By Alex Bridges
A deal in Front Royal to trade the old Town Hall for the Afton Inn faces one more hurdle later this month.
The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority must approve agreements related to the exchange of the two, historic properties in order for the matter to move forward. Executive Director Jennifer McDonald said Tuesday the EDA board plans to consider the documents at its meeting Feb. 28.
Town leaders voted 5-1 on Monday to approve a memorandum of agreement between Front Royal and the EDA, a land-exchange agreement between the EDA and Afton Inn LLC, and a resolution in support of both deals.
"We were waiting until the vote to even see if we were going to be moving forward," McDonald said.
The EDA will consider the agreements after attorneys for the town and the authority review the documents and prepare them for the approval. Town Attorney Douglas Napier said Tuesday he and the EDA's counsel, County Attorney Blair Mitchell, have been working together on drafting the language of the agreements. If Frank Barros, owner of the Afton Inn, agrees to the land-exchange agreement with the EDA, then that would create a three-party deal with the town, Napier explained. A closing would be scheduled, with the deed for the Afton Inn transferred to the EDA and the Town Hall to Afton Inn LLC.
"If, on the other hand, the EDA board does not approve the language that [council] approved they can either reject the deal and leave it on the table, so to speak," Napier explained. "Or they can approve a revised agreement and send it back to Town Council and then either Town Council could agree to the revised language or leave it on the table."
Asked about the fate of a lawsuit between the town and Afton Inn over the condition of the building at 2 E. Main St., Napier said the transaction would nullify the court filing.
"Assuming the transaction goes through and the EDA becomes the owner of the Afton Inn property, the way it would stand would be that the EDA becomes responsible for maintaining the property in a safe condition until it is sold or transferred to a third party," Napier said. "But the town is responsible for the payment of [the maintenance costs] because of the way the deal is currently structured."
The EDA would be responsible for hiring a contractor to make any improvements to the building while it owns the property. The town would cover the cost of those improvements.
"There shouldn't be much to it because the way the structure has been left under the lawsuit is that it is currently, as far as we can determine, in a safe condition," Napier added. "So we don't intend to do anything ... other than maintain it in a safe condition. Once it's turned over to a third party, it's up to the third party to do with it
Vocal opponents of the trade said they feared that owners of the Afton Inn would treat the Town Hall with the same amount of neglect as with its own property.
Napier explained that the agreements approved by council contain several safeguards designed to protect Front Royal's interest in its old building. The agreements include additional requirements of the future owners of the Town Hall that Councilman Thomas Sayre suggested and council endorsed.
Town Hall will be photographed at the time of the closing to provide a permanent record of the property's appearance. Napier said the photograph gives the town a baseline for future maintenance. Safeguards also include a ban against tearing down any part of the Town Hall without written consent from council. Town Hall would have to be kept in good condition. Should the owners try to sell the Town Hall, they must first offer the property to council who may refuse. It would take a supermajority of council to buy back the property if sold within five years and a simple majority after five years. Restrictive covenants on the property would apply to any owner of the former Town Hall.
"Since it is a historical building, the Town Hall will be maintained in good condition hereafter," Napier said. "It can only be changed with permission of a future town council."
The swap attracted supporters and opponents who spoke out at the public hearing held last month and again at the meeting Monday. Comments appeared split down the middle on the issue.
When asked about the timeline for development of the Afton Inn, McDonald said: "There's no potential developer out there so that will not happen until we have one."
McDonald refuted claims made at the Monday meeting that the EDA might give the Afton Inn to a developer that would turn the property into housing for low-income residents.
"Us looking for someone to do low-income housing at that location is absolutely false," McDonald said. "We're not even looking at housing for that building. I don't know where that's coming from."
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org