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Parkersburg ‘Castle’ cleared for weddings, events

Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo
Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A contested proposal to use the historic Van Winkle house, often called the Castle, for weddings and family reunions narrowly won approval from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals Wednesday.

Standard Oil purchased the Castle, at 1209 Ann St. in the Julia-Ann Square Historic District, in the fall of 2013 to provide a place for its officers, directors, shareholders and guests to stay when in the area. While that remains the primary use, company President Rick Zelnar said repeated requests from visitors during historic district tours to open the house up more to the public and a downturn in the oil and natural gas industry prompted the company to consider other possibilities.

“It’s a wonderful place for someone to get married or have a special event, and we want to give back,” Zelnar told the zoning board during Wednesday’s meeting in City Council chambers.

The Castle was built around 1833 by Peter G. Van Winkle, who was a U.S. senator from Parkersburg and played a major role in writing the West Virginia Constitution.

Standard Oil wants to operate a bed and breakfast out of the house, which is an allowed use under city code governing residential historic districts. Playing host to weddings and other events requires a zoning variance.

The variance was approved by a 2-1 vote, with zoning board member Jeremy Bungard opposed. There was brief confusion because earlier in the meeting, Assistant City Attorney Rob Tebay said passage would require affirmative votes from all three members, which represent a majority of the board. At the end of the meeting, he said that was how the board had operated in the past, but a simple majority of the quorum was all that was required.

The variance was approved over the objections of seven historic district residents who spoke at the meeting. They argued the proposed activity would be disruptive to the neighborhood and its historic character.

“I bought my home specifically because I knew it was protected by city codes” as a residential neighborhood, said Bruce Ludford, who lives across Ann Street from the Castle. “I hope I’m not betrayed by those same codes.”

District resident Carole Hanlon challenged Standard Oil’s ability to operate a bed and breakfast out of the house, saying the company specifically renovated the house for that purpose, something prohibited under city code. Zelnar has previously said the renovations to the building follow the original footprint.

Fellow district resident Charles Harris said the proposal could turn the district into a commercialized area like Market Street.

“This is a broad proposal and could include almost anything up to auto shows,” he said.

Zelnar acknowledged concerns over parking and noise, but said on-street parking would be prohibited and music and the majority of activities would be limited to the back of the property, facing Murdoch Avenue.

Zelnar also noted city code allows the board to revoke a variance if the use proves disruptive and asked the board to give the company a chance to address issues if such a situation arose.

Five residents of the district spoke in favor of the request.

“I’m for it. I feel that they’re going to improve the neighborhood,” said Julie Deklavon, who lives next door to the Castle. She said she requested a privacy fence be erected between her back yard and the Castle’s and Zelnar agreed.

Harris was angry after the meeting’s conclusion.

“I’m very disappointed in you, board, very much,” he said. “That man is a snake oil salesman,” he added, pointing to Zelnar.

Tebay reminded those opposed to the variance that they had a right to appeal the decision to Wood County Circuit Court.

“Well I think that might be coming,” Harris said. “Get ready to go.”

After the meeting, Zelnar said he expects tension over the issue to fade.

“I think there’s some spirited feelings on the other side. I think they’ll tame down,” he said.

The meeting started more than half an hour late because only two of the five board members were present and there was difficulty getting a third member to participate by phone to give the group a quorum. Board member Travis Johnson participated via city Code Director Gary Moss’ cell phone after the phone connection to the room’s speaker system did not work.

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