Board grills EDA reps on housing project

FRONT ROYAL – The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority came under scrutiny by local leaders Tuesday for its workforce housing project.

Warren County Supervisors posed a series of questions to EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and EDA Board Vice Chairman L. Greg Drescher about the initiative years in the making that only recently drew criticism from some local leaders.

The EDA plans to build apartments on Royal Lane for residents who do not qualify for government assistance but can’t afford more expensive housing. Questions arose earlier this spring when the EDA Board of Directors voted to pursue the purchase of the Royal Lane property after a March 1 deadline to move forward on the project expired and with it the offer of the land as a gift from the owners, the Campbells, who also are relatives of McDonald.

Shenandoah District Supervisor Thomas Sayre and Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox led most of the questioning during the work session. At times, questions were repeated or rephrased. McDonald and Drescher remained silent when asked a couple of “legal” questions. County Attorney Dan Whitten, who also represents the EDA, only recently recused himself as the authority’s counsel on the project.

Questions posed by supervisors at the work session and the following answers provided by McDonald and/or Drescher:

Q. What sites did the EDA evaluate for workforce housing?

 

A. McDonald said the EDA looked at several sites, though town zoning regulations limit the locations of apartments with a special-use permit. Sites included the 90-acre HEPTAD property – too large for apartments – and the Royal Lane land. Other sites would have required the EDA to acquire several parcels to make up enough land needed for apartments, McDonald said. The EDA narrowed its choices to three sites, one of which required improvements to a bridge to access the property. The owner of another property wouldn’t reduce the price, eliminating it from the running.

Q. Were any other offers made or received for sites by the EDA?

A. The EDA did negotiate with a landowner who did not want to cut the price of the property, McDonald said.

Fox then asked if the EDA advertised its desire for property for the project. McDonald explained that doing so could undermine the EDA’s bargaining position as it sought property for the project. Happy Creek District Supervisor Tony Carter echoed McDonald’s comments. Asked after the work session if the EDA sought to move forward on the project by issuing a request for proposals from interested developers, McDonald said the authority is not required advertise the initiative as local governments do. The EDA can and has used the RFP process for other projects, McDonald said.

Questions and answers also included:

Q. Were the Campbells originally approached with a request to donate the property or was there an initial discussion about a purchase price and, if so, what was the amount?

A. McDonald said the initial discussion included a purchase price and the property was listed on the market for about $550,000 at the time.

Q. When was the EDA board told about the March 1 deadline by the Campbells to start the project?

A. Board members first learned about the deadline at their September 2014 meeting in closed session, McDonald said. Drescher and McDonald commented that, early in the discussions, some members didn’t feel the deadline posed a problem. The EDA talked about buying the property, which the owners then gifted. McDonald recalled that the EDA board didn’t think the project would take more than 2 ½ years to get to its current point. McDonald explained more than once that the deadline was between the owners and a government agency, which she did not identify, that offered tax credits to the Campbells if the project went forward by March 1. Sayre repeated the question, asking Drescher if he recalled the deadline ever being discussed, to which Drescher said he was sure it was.

Q. Was the deadline included in any written contract and, if so, why did the EDA not include the deadline in the contract documents? Was it in any oral contract with the Campbells?

A. Drescher noted that the EDA “doesn’t have anything with the Campbells.” Sayre asked McDonald where she saw the deadline, to which she recalled sometime in 2015 when the Campbells applied to the agency for the tax credits. McDonald then noted that all along the EDA has worked with a private developer to make the project happen. However, should the private developer take over the project, the Campbells no longer would qualify for the tax break, McDonald said.

Q. Were either former county attorney Blair Mitchell or Whitten aware of the deadline?

A. Whitten said he did not represent the EDA when members first began its work on the project, though he said he did attend meetings. Whitten said he and Mitchell found out about the deadline in recent newspaper coverage about the matter.

Q. Given how things have transpired with the project, what would you do differently?

A. Drescher said the project hasn’t been completed so he couldn’t answer the question. However, Drescher and McDonald, at the request of North Fork District Supervisor Daniel J. Murray Jr., said the EDA could provide a report after the project is completed.

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