The Afton Inn is one of the most historic and iconic buildings in Front Royal and Warren County. Dating to post-Civil War reconstruction, circa 1868, it sits gutted, partially boarded up, and behind fencing at the intersection of Royal Avenue and East Main Street where an anchor building should be welcoming visitors to Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District. It’s a daily reminder of how far Front Royal has to go to be a picturesque destination to match the natural wonders surrounding it.
The obvious and often-asked question, especially in light of a pending sales contract ready to be signed re-igniting redevelopment work halted in its early stages over a year ago – is on what advice and WHY is the Front Royal Town Council blocking that sale over an ownership dispute that won’t legally bring any revenue its way, no matter who owns and sells the property? But alas, that will be a question to be explored on another, not too distant day.
For after approaching the now unilaterally run, if not yet legally separated, Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority on the front end of the above question, we were guided in another direction, the “what if” direction – as in what if ALL involved parties agreed to have the sale accomplished as 2021 arrives?
Enter 2 East Main LLC, the visionary development team who had an active development lease on the property but has since moved forward to entering into an outright purchase of the Afton Inn from the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority. The company’s principals are the duo of Jim Burton, owner of Carter/Burton Architecture based out of Clarke County and Alexandria-based Alan Omar, Founder and CEO of The Capital Gate investment firm working out of Fairfax. Mr. Burton is an accomplished and experienced architect, and his works are featured in the book, “AA Architects – 30 of the Most Relevant World Architects”.
Burton is the lone common denominator between original Afton redevelopment group dating to around 2015/16 MODE LLC and 2 East Main LLC which took over in early-mid 2018. When Burton introduced Omar as his new partner, he told the Town Board of Architectural Review (BAR) that he, not only brought financial stability to the Afton project, but that he was also “in for the long haul”. Through repeated delays beyond 2 East Main’s control, Omar has certainly lived up to that promise.
Throughout the course of the EDA’s recent troubled past, and in their attempts to resolve past property transactions, the newly structured EDA Board of Directors has continued to work with 2 East Main realizing their continued commitment and ambition in the development of this high-profile corner of historic downtown Front Royal. In June 2020, the EDA Board of Directors voted to accept a purchase offer from 2 East Main LLC and have been actively working to transfer the property.
2 East Main LLC successfully completed Phase 1A of the redevelopment, which included plan development, engineering, partial demolition, asbestos abatement, and replacing wood window headers with steel lintels for today’s more rigorous commercial building codes. The work also included brick repairs around the windows and other key areas of the building.
Burton and Omar say the next phase, 1B, will include securing the floors and roof cupola along with the rebuilding of the roof and Yankee gutters.
They say it is crucial that the restoration resume as soon as possible as the building has been exposed to two winters and will begin to deteriorate significantly if not weatherproofed soon. If not promptly addressed, the recently completed restoration work will be compromised, further exacerbating the already compromised Inn. These sentiments have been echoed by members of the community, design consultants, Front Royal Town Administration, 2 East Main, and the EDA.
During the early phases of the project and while construction was commencing, 2 East Main LLC was requested by the town and state historic representatives to make unplanned window modifications to the new design in order to become a contributing structure as part of the State level HUD grant program, known as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).
The grant program would have been in jeopardy if the Afton Inn did not join with revised design elements. Front Royal had previously narrowly missed out on development block grants for the downtown. Adding the Afton Inn as part of Front Royal’s most recent grant request yielded a positive result which brought $750,000 in federal dollars to downtown revitalization. 2 East Main quickly revised the design for submission and final approval. “We saw many benefits to participating in the program to help the Front Royal community.” Burton said.
Both Burton and Omar have shown a passion for the historic structure and have had a clear vision for turning a dilapidated building into the crown jewel of Main Street. “This project will inspire other investments in Front Royal, from developers, business owners, and entrepreneurs. It will motivate the local community, especially the younger generation, to stay in the region as they plant their roots,” Omar said.
Their vision for the building includes full restoration of the current structure along with compatible additions that would allow the building and property to be a center of commerce for the east end of Main Street. The architectural renderings show space for indoor and outdoor dining, offices and perhaps apartments.
This live/work/play model has been a successful magnet for economic activity for downtown economies across Virginia and the U.S. Notable areas with high levels of success include The Reston Town Center, The Carlyle in the Eisenhower section of Alexandria, and closer to home examples including downtown Winchester, Historic Warrenton, and renewed interest in downtown Front Royal. The office space will provide a channel for employers and employees to patronize Main Street restaurants and to shop at local stores, generating more revenue for both the small businesses on Main Street and for the Town and County through smart growth and utilizing existing resources.
Residential also contributes to the downtown economy as these residents will surely spend a portion of their disposable income at the nearby shops and restaurants. The planned restaurant will bring people to that end of Main Street for lunch and dinner so that Main Street will be equally anchored by the future Afton Inn and the existing community gathering location at the Gazebo.
Omar and Burton are enthusiastic about the project. Omar commented “The natural beauty of the river valley and surrounding mountains are undeniable. I especially enjoy riding my motorcycle through the hills. We hope that our new developments will attract new visitors to expand and enliven the community, to see the beauty and potential of the town the way we have been drawn to it.” Burton added, “We have formed friendships with local artists, builders, photographers and newspaper people. We have had many people express their support for what we have been working on, under unusual circumstances.”
For further information on this project, please contact EDA Executive Director, Doug Parsons, at 540-635-2182 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warren County, Virginia receives Distinguished Budget Presentation Award
The Government Finance Officers Association is pleased to announce that Warren County, Virginia, has received GFOA’s Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for its FY 2022-2023 budget book.
