In an exclusive interview with Nelson Mendes, Royal Examiner reporters learned of a history of possible harassment from the County Planning Department targeting Mendes and his next steps to move forward with an appeal.
Nelson Mendes came to Thunderbird Farms to fulfill a dream of owning and operating a tree nursery. Seeking a quieter life from the Northern Virginia area, Mendes and his wife obtained land, cleared trees and started working. Two buildings, storage garages, were already on the property when it was purchased. A hoop house, a kind of temporary greenhouse, has been constructed to aid in the growing of young trees. The large garage has been on the property for four years, and the small garage has been there for three and a half years. In all that time, these structures where not cited for violations.
Then problems came out of nowhere.
The difficulties started when a neighbor complained about Mendes clearing trees from the lot. Mendes claims that this shouldn’t be a concern, as he has agricultural plans for the land. He is using it to grow trees after all.
Mendes didn’t believe he needed a land disturbance permit because his property was agriculturally zoned; however, when he realized he would need one and turned to the county the real trouble began. Mendes was denied his permit because he needed to go through a “thorough review process” which included an erosion and sediment control plan. This led to frustrations as Mendes was cited again and again for buildings which did not follow this erosion and sediment plan, most of which pre-existed Mendes’s ownership of the property.
When the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was sent to review Mendes’s property, they deemed the erosion and settlement plan unnecessary as the land was already safe against erosion. The head of the County Building Code Department, David Beahm, attempted to overrule the State ruling but was shut down by a DEQ supervisor. Mendes proceeded to move forward with working his farm; however, on January 16, 2019, Mendez received a letter of violation from the County Building Code Department on all his structures.
One of the issues was the dock, another structure previously built on the property. Mendes had added a small ramp for launching kayaks and canoes which raised issues. Mendes was reported to the Virginia Marine Resource Commission (VMRC) for the violation concerning the ramp, but again, as with the DEQ, the supervisor at VRMC found no problems with the structure.
Mendes, under the advice given to him by the County Planning Department, filed for several agricultural exemption for the properties that were cited as violating the zoning ordinance. Per a Zoning Determination Letter sent to Mendes on May 1, 2019, the Zoning Administrator found that his Agricultural Exemption Applications, which would have exempted him from obtaining a “zoning permit” were not approved because they lacked residential building permits for the garages and the hoop house.
At this point Mendes began seriously questioning the motives of the County Department and its aggressive nature towards his pursuit of tree farming. Mendez contacted the previous owner, a lawyer, who began to investigate. Since purchasing the property, Warren County officials have referred Mendes’ property to third-party regulatory agencies (DEQ, MRC, FEMA) on three occasions. Two out of three of those occasions resulted in agencies finding that Mendes did not need to take any further action (i.e. DEQ and MRC) whereas FEMA merely required that Mendes install flood-vents on his structures. So why, Mendes wondered, why was he being targeted so harshly.
Mendez researched and determined that his properties were, to the his best understanding, not in violation of any codes established from the state level down to the local. The county website specifically stated that buildings in an agricultural zone and used for agricultural purposes did not require permitting he was told he required. WCC § 180-21 under section A of General Legislation, states “In addition to agricultural pursuits, any one of the following uses is permitted by right on each lot or each tract or combination tracts in the Agricultural District.” Due to the fact that the Mendes property is zoned Agricultural, this regulation, or lack thereof, would appear to apply. In addition, the previous owner had already been approved for one of the structures; a 500 square foot garage.
Seeking information by his right under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Mendes found that in the original letter of violation, his property was part of a county-wide flood plain observation. When he inquired how many properties were involved under this observation, he learned his property was the only one cited with a violation. In fact, Mendes has been the only property charged for violating WCC § 180-16(F)(1)(A) within a six-month period.
Mendes also believes that some questionable actions occurred with the County listing his ramp as a violation. Due to the ramp being so small and his property being at a steep incline, the only way to even know the ramp was there would be to swim upstream or trespass onto the property. Even from the aerial photographs, the ramp is not visible unless you know to look for it. Mendes maintains Fourth Amendment search concerns related to this matter.
Other questionable charges include the request for flood vents on the hoop house and the garages. The hoop house is made of steel mesh and the garages have large open doors in addition to being anchored in concrete, making all three structures flood proof. These charges baffled Mendes.
Mendes is now seeking action by appealing to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on September 5. In accordance with the Right to Farm Act, he is fighting for his right to run his farm how he needs to run it under what his research has shown are within State guidelines.
