HARPERS FERRY – Mayor Wayne Bishop has joined unnamed “other Harpers Ferry residents” in filing a formal notice of their intent to sue the West Virginia Economic Development Authority over legislation allowing the state officials to take over the town’s authority to review and approve the long-delayed Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment.
The legal notice vows to seek within 30 days “declaratory and injunctive relief based on the statute’s unconstitutionality” under state law. The notice was sent to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and the state development agency last Thursday.
Morrisey issued a statement Tuesday reiterating his legal opinion that the legislation, known as Senate Bill 657 or the Hill Top law, stands on solid legal grounds.
“I believed before and I believe now that the mayor is wasting time and money on this lawsuit,” the attorney general wrote. “The statute clearly passes constitutional muster, and we look forward to a quick resolution of the issues.”
Enacted under the governor’s signature on March 6, the disputed legislation, known as Senate Bill 657 and the Hill Top law, takes effect May 25.
SB 657 will allow the state Department of Commerce to control the tourism developments with up to five special districts the department could establish within municipalities of 2,000 or fewer residents. The law’s supporters and opponents openly acknowledge that the Hill Top will be the first tourism project that economic development officials will take over, leaving town officials as bystanders over the hotel project’s approvals.
Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), whose senatorial district includes Harpers Ferry, sponsored the legislation.
Bishop has adamantly objected to the law as unlawfully “vacating” the town’s ordinances and forcibly taking of its land, including that state officials will decide how public rights of way might be used for the Hill Top redevelopment. State officials could ignore the town’s zoning ordinances developed in detail over eight years to regulate the redevelopment of the $140 million hotel project.
Town officials voted 4-3 to pursue litigation challenging the law after agreeing to accept free legal assistance from West Virginia University law professor Robert Bastress.
Bastress filed the single-page notice, which states that town officials will seek attorneys’ fees and costs if their lawsuit prevails.
SB 657 was supported and promoted by the Hill Top’s current owners, Fred and Karen Schaufeld of Leesburg, as a way to resolve the local government impasse around the 130-room luxury hotel destination project. The hotel project has stirred a whirl of ongoing debate and controversy among Harpers Ferry residents since it was initially proposed in 2009. The redevelopment was proposed after the property’s locally iconic 19th-century hotel building became structurally unsound and had to close.
The Schaufelds have said they won’t change their current development plans for the hotel — and will keep promises they made to town officials about the project—under the state’s approval process. The project will also comply with West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office guidelines for the redevelopment of historic properties, the project officials have said.