Come November, Front Royal citizens have the chance to elect three new members to Town Council, as well as seating a new mayor. Terms for Gary Gillispie, LeTasha Thompson, and Amber Morris all expire December 31, 2022. The mayor’s seat, which is for a two-year term, will also be up for grabs. For those of you who find yourselves less than enchanted with how the town government is being run, it is a chance to move toward positive change, and not necessarily just by voting.
Running for office is not that difficult but does require some planning. Anyone planning a run should have been a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia for one year immediately preceding the election, be registered to vote, and by filing time, be a resident of the Town of Front Royal.
Considering one meets those criteria, Warren County Director of Elections & General Registrar Carol L. Tobin can supply potential candidates with a packet of information that contains necessary forms and information needed. Her office is located at 465 W 15th Street, Suite 800, Front Royal, VA 22630, in the Health and Human Services Complex at the old middle school site.
Council has dealt with several controversial issues in the last several years, and any of them could inspire voters to go in a new direction when choosing someone to represent them. Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick fired several employees, calling it “right-sizing” town government. He also axed the Visitor Center staff, eventually farming out tourism services to a contractor who lives at the opposite end of the state.
And then there were some legal wranglings: a longtime employee of the town filed sexual harassment and retaliatory firing suit in 2021; local Beer Museum owner David Downes filed a lawsuit against the town regarding off-street parking; and citizen Paul L. Aldrich sued the Town Council and Jacob Meza, who was appointed after not running for re-election, to fill a vacant seat created by Councilman Holloway’s mayoral win. Aldrich contended the appointment violated a Town Code prohibition on council members being reappointed for one year after leaving council. Meza eventually resigned his seat, leading to Morris’s elevation to the council.
Following a $24,500 fee to search firm Baker Tilly, a new town manager was hired. He then hired someone with whom he had worked before as the “Public Information Officer”, at $125 per hour, with no input from the council.
Currently, the town council has agreed to pay another $24,500 to Baker Tilly to secure a town attorney. Many are puzzled by that move because municipal attorneys are typically hired from a local pool, as they are familiar with the workings of the community and its government.
Royal Examiner reached out to Mr. Holloway, Ms. Thompson, Mr. Gillispie, and Ms. Morris, regarding a 2022 campaign. Only two responded. Ms. Morris said, “I am evaluating my options to continue my public service to our community. I will be making a definitive decision in the coming months.” Ms. Thompson said, “I am currently undecided.”
Ms. Tobin indicated via email Tuesday that no candidates have filed yet to run for council seats in the November 8 election.
After discussion following comments of ‘private citizen’ Darryl Merchant on Data Center ‘by right’ concerns, council appears to shift course – better late than never
At its regular meeting of Monday evening, June 27, the Front Royal Town Council faced two issues with potential long-term consequences for the town’s future land use and utility infrastructure needs and costs. Those were public hearings on a Short-Term Rental Special Use Permit (SUP) request under the Town’s new ordinance guiding such quasi-commercial uses in Residential-1 Districts; and on an Ordinance Amendment proposal that would allow Data Centers as a By Right use in Industrial-2 Districts.
In the first case, despite significant citizen and neighborhood opposition, countered by significant support, a 5-0 council majority (Gary Gillispie absent) decided to move forward with approval of the request within the new town ordinance guidelines. That approval was for Alexandria-based Bridget Scanlan’s SUP request for a maximum four-person Short-Term Tourist Rental at 108 Virginia Avenue at its three-way intersection with First Street.
However, on the second matter of allowing energy and water-gobbling Data Centers with a generally low job creation outlook as a “by-right” use rather than on a case-by-case Special Use Permitting review basis, council appeared to reverse its previously chosen course of action. After a first speaker in opposition to the “by-right” aspect of the ordinance proposal, followed by nearly unanimous council concurrence with that concern, council voted 5-0 to return the matter for additional review and re-advertisement for a vote on approval of Data Centers as an Industrial-2 District use by Special Use Permitting. We will focus on this second decision here while exploring the Short-Term Tourist Rental debate in a second story on Monday’s meeting.
