Following lead-off batter Gary Kushner in a nearly 90-minute first-inning that saw 27 people step to the plate, 22 of 24 addressing the Front Royal Town Council and interim town manager’s fastball approach to downsizing and outsourcing several governmental functions, a number of pointed statements, questions and inquiries were made (sorry for the baseball analogy, the Astro’s World Series cheating scandal has my attention).
Second speaker Marie McDaniel introduced herself as a new resident of a year, who has fallen in love with the community and its people. She noted she had volunteered at the Town Visitors Center to learn more about her new community, observing, “That special place and the people who work there and volunteer are amazing. They all have a passion for promoting Front Royal, even with threats of unemployment hanging over their heads.”
Citing already fired Community Development Director Felicia Hart, Tourism Director Tim Smith and staff, she added, “They make the (Visitors) Center the heart and soul of this town … Don’t lose it the way we seem to lose dogs, cats, goats …” drawing applause as she concluded.
Joanne Kearney, a second Visitors Center volunteer followed, noting she had not been solicited by anyone to speak on their or the Visitors Center’s behalf. Pointing to a previous effort to outsource tourism promotion that did not work out, Kearney cited the negative impact of lost control of a key marketing tool from outsourcing.
“The town is our product, and our mission at the (Visitors) Center is to support the success of every business and attraction. New management may have a different mission … How will the town’s interests be protected and what oversight will there be on how your money is being spent? … Mr. Tederick reportedly said the government is not agile and creative enough to manage tourism, but the department staff HAS displayed creativity and agility in new outreach and initiatives … Tourism is this town’s lifeblood. The council should be INCREASING support for the department, not handing it off to an unknown quantity.”
Kearney pointed to the experience of other communities, as well as Front Royal’s, in unsuccessful efforts to outsource the tourism function in concluding, “This outsourcing stands to do more harm than good and could cost much more than it hopes to save, as many other municipalities have learned. Why repeat a course that has already been found unsuccessful … Consider the long-term ramifications and potential losses. Please reject the outsourcing plan and keep the staff and operations of tourism with the town, for the sake of the town,” again drawing wide applause at her conclusion.
Not ‘agile’ enough?
Front Royal/Warren County Appalachian Trail Community Committee Co-Chair Susan Tschirhart repeated concerns expressed in a committee co-chair letter to the mayor and town council, that as she noted was also printed in the “Opinion” section of the Royal Examiner website, in the immediate aftermath of the announced terminations and plans to outsource the Town’s tourism function.
But on February 10 she elaborated on those concerns to the council’s and its staff’s face. In that eyeball to eyeball meeting, she also presented numbers that appeared to contradict Interim Town Manager Tederick’s stated “not agile enough” rationale for sweeping changes like outsourcing, immediate terminations, and potential future firings related to the Town’s tourism function. In opening, Tschirhart pointed to momentum the community has developed related to its “AT Community” designation and the importance of the Town and County’s interrelationship in tourism marketing – an effort illustrated by the Joint Town-County Tourism Advisory Board which also met last week, though apparently also without any foreknowledge or information about the Town’s planned and partially implemented course of action on tourism.
“Our town and county were jointly designated an official AT Community by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2012. Our committee of volunteers raises awareness of and support for trail-friendly local business, land-use policies that protect the trail and its views, and hiking as a healthy outdoor activity. AT Community designation has directly resulted in five new businesses, including three on Main Street, all of which are thriving. At this time, we are proud to partner with 22 businesses and organizations that have sought and earned AT Community Supporter certification …
“Not only did tourism attract $151 million in visitor expenditures to Warren County in 2018, a 4.9% increase over 2017, but, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, it supported 1700 jobs, a combined payroll of $23 million, and contributed $3 million to local tax coffers … Last week, based on 210 reviews, our Visitor Center was ranked second only to Skyline Caverns as top attractions in Front Royal. Do you know how unusual it is for a visitor center to rank as an attraction?” Tschirhart asked, adding pointedly, “And we’re about to fire that entire staff and change a recipe that has been steadily generating increased revenue for each of the past five years.”
And of that Town tourism budget already appropriated for the current fiscal year that runs to June 30, well into the hiking and tourist season, Tschirhart observed, “We were also puzzled to learn that the tourism budget for marketing and advertising has been frozen. This is money already allocated to the current fiscal year and critical to generating business for 170 tourism-dependent businesses in the county who count on the Visitor Center and its marketing materials and services to generate income. Eighty-five percent of Front Royal’s tourism budget is covered by lodging fees, all collected from visitors to our area. The remaining 15% comes from Front Royal promotional merchandise sold at the Visitor Center. None of our tourism department’s salaries or expenses come out of our own taxpayer dollars. Why are we cutting the tourism budget just as the tourism season is about to begin?” Tschirhart asked.
