The Front Royal Town Council work session Tuesday evening, February 15, covered several topics over the span of four hours, but the bulk of the meeting involved a discussion with around 20 local builders, members of the Warren County Builder’s Association.
Association President George Cline, the owner of Cline Construction, Inc. was invited to speak to council by Councilman Gary Gillispie. Before Mr. Cline took to the podium, Town Manager Steven Hicks gave a presentation on the Town’s recently created Building Permits and Inspections Department.
Hicks explained to council and builders what he hoped to achieve with the new department, “Why council wanted to create a building department — one-stop shopping, more efficient,” Hicks said as he began his presentation.
“I’d encourage you all to call every place I worked in the development community because you will find out that I am pretty flexible. I don’t pull people going over two miles over the speed limit,” Hicks continued.
“Let me also tell you about the way I see things for everyone. You know, when you buy a car, you don’t buy it to buy fuel. You buy it to move forward. When you create a division or department you don’t create it for the purpose of bureaucracy or red tape. You create a department for the purpose of service, quality of life, and helping the town out. Without a building code division, we can’t do anything (regarding building maintenance) unless the county is willing to kind of help out and say we will focus on the process.”
Hicks stated that he was not certified as a building inspector but under Va. Section 105.1.2 “an acting permit building official shall be certified as a building official in accordance with VCS within one year after being appointed as acting or permanent building official.”
Hicks recounted past projects, saying “having managed over $600 million dollars of projects … I’ve built two police headquarters, three fire stations, one community center, one golf course club, and multiple little bathrooms, renovations. I understand the frustration because I was on the other side building stuff. I was the former acting building code [official] in James City County.”
Hicks indicated that he planned to be very hands-on in the role of building inspector, saying he would answer code questions if there were a discrepancy between the third-party inspector and permit holder, and that, “Once the decision is on my plate a decision is going to be made. Who makes the final decision? The buck stops at the building code official. At the end of the day, it’s his decision.”
The Town Building Department is set up to have inspections done by a third party, Engineering Consulting Services, Mid-Atlantic. LLC, or ECS, which charges $145 per hour, for plan review.
According to Hicks, the revenue for the department would come from building projects in town. He cited permit fees for 3,000 square-foot buildings costing about $600,000 to build, as a chief source of revenue. Builders would have to pay $975 to the Town, plus also pay County fees. A two-story building with 6,000 square feet erected in Front Royal would cost around $1,600 in Town permit fees.
At the invitation of Councilman Gillispie, who is a plumbing and gas building inspector in Loudoun County, Cline addressed the council, “Mr. Hicks poured a beautiful glass of Kool-Aid. It was awesome!” Cline began somewhat sarcastically. “How many $600,000 houses do we build in town? You painted a beautiful picture, but it is not accurate. It does not fit this town. Nowhere does it fit this town. You inflated those numbers to make your program look well and I’m good with that.
“You give an analogy about buying a car. Let me give you one. A gentleman goes and buys a car. He sees a Corvette; he loves the Corvette. Brings it home. Pulls in the driveway, the wife comes out and he says ‘Honey, go get the kids and let’s go for a ride.’ The wife and three kids come out and he stands there and she’s going, ‘Where are the kids going to sit?’
“He buys a Corvette. Didn’t think about that. That’s kind of how this building program was put together. Great idea, you get what you want, but it’s not feasible. It’s not what’s needed. And that is where we are at today. Your research is phenomenal, you made a point about the tourists, about citizens paying twice. This is exactly what we are doing in the county and the town. Because our tax dollars still subsidize the building department in Warren County. We’re paying for our permit there and now we are going to pay for them here, so we’re going to pay double. Does that make sense?”
Cline said no builder in attendance at the Tuesday night meeting was against the town building department but told the council, “When we have to start paying an additional fee and relying on somebody to come from out of town to do our inspections there’s no way this works. It’s impossible.”
He also disputed the claim that Hicks made regarding needing a building department. “We come down to the blighted properties. The code, if you read it, you do not need a building official to do blighted properties. What the code asks for is a building property maintenance code certification is what you have to have to take care of blight properties. That is it.”