The primary public hearing speaker was Darryl Merchant, who noted he was appearing as a private town citizen, not in his role as chairman of the town planning commission. But private citizen Merchant’s comments (beginning at the 1:37:15 mark of the LINKED town video) echoed the recommendation of the planning commission, which was to require a Special Use Permit review of any Data Center application for a town industrially zoned location. Merchant began by commending the planning department staff for its background work in setting performance standards for Data Center reviews, adding, “I’m certainly not opposed to Data Centers other than I think it should be a special use and not a by-right use.”
Noting that Data Centers were currently a hot item on the economic development front across the commonwealth, Merchant noted that, unlike many established industrial-zone businesses, data centers were a relatively new and quickly evolving entity. He pointed to the generally huge size of the buildings – “They are massive both in square footage and in height” before moving to the utilities aspect: “Energy consumption is another concern we have. I know I’ve read some public comments from council regarding some of the electric blips (outages) that we’ve currently had; as well as water usage. You know water is a finite resource,” Merchant pointed out of the strain data centers can pose on a host municipality’s public utilities the entire community, industrial, commercial and residential, depend on.
He told council he believed the industry was taking steps to try and reduce that usage in the future, but cautioned that how successful those efforts would be is still an unknown. Merchant also observed that it was somewhat ironic the Town was placing Data Centers in the I-2 District with businesses generally providing a significant employment base for a community, while data centers generally provide a relatively small number of jobs for the local work force.
As to any fears that imposing the additional SUP review criteria might deter major players from considering Front Royal as a possible data center destination, Merchant pointed east. “You know Amazon just recently … submitted an application for a Warrenton site; and Warrenton does use the Special Use provision for approval,” he said in closing.
Having filed to run for a seat on council in November’s Special Election to fill the remaining two years of Scott Lloyd’s vacated term (current appointee Amber Morris filed to run in the three-seat general election), Tom Sayre followed Merchant to the podium for one of his three campaign, we mean public comment, trips to the podium. Sayre acknowledged his agreement with Merchant’s observations on the low employment numbers data centers provide. He estimated an average of 5 to 20 jobs, with 20 being a “high side” estimate, he observed. “So, I suggest you take a hard look at data centers,” Sayre concluded.
The public hearing completed, Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell again chairing a meeting for absent Mayor Chris Holloway, put the matter to council. Amber Morris made an initial motion to “defer the item to a work session”. Cockrell seconded the motion, opening the matter for council discussion. Morris opened that discussion (at the 1:42:55 mark of linked video) noting a 20-year gap in council review of Industrial-zoned properties in town, calling them somewhat “random” in nature at this point. She also suggested not jumping the gun on major zoning decisions with the current Town Comprehensive Plan Review underway.
In turn, Vice-Mayor Cockrell (video 1:44:08), Joseph McFadden (1:45:55), Zach Jackson (1:46:47) agreed with the planning commission and private-citizen Merchant suggested change to requiring Special Use Permit review for data center applications into I-2 zoned properties.
But with council poised to vote on Morris’s original motion to return the matter to council work session discussion, Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett suggested more precise motion wording to forego the necessity of a second public hearing, with the advertised public hearing having been closed. Morris gave it another try, amending her original motion to defer a vote on the proposed ordinance amendment to the July 25 council meeting following discussion at a July 11 work session. With council again poised for a vote, McFadden, who had seconded Morris’s reworked motion, wondered at the necessity of a month’s delay on a vote.
Noting an apparent consensus on the change to requiring the SUP review for data center applications, why not just go ahead and vote on an amended motion requiring SUP review of data center applications, McFadden asked. Town Manager Steven Hicks replied that the additional time would allow staff additional time for a review of standards, which led Morris to point to the planning staff review and subsequent planning commission recommendations that had already been made. McFadden also worried that “if we kick it down two meetings … politics comes into play …” as to influence on council’s decision-making process.
