In this second segment of the initial interview on June 15, 2017 with Front Royal Police Department Investigators Landin Waller and Crystal Cline, McDonald pushes forward a theory targeting this reporter as a player in the EDA office break-in revolving around inquiries into and source information acquired that ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran was the “secret investor” in the planned Skyline Regional Justice Academy.
McDonald referenced a time I worked at local radio station WFTR (WZRV The RIver 95.3 FM) and claims I accessed public files. However I never actually was in the EDA offices suite while a radio station employee. After being fired from the radio station, perhaps coincidentally at the very time I was seeking information from Congressman Robert Goodlatte and his staff about the congressman’s involvement with and knowledge of ITFederal and its owner, McDonald invited me to come to her office “to talk”, presumably to glean information about what I had learned about Tran and his company.
The following is a transcript of the official incident report for the alleged break-in, reported on May 18, 2017:
Front Royal Police Department Investigation Narrative: Officer Report for Incident 17050871
Date, Time, Reporting Officer: 05/18/17, 14:00, Detective Landin J. Waller Description of the Incident:
On 05/18/17 I, Detective Landin J. Waller, was contacted by Captain Ryman in reference to an incident at the .Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) located at 400 Kendrick Lane. Myself and Detective King responded to the scene where we were met by Captain Ryman and Captain Nicewarner. Detective King and I were briefed about the scene by Captain Ryman.
We were advised four (4) 4″ by 6″ personal photographs and a large cut out photograph of Jennifer McDonald were taken from McDonald’ s office and found in the conference room. Three ( 3) of ‘the 4″ by 6″ photographs had McDonald in the picture with her face scratched out with a sharp object. The fourth 4″ by 6″ photograph was a picture of McDonald1 s niece and her toddler aged son with the word “NIGGAR” written in black marker across the face of the child. The large cut out photograph had a black plastic handle steak knife plunged through the forehead of the photo and it was stuck to the head rest of a brown leather office chair where McDonald admittedly normally sits.
There were no signs of forced entry to the buildings windows, and doors. As I noted there was undisturbed dust on the window ledges and on the blinds at every window. The window to McDonald’s office was raised up about two inches and not secured; However there was cobwebs and undisturbed dust on the blinds and window ledge. The two doors of access to the building and office did not have pry marks or signs of tampering.
The scene was photographed and processed by Detective King. Detective King took overall, midrange, close-up, and close-up with scale photographs. All photographs will be attached to this report in the images file. There were 6 items of evidence collected and packaged from this scene. Item #1: (4″ by 6″ photograph of niece and son), Item #2: 4″ by 6″ photograph of McDonald with Dolphin), Item #3: (4″ by 6″ photograph of McDonald with Niece), Item #4: (4″ by 6″ photograph of McDonald and family) , Item #5: (cutout picture of McDonald) , Item #6: (black plastic handle steak knife) . Detective King dusted the conference ‘ table and drawer for latent prints but was not successful.
I interviewed the two employees that were at the office, Jennifer McDonald and Missy Henry. These interviews were audio recorded and will be added to the case file.
From the interview with McDonald, I was informed that she was the Director of the EDA inhere she has been employed since 1999, She advised there are two other employees, Missy Henry and Maria Jones, that work out of this office. McDonald advised me she left the office last evening (05/17/18) at 17:00 or 17:30. She said she went to a Rotary meeting at 19;30. McDonald said left from the Rotary meeting and went directly home and the next morning she arrived to work at about 07:30. McDonald said she went to her office and she and Missy were talking when she noticed some pictures were missing from her office but she was not sure which ones. She said a while later she was notified by Missy of the scene in the conference room – McDonald did say that last Thursday morning she noticed a large knife (from the kitchen area of the EDA) was in her chair in the conference room on 05/11/17, but did not notify the police but thought it was odd.
I asked McDonald if she could think of anyone that might be mad enough to do something like this, she said “yes”. She informed me that there is a group of people who have made derogatory statements about the Work-Force Housing Project in the Royal Examiner. McDonald went on to explain there was a piece of land that was to be gifted to the town for this project; However, the EDA missed the deadline for the land to be gifted and now the land must be purchased. She said the piece of land in question was gifted by her family members (Aunt & Uncle). She stated the Royal Examiner has posted articles about this land deal in which many persons have commented negatively about her and the EDA. She listed Councilwoman Bebhinn Egger, Mike Graham, Stan Brooks, Shea Parker, Tom Conkey, Roger Bianchini, and Norma Jean Shaw as persons who she felt were angry with her.
McDonald informed me that herself, Missy, and Maria Jones are the only ones with keys to the outside of the building and to the office door. She did say there was a spare key for each door in a real estate type lock box that was located on the iron railing of the stoop. She advised that Maria Crigler, The Administrative Assistant of Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, (the neighboring business) also has the code to the lock box because they have a spare key in the lock box. McDonald informed me the keys are kept in the lock box incase someone forgets their key to the office and needs to gain entry to the office. I was then informed that all 9 employees at Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission have the code to the lock box.
