CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, is introducing legislation that could let state government take the lead on big tourism projects in small towns.
The twist is that those small towns might not be interested in allowing the state to override their local authority.
The project most likely to be affected by the bill, which is being introduced this week, is Hill Top House, a $139 million hotel renovation project that has been discussed for a decade in Harpers Ferry.
Rucker announced the bill on Saturday in Jefferson County and discussed it again on Monday with MetroNews.
“I made the point that we have an incredible opportunity to advance tourism and that tourism is especially important for my district of Jefferson and Berkeley County,” Rucker said.
The West Virginia Tourism Development District Act is also sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, and Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, both representing Eastern Panhandle constituents, as well as Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker.
The mayor of Harpers Ferry isn’t happy.
“It’s definitely an overreach of the state to come in and tell us what to do,” said Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop. “The people of the town are appalled.”
Hill Top House first opened in 1889, burned down twice and reopened twice and continued until 2007 when the current ownership group, SWaN Investors, bought it and closed it because of poor structural integrity.
In 2009, the SWaN investors announced intention of rebuilding and reopening the hotel.
Since then, the project has progressed only on paper.
In 2017, a new zoning overlay district was created by Harpers Ferry elected officials. The Promontory Overlay District Ordinance is the existing legal guide for how Hill Top House would exist within the residential neighborhoods of Harpers Ferry.
After that, SWaN provided more detailed plans for what would be required to make the development and its financing work. Those revised plans were presented in 2018 and remain the subject of debate.
They include matters like water rates, sewer rates, building permit fees, review fees and a number of other issues such as whether the town of Harpers Ferry would give up the right to stop work orders or noise ordinances.
The biggest issue right now is the streets around the hotel. The developers propose using not only the land where the hotel now sits but surrounding properties also under their ownership too. Doing so would make the development a cohesive hospitality destination.
But because Hill Top House is in a residential area, the streets surrounding it are public property.
Some, like a proposed realignment of Columbia Street, are actual roads used by pedestrians and vehicles. The others, like a portion of East Ridge Street, are “paper streets,” meaning they were mapped out on a town grid in the 1800s but have not been built.
The Hill Top House developers want to buy the streets, saying there is some precedent for doing so. Town leaders prefer long-term leasing, maybe 50 or 100 years.
“They want our land. They want our public land,” Mayor Bishop said on the telephone with MetroNews.
“What they want is, they want the continuity of owning all that land. I don’t believe there’s ever been the appetite in our town to do all of that.”
Moving the project forward, said Mayor Bishop, should be a matter of submitting a project design to the local board of zoning appeals.
Instead, he said, “They want the state to come in here. This legislation is to trash our ordinance and our zoning and our whole overlay district and have the state dictate to us where and what it’s going to look like.”
Rucker wants clear progress on the project.
“I will say the vast majority of my constituents fully support the Hill Top House being built,” she said. “It has been over 10 years and things are still not started, so that has led to some frustration.”
She said the legislation is to facilitate large projects that could have effects beyond small town borders. Although Hill Top House is the focus, a handful of other projects around West Virginia also could qualify, now or in the future.
The act would enable the state Development Office to spearhead a project under certain conditions.
The bill would apply to Class IV municipalities of fewer than 2,000 residents. And it would apply to projects with investments of more than $25 million, in historic districts and qualifying for state tourism tax credits, which have their own requirements.
The affected municipalities would retain their local tax base, Rucker pointed out.
Rucker and many of her colleagues in the Senate’s Republican majority frequently discuss the value of local control. But this bill would address big projects affecting the state more broadly than the towns where they’re located, she said.
“This is a situation where we’re talking about really big investment projects and really small municipalities,” she said. “Truly it is a way of facilitating big projects happening that are of great benefit.”
Rucker, a Harpers Ferry resident, drove back home for the announcement of the bill this past weekend. She spoke in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse.
“It’s been really very positive. I was surprised by how positive it has been,” she said. “I’ve received support from my district and also around the state.”
Bishop attended the announcement with growing frustration. He had wanted Rucker to spend more time going over the history of the project at town hall.
“I think people are really appalled to see a development authority would be taking over Harpers Ferry’s zoning and Harper’s Ferry’s codes and laws and ordinances to build this project,” the mayor said.
“Why would someone 350 miles away from here, who has no good information from the town, why would they want to dictate to us how we govern our own municipality? It may be great political theater, but it’s really bad governing.”