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Public debate over council directions precedes move toward McKay Springs parcel sale

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Mayor Chris Holloway was absent from the January 25 Front Royal Town Council meeting, due to illness according to Vice-Mayor Lori Athey Cockrell, who chaired the Monday evening meeting in his place. So, Holloway was not present to hear first Public Concerns speaker Paul Gabbert’s scathing appraisal of media and social media reports of the content of former Council Clerk Jennifer Berry’s federal wrongful and retaliatory termination lawsuit filed under Chapter VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as it applies to gender discrimination, against the Town.

As reported by Royal Examiner and others, then Councilman Holloway is cited in the litigation as a primary council player in trying to get Berry to withdraw her complaint against former Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock’s alleged sexually harassing and demeaning behavior.

Had he been present, part of what Mayor Holloway would have heard Gabbert describe of the allegations of sexual harassment and an attempted cover up of complaints about them was, “This is a truly sickening ordeal. Anyone who would allegedly commit these acts, or anyone who allegedly would cover up these acts, are sick criminals.” (the filing of the lawsuit is covered elsewhere on the Royal Examiner Front Page and Local News sections).

Paul Gabbert was scathing in his appraisal of both council’s alleged behavior in new federal lawsuit, and past documented behavior on a number of fronts, particularly Councilman Meza’s inconsistent recusal/voting record on issues regarding his employer Valley Health. Royal Examiner Virtual Meeting Photos by Roger Bianchini

But on to lighter things – well, not really – as a second speaker, Karen Patten, and third, Sean O’Reilly, addressed council priorities and street name-changing initiatives from varying perspectives. First, Patten followed Gabbert to the podium of the Warren County Government Center Meeting Room largely devoid of spectators due to Phase 3 COVID-19 pandemic surge guidelines instituted at the state level. Referencing Councilman Scott Lloyd’s January 19 work session initiative to re-name a town street after the former president, Donald Trump, and the January 22 press release quoting the mayor on the topic, Patten wondered at the newly elected council’ and mayor’s priorities.

“While I’m mourning the loss of more kids in our community, I see a press released from the town council about a road name, not about the deadly drugs floating about in our town, but over a road name,” Patten began, adding of the opioid drug crisis, “I find it disgusting to know what our priorities are. While you are worried over a road name and throwing each other under a bus, people are burying their kids.”

Karen Patten questioned council’s priorities as it squabbles over a political street naming while the opioid crisis continues to claim the community’s youth.

Patten continued to make an analogy between the local and national political scenes, telling council and the absent mayor they were reflecting the worst tendencies of the past year as to ignoring the very people they are elected to represent – likely a reference to the 400,000-plus dead now attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic nationally in one year as the Executive Branch of the federal government downplayed the Coronavirus danger, refusing to institute national emergency measures.

Patten’s remarks, as well as Gabbert’s earlier comments on Berry’s civil rights violation suit against the Town among other criticisms, brought responses from a number of council members. Longer-term members, including Gary Gillespie, denied that the Berry sexual harassment complaint wasn’t taken seriously by council. And both new and older members assured the public they take the opioid crisis seriously.

Letasha Thompson took the opportunity to suggest council move toward imposition of PILOT fees (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) on tax-exempt non-profit regional medical provider Valley Health’s new hospital in town to help fund proactive drug prevention institutions in town. Valley Health employee and re-appointed Councilman Meza voting/not voting on Valley Health matters was another of Gabbert’s targets during his remarks.

But prior to those rebuttals of public criticism, a third member of the public desiring to address council during the Public Concerns portion of the meeting, approached council some 15 minutes after that agenda item was closed following Patten’s remarks.

Vice-Mayor Cockrell acknowledged that citizen’s desire to speak, pointing out council had moved past that agenda portion of the meeting and asked for the town attorney and council’s guidance. Councilman Meza said he observed the citizen’s arrival and asked council to concur to letting him speak. His colleagues agreed and Sean O’Reilly approached the podium.

‘Trump Ave.’ part of a greater ‘truth’

“What I want to say is something very simple … When I first heard that you guys were thinking about naming a street here after Donald Trump, I was delighted,” O’Reilly began. “And the reason is pretty simple – there are people here who are talking about drug problems, issues of basic morality and crime and everything else. And I think it’s really important to see that all these things are connected. There’s no such thing as truth that’s not all part of one piece … I think the issue about naming a street after Donald Trump is important for a very simple reason.

“It doesn’t matter what you think about Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter whether he was a b*stard; whether he was a good guy, it doesn’t matter – He was not treated well by the press; he was not treated well by a large number of Americans,” O’Reilly opined, continuing, “I think it’s extremely unfair and it’s also very dangerous for the rest of us – Extremely dangerous if this kind of behavior continues.

“So, I think all I’m going to say is that I think the idea of naming a street after Donald Trump is like a counterweight to some of this stuff. – That’s it,” he concluded, again thanking council for being allowed to address them later in the meeting.

