The now-fully manned Warren County Planning Commission met February 12 and after Chairman Robert Myers (Happy Creek district) opened the meeting, disposing of the agenda and prior meeting minutes, there were no citizen presentations, allowing the commission to move right into public hearings for commission action. Attending for the first time were Commissioners Crystal Beall (South River), and Scott Jersjes (North River).
A public hearing was held regarding a Conditional Use Permit requested by Asa and Andrea Foss for a short term tourist rental at 653 Whitney Lane, Bentonville, in the South River Magisterial District. Planning Director Taryn Logan provided the commission with a briefing on the request. The applicants purchased the property as a weekend getaway for family and friends, and seek to offset the cost of taxes and maintenance of the property by also using it as a tourist rental. The health department had approved the property for an occupancy of up to 8 persons. Ms. Logan indicated that all permit-related notifications had been completed and that the staffing process was delayed to allow the subdivision homeowners association to have a meeting to consider the proposal. The planning director then listed the necessary conditions for the department to recommend approval to the commission:
1. The applicant complies with all Warren County Health Department requirements, with the maximum number of occupants not to exceed 8
2. Annual well water testing
Ms. Logan then briefed the commission that the department had received two letters from other property owners in the Timberland Manor Estates subdivision. The Chairman then opened the floor for public comments. Four community members, Ann Tompkins, Deborah Haynes, Roy Lee, and Suzanne Savage, addressed the commission to oppose the proposed use. Common concerns included the loss of the “flavor of the neighborhood”, security of the subdivision, increased traffic, potential loss of privacy, and “miscommunication or misunderstanding” regarding the number of days the applicant’s property could be occupied by short-term guests. Mr. Lee told the commission that a land survey he had commissioned revealed that the applicant’s driveway was partly on Mr. Lee’s land, and he was not bothered by it until this new change was proposed. He indicated that the driveway would now have to be moved and a fence constructed. He indicated that he currently uses his property on weekends, but hoped eventually to retire there and is concerned about people being there that should not be. Ms. Savage, another near neighbor to the subject property, spoke to express her adamant opposition to the proposed change. She made the distinction between a Bed & Breakfast, which would typically have a host on-site, and an AirB&B which often does not.
She cited the result of a vote taken by the owners association as 12 opposed, and 7 in favor. Ms. Savage indicated that it would take 17 property owners to change the association covenants, which was not likely. She alleged that the manager identified by the applicants was not ”on-site” and would not be able to easily respond in case of an issue. She did not want strangers in the neighborhood that she did not know. She was also concerned about tenants with dogs.
The final speaker was the property owner, Asa Foss. He indicated that he and his wife enjoyed hosting friends and family at their property and only wished to fund improvements to the property by occasionally renting it out. He pointed out that his property is the first one as you enter the neighborhood. The nearest house is only occupied a few weeks a year. Mr. Foss indicated that he strove to live by the golden rule with “no exceptions” and listed several provisions in the terms and conditions that were responsive to the concerns of the neighborhood, including banning ATVs, fireworks, and loud music. He indicated they had delayed the application process to allow the neighborhood association time to discuss the proposal at a formal meeting.
After the public hearing, Commissioner Crystal Beall (South River) asked about the management for the property. The Applicant responded that he was local and very responsible. I had maintained the property for the previous owner and was highly regarded. The second new commissioner, Scott Jersjes (North River), asked how far away in miles the manager lived. Mr. Foss indicated “two or three”.
Once the applicant had answered commissioner’s questions, Vice-Chairman Hugh Henry (Fork District) commented that each permit of this type was unique, but that short term rentals had generally improved properties when contrasted with long-term rentals, due to more regular maintenance, the existence of property management plans, and the need to preserve the marketability of the product. He supported the general idea that a person ought, within reason, to be able to do what he wants with his property. He observed that the pluses with this proposal are that the property is in the front of the subdivision and not the back, and there is a very good setback from the neighbors. Mr. Henry acknowledged the issue with the driveway easement as a real issue, but separate from the permit issue, and one that would have to be settled between the two property owners affected.
Chairman Myers reminded the applicant that this is a conditional use permit, and that if the conditions are violated, the permit can be taken away, and that the planning department can perform checks to determine compliance. On a motion by Commissioner Henry, seconded by Commissioner Joe Longo, the commission unanimously voted to forward the package to the Warren County Board of Supervisors with a recommendation for approval.
