HARPERS FERRY – Redevelopment of the Hilltop House Hotel has been stalled for more than 12 years. Now, state legislation to jump-start the project is on a fast track this week to become law.
The House of Delegates voted 88-11 on Monday for final passage of the West Virginia Tourism Development Act. On Tuesday, the Senate was preparing to vote on technical cleanup changes that House lawmakers made to the legislation before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.
Gov. Jim Justice will have five days to sign or veto the bill after his office receives it. He is expected to sign the legislation, a reaction to the decade-delayed $140 million hotel reconstruction project — delays due mostly to municipal action and inaction in Harpers Ferry.
The Tourism Development Act introduced by Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), whose senatorial district includes Harpers Ferry, would authorize the West Virginia Department of Commerce to take over the oversight of the planning reviews and construction permitting of up to five large tourism development projects within municipalities of 2,000 or fewer residents.
“This legislation is needed to continue the positive momentum in West Virginia’s economy,” Rucker said in a statement. “The tourism industry has become a vital part of a more broadly diversified economic picture in our state and we need to remove the obstacles in the path to success. This legislation does that and will benefit all of West Virginia, but in particular it will benefit the smaller municipalities that need the assistance with larger tourism development projects.”
If enacted, Senate Bill 657 will direct the Commerce Department to develop a regulatory process by July 1 to review tourism development projects that qualify for the agency’s oversight. Lawmakers will assess the agency’s approval process during next year’s legislative session.
Hill Top project manager Laurel Ziemianski said the hotel project redevelopment plans could be submitted to the Commerce Department to start the approval in July. The Hill Top’s owners and developers, Fred and Karen Schaufeld of Leesburg, Va., said they won’t change their current development plans for the hotel — and will keep promises they made to town officials about the project — if the project reverts to state oversight.
The Hill Top project will also comply with West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office guidelines for the redevelopment of historic properties, Ziemianski said.
The legislation was supported and promoted by the Schaufelds as a way to resolve the local government impasse around the 130-room luxury hotel destination project, which was proposed after the property’s 19th-century hotel building became structurally unsound and was closed.
The project has faced opposition on the Harpers Ferry Town Council, where a one-vote majority led by Mayor Wayne Bishop voted 4-3 last week to hire a land use attorney to consider litigation against the state over the legislation.
Bishop maintains that SB 657 would overstep Harpers Ferry’s authority as a municipality. He has criticized the legislation for allowing state officials to bypass zoning regulations town officials and residents spent about eight years developing for the Hilltop property.
“There are serious constitutional questions … and from what I’ve heard and seen myself, and what I’ve been told, that they’ve never seen this type of preemption [of municipal authority in West Virginia] before and it’s completely unprecedented,” Bishop said during a special meeting on Feb. 20.
The council also voted 4-3 to explore whether arbitration could be pursued to resolve issues holding up the Hill Top project. That majority vote, the same officials fighting to prevent four potentially pivotal ballots cast in the town’s municipal election last June 13 from being counted, followed a decision to pursue mediation.
After the meeting, Ziemianski said that neither arbitration nor mediation with town officials is considered a feasible option for the Schaufelds. After 13 years of mostly waiting, the project will only rest on whatever SB 657 might generate, she said.
Three Harpers Ferry officials who support the Hill Top redevelopment — Recorder Kevin Carden and council members Jay Premack and Christian Pechuekonis — said opposing SB 657 in the legislature or in court would be futile and a waste of the town’s money.
Rather than suing the state or asking lawmakers to the bill, Carden advocated asking that the legislation be amended to require state officials to follow the town’s ordinances. “There have been bills similar to this that have been enacted and have been used before,” he said. “We’re going to lose. We’re going to drain ourselves in money that we could be using for other things, better causes, that we already need to be doing.”
Pechuekonis, a council finance committee member, presented financial figures that showed the town spent more than $88,500 last year on legal matters related to the Hill Top. During the previous eight years, the town spent between $7,300 to $21,000 on legal fees.
A representative with the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office confirmed attorneys there reviewed SB 657 before it was introduced and found the legislation to be constitutional. Delegates Paul Espinosa, a Republican, and Sammi Brown, a Democrat, voted in favor of the Senate’s bill. Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat whose district includes Harpers Ferry, opposed the legislation.
Paul Espinosa, the House Majority Whip, said bills enacted by the legislature and the governor are legally presumed constitutional unless the state Supreme Court rules otherwise.
Doyle proposed an amendment to SB 657 that would have required municipal residents who would be affected by a tourism development district to approve by referendum the state’s takeover of the related project.
He said the legislation sets “a terrible precedent.”
“Anyone in this chamber who was campaigned for election or re-election using the term saying, ‘I believe in local control’ should have serious reservations about supporting the bill without my amendment.” he said.
Doyle’s referendum amendment did not pass.
Delegate Eric Householder (R-Berkeley), the chairman of the House Finance Committee and a supporter of the legislation, said Harpers Ferry was all out of referendums.
“Harpers Ferry, they’ve been having a referendum for the past 13 years,” Householder said. “It’s time to move on.”
Espinosa, who opposed Doyle’s amendment, said he believed the economic impact of the Hill Top project extended beyond the town.
“I believe there’s clearly limited circumstances where the economic impact of a proposed project — particularly those that have been approved for a Tourism Development Act grant — where that impact extends well beyond the borders of a municipality,” he said. “My constituents, many of whom have indicated they would like to see a project such as this go forward, could be prohibited under [Doyle’s] amendment.”
The Hill Top project has already qualified for a state tourism tax credit and it would qualify for a tourism development district.