Front Royal cuts ribbon on $45-million in wastewater treatment plant upgrades
As the town’s mid-town sewer system was being tested by the torrential downpour that dumped over three-quarters of an inch of rain in about 40 minutes early Monday evening (May 14) Front Royal officials gathered to mark completion of upgrades to the Town’s Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP).
Shaking the rain off of what appeared NOT to be a water-resistant suit, Mayor Hollis Tharpe took the ceremonial ribbon cutting honors – moved indoors at the WWTP to prevent further drenching of those present to mark the occasion.
In addition to town officials, staff, WWTP personnel, a member of the Warren County Board of Supervisors (which contributed $2.5 million to the project) and one local reporter who braved the deluge to attend (there was food), also on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony were representatives of construction company Adams-Robinson Enterprises of Dayton, Ohio and project engineer GHD of Bowie, Maryland.
Commenting on completion of the $45-million in upgrades Town Manager Joe Waltz noted that construction had been underway for three-years, but that the project had been on the table for about a decade.
“This $45-million plant will be able to treat 5.3 million gallons of sewage each day removing nitrogen and phosphorus to improve the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The project was funded with an approximate $12-million grant from the DEQ with the remaining funds through a zero-interest loan through the Virginia Resource Authority,” Waltz observed.
The Front Royal Town Council approved funding of the project on December 8, 2014, as final deadlines on beginning work were looming after four years of discussion of how to meet state and federal Chesapeake Bay Act mandates.
As 2015 approached the town government faced getting down to business on the upgrades designed to clean up waterways in the Chesapeake Bay watershed or face penalties. The Shenandoah River from which the Town takes and redeposits its central water supply is one of those waterways feeding into the bay.
The mandated upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment facilities were part of a state and federal effort to protect the Chesapeake Bay’s annual multi-million-dollar fishing and seafood industry from increasing pollution threatening the bay’s aquatic life.
Following the ribbon cutting Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt expressed concern to this reporter that the town government would find itself in a similar position to that of 2014 in another three years or so. That is due to the absence of upgrades that deal with the introduction of certain pharmaceutical pollutants into wastewater.
Tewalt expressed frustration with both the state DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for the failure to include the upgrades in the just-completed project. However, referencing research this reporter did in 2014, the absence of the pharmaceutical aspect to the town WWTP upgrades faced a number of variables.
During discussion of the December 8, 2014 approval of a bond issue of up to $50 million to cover the costs of the project, then-Councilman Darryl Funk called inclusion of the pharmaceutical aspect to the upgrades “cost prohibitive”.
To Tewalt’s point it was also observed that there was ongoing discussion at the EPA about whether the pharmaceutical cleansing aspect should be included in wastewater or water plant upgrades. However, whether that discussion originated inside the EPA or with outside interests lobbying for pharmaceutical or other corporate interests was unclear. Prior to the start of the WWTP project, the Town had previously spent about $6-million on upgrades to its water plant.
As part of its late 2014 decision on financing the project the town accepted the low bid of $44,471,000 from Adams-Robinson for the construction project. Contingencies ($2.2 million) and bond counsel costs ($20,000) raised the potential project cost to $46,694,550.
Responding to questions at the time, then-Town Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden told council the annual bond payments would be a little under $1 million, with a 20-year payoff ending in 2037.
When the upgrade mandate first came to the Town’s attention in 2011 projected costs were in the $35 million dollar range. However, the fact the town was able to secure the interest fee loan through Virginia Resource Authority and $12-million in DEQ grant funding may have helped neutralize rising costs over the delay in starting the long-mandated improvements – OR that funding assistance might have been available from the start and the delay actually did cost the town’s taxpayers $10-million.
Contacted about the above costs and funding variables, current Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson verified the 2037 bond payoff date; but elaborated that the Town has two annual payments of $984,440 – so the annual debt service is just under $2 million a year, or $1,968,880 to be precise.
As for the 2011 or so availability of Virginia Resource Authority interest free loans or DEQ grant funding, Wilson was unable to access a time machine to make such a call.
Town Planning Commission OKs Warren Coalition recovery house
At its regular meeting on March 15, the Planning Commission reviewed a proposal by the Warren Coalition to locate an addiction recovery house in its facility at 200 North Royal Avenue. The Special Use Permit (SUP) for a “lodging house” attracted 9 speakers at the public hearing, two of which were occupants or owners of nearby properties.