She also suggested that council and the interim town manager’s course of action flies in the face of, not only the Town’s own past experience with outsourcing tourism, but other Valley communities who have learned their lessons and are moving in exactly the opposite direction from the one five elected and two appointed town citizens have chosen to move this Appalachian Trail Community in.
“Berryville and Round Hill were designated AT Communities last year. Luray, designated just after Front Royal is now working toward moving its under-performing tourism department out from under its Chamber (of Commerce). In all of the other counties, tourism is handled by town/county government, and none are privatized,” Tschirhart told the town’s elected and appointed officials.
“Virginia’s recreation economy is booming. Roanoke is now positioning itself to compete with Asheville, North Carolina as a site for outdoor manufacturing. Damascus just broke ground for the Trail’s newest trail center. Situated between Damascus and AT headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, Warren County hosts one of the most popular section hikes along the trail’s 500-mile stretch in Virginia … The average thru-hiker along the AT will spend $5500 during the course of their hike, and another $4000 on gear. According to a 2010 survey, they’ll spend an average of $153 per town visit, a figure that has no doubt increased over the last 10 years.
“So, why all this effort to engage the outdoor industry?” Tschirhart asked rhetorically, answering her own question by noting, “Because it’s a $362 billion dollar industry driven largely by hiking, camping, and rock climbing, all of which can be found in abundance here … Nationally, revenue generated by the outdoor industry exceeds even oil and gas.
“To mix metaphors, Front Royal should be riding that wave, not starving the golden goose,” Tschirhart said in closing.
Another council gamble?
According to one councilman, Gary Gillespie’s, remarks delivered later as a justification of council actions on a number of fronts, including legally with the EDA and budgetary from year to year, “We work for the taxpayers of Front Royal first and foremost. Again, it’s our job to fight and protect your money.”
The unanswered question remains – will reducing operational costs so they can say they made capital improvements, often long-delayed ones, without raising taxes in the coming fiscal year REALLY save this community money in the long term OR simply set the stage for a huge corresponding loss of revenue from a tourism industry crucial to both the Town and County’s economic futures?
It appears this Front Royal Town Council majority continues its propensity for gambling:
1 – on “promises” of lower interest rates versus facts regarding the availability of those rates on its police headquarters construction project;
2 – on soaring taxpayer-funded legal costs to fight over whether those broken verbal “promises” from a now-indicted former EDA official hold any legal weight in the conduct of municipal and economic development business;
3 – and now, on whether reducing the town government’s operational tax revenue needs is really a money saver for the Town and the community in the long term.
Roll the dice …
Tederick’s sometime stormy tenure at Town Hall will end December 8
According to Town Manager Steven Hicks, current part-time Town Business Development Manager Matt Tederick’s tenure with the Front Royal Town government will end by mutual agreement on December 8. That will be a year and one day after Hicks replaced Tederick as town manager, the current town manager pointed out. At the time Hicks took office on December 7, 2020, it was announced that Tederick would remain in a part-time position to help Hicks transition into his new job, essentially getting the lay of the land after his move from North Carolina where he had served as town manager in Selma.
Hicks estimated Tederick working 30-hour weeks during his latest job with the town, and called him a valuable asset over the past year. Tederick was considered a “provisional employee” in his most recent stint with the town government. Contacted about his compensation in his part-time role at the time he transitioned to it, Tederick said it was slated at “up to $3,500 per month” with no benefits.
Tederick’s earlier tenure at Front Royal’s Town Hall, particularly as interim town manager for 13 months from November 9, 2019, to December 7, 2020, after an approximate seven-month stint as interim Mayor, saw a number of controversies erupt. Those included the removal of five department heads and long-time Council Clerk Jennifer Berry, the latter who has since filed a federal sexual harassment suit against the Town; and the elimination of the in-house Community Development Director, who was Felicia Hart’s, position; as well as dismantling of the Town’s Tourism Department and Visitors Center staff in favor of outsourced consultants with a focus on online and social media marketing.
Tederick termed his moves governmental “rightsizing”, a term most recently invoked by fellow Republican Committee member and county Supervisor Delores Oates at Monday’s joint Town-County Tourism work session. But others, as was commented at that November 29th work session – “You mean downsizing?” – saw it as a philosophically based shrinking of the town governmental function in favor of outsourced, private-sector consultant contracts. Tederick was appointed interim town manager by council shortly after Town Manager Joe Waltz announced his pending resignation.
