February 7th board of supervisors meeting.
Upon reading referenced Code of Conduct point 5, we flashed back to appearances of Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee (SFSDAC) Chairman Sarah Saber, most recently at the January 17th supervisors meeting. At that time Saber followed a non-County-appointed citizen, Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) Chairman Tracie Lane to the Public Comments podium. Lane was critical first, of the board’s lack of responses to her requests for meetings to re-establish dialogue between POSF, the former Sanitary District management entity (1995/96 to 2011) and later advisory board to the supervisors on Farms Sanitary District matters (2011 to 2022); and second, on specific questions concerning County use of Farms Sanitary District tax revenue. She also challenged board comments indicating a failure on her part to respond to a request for a list of POSF-owned “Common Properties” for public use in the Farms. She said she had a copy of her response with the linked information and board recipient list. Saber continued that criticism on points she has previously raised, also on non-responsiveness by the board to specific questions on past County use of Farms Sanitary District tax revenue, among other Farms infrastructure decision-making issues by this board and involved County staff.
“The fact that you all are unwilling to answer questions is reprehensible. It is disgusting. And it speaks of an absolute disregard of any citizen requests; and partnerships with citizen advisory boards; any transparency. It speaks volumes,” Saber concluded as her time expired drawing scattered applause from some citizens present and a warning by Board Chairman Vicky Cook against demonstrations of support for speakers.
One might recall that previous public comments by Saber on problems she has had getting responses from the Board’s Farms Advisory Committee representative Walt Mabe, and others, to questions she believes are crucial to doing the job she and her fellow committee members were appointed to do, have been even more scathing and occasionally expletive not-deleted.
So, will an approved County Code of Conduct encourage more politely phrased exchanges resulting in improved communications between the supervisors, appointees, and citizens seeking answers to questions relevant to their positions and perspectives?
And will a finally drafted Code of Conduct encourage the kind of “fair, ethical, and accountable local government” cited as a desired outcome of a County Code of Conduct? For it is there, particularly regarding financial “accountability” that some, like POSF Chairman Lane and current County Farms Advisory Committee Chairman Saber, have cited examples they believe indicate the supervisors and involved staff have fallen short on over the past three years.
For if at Daley’s referenced Closed Session, verified as the January 17th one initially called as a later cancelled joint meeting with the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee, board concerns were raised about “the actions and statements of some people representing portions of the County in terms of boards and commissions”, as one can see from the above-cited Public Comments, some involved citizens have similar concerns about the actions of, and a perceived lack of responsiveness and accountability, from their elected representatives.
As of publication Town-County contracted meeting filming entity Swagit had yet to post the January 31st work session video, according to County Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi due to GB (Gigga-Byte I believe) sizing issues with the video. From our audio recording of the work session, we would estimate that if and when posted, the Code of Conduct discussion will begin shortly after the half-hour mark of the video; and the assessment and appeals discussion shortly after the 40-minute mark. The airport CIP discussion opens the work session.
FR-WC EDA moves to guarantee records protection during transition to County IT oversight, goes to Closed Session on litigation, business matters
The Front Royal-Warren County EDA held a special meeting on Wednesday, February 1, 2023, at 3:00 PM at the EDA Office on Kendrick Lane. All five Board members, legal counsel, and the County Director of Economic Development were present.
The meeting began with the discussion of moving the February Regular Meeting from Friday, February 24, to Tuesday, February 28 at 8:00 AM. The schedule change was unanimously approved.
Following the schedule discussion, the Board requested legal counsel to draft an agreement to protect EDA records in order to move forward with the information technology transition with the County.
The Board concluded the meeting with a closed session to discuss potential disposition of real property to business prospects, the small business loan committee applications, and legal consultation regarding active litigation. There was no new business following the closed session.
As noted above, the next regular monthly Board meeting will be held on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, at 8:00 AM at the Warren County Government Center.
County overseen FR-WC EDA reviews Conservancy Park status, Small Business Loan Committee applications, future property marketing options
The Front Royal Warren County EDA held its monthly meeting on Friday, January 27, 2023, at 8:00 AM at the Warren County Government Center. Four Board members, legal counsel, and the County Director of Economic Development were present. Chairman Jeff Browne participated remotely.
The regular meeting began with a discussion regarding a potential utility easement through the EDA’s Happy Creek Technology Park property to a neighboring parcel. The proposed development is in its early stages although the utilities could create a loop through the business park while also accommodating any potential future development on adjacent properties. The Board of Directors has concerns with any easements that may encumber any EDA owned property, however, they are open to future discussions if it can create an overall cohesive development area.
As part of the Committee Reports, Jorie Martin and Joe Petty provided an update regarding the Avtex Conservancy Property and recent presentations to the Board of Supervisors and Town Council. Mrs. Martin mentioned the interest in issuing an RFI (Request For Information) for the remaining property, and a work session may be scheduled to review the document.
