HARPERS FERRY – Town leaders have been grappling for almost a decade about how to revive the long-shuttered Hilltop House Hotel. Their efforts may finally begin to take shape after this week when the Town Council is expected to approve an ordinance that will govern what can – and can’t – be built at the end of Ridge Street on the high bluff that overlooks the Potomac River and where a hotel had been in near continuous operation for 120 years until it closed in 2008.
Council members voted 7-0 on May 8 to approve the ordinance, which establishes an overlay district along the north side of Washington Street from Columbia Street to just past Lancaster Street.
The measure is expected to get its second and final reading at a special meeting Friday, making it official.
The Hilltop is owned by Leesburg, Va.-based investment group SWaN and Legend Venture Partners, which submitted a concept plan for the redevelopment of the site in 2009. That proposal for a much larger, 160-room resort hotel was withdrawn amidst the economic downtown of the previous year and in the face of strong opposition by some residents – and the town has remained bitterly divided over the pending redevelopment of the property.
Harpers Ferry Mayor Greg Vaughn said he hopes the ordinance’s approval will mark an important turning point for the town of 285 residents.
“This town has got to heal,” Vaughn said. “There has been so much prolonged hate, with neighbors confronting neighbors on the street. That divisiveness has got to end.”
Vaughn said under the new promontory overlay district the town will be able to better control what any new project will look like.
“The overlay gives the town a lot of protective rights,” he said, adding it grants a developer only one entitlement – the right to build on the existing footprint and with the same appearance as the current building. Anything more than that will require an application for a conditional use permit.
The ordinance includes a number of restrictions, including on parking, architecture and landscaping and on the height of any new buildings.
“Without the overlay we can’t make those kinds of restrictions. This ordinance gives the Board of Zoning Appeals the guidance they need,” Vaughn said. “I have faith in them not to allow outrageous things.”
Vaughn acknowledges opponents of redeveloping the hotel could still fight it in court or as part of a referendum. And the town is a month out from a municipal election; Vaughn is being challenged for another term by Wayne Bishop, an outspoken opponent of the hotel’s redevelopment. A number of candidates for Town Council include residents who have fought the project.
Vaughn said he hopes with the passage of the ordinance the groundwork can finally be laid and town leaders can begin to work on the most appropriate replacement for the old hotel.
“The town has made concession after concession. We can’t just keep going back and going back,” he said. “It’s time to come to a responsible and fair compromise.”