HARPERS FERRY – The owners of the Hilltop House Hotel submitted a comprehensive development agreement to town leaders as a way to jumpstart efforts to begin construction on the the historic landmark by next year.
“We come to this enterprise from a place of love and with a passion to amplify an important segment of American history and bring it to life in a way that serves the future,” Karen Schaufeld, CEO of the SWaN Hill Top project, wrote in an introduction to a 14-page agreement outline delivered to Harpers Ferry officials last Thursday.
Schaufeld owns the Hill Top property overlooking the town and its scenic vista with her husband Fred Schaufeld. The Leesburg, Va., couple hope to develop what they have billed as a world-class destination hotel and conference center that would become known as an “ideas place” for presidents and world leaders, innovators and intellectuals, educators and luminaries to gather. The hotel would also highlight its 19th-century past as an African American-owned hotel near Storer College where the country’s first civil rights movement began to take shape.
A number of deadlines have come and gone for negotiations to continue on the multimillion-dollar project and progress has been recently stalled as town leaders wrangle with the outcome of June’s municipal election. As part of its initial concept plan for the property, SWaN had initially projected a summer of 2021 opening for its new Hill Top House Hotel.
The comprehensive agreement Schaufeld proposed attempts to describe what SWaN would do and what town officials would do (and not do) — once SWaN and the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals step through a regular approval process — to ensure the unimpeded and uninterrupted construction of the approximately $130 million resort hotel and spa that’s been broadly envisioned since 2010.
“We and our partners are only human, each with only one life to live, and the percentage of our lives spent in unproductive discussions on manipulated topics surrounding this hotel is staggering,” Schaufeld continued. “To put this into stark perspective, since we’ve commenced this task, three members of our team have actually died.”
For the past year, Harpers Ferry’s leaders have deliberated about how to provide SWaN access to public rights of way essential for the Hill Top project to proceed.
The agreement proposed by SWaN attempts to obtain timely and scheduled construction permits, reviews and approvals the project would need once a “master plan” is approved. The proposal also seeks to clarify permitting fees, construction inspections and decisions made by third-party inspectors. It would also block the town from issuing “stop work orders” once construction begins on approved plans.
The agreement would also provide specific steps to allow SWaN to demolish the current dilapidated main hotel structure and renovate other existing structures.
“In an effort to never again get hung up or have any aspect of our much-revised project plan segmented apart by the Council, we have challenged ourselves to brainstorm a comprehensive list of as many details as possible which require the Council’s cooperation,” Schaufeld explained in the proposal.
The draft document also offers details of access, financing and fees for utilities, the reconstruction of critical streets and the use of essential rights of way. It addresses how paved and unpaved public rights of way critical to the hotel project would be conveyed to SWaN; how SWaN would convey property to the town for a public trail to the property’s scenic overlook; how SWaN would receive zoning variances for the project; and how SWaN will purchase and use water and sewer services from the town. Ensuring that public access remains open to the scenic vista overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers has been one of the most contentious issues to resolve between SWaN and town residents. The agreement also addresses concerns about outdoor lighting, landscaping and noise.
The agreement also outlines how Tax Increment Financing revenue could be directed to improve infrastructure in the town. Such financing, for example, could help the town pay off $8 million in projected debt to upgrade to a water treatment system serving Harpers Ferry, neighboring Bolivar and the Hill Top.
The agreement also highlights ideas that have not been publicly proposed before. For example, the agreement envisions establishing Hill Top-branded passenger rail service to Harpers Ferry from Washington, D.C. as part of a possible partnership with MARC, AMTRAK or CSX Corp. The proposal also envisions a permanent public access to undeveloped Byrnes Island, which SWaN has already purchased with an easement obtained from the National Park Service.
Town officials have not yet scheduled a discussion for the agreement. Before the proposal was delivered, SWaN officials had asked to schedule a roundtable meeting with town officials to discuss the project. That meeting, which was set for for Oct. 21, was postponed.