At the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting of September 19, 2023, the public comment period was opened with a reminder of the rules, which allow citizens to give input on issues not already scheduled for a public hearing. The total time allotted for this session is 60 minutes, with each speaker given a maximum of three minutes. Speakers are heard in the order they signed up. (The Royal Examiner apologizes if the names are not spelled correctly.)
Sarah Downs, a resident of the North River District, addressed the assembly. She criticized various board members for their actions and stances related to funding the library and alleged discriminatory practices. Her comments particularly emphasized the perceived lack of integrity and commitment to the community’s diverse representation. She also questioned some board members on their Christian beliefs, citing a verse from Psalms in the Bible found in the public library and challenging them on their fears. The overarching theme of her speech was demanding accountability from the board members.
Kelsey Lawrence from the Fork District spoke as a representative of the group “Save Samuels.” She emphasized the continuous presence and dedication of concerned citizens, most of whom are parents and library cardholders, in contrast to a different group she described as predominantly single, older men. Lawrence stressed the credibility and high standards of Samuels, a non-profit C3 organization, which she described as more accountable than the local government. She criticized the government’s inefficiencies and cautioned against any attempts to control or oversee private institutions, likening such actions to practices in communist China. She emphasized that libraries are essential venues for the free exchange of ideas and warned against censorship. Quoting activist Audre Lorde, Lawrence urged elected officials to uphold and protect freedom of expression as outlined in the First Amendment. She concluded by warning the officials of the community’s intent to hold them accountable in upcoming elections.
Robert Hill, a former member of the Election Board and history teacher, took the opportunity to reflect on the history of religious freedom in America. He highlighted the formation of colonies based on the pursuit of religious freedom and how that quest was ironically accompanied by instances of religious intolerance, citing examples from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Drawing from his Jewish background, he alluded to the religious intolerance that played a role in the formation of the Confederation of States, which paved the way for the American Revolution. Hill emphasized the idea, “A house divided will fall,” and shared a personal anecdote about his sister taking shoes from a nun to highlight the importance of caring for one another. Lastly, he mentioned President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to separating his religious beliefs from political decisions and the JFK Library in Massachusetts that honors individuals for their courage. Hill concluded by stressing the importance of representing and standing for everyone, not just specific groups.
Samantha Good, a resident of the South River District, expressed her concerns over the controversy surrounding Samuel’s Public Library. Despite being a social worker, former children’s therapist, small business owner, mother, and avid reader, she had to wait for a significant amount of time to address the board. Samantha criticized the board’s alleged intentions to defund or close the library due to external pressure for book bans. She cited statistics demonstrating the library’s success in 2022, including a significant increase in patrons and exceeding fundraising goals. Samantha emphasized that banning books is unlawful, referencing the First Amendment, Virginia Human Rights Act, and Virginia Values Act of 2020. While the library offers tools for parents to oversee their children’s reading materials, she argued that it’s a parental responsibility, not the library staff’s or the board’s duty. Samantha closed by highlighting the library’s significant role in the community, especially for families like hers who depend on its resources. She urged the board to reconsider any potential actions against Samuel’s Public Library.
Bruce White, a resident of Shenandoah District and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley, addressed the board, urging them to fully fund Samuel’s Public Library, maintain its collection, and approve the Memorandum of Agreement proposed by the Library Board of Trustees. He highlighted that a similar agreement has been successfully in place for around 70 years, which has contributed to the library’s success. Bruce also provided the board with letters from fellow church congregants who supported his stance. As Unitarian Universalists, they emphasize the significance of recognizing the inherent worth of every individual and promoting justice, equity, and compassion. He mentioned that the library has addressed concerns about books with LGBTQ themes by introducing additional library card levels for parental oversight and establishing a new adult section for specific books. Bruce stated that he read several of the contested books and found them to promote tolerance and understanding rather than containing inappropriate content. He urged the board to support the library and its initiatives.
Lauren Si addressed the Board of Supervisors, asserting her status as a taxpayer and voter while emphasizing her expectation for the library to be fully funded. She highlighted that a minority (less than 1%) of the community is urging for the library to be defunded and criticized the board for succumbing to their demands. Lauren accused this minority of being an elite, prejudiced group with substantial influence. She criticized the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would grant control over the library to these individuals and noted the community’s awareness of this issue. Lauren accused these individuals of harassing and slandering librarians and demanded that the board fund the library and offer a fair MOA. She warned the board members that their decision would influence their political careers and reputations. Furthermore, she emphasized that this isn’t about party politics as all political groups in the community, whether Democrat, Liberal, or Republican, agree on the issue.
Barry Cochran introduced himself, noting his move to Front Royal five years ago after having to retire from nursing due to a disability. To occupy his time, he got a library card from Samuels, downloading and reading mostly LGBTQ+-themed books on his digital devices. He compared the explicitness of these books to popular authors like Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele, pointing out that the LGBTQ+ books had no more sexual content than theirs. Barry questioned the bias of wanting to ban LGBTQ+ books but not ones with explicit content by heterosexual authors. He mentioned many of the books he read were actually written by heterosexual women. Barry wore a necklace with the phrase “Only God Can Judge Me” and expressed his belief that book availability at the library shouldn’t be determined by a narrow-minded group or the Board of Supervisors.
Michaele Davis shared her journey of moving to Warren County 20 years ago, having been raised in a conservatively religious culture. She understood the feeling of oppression but was determined to foster a space for her children to learn and grow. Despite her initial reservations about the town, she grew to appreciate its community and scenic beauty. Her son got his library card at age five, and her daughter volunteered at Samuels Public Library, greatly benefiting from the experience. Michaele proudly declared that all three of them identify as queer. She emphasized the positive upbringing she provided for her children and their resultant successes. Expressing her disappointment with the recent issues surrounding the library, she called out the Board for potentially violating First Amendment rights by linking library funding to content regulation. Michelle labeled it a ploy by a small group with political intentions and warned of the broader implications this might have on the Board’s reputation.