Zoning Administrator John Ware briefed the commission on the ordinances controlling the use. The property has been used as a lodging house in the past, from 1989 to 2019, prior to the adoption of the ordinance. Because that use ceased for more than 3 years, the ordinance requires the SUP. The property does have adequate parking, and the planning staff recommended approval subject to the occupancy not exceeding 10 persons, and parking to be provided for 8 vehicles.
Warren Coalition Executive Director Christa Shifflett addressed the commission about the specifics of the proposal, which calls for a residential capacity not to exceed 10 persons, with average stay length of 9-12 months. Residents are expected to have or get jobs, and the coalition assists with miscellaneous needs such as specialized clothing or interim transportation. The facility will not provide meals for the residents, but has a kitchen facility that residents can use to prepare meals for themselves. Residents will be responsible for obtaining their own supplies, living items, and proof of employment to qualify to live in the facility. Shifflett also said that security cameras will be extensively employed inside and outside the facility. The rules established for the facility include a provision for regular drug screening. Substance abuse or violent behavior will be grounds for immediate termination. All residents will be required to be in some form of outpatient treatment, including but not limited to counseling thru Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Currently, a lack of local residential recovery facilities in this region may require prospective residents to travel as far away as Richmond or Virginia Beach, meaning there is an additional time and travel burden on families and residents who come from the local area.
Chairman Darryl Merchant opened the public hearing to hear from 9 speakers. Two speakers were property owners in the immediate area of the subject property. Phil Caslavka owns a nearby residence on Virginia Avenue. He surfaced the concern that there is drug-dealing and usage activity in the immediate area. “In this block we already have a problem with drug-related issues”, he said.
Mr. Caslavka also cited instances of confrontations with violent individuals, even finding a knife under the window of his daughter’s room, finding drug paraphernalia and beer bottles in his yard. He concluded by saying, “We do have a current problem here, and I don’t think this would be something that would help that problem.”
Stephen Bieker, whose property adjoins the proposed lodging house, also addressed the commission, describing drug dealing in the bank parking lot next door, discarded needles in his yard, previous instances of violent behavior by residents in the former lodging house, to the extent that he put up a fence between the properties to protect his children. He reminded the commission that the building was in a “Drug-free zone” and a zone. “I don’t believe it would be a good fit for our town.”
Seven more speakers spoke in favor of the facility, among them recovering addicts who had benefited from similar facilities. Brandon Butler spoke eloquently of the need for recovering addicts to have someplace safe to go when completing treatment – a place to find employment, stability, and acceptance. He spoke of his own experience in recovery and readjusting to a normal life. He also addressed the resident’s concerns about existing drug activity in the area. “I’ve been an addict for over 20 years of my life, and I know if you put a recovery house in a neighborhood, it kind of pushes away that element, if it’s there.”
It was observed that those in addiction treatment programs and recovery facilities are as a rule people who want to make the change in their lives to stay away from addictive behavior and not relapse into substance abuse that has already negatively impacted, not only their lives, but often the lives of family members around them.
Michael Hall, who will be the facility’s resident manager and Peer Recovery Specialist, also addressed the Commission to talk about his own experience with recovery and treatment.
“What addicts need most is hope, and without a place to go to get started, it’s hard to sustain the hope you have when you finish treatment. This house will provide that stable, safe environment,” Hall told the commissioners.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, the commissioners had the opportunity to question the Warren Coalition executive director. Commissioner Michael Williams had a series of questions. “You mentioned that the residents would be referred. What agency or entity will be doing the referring?” Answer: “Residents will be referred from local treatment facilities such as National Capital Region in Fairfax, several facilities in Richmond, as far away as Galax – these are local people who are in treatment that far away.”
After extensive discussion, the commission, on a motion by Commissioner Williams, seconded by Commissioner Connie Marshner, voted unanimously to recommend approval of the permit with the cited rules, oversight and surveillance to assure house ruled are observed. The request will now go to the town council for final action.
The Commission also voted to advertise a public hearing on April 19 for the Town’s Comprehensive Plan update. The commission and planning department have been working on that project for over a year.
The Meeting was adjourned at 7:50 p.m.
Watch the full video on the Town website.
Supervisors tackle permitting dynamics for Rural Events Facility, building inspection and permitting fee hikes, and Corridor utility hook up issues
At a 3-plus-hour work session of Tuesday, March 14, the Warren County Board of Supervisors and staff reviewed a proposed zoning text amendment to fill definitional gaps in local and state codes regarding Rural Events Facility uses related to overnight accommodations, which segued into a somewhat related “Guidelines for Short-Term Tourist Rentals”. After those discussions County Building Code Official David Beahm wrapped the work session up, with some assistance from Planning Director Matt Wendling, presenting two options to increase inspection and permitting fees on building projects to improve the percentage of departmental costs covered by fees collected by the County in those processes. The meeting opened with discussion of a Pump and Haul Sewage Permit Request from Front Royal Self Storage in the Route 340/522 North Corridor. Other business included a “Modification Request for Conditional Use Permit” by Gillian Greenfield & Richard Butcher for Private Use Camping (Non-Commercial) Located off Beech Road.
