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Rockland neighborhood shooting ban denied after storm of accusations, counter-accusations

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The final public hearing on a lengthy Tuesday, September 15th county supervisors meeting agenda was by far the most contentious and occasionally LOUD – if not “POP, POP, POP” gunshot loud – of the evening. At issue was a request that the Clear Back Subdivision in the Rockland area near the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club be added to the list of county subdivisions where shooting firearms is illegal due to public safety and intrusive noise concerns.

Following 10 public hearing speakers, some who visited the podium more than once to contest or re-hurl personal accusations over the veracity or motivation of opposition speakers during a sometimes contentious 45-minute public hearing, the Warren County Board of Supervisors sided with a 7-3 pro-recreational shooting majority to deny the request.

‘In God We Trust’ – but practice with your gun a lot just in case, seemed to be the prevailing theme of the evening’s final public hearing. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video by Mark Williams

Actually the public speaker breakdown was 7-4, but one supporter of the request, former law enforcement, and military firearms trainer Dale Orlowski, spoke to the matter during the general Public Concerns comment period near the meeting’s 7 p.m. outset. By the time the Clear Back firearms public hearing was reached at 9:35 p.m., Orlowski was long gone. During his earlier comment, Orlowski echoed previous meeting comments, calling the Clear Back shooting ban request a public safety issue, rather than a 2nd Amendment or personal freedom concern.

The vote to deny the request, on a motion by Cheryl Cullers, seconded by Delores Oates, was 4-0 with Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter absent.

At issue was what has been described at previous meetings as a belligerent attitude by subdivision recreational shooters, who have been alleged by gun-ban petition circulator James Harper to have refused several personal or business requests to suspend obtrusive gunfire during events like golf course-hosted weddings or a child’s birthday party at a nearby private residence.

In making his case for the shooting ban, Malcolm Barr Sr. said of the desired outcome limiting the amount of noise and potential accompanying danger in their neighborhood, “My wife and I wish it would be so in the absence of any law, but we fear not.”

Barr called the level of “gunfire” prior to the current lull after media publicity about the shooting ban request “seemingly incessant” close to his Rockland Road home not far from the Shenandoah Valley Golf Course Clubhouse. He noted his wife, Carol, underwent scheduled, daily home medical treatments for cancer that he believes have helped her beat Stage 4 cancer for 10 years. Quiet, he noted, is the desired atmosphere for those one to two-hour daily treatments.

As Royal Examiner previously reported, during August 4th public concerns comments to the supervisors, shooting ban petition circulator James Harper said, “Several weeks ago on a Saturday we all heard automatic gunfire for over 5-1/2 hours. This was non-stop gunfire,” Harper said … Years ago this was farmland, now it’s a neighborhood. Is it fair for two houses to disrupt the neighborhood?” Harper asked the board before presenting a list of signatures in support of the shooting ban for the subdivision area, including from former supervisor Ben Weddle, former town councilman Kermit Nichols, and … SVGC principal Richard Runyon. Harper recounted a story he said Runyon told him when he first moved near the golf course to introduce him to the shooting issue.

“He told me they were hosting a wedding, and they went across the street to ask them to stop shooting while the wedding was going on because it was an outdoor wedding. And they said ‘No’ and kept on shooting. That’s what we’re dealing with,” Harper told the supervisors.

Gun-ban petition circulator James Harper, above, and self-described local shooter and instructor Bryan DeNinno, below, had very differing outlooks on what is really going on in their neighborhood. Seated behind DeNinno in the photo are his son James, red mask, and other supporters.

However, the public hearing’s opening speaker, Clear Back area shooter Bryan DeNinno, his son James and others disputed such assertions, saying if asked for good reason to halt their firearms shooting, they would.

Both sides have portrayed the other as selfish in their stances on the shooting issue. Now, with the ban denied by the supervisors, and requests like Barr’s over his wife’s desire for quiet around specifically timed medical treatments at home, we may find out exactly how fruitful Board Chairman Mabe’s plea for direct, neighborly communications between the sides will be in alleviating further conflict over recreational shooting practices in the area.

Several pro-shooting rights advocates noted that Harper had his home up for sale, and asserted he had personal motive to fabricate negative portrayals of them to up the sales value of his home to city folks who might be seeking peace and quiet in a more rural setting. They also contended that Harper misrepresented the nature of his petition to acquire signatures and asserted that some signatures were from bordering areas not included in the Clear Back Subdivision at issue.

Harper countered that he was not a liar, but rather was forwarding what he believes is a majority opinion of the now expanded Clear Back area residential neighborhood. Of the previous level of shooting present prior to what 18-year Rockland resident and shooting-ban supporter Malcolm Barr Sr. called a welcome lull in the recreational shooting since the shooting ban request went public in the media following the August 5 supervisors’ meeting, Harper said, “I don’t think the Clear Back Subdivision needs a militia, unless Joe Biden wins.”