Also while Tederick was at the head of the town administrative department, over the objection of then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, the town council agreed to withdraw from involvement with the half-century-old joint Town-County EDA while initiating hostile litigation against the EDA. That eventually led to the filing of an EDA countersuit over contested financial claims stemming from the EDA financial scandal, circa 2014-2018. At the center of that financial dispute was a Town refusal to make payments on its EDA-financed new police station. On the Town side that ongoing dueling litigation is being handled by outsourced legal representation brought to council by Tederick. The Town is in the process of creating its own unilateral EDA, while the County continues to utilize the post-financial scandal, re-tooled EDA Board and staff.
Tederick transitioned to interim town manager from interim mayor as the special election called to fill Hollis Tharpe’s term saw the former mayor and then councilman Gene Tewalt beat Tharpe in that special election. Tharpe had resigned effective May 2, 2019, after being charged for sexual solicitation in a local massage parlor. Tharpe denied any wrongdoing but resigned to fight the charges out of public office. A Republican Committee member council majority appointed Tederick as interim mayor shortly after Tharpe’s resignation.
The charges against Tharpe were later dropped due to a lack of evidence after the owner of the massage parlor refused to testify by invoking her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination after facing charges based on the allegations of operating a bawdy house. Coincidentally, Tederick was the foreman of the grand jury that handed down the indictment against then-Mayor Tharpe. Tederick pointed out to this reporter at the time that he was appointed to the grand jury prior to any charges being filed against the then-mayor.
So, while Tederick found himself at the center of quite the rollercoaster ride over his first year-and-a-half with the Town, his final year in an advisory role has been relatively calm and behind the scenes as the consequences of the first portion of his tenure continue to play out at Town Hall, the Warren County Government Center, and in the courts.
Attempts to reach Tederick Friday for comment on his tenures in the town government were unsuccessful prior to Friday’s publication deadline.
Town planners move short-term rental draft ordinance toward public hearing
At 6 p.m., Wednesday, December 1, the Front Royal Planning Commission met at work session in the Town Hall second floor meeting room to discuss formulating a text amendment to zoning codes to facilitate legally prescribed short-term tourist rentals. To this point, as a sub-municipality of the county such applications within a vacuum of town codes, have been directed by county codes. The town council recently requested the planning commission to explore creation of a town ordinance to oversee the application for short-term tourist rentals within the town limits.
Planning Director Lauren Kopishke presented a 10-page report, including a draft “Addition to (Code) 175-3” with a 14-point check list of requirements for submission of a Special Use Permit (SUP) application and draft “Short Term Rental Property Management Plan” that would be required of all applicants. Also included in the agenda packet distributed to the commission were Warren County’s checklist for such permitting applications and relevant state codes, including taxing processes. It might be noted that the Code of Virginia Chapter 35, Article 3.1 on Merchants Capital and Short-Term Rental Properties regarding taxation repeatedly refers to short-term rentals as a “business” endeavor, not a residential operation.
After four sentences defining the topic, the Code 175-3 draft checklist’s opening line – “Short-term tourist rentals shall be permitted in all Zoning Districts by Special Use Permit and shall meet the following requirements:” drew a lengthy discussion begun by Commissioner Darryl Merchant.
That discussion centered on the question of whether within the confines of the town limits, short-term tourist rentals should be allowed in residential districts, particularly R-1 Districts. Merchant was skeptical of a business operation being allowed in the often closer proximity of R-1 residential areas.
Another sticking point was raised by Commission Chairman Douglas Jones. That was whether a proposed Town Code should override Home Owner Association (HOA) rules regarding the conduct of short-term tourist rentals. A consensus was fairly quickly raised to eliminate any wording suggestion that the town government was in the business of overruling written HOA standards for short-term tourist rental operations.
The R-1 Residential District discussion centering on the advisability of introducing a “commercial element” into town residential neighborhoods took more time to resolve. Merchant noted the planning director’s reference to investors in some areas moving to buy multiple properties specifically for use in short-term rental businesses. Merchant worried that such commercial investing strategies would threaten to alter the character of neighborhoods from residentially based to commercial, as well as shrink the housing market for families seeking to put roots down in the community.