The second public hearing was opened by the chairman to consider a Conditional Use Permit for a short term tourist rental requested by Sean O’Reilly for his property at 317 Old Barn Lane, in the south river magisterial district. Planner Matt Wendling provided a briefing for the Commission and indicated that the applicant had been involved in short-term tourist rentals for approximately 10 years. The dwelling was built in 2019 as a short-term tourist rental business to support local businesses and showcase the area’s natural resources. The subdivision in which the property is located does have an HOA, and the planning received an E-Mail from the HOA indicating that short-term rental is specifically allowed by the HOA covenants and that the HOA had no objection to the proposed use. Mr. Wendling further specified the conditions for the permit:
1. Compliance with all Warren County Health Department regulations, and occupancy not to exceed 8 persons
2. Annual well water testing
Mr. Wendling indicated that all permit-related notifications had been completed. There were no questions from the commissioners, so the public hearing was opened. The only speaker was the applicant, Mr. O’Reilly. His remarks touched on his experience with short-term rentals and acknowledged that there is often fear of the effects of having new people in town, but he has found it to be a great experience to get away and relax, end everyone has an interest in preserving peace and quiet, both tenants and neighbors. He added that the booking systems such as AirB&B and HomeAway have added review processes for both the homeowners and the guests. This allows the homeowner to “vet out” the partiers and problem guests. The system can then reduce the risk of a bad tenant experience. There were no questions from the commissioners. Commissioner Jersjes introduced a motion to recommend approval, and Vice Chairman Henry seconded. The motion was unanimously approved, and the permit request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
The commission then turned to requests for authorization to advertise, the preliminary step before public hearings for requested changes of use.
Joseph Coleman has requested a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental for his agriculturally zoned property at 37 Wellspring Road in the South River magisterial district. Ms. Logan indicated that a management plan will be required to be submitted for planning department review before a public hearing. The property is not located in an area with a homeowners association and the property would meet the county’s setback requirements. The building is a converted church. Motion to approve the authorization to advertise was introduced by Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Longo. The Commission voted unanimously to approve.
Jody T. Lee has requested a conditional use permit for private camping on his residentially-zoned property in the Man-Da-Lay subdivision on Burma Road in the North River Magisterial District. Mr. Wendling told the commission that the applicant purchased the property in 2016 and did not know that a conditional use permit was required for camping until told by the Planning department. He seeks to bring the property into compliance. He seeks to use the property for seasonal camping and have access to the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. There have not been any conditional use permits issued for this property although other properties in that subdivision have been issued similar permits for recreational use. There would be a requirement for an RV to be on the site for 180 consecutive calendar days, and the site would be subject to inspection to ensure compliance. The property is located in a special flood zone, so an emergency plan would be required to provide for evacuation in case of a flood event. Commissioner Jersjes asked if there would be a limitation on the number of RVs on the site. Mr. Wendling indicated that 2 RVs would be the maximum per parcel or contiguous parcels. Vice-Chairman Henry moved to approve the authorization to advertise. Commissioner Longo seconded and the Commission voted unanimously to approve.
Tony and Shasta Haun have requested a conditional use permit for private camping on their residentially-zoned property in the Man-Da-Lay subdivision on Burma Road in the North River Magisterial District. Chairman Myers pointed out that this was an adjoining property to the one previously considered. This property is also located in a special flood zone, so a flood emergency evacuation plan would be required. There would also be a requirement for an RV to be on the site for 180 consecutive calendar days, and the site would be subject to inspection to ensure compliance. Mr. Wendling indicated that the property owners were notified at the same time as Mr. Lee of the requirement for a permit. It has not been the subject of any previous conditional use permits. Vice-Chairman Henry moved to approve the authorization to advertise. Commissioner Longo seconded and the Commission voted unanimously to approve.
Planning Director Logan then introduced the 2019 Planning Department Annual report and provided the commission with some highlights before submission to the Board of Supervisors. The July 1, 2019 population of Warren County including the Town of Front Royal was 39,936. 150 new housing permits were issued during 2019, which equates to a .88% growth rate, well within the comprehensive plan goal to not exceed 2% annual growth. The Planning commission completed and adopted a Strategic Vision for the County in 2019. The commission approved 20 Conditional Use Permits last year, of which 9 were for short-term tourist rentals, and five for private camping. 2019 Commission projects included the review of a request for a new training facility for the Warren County Fire & Rescue, a zoning ordinance change and conditional use permit for expansion of a facility for the Backroom Brewery, and review of a rezoning request for a 20-acre site just north of the jail for Equus Capital Partners to create an industrial site and 324,000 SF warehousing facility. The commission also spent a lot of time in 2019 on the Crooked Run West proposal for rezoning and development, which was eventually withdrawn. Work is ongoing surrounding the redevelopment of the former Capital One bank site for a multitenant building that will contain Five Guys, Chipotle, and one additional unspecified business. Finally, the commission reviewed the development of a new Chapel at Christendom College, currently under construction.
