The Front Royal Planning Commission met on July 21st for its regular monthly meeting. With a relatively brief agenda of only two items, the commission was able to quickly get down to business. Prior to wrestling with yet another staff draft of Town Council-proposed changes to downtown zoning regulations, the commission first considered a Special Use Permit (SUP) request from Philip Vaught for a bed and breakfast operation at his property “Bon Air” at 174 Luray Avenue. The property is zoned Residential multifamily (R-3). Interim Planning Director Chris Brock detailed the application and the planning staff’s recommendation for the commission.
The applicant is proposing a permit for a traditional Bed & Breakfast, in which the owner occupies the property and manages the operation, as opposed to an Air B&B, in which the property is normally not owner-occupied and may be managed by a third party. Although no members of the public had any comment, once the public hearing was closed, several commissioners had some questions for the applicant.
Vice-Chairman Connie Marshner asked the applicant to clarify the parking situation for the B&B on the plot map, and Commissioner Darryl Merchant verified that the Town ordinances did not preclude permitting a traditional Bed & Breakfast. He also identified a disparity between the applicant’s request, which was for a 5-bedroom plan, while the Planning Department’s staff recommendation was for a maximum of three bedrooms because the lot size is less than 1.5 acres.
Interim Director Brock confirmed that their recommendation was based on the Bed & Breakfast ordinance. The Commission then voted on a recommendation to approve the permit with a maximum of 3 bedrooms and not making the applicant reapply with a revised proposal. The vote was unanimous, and the permit application will now go to the Town Council for the action on the commission’s recommendation. Asked after the meeting for his reaction to the downsized approval, Mr. Vaught was philosophical. “I’m glad for the approval, and we can always go back and revisit it.”
About those downtown zoning changes
The Chairman then turned to the Zoning Ordinance change that was requested by a resolution of the Town Council in February that directed the planning department to prepare an ordinance amendment for a public hearing and a Planning Commission recommendation for approval by the Town Council.
In this meeting, the commissioners were presented with a third revised version of the ordinance text change. Previous versions extended to 8 pages, whereas this one is less than three. Based on questions raised at a June 30th commission work session, it includes clarifying language that defines “conversion” as a “physical, structural, or design change or transformation of a building and/or structure from one state or condition to another, especially to effect a change in use. A conversion of a structure shall not be considered new construction, nor include new construction,” the draft clarifies.
As in previous versions, the amendments also include a limit on the total number of residential dwelling units to eight total, existing and new. However, as discussed in-depth at that June 30 work session the 8-unit limitation will NOT, thanks to a new provision suggested by the council in the proposed ordinance, apply to properties fronting East Main Street from Royal Avenue to Commerce Avenue along Happy Creek; Chester Street from East Main Street to East 2nd Street, and East Jackson Street from South Royal Avenue to Church Street.
The added language also includes a prohibition of residential uses on the first floor of buildings in those specific areas. During the June 30th discussion, the commissioners had noted that traditionally in the Historic Downtown Business District, residential apartments have existed in spaces above commercial businesses. Earlier last month, the commission became aware of a rezoning proposal for a 60-unit residential structure at the old Murphy Building property at the intersection of East Main and Church Streets, from applicant Bill Barnett.
Also based on concerns expressed on June 30, the proposed ordinance to be forwarded to Town Council will define the minimum dwelling unit size at 300-square feet.
Commissioner Merchant commended the planning staff for their hard work in putting together the revised ordinance and expressed hope that it much more clearly expressed the Town’s policy about development in the downtown business district.
Town Manager Steven Hicks announced that a new Planning Director has been selected and will start work on August 3rd. In the same period, a new Director of Human Resources and an Assistant Town Manager will be joining the town staff. Chairman Jones recommended an early meeting with the new planning director to discuss the draft ordinance proposal before a joint council-commission public hearing on the ordinance proposal, scheduled for August 23, is held.
It is interesting to consider what effect this ordinance, if approved by the Town Council, will have on development in the downtown district.
Judge dismisses Meza appointment/’election’ challenge a second time
On Wednesday morning, September 22, counsels for Plaintiff Paul L. Aldrich and Defendants the Town of Front Royal and recently resigned councilman Jacob L. Meza, revisited oral arguments on the defendants’ Demurrer motion to dismiss the plaintiff case as not having the legal standing to proceed.
And the following afternoon Warren County Circuit Court Judge William W. Sharp issued a written ruling, upholding the defense demurrer motion to dismiss for the second time. That despite an earlier Thursday morning request from plaintiff attorney David Downes for an additional week to file supporting arguments on the aspect of immediate or preliminary injunctions for relief sought by the plaintiff, raised the previous day. Downes explained in his written request that he had not anticipated the issue of immediate relief injunctions remaining part of the arguments Wednesday, due to evolving circumstances – most prominently Meza’s resignation, effective immediately at council’s July 26 meeting – and previous rulings on the issue upholding that portion of the defense demurrer motion.
“As I write this, I am aware that Mr. Downes has filed a Motion seeking additional time to brief the de facto officer doctrine, raised by the Court. I see no reason to grant the motion. This appears to be a well-established common law doctrine, and I am confident it applies to this case. Further, the Court had previously raised this doctrine in ruling on the Demurrer to the original Complaint, yet the Plaintiff ignored that part of my opinion in his Amended Complaint,” Judge Sharp noted in denying the plaintiff counsel request for time to submit amended arguments.
Judge Sharpe quoted several past U.S. Supreme Court justices on the advised willingness judges should have to re-examine their own decisions in prefacing his own re-examination of his initial April 7 ruling in favor of the defense demurrer motion to dismiss.