But his expression of conservative Republicanism and support for President Trump didn’t help his cause with perhaps politically like-minded neighbors.

James DeNinno called neighborhood gun owners “calm, collected and good will people” and took issue with Royal Examiner’s reporting of what was described by four public speakers, five counting a submitted letter, on the topic at the August 4 supervisors meeting. Hey, we can’t help it if they said it – and how would you know they said it if we hadn’t reported it? Don’t kill the messenger, as the old saying goes.

Several speakers addressed a perceived “slippery slope” of governmental overreach in limiting their rights as Americans. “That pop, pop, pop is the sound of freedom,” Bryan DeNinno said in opening the public hearing. Several local shooters also disputed the description of “automatic” weapons fire in the area, denying possession of illegal weapons. One even worried over a potential late-night ATF raid on their home based on those descriptions leading to a potential shootout with federal agents.

The level of animosity between the opposing viewpoints – public safety and nuisance versus 2nd Amendment and property rights – was upped a notch with an appearance at the speaker’s podium by former Board Chairman and North River District supervisor Dan Murray, whose voice rose as he defended the shooting rights of his former neighboring district constituents, and occasionally directed critical comments at Harper and Board Chairman Walt Mabe.

As James Harper listens, seated in the right foreground, former Board Chairman Dan Murray gets his ‘Irish’ up as he belabors the board for even considering a recreational shooting ban in the rural area.

In fact, Murray asked Mabe to recuse himself from the vote due to Harper’s support of him in the 2018 election. Murray did not seek re-election and Oates won the battle to replace him as North River representative. Mabe was elected chairman after defeating Shenandoah District incumbent Tom Sayre.

Mabe responded to Murray, saying he would not recuse because he made no political promises in exchange for electoral support, and disputed Murray’s contention that Harper had been his “largest” financial supporter.

“I don’t consider this just an attack on the 2nd Amendment, it is also an attack on property rights,” Murray began, questioning where the evidence of danger to neighbors was – “Has there been any property damage? Has anyone been shot? If not, this is personal with an individual that wants to sell a property,” Murray continued setting his sights on Harper. “And he’s violating quite a few people’s rights … This is a travesty,” Murray said, arguing the matter should have never come before the supervisors.

His voice began rising as he said that during his eight years on the board, such an issue had never come before the board “Not once, NOT ONCE,” Murray said, escalating his tone and pitch upward as he cited Harper as forwarding a personal agenda.

See Harper try to respond, and Murray turn and yell, “Sir, I HAVE the FLOOR,” as the battle was joined in the below Royal Examiner video.

‘Excuse me, I have the floor,’ Murray turned to remind Harper, who attempted to interrupt when Murray’s attack turned personally toward him. Below, Harper leaves the podium area following his subsequent reply to attacks on his motive.

After listening to the exchanges and Murray’s dust-up with Harper, a citizen who had not signed up to speak asked to address the board. Susan Bowen is not a newcomer to the neighborhood.

“I guess I’m saddened at what I’m hearing tonight – the disrespect for those of us who live in the country. And I’ve been there for almost 75 years on a family farm, fourth generation. And I love the peace there. And I guess they have no respect for those of us who would like to live in a quiet atmosphere; to completely disregard our wish for a peaceful and quiet community.

‘I’ve lived there for 75 years and I’ve never heard gunshots like I’m hearing now from these people – I’ve never heard it before … and I’m just really saddened by it all … I don’t think you’re going to hurt anybody or kill anybody. It’s just the noise. It’s not the feeling of being safe. And I really appreciate your freedom, but don’t we count too? … Don’t we have rights too, to have a peaceful existence?

“I’m just terribly saddened tonight,” Bowen concluded to a silence she wished more prevalent at her home and neighborhood.

See the Clear Back Subdivision shooting ban public hearing and all the comments from both sides in this first Royal Examiner video:

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Baugh Drive warehouse rental lease approved; EDA looks toward a ‘Strategically’ consistent future

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The EDA Board of Directors met for their regular monthly board meeting, Friday, October 23. Following a one-and-a-half-hour Closed Meeting the Board approved the following motions:

  1. Approved a 3-month lease agreement with Dollar Tree Distribution Inc. for parking lot space at 426 Baugh Dr. at $2,100/month;
  2. Approved a $90,000 settlement agreement with the heirs of Daniel McEathron;
  3. Approved giving board Secretary Greg Harold authority to review and award a contract for mold remediation of the Avtex Building, as Executive Director Doug Parsons is away on personal leave/vacation.

