Blue Ridge Wildlife Center helped 3,400 animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians last year; adds veterinarian, two additional staffers to handle record increase in patients

Blue Ridge Wildlife Center helped 3,400 animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians last year; adds veterinarian, two additional staffers to handle record increase in patients

As initial Warren County Planning Commission public hearings loom this Wednesday, March 8, Royal Examiner sat down with Shenandoah Valley Golf Club (SVGC) principal and General Manager Richard Runyon to discuss his rezoning submission that would allow the development of 286 age restricted (55 and up) residential homes on 104 acres of the Shenandoah Valley Club’s 195-acre property. As reported in Royal Examiner’s initial story on the rezoning proposal linked below, Runyon’s submission comes in the wake of the Shenandoah Valley club’s recent purchase of the adjacent Bowling Green Golf Club. That club is slated to remain two operational 18-hole courses, with a reduced golf operation or rural park area remaining on the SVGC property within the new residential development.

Shenandoah Valley Golf Club’s partial rezoning request to age-restricted housing headed to March 8 Planning Department Public Hearing

Runyon noted that he first came to work as SVGC in 1992. “My current director of golf hired me when I was a kid and he was an assistant pro. So, I’ve been here my whole life – I mean you’ve seen me grow up,” Runyon reminded this reporter who first met him, circa 1990s, as a sportswriter covering the Warren County High School golf team of which Runyon was then a member.

Richard Runyon ‘at home’ at SVGC next to the clubhouse – Royal Examiner photos Roger Bianchini

“The last thing I’d ever want to do is hurt this community. People don’t like change, I don’t like change. But if it has to change, let’s do it the right way. This plan is not a detriment to the community. This is a good plan,” Runyon asserts. Pointing to his lifelong roots in this community, and with the golfing community within it, he added, “I just want to make sure when we do it, we do it the right way. Because one day somebody will do it.

“But I want to be in control of that and I want to make sure that my backyard is kept accordingly because I’m a very good steward to this community. We’ve helped raise millions of dollars for community projects and the schools. But if something happens to me and there’s nobody to step up, it’ll all be sold. And then the big boys will come in one day and they’ll wait it out – they will. We’re in their path. They’re going to leap frog Rappahannock County and Fauquier County, the Plains. We’re the next victim. So, let’s get ahead of them,” Runyon said of outflanking outside developers with no ties to the community seizing control with little to no concern about impacts on local citizens.

“They don’t care – I do care and I’m not going anywhere. I was born and raised in this community and we need to have a place for our senior citizens to be able to retire and stay in this community,” Runyon said. And why not in a golf-centered development designed to maintain much of that natural Rockland Agricultural charm in tact, the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club owner reasons.

Runyon pointed to an early meeting with county staff on his rezoning and development proposal. “I had a meeting with Taryn (Logan, assistant county administrator and former county planning director) early, early in the process (July-August 2022). Taryn’s very professional and she gave some guidelines to go with. I really appreciate all her help and guidance. The one thing I’ll always remember is she told me ‘make it pretty’ – she always told me ‘make it pretty’. And I don’t know a prettier spot in this whole county than right where we are right now.” And Runyon hopes the preservation of golf and/or other agricultural park uses amidst the proposed residential portions of the property will maintain that “pretty” aspect within and surrounding the over-55 residential development.

“So, basically the golf course will encompass the community,” Runyon explained referencing one of the rezoning plan graphics of the SVGC development plan. “So, this is the Blue 9, this is Rockland Road and where we are at the clubhouse,” he indicated of the orange-colored section, “and this is the Red 9 – the White 9 will encompass the entire subdivision other than maybe four or five houses out here on Rockland Road,” he indicated.

Runyon at his office desk for a chat with the media. Below, one of his rezoning proposal graphics submitted to the county’s planning department illustrating the development plan.

So, the green space shown would remain active golf, we asked. “Active golf, or open green space, trails, walking paths – it would never be developed,” Runyon assured us of the final build out proposal. “And this is a 10, 20-year plan – I’m not a developer, but they’re still not finished with Lake Frederick and that’s been over 20 years. And Blue Ridge Shadows, that’s been over 20 years and they’re still not done there,” he said of the pace of area residential community build outs.

“My dream is, let’s say this were to happen, like I said I’m not a rich man but this would enable me to enhance this, have a golf cart community; take this clubhouse, turn it into a Regions-like restaurant, which is beautiful and they do a great job; pursue an access under the road here at Bowling Green Road where it connects into the two courses and the two clubhouses over there (at Bowling Green North and South) to where we have one golf course community.