Michelle Kerns expressed her anger, frustration, and sadness regarding the actions and decisions of the Board of Supervisors. She cited the loss of faith in the county leadership due to the EDA scandal and expected the current leadership to restore trust with honesty and transparency. However, she felt that this expectation had not been met. She highlighted conflicts of interest, especially Mr. Butler and Ms. Cook. Michelle criticized Mr. Butler for requesting book removals when his board controls the library’s funding. She called out Ms. Cook for not clarifying that Mr. Butler’s statements did not reflect the board’s position and also for her role on the Library Board of Trustees. Michelle emphasized that the core issue isn’t about the books but about hate, power, and control. She staunchly defended the First Amendment, urging the board to celebrate differences and uphold the values of kindness, acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. She concluded by urging the board to stop letting bigotry, hatred, and intolerance negatively influence decisions about the library.
Joanna Artone introduced herself, highlighting her roots in Warren County and noting her connection to the community. She presented statistics from Samuel’s Public Library for the month of August, emphasizing the critical resources and services the library provides, including books, programs, services, and public space. She argued against the defunding of the library, asserting that the controversy is based on unfounded claims about inappropriate content. Joanna stated that no pornographic material exists in the library and argued for the importance of having representation for the LGBTQ+ community. Sharing her personal experience, she mentioned the struggles she faced as a queer individual growing up without resources that discussed queer issues. Joanna emphasized the increased risks LGBTQ+ youth face, such as self-harm and suicide, often due to the negative perceptions created by extremists. She concluded by urging the community to support the library, maintain LGBTQ+ resources, and allow parents the freedom to choose books for their children rather than imposing decisions upon them.
Connor Marcella addressed the Board with a candid and passionate statement. He expressed his frustration towards those who use anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, falsely accusing the community of grooming children or pushing a so-called “transgender agenda.” Marcella shared an author’s statement from Jessica Love, the writer of “Julian is a Mermaid,” to illustrate that the book’s intention was to celebrate diversity and accept children as they are. Jessica Love’s words emphasized the importance of representation and the emotional damage that can be caused by demonizing such books. Marcella also criticized individuals who bullied a child with autism for wearing a skirt, noting that the child did so to fulfill sensory needs, not because of any “agenda.” He condemned the Board for seemingly condoning such behavior by not taking a strong stance against these detractors. Marcella concluded his address with a rebuke, expressing deep disappointment and calling out the perceived complicity in the mistreatment of vulnerable children.
Charles Stewart, a parent and resident of Shenandoah District, Samuels Library patron, attorney, and voter, voiced his concerns about potential civil rights litigation. He highlighted that the ongoing issues seem rooted in objections to LGBTQ content in books. Citing legal precedents and laws, including the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment, Charles detailed how book bans could violate these rights. He further mentioned the 2020 Virginia Values Act, which expands protections against discrimination. Charles urged the Board not to succumb to the demands of a small but vocal group and to fully fund the library.
Janet Bram, a resident of the South River District, reflected on the growth of the library over the past 40 years. She emphasized the importance of not reverting to a time of lesser resources and cautioned the governing body against being manipulated by particular groups. Janet expressed her surprise and dismay at the Board’s decision to fund the library for only one more quarter and urged the Board to reconsider this decision. She emphasized the value of the library as a community resource.
Tom Howarth spoke passionately about the division in the community surrounding the ongoing situation. He emphasized that Christianity and Catholicism are about the “power of love” and not the “love of power.” He expressed his dismay at how the Board handled the situation with Michelle Ross, suggesting they should apologize for their perceived complicity in her mistreatment.
Howarth criticized the local Catholic Church, labeling it as “ultra-traditionalist,” and mentioned that even the Pope had used the term “backward” to describe such views. He expressed concern about regressing to older times when discrimination against the gay community was rampant. He ended by urging the Board to think of moving forward, to embrace love over power, and to resist those who have brought division and conflict to the community.
Valerie Mintier introduced herself and noted that she was from Front Royal. She read a letter from Eliza Lane, the author of one of the books challenged in an attempt to defund Samuels Library.
Eliza condemned the overt bullying targeting gay, trans, and gender non-conforming children evident in the debate. She emphasized that restoring the library’s budget is crucial, not only for the services the library offers to all, especially the low-income and unhoused but also for ensuring a safe community for LGBTQ children.
Drawing on public data, Eliza highlighted the increased vulnerability of LGBTQ students to depression, sexual assault, and suicide. She shared her personal experience of facing homophobia, stating her motive for writing children’s books was to comfort them and assure them they were not alone.
Eliza referenced the tragic loss of a generation of gay people due to an alleged “government genocide.” She expressed the pain of losing her gay family and parents, emphasizing her commitment to advocating for LGBTQ children.
Concluding, she directed a strong message to homophobic individuals, stating the weight of guilt they’d bear if their behavior led to tragic outcomes for these children. She thanked the board and pledged her commitment to resolving the situation by restoring the library’s budget.
Jennifer Rittenbach, a resident of Front Royal, addressed the board regarding the attempted censorship of books that represent the LGBTQ community. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, she emphasized the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech. She pointed out that the books under challenge are not pornographic but are targeted because they represent LGBTQ individuals, terming the act as religious discrimination.
Drawing upon historical incidents, Jennifer highlighted the dangers of banning books, referencing the violent attack on Salman Rushdie due to his controversial book “The Satanic Verses.” She cited Penn America’s current legal action against a Florida school district for a similar censorship attempt.
Rittenbach underscored the purpose of the First Amendment: to protect citizens from theocratic and authoritarian control over information and speech. She voiced her belief that theocratic attempts to regulate reading material and access to information should be combated, emphasizing that individual choice and parental guidance should dictate reading decisions, not religious bodies.