But after a brief conversation with Assistant Town Attorney Sonnett, Town Manager Hicks informed council that due to the way the proposed ordinance amendment had been advertised as a vote on by-right approval, a newly worded proposal would have to be advertised for another public hearing anyway. With additional questions looming (1:52:20), Hicks elaborated that following council work session discussion, the staff recommendation would be that the ordinance amendment proposal be returned to the planning commission. Planning Director Lauren Kopishki noted that would likely throw the matter into August for council approval of an adjusted ordinance amendment on data centers.
So, Morris went again, withdrawing her earlier amended motion to be replaced by one reading “That council send back Public Hearing item 7-E, an Ordinance Amendment to Town Code Chapter 175 to add Data Centers to make this by Special Use Permit only.” That motion was approved by a 5-0 vote – and here we go again.
Town Council-Town EDA Board discussion of future operational dynamics recalls recent past experience – but what can be learned?
During a joint meeting of the Front Royal Town Council and the recently created unilateral Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) Board of Directors on Wednesday, June 22, the two bodies reviewed the draft Bylaws developed for FREDA operations and any necessary adjustments to Town Code Chapter 16 regarding operations of a municipally created Industrial Development Authority (aka Economic Development Authority).
Dominating the conversation were issues of:
1 – Operational autonomy of FREDA in conducting its economic development initiatives based on guidelines provided by the town’s elected officials. Given its “marching orders” by council, would the FREDA board have to first bring every step toward economic development or retention to council for an “Okay” prior to moving forward, FREDA Board Chairman Rick Novak asked.
2 – Potential conflicts of interest of town staff in serving in roles under the auspices of both the town council and FREDA Board of Directors. Town Manager Steven Hicks also is serving as executive director of FREDA. Councilwoman Amber Morris asked of potential problems in that regard, what if in his EDA role Hicks participated in a closed meeting with a prospective FREDA client in which there was a non-disclosure agreement. Would that prevent the town manager from reporting to council relevant information on the FREDA initiative. Morris, who spearheaded the conflict of interest discussion, also questioned the advisability of having the same legal counsel represent both the Town and FREDA.
3 – Possible Town financial liability for its EDA’s actions, investments, and contractual arrangements.
4 – And an Operational Budget for FREDA to be determined by the town’s elected officials. Created as an economic development agent for the Town of Front Royal, FREDA is starting out with no financial or real estate assets of its own.
Town taxpayers might recall that well over a decade ago after council voluntarily withdrew its previous level of direct oversight of FR-WC EDA operations, the County took over full operational funding of the half-century old joint Town-County EDA. At that point the Town’s financial obligation revolved around its debt service on projects the FR-WC EDA oversaw and financed on behalf of the Town, like construction of the new police station.
As recently noted at a Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting by County Administrator Ed Daley, the FR-WC EDA still exists legally, just without any participation on the town government side. FREDA’s creation as an alternative to continued Town involvement in a post-scandal, restructured joint Town-County EDA, came in the wake of a council majority’s decision during the approximate year-and-a-half interim mayoral and town manager tenure of Matt Tederick to refuse offered good-faith negotiations to determine who was owed what in the wake of the FR-WC EDA financial scandal uncovered in 2018.
Rather, over the objection of then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, a Town leadership majority decided to initiate hostile litigation against the newly restructured FR-WC EDA seeking self-determined losses and claiming a lack of liability for any financial scandal losses. Anyone recalling a town council majority’s approval of then-EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s request for what ended up being a four-month $10-million “bridge loan” (the last 3 months without interest compensation) to enable the ITFederal bank loan might wonder how that lack of liability argument might go in the courtroom.
