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Councilmen support Afton Inn swap

By Alex Bridges

Front Royal would benefit greatly by trading Town Hall for the Afton Inn and seeing both developed, say two councilmen.

But the town has few other options and state and federal laws limit Front Royal's power over vacant and dilapidated buildings.

Council plans to hear from the public on Monday about a proposal to trade the former Town Hall building for the long-vacant Afton Inn. The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development would handle the property transfer of the Town Hall to the Afton Inn owner. The EDA would also market the Afton Inn and give the proceeds to the town.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt said Friday the deal, if approved, lets the town finally deal with the "dilapidated" Afton Inn.

"That's our main concern, is to try to remove a building that's been an eyesore for a number of years and hopefully we can work out some type of arrangement that this can take place," Tewalt said.

Councilman Hollis Tharpe pointed out Friday that this swap may be the town's best chance at seeing both buildings put to use. Tharpe didn't support the idea at first given the vastly different conditions of the two buildings. Town Hall had been vacant less than a year while the Afton Inn remained boarded up and empty.

"I kinda looked at Town Hall as a beautiful building and why do we want to trade a gem for something like that," Tharpe said. "But then, once council members and I got together, we talked about it and hopefully we can have both pieces to be proud of."

Tharpe added that both properties would already be paid for and allowing the EDA to market the buildings does not cost local tax money. Afton Inn remains safe and structural sound, Tharpe said, referring to an engineer's previous assessment.

"My preference personally is to keep Town Hall," Tharpe said. "But, as a council member and a good steward of our town moneys and our town welfare and well-being and safety and all this other good stuff that goes with being serving on council, then I would have to go absolutely with swapping the two properties because it makes good sense."

Tharpe recalled that the idea came about months ago as council discussed the fate of Town Hall. Tharpe said he wanted to see local nonprofit groups use part of the building that also could house a museum. Either Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker or Councilman Eugene Tewalt broached the idea of the swapping Town Hall for Afton Inn, Tharpe said.

The Afton Inn owner had once offered the property to council at $1.2 million, Tharpe said.

The property trade is the first option before council that has made it this far. Tharpe said ideas have been brought forward as early as 1998.

In 2006, Afton Inn owner Frank Barros sought to construct a 58-foot, four-story structure at the rear of the existing building. When the Board of Zoning Appeals granted a variance to the owner because the new building would exceed the height limit in the district, Town Council fought the panel's decision in court and won. The proposal didn't come to fruition.

The property has remained vacant since the economy went sour a few years ago. In 2010 the town sought to have the court declare the Afton Inn a public nuisance because of its condition. After the owner made some alterations to the building, the property was deemed safe and sound.

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

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