Royal Examiner has received verification from one member of the Town of Front Royal’s Urban Forestry Advisory Commission (UFAC) that the current four-member commission board has resigned en masse. Individual letters to the Town announcing the resignations were delivered the morning of December 15, according to UFAC member Vincent Resch.
Resch told us in an email response of Sunday, December 20, “I will confirm on record the mass resignation of all members on UFAC. I will not speak for any other members of UFAC’s reasoning other than my own.”
A hint at Resch’s reasoning was delivered during a November 23rd appearance as a public speaker at the Front Royal Town Council meeting during which he addressed concerns about the absence of Town Code-mandated involvement of UFAC on environmental matters like the elimination of trees on public property, as on Happy Creek’s riparian buffer along a portion of the community’s Shenandoah Greenway trail.
Of that appearance, Resch told Royal Examiner on December 20, “I spoke on public record to the town council and (interim) town manager at the public session November 23, 2020 to address my concerns on the Happy Creek project and the Town’s disregard of even contacting UFAC as required by its own Town Code – see 156-3, paragraph 9; state violation of standards for soil and sediment control under VMRC permit 2020-1561, item 20; and Town’s line clearing tree contractor that did not employ an ISA certified arborist per the contract, and did not carry Virginia Workman’s Compensation Insurance.
“Even after addressing the town council and town manager UFAC was not consulted for advice or recommendations, or even given a copy of the revised – or the original for that matter – plan that came out a week later. I finally obtained a copy from the Save Happy Creek Coalition. There was not a single mention of replanting or mitigation of the stream bank’s vegetation that was lost except putting up ‘tree protection zones’ around trees to be saved – problem is the majority of the trees and vegetation were already removed!!!” Resch concluded with written triple emphasis.
As to his resignation, Resch said, “I personally have volunteered over 500 hours of my professional time over the past 4 years as a citizen of Warren County, member of UFAC, and member of Warren County/Front Royal Tree Stewards to help out the Town and County that we all call home. I’m not alone, many other volunteers have combined 1000’s of hours giving back to our community. I was no longer willing to give my valuable time to a Town Council that showed this level of disregard and disrespect, just so they can keep a ‘Tree City USA’ label.”
While his colleagues – Chair Jason Lanham, Co-Chair Cary Hulse and Jack Donohue – have to this point remained silent on the mass resignation, one might guess the group rationale wouldn’t stray far from Resch’s stated above. As noted by Resch, the Town Code reference to the creation of UFAC mandates certain responsibilities and oversight of environmentally related work inside the town limits.
That 156-3 Town Code on “Duties of UFAC” begins, “An Urban Forestry Advisory Commission shall be established to perform the following duties,” with Resch’s referenced paragraph 9 elaborating: “9/ Review plantings, maintenance, and removal of trees and other vegetation on Town-owned public property, landscaping easements and rights-of-way.”
A further exploration of the Urban Forestry Advisory Commission’s founding Code Section 156-3 indicates the intent of development of, and Town adherence to, standards developed by the UFAC membership regarding planning and management of the tree presence giving Front Royal its “Tree City USA” status as a quality of life and tourism destination. The five opening graphs of UFAC’s duties mandated by the Town Code creating it state:
- To develop and monitor a Tree Canopy Cover Plan.
- To develop, implement, and maintain an urban forestry management program and adopt an Urban Forestry Management Plan.
- To develop, implement and maintain a program that recognizes trees of significance for heritage, memorial or specimen designation.
- To develop standards and guidelines for planting, maintenance, preservation, and replacement of trees on public property and any land disturbing activities on private property.
- To promote education of the general public, Town Officials, and Town Employees regarding proper tree-care and planting practices.
Asked about that planning and past UFAC-Town staff and elected official educational role, Resch deferred to fellow Tree Steward David Means, whom he pointed out had a longer tenure on the UFAC board.