Talk about potential legal advice conflicts of interest – THERE might be a glaring example of one that might have been. The now-dueling civil litigations between the Town and FR-WC EDA remain unresolved at the Circuit Court level. The $10 million ITFederal loan is the largest single claim in the FR-WC EDAs’ civil litigation attempt to recover about $21-million in believed embezzled or fraudulently attained assets.
But it wasn’t past actions leading to the creation of FREDA on the table at Wednesday’s joint meeting, as noted above, it was FREDA’s operational, structural, and financial future. And with decisions unresolved on several fronts, the two boards scheduled another joint meeting for Wednesday, July 13, tentatively from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Council present, Mayor Holloway and Joe McFadden were absent, agreed that most, if not all, major decisions should be made by the end of July.
“I agree, I don’t want to take two years to set this up,” Councilwoman Morris said in support of Letasha Thompson’s suggested July deadline on budget and staffing decisions.
Hooked into the meeting remotely was Interim Town Attorney James “Jim” Cornwell Jr. Cornwell referenced experience with 14 jurisdictions and their EDAs, only one of which had separate legal council than its founding municipality – “But it’s up to you,” Cornwell told council of potential conflict of interest issues.
The Town’s experience with the still unresolved $21 million joint Town-County EDA financial scandal and resultant civil and criminal litigations was also discussed. Cornwell suggested not overreacting. “I know that the Warren County-Town of Front Royal EDA, to use the vernacular, went to hell in a hand-basket. There are probably (here his remote transmission went garbled, but seemed to say – ‘a hundred or more’) EDAs, IDAs across Virginia that function very well as independent entities … and in the public good. They stay in contact with their appointing entities, I think I told you once before, the only way you can control the entity is by putting people on there you trust to do the job; and second by financially controlling them.
“I know there is some concern, and I recognize that,” Cornwell continued of the joint EDA financial scandal experience, adding, “But by putting good people on the EDA you won’t have those problems … You don’t want to be too gun-shy because of what happened before.”
“Thank you, Jim, I agree,” Thompson replied, followed by Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell, chairing the meeting for the absent mayor, to add her thanks to Cornwell for his input. However, the vice-mayor added this observation: “Even though we don’t anticipate the same thing, obviously is going to happen here, we do answer to our citizens, and they are gun-shy, for the right reasons I might add.”
Berry Brown v. Town of Front Royal case dismissed, but who won?
Nearly 18 months after former Clerk of Council Jennifer Berry Brown filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Front Royal for alleged sexual harassment by former Front Royal Councilman and Vice-Mayor William Sealock and subsequent wrongful termination by the Town, the case has been dismissed, after Brown’s legal team filed a stipulation of dismissal in the U.S. Western District of Virginia Court in Harrisonburg.
Attorney Timothy E. Cupp, of Harrisonburg firm Shelley Cupp Schulte, P.C., filed a stipulation of dismissal on Berry Brown’s behalf today, which stated, “Plaintiff, Jennifer Berry Brown, and Defendant, Town of Front Royal, Virginia, by and through their undersigned counsel, hereby agree and stipulate, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(a)(1)(A)(ii), that the entire action and all claims in Plaintiff’s Complaint are hereby dismissed with prejudice as to future action, with each party to bear her or its respective costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees.”
Royal Examiner reached out to Ms. Berry Brown and Mr. Cupp; both declined to comment. The Town of Front Royal’s attorney in the case, Heather K. Bardot, did not respond to a request for comment.
Often, a stipulation of dismissal is filed in cases where both parties come to a settlement. A former town council member familiar with the case said recently they believed that the town’s legal team was trying to reach an agreement with Ms. Berry Brown, which would end the lawsuit without going to trial.
Berry Brown filed a civil complaint in federal court on Jan. 4, 2021, claiming sexual harassment by former Front Royal elected officials and wrongful termination from her job as clerk of council as retaliation for filing a complaint with the Town Human Resources Department.
