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Planners OK permit for public safety building

By Linwood Outlaw III - loutlaw@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- A design firm's request for a conditional-use permit for Warren County's new public safety building has gotten the OK from the Planning Commission.

The matter is now up to the Board of Supervisors, which will decide Tuesday if it wants to give the final nod of approval.

The Warren County Planning Commission unanimously agreed Wednesday night to recommend approval of the permit sought by Moseley Architects for the one-story, 38,000-square-foot facility, which is being eyed for construction on agricultural property east of Skyline Vista Drive that spans more than 37 acres.

The county wants to subdivide the property and build the facility on 13.4 acres. Architects hope to begin construction on the facility next summer and finish it by fall 2011, Planning Director Taryn G. Logan said.

No one offered to speak during a public hearing on the request prior to the commission's vote on Wednesday.

Some residents at a public hearing in April suggested that the facility be delayed to avoid tax hikes in the middle of a recession, but county officials have maintained that a larger building for safety personnel is long overdue. Officials also say that moving forward with the project now rather than later will allow the county to take advantage of cheaper construction costs.

Anthony J. Bell III, vice president of Moseley Architects, said officials have asked if the proposed site for the project, located off U.S. 340 near Skyline High School, would be best used as a location for a new 800-student middle school. That doesn't appear to be a feasible option, particularly because Virginia's public school guidelines recommend that such facilities be built on at least 18 usable acres, Bell said.

The public safety building would house Warren County's Department of Fire and Rescue and Sheriff's Office operations, including the animal control, civil process, school resource and investigations departments. The emergency communications center would also be inside the building. The Sheriff's Office will occupy 32,900 square feet of the new facility, and fire and rescue services will take up 4,260 square feet.

County Administrator Douglas P. Stanley addressed the commission on Wednesday, hoping to ease the panel's concerns about the county's ability to fund both a new public safety building and a $69 million regional jail being planned in conjunction with Shenandoah and Rappahannock counties.

Stanley said the Board of Supervisors has been "planning financially" for the $14.3 million public safety facility since the 2007-08 fiscal year. The building "is planned for staffing and growth for a 20-year period," he added.

"We feel very strongly that the cost of the facility will be significantly lower than previously estimated," Stanley said. "If you consider that the number is down 20 to 30 percent given the current economic environment and the fact that we do not need to finish the entire building at one time ... the cost of the building could be brought down to below $10 million."

The facility is part of the reason real estate taxes were raised by 1 cent when the supervisors adopted the county's $85,583,789 budget for the current fiscal year. Half of the increase, which brought the rate to 46 cents per $100 of assessed value, is earmarked for renovating the former Warren County High School building on Luray Avenue into a middle school, and the other half-cent will go toward the public safety building. As of now, $576,954 of the estimated $1,087,377 in annual debt service towards the safety building has been budgeted, Stanley said.

Another helpful factor toward funding the new facility, Stanley said, is the county's decision to go to twice-a-year billing on real estate, personal property, machinery and tools taxes starting next year.

Under the new format, the county would receive a full tax payment in December and a 50 percent payment in June 2010, assuming everyone pays their taxes on time. The 150 percent revenue collection could provide a $17.6 million boost, according to the commissioner of revenue's office.

County officials have also begun setting aside money for the regional jail. Last fiscal year, the county began the process of earmarking $250,000 annually toward the jail. The county's share of the debt service towards the project is estimated at $700,784 a year beginning in 2013, Stanley said.

"Given the fact that construction of the facility is several years out, the county will probably not have to address funding of this project for several years," Stanley said, adding that the state is expected to foot half of the bill for overall construction costs for the regional jail.

The supervisors will hold a public hearing on the conditional-use permit for the public safety building at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the government center on North Commerce Avenue.

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