In response to an emailed inquiry, Means replied with three documents – two dating to 2014 included a UFAC report on “The Town of Front Royal’s Existing and Possible Urban Tree Canopy” and a presentation by the Davey Resource Group to UFAC on an “Existing Tree Inventory” and development of an “Urban Forestry Management Plan”. Cary Hulse, UFAC’s most recent and now resigned co-chairman, was an employee of Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc., a division of the Davey Resource Group at the time.
The third attachment titled “Landscape Preservation and Planting Guide” was a 35-page document prepared by the Town Planning and Zoning Department in the 1990’s, Means said. It clearly illustrates the town government of that time’s priorities that led to UFAC’s eventual formation, the role of the Tree Stewards, and the Town’s “Tree City USA” designation acquired in 1999. It is a designation Resch explained that UFAC reapplies for annually.
“This guide has been prepared to assist property owners and developers in tree planting and preservation during the course of development activities. The Town of Front Royal strongly encourages the retention and preservation of mature trees and woodland areas for environmental, ecological and aesthetic reasons,” the town planning department report’s introductory paragraph reads.
It continues, “It is not the Town’s intention to adversely impact development activities, but to ensure that the environmental need for tree preservation and planting is balanced with all new development activities.”
Imagine that, as the last century drew to a close and political partisanship had yet to intrude in town elections Front Royal actually appeared to be at the forefront of balancing the environmental concerns of a rural, small American town with coming development that could threaten its rural Virginia roots, ambience, not to mention its attraction to tourists and the revenue they produce.
Slightly over 20 years later that balance of proactive preservation of the town’s rural setting while accommodating thoughtful growth seems to have shifted to non-communication and outright amnesia of such matters, coupled with efforts focused on avoiding State-imposed financial sanctions or mandated upgrades for the consequences of recent infrastructure neglect.
So, what appears to still be in motion through this 2020 holiday season at year’s end is a Town Council-endorsed plan to turn this formerly heavily treed section of the Shenandoah Greenway Trail and adjacent Happy Creek bank into a rock-strewn high-speed, hard-surface dumped stormwater management “sewer” headed, not only downstream toward some Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries-stocked trout, but eventually into the Shenandoah River without a detour through the Town’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.
So much for the notion once expressed to this reporter by former Warren County Supervisor John Vance, dating to those perhaps simpler mid-to-late-1990’s times, that “Municipal government should be about common sense …”
But as 2021 approaches the question remains, is it too late for common sense to kick in to fix an apparently ill-conceived Happy Creek stormwater “corrective” plan based on the recommendations of a storm and wastewater management consultant not given the opportunity to consult, as the Town’s own code mandates it should, with the Town’s own Urban Forestry Advisory Commission and other available experts like the Tree Stewards, versed in creek bank and natural water and stormwater flow and riparian buffer management?
Stay tuned as “Save Happy Creek Coalition” members continue to converse with Town officials, including new Town Manager Steven Hicks, Public Works Director Robbie Boyer and CHA consultant Lawrence Hoffman.
Where there is conversation, even belatedly, there is hope.
But the citizens who elected them are left to wonder why the sitting town council, and its appointed interim municipal manager, initially declined that conversation, as noted above mandated by its own Town Code, with the resource agencies at its disposal before such a major, physically transformative undertaking (pun for our deceased trees intended).
Board of Supervisors Work Session looks to budget with growing needs and uncertain funding climate
The Warren County Board of Supervisors met for a work session on February 23, 2021, to review and discuss ongoing work by county departments to forecast funding needs and schedule projects in the offing. Newly appointed Fire Chief James Bonzano and Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico provided the supervisors with a FEMA grant program the department has been using called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER. According to FEMA, SAFER grants fund fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations directly to help them increase capacity in their communities. The 2020 request will close March 12 and will require the Supervisors to decide before then how to allocate between $965,000 and nearly $2 million among the fire stations should the grant at the maximum level be approved. The 2020-21 budget for the entire Fire & rescue department is $3.1 million.
