Warren County leaders react to annex threat

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL — Warren County leaders fired back Tuesday at Front Royal’s perceived threat to annex the U.S. 340-522 corridor.

Members of the Board of Supervisors spoke out at their regular meeting against any effort by Town Council to annex the corridor and warned that such a move by the town could put both parties in a costly legal battle. At least two supervisors said the town benefits from an agreement over the corridor even though the area lies in the county.

Council last week agreed to hire a Richmond-based attorney to look at Front Royal’s legal options to recoup lost revenue in the business-heavy corridor. Council allowed the attorney to bill the town up to $100,000 before he would need to ask leaders for more. Members claim they have neither settled on, nor ruled out annexation.

Supervisor Daniel Murray Jr. called the division between the town and county “ridiculous” and said parties need to spend their time on other issues facing the jurisdictions.

“We need to bring this to a head and end it,” Murray said.

Supervisor Richard Traczyk read from a written statement his opposition to any annexation attempt by the town. Traczyk disagreed with the interpretation by some Town Council members that the Route 340-522 Corridor Agreement reached in 1998 allows Front Royal to annex the corridor. Traczyk said he feels the corridor was developed by and for the county.

“Do we, the Board of Supervisors, approve a hostile or non-hostile takeover by the town?” Traczyk said. “Do we stand and fight for our efforts to keep … the revenue for the benefits of all residents that live inside or outside the town.”

The approval of the agreement between the town and county, with the Commission on Local Government, let Front Royal collect taxes from businesses in the area in return for access to water and sewer service, Traczyk stated. Other revenue collected by the county go to capital projects such as building new schools.

The county, in sympathizing with the town, has, in recent years, assumed funding for agencies such as the Economic Development Authority, Samuels Public Library, thus saving the town money.

Supervisors advised town leaders that Front Royal collected $372,920 through the payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT fees, charged to the businesses in the corridor, Traczyk said.

“Some members of council think that the 1998 corridor agreement inferred that the town had a by-right ability to annex the corridor with no objections from the county, and simply it’s not true,” Traczyk said. “That’s revising some of the history for personal agendas, in my opinion.

“Ultimately, this can only be settled in the courts and, in my opinion, the town has little support and understanding of what is at stake here,” Traczyk added.

Traczyk advised that the town should focus its efforts on developing the area of Happy Creek, annexed by Front Royal in 1970, rather than to take control of the corridor.

Supervisor Tony Carter, on the board at the time parties reached the agreement, also gave a lengthy statement.

“In essence this agreement, while not perfect, did accomplish its intent — it brought places for our citizens to shop and dine, and it did protect the town so they, too, could benefit from the increased tax base,” Carter stated. “But the bottom line is the town has and continues to enjoy the fruits of this agreement.”

Carter also provided figures related to the corridor. The town received $373,000 in PILOT fees in fiscal 2012. Front Royal also saved $613,757 because the county funds the Parks and Recreation Department, animal control services and the volunteer fire department in the town. Before reaching the deal, the county agreed to extend town limits to Interstate 66 west of U.S. 522. Front Royal receives more than $250,000 a year in various taxes from payers in that section.

Carter said a court battle over the corridor could cost each side at least $500,000, with the attorneys serving as the only winners. Front Royal residents would pay 100 percent of the town’s legal fees and 40 percent of the county’s, Carter said.

Town Councilman Thomas H. Sayre made a plea to fellow members at a work session Monday that the discussions about the corridor remain as transparent as possible. Sayre also has requested that the town and county provide the ongoing costs for legal counsel and other assistance employed during these discussions, most of which would likely occur in closed session. Sayre also has filed a request through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, to the town and county, for detailed accounts of spending by each government on work related to the possible annexation of the U.S. 522 corridor.

Sayre made the same plea to the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting. Sayre asked that the board and Town Council meet in open session, possibly with a facilitator, to discuss the corridor issue. So far talks have taken place in closed session.

“I think it would be so much better if we could meet in public and have this opportunity to really air it out,” Sayre told the board.

Town Council proposed that a facilitator, likely through the Commission on Local Government, meet with the elected bodies on the issue. Last week, however, Town Council moved to seek legal services from attorney Carter Glass and his law firm.

At the same time the county has sought the services of a consultant who would study the 1998 agreement between the jurisdictions. The county is waiting to receive proposals from firms interested in doing the work.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com