At a meeting where nearly $12.5-million-dollars in various Town Fund Reserves was approved for unfinished projects without much discussion of impacts on those fund reserves; where Virginia Beer Museum proprietor David Downes urged the town council to approve the use of PUBLIC property along Kidd Lane by the Front Royal Brewing Company to stimulate the outdoor serving of beer and refreshments as a stimulus to drawing tourists to Front Royal, even though they have rejected his request to utilize a similarly sized stretch of his own PRIVATE property nearby for the same use; and where after a slight, approximate 10-second hesitation on the making of a motion to do so, approved the existing Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority’s request to rezone 62.7 acres of EDA-overseen town land adjacent to the Happy Creek Technology Park from Residential to Industrial to raise the statewide tier ranking of the property for commercial marketing, among other business conducted; it was two opening salvoes of criticism concerning work ostensibly to stabilize and flood-proof Happy Creek between South and Prospect Streets that seemed to set a tone for the Monday, November 9th meeting of the Front Royal Town Council.
About that Creek Bank
That opening public comment criticism came from Front Royal-Warren County Tree Stewards President Melody Hotek and long-time council critic Paul Gabbert. The criticism included Gabbert’s assertion council allows Interim Town Manager and long-time Republican Committee officer and strategist Matt Tederick to re-define reality for it. Gabbert cited Hotek’s previously expressed concerns about replacing native vegetation with rocks as a stabilizing strategy, as a glaring example. And Hotek wasn’t speaking for herself, but rather seven organizational signees to a letter submitted to council.
Gabbert’s assertions led to a verbal spat with Councilman Jacob Meza, who complained to the mayor that Gabbert’s comments aimed the interim town manager and council’s way were unfair and counterproductive to the meeting’s requirements of decorum not becoming unduly personal. Gabbert countered that he had not mentioned the interim town manager by name and asserted his 1st Amendment right of free speech to criticize council actions. Mayor Tewalt cautioned Gabbert to keep his comments on policy and allowed him to continue. A quick read of council’s rules of decorum indicated no crossing of rules against “profanity, vulgar or sexist language” or “irrelevant commentary”.
And Hotek and Gabbert’s comments led to an 11-minute-plus rebuttal by Tederick during his Town Manager’s Report. That rebuttal largely quoted from the council approval process in moving toward a Consent Order for the work and cited professional qualifications of involved personnel from I&I (Inflow & Infiltration) project consultant CHA who has forwarded permitting applications to the State and County for the Town.
Whether Tederick’s rebuttal made Gabbert’s point on council’s acceptance of an interim town manager redefined reality or refuted Hotek list of concerns and questions surrounding the Town’s Happy Creek project, likely depends on one’s environmental, and perhaps political, perspective.
In the wake of Hotek’s submission of the joint letter of concern and related questions about the Happy Creek project, one known fact is that seven environmentally conscious public organizations and at least one local landscaping professional believe the project is not accomplishing its stated permitting purpose of stabilization and flood control.
In addition to the Tree Stewards, those organizations signing on to the concerns and assertions of flawed processes, work and permitting the Stewards have brought forward are Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, The Shenandoah Riverkeeper, the Front Royal-Warren County Appalachian Trail Community Committee, The Beautification of Front Royal Committee, Sustainability Matters, and the Izaak Walton League.
In response to one criticism of the downing a Willow Tree gifted by the Tree Stewards with a commemorative plaque, Tederick called Public Works Director Robbie Boyer forward. Boyer explained the tree had been taken down several months earlier because it was dead and was not removed as part of the creek project.
Following Tederick’s rebuttal to the criticism of the Town plan to replace vegetation with rocks the length of Happy Creek’s banks between South and Prospect Streets, the interim town manager took on a more pleasant and less controversial task – the awarding of dual “Star of the Month” awards to Town employees.