A civil jury trial was slated to be held May 31-June 3, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg before a series of March filings caused U.S. Judge Thomas T. Cullen to continue the trial. It was initially set to begin on February 22, 2022, before being continued to May 31.
Interestingly, at a Special Meeting called prior to a Monday, June 13 work session, Town Manager Steven Hicks presented a request to the Front Royal Town Council for a late Fiscal Year-2022 Budget Amendment to allow the transfer of $150,000 from General Fund Reserves for the payment of “legal fees” through the Town’s liability insurance carrier. The motion was subsequently approved.
Royal Examiner’s Roger Bianchini, who covers the council, wrote in a recent story, “There was no discussion of the matter prior to the reading of the motion and vote. The staff agenda summary and prepared motion note that the $150,000 payment will be made to the Virginia Risk Sharing Association (VRSA) ‘for legal fees’ related to litigation.” VRSA was named as a second respondent in the Berry Brown lawsuit against the Town and has been represented by Andrew S. Willis and John B. Mumford Sr., of Glen Allen.
Bianchini followed up with Steven Hicks, town manager, who deferred a question on the destination of those legal fees to Finance Director B.J. Wilson, who said that further information on the $150,000 payment to VRSA was not available.
Bianchini, who contributed to this story, said Wednesday, “Authorization of $150,000 in additional fees to the Town’s liability insurer and co-respondent in the Berry-Brown case, followed a week later by an agreed-upon dismissal – coincidence?”
After grilling Schools officials over budget variables, supervisors maintain distance from Farms Sanitary District management critics
Two items dominated the June 14 work session agenda of the Warren County Board of Supervisors: 1/ the Public School budget transfer and funding requests at the end of current Fiscal Year-2022, and approval of an FY-2023 budget prior to the end of this fiscal year in two weeks; and 2/ staff reports on financing and decision-making processes on projects in the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District.
A third matter, related to the latter Farms Sanitary District agenda item – questions about the county’s elected official’s decision-making processes regarding the present and future of Farms Sanitary District management from disgruntled Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) LLC membership and its elected board of directors went largely unanswered. That was the verdict of several POSF members both inside and out of the Warren County Government Center (WCGC) following the final hour-and-twenty minutes of the 6 p.m. work session devoted to Farms issues.
County Administrator Ed Daley did answer some of the pre-submitted questions printed out as part of the agenda packet. However, pressing ones to the mind of Farms property owners engaged enough to participate in the voluntary membership POSF, were left unaddressed. And due to a unique perspective on the conduct of work sessions, at least from this reporter’s 30 years covering the local municipal governmental beats, by board Chair Cheryl Cullers, the opportunity to seek answers to all those pre-submitted questions was not offered to those citizens present.
Reviewing a code of conduct, Cullers made it clear at the outset that there would be no direct input by or Q&A between citizens present and the board during the work session. In fact, when POSF Board Chairman Ralph Rinaldi attempted to inject some clarifications to what he asserted were misperceptions on past POSF involvement in Sanitary District management, or advisory service to the County between 2011 and 2022, Cullers initially tried to cut him off before allowing him to inject two, brief factual clarifications. As this reporter told Cullers following the meeting, historically at both Town and County work sessions public input during work sessions has been at the discretion of the board chairman. And our experience dating back to the last century is that work sessions are often called to allow that additional degree of back and forth between citizens and their elected representatives on specific issues not generally offered by the meeting Public Comments format in which the board responds to citizen comments on non-agenda items are generally not made on the spot.
“I guess it’s a matter of interpretation,” Cullers replied, noting the work session agenda item had been “advertised as a presentation” by staff on aspects of Farms Sanitary District management.
But the current board chairman’s “interpretation” of work session dynamics left a bad taste in the mouth of several POSF members present, including one, Tracie Lane, who noted she had submitted one of what is now seven applications the supervisors have received for what is to be a five-person Shenandoah Farms Advisory Board. That supervisors-appointed board will replace the advisory function the member-elected Board of Directors of the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms has performed for the last 11 years.