According to the Virginia State Code, Cline’s assertion of not needing a building department regarding blighted properties is valid.
36-49.1:1. Spot blight abatement authorized; procedure. A. Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, an authority, or any locality, shall have the power to acquire or repair any blighted property, as defined in § 36-3, whether inside or outside of a conservation or redevelopment area, by purchase or through the exercise of the power of eminent domain provided in Chapter 2 (§ 25.1-200 et seq.) of Title 25.1, and, further, shall have the power to hold, clear, repair, manage or dispose of such property for purposes consistent with this chapter. In addition, the authority and locality shall have the power to recover the costs of any repair or disposal of such property from the owner or owners of record, determined in accordance with subsection B of § 36-27. This power shall be exercised only in accordance with the procedures set forth in this section.
B. The chief executive or designee of the locality or authority shall make a preliminary determination that a property is blighted in accordance with this chapter. It shall send notice to the owner or owners of record determined in accordance with subsection B of § 36-27, specifying the reasons why the property is blighted. The owner or owners of record shall have 30 days from the date the notice is sent in which to respond in writing with a spot blight abatement plan to address the blight within a reasonable time.
Discussion amongst the builders and council members continued. Councilman Gillispie told the group that he had brought the issue of the blighted building to the council “a couple of years ago” and there just wasn’t money in the budget for a third party to handle those properties.
He continued, “We’ve got all the tools we need to take care of the blighted properties right now. Period — as long as the council has the appetite to do it.”
In further discussion, Gillispie expressed frustration that the Town building department would not be busy enough to hire individuals to inspect specific areas, such as plumbing and gas, electrical as well as a building inspector.
He cited the high cost of $145 for an inspection, with a second inspection costing an additional $145 as too costly. “Some of these costs that I’m receiving from the builders are blowing my mind. If we’re talking customer service here … I don’t understand that aspect of it.”
Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell told the group that she was under the impression that “this was going to be self-sufficient, that the fees were going to cover what the staffing would be. The other thing, I was under the impression that this was going to improve the process, make it more efficient. If we are not accomplishing that, if we need to put the brakes on for a little while and figure out if this is going to achieve what we were looking for, I say we need to look at it again.”
Amber Morris said she was concerned that the current model of the building department would cost small contractors big bucks, citing a $400 fee by the Town that would cost just $5 in the County.
Cline told the council that in 2021, 2711 permits were pulled in the town and county. Of those permits, 598 were in the town; 27 of those permits were new homes. “If I use your math, and I subtract the 27 from the 598, that leaves you 571 permits.”
Those 27 house permits, at an average of $600 in fees would only put $16,500 in town coffers.
Cline went on to say, “There is just no way right now that we can pay a minimum of $1,995 versus $391. There is absolutely no way. Mr. Hicks wears a lot of hats, which could be a conflict of interest if you have somebody on your board that builds and then you have your own inspectors come out and inspect the work, that is a conflict of interest.”
Other builders at the meeting echoed Cline’s concerns. Darryl Stout, of Teddy Stout Construction, Inc. said, “Warren County builders are fighting all the time to survive. We fight the weather, and some are getting treated differently. No appraisal will account for a $10,000 difference in fees. Builders will just not build in town.”
Council members agreed that the local builders had valid concerns which needed to be addressed. Councilman Gillispie said he was hoping to see changes in the town building department moving forward. Gillispie said he knew that the Town would not have enough activity to hire separate inspectors, which might cause certain things to be missed. Vice-Mayor Cockrell stated, “We want to hear you. We are leaving here tonight with no clear direction, and I don’t want to drag it out until March.”
Other council members voiced concern about the issues presented and indicated they would like to have a joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors as soon as possible. Hicks said that it was appropriate to have a meeting to discuss and identify areas that staff could address, but he wanted to keep moving forward with the department.
Council members agreed to hold a special meeting on Wednesday, February 23, at 6:00 p.m., to discuss how to subsidize the Town building department.
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