I also interviewed Missy Henry in the conference room. Henry stated she has been employed at the EDA as an Administrative Assistant since 2012. She advised that she left the office on 05/17/17 at 17:05 and did not return to the office around 0800 on 05/18/17. Henry advised me she was the first to notice the conference room scene. Henry also advised me that she had just changed the code to the lock box this past Monday to a 3 digit code instead of a 4 digit code. She advised that no one has been notified of the change except herself, Jennifer and Maria.
I spoke to all the employees at Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission and determined that the last employee to go leave the building was Brandon Davis. X was advised that Davis1 wife went into labor last night and he stopped by the office to grab some items from his desk before going to the hospital. I have yet to speak with him, but all the other employees did not notice anything out of the ordinary on 05/17/17.
Later on that day, I spoke with employee Marla Taylor Jones by phone. Marla advised she is the current Director of Marketing with the EDA and has been since 2009. She said she arrived to work at 08:10 on 05/17/17 and left at 17:00. She did say she noticed a man who was inside the gate of the property and he was holding a phone or a video recorder and it appeared he was recording. She described the male as a white male with a beard wearing blue plaid shirt, shorts, and a ball cap. ‘ She said he went outside to ask him if he needed assistance but he walked through the breezeway and towards Ameri-Sist which is a business on the east end of the building. Jones said she had Henry call Ameri-Sist to see if the man came to their business, but was informed that no one had stopped in. Jones also said that when she was leaving at 17:00 she noticed an old red Ford Explorer or Blazer with a white male inside and the engine was running. She said he was on the road behind the building and she asked him if he needed help. She said he told her he had just made a delivery and was routing his next delivery. She said she thought this was a bit unusual.
On 05/18/17 after clearing the initial asked McDonald if I might have the spare I wanted to set up surveillance cameras, keys. On 05/18/17 at 17:30 hours Myself, Sergeant Cline set up surveillance video scene, I responded back to* the EDA and keys to the building and office because McDonald agreed and gave me the spare Detective King, Detective Fogle and inside the office.
Watch Part 2 of Jennifer McDonald initial interview with Front Royal Police Department that occurred on June 15, 2017:
EDA closes on 506 East Main Street property sale – ultimate use to be determined
As the accompanying photos show, on Monday, April 6, a county crew cleaned out the last vestiges of previous tenants, in this case of second-floor rental storage units that remained unclaimed, in preparation for the April 7th closing on the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority’s sale of 506 East Main Street. The property previously housed Stokes Mart, later B&G Goods and most recently the Main Street Market.
And if the two recent commercial retail incarnations have been troubled, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons sees light at the end of the tunnel in what he hopes is part one of a two-phased sale of the adjacent 506 and 514 East Main Street properties.
Shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, Parsons confirmed the closing on the 506 East Main property earlier that day. The sale is to James Weber, trading as East Main Commercial LLC. Parsons said that Weber owns two Victorian-style, residential rental buildings across East Main Street from his new parcel, as well as other unspecified properties.
Responding to a question, Parsons said Weber plans “significant general renovations” to improve the commercial space which had roof repair and HVAC issues during the Main Street Market leasing of the property. However, Parsons added that East Main Commercial has no firm plan in place as to the building’s future usage. The EDA director said the new owner may be looking at a leasing option for another person or commercial entity to operate out of the renovated building.
At the regular monthly meeting of the EDA Board of Directors on March 27, a resolution was approved on the “backup” sale to an, at the time, unnamed buyer at a price of $190,000. Also approved by the EDA board that day, was the return of C&C Frozen Treats owner William Huck’s $5,000 deposit on the property in the wake of that prospective sale apparently falling through the financing cracks.
“I’d like to thank Mr. Weber for his investment in Front Royal and East Main Street – we thought the property belonged in the private sector, and now it is. And we look forward to his planned improvements,” Parsons said by phone Wednesday afternoon.
Parsons also expressed gratitude to Warren County General Services Director Brandi Rosser and her department for Monday’s final clearing of the property. Parsons noted that the EDA attempted to contact all storage unit renters with varying degrees of success. Unable to contact some, and not hearing from others, local charities were given a chance to peruse unclaimed contents prior to Monday’s removal of what was left.
If Parsons and his board believed the old Stokes Mart building belonged in the private sector, that holds double for the adjoining 514 East Main Street property that houses a three-apartment residential rental building that, as Parsons has previously observed, EDA’s are not typically involved in as rental or marketing properties – “It is not a property we should own,” he reiterated Wednesday.
The EDA executive director said discussion “is going well” with a prospective buyer of the apartment building, and he hopes that a move toward closing on that property could come within the next several weeks.
As to the above-reference “troubled” recent retail incarnations, B&G Goods principal William Lambert is one of 15 EDA civil litigation defendants and has also been indicted criminally related to the EDA civil litigation. The Main Street Market lease ended early amidst physical structural repair issues as the EDA traversed the troubled waters of its newly evolving legal and financial landscape.
