Port Royal pushing its boundaries
When it gets dark each night, the town of Port Royal can’t do what most communities do: turn on the streetlights.
Money’s too tight.
The 78-acre community also lacks the funds to repair its sidewalks, trim its trees and replace the decades-old water system.
The town has fallen on hard times, and for the first time in its 269-year history, it’s asking Caroline County for help.
In order to survive, the town needs to grow.
Town officials are asking the county to grant them a boundary change that would increase the size of the town to 534 acres, seven times its current area.
The move would allow Port Royal, home to 126 residents last year, to fold businesses along U.S. 301 and U.S. 17 into its borders—and onto its tax rolls, generating about $60,000 more in revenue a year.
That’s hardly a windfall. But for a sleepy riverside town that generates about $18,000 a year now, it’s the difference between life and death.
“The boundary adjustment, I’m not saying it will be the total answer to all of their issues, but it’s a big step in the direction to try and come up with a means to try to preserve a very historical piece of land,” said Caroline County Supervisor Calvin Taylor, who favors the boundary change.
The town doesn’t collect real estate or property taxes. Those go to Caroline County. Instead, it generates revenue from other sources: occasional grants, parking decal fees, local sales taxes, a business license tax, a utility tax it receives from Dominion Virginia Power and a communications tax it gets from Verizon.
The town’s economy suffered quite a blow when Union First Market Bank left in May 2012, taking with it about $8,000 of revenue—roughly one-third of the town’s income.
Expanding its boundaries would add about 40 more residents to Port Royal, but it’s the income from additional businesses that could keep the lights on.
The area the town would gain generated an average of $63,352 a year in business license fees and food and beverage taxes between 2008 and 2013, according to the Caroline County commissioner of the revenue. Revenue peaked at $75,642 in 2011 and hit its lowest mark in 2008 with $48,528.
Longtime businesses that could soon call Port Royal home include Horne’s and River Haven. The owners of both restaurants said they already feel like they are a part of the town, so they support the boundary change.
“I’m pretty much considered Port Royal, so I’m sure it would be much better if the revenue from my business went to Port Royal,” said Tommy Morse, the owner of Horne’s for the past 23 years.
Dave Hanlon, the owner of River Haven, echoed that sentiment.
“I think it will help the town,” he said. “I think they deserve to have the businesses in Port Royal pay the taxes to Port Royal.”
RICH WITH HISTORY
The small town of Port Royal sits along the Rappahannock River in the northeastern part of Caroline County, near the crossroads of U.S. highways 17 and 301. Driving north, it would be easy to zip right through it and over the bridge into King George County without even realizing you’d passed it.
Though it was chartered in 1744, people settled there about 100 years earlier.
It was once a busy port used by the Union army to get supplies. And it was here that assassin John Wilkes Booth sought refuge after shooting President Abraham Lincoln.
In its heyday, it was a center of commerce and even home to the county’s first hospital—which consisted of a room in a doctor’s house where sailors stricken with smallpox were quarantined.
The town has some of the oldest buildings in the state and the country—Virginia’s second-oldest Masonic lodge, dating to 1754, is here—and has been recognized by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Register of Historic Places.
Much of the town’s history is now displayed in a museum in the building where the Union bank used to be, on Main Street just off U.S. 301.
Cleo Coleman, president of Historic Port Royal, runs the museum, which opened almost a year ago. While the museum doesn’t charge admission, it’s brought school groups and tourists to Port Royal, raising its profile just a bit.
Coleman’s roots run deep in Port Royal, stretching back five generations. She spent her childhood here, but left for much of her adult life.
She came “home” in 1995 after retiring from a career in education and living in Ohio and Pennsylvania. She helped start the town’s historical society and started working on restoring the old schoolhouse, near the museum off U.S. 301.
Coleman says 10 years ago, she would have been opposed to any kind of change like the one currently proposed. But now, she says it’s needed.
In her opinion, the revenue the county will lose from turning over that land to Port Royal is “peanuts” compared to what it would cost the county to absorb the town. The county’s yearly budget is close to $42 million.
For 10 generations, Phyllis Carpenter’s family has called Caroline County home. She lives just outside the boundaries of Port Royal now, but supports the change that would bring her into the town.
“I would like to be one of the citizens to help make sure the town continues to exist,” said Carpenter, who used to run a local bed-and-breakfast. “It’s been a vital part of history, and I would hate to see that the charter has to be given up if things don’t work out.”
Port Royal had discussed trying to widen its boundaries 20 or 30 years ago, but its small size wasn’t an issue until recently. The bank’s departure last year hurt its income, and then the town had to replace $11,000 worth of pipes in its 70-year-old water system, which may have been damaged in the 2011 earthquake.
When the town applied earlier this year for a state grant to replace that system, its request was rejected, in part because it couldn’t generate enough revenue to maintain a new network.
That was a reality check, said Town Council member Jim Heimbach.
“Essentially we need that boundary change to even get loans or grants,” Heimbach said.
Last fall, the Town Council formally approached the Board of Supervisors about a boundary change. The town, which has a very small staff, worried that it would be a difficult process. But after talking with some state officials, they learned that if the county agreed, it could be relatively painless.
Taylor, perhaps the town’s biggest ally on the county’s Board of Supervisors, is in favor of the change.
“I support the boundary-line adjustment, and I support it because I feel it’s going to be necessary in order for the town of Port Royal to remain a town,” he said. “I don’t see them [the county] giving up revenue as much as I see joining forces with the town to try to assist them and provide the services they need to citizens of the county.”
Taylor said he thinks that if the boundary change is granted, the town’s increased revenue could help it get the grant it needs to replace its outdated water system.
“It’s not the answer to all their problems by any means,” Taylor said, “but it is a beginning to address some of the issues they have.”
The Town Council and the Board of Supervisors will hold a joint work session between now and the supervisors’ Sept. 24 meeting to iron out more details in the proposed boundary adjustment. Both the town and the county will need to hold public hearings before any votes are taken.
At the last Board of Supervisors meeting, when the issue was discussed, one farmer voiced opposition because he was worried about whether he could still run his farm in a town instead of a county. But Supervisor Jeff Sili told him that the town of Bowling Green has farms and that it likely wouldn’t be a problem in Port Royal.
Coleman, an avid local historian who once opposed changing anything about Port Royal, said if the boundary change can save the nearly 270-year-old town, she’s all for it.
“It’s essential to ensuring that we can continue to remind people where we came from,” she said.
Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413