Two additional actions were bookkeeping items introduced in the report of the Finance Chair Jorie Martin. Both motions were unanimously approved: a/ to eliminate the EDA Rent account at Atlantic Union and transfer all monies to the EDA Cash-Operational account. b/ To recode specific payments made by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission as Note Receivable payments, as they were previously recorded and deposited incorrectly to the EDA Rent account at Atlantic Union. These payments will be deposited in the EDA Cash/Operational account.

Jim Wolfe led the EDA Board through a game plan growing out of the recent two-day Strategic Planning session. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

The remaining portion of the meeting was devoted to Director Jim Wolfe and his review of the results of the Strategic Planning conference held October 9-10. He appreciated all of the conversations and involvement by all of the attendees which led to the development of draft goals for the EDA. He reported that he’ll be assigning specific topics for further research to the other Directors with the goal of having a draft Strategic Plan at the next regular board meeting on December 4.

Planning, direction and consistency will be crucial to the EDA’s future as the new board rebounds from past mistakes and financial scandal.

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EDA in Focus

EDA settles civil claim against McEathron estate for $90,000

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Following an hour-and-thirty-five-minute closed session on a variety of topics that opened its monthly meeting of October 23, the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors approved a motion agreeing to a settlement with the estate of late Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron.

The settlement amount agreed upon between the EDA and McEathron’s widow and two adult children is $90,000. McEathron was linked to the EDA financial scandal due to his partnership in former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s DaBoyz LLC real estate company. In the EDA’s civil litigation initially filed in March 2019, McDonald is accused, among other things, of unauthorized moving of EDA assets to her own benefit through her real estate companies DaBoyz and MoveOn8. Still Sheriff at the time, McEathron along with McDonald and the two real estate companies, were on the initial list of civil case defendants.

Sheriff Daniel McEathron – File Photo/WCSO website

After taking early retirement effective May 1, 2019, just over a month after being named a co-defendant in the EDA civil litigation, the county’s long-time sheriff was found dead on his Bentonville property 28 days later, May 28, from an apparent suicide. Some questions about the death arose after Sheriff’s Office personnel, ostensibly alerted by McEathron to his planned suicide by phone, removed the body from the scene where it was discovered in proximity to an expended firearm before the Virginia State Police, the EDA criminal case investigating agency, was notified of the death.

On Friday, EDA Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, who made the motion to approve, addressed the McEathron Estate settlement prior to the vote.

“Mr. Chairman, I want the community to know that the EDA has negotiated in good faith for this settlement for a long time. This is something that we’ve taken very seriously; this is something that we have called back and forth with, with our attorneys and the estate’s attorneys. While we feel there are certain risks and rewards with these situations, I think the EDA is comfortable at this time that we have done the best that we can for the community and that it’s time to put this matter behind us as the motion is written,” Harold said.

EDA Asset Committee Chair Greg Harold, pictured during Friday’s ZOOM meeting, recounted the process leading to the settlement with the estate of late Sheriff Daniel McEathron. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

Thank you for that,” Board Chairman Jeff Browne responded. There was no other comment prior to the vote on Harold’s motion, seconded by James Wolfe, which then passed by a 4-0 margin of the members remaining after the closed session, the above three and Tom Pattison. Jorie Martin and Melissa Gordon were present for the 8 a.m. convening of the meeting into closed session but had left to other commitments prior to the closed session’s 9:45 a.m. conclusion.

The motion on approval of the settlement read into the record by EDA Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson states in part, “Whereas the Front Royal-Warren County EDA has certain claims against Daniel McEathron; Whereas the EDA and McEathron’s heirs desire to resolve any claims that may exist between them; Now therefore be it resolved the chairman and the secretary of the Front Royal-Warren County EDA Board are authorized to enter into an agreement … (with those heirs) for the purposes set forth in this resolution which agreement shall provide for the payment of $90,000 dollars to the EDA …”

The motion adds that if any FOIA request are received by the EDA related to the settlement, McEathron’s widow or her attorneys will receive notice of those requests having been made.

As initially reported by former Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw, McEathron and McDonald’s first transaction in DaBoyz dated to October 2016 and the pair purchased a total of $2.8 million of real estate between then and 2019. The LLC was involved in a number of transactions cited in the EDA civil litigation filed to recover allegedly misdirected assets, including a mysterious one in which a property was bought and sold back to the owner a month later at a loss of $600,000.

January 2018 Royal Examiner file photo of Jennifer McDonald in her EDA office displaying tax receipts she said indicated winnings at Charles Town’s Hollywood Casino. Coincidentally, the blue star on her chair is the logo of her favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys from whom the real estate LLC ‘DaBoyz’ name was taken.

A number of McDonald and her two LLC’s existing properties were frozen by the court early in the civil case process. However, civil claims against McDonald assets have been complicated by her recent filing of bankruptcy, which put her assets under control of the Harrisonburg-based bankruptcy court.