“What do you think the chances are I’ll be appointed,” Lane asked this reporter with a “slim to none” look on her face following the meeting. “We are whistleblowers,” she added of her perception of the POSF’s input as the County’s past advisory role partner since 2011 when POSF relinquished its role as the Sanitary District’s first management entity from the 1995 creation of the Farms Sanitary District into 2011.
And it is the current county supervisors and their appointed Sanitary District management staff that many in the POSF believe are poised to blow the whistle on flawed choices on cost-effective expenditures of Sanitary District tax revenue on road maintenance and repair; and as some like Joe Longo have alluded, perhaps even unauthorized and potentially legally questionable movement of Farms Sanitary District tax revenue to uses outside the district.
So, while County Administrator Daley did answer pre-submitted questions on the appointment process and meeting logistics of the Advisory Board being put in place to replace the POSF’s role, more telling questions went unaddressed. Those included why the board or its administrative staff have not even responded to seven POSF requests for a joint meeting in the wake of its effort to regain district project management control with its notice of termination of the 2011 Agreement by which POSF, as then and again Chairman Rinaldi has pointed out, voluntarily handed management of a Sanitary District annual budget approaching a million dollars over to the County. Also submitted but unanswered were questions on where large sums of Sanitary District tax revenue have been moved, why the district’s financial reports are not being made available to POSF, as well as what qualification criteria would be applied to Advisory Board appointments.
And County silence on those most pointed questions submitted as requested did not sit well with Lane and other Farms residents gathered in the WCGC parking lot following the meeting to discuss what they had just seen and heard. Did the fact that questions revolving around the supervisors’ decision to cut POSF out of the Sanitary District management equation it has been directly involved in one way or the other for 27 years indicate county officials are circling their legal wagons in anticipation of a potential civil court challenge of the path it is on?
As Royal Examiner has previously observed, stay tuned “sports fans” to the July 1 turn of the Fiscal Year when the new management system absent the POSF for the first time in 27 years, is poised to take effect.
However, everybody may not be spoiling for a legal fight. POSF Chairman Rinaldi and County Administrator Daley did appear to continue a civil discourse begun in the WCGC meeting room following the 8:51 pm adjournment, in the parking lot indicating at least some level of ongoing communications and efforts at informational exchanges.
It was a long evening for Rinaldi, who pulled double duty Tuesday night as a School Board member present in support of Schools Superintendent Chris Ballenger and School Board Chair Kristin Pence during that hour-and-twenty-minute – 6:10 pm to 7:30 pm – portion of the work session (see a coming Royal Examiner story on the School Board budget discussion). The first two agenda items, presentations by Assistant Finance Director Alisa Scott on first, Health Insurance Consulting Services; and second, on a switch to the Virginia Risk Sharing Association (VRSA) for a wide range of insurance, including liability, coverages, took a total of 10 minutes at the meeting’s outset.
See the entire county board-school board discussion of requested budget transfers to enable bonuses for staff who pulled additional duties last year during ongoing consequences and staffing shortages related to COVID, among other budget variables beginning at the 9:23 mark of the linked County meeting video thru the 1:30:00 mark, at which point the meeting adjourned for a short break. The above-referenced Farms portion of the meeting, featuring presentations on finances and maintenance and road improvement projects by Finance Director Matt Robertson, Public Works Director Mike Berry, and Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt, begins at the 1:30:20 mark and continues near the meeting’s end where a date and time – 6:00 pm Thursday, June 23 – for interviews with Farms Sanitary District Advisory Board applicants, as well as some to fill FR-WC EDA Board vacancies, is discussed.
Does Robertson answer POSF questions on the Farms Sanitary District’s tax revenue uses and movement? – You be the judge, though perhaps an easier resolution could be ascertained if Robertson had been asked to respond directly to the Sanitary District financing questions submitted by citizens in introducing his presentation.