Jennifer stated her frequent use of Samuels Library and its importance in her work with two special needs men. She concluded by urging the board to uphold their duty to protect the First Amendment rights of their constituents and to provide full funding to Samuels Library.
Daniel Silsby from the South River District spoke before the board, initially offering an apology to Supervisor Butler for a previous heated phone call. He recalled his history in the town, noting his family moved there in 1989, and shared a personal experience of flying over the town in a C-130 plane during his time at RMA.
He recalled a gay classmate who faced discrimination and violence during the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. Daniel emphasized the kindness he received from various LGBTQ individuals in his life, from friends to bosses, and lamented the treatment they’ve received in return from the county.
Strongly critical of the board’s decision to withhold funding, he blamed them for contributing to the harassment and endangerment of the Samuel’s Library staff, including the resignation of Director Michelle Ross. Silsby enumerated the apologies he believed the board owed to various parties, including a public one, for their political missteps. He specifically addressed Mr. Butler, urging him to ensure the government stays out of personal lives as he had once promised.
He concluded with a hope that the withheld funds would be released, expressing concern for the future of the county and republic.
Bethany O’Neill from Front Royal, a 14-year county resident and Samuel’s Public Library cardholder, shared her views about the ongoing controversy around the library’s book selection. As a mother of three and a parishioner at St. John’s, she voiced her concerns against the group CUSS, stating they do not represent her views. She criticized the group for their hateful rhetoric and for focusing on sexually explicit content that isn’t even always available in the library.
Bethany praised the library staff for their dedication to the community and mentioned the measures they’ve taken to address concerns, such as the creation of a new adult section and age-restrictive library cards. She cautioned against potential discrimination lawsuits if books representing protected minority groups were removed or segregated.
She mentioned her personal journey of reading the books under contention and concluded that the real issue for CUSS wasn’t about the safety of children but rather a rejection of diversity. She mocked the idea of removing books based on CUSS’s narrow definitions and criticized the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would see the library under the county’s control.
In her closing remarks, Bethany asked the board to release the library budget and affirm that they weren’t siding with the bigots. She ended by quoting author Ada Salazar, assuring young readers of their value and place in the world.
Gene Kilby from Front Royal, Virginia, expressed his deep sadness and concern about the division happening in the county regarding the Samuel’s Library controversy. He compared the current division to an earlier one in 1956-57 when students of different racial backgrounds faced challenges in attending schools in Morin County. Although he clarified that he wasn’t equating the two struggles, he found them similar in essence.
Kilby emphasized the importance of the pledge of allegiance, specifically highlighting the phrase “liberty and justice for all,” and questioned why the county wasn’t upholding these values. He asserted that the dispute wasn’t purely about children, considering the library had made efforts to give parents more control over their children’s reading materials. He believed that the concerned group wanted books referencing LGBTQ removed entirely and challenged their labeling of these books as pornography, suggesting that if they genuinely believed that, they should report it.
Towards the end of his speech, Kilby raised concerns about “taxation without representation,” suggesting that people were being taxed without their interests and concerns being adequately represented. Before he could further elaborate, his speaking time was up.
Steve Foreman, a resident of Fork District, voiced his concerns about the actions and credibility of the Warren County Board of Supervisors concerning the Samuels Public Library controversy. He criticized the Board for trying to bully the library, holding its funding hostage, and attempting to control its Board of Trustees with their own appointees. Foreman believed the Board’s decisions were politically motivated, especially with an election on the horizon.
Foreman praised Samuels Library trustees and staff for quickly implementing a sensible solution when faced with the demands of a vocal minority. However, he pointed out that their efforts were not acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors or the discontented minority. Despite the solution, the Board continues to threaten the concept of a free public library.
Foreman emphasized the negative publicity this has brought both on a national and international level, leading to potential reputational damage for the county. He questioned the motivations of the Board, hinting at possible political reasons and prior misguided decisions involving funding a consultant who orchestrated a public display of feigned outrage and prejudice.
Foreman appealed for an end to the ongoing issue, emphasizing the importance of free speech, and called for the restoration of Samuels Public Library’s honor and its crucial role in serving the community.
The speaker, identified as Steve Hisey from Blue Mountain, raised two main concerns regarding recent actions taken by the Warren County governing bodies:
- Library Funding Issue: Steve expressed displeasure towards the Library Board’s rejection of the funding agreements. He accused the Library Board of disrespecting the community they purportedly represent and took their rejection as an offensive gesture to both the governing Board and the broader Warren County community. As a response, Steve advocated for defunding the library and posited that after two years of such action, the library would face bankruptcy. Subsequently, he proposed that the Board should acquire the library facility, with the aim of establishing a library that would be genuinely accountable to Warren County’s residents.
- Asset Forfeiture Concern: Steve addressed an Equitable Sharing Agreement and Certification that the Board voted on and signed on September 5th. He was concerned that the actual subject, asset forfeiture, was not explicitly mentioned in the agenda. He urged the Board to reconsider their vote due to the potentially detrimental impacts of asset forfeiture on the community. Drawing from various instances, he explained how the introduction of this law can shift the focus of the police from serving the community to seeking opportunities for arrests to confiscate property. Steve emphasized cases where innocent individuals lost their property because of misunderstandings, like parents having cars confiscated due to drugs left behind by their kids or farmers, wrongly assumed to be drug dealers. He stressed that the burden falls on the individuals to prove their innocence to retrieve their properties, a situation he finds contradictory to the foundational principles of the country.
Hisey pressed the Board to reflect on the ramifications of asset forfeiture and requested a comprehensive study of its effects.
Jackie Marcello from the Fork District expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the Board’s response, or lack thereof, to community concerns. Jackie’s primary points included:
- Lack of Communication: Jackie voiced disappointment with the Board members who didn’t respond to her previous communications. While she acknowledged that public service roles can be challenging with varying opinions, she highlighted the importance of at least acknowledging constituents.
