Town ponders its future development

Planning commissioner and Mt. Salem Avenue resident Dan Spethmann is sworn in by Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Ralph at Monday’s Town Council meeting at the Washington Town Hall. Spethmann was appointed by the council to complete the term of the late Eugene Leggett. Photo by Roger Piantadosi/Rappahannock News.
Planning commissioner and Mt. Salem Avenue resident Dan Spethmann is sworn in by Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Ralph at Monday’s Town Council meeting at the Washington Town Hall. Spethmann was appointed by the council to complete the term of the late Eugene Leggett. Photo by Roger Piantadosi/Rappahannock News.

The town of Washington is currently debating whether its new wastewater treatment plant can – or, as some say, really should – make a difference in its future economic development.

Actually, it was never really a debate but a long discussion that followed the council’s unanimous vote, at the start of Monday night’s (July 16) regular meeting, to appoint planning commission member Dan Spethmann to fill the vacant seat on the council left by the late Eugene Leggett.

Spethmann was sworn in quietly by Peggy Ralph, clerk of the Rappahannock County Circuit Court (and it’s that court which will decide if Spethmann can indeed, as the council intends, fill out Leggett’s full term, which would mean no special election before the term expires in June 2014).

Then the council members convened a joint work session with the town planning commission – to mull over a draft of its comprehensive plan, a mission statement the town is required to revise every five years – and things got somewhat noisier. (This being the post-wastewater-plant town council, there was never any shouting; as far as words go, this council prefers density over volume.)

Speaking of density, although no one mentioned the word explicitly on Monday, it was the comprehensive plan’s “inflexibility” on that subject – or rather of the town’s zoning ordinance, the regulations that the comp plan is supposed to shape and guide into law – that inspired council member Patrick O’Connell to start asking questions about setback requirements and lot size requirements for building.

O’Connell – who, as proprietor (and globally renowed chef) of the Inn at Little Washington, is by default the town’s biggest developer – told council members the comprehensive plan might be a starting place for suggesting changes to those rules. (Currently, there are special exceptions based on hardship to the setback requirements; there are no exceptions for building on less than half-acre lots except for existing, grandfathered properties.)

Mayor John Sullivan and other council members seemed to agree in principal with O’Connell, who in earlier days of building up his now 35-year-old business went through significant battles with earlier, anti-growth incarnations of the governing body on which he now serves. (A body which is now looking at ways to allow the town to grow, albeit in ways consistent with its history and village character.)

That principal? That the comprehensive plan should make it clearer that the town would support “limited, appropriate in-fill development in the core area of the town” – to use the phrase repeated several times by Gay Street Inn co-owner and former planning commissioner Jay Brown, who spoke from the audience Monday to say he thought the revised draft didn’t make the point clear enough. In fact, Brown said later, the draft plan seemed to back off from the various documents and ordinances created so the town could build its $4 million-plus wastewater treatment plant in the first place, documents which Brown said specified that increased “appropriate development” would help the town pay off the treatment plant loan, through increased connection fees.

After nearly two hours of discussion, the council voted to continue the work session until its August  regular meeting, and Sullivan suggested any members of the public who had something to say about the comprehensive plan’s contents – and the future of the town of Washington – be at the town hall at 7 p.m. on Aug. 13.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 538 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.