In reviewing Shelly Cook’s permitting for her Rural Events Facility project on over 40 acres of working Agricultural land housing a vineyard operation, the board seemed anxious to find a way to allow her Rural Events Facility to get maximum use of residential cabins built as part of the project. Cook noted her neighbors all supported her planned use as an alternative to commercial or residential development. Cook noted she is a Class A contractor and 50-year resident of Warren County.
She explained her Rural Events Center initiative as an attempt to increase revenue enough to “save” her farmland for an Agricultural use established in 2019. One concern, particularly of Chairman Vicky Cook, was that the board not set a precedent that could be applied to Short-Term Tourist Rentals. During the discussion Deputy County Administrator Taryn Logan observed that tying the overnight cabin use of 7 days or less to events held at the Rural Events Facility, predicted by Cook to occur on a weekly basis, would appear to accommodate the facility’s residential usage being a separate one from short-term rentals, which also have a longer 30-day maximum staying period. See details of the Rural Events Center discussion beginning at the 44:30 video mark, transitioning to the Short Term Tourist Rental guidelines at the 1:32:20 mark.
In presenting his proposal for building inspections fee increases County Building Official Beahm estimated that with current fees, on a good year about 60% of the County’s fees are covered, on a “bad year” only 40% are, leaving the County absorbing from 40% to 60% of its costs annually. With Option 1 Beahm estimated 80% to 90% of costs being covered, with Option 2 he guaranteed 100% coverage of Building and Planning Departmental costs on inspections and permitting. Beahm recommended adoption of Option 1 due to the suggested fees being closer to surrounding jurisdictions existing fees. The accompanying agenda packet charts showed an existing Standard Construction minimum fee on Residential buildings in Warren County at $50, with Option 1 recommended raising that to $100, and Option 2 to $150. The existing minimum fee on Commercial structures is $75, with Option 1 at $150 and Option 2 at $200.
For comparison, existing fees in the Town of Culpeper are $75 Residential and $125 Commercial; Fauquier County $100 Residential and $150 Commercial; Shenandoah County $100 Residential and $150 Commercial; Frederick County not listed for Residential, with $120 Commercial; and Winchester City at $46 Residential and $69 Commercial. Beahm’s presentation and board discussion begins at the 2:29:15 video mark, ending at the 3:07:35 mark.
Pump and Haul Permit applicant David Printz of Front Royal Self Storage described issues with being unable to find underground space to install the necessary infrastructure, particularly to connect to Town central sewer service. Prince told the supervisors he began digging for infrastructure space on December 1st last year and had still not found a way through underground rock into the second or third week of January. “There’s a reason it’s called Rockland,” it was observed of the north-side county area.
Staff observed approval wouldn’t create a precedent for the use by right, due to the particular hardship circumstance discovered underground at the property. It was also suggested that county staff communicate the intent to approve the special circumstance permitting to town public works staff to assure they did not have issue with it. North River District Supervisor Delores Oates wondered if Front Royal Self Storage was able to receive central water from the Town but not sewer, if the Town would be able to adjust its system of charging customers for sewer based on their water usage. See this discussion beginning at the :00 mark of the linked county video due to a late hook-up of the live-stream broadcast, concluding at the 38:50 video mark.
The Greenfield/Butcher Conditional Use Permit modification on a Private Use Camping application seemed to be headed for a rather routine approval as the applicants agreed to all the staff recommended changes. Supervisor Oates observed the only notable change in the process was removing feedback from the Shenandoah Shores Property Owners Association out of the equation. This matter is addressed from the 38:50 to 44:30 marks in the County video.
Staff targets nearly flat Fiscal Year-2024 Budget and updated Comp Plan vision for Front Royal’s future – and there’s going to be a FR Karate Club Proclamation!
At 7 p.m., Monday, March 13, the Front Royal Town Council held a work session at Town Hall to be updated by staff on the status of development of the Fiscal Year-2024 budget and the long-overdue update to the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Finance Director B. J. Wilson handled the budget presentation to open the meeting. Then after a review of six items and their costs slated for inclusion on the upcoming March 27th regular meeting’s Consent Agenda, first Public Works Director Robbie Boyer, then Planning Director Lauren Kopishke double-teamed the status of Capital Improvements and the Comp Plan update.
