Wednesday’s regular Front Royal Planning Commission was supposed to include a discussion of a completed report requested by the Planning Commission at its September 15 meeting, prior to its public release. Instead, the commissioners puzzled over several dated versions of the report crafted by Town Attorney Douglas W. Napier. The request was for the “Planning Director, or designee, to investigate and determine the facts surrounding the circumvention of the subdivision ordinance regarding Minor Subdivision application FRSUB2852-2021”, submitted by Mayor Holloway’s construction company. Earlier Royal Examiner reporting has revealed that the town attorney was asked to complete the report rather than the planning director, who works for the Town Manager.
In an unusual turn of events, just hours before the Planning Commission meeting, the Town released an earlier version of the report, accompanied by a statement from Town’s Public Information Officer (who knew we had one?) Joanne Williams. In this statement, the Town was oddly ambivalent about the report it was releasing, characterizing it as concluding “there was no wrongdoing by the Town Manager, Administration, staff, or Holloway Construction. While it appeared that more time could have been taken to review requests, the findings indicated that the mayor’s company was not given priority over other projects.”
The text of the report included with the Town press release is somewhat at variance with the language of the press release itself, since it gives a specific example of “at least Implicit pressure” for the interim planning director to sign the re-subdivision plat as soon as it was presented to him. The report goes on to say that “As a result, correct Town Code Procedures were not followed …”
The report attached to the press release further states:
“In the facts set out here, it became clear that there was a desire and pressure for much faster than usual land-use decision approval. This is understandable that a builder would want this.
However, when dealing with complex land use issues, this, in turn, cause significant mistakes being made by Town staff, in the form of approval of a re-subdivision plat and issuance of zoning permits that should not have happened when it did, before it should have, and without the required issuance of a special exception, had those mistakes not been caught after the mistakes were made (grammar in context). Had those mistakes not been caught, the title to those lots would have been bad because the private street accessing the subdivision lots would not have been legal. To Town staff, this rush to approval was seemingly done to please the applicant, even in the absence of any overt pressure having been exerted by the applicant.”
The commissioners were at pains to point out that Planning Director Lauren Kopishke, who took her position after the events at issue had occurred, was really the hero of the piece and prevented a lot of future heartache for the Applicant and the Town. Several commissioners shared their hope that she would get credit for her vigilance.
The Commission eventually agreed to defer action on the report until it is received in its final verified form; can be discussed at a work session, and targeted for approval at the regular December meeting. Commissioner Merchant commended the Planning Staff and Town Attorney Napier for their good work on the report. This reporter wonders whether the final report will be an exact copy of that released by the town. Time will tell.
In other business, the Commission was presented with the FY 2022-2027 Draft Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The plan covers capital improvements to the town infrastructure and is not so much part of the budget preparation process, but it can help prioritize large expenditures in harmony with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Not all items end up in any one year’s budget. The commissioners asked several questions about the commission’s role in developing the CIP. Planning Director Kopishke responded that the commission’s review role helps make sure that items identified in the CIP are also in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan, which is currently under development. The commission voted to table further review and discussion of the draft CIP until its December work session and regular meeting.
The commission also took a first look at a circulating draft of a new ordinance governing short-term tourist rentals in town. The County developed an ordinance and has been approving short-term tourist rentals in the county, so Planning Director Kopishke used the County’s ordinance as a starting point for such a Town ordinance proposal. The Town currently has no such mechanism, so technically facilities like AirB&B and VRBO in the town limits are not operating legally by a Town code, Director Kopishke pointed out. The commission will take up the draft ordinance at its December meeting, and meanwhile, the planning staff will review surrounding communities’ regulatory mechanisms for this phenomenon.
Town Planning Commission adds a member, another short-term tourist rental; sees another attempt on Main Street micro-housing on the horizon
The Front Royal Planning Commission introduced its newest member at its regular meeting on September 21. Daniel Wells joins the commission, replacing retiring former Chairman Douglas Jones, who served on the commission for 15 years. Chairman Daryl Merchant expressed the commission’s appreciation for Mr. Jones’ hard work and long service.
A consent agenda portending a wave of new short-term tourist rental applications was approved for authorizations to advertise public hearings. The following public hearings would be at the Commission’s regular meeting on October 19:
- For Doug Ichiuji, a special use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 200 East Main Street in the Historic Overlay District.
- For Aaron Hike, a special use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 1116 North Royal Avenue in the Entrance Corridor Overlay District.
- For the Minick Group, LLC, a special use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 206 Lee Street in the Historic Overlay District.
Also on the consent agenda for authorization to advertise was a special use permit for SeeSuu, LLC, to convert an existing commercial structure at 131 E. Main Street in the Historic Overlay District to a greater number of dwelling units up to a height of sixty feet. The project description was very short on details, but the preliminary sketches look similar to proposals floated earlier in the year for a large-scale overhaul of the old Murphy Theater building on East Main Street to create a six-story building with 40 housing units as small as 320 square feet (s.f.), none larger than 640 s.f.