COVID-19 meeting restrictions lead to 2nd EDA grand jury extension
Contacted by phone, Rockingham County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Parker confirmed that Judge Clark Ritchie had extended the term of the Warren County Special Grand Jury impaneled to explore potential criminality tied to the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) civil litigation.
That extension is for six months and came as the grand jury’s first extension was coming to an end Tuesday, March 31. The EDA special grand jury was empaneled shortly after the EDA civil litigation was filed on March 26, 2019. Its first six-month term was extended another six months in October 2019.
Parker said the newest six-month extension comes from an “abundance of caution” both legally and medically.
Due to restrictions on public gatherings ordered by Governor Ralph Northam as part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s emergency management response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, what have been described as non-essential court functions have joined other enterprises deemed “non-essential” in the private sector in being put on hold at least through much of April. Consequently, it was decided it was unsafe for the grand jury to continue meeting in this pandemic emergency response environment.
In this fluid medical and legal environment, it is uncertain when the EDA Special Grand Jury will be able to meet again. However, Parker said he believes once those meetings begin, it will not take anywhere near six months for the grand jury to complete its business.
“Our goal is to conclude as soon as possible,” Parker said.
Following the recusal from EDA legal matters of Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell and his entire staff in the wake of his November 2019 election, Parker was appointed to handle criminal indictments stemming from alleged EDA financial improprieties discovered by a forensic audit commissioned by Warren County on behalf of the EDA in September 2018.
The EDA civil litigation is now seeking recovery of $21.3 million from 15 defendants, including former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and two real estate companies she is alleged to have used to misdirect EDA assets to her own benefit.
In a series of filings by the EDA grand jury, McDonald now faces a total of 34 financial felony charges. Also indicted criminally on fewer charges has been a tight circle around McDonald, including her husband Samuel North, her former EDA Administrative Assistant Michelle “Missy” Henry, and former EDA small business loan recipient and B&G Goods proprietor William Lambert. At the time of his business relationship with the EDA Lambert is purported to have been in a relationship with a McDonald sister.
Criminal charges against another McDonald associate, Donald Poe, were dropped by Parker due to an approaching January perjury trial date he was not prepared for with his late 2019 appointment and the mountain of paperwork filed in relation to the EDA civil and criminal cases – estimated at or around a million pages of documentation.
However, as he noted at the time, Parker can refile the criminal indictments against Poe if he feels the evidence so warrants. Poe’s perjury charges related to his testimony to the EDA Special Grand Jury regarding his business ties to McDonald.
The next EDA criminal case hearing dates are scheduled for April 17. Parker said he should have more information on how things will be proceeding forward within the coming week.
A federal grand jury has also been impaneled in Harrisonburg related to the EDA financial allegations and civil litigation. On April 16, 2019, agents from the FBI and Virginia State Police searched and seized documents and materials from the EDA’s Kendrick Lane offices, including the executive director’s office that had been cordoned off and locked down since McDonald’s December 20, 2018 resignation under increasing scrutiny by the investigative auditing firm Cherry Bekaert and her EDA Board of Directors. However, the federal grand jury has yet to issue any indictments from its investigation.
EDA passes series of motions following 3-hour, virtual closed session
One day after the Warren County-Front Royal COVID-19 Coronavirus Emergency Management team held its first briefing available to the public live only by remote video link-up, the Town-County Economic Development Authority followed suit at its monthly meeting of Friday, March 27.
However, the EDA took additional steps on the pandemic response social distancing frontier and the enabling of live remote participation and viewing. Only EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons and Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson were at the EDA Kendrick Lane office where board meetings are normally held. The six EDA Board of Directors members, as well as media, public and county board representatives were all linked in remotely by home or office audio-video computer hook up.
Or as the meeting notice colorfully stated, “Due to the state and local state of emergency declarations, this meeting will be conducted virtually, as will all EDA board meetings until further notice during the emergency. The EDA sincerely welcomes public access to this unprecedented event. The EDA will be using the web conferencing platform Zoom”.
Access was also available by telephone link-up.
A tally of those connected virtually included two members of the public (Linda Allen, James Wolfe), one county board member (Oates), two media (Royal Examiner, NVD), three attorneys (Pandak, Seltzer, Seigel), the six EDA board members and two EDA staff – may be only a couple supervisors short of normal 8 a.m. in-house attendance.
After virtual meeting moderator and EDA Board Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne helped participants through their connections, the board adjourned to closed session to discuss four primary topics:
1 – legal advice on the “disposition of … 2 East Main Street/Afton Inn”;
2 – a prospective business or industry client at the 426 Baugh Drive warehouse;
3 – legal consultation on the Town of Front Royal’s civil litigation against the EDA and the EDA’s civil litigation against its former Executive Director Jennifer McDonald et al; and
4 – auditor contracts with Yount, Hyde & Barbour P.C. and RFO auditor services regarding small business loan debt collection.
