Town leaders endorse middle school rezoning

FRONT ROYAL – Town leaders on Monday endorsed two requests to rezone land for Warren County’s next middle school.

Council voted 4-2 on first readings to approve two separate applications to rezone approximately 24 acres of land off Happy Creek Road near Shenandoah Shores Road. The rezoning would accommodate the middle school the county plans to build along the future Leach Run Parkway. Full approval requires a second reading.

Councilmen Bret Hrbek and Eugene Tewalt voted against the motion to approve the rezoning requests. Hrbek cited a letter from Pennoni Associates, the engineering firm for the project, to Warren County’s County Administrator Doug Stanley, copies of which council recently received, in which Associate Vice President Ron Mislowsky stated that an analysis shows the new middle school would reduce school-related traffic on Happy Creek Road by 20 percent.

Hrbek said it doesn’t appear that the Warren County School Board has shown how it would need to adjust the attendance zones to accommodate the future middle school. Hrbek said he was concerned that Pennoni’s assumption about traffic on Happy Creek Road does not take into consideration the zone changes, nor does it account for any growth in the school’s population should that change through expansion of the building or the town’s growth in general.

However, the town plans to pursue the second phase of improvements to Happy Creek Road. County Planning Director Taryn Logan states in a Jan. 20 letter to town Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp that the county’s contribution for the construction of the Leach Run Parkway “more than offsets the transportation impact of the middle school project.” The county is paying two-thirds of the cost of Leach Run Parkway.

“It is my understanding that once we change the zoning, we don’t have any other kind of recourse in the future for any approval for any kind of expansion of the school,” Hrbek said. “Is that a possibility in the future? Or is that something we need to take care of now?”

Town Manager Steve Burke said Front Royal would not be able to require proffers that could help alleviate the expansion’s impact on Happy Creek. Town and county officials could discuss any future impacts an expansion might have, Burke said. Camp said rezoning is the time when officials should talk about impacts of a project.

Hrbek said he couldn’t support the rezoning, at least on the first reading, unless council can secure a condition to give the town the chance to negotiate with the county on ways to help to alleviate some of the cost of the building’s expansion.

Tewalt, citing information from Burke, said the Virginia Department of Transportation has about $2 million to cover some of the cost to reconstruct Happy Creek Road. Tewalt, a former civil engineer, called the daytime traffic he has observed on Happy Creek Road and cross streets “horrendous.”

Tewalt said the three parties involved in the projects need to decide how to fund the remaining cost of the phase of the Happy Creek Road project.

Council held public hearings on two rezoning applications related to the future middle school. Warren County asked to rezone 4.71 acres from the agriculture and suburban residential districts to the residential district. The Industrial Development Authority, which does business as the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development, asked to rezone 19.31 acres from agriculture and suburban residential.

School Board Chairwoman Catherine Bower spoke at the first hearing to voice support for the rezoning effort and the middle-school project. The new middle school will serve the county system, especially the needs of the eastern portion, for 20 years, Bower said. The architect and site engineer hired by the school system have been working with town staff members to make sure the facility meets Front Royal’s plans for the area.

“We believe that the project, along with the Leach Run Parkway construction, will have a positive impact on traffic flow in the area by reducing traffic trips that currently have to go into town for our current middle school,” Bower said in a statement. “At this point, timing is critical to make sure the school is completed by early summer 2017 so our staff can move into the building and be ready for an August 2017 opening for the 2017-2018 school year.”

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