The proposal also states that valet parking will be acquired to meet any needed parking space. The description indicates that the first two stories are potentially retail/commercial spaces.
Regardless of how the project plays out, the conversion of such a prominent building in the Downtown Historic District would have a broad impact on the entire downtown and is certain to attract public feedback.
On its action agenda, the commission held a public hearing on a request from Vesta Property Management for a short-term tourist rental at 30 Fairview Court on property zoned Residential One (R-1). The Vesta representative, Chloe Phillips, answered commissioners’ questions. Chairman Merchant asked “for the record” if the rental was going to be owner-occupied. The Chairman has previously voiced his concerns, in particular during the development of the Zoning Ordinance amendment, about non-owner-occupied properties as short-term rentals. The answer was “No.”
Commissioner Gordon noted that the application indicated the applicant intended to rent the whole house, a maximum of six guests, and wondered if the parking would be adequate if the driveway only accommodated two vehicles. There followed a discussion about the language of the ordinance requiring parking “in driveways or other designated areas”. In many neighborhoods, on-street parking is allowed for residents; however, a question remains as to whether on-street parking can be considered a “designated area” for the purpose of short-term rentals. The Vesta representative indicated that the language of the ordinance did lead to confusion about which requirements were applicable to short-term rentals as opposed to bed and breakfast facilities or hotels/motels. Under those sections of the ordinance, owners must provide one parking space per guest room.
After the commissioners had discussed the difficulty of nailing down a specific requirement for parking for short-term tourist rentals, Planning director Lauren Kopishke agreed to take a look at the language of the ordinance to see how it can be made clearer.
On a motion by Commissioner Gordon, seconded by Commissioner Ingram, the Commission voted 4-1 in favor of recommending approval of the application. Chairman Merchant was the dissenting vote. The application will now go to the Town Council for final action.
Chairman Merchant announced that there will be a Civic Pride workshop entitled “Revitalize or Die” sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce on September 27 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Royal Cinemas on East Main Street. The event will feature consultant Jeff Siegler, and tickets are available at the Chamber office at 201 East 2nd Street.
Planning Director Kopishke gave the commission a summary of Planning Department activities for August – 26 zoning permits, 31 Code Enforcement Cases, seven land use applications, four sign permits, and 22 business licenses. Thirty-four new dwelling permits have been issued so far in 2022.
The meeting adjourned at 7:34 p.m.
Additional Public School Budget requests approved as part of Supervisors Consent Agenda
At its regular meeting on Tuesday, September 20, the Warren County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a 10-item Consent Agenda that included three appropriation requests from the Warren County Public School system (WCPS). Approval of the requests, including the transfer of $1,500,256 of $5,714,541 already appropriated into the school system’s Fiscal Year-2023 budget into four specific budget categories, comes in the wake of discussion by the Joint Finance Committee recently established to improve communications and the supervisors understanding of the public schools budgetary processes.
And the fact those requests weren’t pulled for additional discussion would seem to indicate that Joint Finance Committee is successfully accomplishing its mission of improved communications between the school administration and the supervisors who control the local portion of the public schools’ operational and capital improvement budgets.
In addition to the above-cited transfer of $1.5-million already appropriated funds into Administration, Attendance, and Health; Pupil Transportation; Operations and Maintenance; and Technology categories, the supervisors approved the transfer of $1,677,113 from the public schools’ FY-2020/21 surplus to three specific uses; and additional appropriations totaling $207,633 from outside funding sources to Operational/Maintenance and Instructional category use.
The outside source revenues included $38,500 from a “recently awarded Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) grant” to Operations and Maintenance that will allow the school division to contract with a third party to create digital maps of each school that can be used by school administrators and first responders in emergency situations. Another $20,000 received “from additional State Medicaid reimbursements” (to Instruction) will be used to provide a $5,000 annual stipend to instructional assistants with an active Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license.”
And a final $149,133 “from a greater-than-anticipated Federal Title VI-B funding” will be divided in the Instruction category: $33,133 to fund one Special Education Instructional Assistant position, with the remaining $116,000 used to cover special education costs for contracted services and instructional supplies.
The transfer of $1,677,113 in surplus funding from the last fiscal year was authorized for use: To the County’s Capital Improvement Fund for School Projects ($1-million); To the County’s Asset Replacement Fund for School Buses ($409,913); And to be retained by the County in the General Fund Contingency Reserves ($267,200).
Other matters included in the Consent Agenda approval were:
“Approval of the FY-2023 Performance Contract with Northwestern Community Services Board” and “Adoption of a Concurring Resolution Regarding a Financing by the Northwestern Community Services Board”;
“Approval of a Transfer Request and Award Notice” to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office for four vehicle replacements. The previously awarded contract to Hall Automotive of $164,358.60 was approved, along with the transfer of $1,597.86 from an FY-2023 budget line item. The staff agenda summary also noted a previously authorized funding total of $260,000 for the vehicles and operational accessories, with the final cost of $261,597.86 requiring that late line-item transfer.
