EDA responds to questions about project

FRONT ROYAL – The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority responded last week to one town leader’s questions over an agency housing project.

The EDA Board of Directors and staff members released documents and information about the Royal Lane Workforce Housing Project after Town Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger laid out her concerns about the initiative. The package contained hundreds of pages of documents, mainly years of EDA annual reports, strategic plans, project invoices, contracts and meeting minutes. Egger posed questions to the EDA and Jennifer McDonald, its executive director. Mayor Hollis Tharpe said two weeks ago that Egger raised valid questions while other members have come to McDonald’s and the EDA’s defense.

The EDA plans to build an apartment complex on 3.6 acres at the end of Royal Lane. The Town Council approved the special-use permit required for the project. The owner, Walter Campbell – McDonald’s uncle – originally gave the land to the EDA as a gift. The authority recently voted to pursue the purchase of the land because the EDA had failed to build the project by March 1 – a deadline recently disclosed by the agency. The question of when the EDA or town and county officials knew of the deadline remained unanswered in the information released by the EDA.

Warren County Supervisor Thomas Sayre raised a question about the project last Tuesday. Sayre asked County Attorney Dan Whitten what he knew about the deadline the EDA faced pertaining to the project. Whitten, who is also the EDA’s attorney, supervisors he could not break attorney-client privilege.

A letter to the news media dated May 17 and signed by the EDA Board of Directors Chairwoman Patricia Wines and Vice Chairman L. Greg Drescher acknowledges the discussion and criticism of the project.

“Any criticism that has been directed at the Executive Director is unfortunate and unwarranted,” the letter states. “Jennifer McDonald works under the direction of the EDA Board. She is not permitted to make significant decisions without board approval, and the EDA Board carefully vets every project undertaken.”

The letter also states that EDA meetings remain open to the public and its director and members are available to answer questions. The EDA works with its attorney to ensure the board works within the “letter of the law,” the letter states. The housing project is an example of a multi-year planning process with the EDA board involved at each step.

A May 17 news release indicated that the package of documents would address questions raised by town and county leaders and the local media pertaining to the project. The release also provides a timeline of events in the project’s history.

The idea of workforce housing as an EDA endeavor arose in 2002, according to the timeline. A report commissioned by Town Council, the Board of Supervisors and the EDA in 2007 at a cost of $300,000 also identified workforce housing as a need. A survey conducted in December 2009 showed that many residents felt the community lacked high-quality, affordable housing for young people and the elderly. The 2010 U.S. Census indicated that residents age 60 or older made up 16.7 percent of the county population. The county and the EDA surveyed school division employees and those in law enforcement and fire and rescue agencies to determine how many people in those workforce areas live in or outside the county. The EDA staff collected data in July 2014 on workforce housing availability and median salaries for teachers, nurses, law enforcement and fire and rescue workers.

McDonald notified County Administrator Doug Stanley and then Town Manager Steve Burke in August 2014 that the EDA planned to research its ability to develop a project geared to provide housing for the service industry workforce. The EDA would not ask for county or town funds for the project.

Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp responded to McDonald on Aug. 14, 2014, pertaining to her questions on whether land on Royal Lane would suit such a project. His response prompted the EDA to compile a list of properties. McDonald told EDA directors in closed session around this time her familial relationship with the landowners.

In November 2014, the EDA, with help from the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, secured $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist with the construction of the project. EDA staff worked for months in 2015 to collect feasibility research and to prepare a project plan. The EDA, Town Council and the Board of Supervisors discussed the project during a June 2015 meeting.

McDonald disclosed her familial relationship with the property owners in open session at an EDA board meeting in September 2015. The EDA presented its first design plan, traffic counts, environmental studies and other documents to the town Planning Department and Town Council in October 2015. EDA and town staff met the next month to discuss site layout. The EDA spent time and money to redesign the layout at the town’s request only to be told three months later to return to the original design, the timeline notes. The EDA worked with Pennoni Associates from January through April 2016 to finalize the site plan.

The application was submitted to the town Planning Department in April 2016 after which Camp requested a letter from county Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico allowing for one entrance into the site. Maiatico had already sent such a letter to Camp, McDonald and Burke in January.

The EDA took ownership of the property in June 2016 in order to comply with town rules for applying for a special-use permit. EDA staff met with adjacent property owners in July 2016. Council approved the project in November 2016. McDonald responded then to Egger’s questions about the property’s assessed value.

McDonald tried to clarify the difference between the property’s assessed or taxable real estate value and the appraised or market value. McDonald indicated that the appraised value likely would be higher than the assessed value. No appraisal had been conducted on the property but the land had been assessed. McDonald took responsibility for creating any confusion over the two kinds of values.

The review history of the project provided by Camp begins with the permit application submitted by Pennoni Associates on April 7, 2016. Review agencies received the application a few days later. The department sent notices to adjoining property owners on May 27. The Planning Commission held a public hearing on the application at its June 15 meeting but tabled it at the applicant’s consent so the EDA could meet with property owners to explain the project.

The EDA asked the commission the next month to continue to table the application until the August meeting. The commission endorsed the application at its Aug. 17 meeting with two conditions added to address residents’ concerns. Town Council discussed the project at work sessions in September and October before holding the first reading on the application Oct. 24. Council approved the permit with all conditions on second reading Nov. 14.