“It is ‘the duty of every judge and every court to examine its own decisions … without fear, and to revise them without reluctance’,” Justice William O. Douglas quoting a judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
“Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late,” Justice Felix Frankfurter.
“I see no reason why I should be consciously wrong today because I was unconsciously wrong yesterday,” Justice Robert H. Jackson.
Of his decision to allow an amended plaintiff complaint to be filed and revisit his original ruling for the defense, Sharp wrote in late April, “Not a small part of my decision to enter the stay order, and give one last chance for oral argument, is my realization that I gave a very poor articulation of my reasons for my original decision, and I do not want to make that mistake again. It is therefore my intention to give a written explanation of my decision, whichever way it goes, in which my words are more carefully expressed.”
But in his continued analysis of arguments on the standing and substance of Plaintiff Aldrich’s filing, made as a town taxpaying citizen potentially impacted financially and otherwise by votes of an illegally appointed council member, Judge Sharp upheld his initial ruling in favor of the defense motion to dismiss. The judge addressed the changed circumstance of Meza’s resignation removing major points of relief sought by the plaintiff. “Gone is any issue of removing an ‘illegally’ installed councilman,” Sharp observed.
Of the plaintiff claim of potential damage from Meza’s appointment, Sharp wrote: “Mr. Aldrich’s second amended complaint establishes that he is a citizen and taxpayer of the Town of Front Royal. The complaint alleges several decisions of the town council in which Mr. Meza participated, resulting in expenditures. However, the complaint does not allege that any of these decisions impacted any of Mr. Aldrich’s rights. Furthermore, the complaint does not allege that Mr. Meza’ s presence on the council had a causal relationship to any of these expenditures. While he participated in the votes, including moving or seconding motions, there is no claim that the actions would not have passed but for Meza’s participation.”
Noting his previous ruling that council actions could not be voided due to Meza’s participation in votes prior to a ruling on the legality of his seating, Judge Sharp made it fairly clear a second request for an amended complaint might be a futile gesture. “As Meza is no longer subject to removal from office and his prior actions are not voidable, I do not see any potential ongoing justiciable controversy, much less impacted right of the petitioner, that would warrant permitting another Amended Complaint,” Sharp concluded.
But has the question of whether the wording of the Town Charter dating to 1937, supports the reappointment by “election” of council members within a year of their leaving office been resolved? The judge dealt with his interpretation of that core question in his written decision:
“While Mr. Aldrich’s lack of standing disposes of the case, even if he had proper standing to challenge the appointment of Mr. Meza to the council, this claim would also fail under the law. The chief phrase of the Town Charter in dispute concerns whether membership on the town council is an ‘office under the jurisdiction of the council.’ There can be no dispute that the members of the council are officers of the town, as provided under §4 of the Charter. The question, rather, is whether such officers are considered to be under the jurisdiction of the council in the context of §47.
Chapter 47 of the Town Charter was the basis of the plaintiff’s challenge of the Meza appointment. It states: “No member of the council of the Town of Front Royal shall be appointed or elected to any office under the jurisdiction of the council while he is a member of the council, or for one year thereafter,” the relevant Section 47 passage reads. However, the court continued to side with defense counsel arguments that other Chapters of the Town Charter applied to council appointments to fill vacancies, specifically 6D and 9.
In her Demurrer filing for dismissal, defense counsel Heather Bardot pointed to Section 6D and related wording on filling council vacancies, such as the one created by Councilman Chris Holloway’s November 2020 election to mayor. “The council may fill any vacancy that occurs within the membership of council for the unexpired term, provided that such vacancy is taken within 45 days of the office becoming vacant,” Section 6D states. No reference to a one-year hiatus per appointments is made here, Bardot noted. Only the court’s authority to make the appointment were council to deadlock and be unable to fill the seat within the prescribed 45 days, is acknowledged.
Meza’s appointment was made January 4, 2021, four days after Holloway relinquished his council seat to become mayor and four days after Meza, who did not run for reelection after a controversial final year in office, vacated his seat. In 2020 Meza appeared to have alienated a portion of his base related to his Valley Health employment during the previous year. Meza did not express support for the “Birth Local” movement seeking to have Valley Health include a Maternity Unit in the new Warren Memorial Hospital. And after recusing himself from previous discussion of the new hospital funding due to his employment, the councilman chose to cast a deciding vote authorizing that EDA funding on the Town side.
In oral arguments on the original complaint, plaintiff counsel Downes suggested that Chapter 47 was intended to include council seats in the one-year prohibition, not only because council members are “under the jurisdiction” of their colleagues, but also to avoid the appearance or fact of partisan political cronyism in town politics. With the four member majority that appointed him by a 4-1 vote coming from the county Republican Committee, of which he is also a member, plaintiff counsel suggested one might at least infer the appearance of political cronyism in returning Meza to office so quickly after a voluntary choice to leave that office.
However, the judge continued to side with the defense stance that the Chapter 47 one-year prohibition applied only to appointed Town staff positions.
“A comparison with the other named offices-especially those clearly under the Council’s jurisdiction-is instructive. The town treasurer, town manager, and town clerk are explicitly appointed by the council as a general rule, rather than as an exception to fill vacancies. The Council is authorized to exercise considerable oversight on them, with the ability to remove them from office and/or reassign their duties to other officers. By contrast, the council may only remove one of its own members in the case of repeated absences and exerts no other comparable oversight on its members. Furthermore, while the Charter provides that only the Council has authority to appoint the treasurer, clerk, and town manager, the Council shares its authority with the Circuit Court to appoint members to the Council when a vacancy arises. The Council can fairly be said to exercise general power over the clerk, treasurer, and town manager, but not over its own membership. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to find that membership in the Council is an office of the sort meant to be governed by §47,” Judge Sharp wrote of his stance on the matter at the heart of the citizen challenge of Meza’s appointment.
