On Wednesday, the Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards issued a press release announcing a break in the 24-year relationship with the Town of Front Royal municipal government and documenting the string of events leading to that organizational decision. Following is that press release in its entirety:
Wednesday, April 14, 2021, Front Royal, VA – In a March 24 press release announcing its 2021 Tree City USA award, the Town of Front Royal quotes Dan Lambe, President of the Arbor Day Foundation: “Residents of Front Royal should be proud to live in a community that makes the planting and care of trees a priority.” As their partnership with the Town of Front Royal disintegrates, Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards beg to disagree.
Over 24 years, the Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards forged an enduring partnership with the Town of Front Royal. Guided by the Town’s staff horticulturalist, Tree Stewards planted, pruned, and maintained the “urban canopy” – i.e., trees located on publicly owned parks, easements, and building grounds. Each year, the Tree Stewards donated 1400-1800 hours of free labor, supplementing a Public Works Department short on horticultural expertise and seasonal manpower. Even in the face of COVID disruption, Tree Stewards managed to contribute 900 volunteer hours to the Town in 2020. Today this partnership of nearly a quarter century lies in ruins.
The Town’s horticulturalist retired in December 2019, a position that has since remained vacant. With that vacancy a critical link was severed in the partnership, weakening communication between the Town, the Tree Stewards, and a third partner, the Beautification of Front Royal Committee, a community service organization representing the county’s garden clubs.
As stated by Tree Stewards President Melody Hotek, “Beginning in October 2020, channelization of Happy Creek and destruction of the volunteer-maintained riparian buffer along Front Street have communicated a lack of regard for our 24-year partnership. In violation of Town Code, the decision to eliminate a successful community-led model project was made without input from the Town’s Urban Forestry Advisory Commission (UFAC). Ultimately, this oversight resulted in the mass resignation of the UFAC board in December.”
Hoping to turn over a new leaf upon the arrival of newly appointed Town Manager Steven Hicks in December, Ms. Hotek and Lisa Schwartz, President of the Beautification of Front Royal Committee met with Mr. Hicks in January to bid him welcome and review their organizations’ history of community service to the Town. At that time, Mr. Hicks requested the Tree Stewards’ assistance with the Town’s renewal application for Tree City USA, traditionally completed by the now-defunct UFAC board. (It is due to the Tree Stewards’ efforts that the Virginia Department of Forestry first awarded Front Royal its Tree City USA status in 2000.)
In January, despite documented destruction of more than 300 trees along Front Street, and numerous permit violations during the channelization process, Front Royal’s Tree City USA status was renewed.
Ms. Hotek subsequently contacted Mr. Hicks about preparation for the Town’s Arbor Day event, annually planned and co-hosted by the Tree Stewards since 2000. Mr. Hicks then informed Ms. Hotek that the newly created Town-County Tourism Council had been tasked with the celebration and that he would contact her shortly to follow up. There was no follow-up call. Instead, an Arbor Day press release from the Town was issued on March 24, 2020 including event details determined without Tree Stewards participation.
In response to perceived disregard for their work, the Tree Steward membership has voted to forego its partnership with the Town for the coming year. This includes maintenance of the Town’s Happy Creek Arboretum, managed by the Tree Stewards for twenty years.
Ms. Hotek summarizes, “Had the Town followed its own precedents and Code, as well as the requirements of its permits, this impasse could have been avoided. In addition, town crews could have benefited from training and supervision by a qualified contractor or consultant, learning the specialized skills required for work in sensitive aquatic environments.
“The Tree Stewards sincerely grieve the loss of this relationship and remain hopeful that a more productive tone may be restored. In the meantime, we encourage the Town to hire a horticulturalist, replant the buffer zone along Happy Creek, reinstate a knowledgeable Urban Forestry Advisory Commission tree board, and seek the services of qualified professionals before proceeding with future projects in order to prevent further environmental damage to the town, its natural and scenic resources, and its citizens.”
(From a release by the Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards)
Within the Warmth of Main Street’s Honey and Hops, Reaching Out Now’s President Samantha Barber and Her Staff Share a Vision for Youth Center with the Community
Beginning at 2 p.m. on December 9 at Honey and Hops, located at 212 East Main Street A, non-profit Reaching Out Now (RON) held a fundraiser with a meet and greet atmosphere, serving food and drink to the community as Honey and Hops continued to hold regular business. All were invited to hear more about RON’s vision for revitalizing the old Santmyers Youth Center, its new name revealed at this fundraiser to be the Raymond E. Santmyers Student Union and Activity Center. Questions were welcomed as RON President Samantha Barber and her staff shared information and emphasized the importance of community involvement.