Treasurer, Jim Wolfe, and the Director of Economic Development Joe Petty provided an update on the financial statements and the Board of Supervisors will soon begin having meetings regarding the Fiscal Year 2023-24 budget.
Staff from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) provided a presentation regarding the Virginia Business Ready Site Program (VBRSP) and ways the EDA can position its available properties. The discussion gave the Board better insight into the types of businesses interested in locating in Virginia and types of assets they look for in property.
The FR-WC EDA is still looking for applicants to take part in the Small Business Loan Committee. The EDA approved four (4) certificates of satisfactions for previous loans that have been successfully paid off. The Board also approved two amendments to existing leases for C-CAP and the Happy Creek Technology Park Grazing Lease.
The Board concluded the meeting with a closed session to discuss potential disposition of real property to business prospects, the small business loan committee applications, and legal consultation. No new business followed the closed session.
The next regular monthly Board meeting will be held on Friday, February 24, 2023, at 8:00 AM at the Warren County Government Center.
By 3-2 vote Town Council votes to seek additional information on Holloway alley ‘vacation’ request
Following a public hearing at its meeting of January 23rd, a divided Front Royal Town Council voted to appoint ostensibly neutral “viewers” with experience with vacating public alleys to visit and examine a Town alleyway members of former Mayor Chris Holloway’s family are seeking for “vacation” – no, not to sunnier shores, but rather into the ownership hands of Mr. and Mrs. William (father of Chris) Holloway and Mr. and Mrs. Wade (brother of Chris) Holloway – for their personal use.
Council’s 3-2 vote, Skip Rogers and Bruce Rappaport dissenting, to seek more information from “neutral” observers came after hearing from eight citizens during the public hearing. And if not neutral, those town citizen stakeholders opposing the requested privatization of the Town alleyway into the two Holloway families’ hands did bring their own histories of alleyway usage and maintenance to the table.
Seven of eight speakers, either residents whose home properties abut the alley or members of the Church of the Brethren, which also abuts the alley, all urged denial of the request so as not to limit their use of and rear-access to their properties and homes from the alley between 12th and 13th Streets off of Virginia Avenue. On the church side, use of the alley to facilitate emergency evacuations of as many as 70 to 80 members, were an emergency to occur during Sunday services, was noted.
The only public hearing speaker for the proposed vacation to the Holloway family was Joe Silek Jr., the applicant’s legal representative. The applicants themselves did not address council at the public hearing. Silek told council that his clients had been “taking care of the alley for years.” However, one Church of the Brethren member, Lee Keeler, noted that the church had contracted Lee’s Lawn Care for mowing the dirt and grass alleyway, and other neighboring property owners noted their own activities in maintaining the alley for ease of access to their properties for moving heavy materials or furniture through closer rear entrances.
One neighboring speaker, Wayne Woodward, said he liked the Holloways but was against privatizing the alley for their personal use. He said he asked Wade Holloway if it was really necessary and why they were asking to transfer ownership of the long publicly accessible Town-owned alley to themselves. “Because we can,” Woodward reported of the recent mayor’s brother’s reply. Chris Holloway left office at the turn of the year after deciding not to run for re-election last year. His previous year-plus in office had been marked by public debate following staff revelations that he and fired former Town Manager Steven Hicks appeared to use their respective offices to pressure Town Planning Department personnel into hurried, out-of-process approval of non-code compliant permitting of a six-unit residential building project of the mayor’s construction company near South Street in town.
The reason a council majority felt the need for additional information than that gathered from staff, involved citizens, and the applicant prior to a vote of approval or denial was addressed by Amber Morris, who, after some discussion with Town Attorney George Sonnett, made the motion to seek more information prior to a vote.
After noting options to approve or deny the project directly following the public hearing, Morris said, “And then the third motion, which is the motion I made, which allows us to appoint viewers that have experience in vacating alleyways. We do have feedback from town staff regarding utilities and things of that nature, and we do have feedback from adjoining property owners and some of the stakeholders in that area. And so the motion that I’ve proposed would allow an unbiased presentation and report of factual information about vacating this alleyway.”
How that “unbiased” report will be weighed by council against the subjective explanations of neighboring property owners and church member stakeholders heard at the public hearings as to the reasons for their opposition based on long-time use of the public right-of-way remains to be seen. But from their pre-vote remarks, it appeared Rogers and Rappaport were both ready to cast votes of denial of the request that evening.
“I’d really like council to consider who is benefiting from vacating the property,” Councilman Rogers said preceding the vote, noting a definite benefit to the applicants.
However, he added, “Who is not benefiting from the property vacating are those folks who have been using that property, that right of way if you will, for many, many years. So, I ask council to consider that as well,” Rogers concluded.