County moves toward restructured EDA staffing in hopes of restored municipal cooperation – 6 CUPs approved, 5 for short-term tourist rentals
At its meeting of Tuesday evening, September 21st, the Warren County Board of Supervisors made the first official move toward an altered structure of its, and the Town’s, Economic Development Authority futures. That move was unanimous 5-0 approval, on a motion by Delores Oates, seconded by Walt Mabe, of County Administrator Ed Daley’s presentation of a “Request to Create a Warren County Office of Economic Development”. As reported in our recent story, County work session takes unexpected turn on EDA front – ‘Reunited’ operational option broached, the supervisors elected to have Daley forwarded an idea originally slated for Closed Session discussion at a September 14 work session, in open session that day. That idea is to have an Economic Development Director’s staff position under the municipal government umbrella, rather than as a staff position hired by the board of an independent Economic Development Authority (EDA), albeit an EDA board appointed by the municipal government or governments that created it.
As we understand it from subsequent conversations with Daley following last week’s supervisors’ work session, that in-house EDA director’s position would work in the best interest of both the county’s municipal governments, networking what it appears at this point will continue to evolve into two unilateral Town and County EDAs. Now theoretically, both the existing WC EDA and FREDA – the Front Royal EDA that is in the interview stage of establishing a board of directors – could create their own independent Offices of Economic Development with their own executive directors. But the impetus after last Thursday’s resurrected Town-County Liaison Committee meeting appears to be to work together to select an executive director who will work to the mutual benefit of both municipalities while networking with two EDA Boards of Directors.
Confusing? Perhaps – but it would cut payment of the six-figure salary range position in half if both municipalities could agree on the concept and a person to fill that conceptual central administrative position. For with a statewide trend toward regional EDA cooperation in a highly competitive economic development environment, what future would this community’s economic development have with dueling EDAs competing, not only with other regional governments’ economic development structures but with each other’s, particularly when the WC EDA has control of significant portions of economic development properties inside the town limits?
The answer to that question has, perhaps, already been given in the pending October 1st departure of WC EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons, to a county directly to our east where as one local observed upon hearing the news, “Warrenton isn’t suing Fauquier County” (or perhaps more accurately, its EDA).
And a move toward “us and us” from “us versus them” in County-Town relations was a reoccurring theme for several supervisors involved in last week’s first Liaison Committee meeting since January. Both Board Chair Cheryl Cullers and Delores Oates commented on the positive feeling they carried out of that meeting that the deteriorated relationship featuring hostile litigation involving the Town and existing WC EDA, and canceled face-to-face meetings of elected officials on matters of mutual interest, might be turning a corner. Of course, as the third county board member at that Liaison Committee meeting, Walt Mabe, wondered during it: Why can’t we return to one, re-tooled EDA working to both the County’s and Town’s benefit, with one executive director not alleged to have had their hands in both municipalities’ economic development pockets?
And in a loosely related item, as part of the September 24th WC EDA monthly board meeting, departing Executive Director Doug Parsons’ last, the agenda includes the information that the long-awaited 2018 and 2019 EDA audits have been completed by the contracted auditing company and are awaiting EDA Board approval. Stay tuned for more developments on the auditing front. – Maybe the completed audits could even establish exactly how much of whose money went where and is owed to who by whom, negating the necessity for the continued dueling Town-WC EDA civil litigations. As previously reported, the sitting council ignored then-Mayor Gene Tewalt’s 2019 advice to accept the offer of the WC EDA to sit down with accountants rather than attorneys to follow the money to establish exactly who was owed what on the back end of the EDA’s now $62-million-dollar financial scandal.
But off that “movie script”, in other business the supervisors approved six Conditional Use Permit (CUP) requests Tuesday, five for Short-Term Tourist Rentals, and one for alterations to a Kennel Permit. See all these discussions, public comments, and votes in the County video; and see the meeting agenda cover page with the full list of CUP application public hearings linked here:
EDA’s future and regional water opportunities highlight first Liaison Committee meeting in 8 months
The overriding theme of the first Front Royal-Warren County Liaison Committee meeting since January, on Thursday evening, September 16, was improved communications and working together to achieve the best for the community as a whole. As reported following the Warren County Board of Supervisors Work Session two days earlier in the same Warren County Government Center main meeting room, prominent among that coexistence theme was how to approach the future of economic development in the community. And the answer appeared to be to proceed toward two separate Economic Development Authority Board of Directors but without two separate, upper pay range EDA executive directors. Rather, the idea broached by County Administrator Ed Daley at the September 14 supervisors’ work session, a single “Director of Economic Development” who works for the involved municipality, in this case, municipalities, appeared to gain traction.
However, some concern was expressed on the County side that the reorganizational conversation was taking place without input from the existing EDA Board of Directors. The Town is still in its interview stage of potential FREDA board members, with no appointments made. Shenandoah District Supervisor Walt Mabe also wondered if two separate EDA boards would be necessary if there was a centrally functioning staff working to the benefit of both municipalities.
In a post-meeting discussion with Royal Examiner, Daley called such economic development organization “very, very common”, not only across Virginia but nationally. Regionally, the former 21-year Winchester City Manager pointed to Fauquier, where departing WC EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons is headed October 1, as well as Shenandoah County and Winchester among others in his experience in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kansas over his professional career.