“I’m not saying short-term tourist rentals will tear the fabric of the town apart, but it’s a start,” Merchant said of his concern about business enterprises, rather than individual homeowners seeking additional revenue, controlling the coming of short-term tourist rentals to the town. However, a majority consensus was reached that with care the town governments overseeing and defining of short-term tourist rental processes could offer the necessary control to avoid the kind of commercialization Merchant feared.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Commission Vice-Chair Connie Marshner said of allowing short-term tourist rentals in residential, including R-1, neighborhoods. The counter concern to Merchant’s was that to forbid them in residential areas would likely shrink the town’s short-term tourist rental marketplace too significantly to allow it to exist in any meaningful way. Marshner said that perhaps the commercial investor aspect could be utilized to direct a reclaiming of blighted properties in town – “It might be a plus,” she offered of that potential outcome.
“I think it’s something we should try,” Josh Ingram observed of allowing them in all zoning districts.
“We’d be foolish not to,” Marshner added.
“Let’s take it to public hearing and see what the people think,” Merchant said, leading Ingram to concur.
Following the commission consensus, Planning Director Kopishke said she would make the few suggested changes to her draft and then move the matter toward a planning commission public hearing.
In the commission’s only other business Wednesday evening during the planning director’s update, Kopishke told the commission that 200 responses to the Comprehensive Plan Citizen Survey had been received. Noting a target of 3,000 responses by the end of the year, ways to increase the pace of public input were pondered. Of the replies received, Kopishke said a recurring theme was retaining Front Royal’s “small town charm”. – “It seems very anti-growth,” the planning director noted of the replies thus far received.
County and Town officials try to get on the same page for joint tourism marketing effort
On Monday, November 29, a joint Front Royal Town Council and Warren County Board of Supervisors work session on “Tourism” marketing indicated some confusion and several communication breakdowns about exactly what path the two municipalities have taken toward a new cooperative strategy to draw tourism dollars their way. High on that list of confusion appeared to be dueling January and July MOAs (Memorandum Of Agreement) the County and Town appear to be working with, or without. County Administrator Ed Daley noted the county apparatus was working with a January MOA. Town Manager Steven Hicks pointed out that the Town had submitted an updated, counter MOA in July that may have been lost in the cracks of the Warren County Government Center.
However, Daley did note that the County’s last two months of lodging and restaurant business during the Fall leaf season have set revenue records. That might indicate that the tourism promotional path, even in an unfinished and partial holding pattern one, is having a positive effect. Or maybe it’s just a consequence of stir-crazy Northern Virginia/D.C. Metro residents “running to the hills” to take advantage of the statewide easing of COVID-19 Coronavirus public gathering restrictions. After all, while new marketing strategies are being developed, for decades it hasn’t been a secret that the river, mountains, national and state parks, and hiking trails are here 50 to 70 miles west of the D.C. Metro area.
North River County Supervisor Delores Oates took the lead in moderating the work session but noted that Front Royal Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell had requested it in the wake of conversations between the two on the status of the joint tourism marketing initiative.
In addition to Cockrell, present on the Town side were council members Letasha Thompson, Gary Gillespie, Amber Morris, Joseph McFadden and Scott Lloyd, Town Manager Steven Hicks and Finance Director B.J. Wilson.
Joining Oates from the County side were board Chair Cheryl Cullers, incoming Fork and Happy Creek Supervisors Vicky Cook and Jerome “Jay” Butler, Deputy County Administrator Taryn Logan, Deputy Purchasing Agent Alisa Scott and Daley. Also present were Joint Tourism Committee members Kerry Barnhart and Scott Turnmeyer.
An accompanying Power Point reviewed the four options on a path forward that had been considered, with the fourth in that list – “Fully Contracted Out with Committee Leadership” – having been the one settled on. That structure begins with Town and County oversight of the existing appointed Joint Tourism Committee. A decision was also made after the Town disassembled its in-house Tourism and Community Development Departments under the leadership of former interim town manager Matt Tederick, to hire a marketing company, JLL (Jones, Lang, LaSalle Inc.), with expertise in tourism promotion, to an 18-month contract.
Contacted the following day, Oates said the result of the approximately three-hour work session is that that in-progress fourth option will be continued with the conversion of the Joint Tourism Committee into a 501-3c non-profit entity that will eventually take over the Town-County marketing function once the contract with JLL expires – possibly in June of next year if by mutual agreement. Oates explained that the 501-3c was necessary to legally access certain state “Tourism” funding sources. However, Daley pointed out that other related revenue sources didn’t require the non-profit organizational status, being available under categories like “Recreation” and “Trails” apart from “Tourism”.
At the outset of the 6 p.m. meeting the difference between “Big-T” and “Little-t” tourism was defined. Big-T was cited, not only as our natural resources that draw tourists, but also large promotional events like the Festival of the Leaves designed to draw a large tourist crowd from outside the community that will spend money while here on tourism-related activities and hopefully overnight accommodations and meals. Little-t was defined as smaller, community-building events more directed to local residents. The latter was cited as important in creating a higher quality of life for the local population that can contribute to tourism marketing of the community.