Those employees were Robbie Taylor of the Wastewater Treatment Plant staff and Water and Sewer Supervisor Ray “Tony” Rogers. See those awards following the earlier debate on the Creek work and council’s other business including three public hearings on the Front Royal Brewery request;
the Budget Amendment reserve fund outstanding project expenditures; and EDA rezoning request – all unanimously approved; as well as approval of acceptance of a Deed of Easement from ELP Riverton, LLC to provide water-sewer service to the new Chipotles and Five Guys restaurants; and an ordinance amendment facilitating remote participation in meetings in this Royal Examiner video:
EDA gets McDonald company property as part of settlement agreement
On Wednesday, October 20, Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne verified the EDA’s acquisition of the 41-acre “Happy Creek Road” parcel owned by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s Moveon8 real estate LLC. Acquisition of the undeveloped property assessed at just over a million dollars according to county court records is part of the $9-million-dollar no-fault settlement agreement reached between the EDA, McDonald, and the Harrisonburg Bankruptcy Court handling McDonald’s 2020 bankruptcy filing. The EDA will now be able to market the property as a developable EDA asset. It is located near the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway.
Browne said that in addition to receiving full value on the Happy Creek parcel, the EDA was in line to receive a percentage of the sale price of other McDonald assets distributed through the bankruptcy court proceeding. Exactly how close those percentages might get the EDA to the $9-million-dollar settlement figure remains to be seen. It was not immediately clear as to whether the EDA will have an outright full value claim to any other McDonald-held properties or assets.
McDonald is the central figure in the EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-to-late 2018. She resigned in December 2018 under mounting pressure from her board of directors. She has been accused in civil and criminal court of utilizing her EDA position to misdirect EDA assets to her and others personal benefit. Western District of Virginia federal authorities have taken over the criminal side of the EDA case after a state special prosecutor’s office in Harrisonburg dropped criminal charges against McDonald and as many as 23 co-defendants due to speedy trial concerns as it wrestled with the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. With charges against some defendants originating with the county commonwealth attorney’s office that initially handled the criminal investigation during Brian Madden’s tenure heading the department, failure to meet speedy trial timelines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of criminal charges against the defendants.
On August 31, 2021, federal prosecutors made their initial move, handing down a 34-count indictment against McDonald. Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?
At least two supervisors willing to revisit continuation of coyote bounty program in more open forum
Seeing the continued awarding of $50 bounties for the random shooting of coyotes in Warren County following a November 10, 2020, work session presentation by County legal and animal control staff seeking an end to the practice as counterproductive to its intent of thinning coyote pack numbers, Royal Examiner recently sought information on the Board of Supervisors apparently unanimous decision to continue the bounty awards.
In early October this reporter emailed Board Chairman Cheryl Cullers with copies to the other four board members in case there was a divergent opinion on the matter that has not, to this reporter’s knowledge, been publicly discussed. The only initial reply was from the board chair: “… but there are those that don’t agree with that information,” Cullers replied of the information presented to the board on November 10, 2020, by Warren County Sheriff’s Office Animal Control Officer Laura Gomez and Assistant County Attorney Caitlin Jordan.
“That information” was addressed in Royal Examiner’s November 11, 2020, story “County headed to public hearings to end coyote bounty payments and expansion of loose dog prohibitions”. It included the following information: “The biggest issue with (coyote bounties) is we have documentation showing it’s not effective in any way. And removing the coyote bounty would not prevent people from still being able to protect their property and their livestock … And they’re showing in that letter that it has over a 150-year failure,” Animal Control Officer Gomez noted of the proposed ordinance amendment ending the bounty program.
“That letter” referenced by Gomez to the county supervisors on November 10, 2020, stated among other things that: “Coyote bounties have been tried throughout the United States for more than 150 years. There is not a single documented instance of a bounty
program temporarily or permanently reducing coyote populations or livestock depredation problems,” Michael L. Fies of VDGIF (Va. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) wrote in response to a November 2016 inquiry by Bath County Animal Control officials included in Tuesday night’s agenda packet,” Royal Examiner reported at the time.