“Award for Senior Center Phase 1 Restrooms and Mechanical Renovations” in the amount of $393,300 to Lantz Construction Company of Winchester. The Senior Center is being relocated to the 15th Street Health and Human Services Complex at the old middle school site. The staff agenda summary noted a total project cost estimate of $850,000.
Several personnel matters rounded out the Consent Agenda. They included:
The reappointment of Art Saffelle and Thomas McFadden to the Warren County Board of Building Code Appeals, for four-year terms ending September 30, 2026;
The appointment of Gregory Huson to the Shenandoah District seat on the Warren County Planning Commission to fill the remaining portion of the four-year term of Joe Longo, expiring on December 31, 2023. Longo resigned recently over what he called a lack of transparency from the county government regarding the use of Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District tax revenue he asserted may have been transferred, perhaps illegally, to uses outside the Farms Sanitary District.
And the nomination of Christy McMillin-Goodwin for reappointment to the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging Board of Directors for a four-year term ending September 30, 2026.
Earlier in the meeting, one person appeared to address the board on non-agenda matters during Public Comments. That was Linda McDonough, who was critical of a recent “News Letter” she said had been issued by the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) critical of the County’s management of the Farms Sanitary District. And surprise (not really) – long-time POSF critic McDonough berated POSF for the content of its News Letter and lauded the County’s management of the sanitary district.
Following board and staff reports and its approval of the Consent Agenda, at 7:28 p.m., the supervisors moved into Executive/Closed Session. The motion to close indicated discussion of EDA legal matters related to “possible liabilities of the EDA, the recovery of EDA funds and assets, and the outstanding indebtedness of the EDA” as well as the dueling litigations initiated by the Front Royal Town Council over lost asset claims. While the County and EDA had a big month of July with civil case rulings in the EDA’s favor for the return of about $15 million in assets and punitive damages, attorneys for all four civil case defendants found liable have filed motions to overturn the jury verdicts, requiring additional legal expenses to counter those filings. There were no announcements or actions out of closed session, and the meeting was adjourned at 8 p.m.
County Planning Commission recommends data center zoning ordinance amendment to allow data centers by right in industrial and light industrial zones
A combined work session/regular meeting of the Warren County Planning Commission was held Wednesday, September 14. The work session consisted mainly of discussing ongoing work on the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Planning Director Matt Wendling provided the commission members with a sheaf of background information, much of it made available from the 2020 Census data, which has begun circulating for Federal, State, and local government agencies to use for planning and decision making.
Some of the statistical data come with a caveat, however. The margin of error for some categories is 10% of the total value with the warning: “Take care with this statistic.” According to the Census data, the county population is just under 41,000 people, almost exactly half of whom are women. The median household income is $70,000. Warren County lags behind the Commonwealth of Virginia median by over $6,000. Census data for the county can be found here.
The commissioners also discussed the increasing number of applications for short-term tourist rentals in the county. The phenomenon is sweeping the country, and Warren County has more than 100 properties either approved or in the approval process. The Royal Examiner has previously reported on this movement. Investors from the Washington D.C. Metro area find the combination of relatively low sales prices, relatively low property taxes, and the area’s natural attractions as advantages of purchasing properties in Warren County and converting them to tourist rentals.
The question is, what are the long-term impacts on the community? Will property prices be driven up? Will vehicle traffic increase? Will working people who want a home to live in be priced out of the market? What about crime? It really is too early to tell, but some facts should be considered. A short-term tourist rental could bring a property owner between $15,000 and $50,000 annually by renting only weekends. As far as traffic is concerned, transportation studies indicate that short-term tourist rentals actually reduce traffic dramatically over full-time occupied dwellings. And in Warren County’s experience, crimes reported related to short-term tourist rentals so far have been limited to one complaint about on-street parking.
Meanwhile, short-term tourist rentals account for .006% of the housing units in Warren County. For decision-makers and county residents, It is worth continuing to watch for signs that the positives of increasing tourism, improved property condition, and tax revenue are not outweighed by the negatives of inflated property prices, reduced availability of housing for residents, or additional burdens on infrastructure.
Immediately following the work session, the 4-member Commission held its regular meeting and began by considering amendments to the County’s Zoning Ordinances, carried over from its August meeting. In previous public hearings, the commission was urged to require a Conditional Use Permit for such uses as Data Centers to ensure a review process and public hearings for each permit application. The Town Zoning Ordinance amendment eventually approved by Town Council did require a Special Use Permit for such development.
However, the County commissioners chose a different approach than the Town in recommending approval of the Zoning Ordinance amendments by inserting language that made Data Centers a by-right use in Light Industrial (LI) and Industrial (I) zones. All development projects will still require zoning permits, building permits, Health Department and environmental clearances, site plan review, and Board of Supervisor approvals, so citizens will still have input opportunities.
