Watch the latest Front Royal Town Council Meeting.
1. Pledge of Allegiance
2. Moment of Silence
3. Roll Call
4. Approval of the Regular Council Meeting minutes of June 11, 2018
5. Receipt of Petitions and/or Correspondence from the Public
a. Report of special committees or Town officials and Town Manager
* Report from Director of Community Development/Tourism Felicia Hart
* Report from Executive Director of NSVRC Brandon Davis
b. Requests and inquiries of Council members.
c. Report of the Mayor
d. Proposals for addition/deletion of items to the Agenda.
7. CONSENT AGENDA ITEMS – (ROLL CALL VOTE REQUIRED)
A. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Liaison Committee Meeting Items
B. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Bid – Mowing Services for Leach Run Parkway
C. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Bid – Leak Detection Survey
D. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Bid – Various Grades of Stone
E. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Bid – Various Grades of Asphalt
F. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Bid – Gate Valves
G. COUNCIL APPROVAL – Resolution that Approves Governing Documents and Authorizes
the Execution of Documents for the Front Royal Downtown Revitalization Project – CDBG
8.COUNCIL APPROVAL – Resolution of Support for Submission of an Application for the
Virginia SMART SCALE Program to Facilitate Funding for the Happy Creek Road Phase II Project
County Supervisors change November meeting date – stay mum on Closed Session EDA litigation discussion
The only open session action taking by the Warren County Board of Supervisors at a Special Meeting of Tuesday, October 26, was authorization to change the date of a November Supervisors meeting from the 16th to the 18th. That item was a late addition to the agenda made and acted on prior to a scheduled closed session.
The bulk of the 5 p.m. meeting, about an hour-and-a-quarter, was taken up by a Closed/Executive Session to discuss Economic Development Authority litigation. As Royal Examiner readers know, that is an oft-behind closed doors topic over the last two-plus years in the wake of the $26-million to $62 million FR-WC EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-2018. No announcement or action regarding that litigation was offered during the brief open session to adjournment shortly after 6:20 p.m.
As has been previously reported, the EDA financial scandal involves civil and criminal cases, the latter now handled at the federal level by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia headquartered in Harrisonburg. Before criminal indictments were dropped by the Special Prosecutor at the state level due to speedy trial concerns surrounding the mountain of documented evidence, estimated at over a million pages, there were as many as 23 co-defendants alleged as co-conspirators of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald. The federal prosecutor launched action on August 31, filing a 34-count indictment against McDonald, including 16 counts of money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” (ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?)
In related civil litigation, McDonald and the EDA reached an agreement in which $9-million-dollars of assets were ruled out of McDonald’s bankruptcy court filing as owed to the EDA, though without any admission of fault by McDonald. As part of that agreement the EDA recently announced assumption of ownership of McDonald Real Estate LLC MoveOn8’s undeveloped 41-acre Happy Creek parcel valued at over a million dollars.
The EDA and Town of Front Royal are also engaged in dueling civil countersuits initiated by the Town, claiming disputed lost assets related to the financial scandal. During the tenure of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick, other than then-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, the town council chose to ignore EDA offers to sit down in a non-litigious, good faith effort to determine exactly what was owed to the Town related to the alleged misdirected EDA assets involved in Town and County capital improvement and economic development projects financed through the EDA. The Town has since initiated an effort to create its own unilateral Front Royal EDA (FREDA) operating independently of the over half-century-old Town-County EDA, which technically the Town is still a legal, if now silent, partner in.
That independent EDA effort has become a political hot potato in the coming Town Special Election to fill resigned member Jacob Meza’s seat. In recent years the County had fully funded EDA operational costs, with each municipality covering its own debt service related to EDA financing of projects. Independent conservative council candidate Bruce Rappaport has made the unilateral Front Royal EDA a major target of his campaign, citing it as a waste of town taxpayer money and destructive wrench in the cog of Town-County relations.
Council approves ongoing project budget amendments, bids for services without dissent
Unlike some past, and possibly future meetings, it was a full but uncontroversial agenda facing the Front Royal Town Council the evening of Monday, October 25. In fact, the most controversial part of the meeting may have been when during her motion for approval, Vice-Mayor Lori Athey Cockrell noted that proposed Town Board of Architectural Review (BAR) member/re-appointee “Gary Vaughn”, whose last name was misspelled in the agenda packet minus a second “a”, was also known locally as “Dewey”.