Sean O’Reilly commended council for its Trump Ave. initiative, suggesting it makes up to some degree for the negative scrutiny he perceives the former president received from the media and a large swath of the American public.

Consent Agenda includes financial legal expenses

Council unanimously approved a five-item Consent Agenda, including an FY-21 budget transfer into the Street Contingency Fund; and a budget amendment for an insurance reimbursement; also altering stipends for some appointed town committees; authorization to sell “excess property” through a private sale; and awarding a contract not to exceed $31,000 to the legal firm of Estes Law and Consulting PLLC to cover completed service as bond counsel for the I&I Abatement bond issue estimated at $10.5 million ($12,500 cost); $13,500 for the Redundant Water Line bond of $11.3 million; and “a potential bond validation” ($5,000).

Move towards McKay Springs parcel sale

And as noted above, Council’s lone meeting action item other than the above Consent Agenda, was authorization to advertise for Public Hearing “Approval of a Letter of Intent” and “Approval of the Sales Process” for a 1.42-acre parcel of the jointly owned McKay Springs property in partnership with the County and EDA.

Total sales price would be $475,000, with the Town getting $124,402.50 (29.19%) and the County $350,598.50 (73.18%) minus any sales fees. The purchaser is Boddie-Noell Enterprises, Inc. It was noted in the agenda packet that a supermajority, five-member vote of the six-person council, to authorize the sale.

Council seen virtually in a nearly empty WCGC meeting room

Council unanimously approved moving toward the public hearing to enable the sale. Prior to the vote, Councilman Meza commented that it was “a great example” of the Town and County working together for a common good. Maybe positive movement here is an indicator council may be poised to reconsider its legally dubious ownership claims blocking the EDA’s sale of the Afton Inn for another common good. Tick, tick … – Time will tell as the EDA Board of Directors and would-be purchaser and redeveloper 2 East Main LLC recently re-extended the deadline on achieving the sales contract into mid-February.

Click here to watch Monday’s meeting.

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Town Council meets – briefly – to forward some routine(?) business

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It was an auspicious first Front Royal Town Council-chaired meeting for Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell on Monday evening, March 1. Chairing the Special Meeting called largely to hold a required public hearing to allow a sale or transfer of properties on Hill Street thought to have been accomplished in 1992, to proceed 29 years later, and only one other perfunctory agenda item – making Town Manager Steven Hicks appointment as new Town EDA executive director at no additional cost to the Town, official – it seemed history could be in the making.

That history being the breaking of former Mayor Eugene Tewalt’s 14-minute mark for shortest council meeting in modern history. Several years ago Tewalt broke the previous 17-minute standard of another vice-mayor, Daniel Pond III, set when we were all a lot younger.

Meeting convened virtually with Vice-Mayor Cockrell in the far-end chairman’s seat in Mayor Holloway’s absence. Little did anyone know it would be 12-minutes-plus to history. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

And if Vice-Mayor Cockrell hadn’t suggested a third topic to the agenda that council unanimously consented to add, an unapproachable single-digit record of about four minutes was in the offing. For that added topic, scheduling of a one or two-day “visioning” retreat, apparently also known as an “advance” to some people as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, took up the first nine minutes of Monday’s meeting.

That left four minutes to make history.

About that agenda

As for the agenda items:

1/ The Hill Street land transfer passed unanimously without comment from the public that wasn’t present at the second-floor Town Hall meeting room to speak to. For as explained by Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett who worked on the planned property exchange, at issue is cleaning up an unresolved property acquisition through Town condemnation to facilitate upgrading Hill Street dating the late 1970’s. Another effort to clean up the situation in 1992 was illustrated by a surveyor’s plat included in the agenda packet. Involved is an existing house now occupied by a couple the Town hopes to work with to solve the unresolved parcel swap initiated over 40 years ago. Since the involved property is not a “public use” parcel, the Town will not have to advertise the planned exchange for competitive bids.

2/ Town Manager Steven Hicks was appointed to also serve as the Town’s EDA’s executive director. – And why wouldn’t he be since he’s a sport and is doing it without any additional salary compensation?

File photo of Town Manager Hicks, center, now also FREDA executive director. Has he found the secret of the 48-hour day, or does he just have a little help from his friends – in Town Hall and across town at the County and EDA offices?

Though it appears the Town EDA’s, or FREDA as it’s already affectionately known, chief executive position may focus on tourism and empty in-town storefront marketing with some assistance from the existing County EDA (former Town-County EDA), as opposed to major industry recruitment which the “other” EDA may continue with on both sides of the town/county line.

3/ As for that “advance” event formerly known as a “retreat” to review and develop long-term strategic goals and “visioning” for a community, after a painful and “record-threatening” discussion of potential back-to-back day, 4-hour meetings in coming weeks or months, it was decided to initially schedule one “retreat” meeting for Thursday, March 25, running from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. After that the necessity and plan for a second one, possibly including an envisioned joint meeting with the Warren County Board of Supervisors, will be discussed.