- Library Issues: Emphasizing the significance of the library in the community, Jackie criticized the apparent inconsistencies in societal values. She pointed out the paradox where same-sex couples can legally marry but can’t have books reflecting their experiences on library shelves.
- Bullying Incident: Jackie referenced a disturbing incident where a 4-year-old child with autism was cyber bullied by a group of individuals because he wore a skirt. She highlighted that the child’s choice was due to sensory preferences typical of those on the autism spectrum. She denounced such actions as harmful to children and contrary to the claims of those who say they want to protect children.
Jackie urged the Board to restore the library’s funding and emphasized that by doing so, they could bring an end to the recurring public discontent expressed in their meetings. She wrapped up her speech with a plea to “give the library back to us.”
County Board Hears From Outside Agency and Departments on Funding Needs in Coming Fiscal Year
At a work session convened at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, December 5, in the main meeting room of the Warren County Government Center (WCGC) the county Board of Supervisors got reports from outside agencies and several departments on operations and projected operational costs in the coming fiscal year. One scheduled report on Solid Waste costs and a review of the County’s Tipping fees was canceled due to the reported illness of Public Works Director Mike Berry.
The work session kicked off in its first minutes with a presentation and financial update from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Virginia, based out of Laurel Ridge Community College, followed about 16 minutes later by developer D.R. Horton’s request for a release and reduction in “Blue Ridge Shadows Subdivision Bonds for Roads and Stormwater Management”.
SBDC representative Christine Kriz presented a PowerPoint on the government grant and local matching funded center’s operational parameters across its six jurisdictional areas of Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties and the City of Winchester.
Questioned about the service level here and justification of the request for $15,000 in the coming Fiscal Year-2024/25, up from $2500 in the current cycle, Kriz responded that the increase would bring Warren County into line with what SBDC’s other service municipalities contribute to SBDC operations for their levels of financial returns. “I promise, I didn’t just pull (the number) out,” she said responding to Chairman Vicky Cook’s question. “Oh no, I’m sure you didn’t,” Cook responded.
A chart included in Kriz’s presentation showed Warren County with 100 small business clients served by SBDC last year, with $1.078-million dollars in loans achieved for those clients, and sales increases of $180,000 by those clients resulting from those SBDC efforts.
As illustrated in below graphic, those numbers put Warren County in the lower sector of SBDC regional returns, above only Clarke County. However, the chart doesn’t indicate what those higher-ranked county’s contribute annually to achieve those higher numbers; and one might note that the requested $15,000 is one-twelfth of that $180,000 sales increase mark here from the last budget cycle.
Kriz responded to other questions, including from South River District Supervisor Cheryl Cullers on services available on the “Agr-business” and tourism fronts. In the end it appeared the sitting board, minus absent Delores Oates, accepted the reasoning behind the SBDC’s funding increase request.
Bond amounts vs. work left
Kriz was followed to the podium by County Planning Director Matt Wendling, who summarized the D.R. Horton request for a reduction in its outstanding Blue Ridge Shadows Subdivision bonds for “Roads and Stormwater Management”. Wendling explained that portions of the bonds dating back to 2007 for specific phases of the subdivision developmental project had been achieved, at least to some degree, and that the developer was asking that the bond amounts continuing to be withheld be reduced to reflect what is actually left to be done.
Horton representative David Giovannacci (even Bianchini had to verify that spelling with the speaker) joined Wendling at the podium. Beginning with Supervisor Cullers, the board sought verification of exactly what has been completed in regard to roads and stormwater management and what remained to be done in order to assure the County wasn’t left holding the bag of financial responsibility for remaining work.
“My team has been working diligently with VDOT to get each bond’s release. And I think it could take some time for grass to grow,” Giovannacci said of one of Supervisor Cullers’ concerns. “I don’t see that it’s required to keep over $2-million dollars essentially in bonds to look after these things. That’s why we’re asking,” he explained of the release amount requests versus developmental aspects remaining to be covered.
The amount of money involved was illustrated in these passages from the meeting agenda packet: “A subdivision bond for this phase (5) of the development was posted by D.R. Horton to the County on December 8, 2006 for $3,238,631 and was reduced to $611,967 effective March 21, 2007. They are requesting a reduction to bond #929413863 to $112,000 for the remaining VDOT and stormwater management improvements.
“They are requesting a full release of Phase 1 bond and a new bond issued in the amount of $50,000 for the portion of John Hopkins Drive (S), Sand Bunker Ct., First Eagle Ct. and Fairway Ct. additional streets from Phase 1 have been accepted into the State system and this amount would allow for completion of final items on their checklist. The final plat for Blue Ridge Shadows subdivision (phase 1) was approved by the Planning Commission on October 17, 2005. A subdivision bond #964006768 for this phase of the development was posted by D.R. Horton to the County on August 9, 2005 for $6,088,513 and reduced to $1,843,818 effective March 21, 2007. They are requesting release of this bond and a new bond be issued for $50,000 for the remaining VDOT and stormwater management improvements.
While Wendling was able to summarize some input from VDOT on the various involved phases, it seemed the precise detail and written verification from involved state agencies was not immediately available. However, Wendling reported that he had a meeting with VDOT officials scheduled for the following day and would seek to get the necessary verification in writing prior to the board’s next meeting on December 12.
Completing the Agenda
Other presentations included a Review of County Fire & Rescue Department services, a review of the County’s Handbook on Personnel Policies and Procedures; discussion of the Northern Shenandoah Hazard Mitigation Plan and its adoption; a review of revisions to the County Parks & Recreation Department Code of Conduct Policy; and a projected Carryover Package by County Finance Director Alisa Scott.
Fire Chief James Bonzano acknowledged a general tendency by both the public and their elected representatives to resist raising taxes. However, he noted that reluctance was often tied to vagaries surrounding the reasons for tax hikes. He suggested that when approaching a need to hike taxes for services the public depends on and supports, among those Fire & Rescue emergency services, if that connection to specific services is including in presenting a tax hike to the public, much of that general opposition will evaporate. Point well taken, chief.