Town Planning Commission has mixed reaction to Short-term Tourist Rentals, Data Centers
At its regular meeting on June 15th, The Front Royal Planning Commission tackled two new Special Use Permit (SUP) applications for short-term tourist rentals and a proposed Zoning Ordinance change to accommodate data centers. Reversing the traditional order of its meetings, the commission considered three items in a Consent Agenda for authorization to advertise public hearings. In a consent agenda, the individual items are not voted on separately, but as a group with a single decision. Two of those were short-term tourist rental special use permit applications, and the third was a Special Exception Application for a private street.
The Short-term tourist rental applications were 425 N. Royal Avenue by Joy Allen and Patrick Much, and 18 East Stonewall Drive, by Jerry and Martha Britton. The proposed private street request is to help with traffic flow for parcels at 508 Kendrick Lane, adjoining the AVTEX property, by Poe’s River Edge LLC. The three applications will have public hearings at the next regular planning commission meeting on July 20.
The applications for special use permits for this month’s meeting were advertised over the past month:
Hike Properties LLC is requesting a Special Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for their commercial (C-2) zoned property at 201 E. Main Street. The rental unit will be on the second floor, while the main floor is a storefront retail establishment. There were no speakers during the public hearing, and Commissioner Gordon then asked if the parking spaces would be designated as indicated in the application. Planning Director Lauren Kopishke said the applicant would be placing signs on the two spaces approved for that use behind the building. The Commission unanimously voted to recommend approval. The application will now go to the Front Royal Town Council for another public hearing and a vote.
The second public hearing of the night was also for a SUP for a short-term tourist rental. Bridget Scanlon is requesting a permit for her property at 108 Virginia Avenue. The property is zoned Residential multifamily (R-3), but it is configured as a single dwelling. Planning Director Kopishke briefed the commission on the application and indicated that the property had been in operation for a year prior to the application, and prior to the implementation of a short-term tourist rental ordinance.
The public hearing for this application yielded seven speakers regarding the applicant’s request. Dr. Viviano Rodriguez, accompanied by his family, addressed the commission in opposition to the request. The lot is too small for this use, he contended. Parking is limited and access on First Street is very narrow with a three-way intersection. There’s no backyard, and the owner does not live there, he said, adding that the potential for guests to have parties or noisy activities is just bad in a neighborhood with children close by.
On the other hand, Holland Daniels, who lives on West 1st Street very close to the subject property, expressed support for the applicant’s plan. “She has improved that property more than any previous owner,” He said. “It’s beautiful.”
Local resident Bruce Rappaport agreed with Dr. Rodriguez in opposing the application. “The transient effect makes people uncomfortable,” he told the commission, adding, “There’s a housing shortage, anyway.”
In all four speakers opposed the request, and three supported it. When the public hearing was closed, commissioners discussed the application and the safety issues that had been raised. Commissioner Marshner asked if the traffic concerns could be alleviated by the installation of traffic mirrors. It is something the town could study, but the commissioners agreed that it was not
something that could be reasonably expected of the applicant.
Commissioner Gordon reminded the members that the house rules included in the approval package expressly forbade parties or other noisy activities. In the end, the planning commission by a 3-2 margin voted to recommend the denial of the request. “Yes” votes from Commissioners Gordon and Ingram, “No” from Marshner, Jones, and Merchant. Chairman Merchant reminded the audience that the short-term tourist rental is a new practice in Front Royal, and the town is “feeling its way” through the approval process. There was no comment from the applicant after the vote.
The now-somewhat famous Data Center Ordinance then came before the commission. The Ordinance amendment as proposed would allow data centers as a by-right use in the Industrial Employment (I-2) zone. Chairman Merchant opened the floor for a public hearing. There was one public speaker. Bruce Rappaport opposed the by-right provision. “A special use permit helps protect the interests of the community. It means vetting by the planning commission and staff, and it allows the public to be fully involved.”
