Up in the Hollow: Laws and sausages

There are times in everyone’s life when one will read something in the paper and say to themselves in a moment of quiet reflection, “What in the name of Hell was that all about!?”

Such has been the reaction around here in the Hollow to the front-page story in the Rappahannock News headlined “Decision delayed; deciders decreased.” The “deciders” in this case, did not only decrease in number, but also in the public perception of their stature. There is simply no excuse, no matter how well-intentioned, to rationalize the embarrassment that occurred at the Washington Town Council meeting on Monday night (Jan. 14).

Correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m sure somebody will, even if I’m right.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the proposal before the council to approve the request by the group People Inc. for a special-use permit to add nine apartments in their plan to buy the Old Washington School building on Mount Salem Avenue from the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC). Without it, the bid is essentially kaput, for that permission would be necessary for People Inc. to seek funding for the project.

People Inc. has wisely stated that they would not pursue the project if it did not have the support of the community. Well, in our little town, “support” can mean a lot of things, and there are also those who would be opposed to a new fire hydrant if, say, they didn’t like the design. And of course those are often the folks who will make the most noise. So this simple proposal, which appeared to be a “win-win” for the county and for the CCLC, became the latest “controversy” to embroil our county seat.

The Rappahannock News’ account of the meeting reads like something from Kafka. At the outset, Mayor John Sullivan and council member Dan Spethmann recused themselves from the proceedings at the advice of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, because (unbeknownst before the meeting) they are part of a new investment group making a counter-offer to CCLC to purchase the property.

But then, one of the investors is quoted as saying that “this is not actually an investment, per se, it’s more about owning the building so we can have some local say about how it’s used.” At this point the reader could be forgiven for assuming that the whole purpose of the town council was about “having a local say.” But never mind. It raises the question of how this late-inning curveball affects the proceedings and the vote. I don’t think these fellows were elected to do business with themselves, or to indicate their “nay” vote in such a unique and unusual way.

We were also informed by the story that Vice-Mayor Gary Schwartz was laid up from knee surgery and couldn’t make the meeting. As a man who has had seven major knee surgeries, Gary, I can say along with Bill Clinton that “I feel your pain.” Get well soon. Please.

Susan Stoltzman, who is the wife of council member and investor Spethmann, accused the CCLC board of being bullies, and said that she and many others opposed the special use permit, and that “that alone was all that needed to be said . . . since the folks at People Inc. didn’t want to come to a town that doesn’t want them.”

“I didn’t move all the way out here to Rappahannock County . . . to live next to high density housing,” said Ms. Stoltzman. Did she really say “all the way out here?” From where? How far is it all the way back to wherever that might be, I wonder? Might it occur to any one of these opponents that those apartment dwellers might not be particularly happy living next to them, either? I suppose none of these neighbors were around when it was an actual school; when living, breathing, laughing, shouting schoolchildren by the hundreds came in and out of there every day.

(I’ve always thought it strange to drive through Washington day after day and never see any children. It’s like a sci-fi movie where all the kids have been disappeared. I guess children, like people who make “only” $30,000 a year, would be a nuisance, huh?)

Another neighbor referred to the proposal as a “tenement building.” Ah, c’mon . . .

In the end, the council courageously delayed a decision on the matter for another week (and possibly indefinitely, see the front page story of this week’s Rappahannock News).

There is an old maxim which says: “There are two things that you don’t want to see being made, laws and sausages.” There is another which says, “The path to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

John Sullivan is a mighty fine fellow, and a man who loves our county and his little town. But to interject, as this late hour in the process, another offer which affects the “politics” of this decision raises obvious questions of motivation and prudence. Since Sullivan opposes the special-use permit and the project, and since his partner Spethmann is also a council member who was to have had a vote on the matter, it should have been clear to them (and to anybody who can walk and chew gum at the same time) that their sudden involvement would raise questions.

Knowing Mr. Sullivan, I will assume “good intentions,” and that this offer is altruistic. But in a fair public process, in which these applicants and their supporters have given earnest and due diligence, one must avoid not only impropriety, but anything which could give “the appearance of impropriety.”

The impression, if not the substance of this move, is of high-handedness, and it seems to be an effort to tilt the outcome.

I don’t live within the town limits of our county seat. But what goes on there is of importance to me because it reflects who we are as a county, how we are going to do business, and what kind of county we are going to pass down to our descendants. To me, and as always I only speak for myself, this has not been a fair process to People Inc., and to those of us who think towns with apartment houses are a good and important component of community life.

It would not surprise me if John Sullivan’s group hasn’t made an “offer that can’t be refused.” In the short term, folks might see that as a reasonable solution to what is the problem of only a few. But it doesn’t reflect well on our county seat, and it doesn’t reflect the good and open nature of the Rappahannock tradition.

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1 Comment

  1. Good on ya Ben! It’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of attending a Washington Town Council meeting-the commute from New South Wales is rather tiresome–but you’ve saved me trouble by perfectly characterizing the essence of debate there. I owe ya a couple of Aussi bucks for that (and they’re now worth way more than the US ones!).

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