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Harpers Ferry hotel could provide tourist boost

By Staff | Jan 6, 2014

For nearly six years, the Hilltop House Hotel in Harpers Ferry has sat empty, disintegrating before the eyes of residents and visitors alike. The property, deemed structurally unsound, faces an unknown future as the town of 300 residents works to determine its fate.

The property, which has housed a hotel since 1888, was purchased by SWaN and Legend Venture Partners, a Leesburg, Va.-based investment firm in 2008 for $10 million. The company also purchased some surrounding properties near the hotel, many of which are also in disrepair.

Plans to renovate the property and restore it to use as a luxury hotel have met with economic challenges since the purchase in 2008; but, moreso, have met with challenges from within the town itself.

SWaN has proposed to replace the former 76-room hotel with a 179-room luxury boutique hotel with conference rooms and dining rooms. Those expansion plans have met with concern from some local residents who see the project as too large for the town. Opposition and economy led SWaN to delay plans for some time; however, the town officials hope to have the company move forward with renovation in the upcoming year.

Public meetings and discussions on the project have been held for several years; however, a vocal group opposing the large hotel renovation has been circulating flyers indicating that no public input is sought for proposed zoning amendments which could allow the project to move forward. Those flyers were distributed not only to residents of Harpers Ferry proper, but also to residents in adjoining Bolivar.

Bolivar resident Don Burgess, whose property borders town limits, has researched many of the allegations made in an anonymous flyer that has been distributed in both towns drumming up negativity of the hotel project. In addition, a social media Facebook site in favor of the proposed project has been created and has drawn hundreds of “likes.”

The Town Council of Harpers Ferry is currently working on zoning amendments and stated in a recent meeting that there would not be a public hearing held regarding a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance. The indication appeared that, therefore, there would be no public input on the zoning change and no input on the hotel project. Over the past three years, the town’s Planning Commission has held numerous public meetings with regard to updates to the ordinance allowing for public input.

In addition, the Overlay Zone amendment requires a conditional use permit for any hotel project over 80 rooms, which automatically triggers a public hearing. In addition, the town has called for written comments on the ordinance and potential changes where residents can put forth detailed comments.

Concerns raised in the distributed handout, which was not signed by any particular individuals, focused on increased use of water and sewer in the town. The document claimed that the capacity for water and sewer is already strained in the town and that adding the large hotel would compromise service.

A feasibility study done in November 2013 and available online at the town’s website, shows that hotel would not generate a significant increase in usage. While the system does need significant repair, that repair will need to be completed regardless of the hotel construction. The same study showed that the system needs approximately $6 million in improvements that would fall on the backs of current ratepayers. Adding the hotel to the list of ratepayers would alleviate some cost to locals.

The town of Harpers Ferry relies heavily on the tourist industry, as does much of Jefferson County. The loss of the hotel has been a significant one to downtown businesses. Shop owners hope to see the project move forward so that revenue can be enjoyed by shoppers.

Billy Dunn, owner of The Vintage Lady, looks forward to the return of the hotel and the clientele it will generate. He shared that since the hotel closed, the Lower Town shops have seen reduction in shoppers. The merchants look forward to its return, he said.

Protests over increased traffic and parking sounded from those opposed to the size of the hotel. The handout distributed indicated that traffic to the hotel would cause locals to be delayed getting to work, school or church. While there are only 300 residents in the town, the town draws in more than 300,000 tourists per year via the National Park Service. Hundreds of vehicles travel into town bringing workers to the NPS facilities and visitors to the historic location. While Ridge Street, on which the hotel is located, may see some increased traffic, traffic studies indicate it will not be so excessive to form congestion.

SWaN also purchased several properties adjoining the hotel property and allegations have been made that those properties will be demolished to create parking lots. Each of the properties, some of which are in such dire shape that they should be demolished for safety reasons alone, must face approval for demolition via the Historic Landmarks Committee of the town. The entire town of Harpers Ferry falls under the National Register for Historic Places and nothing can be built or torn down without approval.

Plans for the project can be found at the town offices and on the town website which explain the master plan of the project as well as all documents regarding proposed zoning changes, water improvement studies, transportation studies and the like.

The proposed hotel will, according to initial plans laid out by the developer and now withdrawn, reinstate the hotel to its previous grandeur and facade, in keeping with the historic nature of the town. All past, present and previously proposed hotels, according to Bolivar resident Don Burgess, who has researched the issue, were four floors in three and one half stories with a dormered top story.

All plans must conform to the town’s regulations, many of which are still in proposed form. The call for written input extends to Jan. 15 and future hearings and meetings will surely come. The goal of many in town, however, is to move the project forward rather than continuing to delay the process. Burgess stresses that regardless of the timeline, individuals need to make themselves aware of the facts before distributing inaccurate information. That, he said, is what the small faction of individuals who oppose the project have done with their handouts.