The EDA civil litigation has grown to 24 human and business entity co-defendants, with total claims, actual and punitive, of about $25 million dollars. And as previously reported, the Harrisonburg Special Prosecutor’s Office has turned the criminal investigation into the EDA financial scandal over to the U.S. Western District of Virginia federal prosecutor’s office.

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A non-agenda topic dominates the supervisors’ attention – is it too late for compromise on Confederate statue?

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What appeared to be a fairly routine agenda of the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, October 20th ended up being anything but. The first sign that something might be up was a nearly full Warren County Government Center parking lot with perhaps 15 people talking and scattered about outside 15 minutes prior to the open meeting’s scheduled 7 p.m. start.

While there were six public hearings scheduled, none appeared to be of a contentious or controversial nature that might draw such a crowd. And a six o’clock closed session to discuss committee, board, and EDA personnel matters; personal property assessments; and even the Front Royal Golf Club management contract, wouldn’t likely be pulling such numbers in.

“Just waiting for the meeting to start,” was the response to a “what’s going on” query by this reporter. And about three minutes after that meeting start as the 60-minute opening public comments portion of the meeting began, it quickly became apparent what the crowd was there for – the courthouse grounds Confederate soldier statue debate.

Above, at issue is this 109-year-old statue commemorating county men who served in the Confederate army’s presence on the Warren County Courthouse lawn. FR Unites, under the leadership of Samuel Porter, seated below Tuesday night in center-right foreground with four supporters, has tied the statue’s presence there to the organization’s initial call for equal justice for all and an end to institutional racism marked by undue police violence against people of color in America. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video by Mark Williams

To the caucus room front side of the meeting room, a four-person contingent was seated with Front Royal Unites principal Samuel Porter, who was a day or so off a social media spat with Front Royal Unites co-founding member and original organization president Stevi Hubbard’s 13-year-old daughter over her and her mother’s separation from the group.

Scattered throughout the public seating were some of those who had been outside, including at least one centrally located, colorful MAGA hat-sporting member, some familiar faces from recent Warren County Militia events including organizer Sam Haun, as well as two past public commenters in favor of leaving the statue in place, Richard Hoover and Gary Kushner.

Sixty-two minutes and 22 public speakers later, 17 of whom addressed the statue issue with a 13-4 split in favor of it remaining where it is, the meeting agenda moved past public comments to those six public hearing matters, before finishing up with board and staff reports, and approval of past meeting minutes, accounts, appropriations and fund transfers.

But it was the increasingly divisive expression of conflicting attitudes on the necessity or lack thereof for the removal of a memorial to the county’s citizens who went to war on the side of the Confederacy, some to die, all likely to be changed in some way forever, that put an imprint on the supervisors’ evening of October 20, 2020.

Above, perhaps anticipating a negative result in the non-binding November referendum on moving the statue, FR Unites supporter Kristin Iden tells the supervisors that ‘the majority opinion is not always the right thing to do’ drawing the ire of some opponents of moving the statue. Below, one of those opponents, eighteenth speaker Mike Mayer, made a loud and colorful approach to the podium telling companions to “hold my beer, baby”, then first focusing on his affection for Board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi’s last name before re-focusing his attention on the ‘ill-informed, emotionally inept and asinine minority” on the statue issue.

For that conversation, sometimes reasoned, sometimes not; occasionally reaching toward communication and compromise, at other times expressing deafness to any opinion other than one’s own; and at times even ominously threatening as to unrealized “consequences” of demanding what certainly that evening was the minority opinion for removal, was a reflection of where we are as, not only a county but as a nation divided as Election Day 2020 approaches.

Perhaps the most reasoned thing said on the statue topic was by fifth speaker Richard Hoover’s suggestion that the statue remain with other war memorials on the courthouse grounds, but that a statue to the county’s black citizens who were enslaved be added to memorialize their sacrifice next to the county’s memorials to those who sacrificed by going to war on the right or wrong side of history.

Above, Richard Hoover voiced perhaps the best idea expressed during the evening just as his 3 minutes expired. That idea was to leave the statue where it stands, but add a statue commemorating the sacrifice of the county’s slave population on the courthouse grounds. Below, the dedication on the Confederate soldier statue in question.

But as Hoover reached his point of reasoned compromise following an exploration of the nuances of local and national history, the strictly enforced three-minute time limit bell went off, cutting his reasoned compromise idea off as it was leaving his mouth.

Another speaker who appeared to be with the leave the Confederate soldier statue where it is contingent, Craig Anderson, failed to mention the statue at the podium, targeting what he called the “COVID mask thing” as a political hoax or “political fear thing” orchestrated, apparently by Democrats. Anderson asserted that the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has “told us” that rather than the 220,000-plus deaths now attributed to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., the actual number was only 10,000 fatalities that the virus has been responsible for nationally.