When asked for comment, Mr. Joe Petty from the Planning Department stated that “From the Planning Department’s perspective, we’ve don’t nothing wrong. This is nothing personal against Mr. Mendes, we simply have a code to enforce and those standards apply to him as they would to anyone else.” Mr. Petty clarified the Planning Department’s side of the issue on several accounts. At the time that the initial letter of violation was sent to Mr. Mendes, his property was the only one being observed. However, since an August 1st meeting, over 50 such letters have been sent out to other properties in the flood plane. In addition to this, Mr. Petty clarified that much of the information gathered that brought violation charges on Mr. Mendes’ structures was obtained by use of the geographic information system (GIS) available to public viewing on warrengis.org. This would explain the Planning Department’s ability to cite structures such as the ramp without being on the property.
Mendes’s next step is a hearing that will contest the County’s requirements that Mendes build his structures to residential standards. He hopes this will lead to a change in the County’s aggressive approach towards him, as well as other businesses for building code enforcement.
Since the Royal Examiner interviewed Nelson Mendes, he has received additional FOIA information he requested from the County. His attorney, Tim Johnson, says it appears that upon a preliminary review it demonstrates that the Planning Department really did selectively target Mr. Mendes.
Even the other floodplain properties, including one other agricultural zoned property with non-permitted structures on it, went through a completely different process than Mr. Mendes: (1) received notices of zoning inspection; (2) had the property reviewed on-site by officials; (3) if any issues, THEN they received the notice of violation AND specific suggestions to be corrected.
Mr. Mendes was only ever cited with violations first, had officials come out to his property 3-4x with no clear guidance at each visit, then still be found in violation when he did do the one thing he was specifically told to do: install the flood vents.
If this case was really about ‘enforcing the code’, and the officials really had any concerns about the property, they had unlimited opportunities to meaningfully address those concerns and work with Mr. Mendes to resolve them to both his benefit as a well-intentioned property owner in Warren and to their benefit to ensure safety.
Whether or not Mendes’ appeal moves forward is yet to be seen, as more information has yet to be provided to the BZA. All will be made clear at the appeal meeting that will be held on September 5th.
Cline for Sheriff fundraising Dinner Party packs supporters into Fire & Rescue Company 1 Banquet Hall
Supporters of long-time Front Royal Police Officer, now Captain Crystal Cline, gathered Saturday evening, February 4th at Front Royal Fire & Rescue Company 1 headquarters for a campaign fundraising Dinner Party with live musical entertainment. It was a large crowd that gathered on the second-floor banquet room from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. to offer their emotional and financial support for Cline’s run for Warren County Sheriff in this year’s November election.
There were live and silent auctions to augment the fundraising. Musical entertainment was provided by headliner “Raised on Analog” in from Winchester and “Old Bailey and the Bondsmen”. The latter opened the musical portion of the event with a familiar face on bass, Kahle Magalis, on his personal rock-and-roll downtime, as were his band-mates, all but one in or retired from public safety professions from around the commonwealth.
Cline is challenging first-term incumbent and former Herndon Police Officer Mark Butler in what appears at this relatively early stage some nine months prior to Election Day 2023 to be a two-person, head-to-head race for sheriff. Royal Examiner asked Cline what led to her decision to run for sheriff this year and attempt to move from town to county law enforcement?
“I never saw myself running for Warren County Sheriff, I thought that I would retire at the Front Royal Police Department. However, I have spent 22-plus years in public safety in this community and have seen a lot of changes throughout the years between the town and county governments and also both law enforcement agencies. I have been absolutely dismayed about the current state of these vital relationships and will fight to do my part to improve upon this. I decided I didn’t have to wait for someone else to step up – I know I am more than qualified to be the next Sheriff and I will prove it on day one when I am elected.
“My campaign platform is crystal clear,” she added drawing on a campaign slogan based on her first name, adding, “It is my desire to serve my community utilizing my leadership experience, education, training and unwavering perseverance to make the Warren County Sheriff’s Office an agency that is respected and trusted by our community, but also the rest of the Northern Shenandoah Valley and the rest of the State once again. There is absolutely no other place than Warren County where I would rather serve and make a positive difference!”
Royal Examiner later asked Cline about the Saturday evening fundraising event. “Last night’s fundraiser was nothing short of amazing! The people came out and packed the house to capacity. We had people showing up in line an hour before the event and had to set out a couple more tables. We sold all or most of our 300 tickets (note: $65 covering food, beverages & entertainment), we had 24 silent auctions and 6 live auctions, including a coconut cake that went for $975 and 18 eggs for $140!
“Everyone had a great time and I felt honored and humbled at the outpouring of support. I really want to give a shout-out to my Crystal Cline for Warren County Sheriff Campaign Committee. They worked super hard to make this a huge success and I will be forever grateful that I consider all of them lifelong friends! Our community members are smart and informed about what has happened in the past three years and want it to improve … They have seen me being visible in the community working and volunteering for 22 years and know that I will continue to be about the people.”