As noted above, three attorneys were involved in the meeting’s virtual hook up, the EDA’s contracted attorney Sharon Pandak and Sands Anderson attorneys Cullen Seltzer and Dan Siegel, the latter two who have been involved from the March 26, 2019 filing in the EDA’s now $21.3 million civil actions against McDonald and 14 co-defendants alleging embezzlement, fraud, and misdirection of EDA assets. Hired as independent EDA counsel in the wake of Dan Whitten’s resignation as County and EDA attorney, Pandak has been the EDA’s legal adviser in response to the Town’s now-amended $20-million-plus litigation against the EDA.
With that full plate of closed session business, the estimate of an hour behind virtual closed doors coming shortly after 8 a.m. fell about two hours short.
And while there were no announcements or motions regarding the two civil litigations or the now apparently disputed by the Town of Front Royal status of Afton Inn ownership, a series of resolutions and motions were approved by 6-0 votes prior to the meeting’s 11:10 a.m. adjournment.
However, as to the status of the Afton Inn, in the written monthly Asset Committee Report it is noted that “There is no public report on the Afton Inn status other than the Town of Front Royal has listed the Inn in their revised complaint in the Town of Front Royal vs. FR-WC EDA. This simply provides a new dynamic that we have to deal with in our continuing efforts to re-position this property. We continue to discuss the dynamics of this with 2 East Main (LLC, the proposed redeveloper of the property under contract with the EDA as current owner).”
As for the series of approved motions and resolutions, they included:
1 – a resolution to return the $5,000 deposit of William Huck after the failure to close a contract with the EDA on the old Stokes Mart building at 506 East Main Street;
2 – a resolution to approve a contract on a backup offer to sell the 506 East Main building to an alternate buyer at a price of $190,000;
3 – a resolution to amend EDA bylaws to facilitate the electronic meetings during the COVID-19 Coronavirus state of emergency declarations;
4 – an amendment extending the deadline on the removal of the solar panels from the EDA Kendrick Lane Office Complex from the original April 30 date. The new deadline will be 30 days after the Governor of Virginia lifts the COVID-19 state of Emergency.
That contract with Sunshine Properties LLC will pay the EDA $40,500 for the two-building solar panel array originally installed during McDonald’s executive directorship in an arrangement with Earth Right Energy. McDonald, ERE and ERE principal Donnie Poe were all named as defendants in the EDA’s March 2019 civil litigation. Consequently, the plan for the provision of solar power to the EDA office complex went south with the filing of that litigation and other technical complications;
5 – a motion authorizing the reacquisition of the 3.5-acre Royal Lane parcel from the Cornerstone LLC branch of the Aikens Group at cost of $26,776.54. The difference in the EDA’s sale price of ten dollars to Cornerstone LLC reflects pre-construction work and planning services done by the Aikens Group for work it will not now be able to achieve after resolving the situation on the somewhat inexplicable late November 2018 EDA transfer of a property it paid $440,000 for. That price was agreed upon by the McDonald-led EDA board Chaired by Patty Wines after an initial $10 gift by McDonald’s relatives was negated by a missed tax rebate deadline.
Serving as EDA attorney on that sale in the wake of then EDA-attorney Dan Whitten’s recusal, Joe Silek Jr. said the deed of sale was sent to Cornerstone attorneys without a price on it. Then EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton, who signed the deed of sale, said he only saw the signature page. At the time the sale situation became public in early 2019, the Winchester-based Cornerstone attorneys’ group never responded to three messages left seeking information on how the $10 purchase price was established.
While the Royal Lane parcel was intended for the development of a workforce housing apartment complex under EDA direction, Parsons told Royal Examiner after the Friday’s meeting adjournment that the EDA will likely seek to sell the parcel to the private sector for residential development, which as he has previously noted, is not a normal undertaking for EDA’s.
6 – a motion to amend the loan agreement with First Bank on a $3.59 million note covering several older projects to illustrate the County’s support of the EDA on the issue as it grapples with the aftermath of the financial scandal the above-referenced civil litigations revolve around;
7 – a motion on a monthly payment agreement on a rural business enterprise loan with Ontiveros;
And 8 – Due to the governor’s COVID-19 emergency declaration closing “non-essential” businesses, the EDA will offer rent/loan payment forbearance “to all clients in good standing”. The plan is to temporarily waive April payments and then offer quarter payments on a monthly basis until there is some resolution to the emergency declaration allowing businesses to reopen.
And so it goes on the Front Royal, Warren County Economic Development front as the retooled EDA Board of Directors, staff and County officials try to navigate the turbulent waters, increasingly stirred to a boiling point by the Town of Front Royal’s hostile litigious stance, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic emergency declarations wreaking havoc with small businesses across the town, county, commonwealth, and nation.
Town amends civil suit against EDA, McDonald to over $20 million
On Friday, March 13, legal counsel for the Town of Front Royal filed its amended civil complaint against the Town and County Economic Development Authority and the EDA’s former executive director and her two real estate companies, Da Boyz and MoveOn8.