Boyer reviewed looming Capital Improvement Projects the Town will have to finance and Kopishke reviewed the Comp Plan outline being developed under various categories based on the public input received from citizens on what they feel are the most important social and developmental issues facing the town government in coming years. Boyer’s presentation begins at the 1:04:00 mark of linked Town video, Kopishke’s at 1:35:35 video mark for those seeking additional detail on those presentations.
Among the Consent Agenda items slated for the March 27th meeting will be a “Proclamation” acknowledging the 50th anniversary of a local business – the Front Royal Karate Club of Sensei Arthur “Art” Drago (discussion at 46-minute mark of Town video). The Front Royal Karate Club, located for all of those 50 years at 7 Kidd Lane just off East Main Street in Historic Downtown Front Royal, will commemorate its 1973 founding with a “buffet-style celebration” from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, April 8 at Moose Lodge #829 at 1340 John Marshall Highway (Route 55 East) on the southeast side of town.
More remarkable than the longevity of the martial arts club itself, is that of Sensei Drago, who still trains and works out with his students, many aiming for black belt level promotions, while having entered his eighth decade on the planet — GO Art!!! In fact, two black belt promotions will sandwich the anniversary celebration by several days.
But back in the municipal trenches, due to technical difficulties with the live-stream broadcast Finance Director Wilson’s budget presentation is picked up at the :00 mark of the linked Town video. Highlights include a $49.7-million budget proposal, that is a $1.7-million increase (3.6%) over last year’s FY-2023 budget of $47.9 million.
Noted was $16 million earmarked into personnel, including adjustments to some staff positions from part-time to full-time. Aspects of those personnel aspects of the town budget include:
- Inclusion of Compensation Study Salaries – $425,117
- 1% C.O.L.A. – $129,170
- 2% Average Merit Increase – $280,075
- 1.7% Health insurance increase $28,185
Following the budget presentation, discussion of the March 27th meeting Consent Agenda topics included:
Riverton Pump Station Engineering with professional services cost of $162,900 of a total $570,000 purchase order budgeted for the Pump Station upgrade project. It was noted that this pump station collects all the sewer waste from the 522 North Corridor and Viscose City Area.
Various Single Phase Pad-Mounted Transformers of which it was noted: “On February 23, 2023, the Town held a public opening for request of quotations for various transformers and received 2 quotations in accordance with the Virginia Public Procurement Act. Council is requested to approve the purchase of (5) 25 kVA and (5) 50 kVA Single-Phase URD Pad-Mounted Transformers in the amount of $47,855.00 from Jerry’s Electric, Inc., in Colman, SD.
Three-Phase Pad-Mounted Transformer – Council is requested to approve the purchase of a 1000 kVA Three-Phase Pad-Mounted transformer, totaling $63,941.47 with a lead time of 3-5 weeks, to Wesco/Anixter, of Ashland, VA.
Council also agreed to authorize a Resolution approving Town’s participation in proposed settlement of opioid-related claims against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors with settlement funds to be used to help remediate damages caused by the opioid epidemic. It was explained that settlement money will go directly only to cities and counties, but that the Town’s participation is likely to up the amount settled in the Virginia claims. The benefit to the town will come indirectly, but hopefully be achieved. This discussion begins at the 40:55 video mark.
And in a late item added to the work session agenda (48:15 video mark), council discussed a proposed town code text amendment that would allow a recently deceased minister at Dynamic Life Ministries to be buried on the church property. Council decided to try and speed up the process to facilitate the burial if the code can be changed to accommodate setback rules in local or state codes on cemetery or graveyard criteria.
Watch the March 13th Town Council Work Session here.
County Planning Commission considers County Fair parking and Reliance Road Church proposals – Rockland rezoning tabled to June
The Warren County Planning Commission held its regular meeting on March 8 at the Government Center. For the first time, all the members were using County-supplied tablets and electronic copies of the agenda package. The CivicClerk system enables the department to distribute information paperlessly to the members and to the press (this agenda’s documentation package ran to 430 pages!), thereby saving taxpayer money and staff time and radically reducing waste.
Chairman Robert Myers began the meeting by announcing a highly anticipated rezoning request – to rezone a 103.8-acre parcel of the present Shenandoah Valley Golf Club to allow the development of 286 single-family age-restricted homes was being removed from the agenda. The applicant, SVGC owner Richard Runyon, told Royal Examiner he requested the extension to June to allow a VDOT report to be completed and accommodate more public interaction. Planning Department staff had already notified the Commission of some conflict with the County’s Comprehensive Plan and Future land use maps.