Ed Carter of VDOT provided an update of the Happy Creek Phase IV improvement project that was originally planned to require a road closure from June 14 to July 30 to coincide with school summer break. He explained that this project is intended to improve the roadway by eliminating some curves, hills, and blind spots.
The project has already been bid, and the bid was substantially lower than originally estimated, based on the projected closure of Happy Creek Road, giving the contractor unobstructed access to the site without having to maintain public access to the road during construction, which is planned to be completed in December.
The road closure will extend from Leach Run Parkway to Dismal Hollow Road. The reason for the possible extension is that since the project requires temporary relocation of utility lines and the Norfolk Southern Railroad must issue permits for that to happen on their right-of-way, Rural Electric Cooperative and Comcast must submit requests for the permits.
The permits were not requested as soon as they should have been, and it may not be possible to have those permits in hand prior to the scheduled construction start. In that event, Mr. Carter indicated that there may be a necessity for a two-week extension of the temporary closure. VDOT and the Town will coordinate with the school district to develop a plan if the extension of the road closure becomes necessary. Access to both Shenandoah Shores Road and Loop Road will be continued during the closure, and provision will be made for emergency vehicles.
The School District representative, Aaron Mitchell, indicated it was a challenge to plan a reroute to accommodate the closure, then revert to a normal route within two weeks. It would be particularly hard on parents.
The closure extension may not be necessary, but if it is not possible to work out a plan for the closure, Mr. Carter indicated that the project could be pushed to next year.
VDOT will undertake to have a discussion with the school superintendent this week.
Residents of Happy Creek Road will be vitally interested in progress towards a solution as the start of this improvement project nears.
Judge hears arguments on Downes vs. Front Royal parking/zoning case dismissal motion
A decision on the Town of Front Royal’s Demurrer motion for dismissal of David Downes civil action seeking to overturn the Town Council’s decision not to reverse existing zoning requirements that he maintain 9 to 15 on-site parking spaces at his two Chester Street properties could be forthcoming within two weeks. Substitute Judge Craig D. Johnston of Prince William County cited that “hoped for” timeline after taking 2-1/2 hours of arguments under advisement shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, February 23.
Local defense attorney and Virginia Beer Museum proprietor Downes represented himself in the case heard in Warren County Circuit Court. The Town of Front Royal was represented by Heather K. Bardot of the Fairfax-based law firm of Bancroft McGavin Horvath & Judkins, PC. The Town’s legal representation is covered by insurance through the Virginia Risk Sharing Association (VRSA), a subset of the Virginia Municipal League (VML).
One interested observer in Circuit Courtroom “A” was Town Attorney Doug Napier, who appeared to be taking more notes than the two reporters present. What he and those reporters were scribbling occasionally frantically about was the fundamental issue of whether Plaintiff Downes civil filing contains adequate grounds to proceed to trial.
Bardot and the Town contend that no, it doesn’t, as reflected in their Demurrer filing of January 7. Downes countered in support of his February 8 reply to the Town motion for dismissal, that he has made sufficient cause to being singled out as what he termed “a party of one” treated in an “arbitrary and unreasonably” different manner than other business entities, property owners and museums in Front Royal’s downtown business district, save one. And that one, a residential rental building across Chester Street, is only mandated to keep three off-street parking spaces, Downes observed.
The dispute centers around Downes’ law office at 14 Chester and adjacent Virginia Beer Museum at 16 Chester Street. Existing Town Zoning requires that he maintain a total of 15 off-street parking spaces, nine in the rear of the two buildings and six abutting the Town’s Peyton Street parking lot on the north side of the Beer Museum. Primarily at issue are the nine spaces in the rear of the two buildings. Downes noted that employee-wise, he doesn’t need more than one or two parking spaces for either business.
Downes contends that, not only has the Town singled him out for a standard different for other businesses in the downtown district, but also in the case of the Virginia Beer Museum, differently than other museums and art galleries in the area. His rezoning request would allow him to revamp the rear portion of his property into an expanded Biergarten and events area for his museum dedicated to promoting Virginia-brewed beers and beer’s role in the history of the American nation.
