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Hilltop discussions draw large crowd, protesters

By Staff | Feb 14, 2019

Protesters calling for the Harpers Ferry Town Council to move ahead with the Hilltop Hotel project gather outside Town Hall Monday evening. Toni Milbourne

HARPERS FERRY – About a dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside of Harpers Ferry’s Town Hall Monday evening, brandishing signs calling for the town officials to “make it work,” referring to the proposed hotel at the site of the now crumbling Hilltop Hotel.

The council room itself was packed with standing-room-only, as the meeting agenda called for discussion on moving forward with plans for the proposed resort hotel made by Swan Investors.

During an introductory statement, Mayor Wayne Bishop outlined some of the history of the hotel plans and what the town has done over the past 10 years, including a proposal made in 2009 by Swan to purchase several streets, including Columbia, Ridge and Lancaster.

“It never went anywhere,” Bishop said. “It was not acceptable to the town.”

Bishop went on to explain that the town worked for several years developing ordinances, all of which Swan was involved in.

“There is no language in the ordinance to privatize our public roadways,” Bishop said.

“We have an obligation by law to enforce our ordinance,” Bishop said. “We are trying to do that and move forward. We are going to have to amend the ordinance if we are going to sell the streets, or do proclamations.”

These comments came as a prelude to discussion of what are known as paper streets, which Swan Project Manager Laurel Ziemianski said are a “go or no-go” part of the project. Swan offered two options to the town with regard to the streets, both of which were rejected by council members in near-unanimous voting.

The first option called for an abandonment of “paper Columbia North of East Ridge, paper Lancaster Street (north and south) paper and paved east Ridge Street.” In addition, the option proposed a balance of the abandonment of the streets with a land transfer “of the parcel east of the annex lodge … The benefits of obtaining this parcel as town-owned are twofold. The parcel will provide a town-owned pathway to the Promontory Lookout from Washington Street … while providing the town ownership of the stormwater management outfall area east of the Hill Top property.”

Discussion on this proposal centered on the access by the public to the promontory, which Swan’s proposal said would be available from dawn to dusk to all members of the public and from dusk to dawn to Harpers Ferry residents, with specific code of conduct guidelines in place.

“I can’t vote on this wording,” Councilwoman Charlotte Thompson said. “It’s our legacy, I can’t just vote to give that away.”

The second option offered by Swan was to purchase each section of the street for $999, under the $1,000 minimum that would force a public auction. The streets would then be owned, built and maintained by the hotel with easements from pedestrians, utilities and police monitoring, according to the written proposal. The same guidelines from public access to the promontory were incorporated into the second option.

“It’s not specific enough,” said Harpers Ferry Recorder Kevin Carden, who voted against the option. “There needs to be covenants or something, and I need to see that written before agreeing.”

The meeting moved forward with the town council members asking Swan to provide a fiscal impact assessment, as well as an analysis of the safety of the proposed structures from the State Fire Marshall.

Councilwoman Midge Yost called for the fiscal statement.

“If the financial crux of the success of your project depends on building on our property, our streets, why can’t you come forward with economic studies?” Yost asked.

Ziemianski said she had hoped to move forward by Feb. 28, and is not sure if the requirement of these studies can be completed by that time.

“Most cities have things under their streets,” she said. “We are asking to build under.”

Opinions of the audience members were mixed on the evening’s topic, with some saying the project needed to move forward. The mayor had to call for order on a couple of occasions, as comments were bantered about by observers.

During the evening’s public comment period, longtime resident Ron Rago called for the town council to protect the streets.

“I hope you will maintain control of the streets for public access to the promontory,” Rago said. “To put time restrictions is not in the spirit of things. People want to see the sunrise or the moon.”

Ziemianski responded, saying Swan is willing to work with the town on access to the public.

“Yes, it [the view at the promontory] is a resource, but the history hasn’t been as ‘precious’ as it is now,” Ziemianski said.

Myles Morse, another long-time town resident, presented the council with a petition signed by 50 residents, asking the council not to negotiate with Swan on the paper streets.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Morse said.

Morse also questioned whether a potential sale of the streets would in any way harm the town’s historic register designation, and encouraged the council to look into that before making any binding decision.