In the entrance corridor Overlay District, if the proposed building would exceed 50,000 square feet, the Zoning Ordinance text amendment would still require a Conditional Use Permit and a public hearing for it. Chairman Robert Myers recused himself from the vote citing his involvement with the development of data centers, and Vice-Chairman Hugh Henry called for the vote, which passed by a 3-0 vote, Myers recused, and one seat was still vacant.
The Commission then turned to the advertised public hearings for permit applications:
1. – Gillian Greenfield & Richard Butcher have requested a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for their Residentially zoned (R-1) property at 1164 Riverview Shores Dr. in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. The applicants cited their experience with Short-Term Rentals, owning and managing multiple properties in Winchester City and Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties. There were no speakers during the public hearing, and on a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval.
2. – Elizabeth A. Saman has applied for a Conditional Use Permit for a Short-Term Tourist Rental at 431 Cindy’s Way. The property is zoned Residential (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Planning Director Wendling told the Commission that the property does not meet the setback requirements outlined in the Zoning Ordinance and that a waiver for that would be required. The property is 85 feet from the nearest dwelling rather than the required 100 feet.
The applicant told the Commission that she had purchased the property as a residence but that her father was undergoing cancer treatment in Northern Virginia, requiring her presence there more regularly, so she made the decision to offer it as a short-term rental to help offset expenses. In contrast to the previous application, this public hearing generated five speakers, all of whom were opposed to the short-term rental. Jonathan Lopez cited repeated instances of guests pulling into his driveway confused about which property was their destination. The applicant’s property is in a cul-de-sac. In the end, on a motion by Vice-Chairman Henry and seconded by Commissioner Scott Kersjes, the commission unanimously voted to recommend denial of the application based on the lack of setback distance. Vice Chairman Henry commented, “The ordinance specified the setback requirement for a reason.”
The application will now go to the Board of Supervisors for a final decision.
3. – Stacy L. Lockhart requests a CUP for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). His property is on Harris Drive in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. Planning Director Wendling told the Commission that the applicant was wanting to bring the property within zoning compliance and would be required to maintain the property in compliance with all Health Department requirements, which include storing all associated materials in a neat and orderly fashion, removing them when not in use, obtain building and zoning permits for any development, structure, or fencing, and post the property with a lot or parcel number for Fire/EMS services. The requirements also direct that there be an emergency egress plan for the removal of Recreational Vehicles or portable commodes before any predicted flood event. There was one letter of support from a neighboring property owner and no other public comment, so on a motion by Vice Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the application.
4. – Jaden & Tori Walter – A request for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 80 River Oak Drive. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the South River Magisterial District. Planning Director Wendling told the Commissioners that the applicants had provided all required documents and the property met the Zoning Ordinance setback requirements. There were no speakers at the public hearing, and the Commission voted, on a motion from Vice-Chairman Henry, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, unanimously to recommend approval.
5. – Vesta Property Management has applied for a CUP on behalf of the property owner, Dori Greco Rutherford, for a Short-Term Tourist Rental at 194 Venus Branch Road. in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. The applicant supplied all required documents, and the property meets the zoning ordinance requirements. There were no speakers for the public hearing, and the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval. The motion was made by Commissioner Richardson, Seconded by Commissioner Kersjes.
6. –Vesta Property Management has also requested a CUP on behalf of owners Chad and Donna Marie Anthony for a Short-Term Tourist Rental at 86 McCoys Ford Road. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the Fork Magisterial District. The Application package was complete, and the property met all other requirements. There were again no public speakers, so Vice-Chairman Henry offered a motion, seconded by Commissioner Kersjes, and the Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
7. – Jeffrey Steven Taylor has applied for a CUP for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). The property is a vacant lot located on Howellsville Road. and zoned Residential (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. This application drew significant opposition from neighboring property owners, who cited the present condition of the lot as an eyesore as the rationale for opposing the permit. The applicant acknowledged that the property’s appearance needed to be improved but that he had been wrestling with several issues with registering the RV on the site and with the cleanup.
His intentions were to use the property recreationally, but his personal circumstances have precluded him from doing that so far. Planning Director Wendling told the Commission that approval of a permit would allow the applicant to bring in power for his camper and build an accessory storage structure with the issuance of a building permit. In the end, the voices of the neighboring property owners prevailed, and on a motion by Commissioner Kersjes, seconded by Commissioner Richardson, the Commission voted to recommend the denial of the permit.
The Consent Agenda was for Authorization to Advertise three Conditional Use Permits and a Rezoning request for public hearing:
- For Ryan Wesley Eshelman – A request for a CUP for a Commercial Repair Garage with Single Family Dwelling. The property is located at 1034 Rivermont Drive in the Fork Magisterial District.
