By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL -- A controversial building-swap in Front Royal took another step toward approval Friday.
The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board voted 6-1 to approve a memorandum of agreement between the town and the EDA. The agreement calls for the EDA to assume ownership of the former Town Hall building at 16 N. Warren Ave. The EDA board still must approve the property-swap to trade the Town Hall for the Afton Inn at 2 E. Main St.
The board took action after meeting in closed session for close to 90 minutes. Board members made no comments before taking the vote.
Chairwoman Patricia "Trisha" Wines said after the meeting that the board could take action on the agreement with Afton Inn LLC and its owner, Frank Barros, possibly in late March.
Front Royal leaders must also approve the restrictive covenants that go along with the Town Hall. The EDA board might weigh in on the covenants, Wines said.
The EDA board also wants to make some changes in the land-swap agreement, Wines added. Any changes made to the agreement would need to go before Town Council for consideration.
"I don't know how long this process is going to take, but it's not going to be done in a week," Wines said. "There's a lot of stuff involved and I think that's the reason ... I mean we couldn't even decide today how long we thought it was going to be."
Wines estimated the EDA might finish the process in the next three months at the earliest.
"But I think it's going to work out and I think it's a great plan to get control of the building so we can try move forward with the redevelopment of that site," Wines said.
The chairwoman noted that Barros pays taxes on the Afton Inn but would contribute more on the Town Hall property that currently does not contribute to the local coffers.
"As they improve that town building and get more people in there, it will mean more money for the town," Wines said.
EDA Board member William "Bill" Biggs voted against the motion to approve the agreement. Biggs said after the meeting that he opposed the swap mainly because of the difference in value between the two properties.
"To me it's not an even trade, not even close to it," Biggs said.
Town Hall was appraised last year at $610,000 and covers 0.26 acres. The Afton Inn, built in 1867, sits on 0.24 acres and was assessed at $515,600 in 2011, according to information from EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald. But the Afton Inn building has been vacant for years and the owner was required to make some repairs to keep the structure from deteriorating further. Front Royal administrative offices vacated Town Hall early last year to relocate to a new building on East Main Street, adjacent to the Afton Inn.
Biggs also pointed out the cost of demolishing the Afton Inn should that take place.
"If you talk about tearing that building down after a year or two, that's getting expensive," Biggs said. "It used to be cheap to tear a building down and haul the stuff to the dump."
McDonald has said the EDA currently does not plan to demolish the Afton Inn. Rather, the EDA wants to market the property for future development and either sell or lease the building.
Town Council voted 5-1 at its Feb. 10 meeting to approve a resolution and the memorandum of agreement with the EDA that incorporates a land-exchange deal between the EDA and Afton Inn LLC. Council heard from residents and property owners speaking for and against the swap.
Council members were made aware before their vote that Barros and his business in Prince William County have faced or are facing legal issues. Prince William County filed a warrant in debt against Barros for more than $10,000 in unpaid taxes. That matter remains unresolved in the county's general district court.
However, taxes on the property are current, according to information provided by Warren County Deputy Treasurer Jamie Spiker. Barros paid $3,042.04 to the county for 2013.
Asked after the Feb. 10 action whether Barros' issues outside the town played a role in their decision, some members of council said they did take this information into account before voting.
Councilman Bret Hrbek sided with the majority and received the same information about Barros' dealings in other jurisdictions.
"I took everything in consideration," Hrbek stated in a Feb. 11 email. "I believe that this is a good deal for all parties involved."
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org