Fully half of the attendees at the Commission’s meeting left after hearing that the SVGC zoning map and comprehensive plan requests had been – temporarily – withdrawn.
Once the room had cleared, the Commission proceeded with the reduced agenda.
The Warren County Fair Association has requested a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for a Motor Freight Terminal for their Industrial (I)-zoned property at 274 Fairground Road in the North River District. Despite the terminology, the request is for a 5.8-acre parking area for overflow empty trailer parking from the Family Dollar facility across Fairground Road. Spokesman Dennis Grove told the commission that the Fair Association can derive some revenue for its operations by leasing the parcel for the temporary storage of empty trailers. The trailers are parked in the overflow lot while empty only.
The Commissioners discussed the proposal at some length and questioned the site preparation and potential impact on surrounding properties. Vice Chairman Henry asked if some of the recommended conditions could be waived since the intent is not a permanent hardstand area. The property had previously been approved as a contractor’s material storage area, but that permit had expired. In the end, the Commission voted to table the application until the applicant could provide a general site plan and consultation with the Family Dollar representative regarding the improvements to be made.
Eric Wayne Adams has applied for a short-term tourist rental CUP for his property at 1850 Gooney Manor Loop in Browntown in the South River District. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and is currently being built. There were no speakers either for or against and, on a Motion by Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Scott Kersjes, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
Elena Gallo is requesting a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for her property at 242 Parnassus Road in the Happy Creek District. The property is zoned Residential (R-1). This request included a setback waiver since there are only 80 feet of distance to the nearest property and not the required 100 feet. The applicant provided letters from all the neighboring properties supporting the proposed use, including the property nearest the site that would require the waiver. There were no speakers at the public hearing. A brief discussion among the commissioners about the possibility of establishing a precedent by allowing the waiver ended with an agreement that every application stands on its own merits, and in this case, the approval of the neighboring property owners strongly supports the waiver. On a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Kaylee Richardson, the Commission unanimously voted to recommend approval.
John Randolph and Debra Lynn Clark are applying for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for their property at 1207 Buck Mountain Road. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and is in the South River district. There were no public speakers, and with very little discussion on a motion by Commissioner Richardson, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, the Commission unanimously voted to recommend approval.
There were two CUP applications for a church at 2203 Reliance Road. The proposal by the Society of St. Pius X is to first convert an existing barn building for use as a chapel for up to 300 persons until a permanent church structure can be built on an adjoining property. The second request was for a church to be built on that adjoining property. The properties are zoned agricultural (A) in the North River District. The public hearing for the first request yielded five speakers, three of whom opposed the application. Richard Jamison questioned whether the number of projected attendees was accurate and whether adequate traffic safety analysis was provided. Reliance Road is narrow and winding and already busy as a shortcut from US-522 to Middletown. He also said that required lighting would adversely affect nearby residences in the wooded area surrounding the property. He questioned the appropriateness of a church in that location. There’s a high likelihood that there is inadequate sight distance for an entrance, particularly if there is any backup of traffic. The other two opposing speakers echoed those concerns. The speakers favoring the proposal were apparently members of the congregation who acknowledged that the plans were in an “embryonic state” and that they shared the concerns that neighbors had expressed.
Speaker Joe Whittaker, who owns the property where the barn will be adapted for use as a church, indicated that locating the church services in the barn is a temporary measure, while funds can be raised to build the new church, but did not elaborate on how long that temporary period would be. The commissioners discussed the application but determined that the plan was missing a lot of needed detail. They finally agreed, on a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry, Seconded by Commissioner Greg Huson, to recommend approval for the conditional use, limited to an attendance of 300, and subject to Building, Health Department, and VDOT permit approvals for the site. A Site Plan will also have to be developed and approved.
The Commission voted unanimously, on a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, to table the second request, that of the Society of St. Pius X for the adjoining parcel for a CUP to build the permanent church. The applicants will have the opportunity to provide more detail and plans for that site.
Finally, the Commission unanimously passed its Consent Agenda of items approved to advertise for public hearing. Those included:
Shelly Cook – A request for a CUP for a Short-term Tourist Rental. The property is located at (0) Lee Burke Road and is zoned Residential-One (R-1) and located in the Fork District.
