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Hilltop Hotel fuels ongoing controversy in historic Harpers Ferry

By JEFF McCOY

The Journal

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va.  — At first, a wealthy developer coming to town to restore the famous and historic Hilltop Hotel seemed to be a solution to keep an asset in the community while allowing investors to make money.

Since the late 1800s, the hotel had served famous writers, artists, politicians, local residents, tourists and honeymooners.

Today, the little town is in a contentious battle. The following is a timeline of the history of this issue.

PDF documents are available on The Journal’s website to support the timeline. The players involved are SWaN and Legend Venture Partners, a Leesburg, Virginia-based investment group that owns the Hilltop Hotel and other historical buildings in town; the Harpers Ferry Town Council and the residents of Harpers Ferry.

The Town Council appears ready to pass ordinance 1313, which changes how the land could be used. Some residents have supported the SWaN plans. Others have opposed it. Threats have been made, search warrants issued and court cases won and lost.

September 2007

In September 2007, SWaN stated that it wanted to restore the hotel back to its historical condition. That plan, for the most part, pleased the residents. The September 2007 edition of the Harpers Ferry Community Newsletter stated the following in part:

“I have met with Messrs. Schauffeld and Miller on several occasions and talked with them on the phone about their plans for renovation and reconstruction. They intend to restore the hotel to its historical condition when owned by the Lovett’s. Engineering studies have been completed for short and long term projects. The SWaN group will abide by all town ordinances and historic regulations. Mr. Schauffeld plans to make Hilltop House a destination hotel on the order of the Little Inn at Washington,” said Jim Addy, then mayor.

January 2008

SWaN issues a press release stating, “Historic Hilltop Hotel to undergo Comprehensive Restoration; To Emerge in 2010 as a World-Class Destination Hotel, Spa and Meeting Venue” according to Mike Miller, SWaN Investors’ project manager. The press release also stated that William H. Gordon & Associates in Charles Town was retained for a site assessment study and aerial topographical and boundary surveys.

January/February 2008

Hotel employees are dismissed and items from the hotel are sold at auction. This is the beginning of the properties, (including the Armory Houses) being vacant and accelerating their decline and in some cases collapse.

March 28, 2008

A subsurface exploration report and geotechnical evaluation report was issued by Specialized Engineering of Ijamsville Maryland.

The report states in part, “Rock excavation techniques such as ripping, hoe-ramming and/or blasting are anticipated at the site during building excavations.”

September 2008

Hilltop Hotel Site Armory Dwellings and Ridge Street Dwellings Building Condition Report issued.

May 2009

In a meeting at the Mather Training Center, SWaN announces plans of a much larger hotel and its intent to take down the current Hilltop House Hotel.

September 2009

SWaN conducts a balloon study showing the height and size of a hotel layout that is being considered as a replacement to the historic Hilltop Hotel. Neighbors are discouraged not to take pictures of the balloons showing the height and size of the planned new hotel.

March/April 2010

The hotel suffers a partial collapse and leaves it open to the elements, animals and certain criminal elements. Several police calls and arrests are made.

June 2010

Mayor Addy writes a letter to Mike Miller at SWaN stating in part , “The Harpers Ferry Town Council and residents have asked me to address their concerns about the collapsed front of the Hilltop House, as well as other issues with the property.”

It also stated, “From a visual aspect, the hotel ruin is an eye sore that tourist visit with fond memories of past experiences.”

2010

— Citizens ask town council to hire zoning professional to handle the project.

— A letter is sent to the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health listing concerns about the condition of the hotel, how debris is being disposed of and contaminates being airborne and asbestos. The letter is sent after the lack of action from Mayor Addy’s letter of June 2010.

Sept. 2010

The Ferguson Group, a national firm located in Washington D.C., was hired as a facilitator. After months of work spanning over two calendar years, the firm withdraws and a letter written to the town states in part, “I write to officially withdraw from my role as facilitator of the Hilltop Hotel revitalization project, to terminate the Ferguson Group’s relationship with the town of Harpers Ferry and to convey my genuine concerns that certain local officials in Harpers Ferry have operated so inappropriately that it could cause substantial and lasting harm to the community.”

Furthermore, it stated, “I have seldom seen such a dysfunctional local process as the one that is present here, which has resulted from the shenanigans of a few and the apparent unwillingness of the community to reject those tactics … Losing SWaN Investors and its $76 million plan for revitalization of this critical yet deteriorating Harpers Ferry Landmark would be tragic for Harpers Ferry.”

Sept. 2010

A search warrant is issued seeking “A certified copy of all surveys/plats/documents pertaining to East Ridge Street (paper street) within The Corporation of Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County, West Virginia, on properties owned by The Corporation of Harpers Ferry or the documents requested by The SWaN Group, Hilltop Hotel, Mike Miller, Carl Bailey or any agent thereof to determine the boundaries of said properties.”

Sept. 2010

SWaN writes a letter to the mayor highlighting problems with the downturn in the economy, stating, “We did not expect a political firestorm that would result in ethical and criminal accusations against multiple parties whom we have grown to respect.”

2011

Harpers Ferry fires David Beniamino, a town planner from Middleburg Virginia to write town vision.

2013

The planning commission takes up the ordinance (1313) to include an overlay zone.

Citizens become concerned that 1313 is being tailored to and by SWaN. Town Council denies that the ordinance is for SWaN. One section of 1313 states in part “Conditional Uses within the Promontory Overlay District in which the Hilltop House is not preserved. If an owner of any historic structure within the Promontory Overlay District wishes to pursue a use within the Promontory Overlay District that would de-list the Hilltop House Hotel from the National Register of Historic Places…”

April 2014

— Supplemental design standards are presented by independent certified planner Tony Redman

— The Harpers Ferry Resident Group hires Owings Mills, Maryland-based community and environmental defense services, to determine traffic and parking, landslide problems, water and other issues.

Sept. 8, 2014

107 citizens sign a petition to the town council. The petition states in part, “These 107 petitions signify a strong community desire to effect certain revisions to the proposed East Ridge Street Promontory Overlay District specially section 1306(c) 2(A)and section 1306.03(d) and to position the boundary of the overlay district east of Columbia Street, excluding the steeply sloping areas. The petition also requests that the number of rooms allowed for the hotel be reduced from 160 to 120, including the 20 residential guest rooms, and to incorporate the Supplemental Design Standards presented by independent certified planner Tony Redman on April 29, 2014.”

2014

Citizens present research to town council

June 6, 2016

Gordon — a civil engineers, land planners, landscape architects, surveyors and security professionals firm — writes a letter outlining what SWaN wants in ordinance 1313.

June 2016

A Petition to Enforce Article 1109 of Harpers Ferry Town Ordinances Nuisances and Property Maintenance is filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court asking that the town enforces current laws to secure the SWaN properties. Over 80 police reports are filed over people entering the hotel illegally and other crimes committed on the property. The empty building becomes a magnet for criminal elements. It is now before the West Virginia State Supreme Court.

January 2017

Scot and Vicki Faulkner go to court to stop the meetings about the ordinance until a map can be produced showing details of the overlay.

“I am denying the motion. The Circuit Court does not have the power to enjoin the action that is being proposed,” Judge Bridget Cohee said.

Jan. 6, 7 and 9 2017

The meetings, which the Faulkner case of Jan. 5 attempted to stop, are held at Town Hall. Many residents voice concerns. The council seems split with some members wanting to move forward with the ordinance. Council members Charlotte Thompson and Hardy Johnson advocate for more review. A new date is set for Jan. 24, 2017, to discuss the objections raised by citizens.

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