But it wasn’t only economic development where municipal cooperation, rather than competition, was a key element of discussion. Other Liaison Committee topics where that factored in were:
1 – continued work on a Joint Town-County Tourism Committee structure;
2 – a potential property sale of the jointly held McKay Springs parcels;
3 – work on both municipal Comprehensive Plans and the related notion of establishing a long-term future vision for the community on both sides of the town-county boundary;
4 – improving the low-cost Town Trolley-County Corridor Connector municipal transport service;
5 – work to develop more widespread Youth Programs;
6 – development of a “Drug Court” system aimed at rehabilitation more than punishment;
7 – the continued move toward increased Short-Term Tourist Rentals on both sides of the Town-County line;
8 – and the future of water distribution and purchase on the county’s north side.
Water, whose water?!?
It was that latter matter, based on the county supervisors exploration of entering into a regional water authority in which Frederick County would supply water to Warren County on the western side of Route 340/522, north of Fairgrounds Road, that seemed to draw the most tension and disagreement in principle between the three liaison representatives of the county board and town council. Those representatives, up one person per side from past liaison meetings in which the board chair and mayor have been joined by one board and council member at the liaison table, were board and liaison meeting chair Cheryl Cullers, Delores Oates, and Walt Mabe on the county side, and Mayor Chris Holloway, with Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell, and Gary Gillespie for the town. A number of staffers from both sides were also present.
It was Gillespie who first expressed concern from the Town side that the County would consider purchasing water from another municipality while the Town’s central water system based on access to the Shenandoah River, has the potential capacity to provide water for considerable commercial and residential growth into the future. It was noted that while the Town is currently permitted to draw up to 4 million gallons of water per day from the river by the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), it currently only draws about 2 million gallons, and has the capacity to draw as much as 12 million gallons, town officials indicated. We later confirmed updated numbers from Assistant Town Manager Kathleen Leidich. She reported the DEQ currently permits the Town to take 5.94 million gallons per day from the South Fork of the Shenandoah, with a current average Town daily outtake of 3.5 million gallons per day.
Culler took the lead in explaining the County perspective that having an alternate water source of a regional nature not wholly dependent on the Shenandoah River, could be an advantage for both the County and Town in the future as drought-impacted water levels and water quality concerns become increasing issues.
However, the Town contingent noted it was in the process of finalizing a commitment to spend a cited $12 million dollars on a backup water line into the North Corridor per an agreement dating to Dominion Power’s decision to build its north side power plant feeding the eastern corridor here. That agreement carried the promise the Town would build a backup line to assure the Dominion Power Plant would continue to receive the water it needs to operate were the existing line to fail. At the time about a decade ago, Dominion committed $3.5 million to the project, which would have covered a much larger portion of the total cost than it currently does. – “That’s what happens when you kick the can down the road,” Gillespie observed the Town’s past reluctance to initiate the redundant water line project due to its covering the balance of the cost of expanding its central water utility infrastructure into the County’s North Commercial-Industrial Corridor.
Town officials have long pointed out that their agreement to expand the Town’s central water service beyond the town limits into the County’s Route 340/522 North Corridor, which began decades ago to allow DuPont to locate out there, facilitated the eventual commercial development explosion of two major shopping centers and other industry on county land. And on Thursday, September 16, 2021, current town officials seemed to be asking “for a little love” in return for the county’s expanded commercial tax base, a base created with the expansion of Front Royal’s central water utility. So, why go outside for water when we’ve got the capacity to provide more, DEQ permitting allowing.
But with supporting info from the county administrator, Cullers pointed out that while the Town’s central water supply is totally dependent on the status of the Shenandoah River, Frederick County has other water sources that can keep its supply flowing if the river’s supply was halted or impacted negatively by future environmental concerns.
County Administrator Daley pointed out that the board of supervisors would be getting a presentation from Frederick County officials regarding a multi-jurisdictional Regional Water Authority initiative at an October 12 work session. Daley suggested that would be an opportunity for town officials, including council and the mayor, to attend and be briefed on the advantages of moving toward a regional water partnership.
Vice-Mayor Cockrell wondered if, with this turn toward potential regional authority participation by the County and perhaps the Town, council should reconsider the $12-million-dollar redundant water line project. However, Daley said he believed the Town was legally bound to the project by legal commitments made by council’s predecessors to Dominion Power. North River Supervisor Oates wondered if the regional authority option might present an alternative way to meet that legal obligation, at perhaps less cost to the Town. At this point, Town Manager Steven Hicks confirmed the date of the County work session regional authority presentation by Frederick County officials. Maybe the Town should put in for some reserved seating for that supervisors’ work session.
Short-term tourist rentals
During discussion of an increase in requests for short-term tourist rental Conditional Use Permits (CUPs), Assistant County Administrator Taryn Logan noted that despite sometimes passionately vocal public hearing opposition, the County has heard little in the way of neighbor complaints following board permitting approvals. She said the County had approved about 30 short-term tourist rental CUPs since requests took an upturn, with about 10 such uses having been grandfathered in for a total of 40 now permitted in the county. Where things like noise or garbage disposal have been issues, Logan said that once neighbors contact the renters, they have been cooperative in complying with neighborhood rules and common courtesies they may not have considered or been informed of in advance by owners or property managers.
However, the assistant county administrator and long-time planning director did observe that the use “was not for everywhere – there are some places where they don’t fit”. Establishing an objective, legal or code-based criteria for determining such locations in the permitting process is crucial to a successful resolution of those applications, Logan suggested.