The award represents a significant achievement by the entity. It reflects the commitment of the governing body and staff to meeting the highest principles of governmental budgeting. In order to receive the budget award, the entity had to satisfy nationally recognized guidelines for effective budget presentation. These guidelines are designed to assess how well an entity’s budget serves as:
- a policy document
- a financial plan
- an operations guide
- a communications device
Budget documents must be rated “proficient” in all four categories, and in the fourteen mandatory criteria within those categories, to receive the award.
When a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award is granted to an entity, a Certificate of Recognition for Budget Presentation is also presented to the individual(s) or department designated as being primarily responsible for having achieved the award. This has been presented to Finance Department.
There are over 1,700 participants in the Budget Awards Program. The most recent Budget Award recipients, along with their corresponding budget documents, are posted quarterly on GFOA’s website. Award recipients have pioneered efforts to improve the quality of budgeting and provide an excellent example for other governments throughout North America.
The Government Finance Officers Association is a nonprofit professional association serving nearly 22,500 appointed and elected local, state, and provincial-level government finance professionals and other finance practitioners. It provides top quality publications, training programs, services, and products designed to enhance the skills and performances of those responsible for government finance policy and management. The GFOA’s Distinguished Budget Presentation Awards Program is the only national awards program in governmental budgeting.
Cheryl Cullers, Chair of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, stated, “On behalf of the Board of Supervisors, I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson and his staff on receiving this award. Mr. Robertson has done an amazing job as Director of Finance in the short time he has been in this position. I am very pleased and proud of Mr. Robertson and the rest of our Finance Department for their hard work and dedication to excellence. I would also like to give acknowledge to Zachary Henderson and Emily Ciarrocchi for their assistance to Mr. Robertson in this process.”
According to County Administrator Ed Daley, “We appreciate the efforts of Matt Robertson and the staff of the Finance Department to receive this distinguished award, which shows a significant improvement in the County’s financial reporting efforts. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this budget document for their hard work.”
Finance Director Matt Robertson added, “This award signifies the dedication the Warren County Finance team has shown in creating an open and transparent budget document that communicates how taxpayer dollars support the County’s strategic initiatives. I am incredibly proud of the work we have accomplished and will continue to build on in upcoming budgets.”
Click here to view the FY 2022-2023 budget book.
The Warren County Finance Department is in Suite 700 of the Warren County Government Center, located at 220 N Commerce Avenue, telephone (540) 636-1604. Office hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday.
After hour-and-a-half in closed session council fails to finalize contract with Joe Waltz – appoints Finance Director B.J. Wilson interim town manager
A nearly hour-and-a-half closed session Monday night, November 28, led to a unanimously approved motion by Amber Morris, seconded by Gary Gillispie, to appoint Town Finance Director B.J. Wilson interim town manager, effective immediately. The motion and vote would appear to indicate issues with the contract proposal on the table that would bring popular former Town Manager Joe Waltz back to his old position in Front Royal’s Town Hall. And don’t take our word for his past popularity among Town staff or citizens, as citizen letters to the Royal Examiner’s OPINION page and mayoral and council comments of November 9 indicated when the initiative to bring Waltz back was unveiled.
And then add comments from one councilman at Monday evening’s meeting of November 28th. During reports of members, now second newest member with the arrival of Special Election winner L. Wayne Sealock, Skip Rogers raised the topic of a pending contract with Waltz. “We’ve got a great opportunity to extend an offer, which we’ve already done, to Joe Waltz who is a very well known entity in this town. He’s been our town manager prior and circumstances happened that he has come back … He is a guy who is known. I have spoken to many of our department heads that highly respect him. So, he’s a guy who I think we need to do what we can to extend an offer and to really bring to closure a hiring,” Rogers told his colleagues.
“I want to ask the council, Mayor, to as soon as possible – immediately if possible – to convene a special session to finalize an offer that was made to him, so that this community can get back on the right track. We’ve had a number of issues over the course of the last year or so with the town managers. And I think we’ve got an excellent opportunity to bring some stability to this community. So, I want to ask council to move on this as quickly as possible,” Rogers concluded.
“We have a closed right after this,” Amber Morris pointed out of the coming closed session as the meeting’s final agenda item. The first of three items listed was “the discussion, consideration, assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body, specifically the Town Manager” (emphasis added). Other topics included the potential leasing of town property and legal advice regarding an “Agreement with Discover Front Royal” as required by Virginia State Codes. A final Closed/Executive Session notation was that “Council may take further action in open session.”
Just about an hour-and-a-half after convening to closed session at 8 p.m., at 9:29 p.m. council emerged from its Closed, Executive Session, at which point Mayor Chris Holloway called for a motion. Councilwoman Morris immediately responded: “Yes, Mr. Mayor, I move that council, there being no executed town manager contract, appoint Finance Director B. J. Wilson as interim town manager, effective immediately, with a salary increase of 10%.”
Seconded by Councilman Gary Gillispie, a roll call vote approved the motion without dissent, at least none apparent, and Mayor Holloway adjourned the meeting after 40 seconds in open session. In the wake of his call for immediate action to finalize a contract with Waltz, Royal Examiner contacted Councilman Rogers for comment on the lack of that action. As 10 p.m. approached, Rogers deferred any comment to the following day.
And on Tuesday, noting he was limited in what he could say due to the content of closed session discussion, Rogers told Royal Examiner this: “I’m disappointed with the council’s decision to seek other candidates, but I will now defer to the council on the process which will follow.”
That there are possibly fatal contract issues between Waltz and the town council is highlighted by the above action in the wake of council’s 5-0 (Thompson absent) November 9th endorsement of Waltz as town manager following another closed session discussion and motion first reported in the above-referenced story. That November 9th motion made by Councilman Gillispie read in its entirety: “Mr. Mayor, I move that council appoint Joe Waltz as town manager for the Town of Front Royal pending ratification of contract. Agreement dates the 21st day of November 2022.”