Rappaport followed Rogers comments from a similar perspective: “The alley has been as it is for 28 years, that’s been made clear. I believe that the alley should remain open for public use. It’s clear that the church has said that they use it, and they maintain it as well as the applicant Holloway. And I just have a problem with the vacation process when it’s clear that there are, even though it’s clear that many of the (church) members don’t live next door, they still have a right as users of the alleyway. And I think it would be best to leave it open,” Rappaport said in joining Rogers in favor of a vote to deny with the information council already had.
Click here to see the public hearing and subsequent council discussion beginning at the 38-minute mark of the Town video; Mayor Cockrell calls for a vote on the motion to hire neutral viewers to develop a report on the alley vacation application at the 1:16:15 video mark.
Town Police Chief Magalis acknowledges departmental personnel movement and promotions accomplished in-house
At the January 23rd Front Royal Town Council meeting, Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis introduced officers recently promoted in the department and others recently brought on board. Near the meeting’s outset (beginning at the 6:30 mark of the Town video below), Chief Magalis brought six of seven FRPD officers forward for acknowledgment. Now-Major Jason Ryman was not present for the presentation.
“I always look forward to this type of a presentation where we can talk about some new folks that we’ve brought on and folks that we’re moving into different areas of the department,” the chief told Mayor Cockrell and council in opening his presentation.
Magalis noted the recent retirement of Major Kevin Nicewarner at the outset of the new year, whom Chief Magalis noted was “Florida” and “Gulf Coast bound” after nearly 30 years with the department, in explaining the personnel juggling involving incumbent officers Captain Brian Whited, Sergeant Tony Clingerman, Corporal Michael Gallagher, and Major Jason Ryman.
Chief Magalis then introduced recent departmental additions (from right to left in photo and Town video) Jacob Dodson, and Richard Williamson, both on patrol duty since September, and Jack Weaver, a Front Royal native who transferred to FRPD from the Winchester Police Department.
The chief then segued back to his departmental veterans (again right to left in photo and video) Corporal Michael Gallagher (promoted from Master Police Officer), Sergeant Tony Clingerman (promoted from Corporal), and Captain Brian Whited (from Sergeant), and the absent Major Jason Ryman (from Operations Captain). Chief Magalis noted that now-Captain Whited would take over Logistics Captain duties as Captain Crystal Cline, who had previously handled those duties, moved to Operations.
“So, quite a bit of movement, we’ve got some new faces, and I’m happy to report at this time,” the chief said with a nod to Town Manager Joe Waltz, the Human Resources Department, and council, “We’re actually fully staffed” whispering the last two words, observing that, “Right now, and I’m proud to say it because there isn’t a whole lot of law enforcement agencies that are operating with a full enforcement staff. And right now,” the chief added knocking on the wooden podium, “we are.”
He noted a vacancy in communications but concluded, “We’re very happy where we’ve been able to bring recruitment and retention to. And that’s something we’re going to talk to you guys about as we keep trying to move that forward … so we can continue to attract qualified people like these gentlemen here and retain all that institutional knowledge instead of letting them walk out the door because we’ve been able to staff this from in house and that’s awesome … I’d just like you to congratulate all these guys for coming on board and doing such a great job,” Chief Magalis concluded, leading to a standing ovation from portions of the crowd and council dais.
Council upholds BAR denial of demolition permit for portions of old ‘Murphy Theater building’ in Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District
After hearing from SEESUU LLC applicant Gary Wayland (1:18:48 linked video mark) and his real estate agent Bill Barnett (1:29:22 mark), as well as three other public hearing speakers reiterating points made by 14 speakers at the December 13th Board of Architectural Review (BAR) public hearing opposing the SEESUU application for a partial demolition permit for the historic “Murphy Theater” building at 131 East Main Street, the Front Royal Town Council unanimously upheld the BAR denial of that application.
Councilwoman Amber Morris offered the motion on the appeal (1:41:03 mark). Citing the record of the BAR public hearing and “additional evidence” her motion was to “… affirm the decision of the Board of Architectural Review, the BAR, denying the issuance of Certificate of Appropriateness on the application submitted by SEESUU LLC to demolish and remove a portion of a contributing structure on a property located at 131 East Main Street …” Morris’s motion was seconded by Vice-Mayor Wayne Sealock, leading to the unanimous vote upholding the BAR denial.
Addressing council on reasons to uphold the BAR denial were David Silek (1:21:00), a family member of past owners of the property; Ellen Aders (1:26:50), a neighboring resident, business and property owner; and James Smithlin (1:35:10), who offered observations on the historic nature of the terra cotta portion of the old theater building “made before talking movies” he noted, targeted for demolition. Those speakers, as several council members later would, pointed to the applicant’s lack of structural engineer’s report citing the condition and viability of renovation as opposed to demolition of the old theater and rear residential portions of the building.