Also discussed at the outset of the meeting was how the Town and County will manage future growth – “Do we want sprawl from Northern Virginia?” Oates asked of visitors who might be attracted by a perceived higher quality of life to relocate. How tourism and “bedroom community” sprawl might interact was a sidebar to the main focus of increasing tourism as a major revenue source for both the town and county governmental structures.
Councilman Scott Lloyd argued long and hard against the creation of an independent “EDA-like” entity at the center of future tourism promotion, fearing future financial scandals from another quasi-governmental organization. – “Why did we create our own EDA?” he asked rhetorically at one point.
However, several others asserted the Town and County would retain control of the seemingly legally necessary 501-3c or DMO (Destination Management Organization) through authorizing funding and having membership representation and appointment authority. In addition to local business representatives Barnhart and Turnmeyer, current Joint Tourism Committee members present included Council members Thompson and Gillespie, and herself, Oates pointed out.
Whether Monday’s sometimes circular and disjointed work session discussion will lead to a clearing up of the somewhat muddy waters of the Town-County tourism marketing effort remains to be seen. But at least the discussion and various explanations of legal aspects of tourism-related grant access was a start toward a clearing of those waters – jointly.
Town Council doesn’t look this opioid-negotiated gift horse in the mouth
With no public hearings scheduled for its meeting of Monday, November 22, the Front Royal Town Council faced a 10-item Consent Agenda and three “Business Items” that expanded to five with the addition of one item – Purchase of Rebuilt Transformers, Energy Services Department – and the removal of one Consent Agenda matter to “Business” discussion. The latter was a no-brainer vote on participation in Virginia’s share of a national Opioid Settlement Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) about that agreement. Councilman Gary Gillespie, who has been involved in anti-opioid efforts locally, asked to pull the item to allow some comment on his excitement at news of the Opioid Settlement Agreement and the potential impact of the Town of Front Royal’s share of the state portion of that settlement.
The resolution essentially states that you as a municipality will abide by the rules established within the Virginia State Governmental apparatus to distribute Virginia’s share of the proceeds negotiated or ruled liable against corporate entities found to have profited off the promotion and manufacture of, and distribution of super-strong opioid drugs that have led to so much addiction and overdose deaths nationwide.
The staff agenda summary states that “settlement proposals have been negotiated that will cause the entities of McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and Janssen” – and the Resolution adds “their related corporate entities” – “to pay up to $26 billion nationwide to settle claims against them”. And while the MOU is still being formulated in the Office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in conjunction with establishment of a Virginia Opioid Abatement Authority to oversee distribution of the Virginia Opioid Abatement Fund revenue that comes the state’s way, both the Settlement Agreement and MOU must be signed by municipalities by January 2, 2022, to qualify for participation.
An online search about the settlement led to a description of McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen as “the three largest pharmaceutical distributors” and noted that involved drug manufacturer Janssen’s parent company was Johnson & Johnson.
Also under “Business Items” council referred consideration of short-term tourist rental code “text amendments” to the planning commission for review and recommendation; and approved a Valley Health request for a 5-year-extension of a stormwater easement at its old Warren Memorial Hospital/Lynn Care location. Last week Valley Health announced the pending sale of the old WMH/Lynn Care site to Hill Valley Health Care, a company that a Valley Health Press Release described as specializing in “skilled nursing, rehabilitation and long-term care” which “owns and operates facilities throughout Virginia” including in Luray, Warrenton and Winchester.
Staff COVID bonuses approved
Approved without discussion as part of the Consent Agenda was a Fiscal Year-2022 Budget Amendment of $476,617 and Interfund Budget transfer of $216,635 that will enable a one-time employee bonus of $3,096 of which the employee will net about $2,000 after taxes and deductions. The bonuses are for work through the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, which council spent considerable time debating the necessity or legality of private, public, and health care sector COVID-19 vaccination mandates. In the end council rejected approval of a code forbidding private and health care sector vaccine mandates, but did not issue a mandate for its own employees.
In fact, prior to the Consent Agenda vote Mayor Holloway reiterated a point (at 23:40 mark of video) that he would not sign an order rescinding the non-vaccination status of Town employees were a federal mandate for public employees to be approved and handed down to municipalities. Having made his point, the mayor then acknowledged the pandemic bonus’s inclusion in the evening’s Consent Agenda.
