The Hill Top obstructionists on the Harpers Ferry Town Council must think they have created the perfect snare to thwart the redevelopment of the once-majestic landmark hotel now a rotting hulk atop what is perhaps the most beautiful overlook in the Eastern Panhandle.
And make no mistake, as traps go, it’s a good one.
Some weeks back, the council sent out two notices to prospective Hill Top House developer, SWaN Investors – both of them at the end of the day on a Friday and only hours before a community workshop designed, ostensibly, to map out some options about how to resolve the latest sticking point with SWaN, that being what to do with a handful of real and paper-only streets that the property owner needs to complete the plans for its project and begin requesting building permits.
At first glance, both notices – called requests for information or RFI – don’t appear related.
What Saturday’s special Town Council meeting revealed is that the two RFIs form the prongs of a pincer movement the council’s obstructionists have poised to deploy against SWaN.
The first RFI alerts SWaN to an “imminent health hazard” as a result of asbestos and threatens a nuisance violation against the developer. The move is a re-play from 2016 when Wayne Bishop, not yet mayor, filed complaints in both Jefferson County Circuit Court and the state Supreme Court against Harpers Ferry. The first complaint was dismissed, and Bishop withdrew the second after he was elected mayor of the town.
The second RFI resurrects allegations that lot line irregularities prevent the town and the developer from securing a use agreement for the streets that would be part of the hotel campus.
This allegation has the appearance of providing cover for the council obstructionists who have previously argued that resolving the street agreement is not a priority for them. Indeed, the discussion at last month’s workshop about the streets never really got off the ground and the matter of Columbia, Lancaster and York streets remains unresolved. Both York and Lancaster are not roads at all; they’re just names on an old paper map drawn up by someone who hadn’t actually been standing anywhere near the steep promontory that makes their development highly unlikely.
Saturday, Bishop floated two possible options about resolving the health hazard he’s now manufactured as an issue — ordering SWaN to wrap the dilapidated structure in a giant plastic baggie or ordering SWaN to tear the building down — a curious position since there are some folks in the town, including some closely allied with Town Council members, who continue to argue that the old building is historic, and like those phony streets, must be preserved at all costs.
As council members deliberated about what to do, what to do, Councilman Ed Wheeless landed on the obvious solution: Tie an order to demolish the current Hilltop to the resolution of the streets and the approval of site plans and building permits. Voila! Problem solved.
Not so fast, chimed in Councilwoman Midge Flynn Yost, who has long opposed SWaN’s Hill Top project. There’s still the little matter of that boundary dispute, she claimed.
It should be apparent that by concocting a boundary dispute SWaN opponents hope to uncouple the demolition of the old Hilltop from the construction of the new Hill Top – a project that would bring 150 jobs and millions of dollars into Jefferson County – and prevent the developer from the very progress the obstructionists claim they are committed to making.
It was made clear from testimony Saturday that the “imminent health hazard” isn’t likely one at all, just a lot of fear-mongering to try to force the demolition of the building, and the lot line disparities have less to do with protecting property rights than they do with preventing SWaN from securing financing and insurance on the project.
The overwhelming consensus among the town’s residents is to see the site redeveloped as a hotel and there remains broad support for the revised concept plan SWaN introduced on April 12, 2018, during an open house at The Barn.
For its part, SWaN Investors has met the town at each twist and turn, most recently agreeing to spend $50,000 on new economic impact studies the obstructionists on the Town Council insist they need in order to make more informed decisions on behalf of the town’s merchants — who, by the way, are united in their support for the Hill Top project.
SWaN has also offered to grant full access to the promontory overlook at the end of East Ridge Street, a concession – like re-scaling the size of the hotel from 200 rooms down to 122 – that should have been enough to win over council members’ objections.
Lastly, the lot line irregularities can be resolved apart from the street use agreement the developer is seeking. By tying the two together, the council’s obstructionists hope to continue to talk about progress even as they go on thwarting it.
The obstructionists on the Town Council have laid a good trap for SWaN, but these smilodons are in a tar pit of their own making. It’s called an upcoming municipal election.
If the residents of this town want the Hill Top back in business, they ought to consider ushering in a new age in Harpers Ferry, one that makes this council extinct.