Once the public hearing was closed, a lively discussion ensued. The definition of a “Green Roof” attracted some questions, and the commission members asked that the definition in the ordinance be adjusted to match that used by the state, that a “green roof” can be either a solar roof or a vegetative roof. The idea is to encourage developers of buildings with large roof areas to create environmentally sustainable coverings that help with energy reductions, and stormwater management. Several commissioners expressed opposition to the use of the by-right terminology and preferred to include conditional use permitting as a requirement in the ordinance. A by-right use can be approved administratively by the town, whereas the special use permit requires planning commission action. Commissioner Jones was also opposed to a use by-right, and Commissioner Ingram questioned the need for a height allowance of 100 feet when the zoning requirement is already 75 ft. In the end, the Commission voted unanimously to amend the motion by making 4 changes:
- Change “by-right” to “by special use permit”
- Define the Green Roof to match the State’s definition
- Remove the restrictions on fence types.
- Removed the building height exception. The maximum height would remain at its current 75 feet.
The commission will still have the opportunity to revisit the issue as a new Zoning Ordinance is expected to be part of the Comprehensive Plan update and presented by early 2023. The town council will now have to take up the question of the planning commission’s amendments to the ordinance amendment proposal.
Town announces ‘Native Plant Restoration’ project along Happy Creek’s banks from South Street north along Commerce Avenue
On Wednesday, June 15, the Town of Front Royal announced the approaching start of restoration efforts of at least a portion of the Happy Creek bank running parallel to Commerce Avenue’s west side from South Street northbound. The cutting down of trees and their replacement with rip-rap rocks along Happy Creek’s banks during the tenure of former Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick without consultation with the Town’s then in-place Urban Forestry Advisory Commission (UFAC) and volunteer Tree Stewards caused a major citizen and advisory bodies push back against the plan and its implementation.
It was noted by members of UFAC, who resigned en masse in protest, and the Tree Stewards who planted and cared for many of the impacted trees, that the rip-rap plan flew in the face of accepted stream riparian buffer strategies emphasizing the positive impact of tree root systems and selected other natural growth on stream bank maintenance and flood control. And while some town officials pointed the finger at the contractor hired to perform the work, that contractor replied that it was simply following the instructions it had been given from town officials in the tree removal effort.
But now about a year-and-a-half after the “not so Happy Creek” public protests illustrated above, the Town is moving forward in concert with its new environmental advisory body and official to reclaim, at least portions of the Happy Creek stream bank to a more natural state. However, there appears to be no indication of a plan to remove rip-rap rocks to allow a larger area to be reclaimed, at least not at this point in time.
See the Town’s release on the approaching work in its entirety below:
The Town of Front Royal will soon begin work on restoring the riparian corridor along Happy Creek from South Street northwards, with leadership and oversight from the Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC). The timeline for this project is estimated to run from July to November of 2022 and will include the following course of action:
- Beneficial native trees that have naturally recruited in the previously denuded riparian area (e.g., Sycamores) will be flagged, protected, and allowed to continue growing naturally.
- An overabundance of invasive and aggressive tree, shrub, and ground cover species that have infiltrated will be removed by manual cutting followed by a targeted herbicide application. Community members should expect to see work crews and machinery removing this vegetation, which is necessary to allow for a Fall planting of desirable native vegetation.
- A select list of native tree, shrub, and ground cover species will be strategically planted in the Fall. There will be opportunities for community involvement during these plantings that will be widely announced closer to that time.
ESAC, the Town of Front Royal, and partnering groups are committed to re-establishing a beautiful riparian corridor that prioritizes the health of our watershed, the natural aesthetics of our town, and the safety of our community. Please stay tuned for additional announcements about this effort over the coming months.
For more information, please contact the Town’s Chief Arborist and Horticulturist, Jim Osborn at email@example.com.