“When you buy property in a Historic District it comes with a great responsibility. You’re buying into what is and what will be the story of out town,” Aders began, adding of other Historic District property owners, “To allow demolition of the Murphy Theater would be a punch in the gut to folks like the Poes, who are bringing life back to the old Warren Paint & Supply building; the Barnharts, who searched tirelessly for just the right stone for the Weaver building’s facade, and the Capital Gate,” Aders said of the group she pointed out is bringing the Afton Inn back to usability, among other Historic District property owners, “who take great pride in maintaining their little piece of Front Royal’s history.”
Aders then referenced the BAR public hearing at which she also spoke, pointing to a reluctance by the applicant to provide sought-after information. “If you watched the BAR public hearing you saw a total unwillingness on the part of the owner of the Murphy Theater. He denied the BAR access to the interior; he denied the request for a structural engineer’s survey; he refused to provide a cost analysis of restoration versus demolition and new construction.”
Aders also pointed to occupied apartments and daily meetings held “like clockwork” in the targeted portions of the building. Just because the owner is unwilling to restore the building, doesn’t mean that it’s ready to be torn down,” Aders concluded in urging council to reject the denial appeal.
Following SEESUU real estate representative Barnett to the podium, Smithlin opened by noting online research indicating terra cotta as “the oldest building material known to man”. Noting a personal 31-year history of meetings in the building, Smithlin said, “I’ve never seen a piece of tile or a whole tile fall.” While citing great respect for both the applicant and his real estate agent, he noted, “That building is over a hundred years old and is part of Front Royal’s Historic District. It would be tragic to tear it down, rather than restore it. As he closed he noted the Murphy Theater dated to “before they had talking movies” in urging council not to overturn the BAR demolition denial.
“I’m here to do something good for the town, that’s my intent and that’s really all I have to say,” Wayland told council in opening the public hearing when called to the podium by the mayor. He noted that the email he had sent to the town manager for distribution to council prior to the meeting was his intended “for the record” statement for the appeal hearing.
After introducing himself as a real estate agent with a track record of restoration projects in downtown Front Royal, including “seven on Chester Street when it was one of the most run-down streets in the town” Barnett attempted to tie the SEESUU plans for the Murphy Theater building, including 40 or more “dwelling units” too small to be termed apartments by town code, to that track record. Pointing to the 40 x 40, 75-foot tall tower section of the terra cotta, theater/stage portion of the building, Barnett said that it, “Is totally functionally obsolete. There is no commercial or residential use that you can apply to this property today. The challenge of it is to find a way to put this property back into use, so it’s producing taxes and jobs and places for people to work and to live.”
But if the applicant and his agent were selling the SEESUU partial demolition and rebuild project as a positive for the historic downtown community, neither the public nor council was buying.
On the council side, the reviews of the demolition proposal and subsequent rebuild weren’t too positive. Addressing the applicant, Councilman Skip Rogers (1:48:16 mark) pointed to the period architectures involved in, not only the targeted building, but the Historic District in general. “We love the architecture, we love the feel, we love the comments of the folks that come into our community and appreciate how beautiful it is, what a feel you get when you go into the downtown area. So, my one concern, sir, is the impact that demolition would have,” Rogers paused, then referenced what he had seen in renderings of the reconstruction proposal.
“When I looked at that rendering I honestly thought of a contemporary prison, a very stark, almost aluminum-appearing structure, bright and shiny and static. And that in itself was enough for me to say this is not the way I believe our community needs to grow.”
Having made the motion to uphold the BAR denial, Councilwoman Morris cited her family history in the community and its ties to the historic memory of the community (1:45:46 mark), stating, “I really care about the preservation of the Historic District and I do have a vision for Front Royal. And unfortunately, and I mentioned this in the work session,” she said of comments on ownership in the Historic District, continuing, “and other people have touched on this – when you purchase a building of this magnitude with these plans in place, you know these costs and these things are going to arise. It’s a property owner’s responsibilities. And with that being said, with the current rendering we’d be foolish as a council … to approve this without a vision of what we intend to see moving forward.”
Morris also addressed the by-right aspect of denial after an unsuccessful year of attempting to sell a building denied demolition in the Historic District raised at earlier work session discussion. She reasoned that offered at a reasonably assessed value to parties interested in Historic ownership and restoration as the applicable town code indicates should be done, it would likely find a buyer.
And if Rogers had compared the rebuild renderings to a prison, Morris was perhaps gentler in her assessment – “The current rendering looks like something, I know some people have mentioned Georgetown, for me it looks like something I’d find in Miami. And it’s not the vision I have for Front Royal or our Historic Downtown that we all know and love.”