It remains to be seen which way the traditional Friday the 13th bad luck will eventually fall legally in what has now grown from a $2-million precautionary civil litigation to what nearly 600 legal paragraphs contained in the 83-page amended complaint explains is now “not less than” a $20.22 million claim for damages by the Town of Front Royal.
With 39 additional pages of supporting documentation surrounding the 2014 Town transfer of ownership of the Afton Inn to the EDA for marketing for redevelopment – the Town also wants the Afton shell back free and clear – and its 10-page “Prayer for Relief” summary claim of the alleged financial damage suffered by the Town during the EDA Executive Directorship of Jennifer McDonald, it was a total of 132 pages of occasionally dizzying legalese dropped on the Warren County Courthouse and the EDA’s counsel and board of directors today.
The Town is seeking a civil jury trial to determine the validity of its claims.
The Town’s counsel – the amended complaint is co-signed by Town Attorney Doug Napier and Anthony and David Damiani of the contracted Damiani & Damiani Alexandria law firm – cites negligence by the EDA Board of Directors in its lack of oversight of then EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald; accuses the EDA Board of “unlawfully vesting in McDonald all of the power and authority granted to the EDA” by state code thereby causing “the Town to suffer economic harm and damages exceeding $20 million and damage to its reputation.”
Afton Inn claims
On the Afton Inn front, the Town alleges a violation of the 2014 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the Town and EDA on the ownership transfer for marketing and development purposes.
“Pursuant to the Memorandum Agreement, any lease, agreement to sell, or agreement concerning the future use of the Afton Inn Property was expressly subject to the Town’s review and written authorization.
“The EDA breached the Memorandum Agreement by failing to submit the Afton Inn Development Agreement to the Town for review and written authorization and accordingly, the Afton Inn Development Agreement has no legal force or effect or validity as it pertains to the Town,” paragraphs 462-463 read, leading to the plaintiff’s conclusion regarding that development agreement between the EDA and 2 East Main Street LLC that, “Any funds spent or debts incurred as a result of the Afton Inn Development Agreement are the sole debts of the EDA, and the Town has no legal or moral obligation to satisfy those debts,” the plaintiff states, adding that were there to be any Town liability ruled, “then the Defendants are jointly and severally liable to the Town for breach of contract in the number of funds expended, which is $357,044.”
Following the assertion of an invalid development agreement, the amended complaint continues that “in the alternative” to a breach of contract ruling, “the Town is a third-party beneficiary of the Afton Inn Development Agreement, and is entitled to specific performance of that agreement. If the EDA is unable to perform with respect to the Afton Inn Development Agreement, then the Town is entitled to have the title of the Afton Inn transferred to the Town.”
As previously reported by the Royal Examiner, due in large part to the EDA’s current financial situation and approaching insolvency fueled in part by the Town’s refusal to pay what has been called “an undisputed $8.4-million principal debt” to the EDA on construction of the new Town Police headquarters, the Afton Inn redevelopment project has been stalled since last spring when the EDA civil litigation against McDonald et al was filed.
The town council and staff have been behind closed session doors recently with 2 East Main Street LLC representatives. And Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick referred to 2 East Main Street LLC as the owner of the Afton Inn during a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Committee meeting of March 3.
The Town amended complaint’s references to McDonald often assume her guilt on the 34 financial felony fraud and embezzlement indictments she has been served with since the EDA filed its $21.3 million civil litigation against her and what has climbed to 13 co-defendants since March 26, 2019.
“At all times relevant hereto, McDonald was acting within the course and scope of her employment as Executive Director of the EDA and her malfeasance was committed while conducting the business of the EDA.
“The EDA is vicariously liable to the Town for the fraud, deceit, conversion, and embezzlement of McDonald under the theory of respondeat superior,” the amended complaint states.
The Town’s amended complaint also accuses the EDA of “Unconstitutional Taxation” in justifying its “not less than $20,226,153” claim.
“Article I, Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution states in relevant part “that all men … cannot be taxed … without their own consent or that of their representatives duly elected ….” the complaint reads on page 80, leading to page 81 observation that, “The EDA’s actions resulted in an unauthorized tax on the citizens of the Town and County. Therefore such tax is unconstitutional and invalid and has caused the Town and the Towns’ taxpayers damages in excess of $20 million.”
In the succeeding and final allegation of the amended complaint the EDA is accused of “Unlawful Eminent Domain”.
“The Defendants, by their actions aforesaid, have condemned and exercised the power of eminent domain over the property of the Town and the Town’s taxpayers.
“The Defendants do not have the power of condemnation and eminent domain.
“The Defendants actions, in condemning the property of the Town and the Town’s taxpayers, is unlawful and unconstitutional, and has caused the Town and the Town’s taxpayers damages in excess of $20 million.”
Those “actions aforesaid” appear to reference the preceding 79 pages description of specific actions cited in the EDA’s civil litigation against multiple defendants, and the criminal allegations primarily against McDonald.