Well, as of November 28th no contract has been agreed upon by the two parties. Royal Examiner made an initial inquiry last week for a copy of the contract on the table with Waltz from the council clerk. We were told it would be available publicly once ratified. A subsequent emailed query to the town attorney following last night’s meeting was yet responded to by publication.
Open session business
Earlier open session business had been pretty routine, with a nine-item Consent Agenda approved as presented and four public hearings drawing no public comment. However, one of those public hearings, for a Special Use Permit (SUP) for a short-term tourist rental at 206 Lee Street (currently cited as 24 Stonewall Drive) raised an individual property rights versus neighbors’ expectations of a residential standard of access to on-street parking at their properties debate that split council down the middle. The addition of a driveway as a condition of approval was apparently a late addition from information in the agenda packet, which cited no recommended conditions from staff or the planning commission following its public hearing of October 19.
The applicant was listed as “the Minick Group LLC” and its proposal was to rent the entire, relatively small single-family home to short-term visitors. A representative for the applicant described unpaved space for two cars on site and estimated no more than three cars on site from the short-term rental at any one time. Following some discussion, Councilwoman Morris’s initial motion to approve the SUP application as initially presented by staff, with the addition of the driveway, drew a 3-3 tie, Morris, Thompson, Rogers voting “no” and Vice-Mayor Cockrell, Gillispie, and Sealock voting yes. Mayor Holloway broke the tie with a “no” vote. Thompson’s motion, seconded by Morris, to approve the application without the paved driveway addition drew the same 3-3 vote, this time with Morris, Thompson, Rogers voting “yes” and Cockrell, Gillispie, Sealock “no”, and the mayor again breaking the tie, this time with a “yes” vote.
The other three public hearings items were unanimously approved with little council discussion, and as noted above no public comment. The other short-term tourist rental SUP application was at 200 East Main Street where two upstairs apartments were to be rented over a commercial space. The applicant was local real estate developer Douglas Ichiuji. That application passed quickly without dissent.
The other SUP application was for LifePoint Church’s re-opening of a day care center at 111 North Shenandoah Avenue. After expressions of appreciation from several council members for the new daycare center, it too passed without opposition.
The final public hearing was for a Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Amendment adding $14.64 million “to carry forward unpaid balances on purchase orders not completed” as of the June 30, 2022, end of the past fiscal year. Following Gillispie’s observation that all the transferred money was to pay for already approved projects, it too passed without opposition.
Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee Chair tells county supervisors they are poised to repeat EDA financial scandal mistakes
As promised, sports fans – coverage of another side of the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting of November 16th, including Public Comments following the feel-good opening revolving around the life-saving actions of Skyline High students Parker McGann and Carson Richardson. Four Public Comments speakers followed Fire & Rescue Lt. Austin Cucciardo’s opening acknowledgment of the teens to the podium, all four addressing Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District issues. First two up, John Cermak and Kathleen George, addressed specific topics related to sanitary district properties, which we will get to below. But it was the final two speakers who raised troubling issues surrounding the board’s management of the Farms Sanitary District and plans for its accumulated tax revenues currently cited at $3.2 million dollars.
Could the supervisors be ignoring the next financial-scandal powder keg brewing under their noses despite information being brought to them by two successive advisory groups, one of those speakers asked. Continuing with the sports-writing metaphor, last batter up, but first on the “Where did that ball she hit land? – And was it fair or foul?!?” Public Comments speaker list was Sarah Saber. Formerly vice-chair, Saber is now the supervisor-appointed Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee chairperson in the wake of the November 3rd resignation of initial Chairman Bruce Boyle at the conclusion of his final meeting that night.
In explaining his resignation on November 3rd, Boyle expressed frustration at the Advisory Committee’s lack of success in receiving support from the board of supervisors on the committee’s advice concerning which road capital improvement projects should be pursued as the best “bang” for the Farms’ residents’ “bucks” of tax revenue paid to the County, versus conflicting opinions of county staff, Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt and Public Works Director Mike Berry. In fact, Boyle told his committee and others present November 3rd , including November 16th public speaker Joe Andrews and the supervisors’ Farms Advisory Committee liaison Walt Mabe, that he and his wife are planning a move out of Shenandoah Farms and Warren County.
But apparently Boyle is not the only one feeling such frustration levels. Previously, Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) member Joe Longo resigned from the Warren County Planning Commission amidst his concerns the supervisors were running the Farms Sanitary District “like a criminal operation”, concealing information on how and why the district’s tax revenue was being spent as it was over the objection, initially of the POSF Board of Directors, and now it seems contrary to the supervisors’ own appointed advisory committee’s advice.
Enter Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee Chairperson Sarah Saber at the 14:55 mark of the linked County video of the November 16 supervisors meeting. Remember, she’s got three minutes to make her case.
Why have an advisory board if you won’t listen to their advice?
“You all know who I am because you put me on this advisory board after you dissolved our citizen-elected board, which I also was at one point in time a part of,” Saber opened, noting she had left the POSF board in the hope of making a difference within the structure the supervisors had chosen to take, cutting POSF out of the Sanitary District management equation. “Since then I have gotten nothing but blatant unwillingness from you, Delores; from you, Cheryl; from you, Vicky; especially from you, Walt,” she said pointedly to the supervisors’ representative to the Farms Advisory Committee, adding, “Jay as well,” of the absent Jay Butler. “So, I’m done staying involved in the outright, blatant misuse of funds – this is not some conspiracy, this is well-documented. We’re bringing these issues to you and you are allowing your paid employees to look the other way.”
