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Tourism Development Bill: One of the worst to pass the Legislature

By Staff | Jun 5, 2020

The Tourism Development Bill (SB 657) became law recently. I think it’s one of the worst bills I’ve ever seen pass the Legislature.

It takes from town government any authority to regulate the construction of a “tourism development project” and gives it to the state Development Office in Charleston.

Many people in Jefferson County believe the Harpers Ferry town council has been dragging its feet to prevent the construction of a new Hilltop House hotel proposed by the owner of the property. This is ostensibly the reason for the bill. But SB 657 is so overarching that it could be used to bypass the government of any small town in our state, for almost any reason, no matter how reasonable that town government has been.

Harpers Ferry is the first town so targeted. But since the bill permits the outlined procedure to be used in up to four other small towns, any of them (including Bolivar and Shepherdstown) are theoretically vulnerable.

I fervently hope a new hotel will be built at the Hilltop House site. Our county needs tourism. But I voted against SB 657. Here’s why.

There is no provision for an invitation by local government. Certainly, if the town in question wants to delay, the town won’t issue an invitation. But why not require a referendum, in the town, countywide or perhaps in the magisterial district? There should be some vehicle by which we see a desire by the community for the state to intervene.

There is no requirement in SB 657 that the developer demonstrate that a municipal government has attempted to delay a project. Under this bill, a developer can go straight to state government, without even applying to the town planning commission for a building permit. Why not require some demonstration of inordinate delay? In an egregious situation, a developer could easily provide such evidence.

The Development Office is not required to defer to the State Historic Preservation Office regarding analysis of a community’s history. Some say the Development Office can do so anyway, if it feels like it. But it’s not mandated. And if it does so with Harpers Ferry, what about the next town?

Remember, lack of transparency by the Development Office caused much of the anguish over Rockwool.

I have discovered other problems with the bill since it passed. Some say the problems can be fixed when rules implementing the bill are adopted. Maybe some, but rules cannot change the nature of a law. And Hilltop might be constructed under “emergency” rules, of which there is no guarantee for public input.

We needed to pass a bill targeting exceptional situations. But this onerous, ominous bill potentially covers many cases, not just a few.

I was originally told SB 657 would contain a “sunset” clause (the law would cease to exist after a year). That provision’s absent, so the law is permanent unless repealed by the Legislature. If we’re going to keep this law, the problems with it need to be fixed.

Delegate John Doyle (D) represents the 67th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.