The possibility of a revitalized youth center is quickly becoming a reality, as asbestos has been removed from the flooring of the original building, and Barber and staff have identified what they need to do to be ready for the projected April opening. They look forward to receiving the keys to the building next month, as well as continuing to troubleshoot problems, and addressing aesthetic concerns that may overlap with opening in April. Their interactions with the County and Town have been amicable, and they look forward to continuing that partnership.
A new youth center, offering tutoring opportunities and other activities that provide guidance and hope to young people, is a possibility that resonates deeply with many among our town’s leadership. They remember the Santmyers from when they were young people, dealing with all the unique challenges that face young people across our community. People like Councilman Bruce Rappaport and Councilman Glenn Wood reminisced with each other about the haven Raymond Santmyers and his family provided to the community’s youth. It was a drop-off point where parents could be confident that their children were cared for, safe, and mentored for their brightest future.
Even Mayor Lori Cockrell, native to Warren County, did not attend the youth center as often as Rappaport and Wood but can testify nonetheless to what a rock that establishment was to their community. This is a concern that interests public servants like Cockrell, Wood, and Rappaport, the time it took to attend the fundraiser being worthy pie slices out of their busy schedules.
Our newly elected sheriff, Crystal Cline, was also present with her husband, George, and she took advantage of an open mic opportunity to share just how much the center meant to her as a young person and how much it continues to mean to her as a point of contact with people who will never forget their time together there. It is a wonderful way of putting children on a positive path.
At one point in the program, Samantha Barber indicated a suggestions box where anyone could leave messages expressing what they hope to see in the new youth center. “You can dream with us, per se,” she said. All of Warren County’s youth, be they public schooled, private schooled, or homeschooled, will be the top priority for Barber and her team; that is why input from parents and students from all walks of life is so important to her. Of course, anyone wishing to donate to or become more involved with RON’s mission can reach them at https://reachingoutnow.org.
The program featured a raffle and an auction, the proceeds of which go to making the Raymond E. Santmyers Student Union and Activity Center a reality. As the mayor and others prepared to unveil the youth center’s new name, Barber said, “We do everything intentionally, and we wanted to make sure that [the new name] represented community, that it represented what the next generation is going to remember; this is past, this is present, and this is future.” After the unveiling, she added in reference to Raymond Santmyers, “He passed away in 1976, and I was born in 1976. Again, passing the torch on to the next generation … being inclusive of what he represented, his heart, his soul, will live on in this youth center as we continue to carry this forward. And I am so humbled that I was chosen for such a time as this, to lead this for our kids and bring this to life.”
County Overseen EDA Takes Care of Business at Last Meeting of 2023
The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (FR-WC EDA) held its monthly meeting on Friday, December 8, 2023, at 8 a.m. All seven Board members and legal counsel were present.
The regular meeting began with Committee and Board Reports. Board Vice-Chair J.D. Walter and Treasurer Jim Wolfe announced that the Board will be having a Strategic Planning Meeting on Friday, January 12, 2024. The Asset Committee Chair, Jorie Martin, provided an update on the ongoing maintenance at the 400 Kendrick Lane building. Warren County Director of Economic Development Joe Petty discussed the FY-2025 budget schedule and an overview of the previous Open-Door Business Session in November. The Board then approved online banking access for the Chair, Treasurer, and a designated County staff member.
During the new business portion of the agenda, Equus Capital Partners provided an update on their due diligence as part of a contract to purchase property within Stephens Industrial Park. In addition to typical findings from geotechnical work and preliminary engineering, they are working with the gas company on dedicating a defined width of the gas line easement, which dates back to 1949.
After the Equus presentation, a status update on the TransPortation Opportunity Fund (TPOF) was given. The Board then approved the 2024 Regular Meeting Schedule, the second term option in the current lease agreement with CCAP, and extended the Baldwin Grazing lease an additional year.
The Board concluded the meeting with a closed session to discuss the potential disposition of real property to business prospects and legal consultation on active litigation. Following the closed session, the Board authorized Joe Petty to dispose of two vehicles owned by the EDA; approved extending the contract on Stephens Industrial Park, Parcel 2, until December 31, 2024; and approved a resolution authorizing legal counsel to draft a lease for the Avtex Parking lot.
As noted above, the FR-WC EDA will be having its Strategic Planning meeting on Friday, January 12, 2024 (8 a.m.), and their next regular monthly Board meeting will be held on Friday, January 26, 2024, also at 8 a.m. at the Warren County Government Center.