Saber’s reference to “conspiracy” theories appeared to be an acknowledgment that it seems to be individual Farms residents and anti-POSF conspiracy theorists that have the county’s elected officials’ ears more so than their designated Farms advisory groups; first, the community-elected POSF Board of Directors, and now the supervisor-appointed advisory committee Saber chairs. In fact, later in her comments Saber alluded to apparent consequences of certain Farms resident’s anti-POSF allegations.
“And you, Cheryl, have done nothing after you and Delores made such a stink and stomped down to the POSF Inc. office (to) ‘audit us now’ and you want to sit there till 10 o’clock at night and audit our books. And you found nothing (indicative of wrongdoing). But I’ve handed you an illustrated disregard and misuse of funds on a silver platter, and you’ve looked the complete opposite direction. In fact, you’re telling us that we’re wrong. Do you realize how absurd that is?” Saber asked board Chair Cullers, reminding her that she has not attended one of the supervisors-initiated Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee meetings. “You haven’t been to a single one. Do you remember what I said when I sat down at the interview when you hand-appointed me to the position? So, where’s the involvement, where’s the oversight??” Saber asked.
“Now all of you want to be unassociated with the embezzlement scandal, and all of that,” Saber said broaching the “reform” aspect, particularly of the three, three-year tenured supervisors Cullers, Oates, and Mabe, regarding their campaigns for office in the wake of the EDA financial scandal and alleged embezzlement of EDA resources. “But you’re standing here seeing it happen again, and you’re doing nothing. Do you want that on you? Because we’ve got $3-million dollars at stake right now,” Saber said of the Farms Sanitary District’s reported tax revenue account balance ($3.2 million) and the ongoing Farms stakeholders debates with county staff over the direction of that balance’s future use, particularly on road upgrade and maintenance projects.
“And it’s another million every year that you’re watching them piss away. And you’re being told they’re pissing it away and you’re ignoring it,” at which point Board Chair Cullers interrupted Saber to warn her about her use of language to which Saber replied, “Excuse me, piss is not a curse word,” to which Cullers responded, “I know, but let’s remember where we are.”
“Yeah, we’re in front of the government that’s been put in place to not allow our taxpayer funds to be thrown in the trash,” Saber observed, continuing to confront the supervisors over their past financial scandal “reform” image.
“I mean, you’re allowing it to happen again, you’re allowing it to happen. I’ve told you the issues are there. You’ve said ‘Take it to Ed Daley’. Whose employee is Ed Daley? Who has oversight over him? Isn’t that your job? Isn’t that the full reason you’re sitting up there?” Saber pressed her point as Cullers informed Saber her three minutes of Public Comment time had expired, at which point Saber glared at board of supervisors’ advisory committee meeting observer Mabe, offering a parting and less-than-favorable opinion of his liaison work between the board and its advisory committee. At that point Cullers told Saber to leave the podium or be escorted from the premises by Sheriff’s Office security, as Saber returned to her seat with a final held glare Mabe’s way.
Joe Andrews sets the table
Prior to Saber’s pointed assault on the supervisors lack of attention to Advisory Committee advice from Sanitary District stakeholders and blind adherence to staff counterpoints to that advice, Joe Andrews stepped up to the podium to address the supervisors: “I’m here tonight to talk to you about sanitary districts in general – I ask that the County get out of the public’s business. I don’t personally live in a sanitary district. I fear that one day I would. In any one of the neighborhoods where I own property, I’d hate to see the overreach I see in some of these sanitary districts,” Andrews said in opening.
“In Shenandoah Farms what I’ve witnessed is an elected board (POSF) being pretty much done away with. You folks have appointed your own advisory board that you neglect to listen to – That’s a fact, it’s not an opinion. You’ve got a few people between you and the advisory board that are stonewalling you and giving you misinformation. That’s a fact – I witnessed it at the last advisory board meeting (of Nov. 3),” Andrews observed in an apparent reference to involved county staff, as noted above County Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt and Public Works Director Mike Berry, both present as Andrews spoke.
“I would say at this time you really need to keep an eye on the folks you’re putting all this trust in. I see them asking you to spend money on unnecessary equipment; I see them purchasing materials that are improper for the job; I’ve seen them lie and say the materials are cheaper than the alternatives – not the case,” Andrews asserted with a negative head shake. He continued to question an apparent staff recommendation to add a road, Dry Run Court, into the Farms Sanitary District. “That road is going to be a headache for you. It’s something you probably better look into a whole lot more than your trusted folks are telling you. They’re telling you that it’s okay, it’s no big deal. It’ll take a little shoeshine, this road’s going to be okay. Trust me, it’s not the case.
“What I’d like for you folks to consider is getting rid of sanitary districts – get out of it, get out of the business. Let’s give these people their money back. Show them where the books are, show them the books (on sanitary district tax collection balances and revenue expenditures), have some transparency, give them all their money back and get out of the business,” Andrews suggested with an observation he said was offered without malice, only to illustrate why his suggestion should be taken seriously.
“I don’t think you’re equipped … you folks don’t know the road business. You have no business telling these people how to spend their money. And if they spend it the wrong way – let ’em do it. But you can’t tell them how to spend it when you, yourself don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. And the people that are feeding you the information don’t know,” Andrews concluded with a thank you for his three minutes to present his case.
Softer(?) Farms Sanitary District issues
Earlier Public Comments speaker and Farms resident John Cermak asked the board to deny the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) request of Jeffrey Steven Taylor for Private Use Camping on property located off of Howellsville Road listed under “Unfinished Business” in the meeting agenda. Later, after board and staff review of past issues with stored materials and inoperable vehicles on the property, as well as flooding threats to materials that might be kept for camping uses, the board denied the permitting by a 4-0 vote (Butler absent).
