Council keeps lighting project on radar

FRONT ROYAL – The town hasn’t unplugged a proposal to string lights along East Main Street just yet.

Work on the canopy lighting program that would attach lights to buildings and stretch the strings across the street began about two years ago. However, getting some property owners to participate, many of whom don’t live in the area, remains a problem.

Mayor Timothy Darr told Town Council members at their work session Tuesday that they need  to decide if they wanted to keep working on the project or kill it. Council started discussing the idea in November 2013, Darr noted. The original plan suggested lighting Main Street from North Royal Avenue to Chester Street. The latest version would light Main Street from Chester Street to Crescent Street.

“I think we’re at the point where we truly need to make a decision on this process,” Darr said. “To be honest, I’m one of the biggest advocates for it – still am – but the process, as you’ve seen, we can’t get a foothold.”

Some property owners don’t want to participate because the town is requesting that they sign a waiver making Front Royal not liable in the event that the equipment causes problems or injury.

“We could have made it a really neat project,” Darr said.

The town last spring developed a request for proposals from firms that could provide engineering services needed for the project. The town advertised for the services in May and picked a firm and negotiated a price in June. Council approved the awarding of the contract in July. The town and the firm worked on a design in August and September. The town sent letters to property owners in September informing them of the program and gauging their interest. Letters were then sent by registered mail to property owners after so few had responded.

As of Jan. 6, the town received responses from six property owners – three in favor and three against. The remaining nine property owners contacted by the town had not responded.

The engineering firm looked at an alternative design taking into consideration only the three approving property owners and determined these properties are too far from each other for the project to work.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt said the language in the letters sent to property owners likely turned some of them off to the project. Tewalt asked if the town could take on the liability associated with the project and cover the effort under the municipal insurance policy. If that’s possible, Tewalt suggested then that the town issue another letter to property owners stating the locality would accept the responsibility through its insurance carrier. If property owners still don’t buy into the project, the town should scrap the idea, Tewalt said.

But a few downtown proprietors criticized the town’s efforts to entice property owners to participate in the project. Craig Laird, owner of Royal Oak Computer, said some proprietors were put off by the town’s request that participants accept responsibility in instances where someone suffers injuries from the lighting equipment.

“That scared everybody,” Laird said. “Also, sending out letters and then just sitting back and waiting for a response – if I’m a salesman and I just send letters out, a hundred letters out and I just sit back in my chair waiting for a response, I’m not going to do that many sales. They needed to be followed through.”

George McIntyre, owner of Apple House Deli, also worked on the project with town officials. McIntyre didn’t hear back from the town regarding the effort to contact property owners, Laird said. The town needed to assign someone to meet with property owners rather than rely solely on mailed letters, Laird added.

“This project, while it started off very simply, seems to have gotten really bogged down with a lot of red tape,” Laird said. “We need to get rid of that red tape and do some handholding and walk it down and do what other communities across America do into getting simple lights put across the street.”

McIntyre echoed Laird’s concerns. McIntyre added that groups such as the Front Royal Independent Business Alliance want to stimulate business downtown. McIntyre criticized council and town officials for dragging their feet on the initiative.

Darr suggested that council put of further work on the project until the town hires a community development director – a position they’ve created to oversee economic development projects in Front Royal.

“I’m not passing the buck or saying we didn’t do what we were supposed to do here but I also feel there’s a lot of other business in town than these lights,” Darr said.

Tewalt suggested that he serve as council’s liaison and work with McIntyre to contact property owners regarding the canopy lighting project. Tewalt also suggested that Town Attorney Doug Napier look into the liability concerns. Darr and McIntyre voiced support for Tewalt’s suggestion. Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe tried to reassure McIntyre that council supports the project but admitted that it’s been slow-going.

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