However, even that nickname revelation created no dissent among the four-member quorum present. Cockrell’s motion to reappoint Vaughan, as well as appoint Katherine Snyder, to corresponding four-year BAR terms running from November 13, 2021, to November 13, 2025, passed by a unanimous 4-0 roll-call vote, Gary Gillespie absent and resigned Jacob Meza’s seat still vacant pending the November 2nd Special Council Election.
The BAR appointment/reappointment vote was just one of eight 4-0 votes for approval on the evening, largely revolving around budget amendments to continue projects into the coming fiscal year and contractual bid awards for services, as well as one for pump equipment replacement at the Town’s water treatment plant.
Of those two budget amendments made after public hearings at which there were no speakers, $2,052,07.98 was committed to continue “urgent sanitary sewer point repairs” that were state-mandated for upgrades; and $11,351,303.86 to Outstanding Purchase Orders “to carry forward unpaid balances on purchase orders not completed as of June 30, 2021”. That $11.35-plus-million dollars will be split between seven departmental fund balances, including the Town General Fund ($1.37 million), Special Projects ($1.12 million), Electric Fund ($602,321), Sewer Fund ($3.53 million), Water Fund ($2.46 million), Solid Waste Fund ($253,029), and Street Fund ($2 million).
Connected to the $2.05 million budget amendment on Sanitary Sewer System repairs was the awarding of a contract to Snyder Environmental Services, Inc. to accomplish those repairs. Awarding of the contract to Snyder Environmental was recommended by CHA Consulting, the Town’s hired Infiltration & Inflow Abatement project consultant, as well as by Town staff. And speaking of CHA Consulting, following the BAR appointments they led off the Contract and Bid Awards portion of “Business Items” not requiring public hearings to precede council action.
However, prior to a vote on the awarding of the Snow Removal contract to Timber Works LLC, Vice-Mayor Cockrell did comment that from information received earlier a staffing shortage currently existing within the town department that normally takes care of snow removal was the reason the contract was being offered to an outside company this year. Town Manager Steven Hicks verified Cockrell’s information. The snow removal contract was set at a rate of “$125 per hour for each 7.5 snowplow and $125 per hour for each skid steer loader”.
A bid award of $23,950 was awarded to CHA Consulting for “the successful completion of an Operations Plan and Drought Management Plan as requested from the Water Treatment Plant”.
A “sole source purchase” was also approved to replace three “raw water pumps at the Luray Avenue Pump Station from Flomex, Inc., in the amount of $316,860”. It was noted in the staff summary that $190,000 going to the purchase was available in “the Water Treatment Plant’s existing budget (line item) 9601-47001” and that “the remaining funds were encumbered under the Water Treatment Plant’s capital improvements line item” in purchase orders for $75,000 (30053), two at $29,609 each (30147 and 30282), and $55,782 (30351).
The business items portion of the agenda was wrapped up with a bid award for De-Icing Road Salt to Morton Salt, Inc at $79.61 per ton.
Council also approved a two-item Consent Agenda, adopting Resolutions of support of the Empower Retirement Plan Document and application for a VDOT Revenue Sharing Program for the 8th Street Bridge replacement project.
All approvals were by a 4-0 council consensus.
Rail Trail tourism revenue potential
Also, near the outset of Tuesday’s meeting council heard a summary of the Rail Trail Project the Town has been invited to join with several other municipalities in a three-county portion of the Shenandoah Valley. Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission Executive Director Brandon Davis cited estimates of potential tourism revenue that could be generated by converting abandoned railroad tracks into hiking paths joining the involved communities. He cited the idea of taking now abandoned railroad tracks that were an “engine for economic development” in the 1800s and resurrecting that economic development revenue potential in 2021 through a different use targeting the Valley’s natural tourism potential and destination for hikers.
The projected revenue estimates he gave should have gotten council’s attention. They included $32.3 million in new tourism revenue for the three-county area per year, beginning in 2030 when the project is expected to be completed for system-wide Rail Trail use. It was also estimated to generate 319 new jobs in tourism related businesses like restaurants, motels, hotels, retail and others as of 2030. Increased annual tax revenues were estimated at $1.7 million for counties, $200,000 for towns, as well as an additional $600,000 per year for the state. In addition, $18.7 million in spending was estimated in spending to complete the conversion of the abandoned rail lines into walkable hiking trails.
