HARPERS FERRY – The West Virginia Senate passed legislation Tuesday sponsored by Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) that would direct state development officials to oversee planning approvals and construction of the redevelopment of the long-delayed Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment in Harpers Ferry.
The Senate voted 21-12 with one senator abstaining to approve Senate Bill 657. Jefferson County Democrat, State Sen. John Unger voted against the bill.
Hill Top’s project manager, Laurel Ziemianski, praised the Senate’s action. “We’re grateful the state Senate is offering regulatory certainty and a path forward after 13 years,” she said.
On Monday, the Harpers Ferry Town Council voted 4-2 to oppose the legislation. “It will basically take over our laws, our zoning, our processes and those decisions by the state would be final,” Bishop said to explain the town’s majority position on the legislation. “We would have nothing to say about governing our town.”
Also on Tuesday, the Jefferson County Commission voted 4-1 to support SB 657. Commissioner Ralph Lorenzetti, the commission’s Harpers Ferry district representative, voted against endorsing the legislation.
Rucker introduced SB 657 two weeks ago as a measure to jump-start the Hill Top project mired in delays and division among Harpers Ferry officials and residents. A current 4 to 3 standoff over the Hill Top exists among the mayor, town recorder and five Town Council members. That division of the Hill Top extends into allegations of election fraud being investigated by West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office and by an ongoing court battle before the West Virginia Supreme Court over the legality of a majority of town officials ignoring four provisional ballots cast in a June 11 election.
Residents raised those issues again during a special meeting last Saturday.
Rucker’s bill is tailored to have West Virginia’s Development Office perform the development reviews and approvals of tourism projects requiring $25 million or more of investment in municipalities with fewer than 2,000 residents. Projects subject to the legislation would also have to be approved for state development tax credits.
The Hill Top — a $140 million hotel redevelopment first initiated in 2009 and then reintroduced in 2017 after hearing feedback from Harpers Ferry’s officials and residents, — meets all of the legislation’s criteria.
Unger said he has “no objections” to the current Hill Top development plans. However, he said he opposed the legislation because it sets a bad precedent of lawmakers taking further steps to have state authorities subvert local authority over future development projects.
There are 171 municipalities of the same size that SB 657 aims at, Unger said, adding he was also suspicious that the gambling industry is actively promoting the legislation.
The legislation conceivably creates an opportunity for lawmakers or state officials to intervene in the future not only in tourism projects or possibly other developments such as the Rockwool factory in Ranson in the future. “Rockwool, all they would pretty much have to do is apply for these things in this tourism [bill] by setting up a visitor’s center and basically give tours of how their project is made or whatever,” he said.
“I’ve always been consistent that I believe local control, local authority allowing local communities to work through these things are important,” he said. “This opens up a Pandora’s box. The state is going to dictate what communities can do and not do.”
Next up in Charleston for the legislation in Charleston, the House of Delegates Finance Committee is expected to hold a hearing on a similar bill, House Bill 4641, as early as this week.
Delegate Eric Householder (R-Berkeley) is chairman of the committee and a lead sponsor of the House bill. Delegates. Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson) and Sammi Brown (D-Jefferson) are among nine co-sponsors.
Meanwhile, last Saturday about 40 of the town’s residents and elected officials argued again, sometimes bitterly, over the Hill Top project.
Thirteen years of built-up frustration and distrust boiled over on every side, including from one of the owners of the Hill Top property. Proponents and opponents of the hotel redevelopment couldn’t agree on many of the facts or the history (a history many lived through together) of the hotel project.
Town resident Susan Schmidt said the contentiousness over the project runs so deep that state intervention is necessary. “From my perspective, it’s beyond what we can do amongst us,” she said. “We need to move forward.”
Schmidt’s neighbor, longtime town resident Linda Rago, maintained many town residents agree with her opposition to the hotel project but are afraid to attend contentious public meetings to express them. “From my vantage point of 44 years in Harpers Ferry, what I see is a billionaire private equity [firm] destroying my home town,” she said.
Bishop asked the town’s citizens to stop offering comments during Saturday’s meeting and asked them to send their comments in writing to town officials afterward instead. His request was almost immediately ignored by angry counterpoints shouted from the audience of vocal members mostly supporting the hotel. Almost immediately and throughout the 50-minute meeting, the mayor and some council members responded to residents’ interjected questions and statements.
While some residents and officials spoke in measured words calling for respect and restraint, accusations and allegations past and present were brought up.
Last Saturday’s meeting was called — ahead of a regular meeting on Monday — to discuss and vote on actions related to SB 657. Harpers Ferry officials were divided from the start. They disagreed over whether the special meeting was legal and properly posted for the public beforehand. Bishop later provided a message from the West Virginia Ethics Commission confirming that the meeting’s public notice complied with state public meeting laws.
By a 4-2 vote, with Bishop voting and Recorder Keven Carden not voting, town officials agreed to start a mediation process over the issue of whether the Hill Top project should use public rights of way crossing its property. By the same majority vote, town officials agreed to hire a zoning lawyer to lobby against SB 657.
Meanwhile, Hill Top owner Fred Schaufeld, while attending Saturday’s meeting, said the proposed state legislation was necessary because the hotel redevelopment could not move forward because of a lack of “adult supervision” that town officials were unable or unwilling to provide for the project. He feels that state officials need to step in after a decade of delays to provide “reasonable” oversight the project needs to move forward.
Schaufeld said no one could afford to invest in the project without good faith efforts from town officials. He pointed to about $2.3 million in architectural, engineering and other consultant costs he would have to absorb to put more detailed planning documents before the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals for review.
Schaufeld also repeated that the current Hill Top redevelopment plans for a 130-room hotel have to be financially viable. He said nostalgic talk about the previous Hill Top’s operations involves exaggerations to the point of mythology.
He said that the old Hill Top operated continually short of money and in major disrepair, that the paychecks of hotel employees continually bounced, that the town clashed with the late former owner of the Hill Top over thousands of dollars in unpaid water bills to the point of throwing him in jail, and that the owner overlooked renters who were engaging in prostitution while living in armory houses on the Hill Top property.
Schaufeld disagreed with Bishop and Councilwoman Barbara Humes, who said the only delay facing Hill Top project would be negotiations over the public rights of way crossing the hotel property and that the project could move forward with a Board of Zoning Appeals review process once the negotiations over the rights of way ownership are resolved.
The Hill Top’s redevelopment plans depend on acquiring several on-paper rights of way— about an acre of land in total—to build underground parking and hotel facilities on the hotel property. Currently, the mayor and council would be the officials to negotiate the use of that land.
But Schaufeld, raising his voice, said the hotel project hasn’t been held up by discussions over the rights of way. The project has been repeatedly delayed by many fabricated issues, he said. “After the one issue, then there’s another and another and another,” he said. “It’s been vibration. It’s been asbestos. It’s been lead. It’s been the look of the thing … What we’re looking to build is not the old hotel. It’s the one we showed you that is what we’re looking to get done.”