Kathleen George then addressed the board concerning “Common Properties” of general use to residents of the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District. She noted the importance of these properties to residents and the necessity of their upkeep and facilities’ public availability regardless of who had ownership or management authority.
Currently those properties are under the ownership and management authority of the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF). POSF, which has been a voluntary membership group creating issues around its status as a POA, was the Farms Sanitary District’s first management entity, circa mid-1990s to 2010/11, and for the next decade official advisors to the County on management issues and Capital Improvement Projects after turning what had climbed to a six-or-seven figure annual Sanitary District management budget over to the county government for direct oversight in 2011. However, the supervisors now appear reluctant to fund POSF for any Sanitary District oversight activities in the wake of POSF’s effort earlier this year to regain management authority by voiding the 11-year-old management agreement between POSF and the County.
That effort, according to POSF officials, was motivated by several years of a lack of financial accounting, and a lack of responsiveness to POSF budget and management inquiries by the new county board majority – Cullers, Mabe, Oates, elected three years ago as “reform” candidates in the wake of the EDA financial scandal. But rather than reinstate POSF as the Sanitary District’s manager, as noted above the county board created its own appointed Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee, while maintaining Farms Sanitary District management authority, cutting POSF out of the equation, other than the aforementioned Common Properties ownership/upkeep.
Perhaps in a hint of what was to come, that supervisors’ reluctance to fund POSF for its existing common properties management in the Farms comes despite the recommendation of its own Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee for at least one year of funding of POSF at $52,000 to cover its existing Common Properties ownership, management responsibilities. No action was taken on this matter Wednesday night.
In other agenda action items, by successive 4-0 votes the board approved one rezoning request and three Conditional Use Permit applications following public hearings. All four were forwarded by the County Planning Commission with recommendations for approval. Those were:
Ray Pennington and W.P. Associates rezoning request from Residential 1 (R-1) to Agricultural (A) for several lots totaling 640+ acres, with as staff noted 741 “previously platted parcels” that are part of a conservation easement accepted by the county in 2012. The staff agenda packet summary noted that: “The applicant is proposing the rezoning to allow for agricultural/forestal land uses and construction of buildings that conform to the Agricultural Zoning district for the large lots which are also consistent with and conforming to uses and development allowed by the conservation easement.” Despite the concern of some neighbors, including Public Hearing speaker Kathleen Mancini, in the vicinity of the property located off Reynolds Dr., Switchback Rd., Elseas Farm Rd., and High Top Rd. in Linden where some past logging activities have occurred, following the background explanation of Planning Director Matt Wendling, on a motion by Supervisor Cook, seconded by Oates, the rezoning was approved by a 4-0 vote.
CUP request of Ryan Wesley Eshelman for Combination of a Single-Family Dwelling Unit and a Commercial Repair Garage & Wrecking Service located at 1034 Rivermont Drive. The staff summary noted: “The property was formerly used as a commercial garage by the applicant’s father, Mark Eshelman who was issued a conditional use permit in October 1987. His father closed the business in 2009 and the permit has since expired. The applicant will be using the existing 36’X 50’ garage shop for repair and will use the existing sign, parking will be along the driveway to the shop on either side. He states that hours of operation will be Monday thru Friday 8:00AM to 5:00PM and that his wife will be the only other employee of the business as an office manager and bookkeeper. All parts and materials related to the auto repair business will be stored inside the garage and storage containers for fluids will be adequately labeled.” On a motion by Oates, seconded by Mabe, the CUP was approved by a 4-0 vote.
CUP request of Cindy L. DuVall for a Short-Term Tourist Rental located at 197 Marissa Court, on a motion by Mabe, seconded by Cook, approved 4-0.
CUP request of Jay Newell for private-use camping (non-commercial) located off Avalon Drive, also approved unanimously on motion by Cook, seconded by Oates.
The board also approved a meeting schedule for calendar year 2023. On a suggestion by Supervisor Oates, the board approved a third scheduling option not submitted by staff, without 9 a.m. meetings scheduled in part to facilitate outside agency monthly updates. Oates noted her and the absent Supervisor Butler’s daytime work schedules in offering the suggestion. Despite some question about its impact on outside agency staff, particularly those traveling from out of town, the board approved the morning-less schedule by a 4-0 vote.
Town Planning Commission punts to December on approval of N. Royal Ave. Short-Term Tourist Rental
The Front Royal Planning Commission met Wednesday November 16 and considered a request by Aaron Hike for a Special Use Permit (SUP) for a short-term-tourist rental for a commercially zoned property at 1116 N. Royal Avenue. The property is under renovation, and the applicant had earlier applied for a permit for a single room in the 5-bedroom dwelling but withdrew that application in order to resubmit a short-term tourist rental application for the entire building for up to 10 occupants. At the public hearing, Dr. Jeremy Bush, an adjoining property owner, complained that construction debris and equipment parked or stored on the lots between were unsightly and adversely impacting his practice. There are five lots in the parcel, and parking for the property is not on the same lot as the gravel parking area. He stated he had repeatedly tried to address the issue with the applicant but had not been able to contact him on the site.
The applicant stated that he was hoping to complete the renovations within 4 to 6 months and had resubmitted the application in the hopes of opening one room for rental while the remaining rooms are being completed.
Commissioners expressed concern about several issues with the proposal, even though it was agreed that a short-term tourist rental was not an inappropriate use for the property.
Commissioner Josh Ingram asked if the permit could be contingent on completing the necessary work and inspections. Deputy Zoning Administrator John Ware responded that completion of the work could be added to the conditions for the SUP, but previous cases where approval was granted in that way had proven to be “messy” if the conditions were not met.