Randolph-Macon Academy Middle School students give back to the community and learn about local non-profits
At the R-MA Middle School, all seventh graders participate in Global Quest, a class that follows a leadership curriculum provided by Lead4Change. Teams of students identify local non-profit organizations that they would like to support, and work together to collect donations. The following is a list of Fall Semester 2022 successes!
House of Hope: Students sold a great deal of candy bars to their fellow students to raise over $150 for House of Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homelessness in the Front Royal, VA.
Humane Society of Warren County: Received many physical donations of animal food and toys to help the local animal shelter. Students delivered the donation to the humane society and had the opportunity to briefly interact with the different animals.
Able Forces: Raised over $600 for local veterans and their families. The Global Quest group received a plaque to honor and commemorate the years of donations by R-MA students and their families to Able Forces.
Semper K9 Assistance Dogs: Raised around $500 for this nonprofit which helps veterans obtain needed service dogs.
What Matters: Received 18 different pairs of cleats to donate to children in Uganda.
Christian Freedom International: Students wrote hundreds of letters to Christians all around the world who face a wide variety of persecution.
Winchester SPCA: Raised some funds for an animal shelter in Winchester, VA.
R-MA Garden: Conducted several fundraising events to gain the funds necessary to reconstitute the R-MA Garden in Spring 2023 (this is an ongoing project).
Total Funds Raised: $1,895.01
Randolph-Macon Academy is a co-ed private school for grades 6-12. We offer a superior university-preparatory curriculum with an elite Air Force JROTC program preparing graduates to pursue lives of meaning and success. Every year, 100% of our graduates are accepted to the best universities around the world with the Class of 2022 graduating 59 students who received over $16.6 million in scholarships. Visit is at www.RMA.edu.
Blue Ridge Technical Center celebrates National CTE Month
Whether aspiring students attending Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) want to be a nutritionist, millwright, industrial machinery mechanic, auto mechanic, drafter, microbiologist, electrical engineer, HVAC installer, an aerospace or nuclear engineer, a nurse, or a welder, then the Blue Ridge Technical Center (BRTC) has the requisite courses to get them started.
Through BRTC’s career and technical education (CTE) courses, students prepare for productive futures while meeting the Commonwealth’s need for well-trained and industry-certified technical workers. And according to the Virginia Department of Education, CTE programs in the state’s public schools serve more than 670,000 students in one or more CTE courses in grades 6-12.
PLTW Biomedical Science is alike those at BRTC that are focused on biomedical science, for instance.
Kelly Racey is one of the two BRTC instructors who teach the Project Lead The Way biomedical science curriculum, a project-based learning system that explores real-world issues through topics like disease, DNA analysis, prosthetic design, public health, and more. Along the way, students gain experience with state-of-the-art tools and techniques that are used by professionals in hospitals and labs every day, Racey wrote in an email to the Royal Examiner.
She provided Warren County School Board members with an overview of the CTE biomed science courses as part of recognizing February as National CTE Month during the board’s Wednesday, February 1 meeting.
The first semester of biomed includes the “Principles of Biomedical Science,” or PBS, which is open to students in ninth through 11th grade. Racey currently teaches the second year, which is human body systems, and Christina White, a patient care tech teacher at BRTC, is teaching the medical interventions section.
During the first semester, Racey said 54 kids enrolled in the PBS class, in which they explored concepts in biology and medicine as they took on the roles of different medical professionals.
Students are exposed to over 60 medical careers as they complete project-based activities, she said, and over the course of the semester, they are challenged in various scenarios to deal with real-world problems as part of the project-based learning system.
“On day one, the students walk into class where they’re asked to investigate a crime scene to solve a mystery of a dead woman,” explained Racey. “It’s a staged woman in my class — just letting people know that!”
In the forensic science unit, students collect evidence, fingerprints, hair, insects, digital phone evidence, and blood DNA. Students also have opportunities to work with the same equipment and tools used by lab professionals, everything from hospital-grade microscopes, micro pipettes, dissection equipment, blood typing equipment, phlebotomy, arms, and DNA electrophoresis, Racey added.
“I always think in ninth grade doing DNA electrophoresis is pretty special,” said Racey, referring to gel electrophoresis, which is a technique used to separate DNA fragments (or other macromolecules, such as RNA and proteins) based on their size and charge.
Students have even made their own lie detector tests and interrogated people with heart rate monitors and respiratory belts, “which was pretty neat,” she added.
