HARPERS FERRY— Hill Top project manager Laurel Ziemianski told a packed Town Council meeting Monday night that the Leesburg, Va., firm she works for wants to find common ground with town officials on public access to the historic hotel site’s scenic overlook and other issues.
“We’re looking to figure this out together with you and come up with a mutual solution together,” said Ziemianski of SWaN Investors.
“And instead of coming up with a plan we want to team up with you and do the plan together, so that the Hill Top could be a symbol of unity for the town and prosperity for the town, and we all can be happy about this together.”
Ziemianski said the overlook lawn outside the hotel would remain open to the public during daylight hours, but that SWaN wants to work out what evening hours the lawn could be closed to promote safety and quiet for overnight hotel guests.
Public access to the Hill Top site and the overlook would need to be fenced off for two years while the dilapidated hotel structure is demolished and a new hotel built, she said.
Whether the town’s aging water system, which is being upgraded, will deliver sufficient water pressure to the project in time for construction to start in the fall of 2019 is also a concern, Ziemianski said. She said the system’s pipes leak about 60 percent of the water flowing through them now.
“These are the things that are all Town Council decisions,” she said. “There are many solutions. We need to find the right solutions together, and see if we can bring the Hill Top back to Harpers Ferry.”
She outlined other town approvals or variances SWaN will need, including:
- realigning and regrading Columbia Street to create an accessible traffic entrance for the hotel property;
- approving the construction of a new “loop road” to direct traffic on hotel property;
- building hotel parking and activity space beneath paved and unpaved public rights of way;
- acquiring a targeted waiver of state liquor “open container” laws to allow hotel guests to carry alcoholic drinks while mingling on paved areas and lawns;
- obtaining water and sewer infrastructure by September and
- setting maximum permitting and site development fees the town can charge during construction.
Resolution to public rights of way might include exchanging town land for company-owned land, purchasing a street or securing a long-term lease, Ziemianski said.
“We felt like maybe right now we need to come to you as a team and with positive intent and have really solutions-focused discussions on how we can make this plan work,” she said.
Ziemianski said zoning regulations that town officials developed over several years control everything from parking to lighting on the hotel property – presenting considerable challenges for SWaN to develop a financially viable hotel.
She pointed out the regulations forced SWaN to downscale the hotel from a 184-guest room complex to one with 122 rooms.
Meanwhile, the hotel project’s estimated cost is approaching $1 million per room, Ziemianski said. She said hotel should generate $1 million in annual tax revenues and about 100 new jobs for the town, with as much as $300 million in revenues and 300 jobs during the hotel’s reconstruction.
Town resident George Owens said SWaN had earlier estimated the Hill Top would generate about $330,000 a year in tax revenue for the town. Although he said he favored much of the development plan SWaN has submitted, he urged town officials to not rush in as they weigh the issues involved with the project. In May, SWaN submitted a concept plan to raze and replace the structure built in the early 1900s. An annex/lodge building and four 18th-century former armory houses would be renovated on the four-acre campus on a promontory at the eastern end of East Ridge Street.
That plan won mostly favorable reviews from the town’s Planning Commission. In August, SWaN presented a revised concept – in part because of state fire marshal requirements – with a new traffic pattern and landscaping. In addition to the new site access road, it features expanded green space, more pedestrian trails, a gatehouse and more underground parking.
A report Ziemianski presented estimated that SWaN would pay more than $522,000 to build and maintain over time the roads and rights of ways planned for the hotel site.
On Monday, Ziemianski said soil borings of the site led SWaN contractors to believe they won’t need to conduct rock blasting to build underground parking and conference and activity areas. She said the hope is that machinery can remove rocks as necessary, though the need for some dynamite blasting can’t be ruled out.
Mayor Wayne Bishop said he and Town Council members are assembling planners, civil engineers, lawyers and environmental review experts to consultants the town in negotiations with SWaN.
“We’re going to depend on our paid professionals who are neutral third parties,” he said.
Bishop, a professional construction project manager who spent years on the town Planning Commission before winning the mayor’s job in mid-2017, pointed out that other council members will vote on the project details.
“The mayor is not going to negotiate these deals,” he said. “There will not be one person sitting at this table negotiating things.”
Bishop added that the Town Council will be interpreting and enforcing the zoning regulations developed for the Hill Top property after many years of public hearings and input. “We’re here to enforce process and law, process and law,” he said.
He said the council will likely hold a special session so the public can comment on ideas, proposals and suggestions made during the negotiation process with SWaN.