“And the reason why we’re going after rezoning for Commercial is to do a restaurant. What’s the problem of having a possible pharmacy, what if we had like a small-scale urgent care,” Runyon said of the sought Commercial re-zoning aspect at what is SVGC’s clubhouse and public facilities area off Rockland Road. “My grandmother, she doesn’t drive anymore,” he said of one close-to-home example of the targeted age demographic for the proposed development, adding, “Tell me where there’s going to be a hindrance on the roads from this plan – I don’t see it,” he said of the 55-and-over, age-restricted residential development population, particularly as it relates to current traffic to the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club.

The SVGC clubhouse from Rockland Rd. That club business area is proposed for Commercial rezoning for multiple related community uses.

Infrastructure concerns

“So, let’s say someone were to come in and make me an offer (to develop) and say: ‘Stop operations on the Blue and Red 9 instantly.’ There’s an instant reduction in traffic right there. It would take 20 years to get it back to what it is right now,” Runyon said of the loss of two-thirds of the Shenandoah Valley club’s golf-based traffic. “During COVID we had over 60,000 rounds at this facility alone. We didn’t have the food and beverage revenue because everything was shut down – you couldn’t go out to eat. So, on an average here let’s just say I have 20,000 people that visit the clubhouse for weddings, banquets, fundraisers, so forth.”

Even reducing the golf trip number somewhat, he estimated annually: “You have somewhere between 70,000 and 85,000 people visiting this one facility. Do you honestly think that this road can’t handle 286 senior citizens?” he reasoned of the traffic trade-off on Rockland roads. Both subdivision exit/entrance roads are shown accessing Bowling Green Road. And Runyon suggested comparing the likely traffic patterns generated by the proposed 55-and-over community to what is currently normal rush-hour commuter traffic along Fairground Road, to which he sees his development adding minimally, if any, to.

Runyon also observed that with a likely long-term build out, by the time the proposed community reaches that build out, improvements may have been made to the major local connector roads, Fairground and Morgans Ford. “Hopefully somebody smarter than me will address the road situation and sometime soon, rather than later. Because I don’t think this would be a hindrance at all. I think this would be an absolute reduction (in traffic) if it were ever to happen,” he said revisiting the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club facilities traffic numbers cited above.

And those numbers are impressive as to commercial traffic-generating golf and other facility functions. “Take that 70,000 to 85,000 people, ebbs and flows throughout the year, and times it by three. Because we have three clubhouses and three golf courses now that total 63 holes. We’re the largest privately owned golf course in the state of Virginia, and we’re in the top 20 in America,” Runyon said of the now combined Shenandoah Valley (27 holes) and Bowling Green (36 holes) operations. Runyon said that moving forward Bowling Green North will be known as The Links Course at SVGC and Bowling Green South will be The Rockland Farm Course at SVGC, noting of the latter – “To pay tribute to where we live.”

A lifelong golfing aficionado, Runyon acknowledged the work of the Morrison family in establishing the first championship level 18-hole golf course (SVGC’s Red and White courses) in, not just the Rockland area, but all of Warren County. Work began in 1963, with the course opening in 1966, he said of the Morrison’s operation. But 57 years later he sees his proposal as a logical evolution aimed at serving the community’s population at, or approaching, retirement age, while maintaining a championship course level golfing base in and around the proposed 55-and-over residential development.

Runyon also addressed water and sewer concerns, noting that the SVGC property has existing access to four or five on-site wells. He pointed to what he said was the “largest steel water tank in Warren County” – 3-million gallons – on site used to store water for club facilities and grounds maintenance as necessary, as well (pun intended) as for other potential emergency community uses.

Shenandoah Valley Golf Club’s 3-million gallon steel water tank. Runyon estimated during the warm weather seasons when course maintenance is at a peak the club utilizes a million gallons of water weekly.

“The potable water I use for this facility, and I’ll have to check my facts, but I think it’s enough to do this entire subdivision if it were ever to be built out, plus a 40{95b18eb6fc4f42efd0d92738dfc3fb79fde21da267a711ecdf0381147c27bb86} reserve.” But were his facts to be wrong on that surplus, he noted: “I have numerous wells out here. So, let’s say this were to happen – do you know how much water I use on a golf course? – Millions of gallons.