Once the forensic science unit is completed, students go right into the medicine part and explore why this woman died. “They do histology of brain tissue. They examine hearts. They dissect hearts,” said Racey. “They know a lot about the heart.”
In the next PBS unit, students diagnose and treat fictional patients by learning to take vital signs manually, everything from heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, even EKGs. And they’re introduced to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that required the creation of national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge.
Students also explore some sensitive topics of medicine, like genetic mutations, and go on to learn about protein synthesis and karyotypes and pedigrees. And they diagnose and predict how these mutations are passed on to families, said Racey (above), who added that “the course is packed with hands-on opportunities.”
“It’s a great program for these kids and these kids are great,” she said.
Exemplary CTE students
Every February, the CTE community across the nation celebrates CTE Month to raise awareness of the role that CTE has in readying learners for college and career success.
At BRTC, for example, Warren County students may take courses in automotive, culinary, carpentry, electricity, engineering, nursing, biomedical, and welding.
Jane Baker (above), CTE director at BRTC, told the School Board that this year’s CTE Month theme is “Celebrate Today, Own Tomorrow!”
“And that’s exactly what career and technical education is all about,” she said. “This month really focuses on what we refer to as the CTSOS, which are Career and Technical Student Organizations.”
In Warren County, such CTSOS include Educators Rising, which at one point was named Teachers for Tomorrow. There is also DECA, Future Farmers of America (FFA), and SkillsUSA, among others.
“Sometimes we get so caught up in a lot of the other activities and the other coursework and demands that go on in a school that we lose focus of the ability level of students who choose to engage in CTE classwork,” Baker added.
In fact, as part of celebrating National CTE Month, Racey said she and Baker also wanted to celebrate some of the biomed students who had great success in the first semester.
As part of the Project Lead The Way biomed curriculum, which consists of four classes, the students were required to take a national introductory course test at the end of the semester.
“They do some simulations on it where they have to simulate all these lab experiments and come up with data and it’s matching and labeling body parts,” Racey said.
Students’ end scores on the national test are graded from 100 to 600. Racey said that 52 percent of BRTC students in the PBS course scored in the distinguished category, which means that they were in the top 10 percent of the country.
Even more commendable is that eight BRTC students scored 600, meaning they scored in the top one percent in the country.
“It’s something to be proud of,” Racey said. “But honestly, I’m also proud of these kids because they work hard. Their critical thinking skills and their work ethic is just wonderful.”
Racey recognized the eight students to celebrate their 600-score accomplishment, “but also for just being good people and great students.”
From Warren County High School: Catherine Hulse, 10th grade; Renae Badin, 10th grade; Elizabeth Dunnet, ninth grade; Caleb Zurliene, 10th grade; and Luka Lee, ninth grade.
From Skyline High School: Scout Broadbent, 11th grade; Alexandra Hemingway, 11th grade; and Sadie Comstock, ninth grade.
At the end of the year, students are required to take an End of Course Test that measures content and lab skills where they can earn Virginia credentials for graduation.
“I think our kids can stand up to anybody in the country in science,” Racey said.
School Board kudos
Some of the School Board members commended CTE coursework in their regular meeting reports.
Board member Andrea Lo, for instance, said she visited BRTC last year, and in one of the classes she observed, students “were setting up a class all about analyzing urine samples and there were little cups of urine all over the room,” she said.
“I didn’t want to ask if it was real urine or like yellow chemicals, and I still don’t wanna know, but it does look like a very interesting class and I know they’re doing a lot of hands-on activities there,” said Lo. “It was great to see the students here who have been achieving so highly there.”
Warren County School Board Chair Kristen Pence (above), who holds a doctor of veterinary medicine and works as a vet in Warren County, said that a few weeks ago, she had the opportunity to visit with both of the veterinary science classes, which are just a few more of the programs that have been brought in under Baker’s leadership.
“And I can tell you that both of those teachers have so much excitement and enthusiasm for the courses and the things that they’re teaching,” Pence said. “Those students in those 11th and 12th grade classes are really amazing. They rival what our veterinary techs do in their schooling.”
Pence said that the BRTC students taking those CTE classes actually use the same textbooks that vet students would use when they go to tech school.
“I got to spend an hour with the students at Warren County High School and the questions that they came up with, what they wanted to know more about, and what they would do in the future, it was a really good experience to have that conversation with them.”
Pence also said that prior to her stint on the School Board, she was on the planning group for BRTC’s Project Lead The Way when it was first coming to the County.
“So actually hearing about the program from Ms. Racey and then the excitement that the students are having and the stuff that they’re learning in that program is really amazing,” said Pence. “It’s come so far in not that many years because it’s still fairly new to our County.”
