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SWaN Group reaches out to talk street purchase

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Nov 13, 2020

The Hilltop Hotel stands in ruins, as negotiations are potentially reopening between the property owners and the town officials. Toni Milbourne

HARPERS FERRY — After many months of silence about the Hilltop Hotel project, leaders of the SWaN Group met last Monday evening via Zoom with Harpers Ferry town council members to open back up discussions on the potential purchase of some of the town streets.

Negotiations around the hotel project had been stalled for several months, leading Sen. Patricia Rucker to draft a bill, the Tourism Development District Act, that would allow the state to step in and aid the process. The act is intended to serve as a mechanism to assist municipalities in handling large economic development projects. It will effect cities and municipalities of 2,000 citizens or less and development projects of $25 million or more. The bill passed both the House and Senate before the onset of COVID-19.

At Monday’s meeting, SWaN Investors representative Laurel Ziemianski said SWaN is requesting to purchase several streets, some of them paved and some known as “paper streets.”

One of the streets was Columba Street, which would serve as the main access to the hotel property from Washington Street. The street would be reconfigured to eliminate a dip at the intersection and lead to the hotel campus. In addition, SWaN would like to purchase a segment of East Ridge Street, where it intersects with Columbia Street. Four other segments are requested, including four paper streets.

According to Ziemianski, the benefits of allowing SWaN to purchase the streets would include that SWaN would maintain the streets including snow removal. Easements would be provided for pedestrian access to the overlook at the hotel property, which is something that has been a concern of many who have opposed the sale of the streets.

“We would increase the viewing area and maintain an open viewshed,” Ziemianski said. “I’d remind you that streets are built to access property for development. These streets were always used to get to the Hilltop and the overlook.”

“We have basically outlined the things that we must have to make this project work while still preserving the rights of people in the town to access the overlook,” said property owner Karen Schaufeld.

When asked about any ability to compromise that came from town council member Barbara Humes, Schaufeld said it would depend upon what type of compromise.

“We have our must-haves,” she said. “We didn’t come in asking for things we didn’t need.”

Should the town decide to sell the streets, they would be sold at a maximum price of $999, because a sale above the $1,000 amount would trigger the need to open the sale up to bids.

When the hotel project reached an impasse and the legislation was passed, it was unclear as to whether the state would oversee all aspects of the project. Communication between town officials and the property owners had dwindled during the town’s contested election. The election results were finalized only after reaching the State Supreme Court. At that time, a change in council members occurred. It is not clear whether that change has led to an opening of communication between the two entities on the hotel project.

Much of Monday’s discussion centered on access to the views from the promontory overlooking the confluence of the rivers. Added recently by the Schaufelds in the planning, is a move to open up additional overlook areas that had previously been private property. Humes questioned the change in the expanded hotel property.

“We asked for this variance when we downsized this hotel by 50 rooms in 2018. We had this realigned Columbia and the red house on the corner on the concept plan. Stanhagen’s house down Columbia to Washington will be the boundary of the hotel campus,” Ziemianski said, answering Humes question on whether every property SWaN owns will be incorporated into the hotel campus.

“We will move forward after tonight with the town council and with SWaN as the council determines,” said Mayor Wayne Bishop.