As the meeting was adjourned at 8:54 p.m., just under three hours past its 6 p.m. starting time, there appeared to be a mood that things were changing for the better in Town-County relations. Reinitiating official face-to-face elected official communications on matters of mutual economic, social and legal interest would certainly seem a step in that direction.
Town Planning Commission tackles development projects – recommends denial of mayor’s
The Front Royal Planning Commission at its regular meeting on September 15th tackled several development proposals that could affect town streets and neighborhoods. As a usual part of the commission’s meeting format, Chairman Douglas Jones asked if there were any citizen comments on matters not on the agenda, and there were none.
Turning to the Public Hearing portion of the meeting, the commission considered an application from Poe’s River Edge, LLC for a Special Exception requesting a new, non-dedicated private street for access to its Industrially Zoned (I-2) Property off the end of Kendrick Lane. This exception is required before an industrial subdivision can be approved. The applicant is not proposing any new public streets, instead of allowing for a privately maintained road to the property for future development.
At one time the 10-Acre property was fronted on old Kendrick Ford Road, which was abandoned by the town in 1944. Consequently, a special exception is being requested to provide access. The Director of Planning Lauren Kopishke explained in her presentation to the Commission that the applicants were proposing the conversion of a private right of way to a private road. William “BJ” Biggs, who is the Property Manager for a neighboring parcel, spoke during the Public Hearing. He told the Commission that there is currently not a maintenance agreement with the applicant for the road. He also said that the road under Norfolk Southern railroad overpass at the end of Kendrick Lane on the corner of the proposed access road is subject to severe drainage problems, and that could cut off the parcel completely since there is no other access.
The commissioners asked several clarifying questions of the applicants regarding the access road and the right of way. William Barnett spoke in favor of the proposal, as it facilitates development in that area which is ideal for the purpose. It is largely out of view – and hearing – of the public, far from a flood plain, and has been lying fallow for many years. Industrial property in the Town limits is very limited, so Mr. Barnett asserted that returning it to its intended use will mean increased tax revenues, possibly jobs, and in general a benefit to the community.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, the commissioners had an opportunity to query the applicants. Vice-Chairman Connie Marshner asked one of the earlier witnesses, Mr. Biggs, about the drainage problem he had mentioned in his comments. “Was it because of rain?” Chairman Jones asked if the drainage problems at the spot Mr. Biggs had referred to had been reported to the town. Answer: “Many times.” Commissioner Darryl Merchant commented that there was some uncertainty about the right of way as it was laid out alongside the Old Virginia building on the neighboring plot and although he was certainly in favor of approving this development, there needed to be some clarification about the maintenance responsibilities and the width of the right of way for the private road. He joined other commission members in being concerned with the access point to the property.
Vice-Chairman Marshner introduced a motion that forwards a recommendation of conditional approval to the town council, provided that the right of way be increased to 55 feet along the eastern edge of the parcel, and a turnaround for emergency vehicles be provided. Commissioner Gordon seconded and the commission voted unanimously to approve. The approval authority will be the Front Royal Town Council.
Holloway Construction private subdivision revisited
The second Special Exception application of the night was by Chris Holloway Construction for a new non-dedicated private street in the Steele Subdivision between Steele Avenue and Beeden Lane at the end of Carter Street. The unusual twist, in this case, is that Mr. Holloway is the sitting Mayor of Front Royal, leading to an uncomfortable position for the Planning Department, if not the Planning Commission itself. The proposed private street would service a series of 6 lots in that area for a block of new townhomes.
During the Public Hearing, two neighbors from Steele Avenue addressed the commission. Karen Tinkham testified that the construction on that site has resulted in substantial water and mudflow onto her property and brought photos to show the commission.
Another neighbor from Steele Ave, Christopher Settle, also reiterated the drainage problem and reported that the builder had installed some silt fence that may have slowed down some of the drainages, but did not stop it entirely, since the mud could come under the fence. The applicant, Chris Holloway, addressed the commission and acknowledged that heavy rains had caused some mudflow off the site and that his crew had installed a silt fence to stop the flow. He said it was possible that the wash could happen again given the topography of the site. He said the site had originally been lots, but that boundary adjustment had six lots to permit the construction of townhouses on the site, and that a street 20 feet wide was necessary to provide adequate space for the townhouse units on the lots with the required setbacks. Chairman Jones observed that a solution for the mud draining problem should be more permanent than a silt fence. Joe Brogan, who surveyed the property for the project, testified that when the units are completed, and the grassy areas are established. “Hopefully the natural drainage will solve the problem.”
Commissioner Merchant led off the commissioner’s comments by observing that the Subdivision Plat for this project had been signed on June 27 by the Town Manager, Interim Planning Director, and Finance Director. Since that time, the applicant was made aware that a Special Exception was required for “subdivisions on new non-dedicated private streets.” The subdivision plat was recorded at the courthouse on July 6 and was vacated on September 14. The request before the commission was to consider the private street and the proposed naming of that street. The problem arose because procedurally, the private street approval must be complete before a subdivision plat can be approved.
The applicant had requested that the new private street be named “Ryder Benson Court/Drive”. Commissioner Merchant expressed concern, as had the Planning Staff in a letter to the applicant, that the proposed street did not provide adequate access to emergency vehicles due to its width. The street would not meet the requirements that the town ordinance specifies. New public town streets must have a 50-foot right of way and have 37-feet of pavement. “Is there any reason we would modify our street standards for this development?” she asked.