The County video of all these work session presentations and subsequent Q&A’s will be linked to this story when it becomes available.
Town EDA Ponders Its Mission, Branding, Funding, and Support Agreement with the Town
At noon, Monday, December 4, at Town Hall, the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA for now, but for how long?) held its last meeting of the year. Under discussion was the path ahead, including “a very rough draft” of a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) administrative staff is developing to set the parameters of the town government’s financial and operational support system for its unilateral Economic Development Authority. FREDA as it initially became known, was created about three years ago (first meeting Jan. 2021) as town officials then in place attempted to legally distance the town government from liability for FR-WC EDA “financial scandal” monetary losses.
Also on the agenda was how FREDA will be known, or re-branded, as its determines a mission course forward. A first clue was offered in Town Manager Joe Waltz’s meeting opening introduction of “recently promoted” Town Director of Community Development and Tourism Lizi Lewis (1:03 video mark). Of Lewis’s presence Waltz told the FREDA board: “And she will, starting from this point forward, be providing leadership and direction for the FREDA board” to which that board enthusiastically greeted her aboard. “I’m excited, I think this is the missing piece that we need to move forward with FREDA,” Waltz added, as he segued to handing out the above-cited MOU rough draft (1:30 video mark).
A statement of purpose appeared on the first of the MOU’s three pages (plus a fourth signature page): “The purpose of this MOU is for the Town to provide financial and operational support to the Front Royal EDA on a voluntary basis to be used by the EDA to exercise its powers and satisfy its duties and responsibilities under Virginia Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act, Town Code, and its Bylaws.” That operational support includes meeting facilities, office space as necessary, clerical, legal, and accounting staffing support, work-related expenses such as travel, as well as a stipend “not to exceed $200 per regular meeting” for the board members.
On the draft MOU’s second page concerning the distribution of public funds to FREDA it was noted that: “Nothing in this section (Funding Policy) shall be construed to obligate the Town to appropriate funds to the Front Royal EDA during future fiscal years.” adding that all such appropriations from the Town “shall be voluntary.”
However, near the end of the document on the third page under the heading Future Donations to Front Royal EDA by the Town it was also observed that: “It is the Town’s intention to consider additional appropriations and donations during future Fiscal Years upon receipt of a proposal by the Front Royal EDA, submitted to the Town by January 15 of each year.”
That January 15 date should get the FREDA board’s attention with the MOU admittedly still in a rough draft state and its next meeting, authorized at a later point (35:00 video mark) in Monday’s meeting, scheduled for January 8, 2024, from noon to 2 p.m. For page two of the draft MOU notes that: “It is the Town’s intention to appropriate $________ for the financial support of the Front Royal EDA upon execution of this MOU.” So, if my calendar math is correct, that gives the FREDA Board of Directors about five-and-a-half weeks to come up with a viable target budget for the next fiscal year, FY-2024/25, to continue in developing its economic or community development initiatives for the Town, with only one meeting thus far called over that five-plus week span. But surely with the MOU still in the developmental stage, the mayor and town council would offer their EDA a little leeway on that submission deadline for the next fiscal year, wouldn’t they?
But back on the “re-branding” and re-focusing front, Town Manager Waltz told the board, “I will say that bringing Lizi on, I am trying to change our focus to community development instead of economic development …”
Moving past the “Old Business” agenda topics of the MOU, bylaws, and re-branding, the board moved into a lively discussion of the various business backgrounds and strengths each member brings to the table as their mission is tweaked.
A handout presented a page-and-a-half list of “Economic Development Goals, that could also largely fit into the “Community Development” category (12:15 video mark), that would merge their evolving mission with the recently updated Town Comprehensive Plan. Five sub-categories under the “Economic Development Goals – Town Comprehensive Plan” header were: Small Town Character, Economic Sustainability, Reliable Utilities and Services, Environmental Sustainability, and Development Policies.
Prior to adjournment, the opportunity for board members to participate in a Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) sponsored virtual training session that Waltz predicted from past experience would last a total of about three hours on December 14, was raised (32:04 video mark). The board also bid farewell to departing member Mark Tapsak (36:44 video mark), whom it was noted was attending his last meeting. Tapsak will be replaced by Rob Elliott who was present observing the meeting from the gallery.
Discussion of Poultry Policy in Urban Agriculture Becomes Impassioned at Town Council Work Session
On Monday, December 4, at 7 p.m. in the Front Royal Town Hall at 102 East Main Street, the Front Royal Town Council met for a work session in which they spent a considerable amount of time discussing a proposed ordinance amendment to Town Codes related to poultry policy for Urban Agriculture uses. The discussion had been postponed from council’s regular meeting on September 25. The item was again postponed after an impassioned discussion in which Councilwoman Amber Morris expressed a strong opinion against certain included conditions.
The proposed amendment to Town Code respecting chickens allows for an increase in ownership from six chickens to ten chickens by any residential dweller in possession of a permit, but it may capsize when it comes to a vote because of the regulations that are attached to it. It is these regulations that Morris strongly opposes. They would keep all chickens in coops with a floor space of four square feet for each chicken “and or” – in the language of the amendment – a run space allowing for eight square feet per chicken. “No poultry shall be permitted to run at large,” the amendment reads. Planning Director and Zoning Administrator Lauren Kopishke explained that this “codification” would not be unprecedented, as it reflects the standards by which the Town has operated in the past; it would simply give “teeth” to those prerequisites for owning chickens in residential areas which the Town has historically applied as it inspects, and grants permits. But allowing the chickens to range free in a fenced in area is a priority for both Councilwoman Morris and Councilman Josh Ingram.
Among the many inputs Virginia Cooperative Extension Services Agent Corey Childs gave to council, he claimed that in his experience, six chickens are on the high end for a residential permit. And in a scenario where chickens are ranging free in a fenced area, he remarked that clipping their wings would be a deterrent, but it would not absolutely prevent them from flying over the barrier. While he did not precisely say that free range is out of the question he raised some concerns, emphasizing the importance of cleanliness and advised council to stay on the safe side.
