By virtual, remote hook up Friday, September 3, Jennifer McDonald entered not guilty pleas to the 34 federal charges brought against her four days earlier related to the $26-million to $62-million-dollar Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) financial scandal. Following a hearing after her Tuesday, August 31st arrest, the former EDA executive director remains free on a personal recognizance bond pending trial.
In fact, during Friday’s brief virtual hearing Harrisonburg-based Judge Joel Hoppe set a November 3rd trial date. However, Public Defenders Office attorney Andrea Harris who represented McDonald Friday, indicated a continuance would likely be sought by the defense at that time. As those who have followed this case as it developed through 2018, ’19, and ’20 will recall, the volume of evidentiary material estimated at what is likely well over a million pages now, led the State Special Prosecutor’s Office to drop the original criminal indictments against McDonald and a few co-EDA criminal case defendants in 2019, in order to avoid speedy trial issues that could have led to defense motions for dismissal of those charges. It is likely that manpower issues led the Harrisonburg-based State Special Prosecutor’s Office to eventually hand the cases over to federal prosecutors in the Western District of Virginia, also based in Harrisonburg.
Current EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne told Royal Examiner Tuesday he believed federal prosecutors were anticipating a 2022 trial in the McDonald-EDA criminal cases.
As reported in Tuesday’s story on McDonald’s arrest and recognizance bond release, the 34-count indictment filed by a federal grand jury on August 25, includes 16 money laundering counts, 10 counts of bank fraud, 7 of wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” (ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?)
As previously reported on the once $26-million civil case side of EDA financial scandal, the EDA and McDonald have reached a no-fault agreement on a debt of $9-million by the former EDA executive director to the EDA. That agreement in which McDonald admits no wrongdoing, has also been accepted by the bankruptcy court and EDA civil case Judge Bruce D. Albertson.
Also as noted in our earlier story Federal Prosecutors charge McDonald on 34 criminal counts in EDA financial scandal, out of McDonald’s bankruptcy filing the EDA civil claim of damages in the alleged McDonald-led conspiracy to embezzle EDA assets to her and others personal gain, has risen to $62 million.
Supervisors approve Outdoor Sports Facility over recommendation of County Planning Commission, add to the Short-Term Tourist Rental count
The Warren County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting September 27th, largely to process a list of nine actions that were not able to be covered during the regular meeting on September 20.
The Board quickly approved two leases of county property, one for a property at 229 Stokes Airport Road to Skydive Front Royal, LLC, for $600 per month, and the other for an apartment at 136 Hillidge Street for $725 per month to Raymond K. Freeman. There were no public comments on either lease, and the Supervisors approved both unanimously.
After a lengthy public hearing, on a 3-2 margin, the Supervisors approved a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for Cole and Danielle Haase for an outdoor sports facility on their property at 19959 Fort Valley Road. In July, the County Planning Commission held a public hearing and ultimately recommended denial of the permit, citing traffic and neighborhood concerns. Since that time, the applicants have downsized the proposal and worked to allay the concerns of the neighborhood. They intend that the majority of the activities will be inside and scaled back outdoor activities to daytime only. The Haases are also local business owners. The property was formerly used as a church and multi-activity center by Master’s Touch Ministries.
Public comment was brisk with 24 individuals either speaking in person, or submitting letters, e-mails, or videos. Eighteen were in favor of the permit and six against. Neighbors inveighed against possible traffic increases near an accident-prone intersection at Fort Valley Road and Route 55. Supporters praised the applicants’ commitment to youth sports, as an important factor in developing teamwork, athletic and social skills for young people. Sue Russell, whose property adjoins the site, opposed the permit and is worried about the effect of any groundwork or excavations resulting in flooding on her property.
Some of the supervisors recalled when outdoor concerts and events were held at that facility. Supervisor Vicky Cook appeared to be the leading opponent of the proposed permit, calling into question the applicant’s parking and traffic estimates. At the end of the discussion, Supervisor Oates offered a motion to approve, seconded by Supervisor Mabe, and the motion passed, 3-2. Chairman Cullers, joined by Supervisors Oates and Mabe, Aye, Supervisors Cook and Butler, No.