Beat the Clock?

The clock passed from 7:08 to 7:09 p.m. with no “advance” warning to the call for the Hill Street parcel exchange public hearing. With Assistant Acting Council Clerk Mary Ellen Lynn quickly negotiating a reading of the agenda summary of the public hearing topic, then the convening of and closing of the public hearing with no one present to speak just 1:17 was tolled off the clock. The roll call and unanimous vote took another 1:03 taking the clock to 7:11 p.m. and 10 seconds toward the established record 7:14 p.m. mark.

Just under two-and-a-half minutes and an EDA executive director’s appointment already announced is all that stood between Vice-Mayor Cockrell, council and history. Could she lead her team, together in the Town of Front Royal political trenches for just two months, to a landmark achievement – or at least a place in the local political reporters’ Hall of Fame?

December file photo of now Vice-Mayor Cockrell, perhaps practicing her coach-’em up ‘We can DO this, team!’ mode.

But did trouble lurk from within the ranks? From virtual world as the roll call vote confirming Hicks’ appointment came to Councilman McFadden, a “no” was heard. But coming as it did during the vote, not prior, it didn’t lead to further debate of the appointment, approved 5-1. Consequently, the Hicks EDA appointment ate only another 65 seconds off the clock, bringing Vice-Mayor Cockrell’s call to adjournment by this sportswriter’s account, at 7:12 p.m. and 32-seconds. Factoring in lag time on the convening of the meeting from the time the meeting video began rolling, a check of that video posted on Tuesday morning reflected a total meeting time of 12-minutes-and-25-seconds. So, no matter whose clock is official, the record was broken by over a minute.

The crowd, had there been one, would have gone wild – well, at least the press row portion of it.

About that ‘NO’ vote

Contacted later, Councilman McFadden explained his vote against Hicks’ appointment as a “a protest vote” or a “No” vote against the creation of FREDA, rather than a vote against Hicks’ executive leadership of it.

Bottom left, Councilman McFadden and Town Manager Hicks chat after meeting is adjourned in record-setting time.

Asked to elaborate, McFadden pointed out he had not been on council during the approximate two-year process leading up to the decision to create a unilateral Town EDA while distancing itself from the existing joint County-Town EDA. He told Royal Examiner by email: “I think that the appointment of Mr. Hicks is the best possible option, given the circumstances. Mr. Hicks will do an outstanding job in this additional role. He is highly competent and Front Royal is fortunate to have him. But I don’t think that the position should even exist. I told him so immediately following the meeting.”

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EDA in Focus

EDA welcomes Town Manager Steven Hicks to meeting & gets good news from McDonald bankruptcy hearing

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Things appear to continue to be turning in a positive direction for the Warren County Economic Development Authority (WC-EDA) in the wake of the recent sale of the Afton Inn for redevelopment by the 2 East Main LLC investment group. On the heels of that sale, authorized at a Special Meeting of February 12 and finalized a week later, the WC-EDA held its monthly meeting by way of the now familiar virtually connected ZOOM format the morning of Friday, February 26.

Two things stood out during the open session sandwiching a 57-minute closed session. The first was the welcoming of Town Manager Steven Hicks shortly after the 8 a.m. meeting start. It was the first appearance of a town manager with an accompanying update on Town business at an EDA Board of Directors meeting in about 18 months.

Beginning with the Afton Inn sale, it appears a newly thawed relationship between Town Hall, at right, and the WC-EDA has begun. It continued with Town Manager Steven Hicks presence at the Friday, Feb. 26, EDA Board meeting. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

That traditional line of communications was terminated during the tenure of former Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick as the town government took on an increasingly adversarial and litigious stance with the EDA as a revamped EDA board worked to right its ship in the wake of the $21-million-plus financial scandal alleged to have developed during the tenure of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.

EDA civil litigation gets reboot

The second positive note came post closed session during Board Chairman Jeff Browne’s Executive Committee Report. Browne acknowledged a decision by Harrisonburg-based U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Rebecca B. Connelly returning consideration of exactly what assets Jennifer McDonald can claim as part of her bankruptcy filing to the state court level.

“The bankruptcy court has remanded her particular case to state court to assess damages, at which point damages are assessed it will go back to the bankruptcy court to decide whether or not it should go back to the state courts or be handled in the bankruptcy court,” Browne told his board.

Contacted after the meeting, Browne elaborated on the implications of Judge Connelly’s ruling. He explained it will allow the EDA’s civil litigation against McDonald to re-start to determine exactly what EDA assets McDonald may have misappropriated and how they may have been used to purchase properties or other tangible assets. Her surviving real estate company MoveOn8 is also part of her bankruptcy filing, he noted.