But the statue wasn’t the only topic of controversy addressed during public comments. Perhaps the most aggressively personal comments delivered the supervisors’ way came from Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District management critic Nancy Winn. Winn railed at the supervisors by first names for a lack of attention to her submissions and expenditure on a lawyer to assemble evidence of what she feels were misappropriations of Sanitary District funds by the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF).

As the bell and Chairman Mabe noted her three minutes at the podium were expired, she continued to complain on what she sees as inaction by the board, again calling the chairman out by his first name as she returned to her front-row seat.

“Don’t tell me to shut up,” she said loudly, apparently directed her husband Dale Orlowske’s way before he approached the podium to support his wife’s assertions that Sanitary District money was spent in places it should not have been under POSF management.

Forget the statue – what about POSF management of the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District, eighth speaker Nancy Winn wanted to know. Time up, Winn continued to belabor the board, its chairman, and her husband as she packed up to leave in a huff.

POSF official Ralph Rinaldi later rose to tell the board that he and the POSF were prepared to present their side of the story at a date of the supervisors choosing. Board Chairman Mabe informed Rinaldi that he had been sent information that day on a date for the POSF presentation in response to Winn and Orlowske’s allegations.

If POSF critic Winn is there, that should be MUST SEE Royal Examiner TV.

This writer could continue to quote from the above-described exchanges but will just suggest you “get the popcorn” or a preferred snack and settle in for the hour-and-three-minute show as it transpired in this Royal Examiner video.

Opposing sides file out without incident as board takes a five-minute break following the 63-minute Public Comments portion of the meeting.

Then there is the rest of the meeting – erosion and sediment control ordinance updates to align with state law changes; Conditional Use Permit applications for flower-arranging classes at an Ag District farm (vote postponed to Nov. 4); a short-term tourist rental application; and two zoning modification requests by Frank Barnett Jr. and the Warren County Fair Association/Frank Brugh; and establishment of a small 14-lot Sanitary District at the Shannon Woods subdivision (public hearing recessed to Nov. 4) – but what an anti-climax, unless one of those applications was yours.


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Council approves budget transfer on FRPD construction; remaining CARES Act distribution plan

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In other business at its October 19 meeting, by a 5-0 vote, Meza absent, the Front Royal Town Council approved a Fiscal Year-2021 Budget Amendment allowing an “Interfund Budget Transfer” of $8,483,001.15 to facilitate payment on the United Bank loan on the construction of the new Town Police Headquarters. During the public hearing on the budget amendment, Paul Gabbert rose to tell council it was a transfer long overdue.

Gabbert also questioned council’s congratulatory “back slapping” on alleged savings of “millions of dollars” noting that with an unknown interest rate in 10 years when an estimated $4.78-million-dollar balance will have to be refinanced, exactly how much money will be saved or lost remains a long-term unknown. Gabbert also told town officials they should calculate contracted attorney’s fees related to the Town’s litigation against the EDA against those publicly bragged about savings.

“There are no back pats from the public,” Gabbert asserted of council’s choices of litigation with the recovering from financial scandal EDA and the two-year impasse over assuming financing on its police headquarters construction project.

Council approved several budgetary items Monday and tabled another till more information on Contingencies was available. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video by Mark Williams

Also, by a 5-0 vote, council approved “Option 1” of two options on the distribution of a remaining $309,058 in Phase 1 CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Securities) Act relief funds. The Town’s share of that first $3.5 million received by the County from the federal-enabled, state-distributed money was $1,276,558.

One apparent difference between the two options was a small percentage change in the “Additional Payout” category from 31.4% in Option 1, to 30% in Option 2 that appeared to reduce the “Estimated Chamber of Commerce Administration Fee” from $18,808 in Option 2 to $5,000 in Option 1. Contacted on those numbers, Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson said Option 1 would result in a lesser payment to the Chamber for its administrative work on the CARES distribution. He noted that the Chamber had offered to do the work at no charge, but that council felt some compensation was in order, choosing the $5,000 compensation on the Phase 1 work.

Consideration of a transfer of Contingency funds was removed from the agenda on a motion by Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock. Sealock indicated some questions about involved resources remained to be clarified. And council agreed to table consideration of the transfer pending more information.

Also, during the Interim Town Manager’s Report, FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis came forward for a promotion ceremony of Officer Zachary King to sergeant in the patrol division. His wife Jess, two children River and Tyler, and mother Dot were present for the brief ceremony during which Jess successfully pinned her husband’s new rank on his chest.

FRPD Chief Magalis introduces Office Zachary King, wife Jess, and older son River to council and the mayor as mom and younger son observe from the back row.