- For Cindy L. Duvall – A request for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental. The property is located at 197 Marissa Court in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- For Jay Newell – A request for a CUP for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- For W.P. Associates –c/o Ray M. Pennington III – A request for rezoning from Residential One (R-1) to Agricultural (A). The properties are located in the Blue Ridge Reserves subdivision and are vacant lots in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
These applications will be advertised for public hearings at the next planning commission meeting on October 12.
Finally, the Commission reviewed a final plat for a class B subdivision of 9 lots for Strawberry Fields Farm, LLC off Route 631 (Gooney Manor Loop) in the South River Magisterial District. After a brief discussion, the Commission unanimously approved the plot plan.
The Commission adjourned at 8:15 p.m.
After hour delay to achieve a quorum, council quickly approves three CUP requests, two for Short-Term Rentals, before convening to work session
The Monday, September 12, Special Meeting of the Front Royal Town Council began with an hour’s delay with only two council members present (Thompson, Gillispie), along with Mayor Holloway at the called 6 p.m. starting time. The Special Meeting was scheduled to accommodate three public hearings originally scheduled for the August 22nd meeting, a meeting canceled for lack of a physical quorum.
At 7 p.m., the September 12 meeting convened with four of its current five members present in the Town Hall main meeting room. Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell and Amber Morris joined Letasha Thompson, Gary Gillispie, and Mayor Chris Holloway, with Zach Jackson absent. Controversially resigned/un-resigned member Joe McFadden was also present, maintaining his string of appearances despite council’s late (Aug. 29) acknowledgment of his August 8 verbal resignation rescinded in writing four days later.
With its quorum achieved with the necessary four active members physically present council got down to its meeting business prior to convening to a work session to discuss coming meeting topics and ongoing projects. First up of three Special Use Permit (SUP) requests was Ramzi Beidas’ for two residential “dwelling” units on the ground floor of his property at 650 West 11th Street. According to the agenda packet staff summary, there are currently two dwelling units on the second floor of the two-story building in the Commercial-1 (C-1) District. The first-floor spaces had previously been used as a brewery and laundromat.
With a Town Planning Commission recommendation of approval and no speakers at the public hearing, Councilwoman Thompson read a motion to approve as presented by staff in the agenda packet with recommended conditions, including resurfacing of the existing parking lot and inspections by council members or designated representatives at “reasonable” times to see that enabling conditions and zoning requirements are met. Her motion was seconded by Vice-Mayor Cockrell. However, after discussing points raised by Councilwoman Morris, the resurfacing and council-ordered inspection requirements were removed on Morris’s amendment to the original motion.
Responding to questions, Planning Director Lauren Kopishke explained that the parking lot repaving condition was inherited by the current owner when he bought the property due to plans of the previous owner to establish commercial uses on the first floor that were never realized. Morris also observed that inspections by council members or their reps seemed superfluous when the regular zoning process, including complaints for non-compliance would lead to staff inspections within existing regulations.
Council agreed, and Morris’s motion to amend the original motion with those deletions, seconded by Thompson, was approved by a 4-0 roll call vote.
Next up was the first of two SUP requests for Short-Term Rentals, this one from Joy Allen and Patrick Masch for a property located at 425 North Royal Avenue. The request is to rent three bedrooms out to a maximum of six people at a time in the C-1 property. On-site parking for up to six vehicles was cited in the staff agenda summary.
Again with a recommendation of approval from the planning commission, this time with no specific conditions, there were no speakers at the public hearing. Councilwoman Morris made the motion to approve, seconded by Thompson. After an observation by the vice-mayor that the wording of “no more than six people at a time” was a tad vague as to how that six-at-a-time might be attained, two per bedroom or six in one bedroom if the other two were unoccupied, council approved the request by another 4-0 roll call vote.
The final public hearing was on Jerry and Martha Britton’s SUP request for a Short-Term Rental at 18 East Stonewall Drive. The applicants are seeking up to eight occupants in four rooms. The staff summary noted onsite parking for three vehicles in a driveway. Council hit the trifecta of no speakers at the public hearing, leading to Councilwoman Thompson’s motion, seconded by Morris, to approve without specific conditions. Vice-Mayor Cockrell inquired if parking would be a problem with three onsite parking for four rental rooms. But with on-street parking also available, the motion passed on another 4-0 roll call vote.
Work Session Agenda
That led to adjournment after 11 minutes. Council then went immediately into its work session with an agenda review of five items slated for public hearings on the September 26 regular meeting agenda; 13 items earmarked for the September 26 Consent Agenda of routine items generally defined as of a “housekeeping” nature, and five items related to ongoing projects.
Those latter five included amending Town Code 142-4.1 to require residential owners or occupants of residential properties fronting Town-owned sidewalk right-of-ways to be responsible for removal of snow and ice from those sidewalks within 24 hours of winter storm events, as commercial and industrial occupants already are required to do. Public comments from a citizen dating to January 24, noting citizens having to walk in cleared streets (in the South St. and S. Royal Ave. area) after a snow event creating a hazardous situation for those pedestrians with passing vehicular traffic was cited in bringing council and staff’s attention to the need for a code update.