The EDA’s civil litigation against Jennifer McDonald, on the job in December 2016 as the late Patty Wines, right, chairs meeting, and other co-defendants not in bankruptcy court, can once again proceed at the state level in the Warren County Courthouse.

When the state court findings are returned to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Harrisonburg, Judge Connelly will determine what assets McDonald can legitimately claim as her own that are subject to bankruptcy claims and asset distribution, versus what assets held by her or her real estate company the EDA would have civil claim to as restitution for her alleged criminal acts of embezzlement and misappropriation of EDA funds to her own use.

A virtual Town-EDA ‘lovefest’

Back on the Town-EDA relations front, EDA Board Chairman Browne welcomed Hicks by virtual connection, offering him the opportunity to give his report prior to adjournment to the closed session. And while an opening portion of that report was acknowledgment of the town council’s decision to move forward with creation of its own EDA with Hicks as executive director, that there was a renewed sense of Town-EDA cooperation was soon apparent.

“As town manager I’m here to help in any way I can,” Hicks told Browne and the four-member EDA Board quorum present virtually (Browne, Harold, Pattison, Wolfe), before reporting on the status of the Town’s FY-2022 Budget process.

“I just want to congratulate you on your new position. You must have found the secret to a 48-hour day,” Browne told Hicks at the conclusion of the town manager’s report. “I just want to tell you for our board, that anything we can do to help in the areas you’re focused on: redevelopment, tourism, retention of businesses are all good things that we look forward to working with FREDA (Front Royal Economic Development Authority) on.

EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne, above virtually at Friday’s EDA Board meeting, and Front Royal Town Manager Steven Hicks, below in file photo of recent council meeting, seem to be on the same page on cooperation between now separate County and Town EDAs.

“We would like to work with you and coordinate with the Town. I think that we can do a lot to help economic development for the entire area. So, we appreciate you’re stepping up and taking on what will be a challenging task,” Browne added of Hicks new dual role.

“Will do – I’ll definitely stay in contact and share everything as much as I can with you and Doug (EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons) and Ed (Warren County Interim County Administrator Ed Daley). So yea, sounds great,” Hicks replied.

At that point EDA Board member Jim Wolfe, who has taken point in his board’s work on development of short and long-term Strategic Planning on economic development and job creation, joined the conversation. Wolfe offered to get a copy of what the WC-EDA has done on that front recently to Hicks by Monday.

“Then you and I can sit down and talk about it at some point. And if any other board members want to join me … So, I want to make sure that the … Town has our plan and use that for a touch point for how you coordinate on different projects,” Wolfe said of developing a unified plan of action community wide.

EDA Board member Jim Wolfe jumped on the Town-County EDA cooperative bandwagon with an offer of added assistance from himself and other EDA board members, to Hicks in his new role as FREDA executive director.

“I’d appreciate that,” Hicks replied, perhaps seeing his “48-hour days” reduced in some measure by that level of County EDA involvement with his work on the Town side. Continuing in that vein of cooperation, Hicks added, “Again, I just wanted to call in (on ZOOM) and touch base with you all and be as transparent as I can. And always reach out to me when you need anything, and I’ll do the same.”

“Good, thank you so much,” Browne replied to the new attitude being reflected out of Front Royal Town Hall as Hicks signed off from the meeting.

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Fire & Rescue staffing grant process, Happy Creek Rd. closure impacts highlight County work session discussion

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The Warren County Board of Supervisors met for a work session on February 23, 2021, to review and discuss ongoing work by county departments to forecast funding needs and scheduled projects in the offing in an uncertain funding climate. Newly appointed Fire Chief James Bonzano and Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico provided the supervisors with a FEMA grant program the department has been using called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER. According to FEMA, SAFER grants fund fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations directly to help them increase capacity in their communities. The 2020 request will close March 12 and will require the Supervisors to decide before then how to allocate between $965,000 and nearly $2 million among the fire stations should the grant at the maximum level be approved. The 2020-21 budget for the entire Fire & rescue department is $3.1 million.

County Fire Chief James Bonzano, left, makes a point about Grant-funded staffing for Fire Stations in an era of increasing demand.

Ed Carter of VDOT provided an update of the Happy Creek Phase IV improvement project that was originally planned to require a road closure from June 14 to July 30 to coincide with school summer break. He explained that this project is intended to improve the roadway by eliminating some curves, hills, and blind spots.

The project has already been bid, and the bid was substantially lower than originally estimated, based on the projected closure of Happy Creek Road, giving the contractor unobstructed access to the site without having to maintain public access to the road during construction, which is planned to be completed in December.

The road closure will extend from Leach Run Parkway to Dismal Hollow Road. The reason for the possible extension is that since the project requires temporary relocation of utility lines and the Norfolk Southern Railroad must issue permits for that to happen on their right-of-way, Rural Electric Cooperative and Comcast must submit requests for the permits.

