HARPERS FERRY – Local citizens formally weighed in Monday to overwhelmingly support an agreement to sell six municipal rights of way for $257,300 to allow the long-delayed Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment to advance as significantly envisioned a dozen years ago.
At least 44 people submitted letters supporting the sale of the land, several offering a common refrain that, as town resident Gillian McPhee wrote, “It is time for this project to move forward.”
“This project has taken way too long and concessions have been made on both sides,” wrote county resident Gary Gearhart Sr. “It’s time to move Harpers Ferry and the Hilltop House forward.”
“It is time to allow the SWaN group to rebuild the historic Hilltop Hotel, and make this area beautiful once again for all current and future generations to enjoy,” shared town resident Shirley Caniford.
The Harpers Ferry Town Council members took turns during the public hearing reading aloud about 50 comment letters submitted.
After the comment letters were read, the council voted 5-2 to adopt an ordinance outlining the agreement’s terms to sell the strips of town land lying either next to or across the scenic hotel property.
Mayor Wayne Bishop and Councilmember Barbara Humes voted against the land sale, adhering to their previous opposition to the luxury hotel and to turning the town’s land over to private hands. However, a five-member majority of council members—Kevin Carden, Nancy Case, Ed Wheeless, Christian Pechuekonis and Jay Premack—stood firm in adopting the agreement negotiated with the Hill Top’s owners for more than four months.
Citizens supporting the ordinance and the Hill Top project include state Senator Patricia Rucker and Delegate Wayne Clark, both Republicans representing Jefferson County, and former Democratic county commissioner Patsy Noland. They included immediate past Harpers Ferry mayor Greg Vaughn, two former Harpers Ferry council members and two current Bolivar council members.
The president of the Harpers Ferry-Bolivar Merchants Association, Cathy Baldau, also wrote a letter stating the organization’s support for the ordinance and the Hill Top project.
Four town residents spoke out or wrote letters against selling the land to the hotel property’s owners. Those included two past Harpers Ferry council members, Midge Flinn Yost and Elayne Edel, the current mayor’s wife.
“I do not believe that public land, especially historically significant public land should ever be sold to a private for-profit entity,” wrote town resident Zach Morse, a candidate in the town’s upcoming June election. “There is no amount of monetary gain or economic development worth the cost of permanently altering the streetscape of our historic town and placing limits on public access to unparalleled natural viewsheds.”
The Hill To property is owned by Karen and Fred Schaufeld of Leesburg, Virginia. The couple are associates with the investment group SWaN Investors in Leesburg.
Selling the developed and undeveloped “paper” streets to SWaN Investors would be a major step toward restarting the $140 million hotel project that has existed only as a concept on paper since 2009. For about three years the Schaufelds have been asking town officials to let them purchase the rights of way to move their hotel redevelopment plans beyond the broad concept stage.
One right of way is a paved street to be used as the hotel’s main entrance. Others have never been developed since the town’s street grid was laid on paper in 1869—or since the first resort hotel opened on the property in 1888.
Harpers Ferry resident Christy Huddle, a retired planner, said the rights of way couldn’t be sold to anyone except the Hill Top. “There is no way this land could have been sold to anybody other than SWaN,” she said, “because it provides the access to the SWaN property and you cannot landlock property.”
Addressing a major concern for residents, the land sale agreement requires SWaN to forever maintain the maximum views of the property’s scenic overlook for the public to access and enjoy anytime. SWaN must also maintain public access to a second overlook on the west side of the hotel property, which lies on an undeveloped extension of Columbia Street to a cliffside view of the Potomac River.
As another public outdoor resource, SWaN agreed to design, build and maintain a public pedestrian “switchback trail” into the hotel property off of Washington Street, Harpers Ferry’s main thoroughfare. Town officials agreed to pay half the cost of the trail, up to $125,000. The trail will be open to the public during daylight hours.
Under the agreement, SWaN and the Schaufelds cannot sell or build on the rights of way, but the hotel can now build underneath the land. In addition to razing and reconstructing a primary hotel structure, the Hill Top’s concept redevelopment plan proposes building hotel and conference areas under some of the public lands to maximize the site’s above-ground scenic views.
The Hill Top property has several buildings deteriorating from disuse. Last week the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved a permit to allow SWaN representatives to dismantle and clear away the main 1920s hotel structure on the site. SWaN’s plans call for rebuilding a new hotel in place of the structure that will be taken away.
Last week the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved a permit to allow the Schaufelds and SWaN to dismantle and clear away the main 1920s hotel structure standing on the site. SWaN’s plans call for rebuilding a new hotel in place of the structure that will be taken away.
Approving the land sales allows the Schaufelds to submit a development application with the West Virginia Development Office, a first step to initiate a review process for more concrete development plans needed for construction. A year ago state lawmakers enacted legislation, the Tourism Development Act, that allows state development officials to take over from Harpers Ferry the review and permitting of the Hill Top project that has been tangled in town bureaucracy and politics for years.