On the Town’s behalf, Bardot countered that Downes had inherited the zoning’s parking requirements, particularly as to the 16 Chester Street property, dating back to 1992. Downes noted he has had his law office at 14 Chester since 1999. Bardot also pointed to business growth projections for Front Royal’s Downtown Business District, including the redevelopment of the Afton Inn, that will require additional downtown parking that will negate Peyton Street parking availability statistics overlapping Downes’ rezoning request initiated in 2017 and finally denied by the town council in January 2019.
Downes has pointed to a parking study the Town initiated the year prior to his rezoning request that indicated 22 of the available 42 spaces in the Peyton Lot area as available on average. Countering that, Bardot noted that once Downes fenced off the rear area of his property that availability had changed to 27 of the 42 spaces being taken, an increase of 16% occupancy she noted.
Bardot also cited what she called “a very low standard of reasonableness” by which a court should judge legislative decisions because the judicial branch of government is not supposed to interfere unduly with the legislative branch’s function. The dueling attorneys were also at odds over whether a Constitutional aspect of the case related to the discriminatory nature Downes claims is being applied to him in a “piecemeal” manner is still at issue in the case. The case was originally filed in federal court, but the two parties agreed for it to be moved to state court jurisdiction.
“Of course it’s piecemeal – that’s why I’m here,” Downes told the court. He said that any of the three zoning options he had offered the Town would have addressed and solved that discriminatory nature of the existing zoning he is claiming. “I have to maintain these spaces – the burden shouldn’t be on me – it must be uniform (by zoning code) he asserted. Downes noted a formula at the root of the existing zoning by which he is supposed to have a parking space for every 300 square feet of building space, a condition not applied to other businesses or museums in the downtown area.
Of his claim the Town is violating Constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law in its demand of the parking space requirements directed at his properties, he concluded, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree” that it was still in play at the state court level. In that regard, Downes cited Virginia’s Dillon Rule which prevents municipal governments from exceeding authorities not granted at the State level. – “Under the Dillon Rule the Town can’t do unconstitutional things,” he argued.
Bardot countered that rather than the “arbitrary and capricious” standard being violated by the Town, Downes simply disagreed with a council decision that could be viewed as reasonable in light of evidence of coming downtown parking needs.
Both attorneys cited case law in support of their opposing contentions on the level of proof necessary and present in the Downes litigation. “I’m living with Williams for better or worse,” Downes told the judge of one of his case law references.
“The Town has no obligation to show reasonableness until Mr. Downes shows unreasonableness,” Bardot told the court, adding that Downes’ amended complaint failed to meet that standard as illustrated by the public hearing debate and planning commission recommendation of denial.
However, Downes argued that much of the opposition to his request from nearby business or property owners upon which either the planning commission or town council decisions were based were not relevant to the zoning amendment at issue. Rather, he asserted much of the negative public comment amounted to specific dislikes of either a fence he installed around his back area to address security concerns or the fact the museum served beer, neither being relevant to the zoning and resultant parking requirements at issue in his litigation against the Town.
The attorneys also debated the relevance of meeting summaries versus transcripts and public comments for or against the rezoning request beginning at the planning commission public hearing level. As noted above, Bardot pointed to public opposition to Downes’ rezoning amendment proposal and the planning commission’s unanimous recommendation of denial to further the defense contention the town council decision to deny was a matter of reasonable debate, rather than an arbitrary or capricious decision aimed a lone property owner’s way.
“This goes back to the first year of law school, but don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees,” Downes countered of peripheral issues cited by opponents of his zoning amendment request referenced in the defense motion. Bardot suggested that the plaintiff was mixing apples and oranges in arguing against the defendant’s Demurrer request for dismissal of his case based on a fundamental standard of evidence required to proceed to trial.
Judge Johnston observed that “There are lots of apples in this case – how they relate to the oranges in the defense” was what was at issue for him to determine.
And within the next couple of weeks the plaintiff and defendant will know exactly how the judge juggled those apples and oranges in coming to a decision on the Town’s motion for dismissal of Downes’ case against it.
See the Town Demurrer filing and the Defense and Plaintiff motions in support and opposition to it at these links:
Amended Town Press Release on Hicks assumption of dual Town Manager/EDA Director job
Editor’s Note: Following the submission of several questions from Royal Examiner to the Town about Mr. Hicks appointment to the EDA Executive Director’s position, this amended press release was issued after 5 p.m., Tuesday, February 23, under the headline “Steven Hicks, takes on an additional role as FREDA Executive Director”
Front Royal, VA (February 23, 2021) – Last night the Front Royal Town Council formalized the establishment of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) effective March 15, 2021. To oversee FREDA, Council plans to appoint Steven Hicks as the Executive Director in addition to his role as Town Manager at his current salary. Council and Hicks felt this approach would offset the cost of hiring an Executive Director to save the taxpayer’s dollars.
Hicks has significant experience in leading public-private development projects targeting downtown revitalization. In Selma, N.C., he partnered with Eastfield Crossing Developers and Duke Energy to amend a 400-acre mixed-used development and incentive agreement to increase the Town’s tax base and create 3,100 jobs.
Hicks has a Master of Science Degree in Civil and Infrastructure Engineering (USE) from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Urban Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia Darden School Senior Executive Institute, the University of North Carolina School of Government Municipal and County Administration, and the Virginia Tech Transportation Construction Management Institute.
He served as the Commissioner of North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, Triangle East Chamber of Commerce Board of Director and Uptown Selma Business Partnership Board Director. He is a member of the International City Management Association and Virginia Economic Developers Association (VEDA).
Council is currently seeking applicants to serve as members of the Board of Directors. Applications are available on the Town’s website at www.frontroyalva.com and will be accepted until March 31, 2021.
(The following press release was issued by the Town of Front Royal shortly after Mayor Holloway read it into the record of the Feb. 22 Town Council meeting, Monday evening.)
The Front Royal Town Council is pleased to announce plans to establish the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) on March 15, 2021, and will be naming Town Manager, Steven Hicks as the Executive Director. The Town is currently seeking applicants to serve as members of the Board of Directors until March 31, 2021. Last year the Virginia General Assembly authorized the formation of the FREDA. Since that authorization, the Town has codified the Town EDA in Town Code.
The decision to move forward with FREDA was not taken hastily or lightly. The Town’s decision to move forward with its own independent EDA has more to do with the present and future rather than the past.
The Town has re-development and economic development needs now that Council does not believe the County’s EDA is in the position to perform. Small businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and are in need of recovery. In addition, there are many empty storefronts now and Council hopes we can prevent more in the coming years. Having FREDA will also make it easier and quicker to improve the quality of life and appearance of Front Royal by addressing blighted properties through various tools and resources available to EDA’s.
The challenges facing the current County EDA are significant. For example, on September 25, 2019, the EDA agreed to enter into a Confession of Judgment with The First Bank and Trust.
The Confession of Judgment and supporting documentation appear to indicate the following:
• The sum for the judgment is $9,015,742 at an annual interest rate of 6%
• The loan was a line of credit up to $17 million
• Security for the loan in part stated, “Security agreement granting an interest in all the borrower’s accounts and government payments and programs including but not limited to all present and
future payments now or hereafter appropriated and made or to be made by the Town of Front Royal, Virginia and/or the County of Warren, Virginia, to the borrower….”
Based upon legal interpretation, this Confession of Judgment means all EDA assets not currently secured by another party are subject to the Confession of Judgment or in essence, the property of The First Bank and Trust Company up to $9M. This Confession of Judgment impairs buying property for the County or the Town unless the bank allows it. If the EDA enters into a lease, lease revenues would go to The First Bank and Trust Company. Due to the low creditworthiness of the EDA, it cannot obtain bonds, loans, or other types of financing without the County and/or Town’s direct involvement. Couple this Confession of Judgment with the EDA’s insolvency, ongoing litigation, lack of three years of audits, and low creditworthiness, it will be difficult for the EDA to function as a traditional EDA for many years in order to help our community, specifically our Town.
The Front Royal Town Council is committed to working in partnership with Warren County and its EDA. By no means should the Town’s initiative to focus on the Town’s re-development be construed as an unwillingness to work with the County. We just believe from a business perspective; formalizing FREDA is the only way the Town can focus on re-development with real results.
The Town Council would consider joining the County’s EDA in the future once all the following takes place with the County’s EDA:
1. It not only has produced missing audits but previous and future audits need to be clean.
2. It is solvent.
3. The Confession of Judgment is released.
4. All possible criminal investigations and civil litigation has been concluded.
5. The Town taxpayers have recovered all misappropriated, stolen, or fraudulently obtained assets by the EDA or its employee(s).
As part of the Town’s FY22 Budget, the Town will be able to invest $100,000 without sacrificing services to start FREDA. Additionally, the Town anticipates receiving over $100,000 from the sale of real estate which will be re-invested into our Town.
In conclusion, considering the state of affairs with the County’s EDA and in consideration of the Town’s needs to expand its tax base through economic development and marketing, it is imperative that the Town move towards ramping up its own EDA as soon as possible.
If any member of the public has any further questions, please contact Todd C. Jones, Town Public Information Officer.
Council back to the drawing board on separation of Public Comments from meetings, live broadcast
As part of an overhaul of its meeting scheduling and procedures, the Front Royal Town Council was poised to approve the separation of the “Public Correspondence” or “comments” portion of meetings, along with not live broadcasting those comments as part of planned changes. But after Gary Gillespie’s initial motion to approve a change to the “Order of Business” for regular council meetings a rift appeared.
Two newly elected councilmen, first Scott Lloyd and then Joseph McFadden expressed opposition to the “Public Comments” aspect of the changes. Those changes would include moving the public input on matters of concern to 6:30 p.m., a half-hour prior to the start of the meeting. It appeared the earlier, opening segment devoted to public comments was repeatedly referred to as a “work session” that would be adjourned to allow the one monthly regular meeting to begin.
McFadden wondered what council was to do for a half-hour if, like Monday night, no one showed up to speak. Would council have to kill a half-hour before starting the scheduled 7 p.m. meeting?
Would public comments be cut off at 7 p.m. if there were a larger number of people present to address council? McFadden indicated he was going to be a “no” vote on the motion as presented.
Lloyd offered an amended motion that would include continuing the live broadcast of public comments. The conversation evolved into multi-faceted directions that led Councilman Meza to suggest returning the matter to work session for all the legal and procedural variables addressed to be reconsidered in some detail prior to a vote. And after Gillespie and Lloyd agreed to withdraw their respective motions, it was back to what will now be council’s lone monthly work session, which along with the change to one monthly meeting (from the previous two of each that has long been council’s monthly format), was approved on a second reading just prior to the “Order of Business” matter being brought forward.
Also, as of that above-referenced second reading council will no longer have the necessity of two votes of approval for the ordinance and other major business action items.
Town officially announces $100,000 investment in new EDA, names Town Manager Hicks new EDA director
While it’s back to a work session for further discussion of a plan to distance “Public Comments” from both the Town Council’s regular meeting agenda and live broadcast (see related story), not so for the Town of Front Royal’s plan to create its own unilateral Economic Development Authority. Near the end of a fairly brief 40-minute meeting Monday evening, February 22, Mayor Chris Holloway read a press release on the Town’s EDA decision into the meeting record. See the full text of that release to this story.
As of publication Royal Examiner had yet to receive a response to questions about Town Manager Steven Hicks appointment as executive director of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority, acronym-ed “FREDA”, as to any additional salary and how his time allotment to the two roles was envisioned to be divided.
The release did say the Town was poised to invest $100,000 in its new EDA without elaborating on where that money would be spent. It also said it anticipated an “over $100,000” return on investment related to future real estate sales.
Of the decision to abandon continuation of the over half-century partnership with Warren County in its joint EDA still recovering from the financial and legal aftermaths of the financial scandal alleged to have developed over the last five years or so of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s leadership, the release states: “The Town has re-development and economic development needs now that Council does not believe the County’s EDA is in the position to perform.”
Less than a week after finalization of the sale of the Afton Inn was announced by the EDA after the Town dropped its legal challenge of EDA ownership and right to sell the derelict structure for redevelopment, the release adds, “Small businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and are in need of recovery. In addition, there are many empty storefronts now and Council hopes we can prevent more in the coming years.”
Also, perhaps surprisingly in light of the fact, the Town has floundered for years, first on the passage of a derelict building maintenance code; and over the last year-plus with enforcement following the passage of an ordinance, the release continues to state, “Having FREDA will also make it easier and quicker to improve the quality of life and appearance of Front Royal by addressing blighted properties through various tools and resources available to EDA’s.”
Despite the decision to move toward a separate EDA, the Town release adds that it will not refuse to work with the County and its now also unilaterally run EDA. Evidence of that was illustrated in council’s unanimous approval of the sale, with the County and EDA, of a 1.4-acre parcel of the jointly owned McKay Springs property for the development of a Hardees in the county’s north corridor.
“By no means should the Town’s initiative to focus on the Town’s re-development be construed as an unwillingness to work with the County. We just believe from a business perspective; formalizing FREDA is the only way the Town can focus on re-development with real results,” the release states.
The release also did not rule out reuniting with the County in the oversight of and work with the existing EDA at a future point when its myriad legal, financial, and operational issues are resolved.
Council will advertise flat tax rates for FY-22; forwards pedestrian crossing signal on North Shenandoah Avenue
After observing that the Fiscal Year 2022 Town Budget proposal was constructed on the premise of no tax increases being necessary to support it, Front Royal Director of Finance B. J. Wilson asked the town’s elected officials for additional feedback at the February 16 work session before making his recommendation on advertising real estate and personal property tax rates for the coming fiscal year. The existing Real Estate Tax Rate is 13 cents per $100 of assessed value, the Personal Property Tax Rate is 64 cents per $100 of assessed value.
With council’s two new members, Lloyd and McFadden, facing their first municipal budget process, Wilson reminded council and the mayor that they can approve a lower tax rate than advertised without delays to the budget approval process. However, were it discovered that additional tax-generated revenue was necessary to balance a final budget, the necessity of re-advertisement of higher-than-originally-proposed tax rates would delay the approval process by a week or more.
Councilman Meza asked the finance director when a final Town budget needed to be approved. Wilson cited a target of approval at some point in April, likely to give department heads time to make any changes to their budgets if necessary. But he added that a drop-dead date was June 30, the final day of the current fiscal year. However, municipalities that don’t have earlier deadlines due to State funding variables surrounding public education or other State-assisted revenues, rarely push their budget envelopes that far.
Cockrell then asked Wilson if he was sure, with pandemic economic variables still in play, a late downturn in projected Town tax revenues wouldn’t require a late adjustment upward in the tax rates to support even a revenue-neutral budget. The finance director replied that he felt “pretty good” that no major downward spike would occur, though he added that the generally tight economic times could lead to a downward turn in personal property tax revenues due to a trend in the purchase of used vehicles as opposed to new ones with a higher value and subsequent higher personal property tax assessment.
“I want to go ahead and advertise it the way it is in this COVID situation,” Councilman Gillespie injected, adding, “I mean we’re not going to raise taxes anyway with all the troubles that people are going through.”