David Cressell has applied for a conditional use permit for gunsmithing services on his property at 275 Gary Lane in the Shenandoah District. It is zoned Residential (R1)
Erica Baker has submitted a request for a variance to Warren County Code §155-3.B(1)(b) of the Subdivision Ordinance to allow the voluntary transfer of a proposed subdivided lot to an immediate family member within the required five (5) years of having held fee simple title to the property. The property is located on 64 Tara Road in the Shenandoah District and is identified on tax map 15 as lot 2C2. The property is Agriculturally zoned (A).
Michaun M. Pierre is requesting a CUP for a Short-term Tourist Rental. For property at 726 Harmony Orchard Road. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the South River Magisterial District
Harry H. Heard has requested an amendment to Chapter 180 of the Warren County Code Section §180-21.C(9) to add as an accessory use Mobile Food Establishment in conjunction with a commercial nursery/garden center/wayside stand.
Rural Events Facility – Warren County Planning Staff is proposing to amend Chapter 180 of the Warren County Code Sections §180-8 to amend the definition to allow lodging permitted as an accessory use and to amend Section §180-55.2 to add and modify supplemental regulations relating to Rural Event Facility general requirements and standards for lodging of event guests. These requests will be advertised for a public hearing for the April regular Commission meeting on April 12 at 7:00 pm in the Warren County Government Center.
Real Estate re-assessment appeals numbers raise eyebrows at supervisors pre-meeting work session – EDA personnel surprise at regular meeting
The Warren County Board of Supervisors kicked off a Tuesday evening, March 7th work session/regular meeting with a change to the 6 p.m. work session agenda. That change removed the only open work session agenda item, discussion of the “Implementation of a County-Wide Hiring Freeze”, and added a presentation on “the Warren County Finance and Personnel Update”. Following the County Administrator’s report on that altered agenda item, South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers addressed removal of the hiring freeze topic (at 28:42 of work session/meeting video mark).
Cullers noted her initiative to freeze hiring while the coming fiscal year budget and revenue numbers were still being worked out. Having in an email she referenced, cited County Fire & Rescue as a potential target of the freeze due to her perception trained staff was already in needed positions, Cullers said she had not meant to single out that department, just use it as an example of her budgetary concerns.
“Since Dr. Daley has assured me that we’re pretty good with where we are with this budget. And we don’t foresee any need to increase it more than what our equalization rate will be, I’d like to remove it from the (meeting) agenda when we get there,” Cullers explained of removal of the hiring freeze, from not only work session discussion, but also from meeting action. Her reference to the equalization rate appears to indicate the board plans to continue its three-year string of not raising taxes by setting the equalization real estate tax rate at a revenue neutral level.
County Administrator Ed Daley opened his Finance and Personnel update by noting that most recent in a string of resigned county finance directors, Matt Robertson, was supposed to give the report in January when the county’s annual audit result was initially expected. However, delays in completing the audit – no reason for that delay was cited – led to its delivery just last week, Daley told the board.
Reassessment Appeals numbers
Near the end of his PowerPoint presentation Daley noted numbers surrounding citizen appeals of re-assessment real estate value increases on their properties to the County’s Board of Assessors . Out of 1,110 total appeals heard, Daley reported that 881 people (an estimated 80%) had their assessments lowered. Those 881 downward valuations led to a $30.65-million reduction in new real estate values countywide upon which the County Real Estate taxes in the coming Fiscal Year 2023-24 will be based. Those numbers drew a “WOW” from North River Supervisor Delores Oates.
Concluding his report with those Board of Equalization re-assessment appeals numbers, Daley asked for questions from the board. Happy Creek Supervisor Jay Butler wondered if anyone who had appealed their assessments had, had their assessments increased by the Board of Equalization. Daley said he believed not, but was sure that if any had been the board would soon hear about it. Oates noted that the supervisors had no input or influence on the real estate reassessment and appeals judgments.
As previously reported, when Real Estate re-assessments produce above a 1% increase in county real estate tax revenue, by state code a municipality must “equalize” the existing tax rate downward to balance its tax revenue to the previously existing level. Any equalization resulting in an increase in county tax revenue is treated as a tax increase and must go to public hearing for citizen input and a vote of approval or denial by the county’s elected officials.
See that Finance and Personnel update beginning at the 40-second mark (:40) of the LINKED County video. After its completion 28:25 into the work session and Cullers’ above-referenced explanation of her abandoned hiring freeze request, the board went into a Closed/Executive Session on “Personnel” matters.
