Councilwoman questions EDA on housing project

FRONT ROYAL – A Town Council member raised questions Monday about the delayed workforce housing project.

The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board voted late last month to move forward with the potential purchase of property on Royal Lane for the workforce housing project. The board took the action because the project, aimed at providing affordable housing to certain populations of workers in town and county, missed a March 1 deadline, forcing the property to revert back to the owners. The board decided to buy the property rather than waste the $500,000 already spent on the project.

But on Monday night, Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger, during the period of the meeting reserved for member comments, posed several questions about the project in response to the EDA’s action. Egger sought a written response to her questions from EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and asked interim Town Manager Joseph Waltz to facilitate the discourse.

When council voted six months ago on the EDA’s project Egger recalled that she asked at the time why the deed for the land, gifted to the authority, had a $435,000 price for the property. Egger said she was told then the amount was from an appraisal of the property.

“The EDA has mentioned at their last meeting that there actually was no appraisal done and so, to me, personally it’s upsetting but publicly it’s deeply troubling to me that this is now, things have changed, that we were told one thing here from this very podium and that was not the case,” Egger said.

The councilwoman sought answers to the following questions prior to their next meeting:
• Why did the EDA tell council that the $435,000 on the deed was from an appraisal when no appraisal was done
• Who came up with that number to put on the deed if no appraisal was done
• Why was the agreement between the EDA and the property owners confidential for this project
• Why wasn’t council or the Planning Commission made aware of the March 1 deadline the EDA has since mentioned is included in the confidential agreement
• Provide a timeline for the permits including filing and approval dates and any holds put on the applications
• Provide invoices, cancelled checks and other pertinent documents showing how the EDA spent the $500,000 on the project so far
• Provide a public disclosure of any familial relationships between the property owners and anyone on the EDA staff or board

The matter with the project spurred Egger to request appraisals for the former Afton Inn and the Stokes Mart property, both of which the EDA is marketing.

Mayor Hollis Tharpe noted that Egger’s questions are “legitimate” but have no connection to the town or the county.

“Unfortunately, it is an EDA project,” Tharpe said. “It doesn’t involve the town or the county. We actually have no tax dollars and I also have an announcement to make that Jennifer McDonald is family. But that makes no difference.”

Tharpe suggested Egger send her questions directly to the EDA and not to Waltz. Tharpe said he already received a timeline of the permitting process from Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp.

Egger said she wanted Waltz to handle her request for information from the EDA so that all council members could receive any responses at the same time. Tharpe reiterated that the town is not involved in the project and while he has some of the information Egger sought, he said he felt the answers to her questions should come from the EDA.

Councilman John Connolly said Egger’s statements and questions about the EDA project were not appropriate for the meeting. The purpose of council’s meeting is to handle town business, Connolly told members.

“It’s not necessarily a forum to air every grievance that we may have other about boards or bodies that may exist in the community and, in so far as there is nothing on our agenda concerning that project, I am not interested in using our time at our meetings as some kind of grandstanding board for people to air these questions, which could just as easily have been sent in an email to the EDA and circulated to council if the answers were all brought back,” Connolly said, adding that the questions could have been sent to Waltz rather than expressed at the public meeting.

Tharpe asked if any other members had comments. Egger tried to comment but Tharpe stopped her, saying council shouldn’t get into a back-and-forth discussion. Tharpe then allowed Egger to make one more comment.

“The reason that I brought this up in public is because I was given false information in public and I think it’s important, it’s relevant and any council member’s right to bring up any requests or inquiries that they have during this time,” Egger said. “I think it’s important that we respect that right of the council members and also respect the right of people to follow up on information that was given in public, which may not be correct.

“So that’s why I brought this up in public,” Egger added. “It’s not for grandstanding. It’s not for any personal grievance. If we were given false information, I would like for council to be given correct information now and I am well within my right to do that.”

Tharpe responded, saying “I totally agree and that’s why I allowed you to keep moving forward with it.”

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