“This would be a transformational project that would only continue to give back to our communities over time. And it would be a destination facility, not just something that’s used by locals … And we believe people will visit our area because of this trail, not just as an added benefit to all the great reasons to come here,” Davis told town officials. He also noted the input of a qualified expert in the area of tourism and finances to the Rail Trail revenue estimates, a Dr. Cline, whom Davis said he wanted to thank publicly for his input.
No action was required as the Town and County are both still receiving developmental information on the project, though a commitment decision is likely expected in the not too distant future on yet another project the two municipalities could jointly and cooperatively participate in.
No announcements out of Town Planners Closed Session with town attorney
The Front Royal Planning Commission adjourned to Closed Session shortly after 6 p.m., Thursday, October 21st, for discussion with legal counsel. No announcement or action followed the Closed/Executive Session with Town Attorney Doug Napier. Vice Chair Connie Marshner convened the special meeting and closed session in the absence of Chairman Doug Jones, who arrived shortly after the commission entered the Executive Session behind closed doors.
The Notice of the Special Meeting cited the Closed Session topic as “a specific matter(s) that very recently came up before the Planning Commission and to consider making recommendations which may need to be addressed by the Front Royal Town Council.”
That wording was altered slightly in the motion to go into closed session read into the meeting record Thursday evening, citing the subject as: “matters that came up before the Planning Commission and which may require recommendations by the Planning Commission to Town Council, pursuant to Section 2.2-3711. A. 8. of the Code of Virginia”
What that “matter” or “matters” may be remains to be seen, as no announcement or action followed the closed session before the special meeting’s adjournment.
Joint Town Planning – Council Meeting kicks off Comprehensive Plan rewrite push
The Front Royal Planning Commission did not consider any new permit proposals this month, and instead met October 20 with the Town Council in a Leadership Forum to hear from the consultant team that will help the Town with a major rewrite of its Comprehensive Plan. The current plan dates from 1998. In that version of the Comprehensive Plan, the Town sought to address the problem of an increasing number of community residents who had to commute to the Washington DC metropolitan area leaving a bedroom community without a strong economic base or community character. The plan also identified the loss of the rural character of the area by residential developments in rural areas or mountain development as slowly robbing town residents of the public values contributed by surrounding farms and natural areas. Many of the themes and emphasis areas in the old plan are even more relevant in 2021.
Summit Design and Engineering, the firm that the town has tapped to provide expertise and staff to conduct the rewrite, provided an overview of the schedule and areas of concentration for the joint session, as they had in a one-on-one meeting with council the previous day. Ann Darby, the Summit Design representative, explained that the Comprehensive Plan is a guiding document that envisions what the future of a community looks like and outlines steps it takes to get there. A particularly important point is that although the plan itself does not have the force of law, it should lead to changes in the official zoning map and the Zoning and Subdivision ordinances that bring legal weight to the adopted guidelines.
Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke outlined the results of a Town Council session held on October 19 where council members identified their vision for the town. That vision included:
- An abundance of retail options
- A walkable community
- Riverfront Development and Access
- Preserve and enhance Downtown
- Natural Resources
- Small town charm and architecture
- Community Appearance
- Lodging Options
- Public Transit options
- Small area planning for key areas.
During the October 19 meeting, Council also identified areas that the members felt should be revisited during the Comprehensive Plan rewrite:
- A Road Diet, described as a review of the roadways in the town and how they can be made appropriate to the traffic levels
- Expansion of the entrance corridors
- Minimization of trip time for basic necessities
- Location of Industrial Zoning
- Desirable vs. undesirable uses
- Traffic Concerns
- Bike/Pedestrian safety
- Public Transport expansion
The vision and goals identified during the process of rewriting the Comprehensive Plan are really only the beginning of the process. A useful Comprehensive Plan is the product of, not only the team assembled by the Town with participation of a consultant, council itself, and the Planning Commission, but the largest and most challenging part – public participation.
The traditional permit process used for individual projects or permit requests includes advertisements in the neighborhoods affected by the granting of a use permit, public hearings, and council approval, but it was noted the Comprehensive Plan needs much more. To properly address the small-town character, economic, environmental, and housing sustainability, tourism, mobility and accessibility, public health and safety, responsive and accountable governance, and public services, the plan needs input from citizens, businesses, and even visitors, in addition to the planning experts and government staff. The Town Planning Department will be reaching out to the public with a variety of tools to gather public input. The team will use public input sessions, an interactive website, online and paper surveys, comment sessions for draft documents, and vision statements to reach the widest population of those citizens, business owners, and visitors who will be impacted by the decisions made in the review and rewrite.