Chairman Daryl Merchant questioned the parking arrangements for the proposed use. Potentially, some of the lots could be sold off in the future, leaving the facility without adequate parking. And the North
Royal Avenue entrance to the parking area is unsafe because of the sight distance on the southbound lanes. Entry to the parking area would be much safer from the alley, but the sketches in the application package don’t clearly show how the parking would be arranged. The zoning ordinance specifies that off-street parking for short-term tourist rentals must be within 300 feet of the facility, and the adjacent lots fulfill that requirement.
Further discussion ensued, and the commissioners, on a motion by Commissioner Ingram, seconded by Commissioner Daniel Wells, voted to postpone action on the permit application until the December 21 meeting. This should allow the planning staff to work with the applicant to resolve the questions the commission had about the finished project. The ordinance requires an application to be acted on within 90 days of referral to the commission.
The Commission’s revised Consent Agenda consisted of five items to be advertised for public hearing:
Yaohua Gu has requested an SUP for short-term tourist rental for a property at 309 E. Prospect Street. The property is zoned Residential Multifamily (R-3) and is in the Historic Overlay district.
Tabatha Luskey has requested an SUP for a property at 302 Blue Ridge Avenue. The property is zoned Residential Multifamily (R-3) and is in the Historic Overlay district.
Philip Vaught has requested an SUP for a Lodging House located at 140 Chester Street. The property is Zoned Downtown Business District (C-2) and is in the Historic Overlay district
NVR Ryan Homes has requested a rezoning from Residential Estate (R-E) to Residential (R-1A) According to the town’s zoning ordinance, “The R-1A District is designed to accommodate single-family residential development of a medium density on smaller individual lots. The standards for this district are designed to stabilize and protect the character of the designated areas and to protect and encourage a suitable environment for family life.” The applicants have submitted a concept plan that shows the development of up to 142 single-family dwellings.
HEPTAD, LLC has submitted amended proffers for its subdivision proposal for a Housing Development off Leach Run Parkway. The Swan Estates proposal has been floated in various forms since at least 2006. At one time it included 98 Acres and up to 450 homes.
These five items were approved for an authorization to advertise for public hearings at the Planning Commission’s December 21st regular meeting.
In separate discussions after the Consent Agenda, the Commission heard an update on the status of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan update, which is nearing completion as a final draft. The Commission will hold a Work Session on December 7th, and Chairman Merchant reminded the commissioners that there may still be public comments and suggestions from the session held on November 7th that the Department should make use of as the final version is prepared. The draft Comprehensive Plan is here.
Interim Town Manager Kathleen Leidich gave the commission an update on progress of the Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) for the current fiscal year. The CIP report is a 5-year look forward primarily of infrastructure improvements that benefit the town. Of current interest is the Primary Paving Plan, which is scheduled to be completed by mid-December. A total of 24 Streets were projected to be resurfaced, of which all but 7 are complete.
After adjournment of the regular meeting, the commission held a work session to review a Rezoning application submitted by Chris Holloway Construction, the mayor’s company, on behalf of Randolph-Macon Academy to rezone a 6.2 acre parcel along West Main Street from Residential (R-1) to Residential (R-3) The R-3 Residential District is composed of medium-to-high density concentrations of residential uses. A sketch of the proposed improvements on the parcel show a group of 6 townhouses on a side hill at an angle to West Main Street. It’s unclear whether the Town’s Zoning ordinance will allow a development without dividing a parcel into townhouse lots. The Commission will have to determine with the Planning department whether an SUP would be required since the property is part of the R-MA campus. The Town would have to provide sewer connection from West Main Street, but access to the homes would come from existing paved roads on the campus. A public hearing on the request will be held on November 30th.
Former town manager Steven Hicks lands, loses top job in Louisburg, NC
Former Front Royal Town Manager Steven W. Hicks, who was recently offered a job as town administrator of Louisburg, NC, apparently had the offer rescinded prior to his Nov. 7 start date.
In an about-face, Louisburg’s finance director of 14-plus years, Sean Medlin, was offered the job, which he accepted.
The Louisburg Town Council had apparently been searching for several months for a new manager before narrowing the field to four applicants, according to a source familiar with Louisburg’s search process. Both Hicks and Medlin were among the final four candidates.
Hicks was apparently selected by the Louisburg Town Council during a six-hour executive session on Monday, Oct. 31. When the council returned to an open meeting that evening, Hicks was announced as the new town administrator, though no formal vote was taken.
Because no vote was recorded during the Monday meeting, the council held a Friday, Nov. 4 special afternoon meeting. By the meeting’s end, the panel had moved to withdraw Hicks’ offer and instead extend an offer to Sean Medlin, who has served over 14 years as Louisburg’s finance director.
A source familiar with the events of the special meeting said it began with Mayor Christopher Neal asking the council to honor the consensus he said it had reached at the closed session Monday meeting, noting that all had agreed on the selection of Hicks at the time.
However the Friday roll-call vote shows that only Mayor Neal and Council members Emma Stewart and Bobby Dickerson voted “yes” for Hicks. Council members Tom Clancy, Mark Russell and Silke Stein voted “no,” resulting in a 3-to-3 tie. Council member Betty Wright was absent.
At that point, according to a source who was at the meeting, Mayor Neal acknowledged a Nov. 3 edition of local newspaper, The Franklin Times, which detailed some unflattering information regarding Hicks’ tenure as town manager of Selma, NC and also regarding his time as Front Royal’s administrator.
Mayor Neal said the town had done a “thorough background” search on Hicks and told the panel he believed Hicks was a solid choice who had “excellent qualifications.”