Citizen concerns spur DHR briefing to Town staff on Afton Inn obligations
As noted at the end of our related story on the EDA’s February 28 Board of Director’s meeting, following a closed session Friday morning the EDA authorized filing an FOIA request to the Town of Front Royal. That FOIA inquiry seeks all communications between the Town and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) regarding the $700,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the Afton Inn.
That grant involves federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding administered through the State for improvements to Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District. It also requires a $700,000 match from the Town and is running up toward a mid-September deadline for downtown façade and other grant enabled improvements to have gotten underway.
Royal Examiner believes a February 21 letter from the Review and Compliance Division of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to Interim Front Royal Planning Director and Zoning Administrator Chris Brock is at the root of that FOIA request.
The letter, signed by DHR Architectural Historian Laura Lavernia, points out that the Afton Inn building is tied to the Town’s acquisition of the CDBG, which was awarded through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and is bound by conditions of a “Programmatic Agreement executed between DHR and the Town for the Front Royal Downtown Revitalization Project.”
According to Lavernia, the Town would have to provide substantial justification to DHR for authorization of demolition.
“At a minimum, the rationale for this sudden change in scope warrants a substantive explanation and some discussion with our office before drastic measures are taken that cannot be undone,” she informed Brock.
Lavernia’s letter opens by tracking the Afton Inn’s history, historical registries and a troubling observation about the Town’s intent toward the structure.
“The Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) understands that the Town is considering the demolition of the Afton Inn located at 2 East Main Street … listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the Virginia Landmarks Register, and contributing resources to the NRHP-listed Front Royal Historic District … Formerly called the Mountview Inn, the building appears to have been constructed sometime in 1868 – 1870 … in the Italianate style … Its successful rehabilitation will be a source of pride for years to come – and for future generations to appreciate,” the letter from DHR Architectural Historian Laura Lavernia states.
Contacted Wednesday, February 26, Interim Planning Director Brock acknowledged receipt of the letter but said it was not in response to any request for information on demolition from him.
“I don’t know what it’s in reference to, newspaper articles or what – I can’t speculate,” Brock told Royal Examiner. Brock said he forwarded the letter to Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick.
When contacted, Tederick concurred with Brock’s assessment, stating that to his knowledge no one at Town Hall had initiated a request to demolish the building, which he noted is still owned by the EDA. The Town transferred ownership to the EDA under a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in 2014 to facilitate the property’s marketing and redevelopment.
As for the impetus for the February 21 communication from DHR, Interim Town Manager Tederick suggested the possibility that media reports of past public meeting remarks by Mayor Gene Tewalt or EDA Board member and Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold indicating the potential of demolition as a possible outcome of the languishing Afton Inn renovation project, as a possible cause.
“My impression is no one wants to tear it down. Everyone wants something to be done, Tederick said of the property.
However, as previously reported by Royal Examiner Harold revisited his discontent with the mid-December reversal of the Town staff’s initial prioritization of winterization of the 151-year-old building at the head of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District during a perhaps ironically timed February 21 EDA Asset Committee meeting.
As recounted in detail in our related story on the Town’s absence and presence at the February 28 EDA Board meeting, Harold pointed to early November through early December emails from Town Attorney Doug Napier indicating winterization of the Afton Inn was a “priority” of the Town and that from a public safety perspective the Town had an obligation to see that the physical stabilization of the Afton Inn was accomplished.
However, as Tederick told the Joint Town-County Tourism Advisory Board about the future of tourism promotion in this community on Wednesday, “the devil is in the detail”.
And the detail of financial responsibility for maintenance and repair, or demolition, of the Afton Inn appears to be a detail the Town Council, its administrative staff and attorneys aren’t ready to accept.
It was the interim town manager who informed the EDA on December 13, that any indication the Town would fund Afton Inn winterization costs was a “mistake”.
And while the Memorandum of Agreement referenced in our related EDA meeting story does state that the Town is responsible for covering maintenance and repair costs of the Afton building sought by the EDA as owner, it adds that “the Town shall not require the EDA to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition of any part of the Afton Inn building UNLESS the Town AGREES to bear the cost of such repairs, maintenance and/or demolition.” (EMPHASIS added)
With the DHR letter’s impetus a mystery, Royal Examiner set out to get the answer from its writer. Two days after leaving several phone messages for Lavernia at various DHR numbers we got a call from DHR Media Relations official Randy Jones. After explaining our query on what led Lavernia to send the letter to Interim Town Planning Director Brock, he set out to get an answer.
A short time late he called back with that answer.
The impetus was three-pronged, Jones explained. It began with what Jones described as “several citizens reaching out to DHR” with concerns about the Afton Inn’s status and the Town’s role in assuring that status was maintained as the EDA negotiates to resurrect the stalled renovation project. Asked about names or numbers of the citizens who contact DHR, Jones would provide no additional detail.