Because the plan must be grounded in current reality, the team intends to spend the initial months of the process gathering information on existing conditions. It must take account of what is working, and not working, Darby said. The plan will be ultimately organized around 11 general areas:
- Community Appearance
- Land Use
- Economic Development
- Capital Improvements
- Parks & Open Space, Development Areas
- Goals, Vision, and Future
The benefits of both the Comprehensive Plan and the ensuing Subdivision and Zoning Ordinances are for both citizens and businesses – Companies want to locate in places where their employees would want to live, and citizens want an active local economy for employment and supply for their everyday needs. A good plan builds realistic expectations, better transparency, and a healthier community. Work is expected to continue on the Comprehensive Plan into February of 2023.
‘Ghosts of EDA Loans Past’ come back to haunt county supervisors
The most interesting part of Tuesday evening’s Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting was likely behind closed doors after the board adjourned to Closed/Executive Session for a legal-based answer to North River Supervisor Delores Oates question as to what benefit to the County and its taxpayers there was in approval of a Resolution admitting a “moral obligation” to continue to pay the debt service on bank loans made by the EDA during its developing financial scandal, circa 2016 or so. There was one of three loans at issue of particular interest – the $10-million-dollar loan to Truc “Curt” Tran’s ITFederal company poised to jumpstart commercial redevelopment at the 149-acre portion of the former Avtex Superfund site known as the Royal Phoenix Business Park.
Of particular interest, because the “moral obligation” for that loan was initially believed covered by the Town of Front Royal, whose elected officials agreed to provide a $10-million-dollar “bridge loan” requested by then EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald to indicate to First Bank and Trust that “the community” stood behind the loan and proposed project it supported. That request for and Town show of financial support for the ITFed project came despite the fact the company showed virtually no assets other than the three acres at the Royal Phoenix/Avtex site valued at slightly over $2-million-dollars that was “gifted” to the company by the EDA behind closed doors for one dollar.
A clue to what the county supervisors heard over about 15 minutes in Closed Session may have been offered by the board’s action out of it. After some hesitancy in response to the Chair’s call for a motion on the Resolution, Oates’ motion for approval of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, seconded by Walt Mabe, passed by a unanimous roll call vote. The vote commits the County to continue to absorb those “moral obligation” payments through the Fiscal Year 2021-22 at an estimated cost of $214,000.
In open session, responding to questions about the Resolution in support of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, County Administrator Ed Daley mentioned consolidation of three loans, including the above-mentioned ITFederal loan (at $9,551,500), as well as a First Bank and Trust Line of Credit ($8,691,600), and a First Bank of Strasburg loan ($3,450,000). Contacted later, Daley cited one condition that would bring the EDA’s payments to the bank on the ITFederal loan in line with what ITFederal pays the EDA monthly at about $42,000. Before the EDA payments fluctuated to more or less than the ITFed payments, sometimes as much as $7,000 a month more.
Despite the commitment to an estimated $214,000 in payments through this fiscal year, the board’s unanimous vote in support of its moral obligation payments likely reflects negative consequences were the County to bail on covering an EDA debt mid-fiscal year. But again, the agreement is only to the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2022. What might the future of “moral obligations” related to the “Ghost of EDA Loans Past” bring in FY-2022-23? – Stay tuned for another seasonal episode of “A Front Royal-Warren County EDA Carol”.
Thermal Shelter bathrooms
County Administrator Daley was also prominent in responding to another matter raised by three speakers during Public Comments about things, not on the meeting agenda. That was the elimination of two bathrooms in the Health and Human Services Complex at the old 15th Street middle school utilized by the County and involved churches and civic organizations to house the community’s homeless indoors at night during the winter. Opening that discussion was First Baptist Church Pastor Christy McMillin-Goodwin, followed by Aneita Bryant and Jim Bunce.
That trio said an alternate plan for mobile outdoor restrooms was unadvisable due to security and additional personnel to monitor out-of-building night trips, as well as potential severe weather issues. Noting a replacement plan that would not have new indoor facilities in place in time for this winter’s thermal shelter setup, these speakers wondered how the removal plan had been initiated without notice to those involved in helping the County operate the thermal shelter. Bryant suggested allowing access to the next closest indoor facilities.
