CHARLES TOWN — Charles Town leaders elected to sit it out this week in the wake of a court order that brought a halt a developer’s plans to build a new drug store downtown.
The Rebkee Company will have to wait until the end of the month before moving forward with its proposal to build a 14,000-square-foot CVS retail store at the intersection of Washington and West streets following an order by Jefferson County Circuit Judge David H. Sanders, who last week issued a temporary restraining order against the company’s plan to tear down seven buildings, six of which are deemed historic by preservationist groups and the State Historic Preservation Office.
City Manager Joe Cosentini said Charles Town council members decided no action was necessary, given that approvals have already been granted by the city for the project.
“Because there was a way the applicant, if the injunction goes away, can proceed with this project, why take an action if an action wasn’t necessary?” Cosentini said.
The order by Sanders followed a motion filed in circuit court March 2 by town residents Betsy Wells and Donald Rohel against the developer as well as the property owner, Clarence Haymaker, and the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, which granted a Certificate of Appropriateness for the project in November. The complaint seeks to overturn the vote by landmarks commissioners, whom both residents allege failed to heed the ordinance governing the city’s Historic Overlay Zoning District, which restricts the demolition of contributing buildings.
The 14-page petition also accuses HLC member and City Councilman Mark Reinhart of violating the state’s Governmental Ethics Act for his vote in favor of the project at the landmarks commission’s Nov. 14 meeting.
The complaint alleges that Reinhart, who owns properties that will abut the proposed store, stands to benefit financially because he’d see his property values increase and should have recused himself from voting on the project. The complaint requests a permanent injunction to prevent Reinhart from any further votes on the project.
Reinhart, who was a third vote from the landmarks commission in favor of the project, called the allegations and complaint “absurd.”
“It’s a meritless allegation,” Reinhart said. “Both backyards will have a lovely view of the loading platform and the parking lot. If that somehow raises the value of my properties, I don’t see it.”
Reinhart said the landmarks commission did consider the overlay district ordinance, but insisted the section governing the demolition of old buildings are guidelines, not requirements.
It’s not code, it’s simply guidelines,” said Reinhart, who two weeks ago took a hard line against the developer at a recent planning commission meeting, describing a traffic study conducted by engineering firm Kimley-Horn and Associates as a case of “spinning the numbers.”
He said that vote not to recommend to City Council an approval for a commercial access permit granted by the state Division of Highways stemmed from Rebkee’s insistence at letting traffic make left turns onto Washington Street.
“I support the project, but am concerned about a left turn out,” he said. “It was a difficult decision but where the planning commission is concerned public safety is an important concern and a left turn is a potentially dangerous situation.”
Last month, the state Historic Preservation Office also criticized the highways office’s vote.
In a Feb. 10 letter to a state highways project engineers, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Susan Pierce called the roadway access permit a violation of State code, and asked that the permit be remanded.
Pierce said tearing down contributing buildings in the city’s historic district threatens its listing on the National Register.
A representative of Rebkee did not return a call for comment.
Mayor Peggy Smith said she was disappointed about what she called a personal attack against Reinhart, and said she was sympathetic to council’s position on the project, but said approvals have already been given on the project.
“We have a split council. I know everybody sitting there thinks they are doing the best for the city. We all believe in what we are saying and doing,” Smith said. “We did follow the ordinances. This project is approved.”
The court hearing is scheduled for March 29 at 9 a.m.