And it was not simply the abandonment of bounties, but the implementation of what was called more “successful targeted control” programs in place of bounties, suggested at the state level that was brought to the supervisors late last year:
“Since coyote bounties are ineffective, our Department has consistently recommended against these programs in favor of targeted control efforts around farms with a history of coyote damage. This approach has been successfully used by USDA Wildlife Services to reduce livestock losses in other portions of the state,” VDGIF’s Fies wrote in the above-referenced 2016 letter to Bath County officials presented to Warren County’s elected officials by animal control and legal staffs in late 2020.
It might be noted that this reporter’s headline on the referenced story on that November 10, 2020, presentation on coyote bounty programs contained one glaring inaccuracy – “County headed to public hearings to end coyote bounty payments (and a related animal control issue on dogs running loose in the county). For no public hearing was there to be, nor to this reporter’s knowledge, any open work session or meeting discussion by the board of the information it was presented with by county staff on November 10, 2020, nor of any expressed citizen disagreement with that information.
Rather, on January 5, 2021, coyote bounties were presented for continuation as part of the Consent Agenda for matters considered “routine business” not requiring public discussion or scrutiny by the board prior to a vote of approval. And while other Consent Agenda items were pulled for discussion that evening, continuing the coyote bounty program was not one of them.
But that could be poised to change. Contacted about the approval process, first Board Chairman Cullers expressed a willingness to revisit the issue. “I would be glad to have a future discussion on this issue. I understand the side that feels it is not effective, but there are those that don’t agree with that information. Again I will be glad to readdress the issue,” Cullers replied to this reporter’s emailed inquiry about the initial approval process.
And “readdress” would seem a wise course for this board majority. Because that initial approval process, essentially done out of the public eye, other than the vote to continue it without a public hearing or public discussion other than one meeting public comment favoring continuation of the bounties that Cullers cited, seems to run contrary to the process of a board majority carried into office over a year and a half ago on campaign promises of ending political “business as usual” out of the public eye – a process cited as contributing to the EDA financial scandal the county is still recovering from.
In fact, we reached out a second time to North River Supervisor Delores Oates following her comment at the October 5 Board of Supervisors meeting to County Administrator Ed Daley regarding the effectiveness of air purification machines the County is pondering the purchase of for use in county government buildings. – “We want facts, not opinions,” Oates told Daley of a final decision on the air purification device purchase for Warren County Government buildings.
And yes, facts, as they are available, would be valuable in ascertaining the effectiveness of the air purification machines in limiting the spread of contagious viral or other airborne illnesses. But why not the same standard of “facts, not opinions” in the decision to continue a coyote bounty program found locally, state-wide, and nationally to be counterproductive to its intent of thinning coyote packs anywhere over 150 years of experience?
And Oates too expressed a willingness to revisit the issue prior to publication.
“I would be happy to discuss. If memory serves me correctly, there were no alternatives offered to control the population of coyotes at that presentation. I believe we postponed a decision to learn more about what options were available to reduce the coyote population,” Oates responded to our email inquiry.
“I stand on my facts, not opinions statement,” she added, pointing to myriad other issues the County has faced in the past year: “On this topic, we didn’t revisit as I suspect many other issues have taken precedent. With COVID and the IT breach, the coyote topic didn’t seem urgent. I am not opposed to revisiting the alternatives to bounties in the near term,” Oates wrote Royal Examiner, adding, “Perhaps we needed to understand what targeted control meant. I will be honest it’s been almost a year since we heard the presentation. We wanted to understand what the cost was to farmers with a targeted control approach. I know there were lingering questions which is why we just didn’t eliminate the program.”
And with a perhaps building board consensus, it appears the county supervisors may be revisiting the coyote bounty issue, and exploring alternatives such as those referenced “targeted control efforts around farms with a history of coyote damage” that Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Michael L. Fies referenced in his 2016 letter on the subject to Bath County officials. As we told Supervisors Cullers and Oates during our discussion, it seems counterintuitive to continue to pay people in a bounty program cited by wildlife professionals as not only ineffective but achieving the opposite effect of often increasing coyote numbers, rather than reducing them.
And if there are citizens who disagree with those conclusions of wildlife professionals, it would be nice to publicly hear what facts, if any, those disagreements are based upon.
