BCT rezoning showdown put off

BOLIVAR – The owner of a parcel of land at the entrance to Bolivar has asked that a rezoning hearing be delayed while it negotiates with a potential buyer who is interested in keeping the land undeveloped.

Bank of Charles Town President Robert Barroner said he asked the Jefferson County Commission to delay the rezoning hearing to give the prospective buyer and the bank the opportunity to negotiate on the nearly 2 ½-acre parcel in light of the outcry from both Harpers ferry and Bolivar, as well as the National Park Service, which had hoped to buy the land itself.

The County Commission is likely to hold a public hearing soon to receive input on a proposal to rezone a two acre parcel
near the Conventions and Visitors Bureau to allow for commercial uses. The land is currently owned by the Bank of
Charles Town.

“We want to do what is good for the community, and we recognize that there is some strong sentiment from Harpers Ferry and Bolivar wanting to preserve its rural character,” Baronner said. “We didn’t see any reason to rush the thing through if there is someone out there who can buy it.”

A public hearing for the property was originally scheduled to take place on Thursday.

The request to rezone the site from rural to ‘Residential/Light Industrial/Commercial’ already received approval by the Planning Commission.

BCT President Robert Baronner said the bank requested the rezoning so that the price of the lot would “reflect its true market value.”

“We originally bought that property about eight or nine years ago, with the intent of putting our branch out there,” Baronner said. “The economics have changed. I’m not sure we would put a bank out there right now, but we want it to reflect its true value by rezoning it.”

The rezoning request is also supported by the Jefferson County Development Authority.

“You have a piece of property that sits directly on a four-lane highway, that has a traffic flow of somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 cars per day,” Development Authority Director John Reisenweber. “Having a commercial entity there will increase the tax base for the county and create more jobs than what is currently there: an empty field.”

Harpers Ferry Mayor Joe Anderson said he wants to see the bank sell the lot to the Park Service, which is interested in purchasing it.

“This piece of property is directly across from the entrance to the Harpers Ferry National Park,” Anderson said. “The Park Service has identified this property, along with a couple of adjacent parcels, as being within their acquisition boundaries.”

Anderson said he worries commercial development near the neighboring Bolivar Heights battlefield would mar the visual experience of tourists.

“This is a gateway. This is a gateway to the county, to the state,” Anderson said. “We in Harpers Ferry and Bolivar value the Park Service as part of our local economy, heritage and culture. We would like to see the Park Service be successful in obtaining that property and maintaining the attractiveness to the visitor.”

The National Park Service also opposes the proposal. In a letter to the Planning Commission, Park Superintendent Rebecca Harriett said the rezoning would “allow intensive development and commercial use” which will have “a significant adverse impact on the historic values inherent in the adjoining lands managed by the National Park Service.”

Harriett argued that promoting commercial development at the site would harm the scenic landscape, historic resources and tourism revenue, a worry echoed by Anderson.

“It’s surrounded by rural property,” he said. “All you have to do is go stand in that piece of property and look around you and see what you see. Just imagine, instead, if you were standing in the middle of a gas station. It’s like the hole in the doughnut. It’s surrounded by trees and a pastoral setting and the battlefield.

Reisenweber said it is too early in the process for handwringing about irresponsible development. He said any prospective developer would still have to go through a long site-plan approval process.

“There are two separate processes here,” he said “One is the rezoning, and the second is what would happen on that property. Obviously the Development Authority wants to see something that is responsible commercial development on that corridor.”

Anderson worries that it may be difficult to control the kind of development that takes place if the rezoning moves forward, however.

“If this is rezoned, there is very little control over what could be developed at that site. There is a long list of uses, and very little control over the physical nature of that development, aside for some setback from the highway,” Anderson said.

Baronner confirmed that the Park Service had made two offers to buy the property – one in 2007 and another in 2010 – but said that the offers were too low to be accepted.

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