Closed meeting personnel matters
Those Personnel matters cited in Shenandoah District Supervisor Walt Mabe’s motion into closed session related to Shenandoah Farms Advisory Committee, the Board of Directors of the Industrial Development Authority of the Town of Front Royal and County of Warren Virginia (aka FR-WC EDA), the Warren County Board of Building Code Appeals, and the Warren County Board of Zoning Appeals. The FR-WC EDA discussion led to a surprise move during the regular meeting later that evening.
That surprise was the replacement of the two longest serving FR-WC EDA reform board members, Jeff Browne and Greg Harold, whose terms expired at the end of February. According to staff both had sought reappointment. Regular meeting Consent Agenda item #4 was “Citizen Appointments to the Front Royal/Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors” with no additional information. County Administrator Daley requested the board remove the item from the Consent Agenda to allow for appointments to be made.
Consequently, on a motion by Delores Oates (at the 1:29:20 video mark), seconded by Walt Mabe, the appointment of:
“Hayden Ashworth to fill an unexpired term ending February 28, 2025;
“J.D. Walter to fill an unexpired term ending February 28, 2026;
“Robert MacDougall to a four-year term ending February 28, 2027;
“Bruce Townshend to a four-year term ending February 28, 2027;
was approved unanimously. MacDougall and Townshend are replacing Browne and Harold. At publication we had yet to receive a response from queries to the board on why Browne and Harold were replaced over their expressed desire for reappointment. More on the replacement of Browne and Harold will come as additional information becomes available.
Farms Advisory Committee overruled on Old Oak 4 purchase
In the wake of a live VDOT report, board reports and public comments the regular meeting agenda contained an 18-item (minus one) Consent Agenda and only one action item. As noted above, implementation of a county-wide hiring freeze was removed from the agenda, leaving a lone action item of interest to the Shenandoah Farms Advisory Committee and Farms residents. That item was the staff “Award Recommendation for Old Oak IV Precast Box Culverts”. Despite the recommendation of the board’s appointed Shenandoah Farms Advisory Committee against the purchase, on a motion by Cullers, seconded by Mabe, the supervisors unanimously approved the staff-recommended purchase of the Box Culverts at a price of $695,583.
The lengthy Consent Agenda included 11 Authorizations to Advertise for Public Hearing (7 for short-term tourist rentals; 3 for Rushmark Rockland Road LLC’s requests – a/ to Rezone Certain Parcels from Commercial and Residential One to Industrial, b/ to Amend the Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map from Commercial and Residential One to Industrial, and 3/ a Conditional Use Permit for a Building in Excess of 50,000 sq. ft. Located in the Route 340/522 Highway Corridor Overlay District; and 1 for a Zoning Text Amendment 2023-03-02, Ordinance to Amend Warren County Code Sections 180-8 and 180-55.2 Regarding Rural Events Facilities.
Public Comments begin at the 39:00 mark of the linked video. First up, Dennis David addressed concerns about Delinquent Taxes the County website lists. Citing no total given, David said he and his wife spent several hours each reviewing the 46 pages of material, adding the delinquent taxes due the County at over $2.1 million, some dating to 2003. That brings those oldest ones near the 20-year point at which he was told by County Treasurer Jamie Spiker the County drops them from the recovery list, David noted. Later in the meeting Board Chairman Cook commented that delinquent taxes were on her “radar”. Wells R. Bill (41:25) followed David to the podium and compared the county government unfavorably to the federal government in its method of factoring age and disabilities into taxing policies.
See the entire work session and meeting, or its highlights in the County video.
Council moves to save Joint Tourism in wake of unanticipated consequences of its vote to dismantle ‘Discover Front Royal’ founding agreement
At it’s Special Work Session of Monday evening, March 6, the Front Royal Town Council tried to keep consequences of its 4-2 vote a week earlier to withdraw from the agreement/Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Warren County that facilitated creation of the 501-C6 Destination Management Organization (DMO) known as Discover Front Royal from becoming a full blown municipal disaster akin to a Norfolk Southern train wreck. Calm down, nothing’s going to get poisoned – except perhaps what’s left of a spirit of municipal cooperation to mutual town-county benefit.
But after discussion, including a summary of consequences Councilman “Skip” Rogers discovered developing the day after council’s February 27th vote to withdraw from the agreement, a council consensus appears to be to correct its mistake and work to preserve the 501-C6 DMO created after three years of discussion to spearhead joint Town-County tourism promotional efforts.
According to Rogers the consequences of council’s action of February 27th included the pending resignation of Discover Front Royal Chairman Kerry Barnhart as a legal move to dissolve the 501-C6 was originally poised to be filed last Friday, March 3rd. Rogers noted that he had communicated with a number of people, including Barnhart, and convinced them to put off that filing until after council’s special work session of March 6. However, without some assurances from council Monday night, that dissolution paperwork would be filed the following day, March 7th.