One of the intents of the ordinance was to discourage private streets. Property owners on private streets may not have certain benefits that others enjoy – snow removal, trash pickup, or town road maintenance. Commissioners Gordon and Ingram addressed the issue of the process of approval. Planning Director Kopishke said that this request for a private street should be the first in the approval sequence, followed by the subdivision plat, site plan review, and approval, then building permits and inspections. In final remarks, commissioners concurred that the proposal was unworkable in its current form. On a motion by Commissioner Merchant, Seconded by Commissioner Gordon, the Commission then unanimously voted to recommend denial of the request.
Finally, the commission considered an application for a Special Use Permit by Allen Walters to construct a single-family dwelling on a nonconforming lot in the 1300 block of Warren Avenue. The lot is less than the minimum width and the minimum square footage according to the Town Code. The Planning Department review indicates the proposed dwelling will comply with the conditions established in the Town Code for a Special Use Permit. Before opening the Public Hearing, Commissioner Merchant told the commissioners that the case here was using a single 50-foot lot, unlike previous requests for combining several lots into one. The neighboring dwellings are built on 50-foot lots, and this proposal includes the required property line setbacks and the design of the structure as presented appears to meet the standards of the ordinance – it is what the ordinance was intended to do, it was observed.
Three citizens from the immediate area addressed the commission to oppose the building of a home on that lot. Neighbors to the north and south, Mr. Jackson and Mrs. Howard, both opposed the building because it was “too close” to their existing homes. Jackson provided some history of the lot and the subdivision itself. He recounted how the property was involved with his family for 50 years. He asserted that the property was given to his Aunt, but the problem was there was no deed. She knew that it was not big enough to build on, but since it adjoined her property, she assumed it as an extension of her own property. The family had been paying taxes and maintaining the property for 40 or 50 years.
Mr. Jackson said that when he eventually checked and discovered that there was no deed to the property and that he did not actually own it, he stopped paying taxes on it, and it went up for public auction. The applicant purchased the property and in conversation with Mr. Jackson, indicated he could possibly put a house on it. Mr. Jackson recalled he told the applicant that it was his understanding the lot was too small to put a house on. It emerged that the applicant does not intend to occupy the dwelling, and Mr. Jackson indicated that he was “basically giving up space” for it to be built.
Denice Howard, who occupies the property just north of the proposed site, was also opposed to its construction. Mrs. Howard addressed the commission to complain that the proposed dwelling would be too close to her house, and could impact the delivery of propane to her property. She was concerned about the loss of privacy and effects on her gas, water, and electricity with the new construction.
Lis Gonzales then addressed the commission to oppose the construction. Ms. Gonzales lives across the street from the proposed site. She said that many of her Spanish-speaking neighbors claimed not to have received the notification letter from the planning department and so could not attend the public hearing. She said that almost 100 percent of the houses on that block are homeowner occupied, and “We take pride” in the area. She also expressed concern about the potential for flooding. The new property, she asserted would be “almost on top of” the neighboring dwelling to the north.
Once the public hearing was closed, Vice Chairman Marshner expressed her sympathy for the neighbors’ plight, but the law says that a property owner has the right to use their property.
Commissioner Ingram concurred with the Vice Chairman’s comments, but the commission must be objective in applying the provisions of the ordinance. He was not comfortable with continuing a non-conformance. Chairman Jones also offered his sympathy for the witnesses and said that the decision must be balanced against the rights of the property owner. Commissioner Merchant reminded the witnesses that the commission only makes a recommendation to the Town Council, and there must still be a hearing there.
Following comments by the individual commissioners, the recommendation to approve the Special Use permit was unanimously passed. The permit application will now go to the town council for a public hearing and a vote.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:10 p.m.
County work session takes unexpected turn on EDA front – ‘Reunited’ operational option broached
What had been an hour-plus work session update on Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) by County Project Manager Jeff Hayes took an unexpected turn about an hour and a quarter into that work session at the conclusion of Hayes PowerPoint presentation. I say “unexpected” because the only open session agenda cover sheet item was Hayes’ CIP report. However, the board elected to take what was labeled “Closed Session” discussion of “Personnel re: Economic Development Authority” into open session discussion.
What followed was County Administrator Ed Daley’s presentation on organizational opportunities presented by the pending October 1st loss of the second and final member of the two-person EDA staff. As previously reported, following Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson’s August 27 departure to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, Executive Director Doug Parsons announced his resignation, effective October 1, to take the EDA executive director’s job in Fauquier County.
And what Daley presented to the board in open session echoed what EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne told Royal Examiner in the wake of the pending loss of the entire EDA staff – this can be an opportunity, rather than a derailing of the EDA’s recovery from the multi-million-dollar financial scandal uncovered in 2018-19 under previous executive and board leadership. And while Browne focused on replacement personnel selection as the opportunity, Daley used that as a jumping-off point to explore previous supervisors discussion dating to early 2020 about an organizational realignment of the EDA. The County has already taken on the role of Financial Agent of the EDA. Continuing the broached realignment would bring the EDA staff into the Warren County Government Center, functioning more like a County Department. That option was first considered by some supervisors in the wake of the Town of Front Royal’s decision to operationally withdraw from the half-century-plus old joint EDA, in favor of creating its own unilateral Front Royal EDA (FREDA).