The permits were not requested as soon as they should have been, and it may not be possible to have those permits in hand prior to the scheduled construction start. In that event, Mr. Carter indicated that there may be a necessity for a two-week extension of the temporary closure. VDOT and the Town will coordinate with the school district to develop a plan if the extension of the road closure becomes necessary. Access to both Shenandoah Shores Road and Loop Road will be continued during the closure, and provision will be made for emergency vehicles.

Board of Supervisors Chair Cheryl Cullers reviews Project documents for the Happy Creek Improvement Phase 4 as the VDOT representative Ed Carter explains the potential for a delay in reopening Happy Creek Road after the current improvement project.

The School District representative, Aaron Mitchell, indicated it was a challenge to plan a reroute to accommodate the closure, then revert to a normal route within two weeks. It would be particularly hard on parents.

The closure extension may not be necessary, but if it is not possible to work out a plan for the closure, Mr. Carter indicated that the project could be pushed to next year.

VDOT will undertake to have a discussion with the school superintendent this week.

Residents of Happy Creek Road will be vitally interested in progress towards a solution as the start of this improvement project nears.

Watch the Board of Supervisors meeting here.

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Judge hears arguments on Downes vs. Front Royal parking/zoning case dismissal motion

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A decision on the Town of Front Royal’s Demurrer motion for dismissal of David Downes civil action seeking to overturn the Town Council’s decision not to reverse existing zoning requirements that he maintain 9 to 15 on-site parking spaces at his two Chester Street properties could be forthcoming within two weeks. Substitute Judge Craig D. Johnston of Prince William County cited that “hoped for” timeline after taking 2-1/2 hours of arguments under advisement shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, February 23.

Local defense attorney and Virginia Beer Museum proprietor Downes represented himself in the case heard in Warren County Circuit Court. The Town of Front Royal was represented by Heather K. Bardot of the Fairfax-based law firm of Bancroft McGavin Horvath & Judkins, PC. The Town’s legal representation is covered by insurance through the Virginia Risk Sharing Association (VRSA), a subset of the Virginia Municipal League (VML).

One interested observer in Circuit Courtroom “A” was Town Attorney Doug Napier, who appeared to be taking more notes than the two reporters present. What he and those reporters were scribbling occasionally frantically about was the fundamental issue of whether Plaintiff Downes civil filing contains adequate grounds to proceed to trial.

Bardot and the Town contend that no, it doesn’t, as reflected in their Demurrer filing of January 7. Downes countered in support of his February 8 reply to the Town motion for dismissal, that he has made sufficient cause to being singled out as what he termed “a party of one” treated in an “arbitrary and unreasonably” different manner than other business entities, property owners and museums in Front Royal’s downtown business district, save one. And that one, a residential rental building across Chester Street, is only mandated to keep three off-street parking spaces, Downes observed.

Disputed properties at 14 and 16 Chester Street from front, law office at left, Va. Beer Museum to right. Below, the disputed 9-space parking area at rear of the properties now partially used for outdoor museum seating and events, weather permitting. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

The dispute centers around Downes’ law office at 14 Chester and adjacent Virginia Beer Museum at 16 Chester Street. Existing Town Zoning requires that he maintain a total of 15 off-street parking spaces, nine in the rear of the two buildings and six abutting the Town’s Peyton Street parking lot on the north side of the Beer Museum. Primarily at issue are the nine spaces in the rear of the two buildings. Downes noted that employee-wise, he doesn’t need more than one or two parking spaces for either business.

Downes contends that, not only has the Town singled him out for a standard different for other businesses in the downtown district, but also in the case of the Virginia Beer Museum, differently than other museums and art galleries in the area. His rezoning request would allow him to revamp the rear portion of his property into an expanded Biergarten and events area for his museum dedicated to promoting Virginia-brewed beers and beer’s role in the history of the American nation.

On the Town’s behalf, Bardot countered that Downes had inherited the zoning’s parking requirements, particularly as to the 16 Chester Street property, dating back to 1992. Downes noted he has had his law office at 14 Chester since 1999. Bardot also pointed to business growth projections for Front Royal’s Downtown Business District, including the redevelopment of the Afton Inn, that will require additional downtown parking that will negate Peyton Street parking availability statistics overlapping Downes’ rezoning request initiated in 2017 and finally denied by the town council in January 2019.

Downes has pointed to a parking study the Town initiated the year prior to his rezoning request that indicated 22 of the available 42 spaces in the Peyton Lot area as available on average. Countering that, Bardot noted that once Downes fenced off the rear area of his property that availability had changed to 27 of the 42 spaces being taken, an increase of 16% occupancy she noted.

Above, Chester St. entrance to the Town’s Peyton St. parking lot adjacent to Va. Beer Museum around noon on a weekday. Below, the Beer Museum’s 6 north-side parking spaces abutting the Peyton St. lot. Downes has said he is willing to maintain those spaces, which he believes coupled with available on-street and public parking availability is more than enough to accommodate his two properties.