Also recommended for routine approval on September 26 was a Resolution of Support for a three-year-term, joint wind energy purchase through the Town’s municipal cooperative membership in American Municipal Power (AMP). The joint municipal power purchase would lock in a $47.50 per MWh (Mega Watt hour) price from October 2022 thru September 2025. The agenda summary noted that “AMP recommends Front Royal commit to a 2 MW purchase to help hedge against the current volatility of the wholesale power market as well as provide replacement power for a scheduled fall outage at the Prairie State Coal Fired Plant.” The AMP membership included 132 municipalities in eight states (Ohio, Pa., Va., W Va., Md., Kty., Ind., Mich., and one joint agency membership in a ninth state (Del.).
The collective purchasing power and member sharing of excess production capacities at reasonable costs has long saved the Town on energy costs. But with a turnover in council membership in recent years and the retirement of some related department heads, council decided to take a harder look at the relative costs associated with its AMP offers and power purchases. The result of that hard look was a staff recommendation of approval of the most recent joint purchase opportunity locking in fixed prices over a three-year term in a volatile energy market. The purchase involves power produced by Locust Ridge Wind Energy out of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Also discussed was the necessity of the Town authorizing the transfer of $1 million from paving projects to the 8th Street bridge replacement project due to VDOT’s readiness through its Revenue Sharing Program to split the $3-million cost of that project 50/50 at this time. The staff summary noted the Town has put aside $500,000 with the intent to provide the additional one million dollars when the project reached VDOT’s list of ready-to-proceed projects, which it now has.
Fourth on the projects list was an update on the Town’s lengthy effort to establish and enact a Property Maintenance Program and codes to enforce a basic standard of property and building maintenance. The staff update on the program included: “Drafted policies/procedures for inspections and blighting properties; LBBCA board advertisement and application form; Updating renter responsibility guide: and Creating property maintenance page on town website.”
Finally, there was an update on policies moving forward with the Town’s unilateral Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA). Council is totally responsible for funding FREDA, unlike the half-century-old joint Town-County EDA the Town withdrew from, in which it had no operational funding responsibilities in recent years, only debt service on its EDA-overseen Town projects. The Town’s withdrawal from the FR-WC EDA was decided upon when council chose to litigate against the joint EDA over lost assets related to the FR-WC EDA “financial scandal” of 2014-18, as opposed to sitting down to engage in offered “good faith negotiations” to determine who was owed exactly what as a result of the alleged unauthorized movement of Town, County, and EDA assets during the tenure of former executive director Jennifer McDonald.
The staff agenda summary noted: “At the August 8, 2022, Work Session, Council requested a future work session to discuss the set up/support of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA), Staff is recommending the October 11, 2022, Council Work Session.”
See the special meeting and work session in part or their entirety in the Town Video labeled “Town Council Special Meeting Sept. 12,” the first 11:30 of which is the Special Meeting, the remainder the Work Session.
Broadband service expansion timeline, costs presented to supervisors prior to Closed Session, including discussion of ‘abolition’ of a sanitary district and non-annexation agreement with Town
Reports from several outside agencies and contractors dominated Tuesday morning’s Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting, prior to adjournment to a multi-topic closed Executive Session.
Those reports began with a status report on processes and scheduling of the Regional Broadband Services Expansion Initiative guided by provider All Points Broadband the County signed onto last year, joining seven other regional communities.
Other reports included an update on moves toward compliance with state or federal mandates on implementation of “Best Practices” policies through the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District regarding pollution in the Shenandoah River as it impacts the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort; the monthly update of Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) work around the county; and a state-required formal update on the County’s Performance Contract and financing of services provided by the Northwestern Community Services Board related to its intent to borrow $2.2-million in funding to acquire a property in Page County for the establishment of an outpatient clinic there. The meeting agenda was amended so that latter report from the NWCSB originally scheduled for a post-meeting work session, could be delivered earlier in the day. That rescheduling was fortunate, as the work session was cancelled in the wake of the power outage at the WCGC.
The remainder of work session updates on various projects is rescheduled for 3 p.m., Friday.
There were no public hearings or new business on the meeting agenda, and other than the above-cited reports, just a 19-item Consent Agenda to precede a five-topic Closed Executive Session. The board pulled two of the Consent Agenda topics for additional discussion. Those were approval of the extension of the county public schools contract for use of the Santmyers Youth Center for the
“Elements Program” for an additional year; and authorization for a public hearing on a text amendment to the county zoning codes to allow Data Centers as a by-right use in Light Industrial-zoned areas.
After some discussion of future plans for youth centers in the community, the board unanimously approved the extension of the Santmyers Youth Center contract for the Elements Program. That program helps special needs students transition post-graduation towards adulthood, according to staff information in the agenda packet.
