Move aimed at closing $700,000 budget gap, reactions mixed
By Dan McDermott and Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
FRONT ROYAL, VA, April 1, 2010 – In what opponents are calling a “desperate move to generate enthusiasm for an unnecessary tax hike,” the Front Royal Town Council voted 3-2 Monday (with one abstention) to sell the Shenandoah River for $2.4 million dollars to Frederick County, VA, which has long coveted the once-pristine waterway to feed it’s desire for more development.
Informed his abstention didn’t block the move, supported by Councilmen Sayre, Holloway and Vice Mayor Hrbek, because it did not require a “super majority” fourth vote, Shae Parker said, “Are you sure? – It is sort of like a tax increase. I mean it replaces tax revenue, doesn’t that count?”
Eighteenth District State Delegate Clifford L. “Clay” Athey said that Parker probably should not have even considered voting as an appointed member of council. “The people didn’t elect him, he’s not a Republican – why are we even talking about him?” Athey, who introduced legislation this year negating the impact of appointed municipal body officials, wondered.
In a hastily called press conference, Town Manager J. Michael Graham said the decision, while unexpected, was a smart move. “Look, the river used to be a major way to move products from New Market to Harpers Ferry. But since I-81 came along, it has clearly become a burden to maintain. It has outlived its usefulness. And frankly speaking, it’s worth a nice chunk of change, transgender fish and all!” he said.
The final negotiated price for the historic and majestic river would close the town’s budget deficit for two years.
Frederick County officials say they plan to drain the river over a 16-year period provided that federal officials agree. A public hearing involving the EPA, the Virginia Water Control Board and Department of Game & Inland Fisheries is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 29, 2011.
One member of the Frederick County delegation in attendance who wished not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the board of supervisors said it was a win-win. “Look, tourists come to Front Royal to the ‘Canoe Capital’ and all that but it doesn’t say ‘River Capital’ so technically speaking there is no liability issue. And a lot of people will still swing by restaurants and gas stations as they look for the river and opt for the Skyline Drive. Plus, of course, we’ll get a [boat]load of water,” he said.
In an exclusive interview, Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek, who was a strong proponent of the idea, said it was a matter of “wading through a river of financial problems.”
“This wasn’t my first choice as you know. But there comes a time when you have to man-up and make the tough calls. Ronald Reagan would have sold it decades ago,” he said as he looked misty-eyed at a portrait of ‘the Gipper’ hanging on his office wall.
Front Royal Mayor and former town public works director Eugene Tewalt said with the decision to tear down the Riverton Dam, his decision to support the move was an easy one. “I thought the river was still good for something, or could be with a little tweaking. But once we saw the numbers on that – $500k to a million to fix to no apparent end, versus nothing, or virtually nothing, to get rid of the dam holding the river back – what the heck?! I mean the state guys told us Frederick County and Winchester are using up most of the river’s water before it gets to us anyway. If it doesn’t serve a purpose and they essentially control it already, what’s the point?”
Asked about the possible loss of recreational uses, including the canoeing that has given Front Royal the title “Canoe Capital of Virginia”, Tewalt was philosophical. “Well you know that was nice of then Vice President Gore to do that, but we didn’t even have a canoe launch point until we spent all that money fixing up the Luray Avenue boat landing last year. And one launch point – canoe capital? I think that whole nature’s calling tourist industry is more of a county thing, than of much direct value to the town.”
“What the *u@k!?!” River activist and longtime river businessman Trace Noel said. “Unfortunately, I guess we all live upstream from these guys. They just continue to astound me on an almost daily basis. I mean what are they thinking? They are going to sell a 2-billion-year-old historic river featured in movies, poems and songs for centuries so they don’t have to add $20 or so per year to real estate taxes?”
Local Tea Party activist leader Tim Ratigan was angered by the news, if from a different angle. “I don’t want the tax increases – I’m all for any alternative to that. But where are we supposed to dump our tea if push comes to shove next time around?”
Former county supervisor and county Republican Committee Chairman Matt Tederick fumed at the news. “Why didn’t they go to Fairfax or Falls Church? They just had that water authority sale decision that has nothing to do with our fund balance situation – but they surely have deeper pockets than Winchester. This is a classic example of these incumbent politicians taking a good idea and turning it to [mud].”
Questioned about the move, Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman Archie Fox said, “They did what? I don’t remember that coming up at liaison meetings. Can they do that on their own? Aren’t they still part of Warren County? I’m not sure this is legal.”
It did not appear to ease Fox’s mind that the state and feds apparently had the last call on whether the sale would be consummated.
County Administrator Doug Stanley also seemed taken aback at the news. “Was this Graham’s idea?” he asked. He was told it appeared to be a split council initiative. “Typical,” Stanley replied.
South River Supervisor Linda Glavis asked if the move would cost the county anything. Told the county appeared to be on the outside looking in, with no financial obligation or benefit, Glavis said, “Well, I guess that’s okay.”
North River Supervisor Glenn White seemed relieved at the news. “Maybe we can get some additional funding for the air show now. It’s going to be bigger and better than ever this year, you know. The river had its day but it is old news – it is over. But the airport and air travel and commerce transported on the wing, that is our future.”
It would seem the Front Royal Town Council, at least a portion of it, agree, at least in part, with that notion.
One is now left to wonder if a brewing annexation move by the town will shift its focus from the county’s northside commercial corridor to its southwestern corridor where that airport and adjacent land for a potential commercial and industrial complex lie.
Dan McDermott: firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Bianchini: email@example.com
[Note, this story has been updated.]