Asked for a consensus by the mayor, Councilman Meza asked how long the tax rates had “been in the ballpark” of where they now stand, including the half-cent Real Estate Tax deduction the previous council had implemented last year. Wilson concurred with Meza’s estimate of five years as a “ballpark” on the real estate rate, adding after checking his notes that the Town Personal Property Tax Rate had not been raised since 2010. Then with an assist from Town Manager Steven Hicks, Wilson pinned the Real Estate Tax Rate in the 13-cent “ballpark” since 2014.
Meza suggested in advertising a flat rate, council include that information to trumpet its record of maintaining consistently flat, comparatively low tax rates. “I think that would be great to put in there because that would be the easiest thing for us to raise, and we haven’t,” he said.
Council having reached a consensus to not even put the possibility of a tax hike on the table, Town Manager Hicks inquired if they wanted to discuss planned hikes to the water-sewer rates to cover costs of required upgrades. The consensus appeared to be to follow consultant-established phased-in rate hikes as necessary to cover utility maintenance expenses.
Additional pedestrian safety at WMH
After input from Town Director of Energy Services David Jenkins and Police Chief Kahle Magalis on public safety challenges along North Shenandoah Avenue at the current Warren Memorial Hospital site, council agreed to move forward with Valley Health’s request for the installation of a pedestrian-activated crosswalk flashing signal.
“I mean they’re paying for it,” Councilwoman Thompson pointed out as the request was introduced to council. Valley Health has offered to pay the $4,753.26 cost of the traffic signal, which town crews would install. Visual issues, particularly approaching the hospital southbound on North Shenandoah up a hill that levels approaching West 10th Street near Family Pharmacy were noted at the requested location.
When the variable of how long the hospital would still be operational at the site with the new one currently under construction off Leach Run Parkway, a June target date for the new hospital’s opening was cited.
Councilman McFadden wondered with a projected June departure of hospital staff and turnaround time on purchase and installation, why Valley Health was making the request at this point as it prepares to move from the current WMH location. Town Energy Services Director Jenkins told council he had, had that conversation with Valley Health officials. He said that while they were unsure of future use of the existing hospital building, they noted that the Lynn Care Center on the hospital’s northeast side off of West 11th Street would remain at the site, with an estimated 50 residents and associated staff.
When Jenkins noted a hospital employee had been struck “about a month ago” in the area, Valley Health employee Meza, added, “There was a nurse who was hit and put in critical condition” leading to an “Oh my gosh” reaction from Thompson. Noting a several decades time-lapse, Cockrell observed that a boy and girl she went to school with’s mother had been killed along that stretch of road.
Jenkins described the planned flashing light warning of a person crossing ahead that activates immediately upon pedestrian-activation, unlike some signals at larger intersections where there is lag time to activation. And after additional positive input on installation from FRPD Chief Magalis, who observed there was another recent traffic accident involving a bicyclist in the area, council seemed satisfied that even with some unanswered questions about the future use of the building, with Valley Health’s willingness to pick up the cost, installation of the signal could do no harm, and might increase public safety.
In fact, Jenkins observed it could help counteract some added danger from a past attempt to slow traffic thereby narrowing the street with concrete outcroppings. Trees planted in those outcroppings, he observed were now creating a visual problem near intersections. There are also road width problems there that now force vehicles turning right onto North Shenandoah to cross the center line potentially into oncoming traffic.
A consensus was also reached to take the Jefferson Avenue/Hillcrest Drive R-3 rezoning proposal by Rockledge Development Company to a public hearing. It was noted that the developer’s plan was to build and sell the proposed duplex units for occupant ownership, rather than use them as rental properties. And a voluntary proffer was offered to eliminate the potential of development of multi-unit apartments on the site, which is a normal by-right use on R-3 zoned land. That restriction would continue were the developer to sell the property, rather than build on it, it was noted.
Council also agreed to move the proposed Liaison Committee procedural and non-alphabetical assignment changes forward as part of a coming Consent Agenda; and to make FRPD Captain Jason Ryman’s Joint Tow Board appointment permanent, rather than continue as an indefinite replacement for the retired member, Sgt. Bryan Courtney.