“To me that is a horrible, horrible thing to happen after they’ve done so much work, have so many connections. We have so much social media and other marketing outreach that’s been accomplished,” Rogers told his colleagues of Discover Front Royal’s efforts dating to last year.
“I’m suggesting that council consider to protect the value of the 501(-C6). If we let that go, shame on us – that is a very valuable tool,” he noted of what is an independent entity able to access state grants related to tourism promotion that municipalities cannot directly access. “What we need to do is work out the rules of engagement, how we interact with folks,” Rogers added, turning to newly appointed Town Community Development and Tourism Manager Elizabeth “Lizi” Lewis to commend her on her earlier presentation regarding her new oversight duties of Front Royal’s Visitors Center operations.
Over the past couple years dating to the tenure of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick those operations had been outsourced to tourism consultant JLL Inc. However, JLL recently ran afoul of town officials after closing Visitor Center weekday operations without consulting the Town on that decision. During her presentation, Lewis described her efforts to re-staff the Visitor Center to restore its seven-day-a-week operations.
Back on the effort to save Discover Front Royal, Rogers noted that if that is achieved, Barnhart did not want to remain chairman, but would stay on as one of the five-member board. That board is already one member down with the resignation of Vice-Chair Scott Turnmeyer the day after the council vote to terminate the DMO’s founding agreement. Remaining members are Hannah McKinnon and Jesse McClain, with non-voting town and county representatives, Rogers and Delores Oates.
Towards the end of the discussion, Councilman Amber Morris observed, “We have to move this along fast because … in an odd year come November (election) we’ll have two new council members potentially. So, as I’ve sat watching so many council members coming and going, this could all be blown up again by November if we don’t get it done.”
In closing the discussion (1:02:20 video mark) after agreeing with Morris on the necessity of a resolution as soon as possible, Mayor Cockrell said in the wake of a comment by Town Attorney George Sonnett, “While I don’t want to sit here and rehash what went wrong or didn’t go wrong – it’s not helpful. But I will say that Mr. Sonnett is right, there have been MOAs, MOUs back and forth, back and forth and I think we’re on our fourth version of one that was sent to council, and as soon as we got one, we got another one before a meeting came and that gets confusing.
“So, we know what we did wrong and we know what to not do. Now let’s see if we can’t get this thing across the finish line,” the mayor told council.
Contacted Tuesday following Monday’s special work session, Rogers told Royal Examiner that the effort to preserve Discover Front Royal was proceeding, with the dissolution papers on hold. “I’m very happy that I was able to convince council to keep Discover Front Royal alive, hopefully. We will talk today. I have worked very hard over this last week to salvage the 501-C6, I believe that was achieved with a great solution moving forward.”
We also contacted Discover Front Royal still-Chairman, at least momentarily, Kerry Barnhart to get her perspective on the status of the efforts Rogers described. She concurred that the effort to preserve the Joint Town/County Tourism effort and its 501-C6 operational entity was underway. “I want to be hopeful. I do think that tourism in this community needs to come together under one umbrella. And I think both the Town and County think that. The disconnect is how much money should be spent on it,” Barnhart observed. However, she observed that in the past with each municipality operating independently on its tourism promotion that essentially the Town and County were “double paying” for everything as their advertising needlessly overlapped.
She noted that neither the town or county governments were in a position to “save” the 501-C6, that once established it was an independently functioning organization, apparently a source of concern, at least on the Town side. “The 501-C6 is being saved by us to give them an opportunity to pull it together. Hopeful? I don’t know – it’s up to the Town and County on how to work together with an independent entity and raise the level of professionalism brought to the tourism effort,” Barnhart concluded.
See council’s discussion of the future of tourism promotion in this community beginning at the 34:45 mark of the Town video. Other agenda topics covered included an opening presentation by the County-overseen FR-WC EDA officials on the Conservancy Park development initiative inside the town limits at the Avtex redevelopment site; a tourism related plan to refurbish and put into use the ‘Front Royal Train Company’ caboose in the Village Commons Park area downtown; and Fleet Maintenance Building Project Procurement Award, Financing, & Budget Amendment presented by Finance Director B. J. Wilson. Council concluded with a Closed/Executive Session for legal counsel discussion of proposed proffer amendments for the Anna Swan Estates (HEPTAD LLC) project and the proposed proffer statement for Sayre (NVR, Inc.) rezoning.
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