CHARLES TOWN – In an effort to jump-start the Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment project stalled by more than a decade of municipal-level delays in Harpers Ferry, state Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) announced Saturday that she plans to introduce legislation this week to break the impasse by directing West Virginia officials to take over the planning approvals for the construction of the proposed $140 million luxury hotel.
Noting Jefferson County’s considerable economic reliance on tourism, Rucker said her legislation specifically aims to assist and expedite large tourism projects such as the Hill Top. “Tourism is an essential industry in the Eastern Panhandle,” she said. “It is, therefore, essential that we not waste opportunities to grow this crucial segment of our economy.
“I don’t want this project to die,” Rucker said of the Hill Top redevelopment after her announcement in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Her bill, to be titled the Tourism Development District Act, is designed to advance large tourism projects proposed within municipalities that might lack the staff, expertise or resources to handle such projects, Rucker said. The legislation would apply to projects spending more than $25 million that are located within municipalities with 2,000 or fewer residents. Projects affected by her legislation would also have to be approved for West Virginia Development Office tax credits.
The Hill Top project, currently suspended over negotiations with divided Harpers Ferry officials and still-contested results over a municipal election pivotal to the project, fits all of the bill’s criteria.
The bill is co-sponsored by: state Sens. Charles Trump (R-Morgan), chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee; Craig Blair (R-Berkeley), chair of the state Senate Finance Committee; and Randy Smith (R-Tucker), a member of the Senate Government Organization Committee.
Rucker said her bill will be assigned to the Government Organization Committee after it is introduced.
State officials already have the authority to intervene in development projects within local jurisdictions in the interest of West Virginia, Rucker said. But she said her bill would give the West Virginia Development Office extra authority to help bring the Hill Top project to fruition, along with other projects around the state.
Rucker said her proposed legislation would allow the state to assume temporary control over land involved in qualifying tourism development projects in municipalities. She said state officials could disregard municipal zoning and building regulations and instead apply state planning and building rules when overtaking projects under her legislation.
“Placing these large projects under the jurisdiction of the West Virginia Development Office ensures that the resources will be available to handle and manage them,” Rucker said.
Her legislation would allow state officials to ignore Harpers Ferry’s Promontory Overlay District zoning ordinance, regulations town residents and officials spent eight years debating and writing to specifically control various aspects of the Hill Top property’s development.
Once the tourism projects that state development officials oversee are complete, the property would revert back to municipal ownership and control, allowing the municipalities to benefit from the tax revenues those projects generate, Rucker said.
The Hill Top hotel redevelopment was initiated in 2009 by Fred and Karen Schaufeld of Leesburg, Va., who purchased the hotel property which overlooks the scenic mountain slopes framing the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
The Schaufelds, who are developing the Hill Top under the name of their investment group SWaN & Legend Venture Partners, praised Rucker’s proposed legislation and underscored roadblocks they said their hotel project has encountered for years by current Harpers Ferry officials.
“After 13 years of work, eight years of which were spent waiting for the Town Council of Harpers Ferry to create even a framework for potential permitting discussions, we still have not established a path forward,” the Schaufelds said in a statement.
The Schaufelds said state oversight of the Hill Top redevelopment won’t change their promise to maintain public access to the scenic overlook next to and on the Hill Top property. “The support we have received from people in Harpers Ferry, Bolivar, Shepherdstown, including competing hotel owners, is a true testament to their desire to create a better West Virginia.”
The Hill Top promontory site, which has been a hotel property for about 120 years, lies next to a residential neighborhood, including homes on East Ridge Street owned by Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop and Councilwoman Barbara Humes.
Bishop and Humes are among a four-vote majority of town officials — which includes Town Council members Hardwick “Hardy” Johnson and Charlotte Thompson — who have criticized the current hotel development proposal or have resisted making decisions necessary to advance the hotel project.
Rucker said she talked once each with Harpers Ferry’s mayor and with the Schaufelds about her legislation.
Bishop, who attended Rucker’s courthouse announcement as did several other Harpers Ferry residents and officials, said Rucker is initiating her legislation without knowing important details of the Hill Top project, including the town’s zoning ordinance adopted by previous town officials nearly three years ago.
Bishop said Rucker hasn’t taken the time to read or learn about the town’s ordinances or development processes — “everything that guides this project to success,” Bishop said. “I believe she has her doubts about what she’s trying to sponsor because she has no information from the town of Harpers Ferry about this entire process,” he said.
“The senator hasn’t done any research into what the town worked on for years to produce an ordinance by an absolutely, 100 percent pro-hotel administration — not my administration, the previous administration,” Bishop said. “She has no information on the project except what she has received from lobbyists sponsored by the hotel group.”
Bishop said the Hill Top project hasn’t advanced because it relies on the town selling public rights of way to the hotel that the majority of town officials don’t support.
The Hill Top’s concept development plan calls for conference rooms, parking and amenity areas to be built underneath the public rights of way — on paper only streets that were never developed — to maximize the use of the property while minimizing the size of the above-ground hotel facilities. SWaN representatives have repeatedly pointed out that the Hill Top’s plan would not build on top of any current street or on-paper right of way. One of the rights of way provides access to the scenic overlook.
Bishop said SWaN representatives “veered off — took the off-ramp [from the town’s approval process created for the Hill Top project] — into saying we have to own your streets and your paper streets for us to get financing for our project.”
Bishop said Harpers Ferry’s overlay ordinance governing the development of the Hill Top property doesn’t envision selling the public rights of way for the development. “We have a really good ordinance in place and [SWaN developers] are simply not following it,” he said.
The mayor added that SWaN and the Schaufelds have rejected the town’s offer to lease the streets to the hotel for 100 years.
Steve Ramberg, a former Harpers Ferry Planning Commission member who helped write the overlay ordinance and attended Rucker’s announcement, said the ordinance does not address or prevent the town from selling the rights of way for the Hill Top project.
Laurel Ziemianski, a project manager for the Hill Top redevelopment, also disagreed with Bishop’s view of the current impasse over the project. She pointed out that state law limits leases on public land to 50 years.
Rucker said Gov. Jim Justice is aware of the delayed Hill Top project and has obtained a draft of her legislation. She said many other state lawmakers are generally aware of the Hill Top project but most aren’t familiar with the circumstances surrounding its delays. She said she is hopeful she and others can educate lawmakers in the state Senate and House of Delegates about the importance of passing her bill before the legislature adjourns March 7.
“I’m going to do my best,” Rucker said of her hopes to pass her legislation as soon as possible. “I can’t make any promises.”