Bardot also cited what she called “a very low standard of reasonableness” by which a court should judge legislative decisions because the judicial branch of government is not supposed to interfere unduly with the legislative branch’s function. The dueling attorneys were also at odds over whether a Constitutional aspect of the case related to the discriminatory nature Downes claims is being applied to him in a “piecemeal” manner is still at issue in the case. The case was originally filed in federal court, but the two parties agreed for it to be moved to state court jurisdiction.

“Of course it’s piecemeal – that’s why I’m here,” Downes told the court. He said that any of the three zoning options he had offered the Town would have addressed and solved that discriminatory nature of the existing zoning he is claiming. “I have to maintain these spaces – the burden shouldn’t be on me – it must be uniform (by zoning code) he asserted. Downes noted a formula at the root of the existing zoning by which he is supposed to have a parking space for every 300 square feet of building space, a condition not applied to other businesses or museums in the downtown area.

Royal Examiner file photo of Downes addressing Front Royal Town Council last year on the local opioid crisis, where they found common ground. – But about that parking situation …

Of his claim the Town is violating Constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law in its demand of the parking space requirements directed at his properties, he concluded, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree” that it was still in play at the state court level. In that regard, Downes cited Virginia’s Dillon Rule which prevents municipal governments from exceeding authorities not granted at the State level. – “Under the Dillon Rule the Town can’t do unconstitutional things,” he argued.

Bardot countered that rather than the “arbitrary and capricious” standard being violated by the Town, Downes simply disagreed with a council decision that could be viewed as reasonable in light of evidence of coming downtown parking needs.

Both attorneys cited case law in support of their opposing contentions on the level of proof necessary and present in the Downes litigation. “I’m living with Williams for better or worse,” Downes told the judge of one of his case law references.

“The Town has no obligation to show reasonableness until Mr. Downes shows unreasonableness,” Bardot told the court, adding that Downes’ amended complaint failed to meet that standard as illustrated by the public hearing debate and planning commission recommendation of denial.

However, Downes argued that much of the opposition to his request from nearby business or property owners upon which either the planning commission or town council decisions were based were not relevant to the zoning amendment at issue. Rather, he asserted much of the negative public comment amounted to specific dislikes of either a fence he installed around his back area to address security concerns or the fact the museum served beer, neither being relevant to the zoning and resultant parking requirements at issue in his litigation against the Town.

The attorneys also debated the relevance of meeting summaries versus transcripts and public comments for or against the rezoning request beginning at the planning commission public hearing level. As noted above, Bardot pointed to public opposition to Downes’ rezoning amendment proposal and the planning commission’s unanimous recommendation of denial to further the defense contention the town council decision to deny was a matter of reasonable debate, rather than an arbitrary or capricious decision aimed a lone property owner’s way.

“This goes back to the first year of law school, but don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees,” Downes countered of peripheral issues cited by opponents of his zoning amendment request referenced in the defense motion. Bardot suggested that the plaintiff was mixing apples and oranges in arguing against the defendant’s Demurrer request for dismissal of his case based on a fundamental standard of evidence required to proceed to trial.

Judge Johnston observed that “There are lots of apples in this case – how they relate to the oranges in the defense” was what was at issue for him to determine.

And within the next couple of weeks the plaintiff and defendant will know exactly how the judge juggled those apples and oranges in coming to a decision on the Town’s motion for dismissal of Downes’ case against it.

The Warren County Courthouse from where a decision on the Town motion to dismiss Downes’ litigation will be forthcoming. Below, another perspective on area at rear of Downes properties.

See the Town Demurrer filing and the Defense and Plaintiff motions in support and opposition to it at these links:

  1. Demurrer
  2. Defendant’s Memorandum for Demurrer
  3. Memo in Opposition to Demurrer – Parking
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Amended Town Press Release on Hicks assumption of dual Town Manager/EDA Director job

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Editor’s Note: Following the submission of several questions from Royal Examiner to the Town about Mr. Hicks appointment to the EDA Executive Director’s position, this amended press release was issued after 5 p.m., Tuesday, February 23, under the headline “Steven Hicks, takes on an additional role as FREDA Executive Director”

Front Royal, VA (February 23, 2021) – Last night the Front Royal Town Council formalized the establishment of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) effective March 15, 2021. To oversee FREDA, Council plans to appoint Steven Hicks as the Executive Director in addition to his role as Town Manager at his current salary. Council and Hicks felt this approach would offset the cost of hiring an Executive Director to save the taxpayer’s dollars.

Hicks has significant experience in leading public-private development projects targeting downtown revitalization. In Selma, N.C., he partnered with Eastfield Crossing Developers and Duke Energy to amend a 400-acre mixed-used development and incentive agreement to increase the Town’s tax base and create 3,100 jobs.

