Some Front Royal officials say they may try to buy back the former Town Hall if the owner has let the building fall into disrepair.
Mayor Christopher W. Holloway suggested at a Town Council work session on Monday that officials inspect the former Town Hall building on North Royal Avenue and see if the current owner is maintaining the property as required under a trade deal. If the inspection shows the owner hasn’t maintained the property, then the town could exercise its right to buy back the historic building.
The council traded the old Town Hall for the dilapidated Afton Inn at 2 E. Main St. in 2014. None of the members who voted for or against the swap currently serve on council.
The trade called for the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority to market the Afton Inn for the town. Meanwhile, the former owner of the Afton Inn took ownership of the old Town Hall. Supporters of the trade said the EDA would help find a developer for the Afton Inn that could restore the building for a commercial purpose. Opponents argued that the town did not receive the better end of the deal and traded a historic property in good condition for a vacant, dilapidated shell of a building.
The latest real estate assessment values the former Town Hall at $759,300 — $654,600 for the building and $113,700 for the land, according to the Warren County online records. FM Town Hall LLC, with a mailing address in Manassas Park, owns the property. The Afton Inn is valued at $243,400 — $117,900 for the building and $125,500 for the land. The EDA recently sold the Afton Inn to 2 East Main LLC for $325,000, according to land transfer records.
Town Attorney Douglas Napier provided an update on the former Town Hall and explained what the trade agreement allows council members to do.
The town has a right to buy the property if the owner does not maintain the building in a good state of repair, Napier said. The town would work with appraisers to determine the price of the property.
“Right now, obviously, we don’t know if the property is being maintained in a good state of repair,” Napier said. “We’d have to go inside the property. We have the right to do that."
The owners cleaned up the building when town officials last brought up concerns about the property’s condition, Meza and Napier noted. Holloway recalled the building’s condition at that time when town officials inspected the property.
“We went in it and ... it was a mess,” Holloway recalled. “I mean, it had flooded ... in the basement."
The owner offered to sell the building back to the town for about $1.2 million and a Realtor listed the property for that price, Meza said.
“But they did that to stop us from buying it and so my point is ... this is the same path we tried to pursue last time,” Meza said.
“I say ... let’s go inside and take a look and let’s just move on it,” Holloway said. “I mean, it’s been vacant since we left.”
“And the only problem is the longer it sits, the worse it’s gonna get,” Napier said.
Holloway said town officials and a third-party inspector should look at the property, inside and outside the building, before taking the next steps.
Councilman Joseph E. McFadden questioned why the town would try to reclaim the property. Councilwoman Letasha T. Thompson tried to explain the situation but noted she was not on the council when they accepted the trade.
“I think it was, from my understanding, when this all first came about, was the historical significance, the regret of trading the buildings ... and re-establishing a town hall, is what I gathered from my time here,” Thompson said.
“It needs to be gutted,” Holloway said. “I mean, it’s got asbestos in it and everything.”
The mayor went on to say the building holds sentimental value to some town residents. The property could become a blighted building, Napier said.
Holloway pointed out that the owner of the former Town Hall previously owned the Afton Inn.
“Did he do anything with the Afton Inn? No,” Holloway said. “The Afton Inn now doesn’t have windows, doors, floors -”
“Those were bad deals and bad situations but I don’t see what the point -” McFadden said.
“Then what’s the point of doing anything with any other blighted building in town?” Holloway interjected.
Lloyd then asked if this situation is one reason the town is creating its own building inspections department. No one responded to his question.
Holloway, Lloyd, Meza, McFadden, Thompson, Vice Mayor Lori A. Cockrell and Councilman Gary L. Gillispie attended the meeting.
Also at the work session, council members:
• Heard from Napier on Virginia’s legalization of marijuana, which takes effect on July 1. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation into law on April 7. The law allows people to possess small amounts of marijuana and households to grow plants. Retail sale of marijuana does not begin until Jan. 1, 2024. Sales include a 21% state tax rate and localities can opt in for a 3% local tax, in addition to regular retail sales and use taxes. Localities can opt out of retail sales prior to Dec. 31, 2022. Localities that opt out cannot collect taxes on marijuana sales, Napier said. Localities can regulate hours of operation of retail shops, retain authority to regulate land use through local zoning. How the legalization would affect the town budget remains uncertain.
• Continued the discussion of the new policies and procedures for special events held downtown.
• Continued the discussion on the possibility of eliminating the credit card fees the town charges customers for certain transactions. The town plans to hold a second public hearing on the proposed changes. Council members held a public hearing on the proposal but tabled the matter for further discussion.
• Continued their discussion on an ordinance proposed by Lloyd that would prohibit any business or entity that operates in town from requiring that its employees, volunteers or members receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment or membership. Napier said he wanted to do more research on the proposal. Most council members did not favor putting the proposed ordinance on a meeting agenda for possible consideration. Members did support not requiring that town employees receive the vaccine.
• Met in two, separate closed sessions to discuss personnel matters.