At that point, Councilman Russell pointed out that Hicks had either been fired or asked to leave his last two jobs — and said the council’s second choice “was a proven town employee.” He then made the motion to offer the job to Medlin. Council then voted 4-to-2 to offer the job to Medlin — who quickly accepted when the mayor called him following the meeting.
That Franklin Times’ story cited published reports from news stories in both Selma, and Front Royal, Va. newspapers, as well as interviews, as the source of its information on Hicks.
The newspaper detailed Hicks’ short tenure as Selma, NC’s town manager and his resignation under pressure from several council members. It quoted Selma, N.C. Mayor Byron McCallister’s September, 2020 statement to the press that said, in part, “I began hearing from citizens and town staff (who) were concerned about the performance of our town manager. The truth is that most of the council at that time felt Hicks was not taking Selma in the right direction.”
McAllister said at the time that he and another council member asked Hicks to resign, in part, because “Hicks pushed a budget that shrunk our police department and cut maintenance funds for emergency responders.”
The article relayed that McAllister referred to Hicks a “low profile leader” and said “residents were complaining about not seeing our town manager in town.”
“I visited town hall regularly to find that Mr. Hicks had often not shown up to the office by 10 a.m.,” McAllister said. “I do not believe Hicks was the right fit for Selma.”
On Dec. 7, 2020, Hicks was hired as Front Royal’s town manager, and was lauded by town officials.
The Franklin Times detailed Front Royal’s then Vice Mayor Bill Sealock statement that the council knew about Hicks’ problems in Selma, and felt that Hicks’ departure from the Selma town manager’s position “was a political issue” largely revolving around “personality,” to which the vice mayor added of Hicks potential management style, “He is quite pushy.”
Front Royal’s media release at the time of Hicks’ hire indicated that he had been chosen after a year-long search involving 80 candidates.
Sealock said, “Finding the right candidate took longer than we expected. Council knew what they wanted in a manager and was patient to find the right town manager for our community. I believe our efforts have paid off by having the best candidate possible. I’m excited to see what Steven will bring to our town government, businesses, and community.”
Upon announcing Hick’s appointment, Mayor-elect Chris Holloway stated, “Hicks was selected because of his impressive leadership in operations, bringing business in communities, developing fiscally conservative budgets, managing enterprise departments, and delivering complex infrastructure projects on-time and on-budget.”
However, less than two years into his job, Hicks was terminated in August, 2022, following a 90-minute executive session discussing the performance of both Hicks and Interim Town Attorney James Cornwell Jr. Council, with Mayor Chris Holloway casting the tie-breaking vote, by a 4-3 margin terminated Hicks’ contract. Cornwell’s contract was also terminated.
The Franklin Times reported that Hick’s problems in Front Royal began when Front Royal Town Attorney Douglas Napier conducted an investigation into whether Hicks had expedited a subdivision application by Mayor Christopher Holloway.
The paper cited Napier’s report, “In this case, it is clear from all staff reports that the town manager in effect personally “carried the ball” for Holloway’s application by the town manager himself making sure that the Planning and Public Works Departments and their staffs knew that the town manager was overseeing the subdivision application for Holloway and the town manager wanted this application expedited as quickly as possible.”
The town attorney said that the interim planning director felt there was at least an implicit pressure to sign the (mayor’s) subdivision plat as soon as it was presented to him.
“It was presented to him by his boss, the town manager, in the presence of the mayor, the interim planning director did not feel he had the time, nor did he take the time, to review the town code to be certain the correct town code procedures were being followed,” Napier wrote in his report.
Hicks would have earned a salary of $130,000 per year plus medical, dental, vision, life insurance, a five-percent contribution to a 401(K) supplemental retirement plan and enrollment in the local Government Employees Retirement System. He was also approved for relocation expenses up to $2,500.
Royal Examiner reached out to Louisburg Mayor Christopher Neal regarding the town’s abrupt decision to renege on its job offer to Hicks, but the official did not return our call.
Regarding his selection as Louisburg’s town administrator, Medlin said, “It is an honor to be the next Administrator for the Town of Louisburg. I look forward to working with Mayor, the Town Council, staff, and citizens to accomplish projects as we move the Town of Louisburg forward.”
‘Keep your expectations low’ Gillispie warns newest Councilman Rogers on revisiting EDA dynamics towards end of council work session
The Front Royal Town Council work session of Monday evening, November 14, began with just over 42 minutes of work session discussion of fairly routine matters. Those included authorization of several Special Use Permit (SUP) applications for public hearings on, guess what – two Short Term Rentals, one at 200 East Main Street (upper floor rentals) and another at 206 Lee Street (currently listed as 24 Stonewall Drive, full home rentals) – as well as one SUP application by Life Point Church to re-institute a daycare center at its 1111 North Shenandoah Avenue location; and a longer list of nine matters scheduled for Consent Agenda approval of more routine, if occasionally expensive budgetary, authorizations. All were approved for inclusion on the November 28 regular meeting agenda.
Two other agenda items were then addressed and authorized by council without dissent (Zach Jackson absent). First was an update to the Employee Handbook, adding “Juneteenth” (June 19th) as an official holiday commemorating notice of the post-Civil War end of slavery. Second was the donation of a “Retired” bucket truck to the Warren County Public Works Department. Responding to questions about the truck’s value, cited by Councilman Gary Gillispie as once about $100,000, and Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell from one source more recently at $15,000, Interim Town Manager Kathleen Leidich noted that with its length of service and accumulated mileage, the bucket truck was now “fully depreciated” with essentially no assessed value. On a side note, a line item in the “FY23 Budget Amendment for Outstanding Purchase Orders” section of the agenda indicated a current price of $180,000 for “Replacement of Bucket Truck”.