Following Mayor Holloway’s comments, Councilwoman Letasha Thompson noted that insurance coverage cost for employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 is higher than for vaccinated employees. She suggested council and staff start looking at ways to put money aside to cover those additional costs across the board, rather than offer individual lower rates to vaccinated employees. Then on Thompson’s motion, seconded by Vice-Mayor Cockrell, the nine-item Consent Agenda passed on a 6-0 roll-call vote.
Also on the Consent Agenda was an FY-22 Budget Amendment of $2,090 to allow acceptance of grant funds from the Virginia Department of Forestry for the placement of Playground Shade Trees at Gertrude E. Miller Community Park; another budget amendment of $2,690 to allow acceptance of a $2,690 Local Law Enforcement Block Grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services; a waiver to allow Boy Scout Troop 52 to sell Christmas Trees without payment of a License Tax; approval of another one-year extension on submission of a development plan by HEPTAD; and several matters regarding contracts and proposals related to mandated work on the Town’s wastewater treatment and Sanitary Sewer I&I Abatement work, the former involving a WWTP Centrifuge Conversion Engineering Report at a cost of $33,000; the latter involving a CHA consultant-recommended subcontract with Hydrostructures at a cost of $130,000.
At the meeting’s outset council was slated to recognize the achievement, service and contributions of three people, two staff, one retiring and one back from graduating the Southern Police Institute, and one apparently retiring member of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). However, only one was present leading to suggested deferred recognitions for retiring Public Works Street Division Sign Tech “Billy” D. Sears and BAR member Andrea White, the latter whose deferred recognition may have occurred with approval of the nine-item Consent Agenda that included a Resolution acknowledging White’s term of service on the board tasked with preserving an architectural standard for the town’s Historic Downtown Business District – that recognition apparently still coming in her absence.
That left the recognition floor to Front Royal Police Captain Crystal Cline after her presentation to council by FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis. Cline described the benefits of her recent months at the Southern Police Institute in preparing officers for myriad issues facing law enforcement on a variety of fronts including intersecting administrative functions, officer retention and liability, procedural issues on street patrol, among others. Welcome back, Captain Cline; and good work Mr. Sears and Ms. White.
Town re-releases planners investigative report with verified ‘final’ version
The public review of a Front Royal Planning Commission investigative report prepared by Town Attorney Doug Napier on the approval process of a non-conforming sub-division request submitted by Mayor Chris Holloway’s construction company got an update Monday, November 22. That update addressed confusion expressed at the town planning commission meeting on November 17, just over two hours after the report’s release through the town administrative office.
As reported by Royal Examiner reporter Stephen Sill, the confusion revolved around which of several drafts of the report had been authorized for release that day, as well as whether the planners had the final draft before them that evening for approval. The planners eventually deferred action on the report till its December meeting to assure the final version was being voted on.
The November 17 report released at the authorization of the town council according to Town Manager Steven Hicks was dated October 7, 2021. But that version did contain what appeared to be two red color-coded wording corrections and several code passages highlighted in yellow, the latter would appear for emphasis as opposed to being corrections. At the planning commission meeting of November 17, the town attorney cited a final version dated October 21.
The report released Monday through Town Manager Steven Hicks Office is dated October 7, but with an “updated October 21, 2021” added in parenthesis and a handwritten notation at the top of the front page “FINAL” signed “Douglas W. Napier”. The color-coded corrections and highlights are gone, but the two grammatical corrections on the front page and page 5 are incorporated into the text without the color highlights, as is explained in the accompanying press release.
The 20-page report is accompanied by another one-page press release from new Town Public Information Office Director Joanne Williams of Williams Media LLC based in Richmond. The first three paragraphs focus on the above-referenced confusion over which version of the report had been released, concluding with this reference to Town Attorney Napier’s subsequent communication to council:
“As a result of much confusion on what appears to be various versions of the report circulated, the Town Attorney issued an email to Town Council members on November 19 stating, “I located the October 21 report. The changes are two, extremely minor, one is putting a space between two paragraphs, the other was cleaning up the language in the first report wherein it stated “CORRECTION” so that the corrected language is now simply an integral part of the report. I have marked one copy of the October 21 report to show the changes from the October 7 report and have also sent a clean copy of the October 21 report. The changes are so minor and technical that they were hardly worth making …” Napier observed.
And it does appear the one substantive grammatical change, color-coded in the original release on page 5 simply moves the word “not” from one location in a sentence to another, not changing the substance of that sentence: “CORRECTION: Another meeting on March 30, 2021, with Mr. Wilson was held to discuss what was needed for Mr. Holloway to build a private street on this property he was purchasing from the Town and re-subdividing. Mr. Wilson did not (removed) advise Mr. Holloway or the Town Manager that a “special use permit” was NOT (added) needed.”
And the press release restates the November 17 assertion that while fast-tracking of the application by the town manager, occasionally under the watchful eye of the subdivision applicant Mayor Holloway, was engaged in leading some staff to feel pressured to sign off on immediate approval without checking zoning codes, no wrongdoing occurred.
And as noted in our original introduction to the November 17 release, the town attorney did point out of the staff “fast-tracking” of the application: “It should be clearly and unambiguously stated that there is no current Town Code provision that states this it is impermissible for the Town Manager to do this, or for a Mayor or Town Councilman to have the Town Manager do this for them.”
However, could the fast-tracking and mayoral or council/applicant presence during some of that fast-tracking lead to staff oversights on code regulations under the real or implied pressure they felt they were under, particularly when some were in interim management positions due to staffing cutbacks? Maybe the promised administrative review of “outdated policies and procedures to ensure consistency” promised in the final sentence of both the report-accompanying press releases will address that issue.
Here are the links to the corrected documents and press release.
World sailing venture and Public School use of CARES grant funding dominate supervisors’ public hearings discussion
On Thursday, November 18, the Warren County Board of Supervisors played a double header, leading off with a Special Meeting quickly adjourned into a closed Executive Session at 6:30 p.m. for discussion of investment in a North River District property inside the Front Royal town limits. No action or announcement followed that closed session and the Special Meeting was adjourned at 7:01 p.m.
Down a man, retiring Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter absent, the board then convened its second regular meeting of the month to face a 10-public hearing agenda. But not before leadoff batter, County Administrator Ed Daley, suggested the board amend the agenda to remove its last item. That item was another closed session, this one to discuss an “Unannounced Expansion of Existing Business or Industry” located in the North River District outside the town limits. Daley suggested revisiting that topic at the board’s December 14 meeting and the board agreed to the change without dissent.
No one answered a call for Public Comment on matters not on the meeting agenda and it was quickly on to board and staff reports. During member reports, North River Supervisor Delores Oates emotionally thanked the community for its outpouring of sympathy at the recent unexpected death of her 43-year-old brother.
Board Chairman Cheryl Cullers then commended Vice-Chairman Archie Fox for his representation of the board in her absence at a state conference two days earlier during Governor Northam’s visit for the Nature’s Touch North Corridor business expansion announcement.
Board, administrative, and departmental reports out of the way, a nine-item Consent Agenda, including payment of two more counterproductive according to wildlife experts and county animal control staff, Coyote Bounties of $50 was passed as presented. With nothing else on the agenda except the 10 public hearings, that 4-0 vote at 7:15 p.m. took the board into a 15-minute recess since public hearings are legally announced to begin at 7:30 p.m.
Fortunately, if you were a clock watcher, seven of the public hearings drew no speakers for or against proposals. The other three drew comments from applicants on their requests, and one of those drew one speaker against the application of Gordon Lee Birkhimer for a short-term tourist rental Conditional Use Permit (CUP) on his Massanutten Farms Subdivision home property off a private road. That speaker was closest neighbor Pamela Rhodes, who told the board she didn’t move to the secluded area over two decades ago to find “strange people” traveling in and out on a regular basis.
Sail Away income
Deputy Planning Director Matt Wendling noted that two letters in support and two letters against, apparently including Rhodes’, had been received about the proposed use. Wendling further explained that Birkhimer wanted to utilize his single-family home for short-term tourist rentals while away on a sailing trip around the world he anticipated lasting for two years. Wendling’s written summary of the proposal noted that “The applicant may continue the use after his oceanic global expedition if he doesn’t get swallowed by a whale or gets stranded in Tahiti.”
As to neighbor concerns about disturbances, Wendling said that despite often-expressed neighbor concerns during the public hearing process, the county has “never had” a complaint call once approved short-term rentals have been launched. Board discussion noted that Conditional Use Permits were just that, “conditional” upon adherence to the conditions attached to the permitting, which include protection of neighbors’ interests.
After questioning Birkhimer on a management plan in his absence and safeguards to prevent neighbor concerns about disturbances, including running-loose dogs, trespassing, noise, etcetera, the board approved the request by a 4-0 vote on a motion by Fox, seconded by Oates.
Public School staff grilled
The only speakers at a public hearing on approving County distribution of just over $4 million in federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act ($4,012,255) and state grant ($49,985) funding to Warren County Public Schools to help cover expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic were Assistant Superintendent for Administration George “Buck” Smith and Finance Director Rob Ballentine. They explained they were standing in for Superintendent Dr. Chris Ballenger, who was out of town at a schools conference.