Front Royal-Warren County Anti-Litter Council seeking local high school student to join leadership team
If you’re a local high student interested in environmental stewardship, community engagement, and gaining hands-on experience in a leadership position, the FR-WC Anti-Litter Council (ALC) is looking for you!
The ALC is a group of volunteers that helps build a positive community ethic around an increased awareness of litter prevention and stewardship towards cleaner landscapes and watersheds. We know that keeping our roadways, parks, and streams trash-free improves the well-being of our community members, wildlife, and natural resources. But litter prevention is a complex challenge that requires a multi-faceted, locally tailored approach in order to be successful, and so the ALC is looking to expand its leadership team by adding a student member to help generate new ideas and approaches for tackling these issues.
The successful student candidate would be responsible for:
- attending a 1-to-2 hour ALC meeting each month during the academic year;
- contributing to new and ongoing litter prevention projects; and
- overseeing their own community litter clean-up event.
This is a unique opportunity to serve in a leadership position in your own community, to make a tangible impact close to home, and to gain valuable experience that can be added to your college resume. The student member will also be eligible for a monetary scholarship from the ALC to be used towards college tuition upon completion of their service.
Interested students should reach out to ALC President, Justin Proctor, by email: email@example.com
To all community members: The ALC meets on the fourth Thursday of every month at 4 p.m. in the Warren County Government Center (220 N. Commerce, Front Royal). Please don’t hesitate to swing by!
SNAP Emergency Allotments Will End in February
The Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) will release the final issuance of emergency allotment benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) households in February, in accordance with the requirements of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023. The new law recently passed by Congress ends VDSS’ authorization to continue issuing benefits through the temporary federal program, originally established in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The last issuance of benefits will be automatically loaded onto SNAP customers’ Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards on Thursday, February 16.
SNAP households began receiving the temporary emergency allotment benefit in March 2020 through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (2020). Per federal guidelines, states were required to request a monthly waiver to issue these benefits. VDSS submitted this request each month for the duration of the period emergency benefits were available to continue providing additional food benefits to SNAP households. Since March 2020, the Commonwealth has issued more than 2.1 billion dollars in emergency allotments and raised the monthly issuance to the maximum allowable amount for over 900,000 individuals in Virginia. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, emergency allotments have already ended in 17 states.
Households will permanently return to pre-pandemic allowances beginning March 1, 2023, and receive their regular SNAP benefit amounts on their usual day of issuance (on the 1st, 4th, or 7th day of the month). To further awareness of this change, VDSS has mailed letters directly to SNAP households.
Additionally, to support Virginians during this transition, VDSS has also created a dedicated webpage for more information and resources. Beginning January 28, households may contact the temporary information line at 1-855-635-4370, Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. TTY assistance is available by calling 800-552-7917 or 866-246-9300. SNAP participants can contact Warren County DSS or visit CommonHelp for questions or account information.
For assistance with applying for food benefits, visit the VDSS SNAP webpage. To access information regarding resources statewide and in your local community, don’t hesitate to get in touch with 2-1-1 Virginia or visit the VDSS food and other nutritional assistance pages.
VDOT: Warren County Traffic alert for February 6 – 10, 2023
The following is a list of highway work that may affect traffic in Warren County during the coming weeks. Scheduled work is subject to change due to inclement weather and material supplies. Motorists are advised to watch for slow-moving tractors during mowing operations. When traveling through a work zone, be alert to periodic changes in traffic patterns and lane closures.
*NEW* or *UPDATE* indicates a new or revised entry since last week’s report.
*NEW* Mile marker 5 to 9, eastbound and westbound – Right shoulder closures for sign work, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
*NEW* Mile marker 299 to 300, northbound and southbound – Overnight single lane closures for inspection of bridge over Cedar Creek, Tuesday night from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Mile marker 299 to 300, northbound and southbound – Overnight single lane closures for equipment and materials unloading and bridge removal work, 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. through the night of March 16.
*UPDATE* Route 55 (Strasburg Road) – Shoulder closures for overnight utility work between Route 664 (Whippoorwill Road) and Front Royal town limits, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. through February 17.
No lane closures were reported.
Vegetation management may take place district-wide on various routes. Motorists are reminded to use extreme caution when traveling through work zones.
Traffic alerts and traveler information can be obtained by dialing 511. Traffic alerts and traveler information also are available at www.511Virginia.org.
The VDOT Customer Service Center can assist with reporting road hazards, asking transportation questions, or getting information about Virginia’s roads. Call 800-FOR- ROAD (800-367-7623) or use its mobile-friendly website at my.vdot.virginia.gov. Agents are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.