See the full November 10, 2020, presentation and discussion in the linked Warren County Work Session video Nov 10, 2020 Board of Supervisors Work Session – Warren County, VA (swagit.com):
County Planning Commission reviews Fire Department Capital Improvement Plan, also faces upsurge in permit activity
The Warren County Planning Commission met on October 13 in a work session to review a Capital Improvement Plan submission for 2021-2025 for the County Fire and Emergency Services Department. Chief James Bonzano told the Commission that calls for service for 2020, the last complete year, increased by over 3%, continuing a trend that began in 2013. This increase impacts response times, budget costs, and equipment availability, he explained. Calls were split between Fire, at 14%, and EMS (Emergency Medical Service), at 86%. EMS vehicles are called out more than 4 times as often as fire apparatus, have longer runs, and as a result, wear out that much sooner.
The National Standards for fire department equipment govern when it should be placed on the reserve list or removed from service. According to Chief Bonzano, the current fleet has 18 units of its 65 that are over 15 years old, and two over 25 years. In Warren County, there is currently no capacity to place vehicles in reserve. The chief also identified facility improvements needed, live-fire training, and firefighter cancer prevention as priorities in the submission. The Chief oversees a nearly $6 million annual combined budget.
Several commissioners suggested ways to extend budgets by alternative financing or leasing. The Chief acknowledged he is looking into these mechanisms but cautioned that many of them assume a fleet that allows for residual values when turning in a vehicle at the end of the lease. Much of the current fleet is far past the age where it would have any residual value as used equipment. The Fire/EMS Department is also pressed for volunteers – not only operational but associates – helpers of all kinds, including fundraisers. The Fire and Rescue Services capital investment submission will now be fed into the County’s budget process.
The regular Planning Commission meeting followed immediately after the work session, and the commission considered two Conditional Use permits (CUP) requests.
Terra Site Constructors, LLC, is requesting a Conditional Use Permit for a contractor storage yard at 6986 Winchester Road in the North River Magisterial District. The property is zoned Industrial (I). Planning Director Joe Petty reviewed the recommendations for approval of the request for the commission members. There were no public comments on the proposal, so Commission Chairman Robert Myers closed the public hearing. The site will primarily be used for the temporary storage of heavy equipment. After a brief discussion, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the permit. The request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Gordon Lee Birkhimer has requested a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for his property at 52 Forest View Drive, an Agriculturally zoned property in the Fork Magisterial District. Mr. Birkhimer is planning a sailboat trip around the world and expects to be absent for up to two years. He has engaged a professional management firm to oversee the rental activity, and a local citizen to do maintenance and upkeep.
When Chairman Jones opened the floor for public comment, Pamela Rhodes addressed the commissioners and outlined her opposition to the permit. As a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, she expressed the opinion that the applicant would have no control over what kind of people would be renting the property and as an absent property owner would not care. She was opposed to long or short-term rental for the property. In addition, one neighboring property owner, Phyllis Wright, had written to the planning department and opposed the permit being issued. Her concerns were for personal safety, fire danger, and the potential for crime.
Once the Public hearing was closed, Vice Chairman Hugh Henry commented that the community’s experience with short-term tourist rentals has been very good – an asset in a neighborhood, particularly since strict rules govern the issuance of a permit. Tourist rentals must be well maintained or guests won’t rent them. A long-term renter is a much greater risk, since a property owner can rent his property to anyone he chooses, and neighbors have no recourse. Management companies do generally perform background checks, and a written set of guidelines in the property management plan assure that guests know what the rules are.
Given the growing experience with the issuance of short-term tourist rental CUPs and the concerns of neighbors, Vice Chairman Henry asked the applicant if he would agree to two additional conditions: A prohibition against the use of ATVs on the property or roads around it, and a prohibition on discharging firearms. The applicant agreed. The commission then voted unanimously to recommend approval. The request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
The commission faces a steep climb at its November meeting with 10 CUP requests for a variety of uses, including short-term tourist rentals, a cluster housing development, an Outdoor Recreation Operation, two Rural Events Facilities, a gunsmithing service, and a campground, as well as two proposed Text Amendment changes to the Warren County Code Chapter 180. Commissioners approved authorizations to advertise all these requests.
