By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL -- A Warren County leader says voters should decide if consolidating the town is right for both communities.
Supervisor Daniel Murray Jr. suggested to Town Council members Thursday that the two jurisdictions look into consolidating Front Royal into Warren County and put the matter on the ballot as a referendum for the voters.
Murray brought up the idea at the Town-County Liaison Committee meeting as members discussed the process by which the jurisdictions adjust shared boundaries. Murray made the suggestion as an alternative to annexations and boundary-line adjustments -- both time-consuming, costly processes -- or to setting up a deal similar to those between Shenandoah County and some of its towns.
"Maybe that's something we should be looking at rather than both sides spending a lot of money, spinning a lot of wheels, eating a lot of tongues, it might be the thing to do," Murray said.
The town and county simultaneously are working together on a boundary-line adjustment related to the Leach Run Parkway project, and the annexation of more than 600 acres spurred on by the landowner. The Front Royal Limited Partnership proposal to bring 604 acres of property into town limits began in 2012 and has yet to be resolved. The citizen-initiated annexation request by the landowner evolved after many discussions between the parties into a voluntary settlement agreement that outlines the boundary shift and future development.
Town Manager Steven Burke recalled that Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker has suggested that the jurisdictions look into creating an agreement that would outline how the jurisdictions could handle annexations or boundary line adjustments in the future. Parker cited Shenandoah County because of agreements it has with towns such as Strasburg that allow for annexations.
Mayor Timothy Darr explained what an annexation agreement could involve.
"I think the issue was, like every five years or something, you sit down and say, hey, this is right for the town, this is right for the county and try to work it out," Darr said.
County Administrator Douglas Stanley said parties may take each annexation on a case-by-case basis and noted the Front Royal Limited Partnership issue.
"I really think that's what we should [do], unless we use the other word, because we keep on annexing everything in town and the other word is called consolidation," Murray said.
"[Consolidation] may be something to think about and it may be time to do it, or at least consider it," Murray added. "Maybe the constituents can make the decision for everybody, 'cause it's not fair for anybody in this room to make the decision for them, and maybe put it on the agenda for the elections in November and let the people say what they want and then work from there."
Burke asked Murray if he meant consolidation of the town and county into a city. Murray said he was thinking of the county bringing in the town.
"You wouldn't lose your distinction of Front Royal," Murray said.
Currently there are no townships in the state, according to information from the Virginia Municipal League. State code allows a county and adjoining city to consolidate into either a single county or city. The code also allows a county any all incorporated towns to consolidate into a single county or city. Consolidation as a city requires that the resulting entity meet specific population criteria.
Murray saw consolidation as a way to resolve other issues such as the ongoing debate over the U.S. 340-522 North Corridor.
"There's been so much discussion and so much heartache over the Front Royal Limited Partnership, constant discussions about the corridor," Murray said. "I think it's time to bring it to a head and go for consolidation."
Town Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the voluntary settlement agreement over the Front Royal Limited Partnership annexation request. This marks the second public hearing on the agreement for the town. The county Board of Supervisors already has held two hearings. Town officials have taken exception to the state Commission on Local Government's suggestion that the landowner not be named a party to the agreement. Town Attorney Douglas Napier said by email Friday that a boundary shift would have worked better for Front Royal.
"A boundary line adjustment would indeed have been preferable from the Town's point of view, which the Town has always made clear, from the beginning and throughout the process," Napier states. "However, from the beginning that the County was clear it would never agree to a boundary adjustment and has always insisted on a voluntary settlement agreement."
Councilman Thomas Sayre had commented that both sides had spent money on the staff time required to come to the agreement. Burke suggested consolidation would make the agreement a moot point.
"If you're starting to talk of dissolving the town, then what's the point of going forward with bringing Front Royal Limited Partnership [land] into the town?" Burke asked.
Town Attorney Douglas Napier said by email Friday that his staff is calculating the amount of some of the out-of-pocket costs the town has incurred during its work on the Front Royal Limited Partnership annexation. Napier said he and many other staff members have spent many working hours on the project.
Murray said consolidation would take a long time, likely after the Front Royal Limited Partnership annexation goes into effect, if approved.
"We can talk openly about annexing everything from the county that's good for both sides into the town, and why can't we talk about consolidation?" Murray asked.
Murray said his board has discussed but not voted on consolidation.
"Rather than each side fighting each other and spending a half a million dollars in legal fees, go for consolidation," Murray said. "That's fair to the constituents."
Town Council has hired a Richmond-based attorney to look into the corridor agreement and its options, including annexation of that area. The town set a $100,000 limit on legal fees related to that effort. Town Attorney Douglas Napier said this week that the law firm has submitted a few bills for its services.
Darr noted that the town has discussed, but not voted on, annexation of the corridor. Darr said he supported putting consolidation as a topic of discussion on the liaison committee's agenda.
"I think it's a good discussion," Darr said. "I'm hearing it out in the public as well. If it is something that's being considered and it may be on a referendum, the smart thing would be for the town and county to sit down and work out these issues prior to an election.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org