New city ordinance comes to defense of Hunter Hill

CHARLES TOWN — In the late 1820s, Andrew H. Hunter, the chief prosecutor in the John Brown Trial, built the estate known as Hunter Hill in Charles Town. On July 19, 1864, Union Gen. David Hunter, one of Andrew’s cousins, was attempting to drive Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley. To expedite their departure, he ordered the burning of three homes in Jefferson County, including Hunter Hill. The family was not allowed to remove any of the possessions, including clothing, and Andrew Hunter was taken prisoner. After the war, he rebuilt the home on its original foundation.

Hunter Hill is arguably the most important structure within the nationally registered Old Charles Town Historic District. It is also listed in the state’s registry of historic homes and has been designated a Charles Town Historic Landmark by the City’s Historic Landmark Commission. Located on East Washington Street, the wooded estate sits at the gateway to historic Charles Town and serves as a green space buffer between the motels and fast food stores to the east and the residential neighborhood to the west. Other than Happy Retreat, there is perhaps no other residential property that is more important to the town’s history.

Prior to this week’s meeting of the Charles Town Planning Commission, the owner of Hunter Hill and a local developer approached the Charles Town Historic Landmarks Commission, the Town Council, and the Planning Commission to petition that the zoning of the property be changed from residential to commercial. Each time the petitioners were met with a barrage of questions and concerns about the lack of detailed plans for developing the property, the impact that commercial development would have on the surrounding neighborhood, the impact on traffic on Washington Street, and finally and perhaps most importantly, the impact that development would have not only on the Hunter Hill estate, but also on the historic nature of Charles Town itself, given the home’s critical position at the eastern gateway to the Old Charles Town Historic District.

Throughout these meetings, the petitioners were reminded of the Feb. 6 motion by the Town Council, which stated in part: “The Charles Town City Council requests that the Planning Commission provide the Council with guidance for assuring that whatever zoning classification is proposed or exists and whatever use is established for Hunter Hill honors and preserves the character, integrity, and historic context of the Hunter House, trees, and grounds.” With that being said, there are several reasons why Hunter Hill should be preserved.

Destroying historic structures almost always negatively impacts the local economy, first, because such destruction decreases the potential for heritage tourism. Study after study has shown that preserved buildings and neighborhoods attract tourists. Travel expert Arthur Frommer writes, “Tourism simply doesn’t go to a city that has lost its soul. What visitors want is the sense of being: Someplace, not just Anyplace. They aren’t interested in visiting communities that have transformed themselves into a sad hodgepodge of cookie-cutter housing tracts, cluttered commercial strips and empty downtowns — but they flock to places that have preserved their historic character … and saved their soul.”

Locally, one need go no further than Shepherdstown, Culpeper, Va., Orange, Va., Lewisburg, or Frederick, Md., to witness the economic development that has occurred as a result of those towns honoring and celebrating their heritage and architecture.

Secondly, with the continuing degradation of the integrity of Charles Town’s historic districts, the town risks removal of its historic district status and associated funding opportunities for grants and loans. Charles Town has lost at least nine historic structures this year in its downtown districts alone. This is too many, especially when there are suitable infill locations and many locations available for new construction outside of the historic districts. What is most tragic is that four of the nine properties were replaced by parking lots! There is no good reason for Hunter Hill to be a part of this trend.

The property is also valuable historically for its connection to one of Charles Town’s most prominent citizens and to issues that divided local families and indeed the nation itself, these being John Brown’s revolt and the U.S. Civil War. The burning of Andrew Hunter’s house by his own cousin during the Civil War and its post-war rebuilding on its original foundation (that’s why it should never be moved!) is the kind of story visitors and citizens alike can appreciate, and history is easier to comprehend when we have visual clues from the past. As John Ruskin said, “Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her.” We save old buildings because we need to preserve the marks left on our national landscape by the many people who have shaped it. We need our collective memory.”

In its comprehensive plan, Charles Town has recognized the importance of preserving its history. From the plan: “Charles Town will strive to be a community that honors its past. The intent is not to create a collection of museums, but to resist the temptation to prematurely declare a building, a block, or a neighborhood obsolete and remove it. Adaptive re-use should be looked at first.” Certainly adaptive reuse of Hunter Hill has found no place in the conceptual plans provided to date by the developers.

All this is background to the events of the Oct. 22 Planning Commission meeting, when the developer returned to present a revised conceptual plan and more importantly, to present a “new application,” to rezone the property as Old Town Mixed-Use Commercial, a designation adopted in Charles Town’s recently updated zoning ordinance. After hearing the presentation by the developer and testimony from the public, the planning commissioners entered into a spirited discussion of the merits of the application. To their great credit, the commissioners eventually voted to deny the request for the rezoning. In this observer’s opinion, the Commission was swayed by the apparent failure of the applicant to address two major requirements of the mixed use definition, i.e. preservation of historic properties and minimizing impacts on adjacent land. The application also seemed contrary to the fundamental purpose of the mixed use classification, that being to recognize the diversity of the commercial area of the downtown, which is more than two blocks away from the Hunter Hill property.

This outcome is a refreshing confirmation of the strength of the newly updated ordinance and its validity in the eyes of the Planning Commission and City Council. Hopefully future decisions will continue to benefit from strengthened preservation laws and policies developed proactively, recognizing that growth and preservation are at least compatible, if not mutually dependent on each other for success.

Those of you who are concerned about the future of Hunter Hill and Charles Town are encouraged to remain vigilant in the face of continuing threats to the character of the town and its historic resources. Learn the facts and challenge the fiction. Speak out in public meetings. Write letters to your leaders. The town’s greatest assets are its citizens.

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