Michelle Moriarty is requesting a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for the property at 96 Cappy Road that she recently purchased in April of 2022. The applicant will use a local property manager and local professional services for emergencies, maintenance, cleaning, garbage disposal, and guest screening/reservations. There was one speaker who opposed the permit on the grounds that the area is residential, not business. However, the Virginia General Assembly and the courts system have specifically determined that short-term rentals are a residential activity, rather than a business operation. Under questioning by the board, the applicant indicated that she had already spoken with all the nearby property owners and provided contact information should any need arise.
Planning Director Wendling indicated that there had so far been no complaints or calls related to these properties. Supervisor Cook questioned whether the County Sheriff would necessarily know if there was a problem with a short-term rental. County Administrator Edwin Daley suggested that the County could investigate developing a registry list for approved short-term rentals to allow law enforcement in the Public Safety Communications Center to know who to contact if there was a problem. Finally, on a motion by Supervisor Oates, seconded by Supervisor Mabe, the Board unanimously approved the permit.
Kendra Hansen, Kathryn Stuart, Simon Sarver, and Michael Cherubin have applied for a CUP for for a Short-Term Tourist Rental Located at 97 River Overlook Road. The owners plan to use the property themselves throughout the year, but they would also like to be able to make the property available for short-term lodging for visitors of the Warren County area when they are not occupying it. The applicants will manage the property personally. There were no speakers for or against the application, and no discussion from the supervisors. On a motion by Supervisor Mabe, and seconded by Supervisor Cook, the motion passed unanimously.
CAZA Legacy, LLC has requested a CUP for short-term tourist rental for the property located at 241 Wildcat Drive. The applicants, Robert Chevez and Erin Kavanagh, purchased this residentially zoned property as an investment property and currently are renting the property long-term for over 30 days since purchasing it in February 2022. They do intend to also use it for themselves as a get-away from their homes in Northern Virginia. The applicants are requesting a waiver to the setback requirement of 100-feet from dwelling to dwelling. The dwelling to the west is 50 feet and the applicants submitted a letter from their neighbor giving his support of the application. The applicants will be contracting a local property management company to maintain the property and as realtors they will be marketing and managing the rental. The property was the subject of an approved permit for short-term tourist use in 2018, however the use was never established and that permit expired.
Two letters from neighboring property owners were submitted. One was in favor of the permit issuance, and one was opposed. There were no speakers at the public hearing, and on a motion by Supervisor Mabe, seconded by Supervisor Cook, the Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the permit.
Matthew Williams and Jay Gilbert have applied for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental located at 244 Delicious Road, Linden. The applicants plan to manage the property personally with assistance from local professional services for cleaning and landscaping. The closest dwelling unit is 115 feet to the northeast. There were no comments from the supervisors or the public. One letter supportive of the use was submitted. On a motion by Supervisor Oates, seconded by Supervisor Butler, the Board unanimously voted to approve.
Matthew Williams and Jay Gilbert have also applied for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental in an agriculturally-zoned property located at 115 Lonesome Flats Road. The applicants plan to manage the property personally with assistance from local professional services for cleaning and landscaping. The closest dwelling is 313 feet to the north. The planning department provided a letter by a neighbor, John Croft, who opposes the permit. Mr. Croft alleges that the Road is private, on his land, and has not granted permission to use it for guests. After a discussion regarding the legal status of an access easement to the applicant’s property, the supervisors decided to approve the permit, subject to verification that an access easement does exist. Supervisor Cook made a motion to approve, seconded by Supervisor Mabe. The vote to approve was unanimous.
Thomas Pigeon has applied for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental Located at 540 Lakeside Drive. The applicant will contract a local property management company, Shenandoah Valley Property Maintenance LLC, to manage and maintain the property if the use is approved. The owners plan to manage the rental of the property through Airbnb and will review any renters for a positive online ranking. All the required conditions for permitting are complete. On a motion by Supervisor Butler, Seconded by Supervisor Mabe, the Board voted 4-1 in favor of approval. Chairman Cullers expressed her concern and continued opposition to properties being purchased by owners with no connection to the area for this use.
The Meeting adjourned at 8:50 p.m.
Governor Glenn Youngkin declares State of Emergency in advance of Hurricane Ian
Governor Glenn Youngkin declared a State of Emergency in advance of Hurricane Ian, which is expected to impact portions of Virginia starting on Friday, September 30, 2022.
