By Sarah Vogelsong
The Port Royal that residents fell asleep in the night of June 30 was not the same town that they woke up to on the morning of July 1.
During the night, at exactly 12:01 a.m., after approval was granted last week by Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Kelly, the town’s long-sought boundary line adjustment went into effect, adding 411 acres, 10 businesses, and approximately 34 people to Port Royal.
It’s been a long road for the town, which first began discussing the boundary line adjustment after the November 2012 closure of Union First Market Bank led to the loss of a quarter of the town’s revenue, threatening its ability to provide public services to its citizens and maintain its charter. In response to the fiscal crisis sparked by the shuttering of the bank, town officials turned off half of the town’s streetlights, changed their water system operator to a cheaper option, and raised both commercial and residential water rates.
These measures, however, were not sufficient to make up the shortfall, and in December, the council approached the Board of Supervisors with a proposal to expand Port Royal’s boundary lines so that the town would include the businesses clustered westward along Route 301.
In a letter submitted to the board on Dec. 20, 2012, the Port Royal Town Council stated, “Unless the Town is able to secure the business licenses, sales taxes, and food/beverage taxes for the businesses in these locations, it will be unable to continue to operate as an incorporated body.”
After almost a year of discussion, in November 2013, the town and the county reached an agreement on the boundary line adjustment, with the county consenting to give up the approximately $60,000 to $70,000 in revenues it received from Port Royal business licenses and meals and beverage taxes annually. In return, Port Royal would continue to exist as a chartered entity, the county would not have to assume the costs of absorbing the town, and the county could reap the benefits of a more prosperous town.
“They stand to win by betting on the fact that we can win,” said town manager and former council member Bill Wick.
The county will continue to collect real estate and property taxes from Port Royal residents. Nor will residents’ tax payments change as a result of the boundary line adjustment—but instead of going to Caroline, the money from businesses located in the adjustment area will now flow to the town.
Now that the adjustment has passed, town officials and staff are eager to map out a brighter future for Port Royal.
“We’re going to put the town on a financial basis that’s sound,” said Wick.
For the next year or two, the council will focus on updating its comprehensive plan and subdivision and zoning ordinances, as well as crafting a plan for responsible growth and building up a rainy-day fund for future improvements.
“Nothing’s going to happen in the blink of an eye,” said Wick.
The most pressing project on the council’s agenda, he said, will be the replacement of the water system. Although council has considered this issue for the past few years, it has been unable to apply for grants because of its lack of money to maintain any new system that might result. Thanks to the boundary line adjustment, which will increase the money in the town’s coffers, Port Royal will be able to move ahead to secure such funding.
The biggest decision council faces in this area will be whether the town should privatize the water system or retain control over it. A committee composed of Wick and council member Jim Heimbach has been formed to investigate this issue and present recommendations for both options.
In the longer term, said Mayor Nancy Long, the town hopes to encourage growth along the Route 301 corridor, which is becoming increasingly busy as travelers to and from Maryland and Virginia Beach seek to avoid the heavy traffic of Interstate 95. Because of its location on the Rappahannock River and the county’s eastern edge, Port Royal serves as a “gateway” to Caroline, said Long—and those travelers may prove an asset to the town.
“You’ve got to get the people there before you can draw them in,” she said.
When it comes to drawing people in, Long said that she would like to see more tourist attractions, specialty shops, and perhaps even a bed and breakfast in Port Royal.
In the meantime, the council will need to grapple with challenges concerning water, sewerage, and Route 301, which would require some reconfiguration to help slow traffic and ease the turning of vehicles into the smaller connecting roads of the town.
The upcoming council elections in November add a shade of uncertainty to the direction plans will take. All seven seats are up for re-election. Five members have submitted their papers to the State Board of Elections to run once again.