With the County Public Work’s interest indicating its being seen as of some value today, likely for restoration maintenance or spare parts, Vice-Mayor and Mayor-elect Cockrell, chairing the meeting for absent Mayor Chris Holloway, called the donation a positive indication of cooperation between the town and county governments. At a time when the Town continues to pursue hostile civil litigation against the now-County overseen FR-WC EDA over disputed liabilities and lost assets from the financial scandal circa 2014-2018, such gestures may be more valued.
Town EDA suit legal costs
On a side note, that the Town’s civil litigation against the FR-WC EDA is running up some expenses was indicated, if not directly addressed by council, in Monday’s meeting agenda packet. Under Item 2D – “FY23 Budget Amendment for Outstanding Purchase Orders” on page 13 of the agenda packet, page 1 of the Budget Amendment package, under “Legal Dept.” budget line item 2201, are listed “LEGAL FEES EDA COURT CASE – $158,139” and “AUDITING SERVICES TO SUPPORT EDA CASE – $26,155” for a total of $184,294 of taxpayer money. As has been previously reported by Royal Examiner, that civil litigation was launched by council over the objection of then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, circa 2019/20, despite a reformed FR-WC EDA staff and Board of Directors offer of “good-faith negotiations” to determine who was owed exactly what from what was cited as the unauthorized movement of EDA, Town, and County assets to personal gain alleged by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and co-conspirators during the 2014-2018 time frame.
In civil litigation the now-County overseen FR-WC EDA has been awarded, on paper at least, about $23 million of the estimated $26 million in assets cited as misdirected as part of the financial scandal. However, on the now dueling Town/FR-WC EDA civil litigation fronts both sides have only legal expenses to show for their efforts with little, if any, time yet spent in a courtroom. And town residents, as dual town-county citizens, find themselves in the position of paying taxes to support both sides’ legal costs.
But perhaps we jumped the gun above in stating that council didn’t “directly address” the potential expense of its decisions regarding its former half-century-old joint EDA and current unilaterally created Front Royal EDA (FREDA). Because after the first six work session agenda topics, the final of those being an “Update of Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) by Interim Town Manager Leidich, council reached the “Open Discussion” portion of the meeting. That is for non-agenda items of concern to council members. And among those were several from recently appointed Councilman Skip Rogers on topics he said had been brought to him by constituents, including: “About FREDA and the Front Royal-Warren County EDA”.
Rogers told council he had been discussing the topic with Councilman Gillispie, and has broached it in a preliminary manner with council as a whole. “I really do want to have an opportunity to try and open up a communication line and to just sit down and kind of talk about things, whatever that might be … And I would like Gary to join me and kind of see what we can do – and it may go nowhere,” Rogers admitted, adding, “But just for me in my time on council, it’s one of those things I want to address” at which point Gillispie entered the conversation, reminding Rogers of something he told him during their one-on-one conversations on the topic.
“I told you to keep your expectations low,” Gillispie said, drawing some laughter from his colleagues.
“We’ll see,” Rogers replied, perhaps remaining as optimistic as a shorter-tenured (as in weeks) council member might be on such topics that may have developed a litigious or municipal momentum of their own regardless of operational costs or likelihood of legal success. The conversation then segued into discussion of the topic of blighted properties and illegal activities that may occur in or around them, such as drug use in the community.
“I really do like the conversation we’re having on blighted buildings … and I want to move it further than blighted buildings,” Rogers said, gaining a head of steam for what he pointed out is the last 11 months of his 12-month appointed tenure. “I really do believe there’s something we can do to approach some of the areas that may be problem areas … and let’s see what we may be able to do – and we may not be able to do anything. But I want to make a real effort to identify those areas that seem to be consistent with drug use, drug arrests, and overdoses.”
Surviving the chair’s humorous reminder that, as he had noted, he only had 11 months left for his initiatives, Rogers then tackled one close to council’s collective interests – the partisan political committee endorsement of elected town office candidates in what by Town Charter is supposed to be a non-partisan town election.
“I want to start an open conversation … I would really like us to address the Town Charter, the non-partisan elections, and whether or not we’re really following our guidelines in this town as it relates to identifying non-partisan elections as it relates to engaging the entire community and not maybe isolating some of them because of Hatch Act and other things,” Rogers said acknowledging federal laws disqualifying federal employees from participation in politically partisan elections.
Subsequent discussion on these final two topics raised concerns first, on a blanket policy regarding blighted structures negatively impacting poorer segments of the community not involved in such illegal activities as cited. Vice-Mayor Cockrell suggested involving as many “stakeholders” as possible, including county and town law enforcement, landlords and motel owners, to try and rectify the situation without a blanket effort that would ban poorly kept residential properties often a last resort for lower income individuals and families. Rogers agreed, noting previous discussion with some of those stakeholders.
On the partisan election topic, Councilwoman Morris herself, like Mayor-elect Cockrell and all but independent conservative Bruce Rappaport, an incoming Warren County Republican Committee endorsed candidate in this November’s town election, cited the party line on such charter violation concerns. That line is that there is a legal distinction between an “endorsed” candidate and one “nominated” by a political party, nomination resulting in an “R” or “D” by a candidates’ name on the official election ballot. How that line may be blurred by sample ballots with party designations handed out at polling places on Election Day, or a published offer by a WC Republican Committee recruitment official to fully handle “endorsed” candidates’ campaigns, has not yet been addressed by a partisan endorsed-dominated council or its legal staff. Might it be over the next 11 months? Stay tuned, sports fans.
See the work session’s six action items, including budget status and transfers for coming and delayed Capital Improvement Projects, discussed over the first 42-plus minutes of the linked Town video. The Open Discussion” begins at the 42:50 mark, with Councilman Rogers’s Open Discussion remarks starting at the 52-minute video mark.