However, after expressions of concern by board Chair Cheryl Cullers about the “by-right” aspect of the zoning text amendment regarding data centers, on the recommendation of County Administrator Ed Daley, the board tabled a decision on that matter. Daley explained that additional time would allow the matter to go to public hearing before the planning commission for a recommendation, which has not yet occurred as is the normal process on planning matters. The remainder of the Consent Agenda featuring authorization to advertise public hearings on six short-term-tourist rental requests, was approved as amended without dissent.
Lengthy Closed Session
Following its discussion and votes on the above-mentioned pulled Consent Agenda items, the board adjourned to a five topic closed Executive Session at 11:55 a.m., after which no action was taken. It was estimated the closed session adjourned around 2:30 p.m. after a power outage hit the government center. Perhaps most interesting among those closed-door topics were “the abolition of a sanitary district and the Voluntary Settlement Agreement with the Town of Front Royal.”
With variables involving current issues with the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District management and project financing a matter of ongoing closed session board discussion, it would appear the potential of “abolition” of the Farms Sanitary District has been added to that discussion. The 1999 Voluntary Settlement Agreement involved expansion of Town central utility services into the County’s north corridor to facilitate commercial development north of the I-66 interchange without the necessity of a contested annexation battle between the Town and County over portions of the corridor.
Looks like things could be poised to get interesting on a variety of legal fronts for the county government in coming months.
When do I get my broadband service upgrade?
Of interest to what was cited as 2,110 “unserved sites” in poor broadband reception areas in Warren County is a project completion date in July 2025, with physical installation work beginning in the second quarter of 2023. The project involving eight communities, half those in the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC) service area, was called “the largest broadband (expansion) project in Virginia’s history”. It involves eight communities, which in addition to Warren County which authorized participation in June of 2021, includes Frederick, Clarke, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham, Fauquier and Augusta Counties.
NSVRC Director Brandon Davis noted a nearly $97-million grant through the Department of Housing and Community Development towards what he cited as a $300-million investment by the involved communities, their private-sector partners, and governmental agencies that will involve 41,000 “pathings” and over 3700 miles of fiber to be laid over the three-years of infrastructure development, as cited above now scheduled to begin in the second quarter of 2023, with a targeted completion date by the end of July 2025.
Davis introduced remotely linked All Points Broadband Director of Governmental Affairs Kyle Rosner, who traced his company’s logistical path in coordinating development of the huge project.
That project involves, as Davis noted in introducing Rosner, partnerships with utility providers Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, and Dominion Energy Virginia. Rosner noted that all private-sector developmental contracts were in place as of July 26, as the project prepares to transition from the recruitment and planning stages to the nearly three years of infrastructure development.
“As part of this project, the private sector investment in this is over $140 million. When you think about the amount of infrastructure that’s being laid – yea, the state is putting up a big piece of it, which we are very thankful for – but also the private sector is taking some risk here as well. It doesn’t work unless folks sign up for it,” Davis told the county supervisors.
That led to discussion of ongoing dissemination of relevant information in targeted areas to potential customers throughout the county, and region. Rosner pointed to the twice-a-year scheduled presentations to involved county boards, more if requested, as well as public events that will be scheduled as the infrastructure work progresses through the involved counties, as well as media coverage further getting the word out on how to participate for currently unserved broadband citizens.
“I think the number one thing, folks will see us in the field when we are constructing the network, folks will know because they’ll see it on the electric poles. They’ll see a lot of activity in the county.
And then eventually our sales team will move in and be very aggressive in our marketing and sales to insure that every resident in Warren County, whether they want to know or not, will know that
All Points Broadband is bringing fiber broadband to the unserved portions of Warren County. So, the challenge is going to be, probably not getting the word out – but managing expectations, because everybody needs it – ‘and I wish we had it yesterday’,” Rosner explained of an evolving process accompanying the 2023 to 2025 infrastructure development project versus the hope of those in need of the upgrades for a quick turnaround on receiving that service upgrade.
South River and board Chair Cullers recounted her experience being in a statistically unserved area and acquisition of information as the project has been in the planning and developmental stages. “So, it was a real easy process (to access the information). And on my end to make sure, Dr. Daley and I went on Mike McCool’s and did a little video (Royal Examiner Publisher Mike McCool’s Town Talk series) to get the information out. And I just went knock on doors handing out a paper: this is what you need to do; here’s the information. I put my card on it … and since then I’ve been getting a lot of calls and emails of course – ‘When’s this going to happen? When’s this going to happen?’ since December, Cullers observed of her experience of managing constituent expectations.
Addressing “service levels and affordability” Rosner pointed to his company’s involvement in a federal “affordable connectivity program” of $30 per month for qualifying customers. He said the program can be searched online for information on qualifying standards, and will be posted on the company’s website, as well as available from federal sites. While he noted an undiscounted “standard installation fee” of $199, he pointed to discounted prices of $59.99 tied to a 50×50 program involving upload speeds. He also presented charts with standard versus various discounted costs.
