By Alex Bridges
Front Royal leaders should slow down on a proposed building swap and listen to residents, a town councilman said this week.
The council has scheduled a public hearing Monday on the proposal that, if approved, would allow the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority to take the former Town Hall building and transfer it to Afton Inn LLC. The EDA would then market the long-vacant Afton Inn property for future development.
But Councilman Daryl L. Funk says the town hasn't allowed enough time for residents to learn details or to comment. Funk confirmed that he has been the lone opponent of the swap that until recently has only been discussed in closed session. Town Council and Mayor Timothy Darr announced the details of the proposal earlier this month.
"My position is that, until we have a public hearing, I'm not interested in telling people what they ought to think -- I want to hear what people think," Funk said by phone Wednesday. "The problem is we're telling people what to think."
Funk added that he wouldn't comment further on the proposal itself until after the public hearing.
"I think this is an issue that cuts both ways," Funk said. "I think there's a lot of people who want to chime in about it."
"I just hope that people come out; we'll slow it down and actually have a full-fledged debate on it," Funk said.
Under the deal, Afton Inn LLC would agree to transfer the vacant property at 2 E. Main St. and Crescent St. to the EDA. Council would consider the transfer of the former Town Hall at 16 N. Royal Ave., along with a two-story building behind the structure, to the EDA. The deal does not include the public parking lot behind the old Town Hall.
If adopted, the memorandum of agreement calls for the EDA to market and sell or lease the Afton Inn property "to a party for uses and external appearances all approved in writing in advance by the Town, and the proceeds there from will be paid over to the town," according to information in the advertisement for the public hearing.
Afton Inn owner Frank Barros has not returned calls for comment about the property. John Carter, a Fairfax attorney identified in town emails as counsel for Barros, was not available for comment Wednesday.
Emails provided this week by the town to the Northern Virginia Daily through an information request shed more light on the negotiations. The Daily had requested any emails dating to March between town officials, the EDA and the owner of the Afton Inn that mention the proposal.
An email dated Dec. 2 had the last sentence redacted because it contained information pertaining to the negotiation. The same redaction occurred in a Dec. 3 email. In both cases, the town cited state code as reasons for redacting the information. In two other emails from Jan. 7, the town cited attorney-client privilege as to why they did not include information in the messages.
Town Manager Steven Burke said the town's Information Technology Department scanned the email database and found messages dating back to November. The search turned up no emails prior to November. Most of the emails were between EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, Town Attorney Douglas Napier, Burke and John Carter, legal representative for Afton Inn LLC.
McDonald said Wednesday that the idea of the swap originated with Town Council, which discussed the trade and asked her to approach the owner to gauge interest. McDonald said she and council first made contact with the owner's family toward the end of September and then met with Frank Barros and his daughter in mid-October.
In the earliest email exchange available, dated Nov. 5, McDonald and Napier discussed some of the deal's details. One such detail called for the EDA to convey back to the town any proceeds gained through the sale of the Afton Inn.
In response to a question about why the town did not try to take Afton Inn outright, Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker stated that doing so would require court action. To take the property by way of eminent domain, the town would need to show it had a public use or need for the site, Parker explained. The town then would have to prove it had such a need in court.
If successful, Front Royal would need to compensate the owner of the Afton Inn a fair-market value for the property as determined by the court. As Parker pointed out, the town has no plans for the Afton Inn other than to allow the EDA to acquire and market the property for redevelopment.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org