For Morris, this issue is freighted with gravity as she promised one of her predecessors that she would pursue the goal of making urban space friendlier to agriculture. Unlike other council members, including recently installed Glenn Wood, who questioned whether a discussion on chickens surpassing half an hour is a legitimate use of council’s time, Morris considers it time well spent and believes there are many constituents who care deeply about this issue. The reality is that not all permit holders are completely in line with Planning and Zoning expectations, and Morris feels the codification of those expectations would be unfair to them. Non-compliance to the conditions under which the permit was given is a misdemeanor, but Kopishke explained in a private conversation after the public portion of the meeting that in such cases, the Planning and Zoning Department is content to simply revoke the permit without bringing a criminal charge.
After Mayor Lori Cockrell gathered a consensus that further discussion and informed guidance were needed, the item was postponed to a future work session. Having heard from Director of Finance B.J. Wilson, prior to the Urban Agriculture discussion, about a bid from Snyder Environmental Services, Inc., for the 2023 Sewer Rehabilitation Project, a bid which council expects to vote in favor of at the December 11 regular meeting, council quickly addressed several additional agenda items, and then went into closed meeting at 8:40 p.m. to receive legal counsel pertaining to HEPTAD litigation.
Supervisors OK Applicant Withdrawal of Slate Run Farm LLC 448-acre Ag to Commercial/Industrial Rezoning – For No More Than a Year
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Tuesday, November 28th Warren County Board of Supervisors Public Hearing meeting was what was not heard. That was the Slate Run Farm LLC rezoning request on 448.2-plus acres off of state Route 340 North/Winchester Road to be moved from Agricultural to Industrial and Commercial zoning. The properties are located off Winchester Road in the North River District, just north of the Blue Ridge Shadows golf course and subdivision.
At the meeting’s outset, South River District Supervisor Cheryl Cullers took a shot at the initial motion to amend the agenda to table the Slate Run Farm LLC rezoning request. That tabling was made at the request of the applicant, and likely headed off a flurry of North River District residents opposing comments. However, there was some confusion over the wording of the motion, leading to discussion with County Administrator Ed Daley and a re-making of the motion by North River District Supervisor Delores Oates stating that the tabling would be “until no later than November 2024.” That would seem to indicate the board does not want the future use of nearly 500 acres of property in the area held up indefinitely. With Shenandoah District Supervisor Walt Mabe’s second, Oates motion to table for not more than a year was unanimously approved.
The Slate Run Farm LLC rezoning has attracted some attention from area residents, particularly in the Blue Ridge Shadows development. As the Agenda packet staff summary noted: “The applicant is proposing four land bays which will be phased in for industrial development with a total of 2,500,000 square feet. The commercial property will have 25,000 square feet for commercial land-uses. This application does not have a specific land-use identified but the applicant plans to market it for warehousing due to its proximity to the Virginia Inland Port. Warehousing and distribution facilities are land-uses allowed by-right in the Industrial zoning district and are compatible with the current Warren County Zoning Ordinance.”
With the property’s proximity to a large Commercial/Industrial area, including the Inland Port, as well as close access to a four-lane divided state road that intersects southbound with Interstate 66 east/west, which in turn intersects with Interstate 81 north/south, the Agenda packet staff summary also noted: “The Future Land Use Map in the Comprehensive Plan identifies this area to be used for Industrial land uses and zoned Industrial (I). The request currently is compatible with the Future Land Use map of the Comprehensive (Plan) since this property is shown to be Industrial (I).”
So, while approval of the requested rezoning might seem a logical conclusion to the request due to existing future land use Comp Plan guidelines and transportation infrastructure, it will have to wait, as will the arguments against the rezoning by impacted north-side residents. So, the “Future is NOT quite NOW” for 448.2-plus acres of north-side property earmarked for “future” industrial development. One might guess that the applicant will need to submit a more detailed proposal on planned development to stem the tide of public opposition, opposition that might capture some supervisors attention. Included in such detail might be whether the currently proposed 25,000 square feet (cited at 4.47 acres of the 448.2+ involved acres, or 2,500,000 total s.f.) of Commercial land use will be enough and of the sort that might provide a benefit to area residents that might neutralize some of the opposition to the Industrial aspect of the proposal. But that is a discussion that is put off for now, though for not more than a year.
With the Slate Run Farm LLC rezoning removed from the agenda, that left the following public hearings for comment and action by the county’s supervisors. For the most part there was little to no public feedback other than by applicants called to the podium by board Chairman Vicky Cook, leading to a string of eight consecutive unanimous approvals, until the ninth and final public hearing on a Vesta Property Management Short-term Tourist Rental Conditional Use Permit application:
- CUP2023-09-06 – Vesta Property Management (John C. & Johanna R. Villalobos) A request for a conditional use permit for a Short-term Tourist Rental – staff presentation by Zoning Administrator Chase Lenz – The property is located at 207 Gary Lane and identified on tax map 15D, section 2, block 5, lot 202. The property is zoned Residential-One (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Farms – River View section and in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
It was noted that unlike the previously considered matters, the County Planning Commission had forwarded this request with a unanimous recommendation of denial due to a requested waiver of the county code 100-foot setback requirement for Short-term Tourist Rentals. Also unlike a previous considered request requiring a 100-foot setback waiver, the impacted neighbor, Anna Habley, whose property lies 62-feet from the proposed Short-term Tourist Rental, opposed the waiver. See this public hearing at the linked County video mark of 59:03, with Ms. Habley’s comments at the 1:01:45 video mark. And through some wording confusion, on Supervisor Mabe’s motion to deny, second by Butler, this CUP application was unanimously denied.
Prior to that denial, as noted above, the string of unanimous approvals included:
- – Ordinance to Amend Chapter 30 of the Warren County Code and to add and ordain Section 30-10 – staff report Ashley Woodall: motion to approve Oates, second Cullers, unanimous approval.
- R2023-09-01 – Comprehensive Plan Amendment – Future Land Use Map – Jennifer Wynn (Riverside Parcel 1 LLC) – staff summary Chase Lenz – A request to amend the Warren County Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map for a rezoning from Agricultural (A) to Commercial (C). The property is identified on tax map number as TM# 28, parcel 124A. Motion by Mabe, second Cullers, unanimous approval.
- R2023-09-01 – Rezoning – Jennifer Wynn (Riverside Parcel 1 LLC) – staff summary Chase Lenz – A rezoning application to amend the Warren County Zoning Map to rezone a 1.66-acre parcel from Agricultural (A) to Commercial (C). The property is located at 10353 Stonewall Jackson Highway and identified on tax map 28 as lot 124A. The property is located in the South River Magisterial District and the proposed by-right land use is for a (tourist) hotel/motel. Despite some concern on assuring safe access and egress, on motion by Cullers, second Butler, unanimous approval.
- CUP2023-09-01 – Douglas Salzman conditional use permit request for private use camping – staff report Chase Lenz – A request for a conditional use permit for a Private Use Camping (Non-Commercial). The property is located at (0) Avalon Drive and identified on tax map 20C, section 1, block 4, lot 42. The property is zoned Residential-One (R-1) and located in Shenandoah River Estates subdivision and in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Motion by Oates, second Mabe, unanimous approval.
- CUP2023-09-02 – Fox & Slate Investments, LLC – staff summary Chase Lenz – A request for a conditional use permit for a Short-term Tourist Rental. Staff report Chase Lenz. The property is located at 1312 Old Oak Lane and identified on tax map 17A, section 4, lot 11A. The property is zoned Residential-One (R-1) and located Shenandoah Farms – Chain Spring section of Subdivision and in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Motion by Mabe, second Cullers, unanimous approval.
- CUP2023-09-03 – Adam Graziano for a short-term tourist rental – staff summary staff summary Chase Lenz – A request for a conditional use permit for a Short-term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 40 Sunset Village Road and identified on tax map 27B, section 2, lot 106A1. The property is zoned Residential-One (R-1) and located in the Junewood Estates subdivision and the Fork Magisterial District. Motion by Butler, second Mabe, unanimous approval.
- CUP2023-09-04 – Richard & Jennifer Jamieson for a guesthouse – staff summary Matt Wendling – A request for a conditional use permit for a Guesthouse. The property is located at (0) Knock Lane and identified on tax map 10P, section 4, as lot 18. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the Gafia Estates at Lake John subdivision and in the North River Magisterial District. Motion Oates, second Cullers, unanimous approval.
- CUP2023-09-05 – Vesta Property Management (Sergio L. Herrera) – staff summary Chase Lenz – A request for a conditional use permit for a Short-term Tourist Rental. staff summary Chase Lenz. The property is located at 141 Farms River Road and identified on tax map 15B, section 1, block 1, lot 59. The property is zoned Residential-One (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Farms – River View section and in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Motion by Mabe, second by Cullers, unanimous approval.
- Proposed Lease Agreement – Warren County Community Health Coalition – staff summary Tiffany Walker – Walker informed the board staff was asking to postpone the public hearing and action on the item as the lease was being revised and updated with the process not yet completed. On a motion by Mabe, second by Cullers, the board unanimously agreed to table the matter to a future date.
- Warren County Parks and Recreation Lease Agreements – Front Royal Little League use of Champs 53 Field Complex – staff report Recreation Manager Tiffany Walker, Office Manager Dana Winner – After some board discussion, beginning at 1:06:45 video mark, about reassessing actual costs for upkeep and property management related to various youth sports, including Midget Football’s use of County-owned property for their games and practices, so as to make them as affordable as possible, on a motion by Cullers, second by Mabe, the board unanimously approved the proposed lease agreement dating back to October 12, 2023, with the Front Royal Little League.
It’s business taken care of for the evening, the meeting was then adjourned at 7:17 p.m.
Bittersweet Town Council Meeting Celebrates Gains While Acknowledging Losses to the Community
On Monday, November 27, at 7 p.m. in the Warren County Government Center, the Front Royal Town Council held a regular meeting wherein they heard reports from council members as well as the town manager.
The meeting was brief, lasting only thirty minutes, but in that time, Mayor Lori Cockrell recognized several individuals for outstanding service. She also asked all in attendance to remember in their prayers people this community has recently lost, including the passing of Arthur Maddox of Maddox Funeral Home. Serving that evening in his new capacity as councilman was Glenn Wood, who was warmly welcomed by council.
In his report, Town Manager Joe Waltz conveyed that water conservation is no longer needed for the town due to recent rainfall. “Due to the rain we had last week before the holiday,” he explained, “the river has risen to a level that we no longer need water conservation efforts.” He added, “I will caution the community that we are still in a drought condition,” if rain is not forecasted in the future, “we could conceivably be back to mandatory water conservation.” Waltz also reminded the community of the upcoming “Christmas on Main” event on Saturday, December 2, with festivities starting at noon and the town’s Christmas Parade starting at 4 p.m., followed by the lighting of the Christmas tree around 6 p.m. in the downtown Village Commons park area after the parade.
Councilwoman Morris commented on the current disposition of the Afton Inn project, which was supposed to be completed in 2023 but, to this date, has made no visible progress. Council had expected to hear a report at their last work session from investor Alan J. Omar, who is involved in the development of Afton Inn, but that report has not materialized. Mayor Cockrell emphasized that she is still working hard to facilitate that report as soon as possible. Morris also congratulated Councilwoman DeDomenico-Payne on her November 7 victory at the polls wherein she continues as a member of the Town Council. Morris also welcomed Wood warmly.
Councilman Bruce Rappaport reflected on his lifelong friendship with Arthur Maddox, which dates as far back in his memory as the time when he was only eight years old, attending the cinema with his friend Arthur to see movies like The Great Escape. “He was a real gem,” Rappaport said, “one of the finest individuals I’ve ever met.” Rappaport also highlighted the good news that VDOT has granted roughly $2.6 million to the Town for road-related improvements and maintenance in the 2024 fiscal year. That announcement of VDOT’s road funding was followed by Consent Agenda action related to the acceptance of those funds, as well as approval of Resolution in support of applying for additional funding for Highway Safety Program improvements.
After passing the seven-item Consent Agenda, council went into closed session to discuss personnel issues as well as HEPTAD litigation against the Town.
Supervisors Approve Support of Silent Falcon Job Creation Grant Time-Frame Extension, Note Full Funding of Samuels Public Library
After hearing from four residents of the Cedarville Heights Subdivision area regarding concerns about the length of time — estimated at 18 months to two years — an access road may be closed during planned VDOT-overseen upgrades in the coming year, and a final Public Comment on election day processes; then going through board and staff reports at its meeting of Tuesday, November 21, the Warren County Board of Supervisors tackled routine business including Approval of Accounts and Appropriations and Transfers, among other housekeeping items. As has become a routine expression of discontent with vagaries in some departmental Accounts and Appropriation submissions, South River District Supervisor Cheryl Cullers cast a lone dissenting vote on both the accounts and appropriations approvals.
During her report, Board Chairman Vicky Cook noted that in the wake of joint approval of a new County/Samuels Public Library Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) maintaining the library’s operational integrity, the library was now fully funded for Fiscal Year 2023-24 to the tune of $1,024,000. In the wake of the last library board of trustees meeting, of which she is a county representative, Cook also reported that the 501 C-3 non-profit Samuels Library “to date have exceeded their unrestricted donations by 1500% (fifteen-hundred-percent).” Royal Examiner verified those numbers with library representatives, who acknowledged a wide-ranging source of donations in response to the recent LBGTQ content/availability issues. As much as $75,000 to date has been donated to help with legal and appeal expenses likely to continue for at least a year, according to library officials.
Under “Unfinished Business,” the board then dealt with two items related to amendments to Family Subdivision Codes. First among those was a request to amend Chapter 180 of County Codes regarding “accessory uses for subdivisions and combinations of subdivisions and cluster housing developments to subsection E and to add provisions for family subdivisions and combinations of subdivisions and family subdivisions to the Agricultural (A) zoning district regulations.”
Second was “a request to amend Chapter 155 of the Warren County Code Section 155-3(B)(1)(b) Family Subdivisions to add subsection: Family subdivisions shall only be permitted for land in the Agricultural zoning district.”
Both requests were approved by 4-0 votes, with Supervisor Cullers abstaining as she explained over an off-handed remark at an earlier meeting noting that Cullers and her husband owned eligible property in an Agriculturally zoned area, so could profit from passage of the requested ordinance amendments. Cullers abstained, though she had pointed out that she had no role in bringing these code amendment requests forward.
Let’s talk about Silent Falcon
Moving towards a Consent Agenda with a 24th item added at the meeting’s outset, Cullers pulled one item, number 19, out for additional discussion prior to a vote of approval. That item was a vote on a Letter of Support for Drone operator Silent Falcon’s request for a 15-month extension to realize completion of its Virginia Jobs Investment Program (VJIP) business development grant project. As noted in the staff summary in the agenda packet, the current completion date rapidly approaching is December 31, 2023. But as Silent Falcon CEO Grant Bishop explained at the November 14 supervisors work session, the company, which relocated what had been a manufacturing-based business here from its previous New Mexico headquarters, has pursued a change of focus to operational uses of its drone fleet. Primary among those operational uses are airport inspections utilizing drones and A.I. technology on what appears to be an emerging global target market.
And while Cullers expressed concerns that Silent Falcon has not reached any of its original employment benchmarks, including job creation, County Administrator Ed Daley explained that endorsing the company’s requested extension presents no financial risk to the County. Any financial consequence of a longer-termed failure to meet its Virginia Jobs Investment Program benchmarks will rest with the company and the state government source of the grant.
Responding to questions, County Economic Development Director Joe Petty explained that the now County-overseen FR-WC Economic Development Authority has been working with Silent Falcon with the goal of keeping them here in Warren County as they face expansion and the need for a larger location than their current one at the County-owned Front Royal Airport (FRR). Noting the potential for good-paying, tech jobs for local citizens from the company’s presence and shifting operational goals, Petty told the supervisors, “We’re working to keep them here in Warren County.”
And with no financial risk at stake for the County, the board majority sided with Supervisor Delores Oates, who noted, based on staff input on that lack of financial risk, that it will cost the County nothing were Silent Falcon to fail in its operational shift and job creation goals. “It’s a risk worth taking,” Board Chairman Vicky Cook said of the majority opinion. Oates’ motion to approve the requested and required municipal letter of support for the extension that will be sent to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership passed by a 4-1 vote, Cullers dissenting based on her ongoing concerns about the company not having met its initial employment benchmarks. It was noted during the discussion that not only the company’s change of operational focus had slowed its initial job projections down, but the company’s relocation also came during a portion of COVID’s negative impacts on business operations in general.
Prior to adjournment, the board unanimously approved a trio of requests. Those included a Resolution in support of a Realignment of Private Access Easement for James Michel, a Conservation Easement submitted by Tom Lockhart, and proceeding with Phase 3 of the Senior Center redevelopment process. On that latter matter, while Chairman Cook noted that the project was now projected at a $61,000 budget overrun, original projections were double that at $120,000 over budget. And while Supervisor Oates observed that the $85,000 price of a range hood still gave her “heartburn,” she joined her colleagues in committing to the continuation and completion of the upgrades to the Senior Center.
With no other New Business to be added to the agenda, the meeting adjourned at 8:25 p.m.