(From a release by the Warren County-overseen FR-WC EDA)
Collaborative Effort Leads to Swift Arrest in Warren County
Four Law Enforcement Agencies Join Forces in High-Risk Operation.
In an exemplary display of inter-agency cooperation, four law enforcement bodies in Warren County successfully collaborated to apprehend a dangerous suspect involved in a drive-by shooting. This operation, occurring in the early hours of December 9, 2023, highlights the effectiveness of coordinated efforts in ensuring public safety.
The operation commenced following a distress call from the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). The call was regarding a high-risk vehicle stop linked to a drive-by shooting in Culpeper County, reported less than an hour earlier.
The suspect’s vehicle, identified by the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) and spotted by an RCSO lieutenant, was followed into Warren County. Recognizing the gravity of the situation and the potential risk to public safety, RCSO sought additional support from WCSO. The Front Royal Police Department (FRPD) was also involved, setting up spike strips at the county line as a precautionary measure.
The high-risk vehicle stop, strategically executed on Route 522 South before reaching more populous areas, led to the peaceful surrender of the suspect. This outcome was a testament to the meticulous planning and coordination among the WCSO, RCSO, CCSO, and FRPD.
The suspect, identified as Demetre Dominique Skinner from Manassas, VA, faces multiple charges, including shooting from a vehicle, aggravated malicious wounding, and the use of a firearm during a felony. The joint operation’s success underscores the importance of inter-agency collaboration in handling critical situations.
The victim of the shooting was airlifted to UVA Charlottesville and is currently in critical condition. The incident, according to detectives, was isolated to the Culpeper area, involving only Skinner and the victim.
The swift and effective action of the four collaborating agencies in apprehending a dangerous individual serves as a reminder of the critical role law enforcement plays in community safety. The successful outcome of this joint operation not only ensured the swift administration of justice but also prevented potential further harm to the residents of Warren County and its surrounding areas.
VDOT: Warren County Traffic Alert for December 11 – 15, 2023
The following is a list of highway work that may affect traffic in Warren County during the coming weeks. Scheduled work is subject to change due to inclement weather and material supplies. Motorists are advised to watch for slow-moving tractors during mowing operations. When traveling through a work zone, be alert to periodic changes in traffic patterns and lane closures.
*NEW* or *UPDATE* indicates a new or revised entry since last week’s report.
No lane closures were reported.
Mile marker 299 to 300, northbound and southbound – Shoulder closures for mowing operations, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through December 18.
Mile marker 299 to 300, northbound and southbound – Overnight lane closures and traffic-lane shifts as needed, 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. through March 2024. Shoulder closures 24/7. Work zone speed limit: 55 miles an hour. Work is related to southbound acceleration ramp extension and bridge widening, with estimated completion in fall 2024.
*NEW* Route 55 (Strasburg Road) – Flag traffic control between Stoney Mountain Drive and Shenandoah County line for inspection of bridge over Norfolk Southern Railway, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday (December 10).
*NEW* Route 340/522 (Winchester Road) – Southbound alternating lane closures between Route 637 (Guard Hill Road/Riverton Road) and Front Royal town limits for inspection of bridge over Crooked Run, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday.
No lane closures were reported.
Vegetation management may take place district-wide on various routes. Motorists are reminded to use extreme caution when traveling through work zones.
Traffic alerts and traveler information can be obtained by dialing 511. Traffic alerts and traveler information also are available at www.511Virginia.org.
Penny Lane Hair Co: A Fresh Cut on Front Royal’s Main Street
Front Royal Celebrates the Opening of Penny Lane Hair Co on Main Street.
In a vibrant ceremony, the Front Royal/Warren County Chamber of Commerce, led by Executive Director Nike Foster Cales, welcomed a business to its new location in the heart of the town. Penny Lane Hair Co, located at 413 E Main St, opened its doors amidst the cheers and support of the local community, including Mayor Lori Cockrell and Supervisor Walt Mabe.
The air was filled with excitement as Mallory Deinert, the owner of Penny Lane Hair Co, was greeted with warm applause and cheers from a crowd that included Chamber members, friends, and representatives from various local businesses. The event not only marked a new business opening but also symbolized the ongoing revitalization and diversification of Main Street’s business landscape.
Mayor Lori Cockrell expressed her enthusiasm, reflecting on the uniqueness of each ribbon-cutting event she has attended since joining the council and becoming mayor. “Each opening brings something new to our community, and we’re thrilled to support them all,” she remarked. Her words echoed the sentiment of inclusivity and diversity that the town prides itself on.
Supervisor Walt Mabe also shared his satisfaction with the expansion of downtown, noting the importance of adding varied businesses to the area. “It’s a sign of our town’s growth and vitality,” he said.