Jess pins her husband’s new rank to his chest without incident, as has not always been the case in past promotions.

Mom Dot and younger son Tyler get a closer look at Sgt. King’s promotion.

One local businessperson, Holly Leach, thanked the Town for its efforts on behalf of downtown businesses in the opening public comments period.

During his report, Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick presented social media statistics, views, and “likes” from the past weekend’s Fall leaf season during which a promotional effort by the contracted Tourism marketing company Strategic Solutions by Trish brought what Tederick called “influencers” or people with social media posting sites and followers related to travel and tourism, to Town.

Interim Town Manager Tederick explains the role of social media ‘influencers’ in promoting tourism in the community.

However, there were no numbers presented that indicated a direct correlation between revenue generation and the social media “influencers” posts, responses, and “likes” compared to past Fall season Tourism numbers. Though such statistics may only be known over time, when and if “likes” translate into visits, not only to our national and state parks but downtown and other tourism-related businesses as well.

And those results in hard business revenue numbers will have to be judged against past tourist season revenues for a final judgment on the “influencer’s” influence on tourism destinations.

Watch these discussions, ceremonies, and public comments in this Royal Examiner video:

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Town Council urges Valley Health and Anthem to resolve cost impasse

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In a final agenda item before adjourning to closed session Monday night, October 19, the Front Royal Town Council passed a Resolution urging regional medical provider Valley Health and insurance giant Anthem/Blue Cross Blue Shield to continue to negotiate to a mutually acceptable resolution on the existing impasse on costs associated with renewing their contract which expires at the end of the 2020 calendar year, December 31st.

The resolution on a motion by Lori Cockrell, seconded by Letasha Thompson, was approved by a 5-0 vote, with Valley Health employee Jake Meza who likely would have recused himself from voting, absent. There was no council comment prior to the vote, as there is an apparent community-wide consensus the two private sector health care entities need to resolve their new contract cost dispute.

Motorists passing the current WMH on N. Shenandoah Ave. may soon be thinking ‘I have to drive where for my Anthem insurance to do me any good?!?’ Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video by Mark Williams

As first reported by Royal Examiner contributing writer Malcolm Barr Sr. on September 28, (“Major health insurance carrier may quit Valley Health; health care costs may rise for many in 2021”) were the Anthem/Valley Health contract allowed to lapse it would impact as many as 70% of Valley Health patients, including government retirees and employees. The Front Royal Town Council resolution estimates an impact on “about 40,000 people in the Valley Health regional health care monopoly region” including those utilizing Warren Memorial Hospital in town.

Perhaps unhappily now for local governments, Valley Health is currently building a new Warren Memorial Hospital (WMH) enabled by a Town and County-approved $60-million-dollar loan through the County-Town Economic Development Authority covering a significant portion of the new facility off Leach Run Parkway’s estimated cost. The new hospital was already controversial due to the planned elimination of some services, most prominently a maternity/birthing unit.

Perhaps ironically, Meza’s reversal of previous recusals on the matter due to his employment status with Valley Health, enabled June 11, 2018, 3-1 vote (John Connolly dissenting) adding the Town’s approval of the EDA hospital financing to the County’s. With two councilmen, Morrison and Gillespie absent had Meza continued his previous recusals council would not have had a necessary voting quorum to proceed on the matter, at least at that June 11, 2018 meeting (“Birth Local’s last stand nets one ‘no’ vote on finalizing hospital financing”).

On June 11, 2018, ‘Birth Local’ activist Melanie Salins makes her final plea against preferential financial treatment for a new Valley Health hospital facility without a maternity unit as three Valley Health officials listen behind her. She and other public pleas netted one ‘no’ vote to a locally enabled EDA $60-million loan. Wonder what the vote would be today as Valley Health and Anthem play hardball on new insurance coverage contract costs?

But back to the present, Monday’s resolution notes that many people carry Anthem as their medical insurance provider through their employers, locally including public school and local government employees.

The resolution also points to the ongoing threat from the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic which it observes, “continues to threaten the livelihood and well-being of the Front Royal and indeed, the greater Warren County community … and would only be exasperated by the dissolution of the currently-existing Valley Health and Anthem partnership to provide quality, affordable, and in-network healthcare services to the residents and citizens of the Front Royal and Warren County community of many thousands of people.”

The resolution makes several references to Valley Health’s “de facto monopoly on many vital life-saving and critical health care provisions” in the region and cites “a moral, if not legal, fiduciary responsibility” to continue to provide its services “to residents within this geographic region” and place those Anthem-covered service costs “above the profits and pecuniary interests of Valley Health”.

The County is also considering its options should the impasse not be resolved as reported in our story “County considers options as Valley Health and Anthem insurance split” – and the supervisors have expressed a distinct preference for a resolution of the Anthem-Valley Health dispute to changes to its employee insurance packages estimated to see costs at least double.

