Town leaders, residents say they want the Hilltop House Hotel back in business
HARPERS FERRY – Town officials say they hope the investment group that owns the historic Hilltop House Hotel will soon reopen talks about rebuilding the shuttered site, even as they have taken steps to regulate the scope of the project the developer can propose.
Kevin Carden, town recorder and mayor pro tempore during the absence of Mayor Gregg Vaughn, said the town has not had any direct discussion with the representatives from Hilltop owner, SWaN Properties, so far.
“Our hopes are to get SWaN to come and meet with us and discuss the reconstruction project. I imagine that will happen within the next couple of months.”
In the meantime though, the town has taken steps with the passage of new zoning rules to rein in just what kind of project the property’s owner can get approved.
In September, the Harpers Ferry Planning Commission submitted a 29-page document detailing comprehensive zoning amendments dealing with a host of town zoning issues – the final product of some three years of work and many public workshops and hearings. Around three-and-a-half pages of that plan are devoted to the creation of and regulations governing an overlay district for the hotel property and neighboring residential properties also owned by SWaN.
Planning Commission Vice President Steve Ramberg, who was reached for comment because President Jay Winchester could not be reached, said the overlay district is meant to afford special uses for the site not normally permitted in its base zoning category.
“It means that you don’t change the zoning of any of the properties. What you do is within this overlay you say, ‘We’re going to give a series of different or alternative uses of the things inside the overlay,’” said Ramberg. “In this case it basically says, ‘If you want to build the hotel the same size or smaller [than the existing structure], no problem.’ If you want to go to one that is bigger, then you must go through a process that involves hearings with the Board of Zoning Appeals.”
Ramberg said no plans for a hotel have been submitted to the Planning Commission, though representatives of SWaN did attend a public workshop convened to give input on the proposed amendments.
“SWaN wrote to the Mayor and asked for a session with [the Planning Commission] to discuss the proposal,” Ramberg said. “They talked about areas where they were concerned with the proposals, and we listened like we would with anybody else. Then we discussed it and decided that at this time there was no reason to make changes to our September proposal.”
The Hilltop Hotel closed in 2008.
Carden said SWaN’s renewed interest in the project, if still informal, provides hope that the town may reverse the revenue and tourism loss that the hotel’s closure occasioned.
“It hurt us quite a bit,” Carden said. “It was a huge loss of income for us. We lost the business and occupancy taxes that the hotel generated and other related taxes. They were a large user of water, so we lost that income for the water department that was being used to maintain the system. And when visitors would come in for the hotel, they would also go down to lower town and visit the businesses down there. Those people are not coming in now. We still have a lot of tourists, but there was some drop-off.”
The proposed overlay district grants SWaN or its successor the right to build a hotel with roughly the same guest capacity and footprint as the existing structure without seeking rezoning or a conditional use permit.
Ramberg says this is required by state law.
“The guys who bought the property have a right to what they bought,” he said. “That’s West Virginia law.”
The amendments also establish a procedure whereby SWaN or its successor could seek to build a substantially larger hotel: doubling the permitted room capacity from 80 to 160, and increasing the footprint from from 25,000 to 37,500 square feet. For SWaN to pursue that route, it would have to argue its case for conditional use permitting before the Board of Zoning appeals, who would only be allowed to approve the uses if they determine that it “will not be detrimental to other permitted uses in the Overlay District or to adjoining lots in a Residential or a Business District.”
Approval of the larger structure would also be contingent on the BZA finding that “there is adequate water and sewer treatment and storage capacity available, or such capacity is made available with the cost of the additional capacity and distribution lines, if required, borne by the applicant.”
Some property owners who live near the site remain concerned.
“My concern, and the concern of some other people, is the size of the hotel that was originally proposed by the investor group in 2009 when they made their proposal,” said Earl De Maris, who lives on Ridge Street near the site of the hotel. “I’m just questioning whether that site would handle a hotel of the size that they originally proposed.”
De Maris says he thinks some of the neighbors have been unfairly painted as opposing redevelopment of the hotel.
“There seems to be a for-hotel and against-hotel argument built up, and it really isn’t the case,” he said. “I’m not against the hotel. Everyone in Harpers Ferry wants a hotel.”
De Maris says the town should carefully study the impact of a proposed hotel, if SWaN eventually decides to submit a plan.
“I do feel that we should explore all the aspects of a hotel, whatever the size is. And I don’t think we have looked completely at all of the impacts that an 180-room hotel would have,” he said. “I know that there have been studies done, but I think that we have to look at the impact on traffic, water, sewer and the noise… A lot of people just think that this issue has been studied to death and we should just get on with it, but I think we should proceed with caution.”
SWaN representatives could not be reached for comment.
Nearby homeowner Wayne Bishop – who formerly served on the town’s planning and water commissions as a building inspector, and who currently serves on the town’s police commission – says he too supports redevelopment of the hotel but worries about the specific shape redevelopment will take.
“This can be such a positive thing, and we’d like to see it be a positive thing,” he said. “The concern is the potential for the [larger] of the two.”
“This is located on a very, very tiny site,” he said. “I think that there has been general, overall complete support for a project that would be similar in size and scope and demands on the town [to the pre-existing structure].”
Bishop worries about the impact on the town’s public infrastructure as well.
“You can’t put a five-star hotel into a half-star infrastructure – there’s a lot of people concerned about the impact and the cost to the town of doing so,” he said.
Town officials say they hope the BZA approval requirements concerning impacts to nearby properties and town infrastructure they have built into the zoning amendments will work to address these concerns.
“We are hoping that we can alleviate their concerns and make them understand that their concerns are being addressed,” Carden said.
The possibility of redevelopment has also generated a strong showing of support from some town residents, business owners and others. A Facebook page set up to voice support for the project has gathered more than 700 followers in the last week.
John Maxey, who owns an IT company in lower town, said he thinks redevelopment of Hilltop House is the only way to make needed upgrades to Harpers Ferry’s infrastructure affordable.
“The town needs a 6 million-dollar water system repair,” he said. “Without a strong business community this is going to have to be paid for by resident rate payers, and the rate increase will not be bearable. The Hilltop House project is a part of an integrated economic development plan that can make certain the town is sustainable.”
Billy Ray Dunn, the co-proprietor of a Harpers Ferry apparel shop, said reopening the hotel is of vital importance to the town’s business environment.
“The closing of the Hilltop Hotel resulted in a significant loss of income for our shop,” he said, “and in the next few years, we’ve seen shops come and go because of a lack of support from the local community and no new income to replace that which was lost.”
“A new Hilltop Hotel will not only be a lifeline for local shops, an opportunity for new shops but also a financial windfall for the Town of Harpers Ferry.”