Planning Director Joe Petty told the commission that the Comprehensive Plan review work sessions will resume in January, and he thanked the commissioners for their time and work so far on the new plan. Meantime, the Planning Department will be meeting with the contracting firm that is helping with the rewrite to prepare for the next steps.
Chairman Myers then adjourned the meeting.
County seeks Town to jointly explore regional water alliance
While the Front Royal Town Council was failing to gather a quorum to conduct its work session slated to follow a 6 p.m. Finance and Audit Committee meeting at Town Hall, across town at the Warren County Government Center several town officials including Assistant Town Manager Kathleen Leidich and Public Works Director Robbie Boyer, were present to hear a presentation by the Frederick Water Authority to a work session of the Warren County Board of Supervisors.
Board Chair Cheryl Cullers noted the invitation extended to, not only town staff, but its elected officials at last month’s Liaison Committee meeting, to hear the presentation on what appears to be a state-and-federal government promoted move toward regional water authorities.
“I’m not trying to tell the Town what to do – I want them to be a part of this,” Cullers said of a cooperative move into an altered water-sewer utility relationship that could be of mutual benefit to both municipalities, particularly over the long haul of future development on the county’s north side.
Cullers noted that several council members have stated the intention of watching the County video of the presentation in playing catch up. And what town officials did or will hear is very interesting as to long-range planning for regional growth and provision of cost-efficient water and sewer service. For while the Town of Front Royal has its own central water-sewer utility, it is dealing with what was termed “100-year-old infrastructure” in some areas and a limited and now oft-threatened by solid waste-fueled destructive algae blooms, water supply, the Shenandoah River. The Frederick Water Authority on the other hand is in the midst of creating new infrastructure for what appears to be a massive underground water source, while entertaining a change in its structural documentation to extend its reach beyond the boundaries of Frederick County and the City of Winchester to adjacent counties including Warren and Clarke.
Executive Director Eric Lawrence outlined the Frederick Water Authority’s existing parameters, structure and infrastructure. That structure includes independence from the Frederick County government, though it is a relationship that currently includes the Frederick County Supervisors appointing the water authority’s board of directors. Lawrence noted that like municipal utilities, the Frederick Water Authority is a non-profit operation with its fees going back into the supporting infrastructure. A cost-comparison showed favorable numbers on average residential charges in the region. And Lawrence noted that potential expansion into adjacent counties, further expanding the customer base would poise the operation to continue to offer excellent rates with a massive water supply with redundancy and backup within that water supply base.
However, Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter pointed to an old written aspect of the Route 522 North Corridor Agreement that saw the Town of Front Royal extend its central water-sewer utility into Warren County’s Route 340/522 North Corridor to facilitate industrial and commercial tax-base expansion in the county’s northside. That “Sanitation Authority” aspect of the Corridor Agreement could seem to legally prohibit shopping for better water-sewer utility rates by Warren County on its northside. However, were the Town to agree to throw into the regional water concept with Warren County, seeing benefits to its own future operations and expenses, such a legal blockage could evaporate.
North River Supervisor Delores Oates noted recent experience had shown that working at odds with each other was in neither the County, nor Town’s best interest.
“I’m just saying that it’s easier to say than to do,” Carter said of a joint move of the Town and County governments toward a regional water authority that could create a major realignment of how the Town’s water-sewer utility operates.
See details of the Frederick Water Authority operations and future potential in an expanding regional format, along with its implications on utility costs on both sides of the town-county line, in the first hour-and-six-minute power point presentation and Q&A in the County work session video.
Following that regional water authority presentation and discussion the board adjourned to Closed/Executive Session to discuss EDA litigation and related matters including recovery of EDA assets. And on the back end of that hour-and-fifteen-minute Closed Session, see a detailed presentation on the operations, costs and revenue streams of the County’s Parks and Recreation Department; followed by County Administrator Ed Daley’s summary of options on Compensation Board Bonus pay related to COVID pandemic operations and County payments to non-Comp Board covered employees.