Bishop, whose home lies nearly adjacent to the hotel property, has joined two other town residents threatening to challenge the legislation’s compatibility with the state’s constitution. The lawsuit, which would be field before the West Virginia Supreme Court is considered by Hill Top supporters as another tactic to further delay the hotel project.
Representatives of the Hill Top project have said constructing a new hotel complex as they plan should take about two years.
After adopting the land-sale ordinance during Monday’s special meeting, the Town Council members talked by phone with the Schaufelds’ lawyer, John Stump of the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson in Martinsburg, to schedule a time Tuesday to officially sign more legal documents necessary complete the sale. After conspicuously contending that land surveys the sale is relying on are inaccurate, an accusation several council members disputed, Bishop made it clear that he was in no rush to be the person to sign the documents to complete the land sale.
Carden, as the town’s recorder secretary, agreed to represent the town to finish the transaction, which took place as planned.
Citizens speak out on the Hill Top
The Harpers Ferry Town Council sought public comments Monday on whether the town should sell six rights of way to the Hill Top House Hotel. Here’s what some of the approximately 50 town and county residents offered in written comments.
“It is time for this project to move forward. To the Mayor and Town Council members (past and present) who have opposed this project at every turn, I say this: It is time. After years of shameless delay tactics that have ranged from the administrative to the unethical and illegal, it is time. It is time for this project to move forward.”
—Gillian McPhee, Harpers Ferry
“I think that this agreement will help bring the much needed partner that the town of Harpers Ferry needs to help correct antiquated water and sewer lines and failing sidewalks. I believe that the agreement demonstrates a proper partnership between the town and the Hill Top Hotel. Please approve this street use agreement that will bring the town huge economic benefit enabling Harpers Ferry to pay for capital improvements that will project the town for future generations to come.”
—Carrie Gauthier, Harpers Ferry
“The transfer of our priceless Public Assets to any corporation, especially one that has not presented a successful business model, is NOT beneficial to the citizens of Harpers Ferry, nor to the general public. This Town is a successful corporation. The ‘dollars’ received will not compensate the loss of the sacred view shed. NO monetary settlement will do!
“The legislative body of Harpers Ferry has failed to protect the public trust for which they were elected and sworn to uphold.
“Through Machiavellian tactics, the corporate beast has convinced our legislators to submit to their authority and surrender our property to be consumed for profit. What is next? Their appetite is insatiable! After a the exploitation, the citizens will be left to clean the table. Since when is it the Corporation of Harpers Ferry’s responsibility to fund a failed corporation? You may not see it now, but it will become evident in the not-so-distant future.”
—Benjamin Buckley, Harpers Ferry
“I have heard some say that this transfer of property to a business would be a radical departure from our town traditions—that our streets are sacred public lands. It’s important that we remember that without transfer of public land to private individuals, businesses, churches and schools, there would be no town of Harpers Ferry. Nearly all of us who live, recreate or work in this town do so on property that was once sold or donated by the Federal Armory and War Department.”
—Chris Craig, Harpers Ferry
“Over the years, I have closely followed this project and taken notice that SWaN has negotiated in good faith and has listened to and accommodated most wishes of townspeople.
“I have also noted that a small vocal minority of residents object to everything, yet have never actually articulated what it is that they would like to see on the Hill Top site. There seems to be no limit to what they will do to stymie any progress, including support for election fraud, the humiliation of the town in the national press, and council members admitting to ethics violations.
“This mess helped fuel the creation of Senate Bill 657 [permitting state officials to take over the approval process for the Hill Top project and other similar tourism projects], due to elected town officials having proven to be incapable of managing even a fair election. They could not then be trusted to negotiate as important a project as the Hill Top House Hotel.
“All else having failed, the last-resort tactics of those opposed to the project are to try to muck up the process with endless attempts at delay, threats of frivolous lawsuits, and, as always, theatrics. I remain confident that logic and decency will prevail, and in a few years a revitalized Harpers Ferry will have a nice hotel for the first time in living memory.”
—Mike Buscher, Harpers Ferry
“Let us move forward together in a positive light, leaving behind the divisiveness that has scarred our town this last decade. My hope is that this agreement will lead the way to a viable, beautiful Hill Top House Hotel, one that honors the legacy of the Lovett family and its rich tradition of drawing influential people together in our historic town.”
—Martha Ehlman, Harpers Ferry business owner
“Sitting on the bench in front of the Hill Top House overlooking the Potomac is such a stilling experience. …I look forward to telling people about the opportunity to spend vacation time at two wonderful resorts close to my home. But I also look forward to an overnight stay and dinner in the new Hilltop House.”
—Beth K. Batdorf, Shepherdstown