HARPERS FERRY – The possible sale of six public rights of way for the Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment has taken a turn as Harpers Ferry officials have explored their legal options and constraints.
Research by Councilwoman Nancy Case identified a widely held misinterpretation of state law that town streets and rights of way crisscrossing the Hill Top property each had to be sold to section by section for no more than $999. It was previously thought that the town could sell each paved or undeveloped street for $999 to avoid an uncertain outcome of a public bidding auction process.
But Case’s recent research discovered an overlooked stipulation to the state law. That was that all public property has to be sold for a price based on a “fair consideration value.”
The $999 reference to avoid a public auction applied to property valued that amount or less, the councilwoman said. All public property, even property worth less than $1,000, still has to be sold at a fair market price, she said.
And the stickler: The rights of way that the Hill Top’s owners, Fred and Karen Schaufeld of Leesburg, Virginia, want to acquire have been appraised in June 2019 for a total value of $240,000.
Further reading by Case, however, indicated that Harpers Ferry still had an avenue open to avoid a public auction while selling the streets and rights of way to make way for the Schaufeld’s vision to rebuild a $140 million or more luxury hotel at the scenic Hill Top property.
The legal findings Case uncovered was confirmed by a new contract attorney for the town, Floyd “Kin” Sayre of the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg.
On Monday, during the third town meeting this month over the rights of way for the Hill Top, Sayre explained that Harpers Ferry officials had the option to adopt a new ordinance outlining a formal process for how the town will sell any public property—at fair market value—without holding a public auction. He said he helped the City of Martinsburg adopt a similar ordinance that allowed them to control how a public property that it sold would be used.
Sayre said the ordinance would be allowed under state Home Rule provisions governing the powers granted to Harpers Ferry and other municipalities. Without such an ordinance, he said, the town could only sell public property worth $1,000 or more through a public auction.
“Regardless of this action [over the rights of way for the Hill Top], I do think it’s a good thing for the town to have that ordinance in place,” he said. “Because there may be other pieces of property that the town currently has, or may acquire in the future, that you all don’t really have a need for but you don’t want to just see [the property] be placed in the open market and somebody put something there that you don’t feel, or future councils don’t feel, are really the best use of that property.”
Only one Harpers Ferry street, Columbia Street, that the Schaufelds hope to acquire is now used by residents and other homeowners on East Ridge Street. The Schaufelds hope to upgrade and regrade Columbia Street as the primary entrance to what would be a resurrected hotel complex. The other rights of way the couple wants to purchase, including a short section of East Ridge Street, aren’t used by any other resident and property owner.
With a 6-1 vote of approval, the Harpers Ferry Town Council directed Sayre to complete a draft ordinance for review that would allow the town to sell the rights of way in proper legal fashion for the Hill Top project.
Mayor Wayne Bishop was the lone town official to vote against drafting the ordinance. He indicated he was uncomfortable with creating an ordinance empowering town officials to sell off potentially “sacred” public land.
“You know, we have many, many, many treasures in our town and many parks, paper streets throughout the town that have always been considered sacred and not developable,” he said. “If we were to pass this Home Rule ordinance, then from now on out it would simply be up to the elected officials to part with property like that that’s been considered sacred to the town in until its views into its use.
“Would we be sacrificing these treasures all over town because we put all this into one ordinance?”
Sayre pointed out that the ordinance wouldn’t force Harpers Ferry to sell any public land, but that it would give the town’s elected officials an option to do so if they considered such a step was in the town’s interest.