EDA completes audits for 2018 and 2019; 2020 audit is next
The Board of Directors of the Front Royal and Warren County Economic Development Authority accepted its audited financial statements for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, today, October 5, 2021. The audit of the financial statements was conducted by the firm of Brown Edwards, CPAs of Harrisonburg, VA.
“We have received the final outside audits conducted for 2018 and 2019,” said EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne. “This was a huge effort on the part of Brown Edwards, and they have done very good work in challenging circumstances. Getting these two financial audits completed is a major step forward in putting the EDA’s past difficulties behind us. Now we can better focus on economic development issues to benefit the community.”
“The auditors’ letter points to three areas for improvement of internal controls,” Browne said. “It was important to make each improvement recommended by the CPAs, and we have done just that. The Warren County staff now administer the check-writing duties, collection of rents, and have layers of approvals for expenses within EDA and the County administration that were not there three years ago.”
The audited financial statements show that, at the end of the fiscal year 2019, the EDA’s total net assets were $38,036,737, and its net liabilities were $44,575,435, resulting in a deficit net position of $6,538,698. The EDA will work with Warren County’s auditors starting with the fiscal year 2020, which audit can now be undertaken.
The EDA Board of Directors will have their next regular monthly board meeting via Zoom on Friday, October 29, 2021, at 9 a.m.
Outside agency, departmental updates dominate County Board’s attention
The Warren County Board of Supervisors had a light action agenda – a six-item Consent Agenda – but a full morning of outside and County agency operational and personnel updates before adjourning to a 10 a.m. Closed Session for information on Economic Development Authority litigation. Following that approximate half-hour Executive Session, the board got the bad news from County Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico that the County was not a recipient of SAFER grant funding recently announced through the State.
Maiatico explained that perhaps already being the recipient of grant funding for the Rivermont Fire Station, being near the front of the line for additional grant funding might be a longshot at this point. However, he added that there appeared to be funds remaining under the recent SAFER grant umbrella, so the department hasn’t given up hope some additional funding might come the County’s way for coming operational needs or equipment needs.
Prior to the Closed Session County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Ballenger gave a detailed update on the school system’s status into this 2021 semester in the second year of COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic precautions. The report was positive, with no system schools on the state “outbreak” list. Responding to a question, Ballenger explained that approximately 40 students on a quarantine list were a result of home exposures, and precautions to prevent those out-of-school exposures from being carried into the schools. Families were urged to do due diligence on potential home exposures, to help the system “Protect Instruction” as the semester progresses. The primary goal being to keep as many students as possible in school and safe from Coronavirus exposure, along with their instructors.
The system, like others, is dealing with a shortage of substitute or replacement instructors due to the evolving Coronavirus situation with the more contagious Delta-variant-fueled Phase 4 remaining an issue.
A presentation by People Inc. representatives tied into a follow up by Warren County Department of Social Services Director Jon Martz. Martz pointed out he had me with People Inc. reps the previous days to coordinate efforts moving forward as economic hardships are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martz made one of several new staff introductions to the board, from his department Job Developer Brooke McClung. However, he also noted the loss of DSS staffer Samantha Edwards to another jurisdiction closer to her home. Edwards is leaving her county position tomorrow to become the DSS Assistant Director in Rappahannock County.
Others staffers headed this way introduced to the board Tuesday morning included Human Resources Director Jane Meadows and Finance Director Matt Robertson. Kayla Darr was noted for her work filling gaps in Admin during this time of staffing transitions.
During his County Administrator’s Report, Ed Daley reminded town officials of next week’s 6 p.m., Tuesday, October 12, work session in which the County will receive a Regional Water initiative presentation by Frederick County officials. Town Council and key staff have been invited to consider potential advantages of both municipalities moving in a regional water provider direction.
See these discussions and other business, including the monthly VDOT update, and a work session presentation on operations and staffing at the County Public Works Department, in the County video.