However, he said that Lavernia wanted the Town’s interim planning director and interim town manager to understand all the financial and legal implications of the Afton Inn’s inclusion in the East Main Street Community Development Block Grant for the revitalization of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District. From the content of Lavernia’s letter, it would seem the Virginia Department of Historic Resources considers the Afton Inn an important part of that revitalization project.
One might ask, and we’re sure someone’s lawyer eventually will, could the Afton’s inclusion in the CDBG project mandate that Town funding of maintenance or repair work must be made available to the owner if deemed necessary to assure the structure’s survival?
So, is Tederick right – did media reports of past EDA or public criticism of Town actions regarding its relationship to the EDA and Afton Inn redevelopment fuel citizen concerns about the status of the Afton Inn, leading to Lavernia’s February 21 letter to Town Hall?
Harold’s pointed public comments aimed the Town’s way citing “The Town’s Charade of Partnership” with the EDA and numerous “acts of bad faith” seemingly designed to cripple the EDA’s ability to effectively continue to function, including in resurrecting 2 East Main Street LLC Afton renovation project, began on December 13, as noted above, the day Tederick informed the EDA that any impression given that the Town was prepared to fund winterization costs of the Afton was a “mistake”.
Perhaps ironically, Harold publicly refocused on the Afton Inn aspect of Town-EDA relations on February 21, the date of Lavernia’s cautionary DHR letter to a Town staff increasingly populated by interim administrators under the direction of a town council under increasing public scrutiny as to exactly what its vision of the future of the Town of Front Royal, its financial and governmental apparatus is.
Now it may be up to the Front Royal Town Council’s six members, and the mayor, to more clearly explain that vision and the decision not to fund the approximate $15,000 cost of a stabilizing winterization of the Afton Inn.
Citizens are left to wonder, is the council’s vision for $1.4 million dollars of renovated downtown business facades and Village Commons improvements, with a renovated Afton Inn pointing the way to that revitalized historic downtown business district?
Or is it perhaps a vision of bricks in the dust, surrounding a parking lot where the Afton Inn once stood, tied to a tax and revenue reduction in the face of $29 million in planned capital improvements? – Improvements apparently not tied to historic downtown revitalization or the restoration of the Afton Inn.
Now it appears that not only do Town citizens want those questions answered, but so does the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
See related story
Town notifies EDA of Afton Inn issues – opts out of discussing responsibility
While there was no representative of the Front Royal Town government at Friday morning’s Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors meeting despite the presence of a “Town Manager Update-Matt Tederick” on the agenda, the subject of town government interaction with the EDA did not take long to enter the February 28 meeting discussion.
“I thought you might want to know about this as soon as possible,” EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons told his board soon after the 8 a.m. convening of the meeting by Board Chairman Ed Daley.
“This” was a Thursday, February 27 email from Town Attorney Doug Napier to Afton Inn redeveloper 2 East Main Street LLC attorney Kelly Bundy, copied to Parsons, noting that Town Councilwoman Letasha Thompson had informed him “that she saw a few minutes ago on Facebook that the roof of the Afton Inn building next door to Town Hall and across Main Street from the Warren County Courthouse is flapping in the wind.”
Parsons continued to quote from the email, “The wind today is extremely gusty at times and strong, as you know pieces of wood soffit have already fallen onto the public sidewalk. The Town is worried that part of the roof, which appears to be metal, might be blown off onto the public streets.”
Parsons pointed out the town attorney continued to write “in parenthesis” that, “(The Afton Inn is at the intersection of the two busiest streets in Front Royal),” continuing that the situation had the potential of “highly dangerous results,” at which point the town attorney pivoted to the legal sphere.
“Because of the outstanding lease/contract to purchase status between 2 East Main and the EDA, the Town does not want to get in the middle of and opine a legal opinion as to who has the predominant obligation to repair and maintain the building; but the Town does want to draw this to your immediate attention.”
Daley responded that Parsons should work with EDA counsel Sharon Pandak, who was present for the meeting, “To respond to Mr. Napier and remind him of the Town’s responsibility.”
That the Town has the legal responsibility to pay for maintenance and repair of the Afton Inn in the wake of its 2014 transfer of ownership to the EDA for marketing and redevelopment purposes has been a hot-button topic of discussion lately. That is due to the Town’s mid-December pivot from seeming agreement expressed in writing by Napier that it was the Town’s financial responsibility, as well as its province as a matter of public safety, to fund physically stabilizing winterization of the Afton Inn as a “priority”.
In fact, the town attorney included a copy of June 23, 2014, Afton Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the Town and EDA as part of his November-December 2019 correspondence with the EDA on the winterization project. That MOA reads in part, “The Town agrees that during ownership of the Afton Inn property by the EDA, the Town shall not require the EDA to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition of any part of the Afton Inn building unless the Town agrees to bear the costs of such repairs, maintenance and/or demolition.”