The planning Director welcomed all the new commissioners and assured them that this will be a busy year. Vice-Chairman Henry moved that the commission accept the Annual report and forward it to the Board of supervisors. Commissioner Jersjes seconded, and the commission voted unanimously in favor.
Chairman Myers and Vice Chairman Henry welcomed all the new Commissioners, as did Kaitlin Jordan, Assistant County Attorney. Mr. Wendling assured the commissioners that the Planning Department staff looks forward to serving them. Mr. Petty, the Zoning Administrator, indicated that he intends to bring some County Code text amendments to them, and is working with the County Attorney’s office to ensure they are in harmony with State and Federal codes.
Tourism Advisory Board finds itself in midst of an evolving landscape
On Wednesday afternoon, February 26, the Front Royal-Warren County Joint Tourism Advisory Board met to continue to ponder its role in a turbulent present and uncertain future following the Town’s termination of two department heads – Felicia Hart and Jeremy Camp – whom the committee relied on for information and guidance regarding much of their work.
In fact, Hart’s name came up repeatedly during the meeting discussion as in “Felicia did this,” “Felicia did that,” or “Felicia and Jeremy were so helpful”. After its last meeting of February 12, Tourism Advisory Board members confirmed that they had no advance warning of Hart’s termination or the recommendation from the town manager’s office that town tourism promotion is outsourced to the private sector.
But unlike that earlier meeting held in the second-floor Town Hall conference room, at Wednesday’s meeting in the Warren County Government Center Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick was present to hear and contribute to the discussion. Tederick has been council’s point man in its sudden change of direction on staffing, departmental and budgetary commitments to Town Tourism promotion and marketing in the existing fiscal year, as well as planning for Town Tourism’s promotional future.
It didn’t take long for the advisory board and County Board of Supervisors Chairman Walter Mabe, present with North River Supervisor Delores Oates as observers, to get to the question of exactly what the present and future holds for them and tourism promotion for the town and county. Picking up a theme broached in its first meeting post-Town Tourism shakeup two weeks earlier, Shenandoah Valley Golf Club Manager Richard Runyon began the conversation among the eight committee members, largely from the local business community at least partially dependent on tourist dollars.
Runyon suggested the two municipalities pool their financial commitments to tourism and related business development, “and develop a staff in-house, maybe entertain volunteers to work – and I was envisioning the Visitor’s Center is the main hub. If I was going to open a business in Warren County, I don’t want to go to two or three different places I’ve got to jump around. I want to see what the county has to offer my employees, taxes, conditions of living, shopping and entertainment for my employees…
“This group, we all have busy lives. We don’t have to do this. We’re business owners, business managers, what have you. We were asked to do this. So to me, I think as a group we make a recommendation to the Town and to the County since this is a joint effort, and put it on them, and let them decide,” Runyon said of a final decision on the shape of tourism promotion and related business development in this community for the future.
“What’s the decision you’re trying to decide though?” County Board Chairman Mabe said of increased cooperation between the two municipalities in maximizing both’s tourism potential. “I can’t speak for Mr. Tederick but I believe the Town is kind of for it; the County is kind of for it, but we don’t know how this board wants to make it happen. Because we can’t go at it willie-nillie. We’ve got to put it together as a proposal that says ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it. This is who’s going to run it – and all of the things we need to make it work. And let the Town and the County go after it. If it comes to a mutual understanding between us two, it will come to be – am I wrong?” Mabe asked, leading to Tederick’s introduction to the conversation.
“I’m not in a position to say right or wrong being town manager. I will say what you’re proposing makes a lot of sense,” Tederick responded to what he heard of the development of a jointly conceived plan moving forward. “And I think from a policy perspective, I believe the town council would very much entertain the concept. The devil is in the details, but I’ve always felt that this body doesn’t really have a lot of authority. I don’t know that you got a lot of direction from the Town or County,” Tederick added in what might have been interpreted by some as a slap at, at least one of the terminated Town employees involved with the Tourism Advisory Board in the past.
“I always believe as business owners, the first thing you start with is a strategic plan. What is it we want to see; who is our target market we’re trying to track; how are we going to reach them?” Tederick continued, adding, “And when I looked at the Town’s budget for tourism, you had $80-some-thousand dollars out of a $409,000 budget going towards print advertising efforts. That’s just not the right methodology, I think, in this modern era to be contacting people to come to Warren County and Front Royal.”
The interim town manager continued that he was disappointed from “a messaging perspective, a branding perspective – are we branding Warren County or are we branding Front Royal when it comes to tourism? Are we sending a message for the county and a different message for the town?” he asked a group comprised largely of business owners from both inside and outside the town limits who cater to tourist dollars from a wide variety of perspectives, including lodging, food and beverage, and recreational from hiking, camping, the river, and golf.
“So conceptually, I think it makes a lot of sense to have this board serve as some kind of governing board of the assets. And the big question is who’s going to handle the fiscal responsibilities of the money?” Tederick said.
See the evolving and far-ranging conversation about those details that followed in this linked Royal Examiner video.
Included in that conversation were pros and cons of involvement of the Chamber of Commerce or outside online marketers and, how to best divide responsibilities for the myriad tasks and responsibilities that Vibe Properties/Front Royal Brewery owner Kerry Barnhart called impossible for one person to handle.
With Barnhart engaged in post-meeting discussion, we asked Mountain Trails owner Gary Green from the frequent mentioning of departed Town Tourism Advisory Board member and Town Community Development Director Felicia Hart’s name, if she had been that central figure who had been asked to do more than, as Barnhart put it, “anyone person could do successfully”.
“Yes, that was her,” Green offered.
Watch the Tourism meeting on this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
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Citizens to town council: Are you listening or are your minds made up?
With scheduled reports on County, Commonwealth’s Attorney and Town Police business on its Monday evening agenda, the Front Royal Town Council expected to begin its February 24 meeting listening. However, it was six citizens who delayed receipt of those scheduled reports with ongoing “Public Comment” questions and criticism of the council’s budget decision-making processes.
A remaining question for those citizens was, “Do you hear us?”
And beginning with opening speaker Gary Kushner, for several the answer appeared to be “We don’t think so”.
“The interim manager is already advertising for staff positions reflecting the implementation of his Planning and Tourism reorganization and has begun discussions with potential outsource businesses, which all but precludes council’s serious consideration of opinions that keeping the prior structure would produce better results. Those actions give the appearance that the council doesn’t sincerely value citizen input. Continuing such a practice will only encourage greater apathy by the public when they consider that any effort on their part is mostly useless because decisions have already been made,” Kushner told the town’s elected officials, minus the absent Jacob Meza.
Following Kushner to the microphone were Kenneth Dameron, Janice Hart, Linda Allen, Paul Gabbert, and Bruce Rappaport. Several of those speakers echoed the opening speaker’s concerns about a seemingly established ideological path being chosen by council that is immune to reconsideration or factual analysis that contradicts council’s and/or Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick’s preconceived ideas about reducing the organizational function of town government by downsizing – termed “right-sizing” by Tederick – combined with outsourcing or privatizing certain departmental functions. Is it just a means for the council to be able to say “we have reduced taxes – re-elect us” some wondered after analyzing the numbers.
“I don’t want my taxes lowered – said no one, never,” Hart said to begin her comments to the town’s elected officials.
However, she continued with a plea to reconsider that half-cent tax real estate tax rate reduction in the face of mounting expenses, including the Town’s undisputed debt of $8.4 million in principal payments to the EDA for construction of the new Front Royal Police Headquarters.
“We have an $8-million note on a brand, new police department that, on which so far, no real solution on paying for it has been revealed,” Hart pointed out, observing, “The EDA has offered a decent loan percentage on the balance; and while the council gambled and lost on a lesser percentage amount, we must take the bull by the horns and face this issue … How does the council propose to pay for this police department by reducing taxes? Lowering the tax rate for even one year isn’t going to make this go away.”
Hart also questioned the town council’s increasingly adversarial stance toward a revamped EDA that is trying to right its ship that capsized under both the County and Town’s economic involvement and watches over the past five years.
“Cooperation with the EDA, which is trying to help is a must – but it doesn’t appear they are getting any cooperation,” Hart said of the town council’s choice to litigate rather than negotiate. “I appreciate that the council is trying to be good stewards of our tax dollars in working out a deal on this new (police) facility – it was desperately needed. A lower percentage rate is always a good thing – but it is not a reality – and we need to make a deal with the EDA,” Hart said.
She echoed comments of other citizens in recent weeks, observing, “The only people who win in a lawsuit are the lawyers – present company excepted,” Hart said with a nod to Town Attorney
Doug Napier out of whose hands the Town’s civil litigation against the EDA has been taken and into the private sector legal hands of the Alexandria-based Damiani & Damiani firm.
Council’s previous decision to lock in the half-cent real estate tax deduction early in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget process without even knowing how much revenue will be needed to balance the final budget proposal got particular scrutiny from Hart and Gabbert – and Gabbert continued Kushner’s theme of a council beyond the influence of the citizens they are elected to serve.
“The tax rate of 13 (cents), since you already advertised it you can’t go back to 13-and-a-half – you’re stuck with the 13 because you’ve already advertised it,” Gabbert said of the half-cent reduction to the real estate tax rate authorized to be advertised as part of the FY 2021 budget. “You undercut yourself before you even know what the budget is going to be. I don’t get it. You’ve got suggestions from everybody but you don’t listen too well – you don’t listen. You stare at all of us when we come up here but you do not listen.
“We are trying to help you all – but all you can do is listen to the town manager … This town has gone bonkers,” Gabbert surmised of its governing function.
However, Rappaport wondered if it wasn’t a council majority that had put Tederick in what he called “a tough position” of cutting revenue in the face of mounting expenses.
Previous council comments, particularly from the absent Meza, have indicated a distinct preference for downsizing the town government to reduce its revenue needs, as opposed to raising or even keeping Town taxes already 3 cents below the state town median, level to accommodate current departmental service needs.
Tax cut: hollow gesture?
Gabbert then continued a point made earlier by Hart and touched on by Dameron as well, noting that the impact of the council’s planned half-cent reduction of the real estate tax rate from 13.5 cents to 13 cents was savings of $17.50 per year on a home property valued at $350,000.
Of the $16.78 number she had come up within studying the half-cent tax reduction on a specific piece of property apparently valued slightly under the $350,000-mark, Hart observed, “Hardly a deal-breaker for the average homeowner”.
Hart asked the council how its commitment to this year’s half-cent real estate tax decrease might impact future budgets.
“And finally, should the tax rate be reduced this year, would citizens be subject to a BIG increase to be brought before the community next year? How can accomplishments be made by a tax reduction? Not this year, but certainly an increase is in the future for town residents. What scares me is how much?” Hart concluded.
Dameron asked the council why it was preoccupied with the redundant water line into the County’s north commercial corridor.
“You guys seem to think that 522 North is your domain, and it’s not. This is the Town of Front Royal, not the County of Warren or 522 or Dominion Energy,” he told town officials despite the presence of town utilities beyond the town limits.
Of redundant water line costs Dominion Power has promised to share due to its high, water usage needs for its power plant cooling system, Dameron suggested an alternative course for the town government, “Just say ‘no’.
“If Mr. Stanley and the County want to build it, let them build it; let Dominion build it. We don’t have to build it,” Dameron concluded before moving on to the EDA topic Hart would revisit in her comments.
“We’re having all this trouble with the EDA, they’re having their money problems, you don’t want to pay them for the police department, this, that and the other. You owe them the $8.3 or .4 million, there’s no quarrel about that. Why don’t you just pay them in cash? You got the money, you closed last year with $28 million dollars in cash. Just pay them the $8 million bucks, eliminate the debt service for the next 30 years and save all that (interest) money,” Dameron, a retired public accountant, suggested of a way to resolve the Town’s interest rate dispute with the EDA on the police station construction project.
Now, why hasn’t somebody thought of that before?
That business included:
1 – presentation of Town “Star” employee of the month to Jason Neal for service above and beyond in the solid waste department;
2 – the introduction of the police department’s new communications officer, Brittni Dennis;
3 – the promotion of FRPD Officer Brian Whited to sergeant, new badge pinned by his wife Erin;
4 – the County business report of County Administrator Doug Stanley;
5 – Commonwealth Attorney John Bell’s response to council inquiries on where the criminal line might be crossed in online posts of a threatening nature;
6 – votes of approval of sign guidelines for Valley Health’s new hospital;
7 – and the first vote of approval of a new Blighted Property Abate.
Watch the meeting on this Royal Examiner video:
Town reversed initial commitment to cover Afton Inn ‘winterization’ costs
During an update on the status of various properties at a Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Asset Committee meeting, Friday morning, the status of the on-hold Afton Inn “winterization” project two months into the winter of 2019-20 was broached.
In the agenda summary the project, described as once “a high priority” of the town government, was now observed to apparently be dead in the cold winter elements.
According to Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, Town staff apparently did an about-face on responsibility for, or the necessity of, covering the winterization costs.
Harold told those present that since the Town approached the EDA about working together with Afton Inn redeveloper 2 East Main Street LLC in November to get the stabilization project underway to prevent further deterioration of the 151-year-old brick and wood building shell, he had a record of communications with Town Attorney Doug Napier indicating Town responsibility for, and intent of, paying for the winterization work.
At various points in those communications a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dating to the 2014 transfer of ownership from the Town to the EDA for marketing and redevelopment purposes was referenced; as was Napier’s written expression of a “moral obligation” of the Town to provide for the “safety and welfare” of its citizens as pieces began falling off the building; and former Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp’s written notice of the apparent availability of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the Main Street façade improvement work that could be utilized by the Town to pay for its own staff to work on the winterization project.
Consequently, Harold noted the EDA spent $3,500 on an engineering report to get a cost estimate on the project to the Town. However, several subsequent emails from the Town indicated logistical complications discovered by its staff leading to the likelihood of increased costs.
Harold observed that Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick had stepped in at a mid-December EDA board meeting to state that earlier communications indicating the Town would cover the winterization costs were a “mistake”.
Harold noted that his response to Town Attorney Napier asking for substantiation to support the interim town manager’s assertion was forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Damiani & Damiani, handling its civil claims against the EDA with no further communications.
However, EDA Board Treasurer Jorie Martin interjected by phone hook up that she had one initial communication from Damiani & Damiani stating that they “would get back to us” after which there were no further communications.
In that December 19 email to Napier forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Harold wrote, “I have read the MOA, and I am not able to find any subordination clause or other languages that strips Front Royal of this requirement (of funding),” adding, “Contrarily, there are 2 paragraphs which explicitly detail and reaffirm the town’s commitment.”
One of those paragraphs from the MOU dated June 23, 2014, is quoted stating, “The Town agrees that during ownership of the Afton Inn property by the EDA, the Town shall not require the EDA to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition of any part of the Afton Inn building unless the Town agrees to bear the costs of such repairs, maintenance or demolition.”
The following paragraph describes the Afton Inn’s close proximity to Town Hall at the head of the East Main Street Historic Downtown Business District, observing, “The Town has clearly identifiable interests in the use to be made and in the appearance, of the Afton Inn property … As such, the Town has an appropriate, identifiable interest in keeping the Afton Inn property in both a viable safe physical condition and an aesthetically pleasing condition.”
It was again noted that 2 East Main Street LLC continues to express hope of maintaining its interest in the Afton renovation project now stalled by the EDA’s financial dilemma tied to the financial scandal asserted in the County-EDA funded Cherry Bekaert forensic audit of EDA business in recent years.
And put up a parking lot?
However, it would appear in this season of the interim town manager and a new council majority committed to cost and tax reductions despite $29 million in capital improvement funding needs in the coming budget year, those steering the ship of Front Royal Town government have simply decided the Afton Inn’s appearance, condition and redevelopment are no longer fiscal priorities.
As the discussion moved to the collection of bad debts, EDA Board Vice Chairman Jeff Browne noted that since the involvement of the EDA’s contracted attorney, the first check from a debtor had been received – “We just have to pick it up … so, we’re already starting to see results,” Browne told the Asset Committee, leading Board Chairman Ed Daley to quip, “Was this a large check from a municipal corporation that owes us a very significant amount of money?”
“The answer would be no,” Browne replied, dashing the hope the Town had decided to make good on at least a portion of its undisputed $8.4 million debt to the EDA on the principal for the Town Police Department construction project, if not on Afton Inn winterization costs.
See this discussion just past the 38-minute mark of the linked Royal Examiner video, as well as other topics in the entire meeting video. Among topics discussed were bids received on removal of the solar panels on the EDA’s Kendrick Lane office complex; a pending closing date of February 28 on the Stokes Mart property sale; and re-acquisition of the Workforce Housing parcel, hopefully, at the same $10 price, it was inexplicably transferred to the Cornerstone LLC branch of the Aikens Group in late November 2018 for.
After initially being “gifted” to the EDA for $10, due to unmet, publicly undisclosed deadlines not being met, the EDA acquired the property at a cost of $445,000, with additional resources allegedly being committed to the project leading to the property being written off as a $600,000-plus loss.
In addition to Harold, Daley, Browne, and Martin, the latter by phone hookup, present at Friday’s Asset Committee meeting were EDA attorney Sharon Pandak, also by phone connection, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons and South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers.
Town Planning Commission, Town Council Advance A.S. Rhodes Temporary Classroom Project
In a unique shared session, the Town Planning Commission and the Front Royal Town Council combined forces to quickly approve the temporary siting of modular classrooms at A.S. Rhodes Elementary School on Strasburg Road, as part of the larger renovation project that will soon be underway. There were no public comments regarding the request.
School officials and project managers answered questions from the Planning Commission and Council members regarding the temporary classrooms. Commissioner Dr. Cee Ann Davis asked if the Project Team had consulted with the County Health Department regarding the modular building. Acting Superintendent Melody Sheppard acknowledged they had not. Once the commission had completed its questioning, the Commission unanimously approved the request, leading to an unusual lateral pass of the request to the Town Council.
Councilman Lori Cockrell informed the Mayor that she would be abstaining from discussions or votes regarding the School request due to her 30-year career in the School Department. Councilman Chris Holloway voiced concern about student traffic between the modular classrooms and restrooms in the school itself. He questioned the WCPS representatives closely about the location of restrooms in relation to the proposed structure. When a council motion for approval was offered By Councilman Letasha Thompson, seconded by Councilman Bill Sealock, Councilman Holloway offered an amendment to the approval motion that would have required School Officials to add the requirement for restrooms within the modular structure itself. His amendment died for a lack of votes before the original motion went on to approval.
Following the approval of the A.S. Rhodes project by both the Planning Commission and the Town Council, Chairman Doug Jones, and Mayor Eugene Tewalt adjourned their respective bodies, and each met separately for work sessions.
The Town Planning Commission Work Session was largely devoted to a preliminary review and discussion of a potential new facility for the House of Hope, a service to homeless men in Front Royal. The commission received a presentation on the mission and objectives of the Program, feedback from the Commission members regarding necessary steps in working with the town to provide an improved facility for its services. Commissioner Daryl Merchant urged the House of Hope representatives to seek a location that was compatible with Town zoning ordinances. Planning Staff was asked to research property and zoning to support the commission in evaluating future requests.
Aaron Hike from Hike Construction then addressed the commission regarding a project to build a set of townhouses on a lot currently occupied by a blighted house. The lot proved to be slightly smaller than would allow the construction, and the company hoped to either to reduce the side setback through a zoning variance or to propose a zoning ordinance amendment to reduce the minimum width of a townhouse from 20 to 18 feet. They had also initiated an action with the Board of Zoning Appeals for the variance in addition to their presenting a proposal to the Planning Commission to amend the zoning ordinance.
Commissioner Merchant clarified that amending the zoning ordinance to accommodate a smaller lot size would conflict with the requirement for each townhouse to provide two parking spaces a minimum of 10 feet in width. The discussion then centered on the need for planning staff to research what an amendment to the zoning ordinance would entail. The commission agreed that language for an ordinance change would be the likely next step for the Commission to consider. Commissioner Davis reminded the attendees of unintended consequences of ordinance changes.
The commission members then discussed various strategies for helping continuing services during a period of reduced staffing at the Town Planning Department. The town is currently recruiting for a Director of Community Development and Planning.
Watch the joint meeting in this first Royal Examiner video and the Planning Commission work session in the second.
Council majority moves to lock in half-cent real estate tax decrease
Perhaps the most telling moment in the Front Royal Town Council’s multi-faceted Wednesday evening did not occur at a Special Joint Meeting with its Planning Commission called to facilitate permitting to allow the installation of modular classrooms to allow A.S. Rhodes renovation work to proceed on schedule, nor during a dizzying council work session discussion of financial variables that threaten to jeopardize a $700,000 matching State/Federal funded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) committed to physical redevelopment of downtown business frontages and the Village Commons and Gazebo area.
While those two discussions dominated much of the council’s attention, it was a third discussion near the work session’s end related to the funding of the coming Fiscal Year 2021 budget that was an eye-opener on the council’s thought process for the coming budget cycle.
Despite ongoing uncertainty among some on council about the plan to privatize and outsource the Town’s Tourism marketing function in the wake of scathing public and impacted business owner criticism of that plan; and the seemingly unavoidable presence of $29 million in physical capital improvements in the coming budget year, a 5-1 council majority committed to advertising a Real Estate Tax Rate of 13 cents per $100 of assessed value in the coming year.
That rate will maintain Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick and the council majority’s desire to implement a half-cent Real Estate Tax rate cut in next year’s budget. Tederick has commented that implementation of a tax cut despite the coming capital improvement needs will be a sign of the Town’s economic strength despite the $15 million in lost assets it has thus far claimed in the Economic Development Authority (EDA) financial scandal.
Only Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock asked that council at least keep the option of maintaining the existing 13.5-cent Real Estate Tax Rate and Town governmental revenue stream where it is. Sealock explained he had serious concerns about the plan to outsource the Town Tourism function and suggested the $64,000-plus of revenue that half-cent of Real Estate Tax would provide could help fund Visitors Center operations in the next budget year.
As Mayor Gene Tewalt noted in also expressing a desire to keep the flat tax rate option open, once advertised a tax rate can be adjusted down, but not up. Following the work session, Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson told Royal Examiner that one option available should it become apparent that the Town will need to keep its current revenue stream to fund coming fiscal year capital improvements and operations, would be to re-advertise a tax rate higher than the 13-cent one currently poised to be put forward.
However, several council comments seemed to indicate that as an unlikely option.
Newly-appointed Councilwoman Lori Athey Cockrell said she was in favor of “keeping taxes as low as they can (be)” in voicing support for the half-cent real estate tax decrease being committed to this early in the budget process.
Then Jacob Meza pointed a path forward for council should it do an about-face on the Tourism Department – that path cuts to other town governmental functions to allow the half-cent Real Estate Tax reduction to stand.
“If the council wants to change something, I’d rather instead of keeping tax rates high or increasing taxes, figure out what other areas of the budget need to go … I want the council to find the areas that we’re willing to do without or willing to change. So again, if Tourism is the hot-topic button right now if that’s the direction the council wants to go, fine. Let’s figure out what other reductions we can have in the budget … because I can support some of the changes that we’ve made whereas the justifications were reducing some of our tax bases, not find other reasons to spend the money and increase it again,” Meza said.
Following Meza’s call to reduce the town governmental function in some, even as-yet-undetermined way, rather than keep tax revenue at existing levels, Mayor Tewalt polled council on its preference on a rate to advertise. And as noted above, only Sealock expressed support of keeping the option of a flat Real Estate Tax open to the council as a means of funding the Visitors Center function.
Beginning with Cockrell’s call to keep tax rates as low as possible in support of the 13-cent rate advertisement, Gary Gillespie, Letasha Thompson, Meza, and Chris Holloway all concurred to advertise the 13-cent rate, cementing in the $64,629 of lost Town revenue in the coming budget year.
The following day we called Town Finance Director Wilson to see where the Town of Front Royal ranks statewide with its municipal real estate tax rate. While he did not have specific rankings, Wilson noted that the Median Real Estate Tax Rate for Virginia towns is 17 cents per $100 of assessed value. So, the Town’s existing 13.5-cent rate was 3.5 cents below the Virginia town median; the proposed cut will take that to 4 cents below the median level.
According to staff numbers included in the work session agenda packet, the revenue produced at the 13.5-cent real estate tax rate in FY 2020 was $1,744,970. The proposed FY 2021, 13-cent rate will provide $1,680,341, or as observed above, a $64,629 reduction.
Council decided to keep the Personal Property Tax rate flat at 64 cents per $100 of assessed value. That rate provided $597,872 of tax revenue to the Town last year.
See the full Town Council-Planning Commission Special Meeting and council work session in linked Royal Examiner videos:
EDA: Request for qualifications for the provision of an FY18 and FY19 audit
The Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority (“EDA”) is soliciting proposals for Auditor Services (“Services”). Sealed proposals for this work will be accepted until Friday, March 6, 2020, at 12:00 p.m.
Please submit one (1) original and three (3) copies of your proposal in a sealed envelope marked “Auditor Services,” with the Proposer’s name and address marked on the outside of the sealed envelope, no later than 12:00 p.m. EST, Friday March 6, 2020.
Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority
P.O. Box 445
Front Royal, VA 22630
ATTN: Gretchen Henderson, Administrative Assistant
Questions regarding this Request for Qualifications (“RFQ”) should be directed to:
Doug Parsons, Executive Director,
Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority