HARPERS FERRY — The decision by an investment group to pull out of restoring the historic Hilltop House Hotel gives the town a chance to prepare for any future plans, a consultant told town residents at a gathering last week.
Tony Redman, of Annapolis, Md., who had his own county planning and zoning business for more than 30 years, told members of the Harpers Ferry Residents’ Group during a public workshop to discuss the future of the Hilltop hotel that setting design standards “would allow predictability in outcomes for both the town and the developer.”
“The fact that there is no proposed plan for the Hilltop now gives you time to develop ordinances and design standards,”said Redman, who was one of two consultants hired by the residents’ group to address the hotel.
The group also employed Richard Klein of Community and Environmental Defense Services, in Owings Mills, Md. Redman also served as a onetime director of planning for Jefferson County.
The meeting took place Thursday at the Camp Hill Methodist Church Fellowship Room. The suggestions will be submitted to the Harpers Ferry Planning Commission, which met Tuesday evening.
Hilltop House closed in 2008 and was subsequently purchased by SWaN Investors in 2009. SWaN has since withdrawn their proposal for the site, but the proposed plans for the hotel raised concerns with home owners living near it. In the fall of last year, about 60 residents formed the Harpers Ferry Residents’ Group.
Harpers Ferry resident and group member Patrick Tierney said the group hired the consultants because members weren’t getting enough information about plans for the site.
“Our group consists of residents who enjoy quiet living, value the land itself and like the community of people who have made Harpers Ferry home,” he said. “Residents cherish our distinct historic village and precious old homes. The goal of the group is to protect these things.”
He said the consultants were hired to investigate the SWaN plan and analyze ordinances to ensure any new plans for the area would meet codes and not have a negative impact on the town.
Tierney would not disclose how much the group paid the consultants.
“I believe the sentiment of the many members of the community is that the amount of our investment doesn’t matter,” he said. “We consider our investment to be worthwhile when it brings Harpers Ferry together to constructively discuss issues of mutual opportunity.”
Klein told group members that factors to be considered in any new proposals should include providing parking for Lower Town visitors at the Hilltop, building trails that would connect the Hilltop and Lower Town to move pedestrians away from busy streets, and studying options to eliminate the impact of possibly doubling to quadrupling traffic on pedestrian safety, vehicle accidents and U.S. 340 congestion.
Klein said any plan, “has to reflect the values of the community.”
Councilman Dan Riss told the crowd he believed there should be more communication with any developer who buys the property.
“We need more interaction,” he said.
The Harpers Ferry Planning Commission has been working on overlay ordinance proposals.
Planning Commissioner Dick Cunningham said officials have been reviewing options and brought in experienced planners to review the project.
“We’re not a bunch of dummies,” he said.
Councilwoman Hap Becker, who could not attend the meeting but listened to audio from it, said ordinances have been being developed for about three years.
“I believe it’s finally beginning to gel,” Becker said. “There are lots of things to consider. We are very open, very receptive to reasonable suggestions. This is a wonderful opportunity to be welcoming to a developer and also protect the way we live in Harpers Ferry.”
Becker said the reason so much time has passed is a lack of staff.
“We literally have a group of volunteers, but I’m in awe of the number of hours they put in to make things better,” she said, adding she understands the sense of urgency residents are experiencing concerning the future of the Hilltop.
“When people moved here, they saw the Hilltop and knew what to expect. Now they don’t know what will happen if a larger hotel is built. Ironically, the main attraction of the Hilltop — its location — is also the most difficult thing about it,” she said.
Councilman Jerry Hutton said the overlay ordinance is a work in progress, but work should be done to restore the Hilltop.
Hutton said what has happened to the Hilltop “is a tragedy, a shame.”
“It is literally falling apart,” he said. “It needs to be made economically viable to boost the economy and the town’s revenues.”