‘Birth Local’ demonstrators outside WMH on Feb. 28, 2018. Might we see new demonstrators with different signage at WMH as the Valley Health-Anthem stare down over new insurance contract costs continues toward the year’s end?

So, will public pressure and municipal resolutions have a positive impact on what may be a high-stakes poker game between the Northern Shenandoah Valley regional health care provider and the national health care insurance giant?

Stay tuned – it’s only our health and sometimes lives on the line versus corporate and executive compensation bottom lines.

See the motion, vote, and other business and public comments to council that will be summarized in a related story, in this Royal Examiner video of Monday’s 29-minute open meeting:

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County Planning Commission mulls change of use permits

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The Warren County Planning Commission met October 14th in the Government Center, combining a joint work session with the Agricultural and Forestal District Advisory Committee, and the regular commission meeting.  The advisory committee, consisting of 10 members appointed by the County Board of Supervisors, including 8 landowners, a member of the board, and the Commissioner of the Revenue.

County Planning Director Taryn Logan informs the Commission of the duties of the Advisory Committee before their PowerPoint presentation.

The committee presented its report and recommendation for the renewal of the three Forestal Districts in Warren County:  Rockland, South River, and Limeton.  Each district exists to encourage the development and improvement of Virginia’s agricultural and forestal lands for the production of food and other agricultural and forestal products.  The districts are formed by voluntary action of participating landowners in any district.  The Rockland district was formed in 1977 following enabling legislation.  These special districts provide community benefits in the form of protection of the character of the community and continued rural uses of the land, potential tax benefits for participating landowners, and restrictions on government actions within the district, such as special review for any eminent domain or use restrictions that may adversely affect it.

The renewal request, for a period of 10 years, includes 196 parcels in the Rockland district, 35 in South River, and 20 in Limeton.  The Planning Commission voted unanimously to forward the package to the Board of Supervisors recommending their approval of the continuation of the districts.

Once the work session was concluded, the planning commission regular meeting was called to order.  Once the agenda and the minutes of the previous meeting were approved, Chairman Myers opened the floor for public presentations, and there were none.  Opportunities for public presentations are included at every Planning Commission meeting and intended to allow any member of the public to address relevant planning issues to the commission that are not included on the regular agenda.

The Public Hearing portion of the meeting opened with the review of a request by property owners Kevin and Renee Roig, and Daniel and Samantha Nobles, for a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental of their property at 2686 Panhandle Road in the Fork Magisterial District.  The property is zoned Agricultural.  The applicants purchased the property as a second home for their own use and determined to help offset the maintenance and operating costs by offering Bed & Breakfast accommodations through Airbnb.  There is no Property Owners Association for this property and all setback requirements have been met.  The home is 948 feet from the nearest dwelling.  The Applicants have been working with the planning department to provide all required documents and the conditional use permit will require compliance with all county ordinances, identifying prohibited activities, health department requirements, with occupancy requirements not to exceed 6 persons.

Resident Randy Weir weighs in. Photo/Stephen Sill

Chairman Myers opened the floor for public comment, and there were eight neighboring residents who offered their input on the request – Their comments ranged from concerns about unknown persons wandering around the neighborhood to noisy activities to potential trespassing, to potential increased traffic on a very rural road with mountainous terrain, to the endangerment of livestock, to general complaints about the use of the property as a “business”.  All the speakers were opposed to the permit being approved.  A former owner of the property indicated that the installed septic system required several treatments and was concerned that guests may not perform the required treatments and thereby endanger the groundwater that the system was designed to protect.  A recurring theme of the comments was that allowing this use of the property would not be in character for a close-knit neighborhood of long-standing.

Once all comments had been made, the Chairman closed the public comment period and asked the applicants, represented by Renee Roig and Samantha Nobles, to respond to the comments from the neighbors if they wished.  The applicants began by expressing their appreciation for the input and for the attention of the planning department and the commission for allowing them to comment.  They stressed their desire to be part of the community – acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic had restricted their ability to have more communication with their new neighbors.  They assured the commissioners that their original and primary reason for the purchase of the property was as a second home for their families’ use, given that it is only an hour and a half drive from their homes.  They indicated that their intent was to fulfill any requirements that would allay the fears of their neighbors about the use as a tourist rental, including screening of guests and prohibiting any dangerous activities such as shooting, open fires, or fireworks. Finally, they reminded the commissioners that if the permit was not approved, they still intended to use the property as a getaway home for their own families.

Chairman Myers thanked the applicants for their comments.  He reminded the audience that the Virginia legislature has declared that Short-term tourist rental is not considered commercial use and that, on the other hand, a long-term rental is a by-right use.  A tourist renter who is a problem is likely to be very temporary, but a long-term tenant can be a far greater problem.