In a December 6, 2019 email to EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons and EDA Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, Napier wrote, “Under the terms of the MOA … the EDA is responsible for repairs to the Afton Inn, at the expense of the Town. Regardless of any contract, the Town has an overriding duty as a municipal government, to the public to prevent injury and loss of life or limb. The Afton Inn is literally falling to pieces as I write this. It is not a defense in the public’s eye whether or not the Town can assert ‘sovereign immunity’ if a person’s vehicle, or far worse, a person’s body, is injured by something falling or collapsing from the building – the public will demand to know why the Town did not take immediate steps to secure the building, and rightfully so.”
Best laid plans
However, in that December 6 message, Napier also notes that an inspection by one of the Town’s “most experienced and responsible workers” revealed complications, and likely added expense, that could impact the Town’s original plan to perform the winterization work in-house.
Napier asks the EDA for immediate contact with Interim Town Manager Tederick to arrange a mutual inspection by all three involved parties “to determine what can be done to secure the building to ensure its integrity and ensure the safety of the public …It is a violation of Town Code to obstruct or place an obstruction, which would include the permitting of an obstruction, upon a Town street or sidewalk.”
Napier then added, “The Town would be derelict in the extreme in its responsibilities to the public if the Town knowingly allowed a violation or violations of its own Code, in addition to allowing a public safety hazard.”
Then, in perhaps a hint of things to come, Napier concluded that December 6 correspondence by stating, “If the Town, the EDA, and 2 East Main are unable to reach a very prompt mutual resolution of this pressing problem, the Town will have no choice but to take such legal measures, without limitation, as are necessary to protect the rights of the public safety.”
On December 13, 2019, as part of his report on Town business at the EDA Board meeting, Tederick informed the EDA that any previous correspondence indicating the Town’s willingness to fund the winterization costs was a “mistake”.
And as noted above, the Town-EDA MOA on Afton maintenance notes the EDA is not required to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition “UNLESS the Town agrees to bear the costs of such repairs, maintenance and/or demolition.” One is left to ponder the reason funding stabilizing maintenance of the Afton Inn went from a Town public safety “priority” to NOT a priority within a month as winter approached.
As the Afton turns
Following the February 28 EDA morning meeting, we asked Harold what the EDA’s response was to that December 6 request for the mutual inspection by the three involved parties. He said he contacted Tederick to inform him he would be out of town on business that week, and suggested a meeting the following week with two representatives from each party, the Town, the EDA and 2 East Main, but without attorneys.
There was no response from the interim town manager, Harold said.
In response to a FOIA request, the Royal Examiner received documents indicating a January 8 letter from EDA Board Chairman Ed Daley to Tederick providing an estimate of $13,200 to $15,700 from 2 East Main Street for winterization costs it would contract for. Daley asked the interim town manager to seek town council approval of covering those winterization costs.
In a January 16 response, Tederick informed the EDA Board Chairman that council took the matter up at its January 13 meeting and instructed the town attorney to reach out to the EDA attorney “to determine the best path forward”.
“Like you, we all hope to find an expedient resolution to the former Afton Inn and the safety hazard it has become,” Tederick wrote Daley.
According to Harold, the gist of that subsequent conversation between the Town and EDA attorneys was that the Town would accept ownership of the Afton property back at no cost.
But with no guarantees on a final outcome of such a transfer and the EDA still in negotiations with 2 East Main Street to resurrect a highly desired renovation project, the EDA declined that offer.
And now the Front Royal Town Council is a second vote of approval away from implementing a Dilapidated Property Abatement Code that would force property owners to develop a structural repair plan or accept the Town’s abatement plan to be implemented, at the owner’s cost. Failure to comply would result in the Town’s legal right to seize the property as they would if a back-tax lien had been issued.
Wonder how the lawyers will be able to bat that one around the civil courtroom – and at what cost to town taxpayers, who again will face the double jeopardy of funding both sides of that legal battle, were it to occur.
Following an almost two-hour closed session, the EDA readjourned to open session and unanimously approved three motions. Those motions were:
1 – approval of an agreement for the reacquisition of the 3.5-acre workforce housing parcel from the Aikens Group for $26,722.54. EDA board members explained the difference in the reacquisition price from the $10 the property was transferred to the Cornerstone LLC branch of Aikens as covering preliminary engineering and other costs incurred by the Aikens Group since the late November 2019 transfer of the property. The EDA purchased the parcel for $445,000 following its initial gifting to the EDA for $10 by relatives of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald. The purchase decision was made after an undisclosed tax credit deadline for the gift was missed.
2 – acceptance of a tentative agreement for the sale of the apartment building at 514 East Main Street on the Stokes Mart property for a price of $130,000.
3 – and approval of filing an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the Front Royal Town government for all communications with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources related to the Community Development Block Grant or the Afton Inn.
See the meeting’s opening Afton Inn condition discussion, and various EDA committee reports on the marketing of properties, pending property closings, the status of the Town’s $8.4 million debt to the EDA for construction of the new town police headquarters, and other EDA business in this exclusive Royal Examiner video: