Negative public reaction to the appointment and seating of Jacob Meza by his four fellow county Republican Committee council members and council’s response to that reaction dominated the Front Royal Town Council’s first regular meeting of 2021. And while there was other business conducted, including acknowledgement of FRPD employees of the year and election of a vice mayor, that will be covered in another story.
Nine of 13 public speakers, 10 of 14 if you include one read into the record by Councilwoman Letasha Thompson from a citizen not present, took a hard line in criticizing, not only Meza’s change of heart in continuing his service on council after declining to run for re-election in November, but also at the four council members who voted for the appointment. Council’s lone non-Republican Committee member Letasha Thompson, cast the lone dissenting vote against Meza’s appointment, citing a preference for “a new face” to take the appointment.
And while one of those Meza supporting councilmen, Joseph McFadden, has posted on social media that he would not have made Meza’s nomination or voted for it had Town staff informed him of the Charter question concerning its legality, council’s overall reaction was unrepentant for the appointment. And even McFadden stood by his assessment that Meza was the best qualified candidate who applied, while the Town refuses to divulge the identities of those other candidates as protected from FOIA as a personnel matter.
But if McFadden, Scott Lloyd, Gary Gillespie and Lori Athey Cockrell see Meza as a “most qualified” candidate, the majority public perception expressed Monday night appeared to be “qualified at what”? The answer for many, including some who were or identified themselves as fellow Catholics or Christendom College alumni of Meza’s, was as a hypocritical agent of his employer Valley Health and a major player in other council initiatives that ran afoul of public opinion in recent years.
At the point of much of that negativity is Meza’s alienating much of his base, particularly in the huge local Catholic community, by his reversal of recusing himself from earlier votes or even work session discussion of approval of a past EDA board-facilitated loan to his employer Valley Health to help finance a maternity ward-less new Warren Memorial Hospital. That reversal came in front of several Valley Health executives as Meza’s vote was required to achieve the necessary majority for the required Town approval.
Of that vote, one speaker, Christa Marie Adanitsch, who noted she was a fellow Christendom College graduate, observed, “I noticed that you got a nice, big promotion after your vote that you did not recuse yourself in the big Valley Health vote. And I’m wondering if this is one of those shenanigan deals again where we’re coming up on,” at which point Mayor Chris Holloway intervened to halt the speaker as making a “personal attack” on the councilman, which is forbidden by meeting rules.
Adanitsch regrouped, attempting to make her point in a less direct manner.
“You did not recuse yourself in the deciding vote for the Valley Health deal when you had recused yourself every other single time. Okay, and now we’re coming up on the issue of the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes fee) for Valley Health. And you were placed in this position, which was an unethical placement. So, I’m just wondering with your track record for gutting the things going on in this town, what you’re doing up here.”
Adanitsch explained her perception of Meza’s appointment as “unethical” due to a perceived conflict with the Town Charter’s one-year Chapter 6, Section 47 prohibition on the appointment of former council members back to council. And while that interpretation is in dispute by Town Attorney Doug Napier, non-attorney public opinion appears to agree with the conflicting legal opinion that it does apply because there has been no clear explanation why town legal staff believes council is not under its own “jurisdiction” since its appointment and Conflict of Interest investigative power would clearly seem to indicate such “jurisdictional” authority.
And as reported by Royal Examiner yesterday, a legal challenge of Meza’s appointment was filed in Warren County Circuit Court on behalf of one of the other candidates for that council seat Monday morning.
In the wake of Meza’s appointment, the evening’s first speaker Gary Kushner suggested Front Royal’s longstanding nickname of “Helltown” be changed to “Clowntown”. While noting he was not a town resident, Kushner said he chose to address the issue due to “sympathy” for the level of citizen concern about the appointment issue.
“There was much citizen concern about the chaos and divisiveness associated with the last council. And there was hope there’d be relief with a new majority. But alas, the new year just seems to be the continuation of controversies,” Kushner said, citing Meza’s appointment by his inner circle of council allies.
Kushner wondered at Meza’s decision not to run for re-election a bare two months earlier, exposing himself to the same level of public scrutiny other candidates did, including at least two, if not more, who applied for the vacant seat Meza now occupies.
“The councilman could have filed an application and run a campaign and been subjected to the same scrutiny as other legitimate candidates. But that didn’t occur. Instead, the prior councilman is again on the council via a slimy back door,” Kushner observed, adding, “I wonder how long ago that plan was hatched, and to what degree the infamous past interim town manager was involved.”
Lyrics to the 1960’s-‘70’s classic rock band The Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – “New boss, same as the old boss” – popped into at least one observer’s mind as Kushner’s, and subsequent public comments were forthcoming.
During his member report Meza presented a defense of his appointment, and his colleagues all referenced the issue at some point in their respective reports.
“I did want to say, first and foremost, thank you for the vote of confidence of council. And I was happy to fill the appointment seat and will continue to serve in that capacity as I have in years past,” Meza said in opening his remarks, before continuing to address some of the negative public comments he had heard.
One comment Meza did not address was Adanitsch’s assertion of his “big promotion” in the wake of his recusal reversal for the decisive vote of approval of Valley Health’s $60 million-plus hospital construction loan.
He began with a timeline related to his seeking the appointment. Referencing one public comment, Meza did note there was a December 2 legal opinion on the Town Charter’s relevant section to council appointments and the year’s delay sought. However, he pointed out that he did not submit his “Letter of Interest” in the appointment until December 18, over two weeks after that opinion was sought.
Of his interest in the appointment, Meza stated he wrote in his application letter that, “I was offering it as assistance to bridge the gap (till a November 2021 Special Election to fill the seat) for council, some of the knowledge gap that would be on council. But to feel no pressure in appointing me to council and pick the best person as they saw fit.”
And once the Charter issue was re-raised, Meza noted that following his January 4 appointment by council he had delayed his swearing in until earlier in the day Monday, so he could take his seat the evening of January 11.
On January 7, during that interim before he was sworn in, Meza said, “I wrote a comment to council in response to other emails. In an effort to demonstrate that I had, have no ulterior motives, if a majority of council regrets their decision to appoint me for another year, I’d be more than willing to decline the appointment. But I will not decline because of people lashing out false accusations against my character,” Meza said. He noted that a majority had not asked for his resignation, that only one member request had been submitted to him.
See the sometimes-volatile opinions expressed between the public and council over the Meza appointment in the video from the Town website recording of the meeting.
Town short-term rental rule decision deferred to Feb. 28; citizen concerns voiced and Solid Waste staff and Energy Department Director Jenkins lauded for service
(Writer’s note: as observed in the first caption below, apologies for any name misspellings as Royal Examiner was informed by Council Clerk Tina Presley the afternoon of Jan. 26 that any media requests for information, even correct spellings of involved parties or public speaker sign-in sheet names, must now be forwarded by town staff to the Town’s out-of-town Public Information Officer Joanne Williams for a response, which has not yet been received.)
At its meeting of Monday evening, January 24, the Front Royal Town Council delayed action on an ordinance amendment setting in-town regulations for short-term “tourist” rentals; removed “Vape-Oriented” from a recommendation on lighting regulation code changes for businesses in the town limits; finalized naming of an interim town attorney and authorized the expenditure of $24,500 in contracting an executive search firm to recommend a permanent replacement for recently retired Town Attorney Doug Napier, among other business items.
But before getting down to its action agenda items, two recognitions of Town personnel were acknowledged. First, was the Solid Waste crew for its ongoing work under sometimes trying conditions to keep the town from accumulated waste. Then a fond farewell was bid to soon-to-be-retired Department of Energy Services Director David Jenkins for his 30 years of service to the town and its electric/energy department.
With no citizens present to comment and some questions remaining, the one scheduled public hearing on the short-term rental ordinance was left open so that the public could appear at council’s February 28 meeting to express opinions on how short-term rentals should be regulated in the town’s often more tightly packed than county residential neighborhoods. One change suggested by several council members was elimination of a mandate that short-term rentals have an active landline phone to assure the ability of renters to reach emergency services if cell phone service was to fail. The recommendation was initially made at the planning department level due to sometimes spotty cell phone service in some areas. Amber Morris called the condition “archaic in this day and age” and several members supported that notion.
Public Comments raise questions
Following council discussion of the short-term tourist rental issues, council heard from four public speakers on four separate issues of public interest not on the agenda. Those speakers were George Cline Jr., president of the Warren County Builders Association, who addressed concerns about the Town’s process in taking over inspection on in-town building and repair projects; Gene Kilby restating his initiative to have council rename a town street in honor of the town’s first African-American mayor, George E. Banks, who was laid to rest this past week; third, Michael Shutton, who addressed issues he has observed with uncleared sidewalks packed with ice-covered snow in town in front of private business or residential properties forcing at least one handicapped person in a wheelchair and students heading toward Skyline High and/or Middle Schools to walk or wheel in the cleared street; and finally attorney Tom Sayre who questioned the $24,500 contract expenditure on the town attorney search with a competent, long-term assistant town attorney, George Sonnett, in place, in house.
In posing a list of questions to council and staff (at 17:45 to 28:40 mark of linked Town video), Cline was somewhat critical of a lack of Town communications with the Builders Association in the process of developing the new Town Building Inspection Department.
“Our association has a tremendous amount of depth and knowledge, and could have probably presented some great ideas or suggestions had we been asked. We weren’t asked,” Cline said, echoing previous criticism of the Town’s clearing of trees and vegetation at Happy Creek without consultation with available boards or consultants that led to the resignation of the Town’s Urban Forestry Board and a philosophical break with The Tree Stewards.
Next up (at 29:05 to 31:50 marks of linked Town video), Kilby acknowledged the burial of Front Royal’s first and only African American mayor, George E. Banks, in the Veterans Cemetery in Culpeper, Virginia, earlier that day. Noting his call of a year ago to council to name a street after a man he said, “succeeded in bringing this community together while making considerable improvements,” Kilby renewed that call with some added detail. That detail included support from residents of the involved street at Edgemont Avenue where it turns right into Scranton Avenue and goes by Banks’ property.
“We have signatures (of support) from almost all of the residents of Edgemont Avenue, and I don’t think it would be difficult for us to get signatures from the four properties that face Scranton Avenue,” Kilby told council and the mayor, concluding by giving a brief bio of Banks service to the council clerk.
Next was Michael Shutton (at 32:00 to 35:55 marks of the linked Town video). Shutton, whose name we hope we are spelling correctly in the absence of verification from the council clerk, described a recent experience coming to the aid of a middle aged man struggling in a wheelchair in the street at the intersection of Route 340 (South Royal Ave.) and South Street due to the accumulated snow and ice on the sidewalk. Shutton, who said he has children at both Skyline Middle and High Schools, noted he had also seen children walking toward the schools in the street for the same reason. Shutton
Concluding the Public Comments on non-agenda items, which council has approved moving to after all of a meeting’s public hearings are completed, was local attorney Tom Sayre (36:08 to 37:20 mark of linked video). Sayre questioned the $24,500 expenditure on an executive search contractor to find a new town attorney, suggesting council first take a hard look at current Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett (not a bad idea, Tom). However, with the expenditure approved, Council member Thompson cited the contractor’s extensive background work beyond what council could accomplish in house. “It really is a perfect company to deal with this. – And we got Steven,” Thompson said of the company bringing current Town Manager Steven Hicks to council’s attention. But if memory serves correctly, Hicks was chosen after a search during which a round or two of interviewed candidates were rejected by council.
Near the meeting’s end council appointed Christine Arrons (sp?) and Michael Williams to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Earlier at the request of Council member Letasha Thompson, Williams was asked to join the Town Solid Waste Crew for its photo op due to his call to the town government alerting it to the accumulating waste situation at the Kendrick Lane subdivision where the property’s ownership appears to have let its privately contracted waste pick up lapse, leading to the town crew being dispatched to cleanup a quickly deteriorating situation for subdivision residents.
The interim town attorney named as one of the meeting’s last four action items, as noted in an earlier press release, is James E. Cornwell Jr. of White Stone, Va. As previously reported with the press release announcement of the plan to hire Cornwell, White Stone is a coastal town near the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Lancaster County. The Town press release noted Cornwell’s 45 years of experience in representation of local “governments, public bodies and authorities”.
Non-FOIA compliant closed meeting addition rejected
At the meeting’s outset (1:50 mark) Councilman Gary Gillespie made a motion to add one item to the agenda, a closed session without any FOIA-mandated identification of subject matter. The motion was seconded and a role call vote of approval was made until the final name called, when Letasha Thompson voted “no”. Mayor Holloway noted that with late agenda additions requiring a unanimous vote of approval, the motion failed. Queried later by the media about her “no” vote, Thompson explained that without clarity on the topic she felt that “whatever it was could wait until next week”.
Council ponders where to find money for police budget and other projects
Money and spending priorities were on the mind of the Front Royal Town Council Thursday evening, January 20, at a Special Work Session called, if not specifically for budget matters, for a number of things with cost analysis and price tags of some significance. Among those were a Water Plant Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) System Procurement to replace the 15-year-old system now in place; “Council Initiatives” including some Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) for the coming fiscal year (July 1, 2022, thru June 30, 2023); and an outside contract with an “Executive Search Services” company in the hiring of a new lead town attorney.
Other agenda topics at what was a four-hour-plus work session chaired by Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell in Mayor Holloway’s absence, were a Comp Plan Update/Existing Conditions Report; and proposed text amendments to Chapter 148 (Subdivision and Land Development), both presented by Planning Director Lauren Kopishke; and “Open Discussion” including a pending council resolution establishing the Town of Front Royal as a “Destination Marketing Organization” with the town manager as “Chief Liaison” on the DMO tourism promotional effort.
Vice Mayor Lori Cockrell chaired the work session in the absence of Mayor Holloway. Council member Amber Morris attended by remote phone connection to give council full attendance.
The open portion of the work session followed a Closed Session at the meeting’s 6 p.m. outset for interviews for positions on the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Town Local Building Code of Appeals, and Joint Tourism Committee.
And there was one “Budget Overview” specific to the Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget process of particular interest to elected officials and their constituents. That was a presentation on factors and budget needs within the Front Royal Police Department (FRPD) by Chief Kahle Magalis. In introducing the police chief, Town Manager Steven Hicks noted that at its recent “Retreat” council had expressed an interest in hearing directly from the chief about the proposed police budget. That introduction, presentation, and discussion begins at the 1:35:05 mark of the Town video.
FRPD needs and costs
And with “public safety” generally seen as one of the priority functions of government at every level from both sides of the political aisle, FRPD funding needs and how to achieve them were a major concern. However, apparently following what he believes to be council’s lead on balancing the FY-2022-23 budget, Town Manager Hicks pointed out that “my recommendation will not be for a tax increase”. Rather, budget cuts, push back of some projects to future budget cycles, or the use of contingency or reserve funds to fill revenue gaps seemed the favored strategy. That message followed Hicks’ summary of variables in presenting a staff-recommended budget to council for approval:
“Once I do my budget recommendation, the process is in your all’s hands and you have all means to tweak it … Also, I may come back with financing, looking at how we may be able to (access) potential other funding sources. But everything is on the table, our reserves, our debt services, and other options because I may need that” at which point his above observation “Other than that my recommendation will not be for a tax increase …” was made.
However, Councilman Gary Gillespie appeared to leave the tax increase door open should a need become apparent. “I’m just saying if we’re needing one, give us a recommendation on how much maybe. Because the other stuff is important too, Steven,” Gillespie said of the myriad “Council Initiatives” and other Capital Improvement needs – like a new or majorly renovated “Fleet Maintenance building” projected at initial costs in the coming budget year cited as $170,000 with an eventual total cost of $1.7 million – presented to council before Chief Magalis reached the meeting podium.
The agenda cover page of the “FY23 Police Department Overview” noted a current FY-2021/22 Budget of $5,227,200, with a Town staff-recommended $5,300,000 FY-2022/23 versus a department requested $5,733,960. That means the administrative staff recommendation leaves the police department with a $433,960 funding deficit for projected needs in the coming fiscal year.
Of that deficit, just under $104,000 are cuts to requested “Merit Increases” to departmental staff. Another $200,000 appeared to be in “Fleet Replacement” vehicle costs in which the “Town Manager’s Review” cited no allocation, as it did not in the “Narcotics K-9” ($15,000) and “Taser Replacement ($47,500) categories. Merit increases are now seen as essential in maintaining qualified, experienced staff in an increasingly competitive municipal staffing environment. The chief also noted the department would be hit by four pending retirements mid-year, including Major Kevin Nicewarner.
The FRPD budget is in support of 38 certified police officers (Magalis corrected from 39 in the agenda summary) and “14 full-time and 3 part-time civilian employees” (55 total), in addition to “2 police canines” though one will be retired due to obsolete drug training due to the legalization of marijuana, it was explained; working in three divisions – Patrol, Investigations, and Communications – in addition to the department’s administrative staff. Average police departmental funding over the past 5 years has been $5,109,808 the staff summary noted. And while his and the chief’s budget recommendations were over $400,000 apart, the town manager did laud Magalis in recent budget cycles – “The chief has done a lot with a little,” Hicks told council.
Related to the need to replace one drug-sniffing canine due to changed drug laws forcing dogs trained in marijuana sniffing into retirement, it was suggested to seek funding help from the state legislature on that $15,000 expense since it was created by legalization legislation at the state level.
When council discussion turned to the possibility of writing of more traffic tickets as a revenue-producing source, perhaps with changes in state driving laws contributing to such an effort, Chief Magalis pointed out: “We don’t write tickets for revenue. We write tickets for public safety. And we’ve always had that, we’ve never had quotas for officers or anything like that …”
The chief’s point for council to consider is that unlike some Enterprise Fund departments like public utilities where user fees can support operations, law enforcement is not constructed as a self-supporting, revenue-generating department. Rather, it is a public service department created to ensure the public safety and at the local level the Constitutional assurance of a “General Welfare” of a government’s citizens. Due to these variables it is a service often supported to a large extent by tax revenue paid by the citizens of the enabling government.
Regarding another change at the state level disallowing the suspension of driver’s licenses as a punishment for certain offenses, Gillespie lamented that change and any corresponding fine-generated revenue loss. “Something I disagree with is taking the leverage away from the fines. Because guys, let me tell you something, there’s nothing in our Constitution that says you have a right to drive – nothing!”
However, the councilman did not address the fact that when the Constitution was written circa the early 1790’s, motor vehicles themselves and the need to drive them over increasing distances to maintain basic necessities like employment and access to basic essentials, did not yet exist. In fact, one might argue that the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” could be applied to the right of American citizens to drive in a modern world never envisioned by the nation’s “Founding Fathers” some 230 years ago.
Perhaps related, if not anticipated to be connected to a Constitutional rights discussion related to law enforcement funding, were improvements to the Town Trolley transit system. Those included establishment of covered route stops and a broader time schedule and more easily available information on scheduled stopping times at various locations throughout the town limits.
Front Royal’s Economic Development Authority has inaugural meeting
The newly formed Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) met for the first time, at 11 a.m. Thursday morning, January 20, 2022, in the second-floor Town Hall meeting room. Royal Examiner was notified that what was primarily an orientation meeting and the first gathering meet and greet of the town council-appointed FREDA Board of Directors would not be livestreamed or videotaped by the Town, leading to the presence of the Royal Examiner camera to visually document the occasion.
The meeting was chaired by Town Manager Steven Hicks, who has been tasked by the Town Council to also serve as FREDA’s executive director. The meeting began two of seven board members short, with Nick Bass and Rick Novak both arriving a few minutes after the 11 a.m. starting time. Final arrivee, Royal Cinemas owner Novak, explained a concession stand equipment malfunction had delayed his arrival.
The now fully manned board took on a four action-item agenda, including presentation of draft bylaws for review; setting dates for a FREDA retreat (March 8), as well as its next meeting (Feb. 17, indicating a third Thursday rotation of regular monthly meetings); and Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) General Counsel Sandy McNish’s remotely presented PowerPoint overview of EDA functions and state legal parameters for EDA operations, including financial lending utilizing public funds to stimulate economic development for a public good.
McNish noted Virginia as a Dillon Rule state in which localities and political subdivisions like EDA’s cannot exceed authorities “expressly granted by the General Assembly”. She also noted that municipally created EDA’s are independent entities from the municipalities that create them and utilize their services in economic development initiatives and assistance in financing economic development projects.
In prefacing the FREDA board for the VDEP presentation, Town Manager/FREDA Executive Director Hicks said, “Today is obviously our first overall meeting. We’ve got a pretty decent agenda, more of just an intro of what we’re going to do. We’re going to talk about EDA 101 … and also I would kind of like to go around the table and have everyone introduce (themselves) with a brief bio of who you are, as well. And then I’m going to introduce the staff that will be supporting the EDA as we go forward.”
Those FREDA Board of Director introductions included (in the order listed in the agenda packet summary of their backgrounds):
Isaac Rushing (1-year term), owner of Honey and Hops Brew Works at 212 E. Main St., also cited as “a former supervisor with the Town of Front Royal” though no department was included in his profile;
David Gedney (1-year term), owner of Element Restaurant (317 E. Main St.), also a current member of the Town Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), who has past experience “in planning/growing a recycling effort for VCU” (Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond);
Mark Tapsak (2-year term), owner of Mountain Music (217 E. Main St.), also cited as “a medical device research scientist and consultant with Diabetic Health Inc., as well as a university (unspecified) teacher of biochemistry and chemistry courses.”
Rick Novak (2-year term), as previously noted owner of Royal Cinemas (117 E. Main St.) and Royal Family Bowling Center (430 Remount Rd.), also cited as a former owner of the Blue Ridge Motel and Royal Family Amusement Arcade;
Frank Stankiewicz (3-year term), owner/manager of Green to Ground Electrical LLC (316 Warren Ave.), also cited as “President of local (unspecified) networking organization”;
James Crowell (3-year term), owner of Quecon, Inc. IT Engineering Co. (134 Peyton St.) “that specializes in cybersecurity, software engineering and telecommunications” who is also cited as “Graduated from Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business program (10KSB), Veteran’s Institute of Procurement (VIP), VA Scaling for Growth (S4G), Small Business Administration (SBA) business development.”
Nick Bass (4-year term), cited as “Geotechnical and construction consultant; experience reviewing construction contracts and subcontractor agreements to identify risky language; marketing experience and communications skills.”
In her presentation to the newly created FREDA Board of Directors, VEDP General Counsel McNish, who noted a 14-plus year tenure at VEDP, said, “So, what’s an EDA? You’re enabling legislation is the Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act. You’re a political subdivision of the Commonwealth, much as the VEDP is; you are a separate legal entity, as the VEDP is. You’re not the town that created you, the town that created you is not you. You have a separate subdivision, you are a different thing.”
She continued to note that EDAs “are usually created by one locality but they can … be created by two or more, as you know. And authorities, even if they’re from separate localities, can, indeed, work together in a cooperative way on projects.”
One might hope that as an evolving independent subdivision of the Town of Front Royal, that type of inter-EDA cooperation will develop, as has been offered by the WC EDA Board, despite the total cut off of all communications, other than civil litigation, example that has been set in recent months by the Front Royal Town Council and its town management staff.
“You have very broad powers under the Industrial Development and Revenue Bond Act. And you can do most anything, so long as you do it under your animating purpose, which is to promote industry and develop trade by inducing manufacturing, industrial, governmental, etc. facilities to locate in or remain in the Commonwealth.
“Now if you’re providing a branch or something to somebody or helping with a developmental plan, that’s certainly going to benefit a private company. But that’s okay because that’s not why you are doing it. You’re doing it for a public purpose,” McNish pointed out of attracting business or industry to an area as a general economic benefit to the community in which the EDA operates.
Town Planning Commission considers short term rental ordinance and update on Town’s Comprehensive Plan process
The Front Royal Planning Commission entered the new year with a quiet and businesslike first meeting on January 19th with all commissioners in attendance to consider a topic that has taken up a good deal of its attention (no, not the fiery allegations of the last meeting) – rather, the proposed ordinance change to address short-term rentals. In November the Town Council requested the planning commission to develop a proposed ordinance that would assure a uniform process for approval of conditional use permits for this use, as distinguished from hotels, motels, and bed & breakfast establishments. The planning staff adapted a proposed ordinance from that used by the County to establish standards and conditions for short-term rentals, and Planning Director Lauren Kopishke submitted it to council earlier to get feedback.
Since the topic of this ordinance amendment was postponed at the December Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Darryl Merchant asked Planning Director Kopishke for an update on the proposed text. The Planning Director referred the commissioners to a version in their packages that had been sent to Town Council for their January 10 meeting. Council’s only change was a request to remove the prohibition on street parking in the draft version. There followed some discussion about what the Town Council’s intent was – the original draft prohibited parking for short-term rentals in yards or along public right-of-ways, which would effectively bar a guest from parking along a street even if a marked parking place. Many properties in town have no other parking than on the street.
Commissioner Merchant observed that conditions in town are different than those in the county, and that it could be worthwhile to consider whether different zones in the town are not appropriate for this use. Permitting short-term rentals in all zones may not be appropriate, he reasoned. Vice-Chairman Connie Marshner said that several citizens have approached her with doubts about whether short-term rentals should be allowed.
Commissioners Josh Ingram and William Gordon also commented that the ordinance established a standard for a special use permit. Consequently, each permit must be reviewed by the commission for a recommendation to the town council for approval. So, decisions of appropriateness are made on each application on a case-by-case basis and an ordinance is not a blanket permission for property owners to start offering short-term rentals by right.
At length, rather than voting to recommend approval of the ordinance, Commissioner Merchant offered a motion to postpone action and refer the subject to a Planning Commission work session on February 4, so that it could be discussed and alternatives identified prior to a final vote. The commission unanimously approved that motion.
The commission then turned its attention to a presentation by the Assistant Town Manager, Kathleen Leidich, on the Fiscal Year 2023-27 Capital Improvement Plan. The Plan is a forward look at capital projects the Town foresees in the upcoming five years. The $2.5 million plan for streets in FY 2023 incorporates primary and secondary street repaving, new sidewalk construction, replacement of the 8th St. bridge, and rehabilitation of the Fleet Maintenance building. The plan also identifies projects that are further into the future, such as a Leach Run flyover, an east-west connector, further improvements to Happy Creek Road, and various trails and road extensions.
$1.5 million in planned improvements to the Town’s water system in the upcoming fiscal year include replacement of undersized water lines between Colonial Drive and Leach Run Parkway, and waterline replacement throughout the town in conjunction with the town’s paving plans.
The Electric Department projects $1.1 million for its improvements in this fiscal year to expand the Happy Creek substation, replacement of transformers that have reached or exceeded their service life, and further funding for the Automated Metering Infrastructure, (AMI) which allows remote meter reading and service connects and disconnects. It will eventually mean all meters throughout the town will be replaced.
After being briefed on the plan, the commission discussed its own role in the process as it provides feedback to the town staff and then makes recommendations to the town council as part of the budgeting process. Commissioner Gordon wondered what the ultimate role of the commission was in the CIP process, and how the commission could be of help to the Town in establishing priorities and identifying needs. “It seems like we’re being asked to rubberstamp a budgeting process that’s already been done,” he observed.
Assistant Town Manager Leidich responded, “In general, town staff brings the CIP to planning to get feedback. Ultimately it is the town council that approves the CIP.”
The emerging consensus from the Commission was that earlier involvement will mean better knowledge of the proposed priorities, and that for this cycle, it was better for the commission to recommend approval and then work with town staff in a more collaborative process for the next budget cycle.
The Commission ultimately voted unanimously to recommend approval of the CIP.
The final order of business was an update on the Comprehensive Plan rewrite process by Planning Director Kopishke. The staff and its support contractor have produced an Existing Conditions Report.
The report packs a lot of information into its 35 pages. It outlines statistics such as population, business, income, employment, and education, as well as useful information about infrastructure and services. The Commission and the planning department are continuing work on the plan. You can find the report, as well as links for your input, here.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:30 p.m.
After work session discussion of Town building permit function, supervisors approve 3 CUP requests, 2 for short-term tourist rentals
The Warren County Board of Supervisors agenda of Tuesday, January 18, began with a no cameras, caucus room work session highlighted by a presentation by County Building Official David Beahm on implications of the Town of Front Royal taking over the building and maintenance inspection function within town limits. It is a long-discussed on the Town side shift, that began in the first decade of the 21st century if memory serves. But after hearing about constantly shifting variables on interpretation and enforcement of stormwater management and erosion and sediment control aspects at the state level, one might wonder if the Town might want to reconsider its decision to finally move into the in-town inspection world.
“That’s ridiculous,” North River Supervisor Delores Oates chimed in with a colorful declaration after hearing Beahm’s description of ongoing shifts in State interpretations of its own rules on parameters of municipal enforcement of state rules on these aspects of building variables. Responding to questions, Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke estimated full town inspection department enforcement, including stormwater and erosion and sediment control by June. The Town department was officially enacted on January 3rd. Dynamics of in-town inspection records being shifted to Town control from the County system was discussed, as was alerting in-town property owners to seek those records from the Town when they were transferred.
County Finance Director Matt Robertson also presented a look at new online links to a budget development site for easier member and staff access during the budget cycle.
Following those two presentations the supervisor adjourned to closed session for discussion of advisory board appointments and real estate transactions outside the town limits.
Then it was on to a rather straightforward regular meeting agenda featuring three public hearings on Conditional Use Permit (CUP) requests, one for a guesthouse off Buck Mountain Road in the South River District’s Stone Subdivision by Joshua Branson, and two for short-term tourist rentals on Riverview Shores Drive in the Shenandoah Shores Subdivision.
The first of those latter two was submitted by experienced and multi-county short-term, Air B&B style rental operators Gillian Greenfield and Richard Butcher; the second by a property neighbor of Greenfield and Butcher, Terry Hartson. Hartson told the board that he had taken his business management plan lead from his more experienced neighbors. Hartson spoke in support of his neighbors’ request, as they did in support of his. With acknowledgment the Branson guesthouse would not be used as a commercial endeavor, and detailed management plans for the two short-term rental requests in place, all three were approved by unanimous consent with little or no opposition submitted to the board prior to the public hearing.
About five minutes into the meeting during Public Comments the Town’s recent “interim man” returned to the dais to play word games to repeat still-unsubstantiated accusations against County and Town officials, as well as gripes about the Royal Examiner and its reporters not covering “news” as he desires it to be covered – apparently unsubstantiated, without first-hand verification, and without an objectively critical eye toward the documented actions of public officials, particularly within Town Hall.
See the above discussions, public comments, as well as board member reports, and approval of a four-item Consent Agenda, including more coyote bounty awards, and discussion of a removed consent agenda staffing search item, and two late agenda additions in this County video:
‘Grandfathering’ or not? County Planning Commission foresees the need to address Non-Conforming Properties
At its regular meeting on January 12, the Warren County Planning Commission confronted a nagging issue that members expect will increasingly come up in the future, that of property owners in older subdivisions whose dwellings were built long before there were local zoning ordinances or even building inspections. Even though building codes date back to the Babylonian King Hammurabi, and rudimentary standards in the late 18th century, most large American cities didn’t begin enacting or enforcing them until 1900 or so, and in most smaller localities they were not widely enacted until the 1970’s, and even after that not uniformly enforced. In Warren County, for example, many small “summer cabins” were built near or on the river in the 1940’s or before, when that requirement did not exist. They weren’t originally intended to be permanent homes, but rather vacation places. In modern times, local zoning ordinances would preclude many of these from being built at all, or certainly sited where they are.
The continuing challenge for the County is to strike a balance between a property owner’s investment in his property, the need for uniform enforcement of the building code, and common sense. More and more requests for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) for short-term tourist rentals, for example, show that property owners, sometimes with “nonconforming lots”, still want to rent their cabins out to tourists. But the standards of the County’s short-term tourist rental ordinance require things like 100-foot distance between dwellings. So, the commissioners spent some time discussing what the right approach to that challenge is. Zoning law is where the term “grandfathering” is often found – provisions that allow some deviations from standards where the original construction predated the standard. It’s certain that the commission and the county board will have to eventually develop a solution that can be applied fairly and uniformly.
An example case will likely be considered at next months meeting, when the commissioners will be looking at a request from Alvand Khoshgavar for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental for his residentially zoned property at 668 Old Dam Road in the Shenandoah District. His property doesn’t meet the 100-foot setback requirement, so that requirement would have to be waived for a permit to be issued. The request was approved for advertising the public hearing, but the commissioners agreed that the topic of these properties will need to have a better solution. The County can waive provisions of an ordinance, but every waiver creates a precedent.
Meanwhile, this month, John LaVoie is requesting a CUP for his residentially zoned property at 1196 Old Oak Lane in the Shenandoah District. Deputy Planning Director Matt Wendling briefed the commission on the details of the application. The proposal meets the County short-term rental supplementary regulations, and comments were received from the County Building Official and the Department of Health. There were no citizen comments during the public hearing, and no comments or objections were received from neighboring property owners by the County Planning Department.
With no other comments by commission members, the vote to recommend approval was unanimous. The permit request will now go to the County Board of Supervisors for final approval.
The consent agenda for the meeting consisted of authorization to advertise public hearings for seven Conditional Use Permit requests and one zoning ordinance change. Those items will be on the agenda for next month’s meeting on February 9th.
Chairman Myers adjourned the meeting at 7:45 p.m.