Vice-Chairman Henry also commented that short-term tourist rentals often improve a property and its environment since they have to be maintained to a high standard to attract guests.  He also cautioned against viewing profit as a bad thing, and that there is a need for balance in assessing the impact of use on the community.

Commissioner Beall pointed out that a person is entitled to use their own property as they see fit, so long as the use is legal.  But she had mixed feelings about the situation.

Commissioner Kersjes asked if the septic system was compliant, and vice-chairman Henry responded that it was, but it did require some additional maintenance to operate properly, and it could be beneficial to make that an additional condition for issuance of the permit, along with any others that would be appropriate.

Chairman Myers reiterated that approval of the permit application is only a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, who has the final approval authority.

Matt Wendling from the Planning Department told the commissioners that markings for property lines, rules of behavior for guests, and emergency contact information would be included in the Property Management plan, required as a condition of approval.

Vice-Chairman Henry then asked if the motion to approve could be amended to include additional requirements, such as septic system maintenance or other restrictions.

Vice-Chairman Henry offered an amended motion to recommend approval, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, approved unanimously.

The commission then turned to the second public hearing on the agenda, that of a Zoning Ordinance text amendment, to amend Chapter 180 of the Warren County Code (Zoning Ordinance) to add “rural events facility” as a use allowed by conditional use permit in the Agricultural (A) zoning district.  After a reading of the amended text, Vice Chairman Henry offered a motion to recommend approval of the text amendment to the Board of Supervisors, Commissioner Kersjes seconded.  The motion was approved unanimously.

The commission then considered a request for a conditional use permit for a rural events facility on Lee Burke road in the Fork District that would host weddings and other events on a 41-acre parcel of agricultural land.  The Applicant, Shelly Cook, wishes to incorporate these events in the agricultural setting and has developed a plan for its use that is undergoing engineering at this time.  Planning Staff recommends that if the Planning Commission recommends approval, that conditions such as compliance with all Health Department, VDOT, and Warren County Fire and Rescue requirements, as well as those of the Planning Department.

Chairman Myers then opened the floor for public comments.  There were 4 speakers who expressed support for the project in general but were concerned that they did not have enough information about the final placement of the event facility on the project.  The applicant explained that the engineering work was not yet complete, but that the placement would be in a location approved by the Planning Department.  Some concerns regarding music, lights, alcohol consumption, and hours of operation were raised by the commenters.  The applicant explained that the facility itself would not be serving alcohol, and individual vendors would have to serve in compliance with all applicable laws.

The Chairman then closed the public hearing and turned to the commissioners for any questions or comments.  Commissioner Kersjes raised the issue of proximity to the senior living facility on the adjoining property and asked if the light or music might create an issue for the residents there.  The applicant indicated she had spoken with the onsite manager there, but not with the facility owners, who are out of state.  The onsite manager indicated no conflict with it.  Vice-Chairman Henry asked if the applicant had subdivision rights for the property should this use not work out.  The applicant indicated she did.

Following the discussion, Vice-Chairman Henry made a motion to recommend approval, seconded by Commissioner Longo.  The motion was approved unanimously. The Commission then considered two requests for Authorization to Advertise for public hearings.

David and Nita Sudlow are requesting a Conditional use permit for a Chapel on their property at 6435 Strasburg Rd, in the Fork Magisterial District.  The chapel is to be located in a structure that was a garage.  The chapel will not be a formal church but will be limited to groups of 49 or less.  Commissioner Kersjes offered a motion to approve an authorization to advertise for a public hearing, Commissioner Longo seconded.  Approval was unanimous.

Finally, the commission considered a second conditional use permit for David and Nita Sudlow for a guest house in an existing structure on the same property.  The project will require an upgraded septic system that meets the Virginia Department of Health Requirements.  Vice-Chairman Henry offered the motion to approve the authorization to advertise, Commissioner Kersjes seconded.

The Chairman then made comments regarding the need for better traffic control at the corner of John Marshall Highway and High Knob road.  Planning Director Logan acknowledged the concern and reminded the commissioners that VDOT approval is a lengthy process and the problem is one of long-standing.

Previous articles in the Royal Examiner have addressed the most critical problem with that intersection:

“Driver inattentiveness is a serious issue on the approaches to High Knob, complicated as they are westbound from Linden by a blind hill approach to the entrance, and from the east and Front Royal by a looping curved approach.” – Roger Bianchini, November 19, 2018

Planning Director Logan also announced the retirement of longtime Planning Department Administrative assistant Cindy Kokernak, who will be greatly missed.

Chairman Myers adjourned the meeting at 9:00 PM.



Driver inattentiveness cited at top of safety issues in Route 55 E corridor

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