In responding, Daley said he had been at point for the County in initiating the bathroom removal due to failing pipes that caused toilet backup issues. He said he had envisioned a much quicker turnaround in replacing the removed indoor facilities in that section of the building than ended up being the case. He promised to work proactively with those involved to see that an adequate alternate overnight option was available when the thermal shelter opens as winter arrives.
Also Tuesday following public hearings, the board unanimously approved three Conditional Use Permit applications, two for short-term tourist rentals and one for a private use campground. Following application summaries by Planning Department Deputy Director Matt Wendling the first two CUP applications, Charles and Lou Ann Dotson’s for the Private Use Campground on their property on Burma Road in the Man-Da-Lay Subdivision; and Jacob W. Lott Jr. and Sandra J. Kiepfer for a short-term tourist rental on their 1.6-acre lot on Little Indian Road in the Blue Mountain Subdivision in Linden went to a vote with no public hearing speakers. Wendling did note that a letter from the chairman of the Blue Mountain Property Owners Association had been received, expressing “no problem” with Lott and Kiepfer’s short-term tourist rental application.
Up last were Nicole and Sean McMinn with a short-term tourist rental permit application for their 2.42-acre property on Sagar Drive in the Highland Estates Subdivision in the Fork District. Again, there were no public speakers after the applicants responded to the board chair’s offer to summarize their request. The D.C.-based couple told the board they had run into little opposition from neighbors, and what opposition there had been from neighbors was not from those closest, but with property over a thousand feet from theirs.
And while there were no public speakers, the McMinns noted a number of letters to the board from supporters of their short-term tourist rental CUP application, which they asked to be read into the meeting record. Board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi then read nine letters of support, including one with “25 to 30” signatures. Several of the letters, including one from the owner of the Downriver Canoe Company, noted positive impacts on tourism-related businesses from short-term renters. One letter noted, “They come; they spend; they leave”.
The board then made its final unanimous vote of approval on a motion by Archie Fox in whose district the applicant’s property lies, seconded by Walt Mabe.
Following that vote, Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter noted a “Bless you” included in one of the letters read by the clerk that was well-timed to a sneeze by someone present in the government center meeting room.
In fact, facing a future out of the public eye politically – Carter did not file to be on the ballot for reelection to his Happy Creek seat in November – Carter appeared at times Tuesday to be auditioning for Comedy Club spots during his member report and at various other times during the meeting. In fact, his coming local election, Halloween costume advice during his member report led three of his four colleagues to decline to try and “follow that act”.
See all the fun, business, and other public perspectives, including opening Public Comments speaker Michael Williams question as to whether a recent church-sponsored candidates forum in which the moderator was shown prior to the forum to have contributed to one church-associated candidate’s campaign could threaten that church’s tax-exempt status on U.S. Constitutional separation of church and state guidelines, in the County video:
EDA gets McDonald company property as part of settlement agreement
On Wednesday, October 20, Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne verified the EDA’s acquisition of the 41-acre “Happy Creek Road” parcel owned by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s Moveon8 real estate LLC. Acquisition of the undeveloped property assessed at just over a million dollars according to county court records is part of the $9-million-dollar no-fault settlement agreement reached between the EDA, McDonald, and the Harrisonburg Bankruptcy Court handling McDonald’s 2020 bankruptcy filing. The EDA will now be able to market the property as a developable EDA asset. It is located near the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway.
Browne said that in addition to receiving full value on the Happy Creek parcel, the EDA was in line to receive a percentage of the sale price of other McDonald assets distributed through the bankruptcy court proceeding. Exactly how close those percentages might get the EDA to the $9-million-dollar settlement figure remains to be seen. It was not immediately clear as to whether the EDA will have an outright full value claim to any other McDonald-held properties or assets.
McDonald is the central figure in the EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-to-late 2018. She resigned in December 2018 under mounting pressure from her board of directors. She has been accused in civil and criminal court of utilizing her EDA position to misdirect EDA assets to her and others personal benefit. Western District of Virginia federal authorities have taken over the criminal side of the EDA case after a state special prosecutor’s office in Harrisonburg dropped criminal charges against McDonald and as many as 23 co-defendants due to speedy trial concerns as it wrestled with the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. With charges against some defendants originating with the county commonwealth attorney’s office that initially handled the criminal investigation during Brian Madden’s tenure heading the department, failure to meet speedy trial timelines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of criminal charges against the defendants.
On August 31, 2021, federal prosecutors made their initial move, handing down a 34-count indictment against McDonald. Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?