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Meza explanation of pro-Crooked Run 2 stance resurrects corridor issues

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Jacob Meza during April work session as council colleague Letasha Thompson listens. Royal Examiner File Photos/Roger Bianchini

In addition to explaining why he doesn’t believe a majority of town citizens will tolerate an ongoing hike to either utility fees or taxes – even an 85-cent one – in support of any town service or public utility they may desire, Jacob Meza took time to respond to public criticism directed his way at the Monday, July 8, Front Royal Town Council meeting. That criticism came from Paul Gabbert, the one public speaker to address issues other than recycling during his remarks.

As reported in our related story on the continuation of recycling, after expressing support of opening speaker Adele Medved’s pro-recycling comments, Gabbert addressed the status of a trio of issues: the Afton Inn, the Crooked Run 2 development company request for Town water-sewer service for primarily residential development outside the town limits, and accountability for a past lack of due diligence regarding EDA business conducted inside the town limits.

China’s off the hook – Town will maintain single-stream recycling

It was the out-of-town water-sewer utility request, long a municipally contentious issue, that drew pointed criticism Meza’s way.

“The water in the Shenandoah is not yours to sell, sir, it belongs to everyone. I feel sorry for you if that’s how you look at the Shenandoah River,” Gabbert said of earlier work session Meza comments he interpreted as pro-Crooked Run 2 rezoning and town central utility access again being extended beyond the town limits into county land.

“At a work session several weeks ago, everyone except you, Mr. Meza, was against sending water out there. Your argument for sending water was, ‘Aren’t we in the business of selling water?’ which I assume means you are in favor of the rezoning” (of the Crooked Run 2 property from Commercial to Residential mixed use).

How do you look at the Shenandoah River? A state-winning view of the river near Cullers Outlook in Warren County was used for national tourism promotion for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Actually the rezoning is county business since the property at issue is on county land, just west of the Target-based Crooked Run Shopping Center, north of I-66. However were the Town to deny the utility request, it has been a foregone conclusion by most that the rezoning would become a moot point without Town central water-sewer service.

“Look at the future. When those jurisdictions up river from us … build residential, what’s going to happen to us?” Gabbert asked of changing municipal central water demands along one of the region’s great recreational assets.

“Is it going to be a trickle by the time it gets to the Potomac,” Gabbert wondered of the Shenandoah’s future.

I don’t know if I’d drink out of it anyway – Former Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelbe examines Shenandoah River cattle manure-fed algae bloom in 2017. OH WAIT, that’s what those tens of millions of dollars in water and wastewater plant upgrades are all about, right? Photo Courtesy Shenandoah Riverkeeper

Drawing on past meeting public comments Gabbert told Meza and his colleagues that he perceives an overwhelming citizen consensus opposed to authorizing the out-of-town extension of Town water-sewer beyond existing parameters, particularly as it might facilitate private-sector financial gain by way of out-of-town residential development.

“What you need to remember is the citizens of Front Royal and the county don’t want this rezoned; they do not want water to be sent to everything that’s going on in this county,” Gabbert said, adding an admonition to those on the council dais not to “play” the role of public servant, while operating on privately-held agendas.

“You hold your seats to do and to listen to what the citizens want, not what you as an individual wants,” Gabbert said as Vice-Mayor Sealock queried if he was concluding his remarks about a half minute after his time limit bell had gone off. That led Gabbert to hurry onto to his final topic, a request council members add a broader public apology to the one several of them had offered former colleague Bébhinn Egger on March 25, following her appearance to urge them to learn from past mistakes regarding an absence of due diligence in considering EDA requests for financial assistance, project rezonings and code exemptions.

Some 10 minutes later during council reports, Meza offered to sit down with Gabbert at some point to discuss in detail his constituent’s concerns.

Why not out of town?

“But I do want to go on the record that I am for different affordable housing options that were proposed in the Crooked Run project from apartments, town homes and senior living,” the councilman began, observing there was also a planned local commercial aspect to serve the neighborhood.

Meza said he had seen such development successfully done “IN the west end of Richmond” – an apparent indication that it was not done across municipal boundaries, as is being requested here.

“In order to make that happen you have to send water out and that’s what brings up the term ‘selling water’. It is actually what we do as a town for the commercial businesses out there; even the homes at Blue Ridge Shadows, we charge them for the water and it generates revenue for the infrastructure, and continues the expansion and building of our plants,” Meza said of the North Corridor’s industrial development on County land. It is development dependent on the extension of Town water-sewer service beyond the Town’s boundaries.

“So, I didn’t mean it as selling water as if we’re trying to make a profit on our community or on residents for providing our services (which is good, since that would be illegal by state law). But we’re charging for the water that we’re providing and in turn we develop the infrastructure that will provide water out there,” Meza said of what IS legal for municipal utilities. What is legal is charging fees that cover the cost of creation, maintenance and expansion of municipal utilities. Traditionally such municipal utility maintenance or expansion is accomplished within the jurisdiction’s boundaries, or to land that would first be annexed into those boundaries.

However, post the 1998-99 Route 340/522 Corridor Agreement that facilitated such utility extension beyond town limits without annexation such tradition has become blurred for many in this community, particularly those operating outside the town limits.

That Town-County corridor agreement approved as a first of its kind in Virginia by a three-judge panel will also probably be the last of its kind in the wake of the Town of Front Royal’s experience of it. That experience includes years of lost commercial tax base revenue from both corridor businesses that successfully sued to remove PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) fees attached to Town water-sewer bills, and the loss of “mom and pop” business revenue in town due to the mega chain competition created outside town limits. But that is another story for another day.

“So, I do like the further development idea,” Meza reiterated of his pro-Crooked Run 2 perspective. He noted work session discussion of State-permitted water capacities versus existing usage and other variables impacting the Town’s ability to access the Shenandoah River for increased central water distribution.

An aerial view of Crooked Run 1’s Target-based commercial center – Crooked Run 2’s now planned residentially-based development lies to the west, at upper right of photo. Royal Examiner File Photo Courtesy CassAviation

“I do think your point is well taken but we do have to be very conscientious about that, very thoughtful about the rezoning that would allow – I am concerned that we have over a thousand residential households zoned in the Town of Front Royal proper that have been that way for a very, very long time, decades, and we haven’t seen the development of any of those houses.

“And I would like to see some development around the Town of Front Royal. It would be wonderful if it was within the town limits and wasn’t out at Crooked Run but that’s not happening. And I would like to see that done sooner rather than later, so that we do have some different, alternate housing options,” Meza concluded.

The FRLP variable

The unrealized development within town limits Meza was referring to is the Front Royal Limited Partnership (FRLP) land on two parcels: the 604 acres zoned to accommodate 818 homes north of Happy Creek Road and a nearby 150 acres zoned for either 150 or 300 homes dependent upon the type of residential units placed there.

The FRLP saga dates back well over a decade, perhaps as far back as 2004. It includes a two-year process that brought the 604 acres into the town limits on November 1, 2014, in a “friendly annexation” between the Town and County that would facilitate in-town utility rates as opposed to the double rate supposed to be charged for out of town utility service extension. And that saga appears to include years of a seemingly unresolved hashing out of variables including economic development loans, per-unit and transportation infrastructure proffers between the three involved parties, the Town, County and FRLP. Coverage at the time of the annexation indicated proffers on the table totaling nearly $30 million from the developer.

The annexed FRLP 604 acres earmarked for development of over 818 residential units lies on the cleared pasture land in upper right portion of photo off Mary’s Shady Lane, the winding dirt road to far, upper right. Perhaps ironically, the FRLP parcel is adjacent to Truc ‘Curt’ Tran’s acquired Millennium Lotus/‘FR Farms’ property in the partially-cleared, partially-wooded area at center and lower-center of photo.

Long-time FRLP real estate consultant Bill Barnett was an interested observer at the unscheduled July 8 council meeting discussion of Meza’s perception of why the Town should facilitate residential development on county land, while planned in-town development flounders at an apparent economic impasse.

An attempt to reach FRLP principal David Vazzana regarding the status of his projects and causes of the referenced decade-plus of delays was unsuccessful prior to publication.

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EDA in Focus

Legal questions surround Town offer of one-time, recoverable FRPD payment

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Without accepting any responsibility for the nearly $9-million cost of its new police headquarters building, at a hastily called Tuesday evening Special Meeting to accommodate the turn of the fiscal year today, Wednesday, July 1st, the Front Royal Town Council unanimously approved a “Reservation of Rights Agreement” allowing the Town to pay a portion of the first debt service payment of Fiscal Year 2021 on that Town/EDA capital improvement project. The project was completed in October 2018 and the Town has yet to compensate the EDA for any of its costs in financing the project as will be elaborated on below.

Also approved during the eight-minute meeting prior to an adjournment to closed session for personnel matters believed to be the first of two town managers interviews scheduled this week, was an extension past June 30, and alteration to the contract payment terms of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick. That will be covered in a separate Royal Examiner story.

Councilman Jake Meza says the Town saved about $50,000 by hiring Matt Tederick as a contractor, but as of July 1 that arrangement no longer exists. Royal Examiner photos and video by Mark Williams.

As to the Reservation of Rights Agreement with Warren County, the authorized one-time payment of $10,528.95 covers half of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority’s interest-only payment of approximately $21,102 due at the July 1st start of FY-2021.

Contacted Wednesday morning, EDA Executive Director Doug Parson explained the EDA’s loan to facilitate construction of the Town Police headquarters have thus far been interest-only payments based on a 30-day month. That will change on November 1, when the United Bank loan moves to principal and interest payments. Parsons estimated that would take the monthly payments to about $50,000 from the $21,000 interest-only range.

The United Bank’s interest rate on the loan is 3%. However, the town council has taken the legal stance that it should only have to pay a 30-year, 1.5% interest rate it asserts was verbally promised to it by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald. As previously reported by Royal Examiner, that 1.5% rate was tied to the construction project qualifying for a 30-year New Market Tax Credit Program (NMTC) loan with a nine-year waiver of interest payments. However, the NMTC program loans are for municipal capital improvement projects that create new jobs, which the FRPD project did not.

Councilwoman Lori Athey Cockrell took the opportunity of council’s passage of the agreement facilitating a one-time, half monthly payment on the FRPD debt service as an indicator that the council and its staff are working proactively with the Warren County government to resolve outstanding legal and financial issues surrounding the EDA.

Prominent among those Town-County/EDA issues is what EDA officials have called “an undisputed” $8.4 million Town “moral obligation” debt on principal to the EDA on the police headquarters construction project. With interest, the balance on that debt is $8.8 million, EDA Director Parsons told Royal Examiner Wednesday.

EDA Board of Directors Chairman Ed Daley was present to watch Tuesday’s council action unfold. Asked for a reaction prior to having a chance to read the Reservation of Rights Agreement, Daley said, “Anything that moves it forward is positive.”

However, after a closer read, exactly how far forward Tuesday’s council action takes the Town-County-EDA discussion, remains a question.

$440,000 invoice – $10,500 (recoverable) payment

The opening paragraph of the Reservation of Rights Agreement notes that the Town had received a June 2 invoice “ostensibly setting out all costs incurred by the EDA in constructing and financing the construction of the Town of Front Royal Police Department (‘Costs’), including the costs and expenses associated with the loan from United Bank obtained to finance construction (‘Loan’)” and continues to note those costs and loan “are currently the subject of dispute” in the Town’s civil action against the EDA.

It is a civil action in which the Town’s contracted Damiani & Damiani law firm appears to have mirrored much of the language in the EDA’s initial civil litigation against Jennifer McDonald and 14 civil co-defendants and which seeks essentially all ($20 million-plus) of the $21.3 million the EDA alleges was misdirected by its former executive director and her first group of co-defendants. In April the EDA filed a second civil action, adding nine defendants and “not less than” $4.45 million in recoverable assets to its litigation.

But as to that June 2 invoice from the EDA, an invoice implying a request for payment on a debt, according to numbers in that invoice what the EDA presented to the Town was a bill for slightly over $441,300 spent thus far on the $8.8 million FRPD headquarters construction loan balance.

What the County and EDA got in response was the above-cited agreement facilitating a recoverable $10,529 payment that on a closer examination appears to try and legally tie the County and EDA’s hands in future court proceedings.

Legal ties that bind?

That agreement references ongoing “discussions” between the Town and County “which may result in amending the Town’s claims in the Litigation (against the EDA)”.

Contacted Wednesday, County Administrator Doug Stanley said county staff had not been involved in those discussions. Attempts to reach Board of Supervisors Chairman Walt Mabe, Vice-Chair Cheryl Cullers, and County Attorney Jason Ham for information on the referenced discussions and council proposal were unsuccessful prior to publication.

Reservation of Rights Agreement, Condition 1 states – “The Town denies that it owes any moral or legal obligation to repay the Loan”

So, referencing the “Reservation of Rights Agreement” passed 6-0 by council Monday, it states:

“WHEREAS, to facilitate the discussions, the County has asked the Town to make the disputed July 1, 2020, payment on the Loan and the Town has agreed, subject to the terms and conditions stated herein.” – As noted above, what was agreed to was a payment of $10,528.95, or half of the interest-only payment due for July, under the following conditions:

Condition 1 – “The Town denies that it owes any moral or legal obligation to repay the Loan” followed by Condition 2, noting that its payment is calculated on the unrealized New Market Tax Credit interest rate of 1.5%, rather than the actual 3% bank loan interest rate.

Condition 3 – “The County and the EDA acknowledge that this payment shall not be construed as, considered to be, or argued to be, in any forum, admission for any purpose, including but not limited to of liability of the Town for the Loan or the Costs.

Condition 4 – “The County and the EDA acknowledge that the Town’s payment is for a disputed debt, under a reservation of rights, and the Town reserves the right to continue to deny liability for the Loan or Costs and to recoup this payment should the discussions prove ultimately unsuccessful.

And drum roll, please, Condition 5 – “All parties agree that payment hereunder shall be inadmissible for any purpose except by the Town to recover this payment as damages in the Litigation.”

So, while Councilwoman Cockrell called the agreement a sign of good faith negotiations in the public interest by the Town, adding that news reports the Town is acting other than in good faith concerning the EDA as creating “a false narrative”, is she right?

Perhaps the EDA’s and County’s attorneys would be the best judge of that – hopefully prior to the signing of the “Reservation of Rights Agreement” by County and EDA officials. For at issue appears to be whose rights are being reserved, and in exactly what legal context regarding the Town’s civil litigation against the EDA and any related litigation over the Town’s responsibility to pay for its $9-million police station.

Because according to the document approved unanimously Tuesday night by the Front Royal Town Council, the Town has no “moral or legal” obligation to pay the EDA-undertaken $8.8-million loan that financed the construction of the Front Royal Police headquarters.

Is that something EDA and Warren County officials really want to sign off on in exchange for a one-time, recoverable, half monthly debt service payment?

Let’s see, a total of $20 million or more at stake versus a “recoverable” $10,500 payment – what do you think?

Ed Daley – File Photo.

We asked EDA Board Chairman Daley his opinion on Wednesday after he had a chance to review the Reservation of Rights documents more closely.

“The first the EDA heard of this was last night, which seems odd in that we are asked to sign off on it. But we’ll need to consult with our attorney first,” Daley reasoned.

Of the contention on a lack of Town liability to pay for its police station included in the document, Daley observed, “The EDA was happy to facilitate a project like that. But it was their (the Town’s) contract, their design, we just helped finance it. I think they need to get their financing together and pay for their police station.”

After we read the conditions in the agreement to her over the phone, EDA Attorney Sharon Pandak lauded the opportunity for further communications on Town-EDA/County issues but was skeptical as to a recommendation on the EDA signing off on the Reservation of Rights Agreement as worded.

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Tederick likely to continue with Town

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It looks like the Town of Front Royal’s interim manager may get an extension to his employment contract, which expires today, the final day of the Town’s fiscal year.

Town council members will hold a special meeting at 7 PM tonight at the Warren County Government Center, to consider a contract to extend Tederick’s post.

Matthew Tederick began working as the interim town manager on Nov. 9, 2019, after the council approved a contract by a 5-1 vote with Councilman Eugene Tewalt dissenting.

Tederick has earned a $12,500 monthly salary and a $300 monthly car allowance, while working on a contractual basis.  His contract came under public scrutiny when it was learned that the contract stated Tederick “may transfer and assign this Agreement to Manager’s wholly-owned limited liability company (LLC), which transfer and assignment shall not relieve in any manner the personal duties, obligations and responsibilities of Manager.”

Some citizens have questioned whether Tederick should have been classified as an employee, rather than a contractor.  The state corporation commission’s database lists Tederick as the registered agent of a number of LLCs.

A source close to the negotiation indicated that the new contract could name Tederick as an employee, rather than having him continue as a contractor.  If that happens, at the same rate of pay, taxpayers would pony up even more to offset payroll taxes.

According to the IRS website, employers and employees both contribute to FICA taxes, each paying half. Social Security is 12.4% and Medicare is 2.9% for a total of 15.3% as of 2020.  That means that Tederick would be responsible for contributing 7.65% of his salary; the taxpayers would then be on the hook for the remaining 7.65%.

According to a June 29 Town of Front Royal website posting, there will be a second council meeting this week, on July 2, for “the purpose of consideration or interviews of prospective candidates for employment with the Town.”

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Town to vote on agreement to make FRPD debt service payment

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According to an agenda summary distributed to the media for tonight’s June 30th Special Meeting, the Front Royal Town Council is poised to vote to approve an agreement with the Warren County government and the joint Economic Development Authority to make a scheduled July 1st payment on construction of the new Front Royal Police Department headquarters.

Thus far the now $8.7 million debt to the EDA on principal payments has been publicly referred to, without contradiction from town authorities, as “undisputed” with the dispute over that debt revolving around the amount of interest the Town asserts it is obligated to pay based on verbal promises of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.

Perhaps appropriately, this June 22 photo of council is without Mayor Tewalt, who has been a lone Town voice against litigation with the EDA amongst his council colleagues. Tewalt has unsuccessfully sought acceptance of the EDA’s offer of ‘good-faith negotiations’ to determine exactly what the EDA owes the Town in misdirected assets.

It is believed the county supervisors and EDA board have discussed stopping covering what they believe is the Town’s “moral obligation” debt on the town police construction project as of the end of Fiscal Year 2020, which is today, June 30. The specter of which entity, the EDA which has been covering the payments on a contracted agreement on bank financing of the project it oversaw for the Town, or the Town itself, which up to now has had an uncontested and implied “moral obligation” to cover that debt upon completion of and receipt of the FRPD headquarters, will suffer the most credit-wise upon non-payment has likely been a HOT TOPIC of conversation behind closed doors of council, the county supervisors who fund EDA operations, and the EDA board as July 1 approaches.

The June 30 council meeting agenda summary states:

“The County of Warren has asked the Town of Front Royal to make a good faith payment for the disputed July 1, 2020 payment for a loan incurred by the Economic Development Authority (EDA) in constructing and financing the construction of the Town of Front Royal Police Department and the Town has agreed, subject to the terms and conditions stated in the Reservation of Rights Agreement. Council is requested to approve the Reservation of Rights Agreement as presented.”

Whose police headquarters is this – the EDA’s or the Town of Front Royal’s? – Is likely to be an early question if Town civil litigation against the EDA reaches trial.

Contacted, Town Administrative Assistant and Acting Town Clerk Tina Pressley explained a copy of that Reservation of Rights Agreement would not be made public until it and the payment have been approved, if they are, by council. However, by the above wording it appears an agreement in principal between the three involved parties has been reached, rather than to continue a tenuous legal gamble on whose credit reputation will suffer the worst if payments stop being made by anyone on Wednesday.

But on exactly what terms that agreement is poised to be reached will remain a mystery until it is, if it is, reached and that consequent July 1 payment made.

Background

As eventually came to light, the FRPD headquarters capital improvement project did not even qualify for the New Market Tax Credit Program (NMTC) 1.5% rate McDonald purportedly told town officials was secured on the police headquarters construction. A phone call or appropriate question to the program’s administrator, Brian Phipps of People Inc. with whom council met several times would have revealed that fact.

Phipps even advised council during late 2017, early 2018 discussions, including at a January 2018 work session, to take a 30-year 2.65% interest rate guaranteed by a private sector bank because the Town was competing with multiple other municipalities for a limited amount of NMTC funds. It was advice also recommended by then Town Manager Joe Waltz and Finance Director B. J. Wilson.

However, led by Jacob Meza’s stated desire to hold out for the chance at nine years of interest-free payments on a long-term NMTC loan, council ignored the advice of its staff and the program administrator. Consequently, council continues to assert in its subsequent civil litigation claiming $20-million-plus in damages against the EDA that the gap in actual versus verbally “promised” interest payments are part of those damages.

A now pandemic masked Jacob Meza held sway over his colleagues in pre-pandemic times in gambling the new FRPD headquarters would qualify for NMTC funding designed for projects creating jobs, rather than just moving them from one place to another. Below, hard to miss that EDA-overseen in-town redevelopment initiative next door to Town Hall.

Despite the overwhelming amount of EDA projects centered inside the town limits on behalf of the town government, council is also claiming it had no oversight responsibilities regarding EDA activities during McDonald’s decade-long term as EDA executive director during which alleged misdirection of EDA and municipal assets occurred.

Tonight’s vote and the content of that Reservation of Rights Agreement may be an indicator of how long council intends to hold the course on that double-edged legal gamble.

The smart money is on “until after the November election” – depending of course, on the results of that election. Several candidates, most notably Bruce Rappaport and Betty Showers, have aimed pointed criticism the current council’s way regarding their actions toward the existing EDA, and the Town’s planned new unilateral EDA.

As he has on more than one occasion, council candidate Bruce Rappaport, at podium June 22, makes a case against the current council’s actions regarding the EDA – both the existing and envisioned new and totally Town-funded one. But council appears committed to a legal gamble that $20-million in civilly awarded assets from the old EDA would help that new start-up project.

It has been noted by public critics of the County Republican Committee-dominated council and recent austerity moves initiated by Interim Town Manager and long-time County Republican Committee official Matt Tederick, aimed at reducing governmental functions, particularly regarding Tourism, that the Town alone will be responsible, not only for debt service incurred by its new EDA, but operational funding as well. Since an agreement several years ago on double taxing of town citizens, the County took over full operational funding responsibility of the existing joint County-Town EDA.

That new EDA operational funding will include an anticipated six-figure executive director’s salary one Town critic, Linda Allen, recently publicly asked council if it might be considering directing the current interim town manager’s way once his six-figure interim manager’s salary is gone. As captured on Royal Examiner’s video of that June 22nd meeting, Tederick reacted with laughter at that notion.

Properly social distanced, the interim town manager and town attorney during June 22 regular council meeting. Tederick was left laughing at the suggestion he was poised for a third council appointment, though without an ‘interim’ attached to it if council’s new EDA gets off the ground.

Speaking of the interim town manager, the other primary agenda item on tonight’s special meeting of council involves extending Tederick’s interim town manager agreement beyond its current termination date of June 30, until a permanent replacement is named. In that regard, council has also scheduled a work session for Thursday evening to adjourn to closed session for town manager interviews. The field appears to have been narrowed down to a few candidates called in for in-person interviews.

And so the wheels of town government turn as Fiscal Year-2021 approaches tomorrow with the calendar’s turn to July and an election just over four months away.

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It’s back – The Front Royal Golf Club will remain open for coming year(s)

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Like a Phoenix rising from its own ashes, on Monday, June 29, the VA. Golf LLC management team gathered a four-person majority of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, Archie Fox dissenting, to resurrect the Front Royal Golf Club less than two days before its planned closing. That closing seemed cemented for the July 1st start of the new fiscal year after another four-person county board majority, Tony Carter dissenting, rejected the VA. Golf LLC’s initial management offer six days earlier.

All it took was the “little more skin in the game” County Board Chair Walt Mabe asked for on Tuesday, June 23rd. That skin amounted to a $49,000 turnaround in year one of a three-year initial lease period, followed by a minimum $37,000 turnaround in the years that follow.

Rather than the County paying the largely in-house management team $25,000 per year to try to turn an operation losing somewhere over $110,000 annually in recent years, Va. Golf LLC will pay the County $2,000 a month in the first year, followed by $1,000 per month in subsequent years, plus 5% of the management team’s profits, if there are profits.

I’m growing fond of this perspective of our now-resurrected municipal golf course – maybe I’ll learn to yell ‘Fore’ in my declining athletic years. File Photo/FR Golf Club website

And that Louis Nicholls and Ray Nash expect to be able to turn a profit from an aggressively managed, member and guest-friendly golf and clubhouse-based recreational facility along the banks of the Shenandoah River, seems apparent. And it is a belief shared by past members, including a recent Royal Examiner Letter to the Editor writer with membership and golf course work experience, skeptical of the County’s ability or interest in the successful management of a municipal golf club.

Louis Nicholls and Ray Nash expect to be able to turn a profit from an aggressively managed, member and guest-friendly golf and clubhouse-based recreational facility. Royal Examiner photo and video by Mark Williams.

How long that municipal golf club-based management lease will run depends on a variety of variables. The base term is a three-year lease with three, three-year renewal options at the management team’s discretion for a potential 12-years at the helm of what had become a money-pit for a county management team that, as noted above, some club members in recent years felt was unequipped, or uninterested in the successful management of the course on land gifted to this community’s citizens for golf and other recreational opportunities 82 years ago.

In making the motion to accept the proposal and authorize Chairman Mabe to sign a contract on behalf of the County to facilitate operations not ceasing between Tuesday and Wednesday, Cheryl Cullers told Nicholls and Nash that unlike the earlier rejection of a $100,000 management proposal the County would have had to pay to keep the course open, she had felt the passion of the VA. Golf LLC team and had felt bad about its rejection on a fiscal hard line that the County would pour no more money into the support of the course.

“You’re on my prayer list,” Culler said for their success.

“We’re on our prayer list too,” Nicholls said of the new offer that promises payment to the county regardless of when the course turns profitable for VA. Golf LLC.

Only the Fork District’s Fox decided to look this “gift horse in the mouth” saying he preferred an extra $500 cash added to the $1,000 per month payments as opposed to 5% of profits over subsequent years of the lease.

Supervisor Carter countered that 5% of profits could reflect additional income if the course became profitable in the coming years. And he told Fox, VA. Golf LLC would also be paying BPOL and sales taxes to the county on its operations, again adding income the County would not otherwise have.

Not enough, want more cash, not anticipated profits, Archie Fox told the management team.

However, Fox remained negative to the proposal, casting the lone dissenting vote.

There was no public comment, and since the special meeting was for reconsideration of a counteroffer made in the wake of last Tuesday’s public hearing and rejection of their original proposal, no public hearing at Monday’s 35-minute meeting.

See the VA. Golf LLC presentation, their counter to Fox’s arguments, and the board discussion and vote in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:

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County Board majority says ‘No’ to FR Golf Club management contract

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Enjoy it while you can – in one week with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, it’s all over.

Kiss it goodbye – as of July 1, 2020, the FR Golf Club will functionally cease to exist after 82 years as the county’s second oldest surviving business, second only it would seem, to Shenandoah National Park. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Videos/Mark Williams

Following a Tuesday evening Special Meeting Public Hearing on a proposal to operate Warren County’s municipal Front Royal Golf Course at an initial annual cost of $25,000 under the management of a private entity created by current maintenance and operational staff, a 4-1 majority of the Warren County Board of Supervisors just said “NO”.

What they said “No” to, only Tony Carter dissenting, was 82 years of local history and recreational property to include golf, gifted to the citizens of this community by William Carson Sr. in memory of his dead teenage son, William Jr.

Carson Sr. was a pivotal member of this community, instrumental in the creation of Shenandoah National Park as a regional and local tourist attraction.

And while Carson Sr. and his son’s ghosts weren’t present – were they? – to hear this personal affront to their gift and their memory, many of those who have enjoyed the scenic Shenandoah River-side, more affordable municipal 9-hole golfing opportunity for much of their lives or who learned to play there after discovering its existence and lower than country club greens fees and membership rates, were.

“They made a mistake,” one angry course enthusiast said as the group left the Warren County Government Center meeting room during a recess following a PowerPoint on the history of the course and Virginia Golf LLC’s presentation totaling 45 minutes, and the hour-and-30 minute public hearing, board discussion, and vote that followed.

What the board majority also said “No” to, was the majority opinion of its constituency that cared to comment. There were 33 submissions by email, phone call, and public hearing comment in favor of the municipal club operational proposal versus a minority of 5. Most of that minority took to the public hearing microphone for lengthy, un-timed statements against the basic concept of governmental provision of recreational opportunities at a more affordable cost to its citizens than provided by the private sector.

Not an “essential service” of government, opponents of the course’s continued operation under County supervision, argued.

A philosophical and financial impasse was reflected between a majority of the county’s elected officials and their constituents regarding allowing the County’s municipal FR Golf Club course to remain operational as a private sector club-generated offer to take over management with a $25,000 initial county contribution was rejected by a 4-1 vote.

Cheryl Cullers appeared to speak for those five citizens and the board majority in stating support of the minority public hearing opinion that the county government shouldn’t “compete with industry” – in this case, the four private-sector golf/country clubs in the county. Though, as was again pointed out by course supporters, it was the gifted Front Royal municipal course that was the county’s first golf course, and one of the state’s first, and it has been the private sector club owners who have chosen to locate here to compete with that state historical site’s course.

The five public hearing speakers against the County’s allowing a newly created private sector entity grown out of personnel involved in an existing resurrection of the course maintenance and future planning were Bowling Green Country Club’s Ginger Winkler, and Gary Kushner, Paul Gabbert, James Harper, and Alberto Medina.

They were countered by four public hearing speakers, Bob Minor, Vincent Page, Chris Lang and a Mr. Gray whose first name we did not get; as well as 15 more people present who raised their hands in support of the pro-golf course management proposal speakers; as well as 12 emails of support (with a 13th email judged neutral) submitted for the public hearing, read into the record by board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi; and two direct phone calls of support board Chair Walter Mabe acknowledged receipt of.

I know I have a mask on, but you can put your hands down – oh, it’s the pro-golf club count, never mind – as the supervisors’ majority eventually did in consideration of your majority opinion.

However, perhaps rather than numbers the board majority was swayed by the dominant amount of unlimited time the anti-municipal golf course speakers were given to state their cases in the new board majority’s meeting format of unlimited public speaker time to express their opinions. Several kill-the-municipal-golf-course speakers went comfortably deep into the 10 to 20 … minute range. Some of those speakers used the lower cost offered by the Virginia Golf LLC group, at $25,000 a quarter of an earlier $100,000 annual management proposal, to argue that the new LLC wasn’t competent to manage the course and property.

Nicholls countered for his group that while the LLC was new, he and Nash were experienced in course maintenance and operations personally. Nicholls also noted the family nature of the group, with his wife’s bookkeeping and sons’ promotional writing skills at play.

Board Chair Mabe told Nicholls and Nash he wished they “had more skin in the game”. A proposal supporter asked how much more “skin” than a significant personal investment and a likely overtime commitment to the project, could be expected of a management proposal. It was a question that went unaddressed by the chairman.

“Give them a shot, what have you got to lose – what are you losing now? You talk about skin in the game, you want to get rid of it and they want to take it – I don’t see the problem,” one proposal supporter told the county’s elected officials.

Louis Nicholls, left, and Ray Nash at the podium, presented a very affordable operational case for transitioning the County’s 82-year-old gifted municipal golf course and recreational property to private sector management, possibly even eventual ownership. However, four supervisors sided with a 5-person minority (of 38 submissions) in saying, “No, not another penny – shut it down July 1.”

County Administrator Doug Stanley noted that the County would have comparable costs to the $25,000 proposal in supporting the property this year without the Virginia Golf LLC contract or golf on the property. And Nicholls’ expressed confidence in turning the property profitable fairly quickly in the wake of the County’s long-term mismanagement so that his company’s $25,000 annual funding request would only be necessary short term on a property the County had been losing an estimated $110,000-plus annually on for years.

However, Tony Carter’s motion to accept the proposal died without a second.

Delores Oates motion to reject the proposal, seconded by Cullers, then passed 4-1, with only Carter dissenting.

Why not 15th-century golf?

South River District’s Cullers then offered a compromise solution, noting that while not a golfer, she had studied the origins of golf, dating it back to 15th century Scotland.

“I’m pretty sure they didn’t have immaculate courses. But they loved the game and progressed through the years. So, why can’t we mow it and have it in a decent shape and let people go out and golf for free? I don’t have a problem with that,” she said of a no-golf-specific funded option.

South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers, file photo above, had a novel idea – take municipal golf back to 15th century Scotland, unmanicured, unfunded – and it’ll be FREE! Below, FR Golf Club website photo of a man and his dog on the fairway – ‘Hey boy, feel like eating a little grass while we’re out here? The goats haven’t arrived from the 15th century yet.’

Cullers did not elaborate on how resorting to 15th-century maintenance standards at the unforgiving river’s edge allowing for FREE municipal golf, did not equate to unfair competition for private sector courses. But there it is sports fans – get out in the really rough, ruff and let her rip – it’ll be FREE!!!

WAIT, Cheryl – did they have mowers back then, or just use grazing goats? Now there’ another natural hazard in the making.

It now appears that of July 1, without funding or a management team in place, operations and play at the 82-year-old Front Royal Golf Club will cease. That is what County Administrator Doug Stanley said in response to Supervisor Carter’s question prior to the vote on Oates’ motion to deny the management contract proposal. The property’s hiking trails will remain accessible, but the clubhouse will apparently also be closed, Stanley indicated in the wake of the supervisors’ decision not to fund the golf operations.

Delores Oates’, above, assertion on comparable private-sector greens fees at one private county course was contradicted by one spectator who noted the lower fee she cited was only till 3 p.m. after which it nearly doubles. Below, only Tony Carter sided with those seeking to save, not only a golf course but an 82-year-old piece of county history and a personal family recreational legacy to this community’s citizens.

As for the property’s ultimate fate, it would seem the board decision will likely weaken the County’s legal stance in a dispute with Carson family heirs over ownership of the property. It was a court dispute staff and Virginia Golf LLC principals told the supervisors the County likely had the upper hand in with the history of management of the recreational property, with golf, as intended in the deeded gift from William Carson Sr. 82 years ago. By an October civil court date that will no longer have been the case for three to four months.

Other business

Also, on the meeting agenda was the background on the need for immediate movement on acceptance of a $30,000 Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) Coronavirus CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Securities) Act grant to help pay the County’s municipal airport hangar debt service; followed by Sheriff Mark Butler’s work session plea for funding to immediately replace his department’s obsolete and non-functional body cameras; and County Deputy Emergency Manager Rick Farrall’s overview of the status of implementing, with the Town of Front Royal, the County-received federal CARES Act local business and citizen relief funds of $3.5 million.

Board Chair Walt Mabe’s early meeting message to citizens appeared to be, sure talk as long as you want within the 40-minute group guideline, just skirt the personal attacks on, and potential slander of, staff. Opponents of continuing operations of the municipal FR Golf Club took full advantage of the open public hearing speaker clock.

See those topic discussions following the Front Royal Golf Club history PowerPoint, Club Management Proposal presentation, Public Hearing and board of supervisors discussion and vote that opened Tuesday’s Special Meeting – following Chairman Mabe’s public apology to Mr. Kushner for cutting him off after 15 to 20 minutes of public comment at the board’s last meeting; and the chairman’s request that citizens stop berating, personally attacking or perhaps even flirt with “slander” of county staff during public comments, in these Royal Examiner videos:


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Local Government

Council moves toward 2nd EDA – not forever, just during lawsuit gamble

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The masked and unmasked, council was back, though without Mayor Tewalt who was absent, for its second live, pandemic era public meeting on June 22. Where’s Chris? – Oh, there you are lurking in the far corner. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video/Mark Williams

Like a riverboat gambler on the prowl, on Monday night, June 22, the Front Royal Town Council ignored repeated public pleas not to burden town taxpayers with the cost of forming a new unilateral Economic Development Authority (EDA) with no existing assets, but with a hefty director’s salary and operational budget that the Town will be liable to fund.

By a 5-1 vote, Letasha Thompson dissenting, council passed the first of two required readings of an ordinance amendment enabling the creation of that second Town EDA. The second, binding vote enabling the creation of the new Town EDA is scheduled for the July 13th meeting at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Government Center.

Operational funding of the existing half-century-old Town-County EDA is not the Town’s responsibility since the County took on full operational funding in the last decade as part of the ongoing double-taxation of town citizens discussion and accommodation the two municipalities have been engaged in since at least the 1990s and the Route 522 Corridor Agreement.

However, the Town has continued to fund debt service on its in-town EDA economic development projects – until its recent decision not to make good on its nearly $9-million debt on principal to the EDA on the FRPD headquarters construction project.

And if the faces looked familiar on the critical side – council candidate Bruce Rappaport and community activist Linda Allen spoke against the second EDA as they have in the past – Councilwoman Letasha Thompson told her colleagues she has found no town citizen, “even on social media”, openly in favor of the second unilateral EDA idea.

As has been the case in the several months leading up to this public hearing and first vote, no one not on the council dais spoke in favor of the council and administrative staff second EDA initiative. In fact, Allen and Rappaport were the only public hearing speakers, expanding on points they had made during earlier Public Comments on the current council’s belligerence toward the re-tooled and recovering from financial scandal EDA staff and board of directors.

During her opening public comment remarks, Allen called recent assertions from the council that the EDA essentially hadn’t worked on the town’s behalf in 15 years simply “not true” and “false”.

While not mentioning anyone by name, Linda Allen was harsh in her assessment – ‘false’, ‘not true’ – of a recent council claim the EDA hasn’t done much for the Town of Front Royal in the past 15 years.

As to Councilman Gary Gillespie’s recent assertion that the existing EDA will have a difficult time reestablishing its reputation and ability to function successfully, Allen has countered that the Town’s economic development reputation is likely to be worse in the wake of its failure to make good on its financial and moral obligation principle debt of $8.7 million on its most recent EDA-enabled capital improvement project, the new Front Royal Police Headquarters. Allen also said that the Town’s refusal to negotiate its dispute on the interest rate on the FRPD project had swollen the interest debt the Town is accumulating from $500 to $692 per day.

Allen made her point by, not only pointing to the new police station project but also the continued work on the redevelopment of the Afton Inn across the street from Town Hall and at the head of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District. Expanding on a point made previously by Rappaport that two-thirds of the property assets the EDA owns are in town, Allen observed that of four properties sold this year by the re-staffed EDA, three have been in town.

However, Councilman Jacob Meza countered that a history of lost trust from the previous EDA leadership, and council’s consequent choice of a $20-million-plus civil litigation against the EDA made working together impossible – for now, at least.

Meza seemed to indicate that the second, unilateral EDA was a temporary solution to a problem council appears to have created by refusing the current EDA’s repeated offers to sit down for “good faith negotiations” to establish exactly what the Town-EDA financial situation on misdirected assets under previous EDA staff and board leadership is.

Councilman Meza agreed with Bruce Rappaport that current EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons in highly qualified, and even said he would even look forward to working with him on town economic development – just NOT while the Town claims ‘no responsibility’ for any lapses of oversight of the previous EDA executive leadership or complicity in enabling alleged abuses of that leadership through Town projects.

Meza even concurred with Rappaport’s positive appraisal of current EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons background, experience, and abilities, saying he would look forward to working with him, just not in the current hostile civil litigation circumstance.

Prefacing her vote with the majority, the council’s newest appointed member Lorie Athey Cockrell said she would prefer a positive relationship with the County and the existing EDA, but lamented, “This is where we are.”

But Rappaport and Allen’s counterpoint appeared to be, this is where the council majority has CHOSEN to be.

And with its concurrent continuing co-founding membership in the existing EDA, upon final approval of the ordinance amendment facilitating the creation of a new EDA it appears the Town of Front Royal is poised to go where no Virginia municipality has gone before – parallel EDA “universes” (sorry for the “Star Trek” reference, it just popped out).

And speaking of “Star Trek” and parallel universes, on Monday council unanimously approved a Resolution of Appreciation for C&C Frozen Treats proprietor William Huck for his efforts on behalf of the Town’s “Downtown Rebound” COVID-19 pandemic business reopening and walking mall initiative.

Then there were the good times – C&C Frozen Treats’ William Huck is recognized for his work in Front Royal’s ‘Downtown Rebound’ pandemic business reopening permitting and logistical support up and down East Main St.

Also on the positive side: police, staff, community
And continuing a feel-good theme, besides Huck’s acknowledgment it wasn’t all citizen-council headbutting over a perceived self-destructive economic development policy in the making. During the opening public comments, four speakers rose to commend town staff, including the police chief and officers, interim town manager and public works department staff for outstanding performances in community relations and services.

Two of those speakers were Front Royal Unites representatives Samuel Porter and Stevi Hubbard who lauded Chief Magalis and his department for its proactive stance in working with, rather than against the group’s marches in support of civil rights and improved race relation in this community and nation.

“We come to the table very peacefully … to build bridges, not burn them,” Porter told the council, calling Chief Magalis, who was definitely on a citizen-driven high Monday night, “an awesome person”.

A good day, a good era for local law enforcement: Above, FR Unites’ Samuel Porter and Stevi Hubbard lauded FRPD Chief Magalis for his proactive work with the group’s marches against racism and for equal treatment under the law for all races and ethnic groups. Below, Magalis is presented with Paul Aldridge’s citizen-initiated award for the quality of town law enforcement under his leadership.

Paul Aldridge presented Chief Magalis with a plaque acknowledging the chief and his department’s positive contributions to the community; while Edward Irre commended the “courteous” behavior of a patrol officer while giving him a ticket for admittedly “breaking a traffic law”. – “That is why he got that award tonight,” Irre observed of the department’s professionalism from top to bottom. Irre also noted repeated excellence in public works and utility service responses over recent years.

Other business
Also on council’ table, Monday evening was a first vote – unanimous to approve – following the County’s vote last week to jointly move forward on tourism marketing. The plan as previously reported is, to begin with fully outsourced to the private sector tourism marketing for the Town and County, with a hope to eventually transition to outsourced marketing overseen by a Town-County overseen advisory board such as the existing Joint Tourism Advisory Committee.

It was that advisory committee’s vice chair, Kerry Barnhart, who developed the options moving forward presentations to the Town and County from which the decision toward the outsourcing option, first brought forward by the interim town manager at the time of his late January firing of the Town’s top tourism official Felicia Hart.

However, earlier Rappaport questioned analogies made during Barnhart’s presentation regarding the Town’s potential marketing similarities to tourist destinations like Sedona, Arizona and Asheville, North Carolina. Rappaport noted he has been to Sedona five times, pointing to significant differences in tourism funding and community wealth.

Council candidate Bruce Rappaport raised questions about the council’s path on both its relationship with the current EDA and it and the County’s outsourced marketing strategy for tourism promotion.

He also questioned Barnhart’s metrics as to accommodation capacities and revenue-generating potentials, pointing to what he said were Sedona’s 103 hotels and Asheville’s 138, compared to Front Royal’s “about 15”. Rappaport also noted a median property value in Sedona of $446,000 and a “bed tax” on tourist accommodations, the latter which he said paid for a bulk of Sedona’s tourism marketing costs.

And on the COVID-19 pandemic consequences front, during the interim town manager’s report, Tederick explained the evolution and harsh economic reality of the Town delinquent utility accounts situation related to the pandemic economic hardships – a $175,000 upswing in unpaid accounts compared to last year – and some peripheral taking advantage of that situation to just forego paying bills as long as possible without penalty or interest.

Interim Town Manager Tederick, right, was flanked by Town Attorney Napier as he addressed the Town’s plan moving forward to working to resolve delinquent utility accounts to the mutual benefit of the Town and its customers.

See that presentation, as well as the pivotal conversation on the future of economic development and municipal cooperation in this community, and council’s other business in this exclusive Royal Examiner video recording. You might even get as big a chuckle as the interim town manager did when Allen wondered whether the new EDA and its triple-figure executive director’s position council was poised to move toward, might be a more permanent soft landing for council’s former interim mayor and current interim town manager appointee.

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