That decision was driven by the Town Council’s decision, against the advice of then-Mayor Gene Tewalt, to civilly sue the old EDA for a larger portion of the allegedly embezzled and misdirected EDA assets related to County and Town business dealing handled by the EDA. Rather than costly and divisive litigation, Mayor Tewalt urged council to accept the new EDA leadership’s offer to have staffs simply sit down and follow the money to determine who was owed what. However, a council majority wasn’t listening to its then mayor. Consequently, the Town and EDA are currently engaged in dueling civil litigations.
And while Daley’s presentation began as a logistical exploration of processes of incorporating the EDA into the county governmental apparatus, it took a turn when one supervisor posed a legal question. “I’m going to call the elephant out in the room,” North River Supervisor Delores Oates said in pointing out that the existing EDA was jointly founded by the county and town governments over a half-century ago, and legally remains a Town-County EDA. So, can the County legally bring the EDA into its sole administrative oversight, she wondered.
“If I were sitting where you sit, I would invite the town council to participate in a staffed economic development department that works for the EDA but can also work for us in the County and the Town on economic development projects,” the county administrator replied. And as Daley pointed out, neither EDA currently has a staff, though at least one, the old EDA, has an exceptionally competent and proactive re-tooled board of directors.
“And I think that would be the best tactical advantage for the community, is if we would actually collaborate and not create independent organizations. Because otherwise we’re spending twice the money to do the same job,” Oates said in response to Daley’s suggestion.
The first face-to-face discussion of this latter option of reestablishing a jointly functioning Town-County EDA will apparently take place this Thursday, at the first Town-County Liaison Committee meeting since the Town Council decided to cut those quarterly meetings off in the wake of initiating the now dueling Town-EDA/County civil litigations. Daley noted that Liaison Committee opportunity was presented by the inclusion on Thursday’s Liaison agenda of a Town presentation on the status of development of its unilateral Town EDA.
Members of both council and the board of supervisors have recently suggested an altered, more collaborative Town-County path forward from the divisive and litigious one launched by council during the tenure of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick. So, it will be interesting to see how Thursday’s Liaison Committee discussion develops with a new town manager involved; and how the full council will react to the idea of realigning into a jointly functioning EDA apparatus, possibly including collaboration in selecting the new FR-WC EDA staff were a speedy, positive reaction achieved.
The EDA discussion begins at the 1-hour-16-minute-30-second mark of the linked county video; Oates calls out the “elephant in the room” at the 1-hour-44-minute-45-second mark. The Capital Improvement Project PowerPoint and Q&A takes up the first hour-and-15-minutes of the video. And between the CIP and EDA portions of the work session, Board Chair Cullers gave an update on news of the birth of her newest grandchild Tuesday evening. – Welcome to the world on September 14, 2021, Ella Louise.
About those CIP projects
Prior to that turn toward the EDA and Town-County relations regarding cost-effective cooperation versus costly, counterproductive competition in future economic development initiatives, there were some interesting turns on the CIP front. Those included discussion of downtown Front Royal parking issues and the County’s ability to impact those issue with owned property in the Historic Downtown Business District vicinity. Also, under board scrutiny was the cost and effectiveness of air purification devices under consideration for other County facilities after being installed at the Warren County Courthouse to allow more normal judicial proceedings to be reinitiated during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. Discussion of the potential effectiveness against, not only the COVID-19 Coronavirus but other virally spread illnesses was broached in considering the purchase of as many as 60 of the machines at a cost of $2100 per unit.
See Hayes’ CIP power point on renovations to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office; the Parks & Rec Department Splash Pad Pavilion; Rivermont Volunteer Fire Company 2 renovations; Shenandoah Farms Company 6 renovations; the Morgan’s Ford Boat Landing project; and Juvenile and Domestic Court renovations and related parking issue, including the observation that you “don’t build a court facility over or under a parking deck – BOOM!” (due to domestic terrorist concerns).
On the downtown parking deck front, Ed Daley noted that the Winchester City Council was scoffed at for proposing a downtown parking deck 20 years ago, adding that now the city has four.
Special Events permitting, parking regulations and Town Comp Plan review move forward
Regulations applying to downtown availability for special events and sometimes decades-old parking regulations that aren’t or cannot be enforced were two of a seven-item work session agenda of the Front Royal Town Council Monday evening, September 13. In the wake of those discussions, it appears council will move a revised version of its Special Events permitting matrix forward for approval at its meeting of September 27; and staff will attempt to “clean up” its parking ordinances, so they are legally supportable, and address issues faced by citizens in the 21st century.
Changes presented in the Special Events permitting process appeared to revolve around the striking of several controversial matrix criteria cited as favoring larger, tourism events that have the potential of generating higher fee and taxing revenues to the Town. Such deletions included: “Community Destination Benefit”, a demonstrated past history of “Success” and Organizational Structure Management “Capability”; “Direct Spending” and “Funding Capacity”; generating “Overnight Stays/(commercial) Room Nights”; and an “Evaluation & Management Plan”.
A great deal of discussion was also generated about the advisability or not of refundable fees and the parameters of refunds if events were canceled closer to their scheduled date. Councilman Joe McFadden argued that a reasonable, non-refundable fee would indicate a certain commitment to following through with the necessary planning to see the event occur successfully. While somewhat divided on the issue, a council consensus appeared to be to leave the fees as included in the new draft. However, under “Tourism” in that draft, a number of fees ranging from $50 to $150 attached to the full or partial closure of streets were deleted.
So, after several aborted attempts at establishing a new Special Events policy, council will take another shot on September 27. And we will find out if, in fact, the drafted changes have eased the concerns of some involved citizens that the code changes were too restrictive on smaller community events.
