Movie studio will open at Washington school

The Washington Town Council approved a special-use permit Monday night for a Virginia-based independent film production company to begin leasing the former gym and classrooms of the Washington School on Mount Salem Avenue.

The permit was approved at the council’s regular monthly session at town hall by a 5-0 vote, following a brief public hearing at which neighbors and council members expressed near-universal support of the adaptive reuse of the old school’s rear half (the front half having been converted to apartments a decade ago).

The three principals of The Forge Studios, Ron Newcomb, Jerry Mosemak and Skip Lipman, all present in the front pew at town hall, said they hoped to start moving the business (and their families) to Rappahannock County immediately.

Council member Patrick O’Connell was absent for the vote; Mayor John Sullivan, a co-owner of the Washington School property, recused himself before the proceedings began and sat in the crowd while Harris Hollow resident Bill Walton, another co-owner of the Washington School property and chairman of Forge, made a brief presentation.

Walton (who is also, in the interest of full disclosure, a minority owner of this newspaper) told the council that he, Sullivan, town resident Allan Comp and former council member Dan Spethmann — who Walton said is no longer an owner — bought the Washington School three years ago from Child Care and Learning Center.

Since then, he said, the group has struggled to find a use for it that “would preserve its historic character, not change the facade, preserve the classrooms and gym — because the gym is a very popular place, we had the high school prom there in the spring, the coming artist tour is using it in November. . . .”

“We’ve been looking for way also bring jobs and families into the county, in a way that has a light footprint, environmentally friendly, something that fit in with the culture of the county,” Walton said. And then last summer, he said, “The Rangers” came to Rappahannock.

“The Rangers” is one of several shorts and feature films — fantasy-themed flicks in the vein of “Lord of the Rings,” plus sci-fi and “steam punk” features — that Forge has made or is making; a good part of “The Rangers” was shot in various locations around Rappahannock last year.

“Rappahannock just captured my imagination right away,” Newcomb told the council. He said that despite the Virginia Film Office’s standing offer to make locations across the state cheaply available to production companies, he is convinced that “Rappahannock has it all.”

Newcomb, a Virginia native, former Marine and part-time police officer, said he’d be relocating his wife, who grew up in Fauquier County, and their three young girls to Rappahannock. “Right now, it’s just the three of us,” he said, referring to partners Mosemak and Lipman, “but we’ll be doing our best to create jobs here.” Most of the jobs will be short-term, production-related positions to start, he said, but that can change.

All three, Walton said, “have quit their day jobs and are ready to move here.”

During a brief public hearing conducted by Vice Mayor Gary Schwartz, several neighbors stood to express support for the proposal, including Jimmie DeBergh, who owns a residential property adjacent to the school that shares a driveway; Fred Catlin, who lives directly across the street; and Rappahannock County Schools Superintendent Donna Matthews, who rents one of the apartments in the front of the old school.

Questions from several council members clarified Forge’s impact on traffic, which Newcomb and his partners predicted would be minimal.

The schoolhouse location, Lipman told Schwartz, “will not be our primary production location. It will be for pre-production, development and post-production, as well as operating our internet services.”

Any construction of sets in the gymnasium, Walton said, or the installation of a “green screen” used in digital productions, would be temporary and easily struck for other one-time rentals or use of the space. The two adjacent classrooms would be used as offices. Town zoning administrator John McCarthy, who’d recommended approval of the permit early in the hearing, noted that there’s more than the required amount of parking on the property (which often accommodates 200 or more guests at special events).

Council member Gary Aichele motioned that the permit be approved, noting that “no one had spoken against it,” with the condition suggested by McCarthy that signage meets the town’s requirements (that the existing Washington School Apartments sign and the Forge Studio sign not exceed the 25 square foot limit), and that the permit be reviewed for renewal in a year. The motion passed unanimously.

Utility rate increase, Avon Hall update

In other action, Aichele reported on the Avon Hall Study Group’s months-long assessment of possibilities for selling or developing the town-owned estate; last month, the council agreed to hire surveyor Dan Clark to detail the property’s geographic features, utility easements and topography, “something short of a full-scale, pipe-to-pipe survey,” as Aichele put it.

This month, Aichele requested that the group would best move forward — to a full report by the group, detailing four or five options for disposal of the property, for the council’s Oct. 12 meeting — by contracting, for no more than $1,500, with land use planner Milton Herd. Herd, Aichele noted, is a consultant who’s familiar with the town and its zoning who has helped with the town’s last revision of its comprehensive plan (something now underway again).

After a brief discussion, the council agreed, 5-1. (Council member Jerry Goebel voted no, saying he wished the group could be more specific about what they’d be asking Herd to do.)

The council also agreed, after an analysis by Schwartz of recent revenue of the town’s waterworks and wastewater treatment system, to hold a public hearing at the Oct. 12 meeting on increases to usage fees for both system’s users. The fees have not risen since before the wastewater plant went online five years ago; fees are currently paying for about half of what the systems collectively cost to run.

To effectively double utility-service revenues in the next two years, which the council agreed last month it would likely do, Schwartz suggested the rates increase by some 45 percent starting Jan. 1, 2016, and another 45 percent the following January.

Users who are paying a base rate of about $14 a month for water service, as an example, Schwartz said, would pay about $20 a month the first year of the increase. In the second year, the water usage fee would rise to about $28. Schwartz said slightly more than half the water system’s 132 users are paying the base rate each month.

Monthly base rates for sewer use, which are based on water usage, would rise from about $20 a month to $40 a month over those two years. Again, about half of the town’s 102 sewer users are paying the base rate.