Hicks has a Master of Science Degree in Civil and Infrastructure Engineering (USE) from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Urban Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia Darden School Senior Executive Institute, the University of North Carolina School of Government Municipal and County Administration, and the Virginia Tech Transportation Construction Management Institute.

He served as the Commissioner of North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, Triangle East Chamber of Commerce Board of Director and Uptown Selma Business Partnership Board Director. He is a member of the International City Management Association and Virginia Economic Developers Association (VEDA).

Council is currently seeking applicants to serve as members of the Board of Directors. Applications are available on the Town’s website at www.frontroyalva.com and will be accepted until March 31, 2021.


(The following press release was issued by the Town of Front Royal shortly after Mayor Holloway read it into the record of the Feb. 22 Town Council meeting, Monday evening.)

The Front Royal Town Council is pleased to announce plans to establish the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) on March 15, 2021, and will be naming Town Manager, Steven Hicks as the Executive Director. The Town is currently seeking applicants to serve as members of the Board of Directors until March 31, 2021. Last year the Virginia General Assembly authorized the formation of the FREDA. Since that authorization, the Town has codified the Town EDA in Town Code.

New Front Royal Town Manager Steven Hicks, right, at council meeting staff table with Matt Tederick, has been named Executive Director of the newly formed Front Royal Economic Development Authority.

The decision to move forward with FREDA was not taken hastily or lightly. The Town’s decision to move forward with its own independent EDA has more to do with the present and future rather than the past.

The Town has re-development and economic development needs now that Council does not believe the County’s EDA is in the position to perform. Small businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and are in need of recovery. In addition, there are many empty storefronts now and Council hopes we can prevent more in the coming years. Having FREDA will also make it easier and quicker to improve the quality of life and appearance of Front Royal by addressing blighted properties through various tools and resources available to EDA’s.

The challenges facing the current County EDA are significant. For example, on September 25, 2019, the EDA agreed to enter into a Confession of Judgment with The First Bank and Trust.

The Confession of Judgment and supporting documentation appear to indicate the following:

• The sum for the judgment is $9,015,742 at an annual interest rate of 6%

• The loan was a line of credit up to $17 million

• Security for the loan in part stated, “Security agreement granting an interest in all the borrower’s accounts and government payments and programs including but not limited to all present and
future payments now or hereafter appropriated and made or to be made by the Town of Front Royal, Virginia and/or the County of Warren, Virginia, to the borrower….”

Based upon legal interpretation, this Confession of Judgment means all EDA assets not currently secured by another party are subject to the Confession of Judgment or in essence, the property of The First Bank and Trust Company up to $9M. This Confession of Judgment impairs buying property for the County or the Town unless the bank allows it. If the EDA enters into a lease, lease revenues would go to The First Bank and Trust Company. Due to the low creditworthiness of the EDA, it cannot obtain bonds, loans, or other types of financing without the County and/or Town’s direct involvement. Couple this Confession of Judgment with the EDA’s insolvency, ongoing litigation, lack of three years of audits, and low creditworthiness, it will be difficult for the EDA to function as a traditional EDA for many years in order to help our community, specifically our Town.

The Front Royal Town Council is committed to working in partnership with Warren County and its EDA. By no means should the Town’s initiative to focus on the Town’s re-development be construed as an unwillingness to work with the County. We just believe from a business perspective; formalizing FREDA is the only way the Town can focus on re-development with real results.

The Town Council would consider joining the County’s EDA in the future once all the following takes place with the County’s EDA:

1. It not only has produced missing audits but previous and future audits need to be clean.

2. It is solvent.

3. The Confession of Judgment is released.

4. All possible criminal investigations and civil litigation has been concluded.

5. The Town taxpayers have recovered all misappropriated, stolen, or fraudulently obtained assets by the EDA or its employee(s).

As part of the Town’s FY22 Budget, the Town will be able to invest $100,000 without sacrificing services to start FREDA. Additionally, the Town anticipates receiving over $100,000 from the sale of real estate which will be re-invested into our Town.

In conclusion, considering the state of affairs with the County’s EDA and in consideration of the Town’s needs to expand its tax base through economic development and marketing, it is imperative that the Town move towards ramping up its own EDA as soon as possible.

If any member of the public has any further questions, please contact Todd C. Jones, Town Public Information Officer.

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Local Government

Council back to the drawing board on separation of Public Comments from meetings, live broadcast

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As part of an overhaul of its meeting scheduling and procedures, the Front Royal Town Council was poised to approve the separation of the “Public Correspondence” or “comments” portion of meetings, along with not live broadcasting those comments as part of planned changes. But after Gary Gillespie’s initial motion to approve a change to the “Order of Business” for regular council meetings a rift appeared.

Two newly elected councilmen, first Scott Lloyd and then Joseph McFadden expressed opposition to the “Public Comments” aspect of the changes. Those changes would include moving the public input on matters of concern to 6:30 p.m., a half-hour prior to the start of the meeting. It appeared the earlier, opening segment devoted to public comments was repeatedly referred to as a “work session” that would be adjourned to allow the one monthly regular meeting to begin.

Above, Joseph McFadden, and below Scott Lloyd, expressed discontent with a planned change in how public input on non-agenda items was to be altered time-wise to a half-hour prior to the 7 p.m. meeting starts and eliminating live broadcasts of those comments. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

McFadden wondered what council was to do for a half-hour if, like Monday night, no one showed up to speak. Would council have to kill a half-hour before starting the scheduled 7 p.m. meeting?

Would public comments be cut off at 7 p.m. if there were a larger number of people present to address council? McFadden indicated he was going to be a “no” vote on the motion as presented.

Lloyd offered an amended motion that would include continuing the live broadcast of public comments. The conversation evolved into multi-faceted directions that led Councilman Meza to suggest returning the matter to work session for all the legal and procedural variables addressed to be reconsidered in some detail prior to a vote. And after Gillespie and Lloyd agreed to withdraw their respective motions, it was back to what will now be council’s lone monthly work session, which along with the change to one monthly meeting (from the previous two of each that has long been council’s monthly format), was approved on a second reading just prior to the “Order of Business” matter being brought forward.

Also, as of that above-referenced second reading council will no longer have the necessity of two votes of approval for the ordinance and other major business action items.

See this discussion and other business in this Town video.

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Upcoming Events

Mar
3
Wed
9:00 am Community Blood Drive @ Front Royal Fire and Rescue Department
Community Blood Drive @ Front Royal Fire and Rescue Department
Mar 3 @ 9:00 am – 2:00 pm
Community Blood Drive @ Front Royal Fire and Rescue Department
The Front Royal Police Department is sponsoring a blood drive on Wednesday, and all eligible donors are encouraged to log onto redcrossblood.org to schedule a donation of the GIFT OF LIFE! Jeff Farmer and the[...]
9:00 am Free Tax Preparation @ Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Free Tax Preparation @ Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mar 3 @ 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Free Tax Preparation @ Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Free tax preparation will be available again this year through the AARP Tax Aide at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Front Royal, Monday and Wednesday mornings beginning Feb. 15th. To make an appointment, please call[...]
Mar
9
Tue
6:30 pm Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Mar 9 @ 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
This class is for all fitness levels and anyone who is looking to have fun dancing to a variety of music styles from hip hop to swing to salsa, all while EXERCISING! This class will[...]
Mar
13
Sat
10:00 am HSWC Polar Plunge @ Culpeper Lake at the 4-H Center
HSWC Polar Plunge @ Culpeper Lake at the 4-H Center
Mar 13 @ 10:00 am – 1:00 pm
HSWC Polar Plunge @ Culpeper Lake at the 4-H Center
The Humane Society of Warren County “Polar Plunge” delayed from February 20 due to “too-polar” weather here in northwestern Virginia has been rescheduled to Saturday, March 13 – Don’t worry, it will still be a[...]
Mar
16
Tue
6:30 pm Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Mar 16 @ 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
This class is for all fitness levels and anyone who is looking to have fun dancing to a variety of music styles from hip hop to swing to salsa, all while EXERCISING! This class will[...]
Mar
23
Tue
6:30 pm Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Mar 23 @ 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
This class is for all fitness levels and anyone who is looking to have fun dancing to a variety of music styles from hip hop to swing to salsa, all while EXERCISING! This class will[...]
Mar
28
Sun
2:00 pm Pictures with the Easter Bunny @ Warren County Community Center
Pictures with the Easter Bunny @ Warren County Community Center
Mar 28 @ 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Pictures with the Easter Bunny @ Warren County Community Center
Come join the staff of Warren County Parks and Recreation and get your picture taken with the Easter Bunny! Pictures will be taken and printed on site; upon departure you will be given an Easter[...]
Mar
30
Tue
6:30 pm Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Mar 30 @ 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
This class is for all fitness levels and anyone who is looking to have fun dancing to a variety of music styles from hip hop to swing to salsa, all while EXERCISING! This class will[...]
Apr
3
Sat
12:00 pm Egg-stravaganza! @ Sky Meadows State Park
Egg-stravaganza! @ Sky Meadows State Park
Apr 3 @ 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Egg-stravaganza! @ Sky Meadows State Park
Eggs are popping up all over Sky Meadows State Park. Visit our egg-laying free-range chickens by taking our Chicken Walk. Go on an egg-citing Geocache adventure. Kids, use your scavenger hunting skills using clues from[...]
Apr
17
Sat
all-day Shenandoah Epic @ Caroline Furnace
Shenandoah Epic @ Caroline Furnace
Apr 17 all-day
Shenandoah Epic @ Caroline Furnace
This tried and true Epic 24-hour AR will test your biking, paddling, trekking, and navigation skills as you explore two state parks (one of them brand new!) and national forest lands. Join soloists and teams[...]