The Parking Maze
As for parking regulations downtown, it appears there is no immediate plan to alter the existing non-enforcement of the posted 2-hour parking limit in the downtown business district, despite some recently added marked parking spaces along Chester Street off its intersection with East Main Street and adjacent to the Town’s Village Commons Parking lot, which carries the same non-enforced 2-hour limit.
More specifically targeted for change were codes defining towing parameters as to after what period of time vehicles can be considered “inoperable” or “abandoned” including improperly licensed or registered vehicles. FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis indicated an absence of specific parameters in the town code. So, time limits on such regulations in neighboring communities were presented. Those ranged from Winchester City’s two-day limit to 10 days in Luray and Leesburg. Luray and Warrenton both had a “4 days without being moved” condition.
A great deal of discussion occurred around the right of people to sleep in their vehicles. The example of someone pulling over to rest while driving some distance to avoid a dangerous situation or just taking a nap in a public park parking area was counterbalanced by a specific instance of a homeless person utilizing their vehicle to repeatedly park and sleep in public parking areas. The dilemma of homelessness and a right to survive as best as possible, with limited publicly or privately offered alternatives available was debated at length.
“So, where are we? Do we look at it or just park it?” Mayor Holloway asked council after a lengthy discussion that included potential state or federal legal parameters that could impact local authority. Letasha Thompson’s “I’d park it” reply appeared to represent council’s consensus for the present.
Also discussed were potential time limits on vehicles parked under protective shrouds, perhaps covering whether the vehicle is legally tagged, as well as ticketing of vehicles not parked “right wheels to curb” or against the traffic flow of the travel lane.
The Chapter 158 Code notated with problem areas comprised 43 pages; so, good luck reviewing staff.
A little late on that Comp Plan rewrite
Also on the work session agenda was an update from new Planning and Community Development Director Lauren Kopishke on the Town Comprehensive Plan update now underway. Kopishke noted Phase One was underway seeking input from town citizens on their thoughts on the most desirable future direction for residential and commercial growth within the town limits. The entire process, beginning at the Planning Department/Commission level, followed by council review and approval is anticipated to be completed over the next 18 months.
Kopishke noted that by state code, municipal Comp Plans are supposed to be reviewed and updated every five years. She observed that the Town’s current one was approved in 1998. That made it comparable to, if not quite as aged as some of the parking regulations discussed Monday evening.
Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell suggested a more efficient means than simply relying on social media and Town website notices to alert town residents that council desired their input to develop a plan for future development aligned with that of the majority of people who live in town. Noting that a significant number of citizens probably did not do much, if any social media, the vice mayor suggested hard copy info sent out with Town utility bills, or possibly a mass mailing to citizens, with attached questionnaires that could be either returned with utility payments or dropped in the mail.
During Open Discussion near the end of the two-hour-and-20-minute work session, as Mayor Holloway edged his seat away from the meeting room table, Town Manager Steven Hicks introduced recently discovered issues related to a scheduled September 27th public hearing. That public hearing is on a requested right-of-way vacation along Carter Street involving Chris Holloway Construction’s plans for the development of a non-conforming six-unit subdivision inside the town limits.
At issue for the planning commission/department, as the mayor found out when he went to seek a street naming addition to his planned private-road subdivision, are requested road construction rights of ways that do not meet Town codes. Those codes call for a minimum 40-foot street ROW. Staff explained that Holloway’s subdivision lots would each have on-property driveways, with no street parking allowed to facilitate the requested, and previously approved street width of 20 feet. The excepted streets would be private subdivision roads, not part of the town street system, staff explained. Councilman Thompson wondered if guests traveling by car would have to park at distance to be “shuttled in”. Councilman McFadden pointed to council’s past denial of a 30-foot ROW exception request to Front Royal Limited’s planned residential development off Mary’s Shady Lane in town.
“How did we not catch this before?” Vice-Mayor Cockrell asked as the discussion focused on preventing a repeat of any oversight in the approval process. Council and staff committed to bringing the matter to a successful conclusion, with excepted parameters explained and reapproved as necessary.
Also during the Open Discussion on a lighter note, Councilman Scott Lloyd addressed his research into the proper terminology for those people council represents who live inside the town limits. Noting he had once questioned the vice mayor’s use of “citizen” as opposed to “resident” because the Town does not have a “citizenship process” (to incorporate non-natives who move into town). Lloyd, whose pre-council stint as the Trump Administration’s Director of Refugee Resettlement at the southern border may have confused him on the necessity of a citizenship process here, said he had discovered upon consulting Mirriam Webster’s that, indeed, “citizen” was a proper reference, as is “resident”, of a municipality. – “I guess I’ll have to take it up with Mirriam Webster,” Lloyd responded by email to our query on the issue.
So, settle down my fellow Front Royal citizen transplants – we’re not going to have to pass a citizenship quiz on the history and laws of the Town of Front Royal to become legally voting citizens/residents of the town. And neither will the town’s transplanted elected officials to have to resign and pass such a test in order to legally run for municipal office here.
See the linked Town video for these discussions, as well as ones on Habitat for Humanity’s request for a waiver of water-sewer tap fees on new construction; work toward the Town’s establishment of its own Building Inspections Department and an Environmental Division, prior to adjournment to Closed Session to discuss a number of topics. Those Closed Session topics included consultation with legal counsel on litigation with “the Warren County EDA and Jennifer McDonald”; an unspecified personnel matter; consideration of the acquisition of “privately held real property for a public purpose”, as well as “the disposition of Town-held real property located outside the Town’s corporate limits; and discussion of “contractual and programmatic matters related to a contract the Town is a party to which has become problematic”.