However, this ended up being the lengthiest public hearing as Shenandoah District Supervisor Walt Mabe grilled Smith and Ballentine for about 25 minutes of the half-hour public hearing. Mabe sought additional detail on specific uses of the money and specific duties of staff positions augmented by the grant funding. Mabe appeared concerned that in a future budget cycle the county government might be asked to continue at least portions of the supplemental funding. Smith explained that for the most part, the grant money was being used “to help us get from where we are to where we need to be” in providing quality education under the trying circumstance of the past two years and continue capital improvement projects.
And while there was a four-category general breakdown in the written presentation of the request in the board packets: Instruction, $2,907,875; Operations and Maintenance, $9,721; Facilities, $1,042,644; and Technology, $102,000; accompanied by a 16-category “Detail” of those categories that included Elementary Teacher and Supplements ($163,600); Teacher Uppport (sic) of Quarantined Students ($29,190); Social Emotional Materials ($13,799); and Technology Hot Spots ($102,000), among others, some of those categorizations appeared to raise more questions than answers for Mabe.
It was numbers like $1,042,644 for LFK and BRTC Architect Fees; $566,216 for Student Support Assistants; and $515,994 for Additional Assistants that Mabe sought more specificity on. Smith said he would have to defer to the absent Superintendent Ballenger on some of those questions, particularly staffing ones. While saying he wasn’t “throwing stones” at the public school officials, Mabe said he worried that money was being “thrown” at what he said weren’t “money problems” but rather “people problems”.
However, when Mabe made a motion to delay approval of the grant funding until more detail could be provided, the chair’s call for a second was met by silence. North River Supervisor Oates then wondered if the board wouldn’t risk losing the grant money if it ultimately decided not to appropriate it as planned, to the county’s public school system.
“I personally think that tabling it is not in the best interest of the children we’re trying to educate,” Oates continued, noting, “The funds are there, the government has appropriated them, whether I agree with that or not. And at this point I think it would be prudent to just go ahead and appropriate the funds.”
That would not preclude asking Superintendent Ballenger to return in December with some of that additional detail Mabe was seeking, Oates pointed out. Mabe’s motion having died without a second, Oates made a new motion to approve the CARES and state grant funding to the public school system. Seconded by Vice-Chairman Fox, the motion then passed by a 4-0 vote, with Mabe, after a few seconds of thought, voting with the majority.
In other business the board first approved a Zoning Text Amendment presented by Planning Director Joe Petty adding gunsmithing services as a use by Conditional Use Permit in Residential-1 zoning districts. It is already a use allowed in Agricultural District. However, as staff noted in the agenda packet “currently there is no definition or supplemental regulations for such use”. The proposed amendment adds a definition and list of conditions for gunsmithing services into the county code.
That text amendment approval was followed by approval of Lorne Cooper’s CUP request for such gunsmithing services in a Residential-1 District. Cooper also responded to In response to a question from Vice-Chairman Fox, Petty said that a walk-up shooting range aspect would not be allowed in a Residential District, but with certain conditions met on adequate-sized properties, it could be in Agricultural Districts.
Also approved by the board after public hearings on Thursday were two ordinances related to one-time $3,000 bonuses to Sheriff’s Office deputies, including the sheriff, for both state Compensation Board-covered employees and non-Comp Board-covered employees. The bonuses for part-time employees will be $1500. While the state will cover the Comp Board employee bonuses, it was explained that the estimated $92,055 cost of the non-Comp Board employee bonuses will be covered by the County’s allocation of funding from the American Recovery Act Plan of 2021.
After some explanation by Assistant County Attorney Caitlin Jordan and subsequent discussion of variables, the board passed an ordinance amendment regarding the collection of a transient occupancy tax on rooms rented out for less than 30 days. The emergence of short-term tourist rentals out of homes led to an ordinance language change deleting “motel” for “accommodation” to assure all rental units used in this way are included. It was estimated that the County will realize about $18,000 in new revenue from the change.
Other matters approved included Terra Site Constructors LLC’s CUP request for a Contractor’s Storage Yard at 6986 Winchester Road in North River District; Michael and Leslie Hofbauer’s CUP request for a short-term tourist rental at 223 Chapel View Drive in the Shenandoah District; and Michael Blevins CUP request for a short-term tourist rental at 267 Trillium Trail Road in the Shenandoah District.
And with the Blevins CUP approval after public hearing number 10 and no response to the chair’s call for any new business, the board adjourned at 9 p.m.