“Hurricane Ian is a large, powerful storm, and current predictions indicate that it may impact parts of Virginia later this week into early next week,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “We want to ensure that our communities have the resources to respond to and recover from any potential effects from the storm. While we recognize that the storm track is still uncertain, I nevertheless encourage all Virginians and visitors to make a plan, have supplies on hand, and follow official sources for the latest forecast information and guidance. Suzanne and I will pray for those in Florida in the storm’s path.”
This State of Emergency allows the Commonwealth to mobilize resources and equipment for response and recovery efforts. Virginians should be prepared for the potential of severe rainfall, flooding, wind damage, tornadoes, and other storm-related impacts.
The Virginia Emergency Support Team (VEST) actively monitors the situation and coordinates resources and information to prepare for this storm. The Virginia Emergency Operations Center (VEOC) will coordinate preparedness, response, and recovery efforts with local, state, and federal officials.
Recommendations for Virginians
Make a plan. Plan in advance a route to a safe place, how you will stay in contact with family and friends, and what you will do in different situations. Additional planning resources are available at https://www.vaemergency.gov/prepare/make-a-plan/.
Prepare an emergency kit. For a list of recommended emergency supplies to sustain your household before, during, and after the storm, visit VAemergency.gov/emergency-kit.
Stay informed. Virginians should follow the Virginia Department of Emergency Management on Twitter and Facebook for preparedness updates and their local National Weather Service office for the latest weather forecast, advisories, watches, or warnings. Download the FEMA app on your smartphone to receive mobile alerts from the National Weather Service. Power outages are always a concern during weather events—make sure you have a battery-operated radio available to still receive life-saving alerts.
Skyline High students protest pending ‘anti-trans’ legislation forwarded by Governor Youngkin
Thirteen public school students gathered on the Skyline High School campus Tuesday morning to protest Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s initiative in forwarding what they termed an “anti-trans law” in Virginia. The students, aged 14 to 17, were orderly throughout as they moved from the front of the school to the football field authorized for the students’ expression of distress at what they believe would become legalized discrimination against transgender students. One of the student organizers who contacted media about the event scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to noon termed it a “Trans Rights Walkout”.
Asked about the student demonstration, Skyline High Principal Danelle Sperling told Royal Examiner: “When the student-led walkout began, I spoke with two of the organizers and made a plan with them to provide adult supervision to ensure safety, and I made plans to communicate with the involved students’ families about our response. Obviously we want students in class, but our desire was to make sure they remained safe and that their civil liberties were respected. This group of students were peaceful and extremely respectful for the duration of their protest and returned to their school day after about 30 minutes without incident.”
Online research of the recent legislative initiative of apparent 2024 Republican Presidential hopeful Youngkin led us to several reports, including mid-September Washington Post and National Public Radio stories. The Post in particular cited civil rights attorney’s questions about the legal basis for the governor’s mandate regarding bathroom, locker-room and other school facilities uses by transgender children.
But of the legislation itself, NPR notes that, “The Virginia Department of Education released its 2022 Model Policies online Friday (Sept. 16) … The new rules will effected the more than 1 million children enrolled in the state’s public school system.
“The revamped rules explicitly state that students must only use bathrooms and locker rooms associated with the sex assigned to them at birth. If a student wants to participate in a sport or other extracurricular activities, they must, again, only participate in teams that align with the sex assigned at birth.
“Further, the legal name and sex of a student can’t be changed ‘even upon written instruction of a parent or eligible student’ without an official legal document or court order.”
The Post story by Rachel Weiner quotes employment and civil rights attorney Joshua Erlich stating, “Gov. Youngkin is trying to pick a political fight by attacking trans students, but his model policies are in conflict with recent court rulings … Discrimination against transgender individuals is illegal discrimination on the basis of sex.”
The Post story also notes that, “Recent federal court decisions have upheld protections for transgender people, including a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, written by Trump appointee Neil M. Gorsuch, that determined that civil rights law barring sex discrimination covers transgender people,” and that, “In 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a transgender student could not be barred from using a boys’ bathroom. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling last year.”
The Post also noted conflicting legal messaging and a failure to clarify from the Virginia governor’s office: “The directive, which does not go into effect until after a 30-day public comment period beginning later this month, says schools must comply with federal precedent and the Virginia Human Rights Act, but it does not explain how. A spokeswoman for the governor declined to answer specific questions about the policy, saying in a statement that it ‘requires that schools treat every single student with dignity and respect.’ Some districts have vowed to resist it,” the Post reported.
And so it goes from Richmond to Front Royal and Warren County, as around the Commonwealth, as established legal precedent and human rights butt heads with political ambition and the nation’s widening social divide.
Winchester to conduct an emergency exercise on October 1st
WINCHESTER, VA – The City of Winchester public safety departments, various supporting agencies, and Winchester Public Schools will hold a full-scale emergency exercise on Saturday, October 1, 2022. The training exercise will be held in and around John Handley High School from approximately 8 am-12 pm.
This simulated scenario will focus on an emergency response to an active threat inside the school. The goal is to assess the readiness of first responders and school staff to facilitate a coordinated and timely response in the event of a future threat.
Please be aware of these potential public disruptions:
1. Increase in traffic around John Handley High School, Garland R. Quarles Elementary School, and John Kerr Elementary School
2. Road closures (access will be allowed for residents in the affected areas): Jefferson Street (Valley Avenue to Tennyson Avenue), Handley Boulevard (Stewart Street to Handley Avenue), Handley Avenue (Miller Street to Jefferson Street), Handley Avenue (Handley Blvd to Briarmont Drive)
The exercise is closed to the public.
Warren Heritage Society host tour of Bel Air Mansion
On September 24, 2022, the Warren Heritage Society hosted a tour of the Bel Air Mansion in Front Royal, Virginia. In this exclusive Royal Examiner video, you will hear Maral Kalbian, Architectural Historian, provide some historical remarks on Bel Air and how it has changed over the years. Also, excepts from Luck Buck’s Diary and letters, read by Hallie Groves, President of the WHS Board of Directors. WHS Archivist Tony Carter welcomed the guest and introduced the speakers.
Richard Hoover, a WHS Board member, gives the history of the Warren Heritage Society along with welcoming remarks from Jeff LeHew, the current owner of Bel Air. The Warren Heritage Society wants to thank Lorraine Hulquist, Suzanne Silek, Tom Lockhart, and Hallie Groves for their generosity in helping sponsor this event.
Bel Air Mansion, built in 1795, was home to 19-year-old Lucy Buck, whose detailed diary entries during the war have been invaluable for historians. General Robert E. Lee and his staff stopped here for refreshments on July 22, 1863, as his army retreated from Gettysburg.
School Board again delays action on VSBA items; approves lease for Elements Program
A new lease to house the Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) Elements Program received unanimous approval from the Warren County School Board during its Wednesday, September 21 meeting, and the board received updates on several WCPS items during its coinciding work session.
At the same time, members present to vote during the meeting — School Board Chair Kristen Pence, Vice Chair Ralph Rinaldi, and board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins — again delayed action on three items related to the board’s potential 2022-2023 membership in the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA).
The VSBA-related items were removed from the agenda prior to the meeting “in order to receive additional information and will be added to the October 5 meeting,” according to the School Board’s revised agenda.
Removal of the three VSBA items — to approve renewal of the board’s VSBA membership; to renew the VSBA Policy Services Agreement; and to select a delegate and alternate delegate to attend the 2022 VSBA Annual Convention — again delays board action initially requested months ago and which continues to lag mainly due to concerns expressed largely by Salins, who objects to the School Board’s membership in the association.
The board members voted 5-0 to approve each of the three other action items on the agenda — including improvements for handicapped accessibility at Skyline High School and a one-year contract for the Schoology learning management system.
Following a motion by Funk and a second by Salins, the School Board first approved a WCPS lease agreement for the Raymond Santmyers Youth Center for the WCPS Elements Program, which WCPS Special Services Director Michael Hirsch (above) said is a transition program to bridge the gap between high school and adulthood for qualified students with disabilities.
Specifically, Elements is a community-based program for students ages 18 to 22 that focuses on pre-employment, supported employment, and employment strategies, said Hirsch.
“Some students with disabilities don’t have the option to go to college, particularly those with significant cognitive impairments,” Hirsch explained, “so we decided to work with Lord Fairfax Community College and create our own program named Elements.”
Lord Fairfax Community College is now known as Laurel Ridge Community College. Hirsch said the Elements Program was located at the college for years until March 2020 when WCPS had to stop holding its class there. Hirsch said the plan now is to go back to the college with an expanded program that will allow WCPS to serve more students than the nine it currently serves this school year.
“We want to give students who don’t graduate with a standard or advanced diploma the option to stay [in WCPS] until their 22nd birthday,” Hirsch said. “We don’t like to see students sitting in Warren County High School or Skyline High School for eight years in a restrictive setting, so we’re creating options in the community and at the college.”
Until WCPS can hold its Elements class at the college again, Hirsch said the division wanted the community-based program for students with disabilities to continue operations. Warren County stepped up and offered free space at the Santmayer Youth Center to home base the Elements Program. This year’s nine students in the program will go into the community to work in positions with the Town of Front Royal and for all types of local business partners as they “learn how to work competitively,” said Hirsch.
WCPS plans to have two program bases when the college reopens its doors in the spring, Hirsch said. From the college site, students will be able to work a variety of positions, such as in the mail room, in food service, or in the student union, he said, while from the youth center they will be able to work in Front Royal-located positions.
“We love it and we’re very thankful to the County for stepping up and providing this resource to us,” said Hirsch.
With the School Board’s approval of the action item, WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger is now authorized to execute either a lease or a memorandum of agreement with Warren County for the occupancy of a portion of the youth center, which is on East 8th Street in Front Royal.
In other action, the board approved WCPS purchasing the 2022-2023 Schoology learning management system totaling $16,147.17 for use this school year in the elementary schools. WCPS has used the system for the last two years during the pandemic and upon completion of a survey this year decided to continue using it, according to WCPS Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Heather Bragg. The system is used by teachers to communicate with students and parents, among other tasks.
The last action item approved by the School Board regarded a request to install additional curb cuts at the bus loop/parking lot entrance at Skyline High School where a painted pedestrian crosswalk currently exists to increase student and staff safety and to improve handicapped accessibility.
The board approved a contract totaling $19,235.83 that will be awarded to the Gordian Group, which will install the handicapped-accessible curb cuts that will be compliant with federal laws.
Among several items discussed during the work session portion of the School Board’s meeting, WCPS Assistant Superintendent for Administration George “Buck” Smith outlined information related to the planned renovations at Leslie Fox Keyser (LFK) Elementary School.
The Warren County School Board Building Committee — which also met on Wednesday prior to the School Board’s meeting — worked through value engineering items and looked at identifying additional funding sources for the LFK project.
For example, roughly $245,800 would be available for the LFK project from the WCPS cafeteria fund to use for new appliances and their installation, said Smith, who added that tens of thousands of dollars in project savings also could be derived from modified renovations that would cost less and not detract from the overall project’s scope.
Smith told School Board members that the building committee will have a contract that has been reviewed by the division attorney ready, as well as a presentation for the School Board so that it can possibly take action on it during the board’s October 5 meeting.
Watch the exclusive Royal Examiner video of the entire Warren County School Board Building Committee meeting below.
In another work session item, Superintendent Ballenger reported that there are 5,042 students currently attending WCPS, not including the roughly 173 to 175 students in pre-kindergarten.
Ballenger also pointed out that class sizes are growing at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School, which is expected to need five teachers per grade level within the next two years. E. Wilson Morrison Elementary School also may need additional teaching supports, he said.
After discussing some options for providing such additional support — which is needed now to come back from pandemic-related deficits in reading and math in Ressie classrooms — Ballenger said he will present an item for board action on how to do so at its next meeting.
“We are pushing the limits of the number of students per class,” Ballenger told board members, “and we still are having to do a lot of remediation. We want to make sure we’re giving students the best services possible.”
Another work session item that will come up later for School Board action included removing the gender specifications from both the Warren County Educational Foundation Scholarship and the Thompson Scholarship, which are awarded at each WCPS high school to the male and female student with the highest academic GPA who also meet the criteria for the scholarships. The scholarships are usually in the amount of $3,000 each but may be adjusted depending on the amount of money available for distribution.
WCPS would like the School Board to consider making that change to the scholarships’ criteria in order to recognize the two students at each high school with the highest academic GPA, regardless of their gender, said Bragg.
Also, due to increased demands on the WCPS Finance Department, Ballenger said there is a need to add a new position to the department. This work session item also will come up at a future board meeting for consideration.
Warren County School Board Building Committee meeting of September 21, 2022
Warren County School Board Meeting/Work Session of September 21, 2022