“So, all these people, especially a couple people out here who say it’s going to be a hindrance on their well systems – I’m reducing water usage by millions of gallons a week,” Runyon told us. He elaborated to explain that during irrigation season the club will utilize as much as 300,000 gallons per day on the course and other club potable water uses.

And Runyon noted that a sewer plant would be built to address residential and commercial water disposal issues. “I’m using Inboden Environmental Services out of the Mount Jackson-Woodstock area,” he said of that aspect of the project.

“There will be zero to minimal impact on the schools. We talked about the roads. All I’m going to do is bring more tax revenue to Warren County through meals taxes, lodging taxes, personal property taxes and real estate taxes. We’re talking over a million dollars in tax revenues right there,” Runyon said of one bottom line.

Catalyst of rezoning, development plan

We asked if the residential rezoning at the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club and the Bowling Green purchase were intertwined from the outset. “No, this started first,” Runyon said of the partial residential rezoning of SVGC. “We started thinking about it last summer, last season around July-August (of 2022). Our negotiations with Bowling Green probably started October, November when we really got serious.” He verified that the impacts on business operations at the club from the COVID-19 restrictions on public mobility and gatherings were a factor in the idea of diversifying the use of the SVGC property. But there were other factors even closer to home, he told us.

“I have a little daughter, she’s going on nine months. And I guess it just really made me take a hard look at where I am, where this community is. And after the loss of, basically my brother, you remember Jeff Forman – we lost him to cancer. And it just gave me a good kick in the butt and I reflected on where are we going in the future. And losing a major piece like that in my life – Jeff had been here since I was in college,” Runyon said of his long-time partner and head club pro, “It hit me pretty good and I was just trying to figure out ways that I could,” here Runyon paused emotionally, before adding, “He’d been with me since, like I said I’d been in college. We got it down so good that we could basically read each other’s mind on what needed to be done without even talking about it. It was a well-oiled machine, and you take a major part of that out of your life personally and professionally – and we miss him and love him every day – and you start thinking about things.”

And those “things” included diversification to safeguard his career investment against unexpected variables like consequences of a national and international pandemic on members access to golf and other public gatherings that utilize the SVGC facilities for public events. And as fortune would have it, the opportunity to add the neighboring Bowling Green golf operations to the equation presented itself, offering Runyon the ability to maintain a larger golfing and agriculturally-based aspect to his diversification plan.

Another view of the clubhouse from the golf course, a perspective that might be at about where a cul-d-sac would dead end a proposed neighborhood access road at the south-side of the clubhouse-based commercial area. Below, a little on-site history with a residential unit dating to the late 1800s, Runyon told us.

Potential opposition

At the time the plan was developed had he been aware of potential issues with surrounding zonings and future land use variables, we asked. “I knew there’s some very well-to-do individuals who reside in this community. And they have a lot of their property in Conservation Easements – and I think that conservation is a wonderful thing. But I also believe we’re an established business and sometimes businesses only have a limited life based on participation, and that’s even prior to COVID,” Runyon pointed out. “And that’s why I started the ‘Helltown River Adventures’ to kind of help offset that. And unfortunately we’re having a problem just like other businesses in this community and throughout the United States of having a supply of qualified individuals to work.”

He said, however, he hopes to resurrect the river adventures effort. “So, we kind of tabled that, we did a few trips, test runs and so forth. And we plan on exercising that in the near future. But it was a tough time to be in the golf business because we didn’t know where it was going to go. This was before the governor would let people go out and recreate and play golf. And you couldn’t do anything else. It cost us millions of dollars upstairs,” he said of the pandemic impact on the club’s public facilities operations, observing, “But we didn’t lay one person off this staff, not one.” We asked about that staff size. “When we’re at full capacity and we’re going golf and banqueting and maintenance, we’re over a hundred employees.”

Round 1

On Wednesday evening, March 8, at the Warren County Planning Commission’s public hearings on two prongs of Runyon’s rezoning proposal we will see round 1 of public and county staff reaction to that proposal. Runyon told us he was aware that some local opponents were circulating negative information about his proposal. However, he hopes area citizens keep an open mind and hear all aspects of the proposal before passing judgement on his redevelopment plan. That plan is scheduled to be the topic of the first two of eight scheduled public hearings at the 7 p.m. planning commission meeting at the Warren County Government Center this Wednesday.

The Warren County Government Center – this Wednesday evening’s scene of the first round of applicant and staff summaries, as well as public comments, on the SVGC rezoning and redevelopment proposal.