North River Supervisor Delores Oates pointed to “a staffing shortage in this country” wondering if that could become an issue in the project hitting its timeline milestones.
“We’re going to be contracting out a large, if not all, majority of the construction work. So, that’s not going to be All Points employees, that’s going to be fiber-construction vendors,” Rosner began, pointing to his company’s position in the state marketplace on this type of work: “We’re a big customer and we pay competitive rates. We have a ton of work, not only on this project, but all around the state. We’ve already developed great relationships with big vendors through our project in the Northern Neck that we’re building currently. So, we feel very confident that we can mitigate those challenges … and meet all the milestones we put forth.”
“Thank you,” Oates said in response to that detailed reply indicating that All Points Broadband wasn’t just going to flip a coin when the time came to see if it had the labor in place to achieve what it has promised time-wise on the infrastructure expansion side of the project.
Town to spend nearly $33,000 on new compensation study
The Front Royal Town Council, at a Monday, August 29, 2022, special meeting, voted to spend $32,500 on a compensation study and employee handbook update. The item was part of a consent agenda, which permits the panel to approve a group of “routine” items rather than addressing each item separately.
Paypoint HR, a Davidsonville, MD. firm, will conduct a comprehensive compensation study and update the Town’s employee handbook. A scope of work outlined in the contract with the Town states that the study’s intent is to ensure that the Town is competitive in the recruitment of new employees and retention of current employees and is “competitive with any competing employees.”
That may be a tall order, as well over 50 percent of Front Royal and Warren County residents commute to Northern Virginia for much higher wages.
Paypoint HR’s Karin V.M. Campbell wrote in the plan voted on by council that she would provide the following:
A. Market Analysis: Perform a market analysis performed for the Town’s classifications and compensations. Conduct a comprehensive benchmark analysis of all Town positions with comparators to include surrounding counties, towns, and cities that compete with the Town’s employment market. Private entities will be surveyed, to the extent that they would be willing to share information on compensation and classifications. Selection of comparators shall be determined by the consultant after consultation with the Town. Preparation and delivery of a detailed report and analysis of the benchmark survey results for all positions compared to the market and how this analysis informs the Town’s pay plans.
B. Development of a Recommended Pay Scale: Develop a compensation plan, the appropriate classification of all positions in the proposed plan, options for implementing the proposed compensation plan in phases, and a pay compression analysis of all Town positions. The recommendations will take into consideration the need for wage adjustments, with the most critical positions being addressed first, and the budget impact of each phase. Develop policies and pay scales that align with the current “market” rate and are informed by the comprehensive benchmark market analysis. Pay recommendations should be externally competitive and internally equitable.
C. Conduct employee outreach: Hold employee orientation sessions to communicate the scope of work and goals. Hold employee focus groups to gain understanding of operations.
D. Gain an understanding of the Town’s existing classification and compensation structure: Review all background materials including, but not limited to, the Town’s Personnel Policies and Procedures, organizational charts, position descriptions and classification specifications.
Review the current Employee Handbook and:
1. Identify which policies are required by Federal and State law and ensure consistency with Federal and State law.
2. Make specific recommendations to simplify the policies and ensure they are consistent and flexible while protecting the Town from liability.
3. Make specific recommendations on which policies present conflicting information.
4. Compare the current Employee Handbook to best practices found in other Virginia municipalities and provide recommendations for improvement. As part of this overall review, emphasis on the employee leave policies.
PayPointHR did a similar study for the Town of Front Royal in 2017 for a $27,750 fee and offered recommendations for five-year and three-year implementation schedules. Royal Examiner’s Roger Bianchini wrote, after attending a presentation on that plan, “The result of the PayPointHR recommendation to the town government was town council adoption of a shorter-term three-year implementation plan (there was a five-year option as well). The three-year implementation was estimated to cost Front Royal a total of $367,707 over three years.”
The break-down given by then-Town Manager Joe Waltz was $123,815 in the first year (FY2018-19) and $121,946 in each of the following years.
Other Consent Agenda items approved at the meeting include:
- $612,933.00 to purchase an electric transformer from the Virginia Transformer Corporation, for use at the Kendrick Substation.
- $21,300 for bridge inspection by the Mattering & Craig Engineering company.
- $448, 982 to Bushong Contracting Corp. for waterline upgrades on Manassas Ave. And Braxton Rd.
- A three-year contract with American Municipal Power (AMP) for electricity at a rate not to exceed $102.55 per Megawatt hour (MWh).
- The waiver of curb, gutter, and sidewalk installation at 1340 Crisman Drive, pursuant to Town Code Chapter 148-850. C. and D.
- Appointment of Daniel S. Wells to the Front Royal Planning Commission to a four-year term beginning September 1, 2022 and ending August 31, 2026.
- Condemnation Resolution for Redundant Waterline in Rt. 522 Corridor.
- Resolution to declare end of Covid-19 as a communicable disease health emergency.