For Mallory Deinert, the opening of Penny Lane Hair Co. is the culmination of a lifelong dream. Overcome with emotion, Deinert shared her journey, “I’ve always wanted to be on Main Street, and now here we are, just a few doors down from my mom’s business. It’s a dream come true.” She dedicated this milestone to her family, mentioning her late father, her brother, and her mother, whose birthday coincided with the opening.
The community’s support was palpable as Deinert thanked everyone for their encouragement and shared her excitement for the future of Penny Lane Hair Co on Main Street. Her story is a testament to the power of local support and the importance of small businesses in building vibrant communities.
The opening of Penny Lane Hair Co. is more than just a new business on Main Street; it’s a symbol of the community’s resilience, growth, and commitment to supporting local entrepreneurs. As Front Royal continues to welcome diverse businesses, it strengthens its reputation as a supportive and dynamic place for commerce and community.
McDonald Defense Counsel Renews Motions, Including for a New Trial, as Feb. 12 Sentencing Date Looms
Federal officials in Harrisonburg have verified that defense counsel for former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald has filed renewed motions seeking a new trial for their client, as well as the overturning of several of the 34 guilty verdicts a federal jury of six men and six women in Harrisonburg delivered on November 1. Verdicts being sought to be overturned include several counts of bank fraud and one of aggravated identity theft. The latter of those charges involves the use of ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran’s name in promoting one of the real estate transactions McDonald was convicted of using to misdirect money to her personal benefit or that of others under the guise of conducting FR-WC EDA related business. Attempts to reach defense counsel about their filing were unsuccessful as of publication.
The defense has submitted its motions, similar to ones denied by Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon at trial, as the sentencing of McDonald, set for 10 a.m., Monday, February 12, 2024, looms over their client, who remains free on bond. The defense motions reiterate points made by federal Public Defenders Office attorneys Andrea Harris and Abigail Thibeault at trial and in closing arguments delivered October 31. The three defense witnesses called on that final day of the trial appeared to be presented in an attempt to discredit some of the 67 witnesses called by the prosecution in the trial that began on August 21 and ended on November 30, following several delays of a week to several weeks due to a need to suspend or reschedule the trial because of medically verified illnesses or issues of involved parties, on several occasions defendant McDonald.
The new motions, like those rejected at trial, focus on the defense’s central contention that McDonald and the FR-WC EDA had entered into a secret agreement behind closed doors to pay McDonald $5 million or more in exchange for her not filing a sexual harassment or assault lawsuit against local government officials over actions she alleges during her tenure as FR-EDA executive director. The lone signature on a defense exhibit submitted in support of this scenario belonged to former FR-WC EDA Board Chair Patty Wines, who was by then several years deceased. The prosecution asserted the signature was a forgery. Other EDA officials called by the prosecution, including board member Ron Llewellyn, also unhappily called as one of the defense witnesses on October 31, denied any knowledge of the existence of such a document. It was noted during trial testimony that such a document could not have been approved without a full vote of the EDA Board of Directors.
The defense motion for a new trial centers on the asserted exclusion of evidence related to the alleged sexual harassment secret agreement. Arguments about the exclusion of a transcript of grand jury testimony given by someone with alleged knowledge of the secret agreement or the absence of that person being called as a witness at trial appear to be at the center of the mistrial/new trial motion. There is also an objection to a related jury instruction given by Judge Dillon, noting that the prosecution didn’t have to produce every piece of evidence or potential witness related to the case at trial.
According to the federal 10th Western District of Virginia website, thus far a hearing date on the new defense motions has not been set for the Harrisonburg federal courtroom.
McDonald was accused of diverting as much as $ 6.5 million of EDA assets to her direct personal benefit out of an estimated $26 million alleged to have been moved under false pretenses during a four-year period (2014-2018) of her executive leadership of the FR-WC EDA. Part of that larger total, a $10-million loan with additional developmental expenses estimated at as much as $2 million, was approved in support of Tran’s ITFederal company’s development plan earmarked for 30 acres of the 148-acre Royal Phoenix Business Park property in Front Royal at the former Avtex federal Superfund site. EDA officials and civil cases attorneys assert that a $10-million loan and subsequent addition of developmental expenses were achieved under false pretenses as to Tran’s ability to achieve his submitted developmental plan. However, at the time some of these McDonald-involved real estate transactions were occurring, between 2016 and 2018, information was being circulated that Tran was planning to invest in other business opportunities at other locations in the county. Tran has said such investments were discussed but never finalized and never signed on to by him.