Big changes in Little Washington

To the town of Washington in the months and years ahead, it seems inevitable that many changes are coming. Some have already arrived, in case you haven’t tried to park on Jett Street lately.

To the town council after its Election Day next Tuesday (May 6), however, many changes are not what’s coming.

Instead, what’s coming is the second town election in a row (the elections here in Rappahannock County’s seat are held every four years) in which every open position on the ballot has a single name next to it.

Mayor John Sullivan, vice mayor Gary Schwartz and treasurer Jerry Goebel — all of whom also serve on the seven-member town council — have no opponents. Council members Dan Spethmann, Mary Ann Kuhn and Patrick O’Connell are unopposed. For the council seat now held by Alice Butler, the only incumbent not seeking another term, Katherine Leggett is likewise opponent-free. Most of the council’s meetings are genial and attended by one to a handful of residents.

Since we’re talking about change, someone should also mention that it was not always like this. During much of the 1990s, and on into the 21st century, Washington’s elected officials took sides often, and often loudly — most recently over whether, and then how, the town ought to install a wastewater treatment plant. Some of them stormed out of contentious, hours-long council meetings, at least one of them never to return.

In 1984, a first-term mayor named Peter Kramer, who had many forward-looking ideas for the town, lost what he thought was an uncontested reelection bid to a write-in candidate whose supporters met in secret. The write-ins successfully elected the venerable Newbill Miller, whose vision forward was thought to be less alarming to the locals.

Today, the locals have changed; most longtime residents who were living in town in 1984 have either moved on, or passed on. The town population has dropped from 185 in 2000 to 138 in 2010, most of current residents being retired couples or working professionals, few of them with young or school-age children.

Today, that wastewater treatment plant is now three years old, its operation and debt service subsidized by tourism-based revenue that significantly exceeds what the surrounding county brings in. And it has opened the way (as former mayor Gene Leggett, Katherine’s late father, predicted) for “reasonable development” to make its way into the two-block-wide, five-block-long, 18th-century village known to most visitors as Little Washington. (The informal nickname was popularized by the county’s biggest tourism draw and largest private employer, chef O’Connell’s 36-year-old world-renowned Inn at Little Washington.)

And today, if anyone’s meeting in secret in Little Washington, it’s not with write-in campaign operatives but more likely with real estate brokers and lawyers.

Some 18 properties with a total value of about $10 million have changed hands in town over the last three years, Mayor Sullivan will tell you — as he probably also told the Washington Post reporter who was in town last week to research a story on D.C. developer and longtime Rappahannock weekender Jim Abdo, who’s responsible for a significant chunk of those transactions over the last year and a half.

Another $4-plus million has been spent in town on renovation and new construction over the last three years, Sullivan says, including The Inn’s Parsonage (the former Clopton House, a six-room addition to the inn’s luxury hotel that opened last month), Ken Thompson’s three-story renovation of the Kramer Building and its now-full-service restaurant Tula’s off Main, a new commercial kitchen at Foster Harris House, home renovations by Allan Comp and Judd and Gail Swift and a new home being built at the north end of Main Street, and more.

Abdo’s plans, however, are among the hottest topics of speculation around town. Abdo has politely declined to discuss them publicly thus far — while he does, Sullivan says, often bounce ideas off the mayor and other town leaders and business people. The former Heritage House B&B on Main Street Abdo purchased in 2012 from Gary and Michelle Schwartz opened quietly late this winter as the completely modern, country-cool White Moose Inn; the six-room hotel has already hosted several gourmet-oriented weekends with well-known D.C. chefs.

Abdo also last year purchased the former Rappahannock News building half a block west on Main, and there have been credible reports of serious negotiations with Brian Noyes of Warrenton’s Red Truck Bakery, which already provides White Moose guests with breakfast baked goods, to combine in that space a commercial baking operation with a small cafe space. Abdo also bought the former Pullen house next to R.H. Ballard, and he and/or several associates have purchased a handful of other properties along the southern stretch of Main Street in recent months.

One pending property transaction that recently made the rounds of the “what’s-happening-to-Little-Washington” gossip circuit involves a the purchase of the property now leased by Stonyman Gourmet, a 19th-century mercantile store converted into a gourmet cafe and carry-out by Susan and Alan James (and originally renovated by former Sunnyside Farm magnate David Cole, along with its fetching gardens and an empty but updated cottage adjacent to what is now the Parsonage).

The Inn has an agreement to buy the parcel for $550,000 from the LLC in which the absent Cole and Washington native Jimmie DeBergh are partners, DeBergh said. Neither O’Connell nor Susan James would discuss the sale; artist Kevin Adams and partner Jay Brown declined to confirm (or deny) that the alleged deal included a promise to lease or sell the mercantile building to them to be turned into Adams’ studio and small commercial gallery.

DeBergh said Wednesday the Jameses, with whom he had a verbal right-of-first-refusal agreement, were told of the impending sale several months ago, and made no counter offer. If the deal goes as planned, Stonyman will be moving out by May 31, DeBergh said.

In addition to development and the commercial property chess match, issues that newly elected town council members will be dealing with in the months and years to come include the fate of Avon Hall, the former Carrigan estate owned by the town but fallen into disrepair; the parking situation in the center of town, and other municipal upgrades — sidewalks, lighting, public restroom facilities, most of which Kramer attended a town council meeting last fall specifically to suggest the town start thinking about seriously.

“I don’t know anyone who is not in favor of improving parking conditions in the town,” O’Connell wrote in answer to an emailed question this week. He noted that The Inn’s two-year-old valet parking plan has helped “get most of our guests’ cars off the streets, and this has helped free up street parking. Solving the town’s parking issues is not an insurmountable task,” he wrote.

On the larger subject of the town’s development, O’Connell wrote: “Change and development are inevitable everywhere. We’ve grown accustomed to gradual, incremental change here. Washington is a fragile, delicate and very small town. Any sudden change can be disconcerting. It took me a long time to realize that the town was like a shared living room. Everyone needs to feel comfortable in it. Over the last three decades The Inn has demonstrated that tasteful, gradual evolution and restoration can benefit everyone. A direction has been established which I hope will continue.”

In addition, O’Connell wrote in answer to a question about Abdo’s plans, “acquiring properties and changing the town’s character are two different issues. My belief is that Jim Abdo sees great potential in the future of our town. I don’t see painting, restoring, re-purposing and cleaning up properties as substantially altering the town’s character.”

“The town has pretty tight zoning ordinances,” says Sullivan, “so for anybody to do anything outside of what’s prescribed has to go before the town council, or the architectural review board, so we have some responsibility — to say whether John and Diane MacPherson [of Foster Harris House] can sell dinner to non-guests, for example, or on Jackie Meuse’s plans to expand her [Little Washington Spa] place, or whether there needs to be an on-site manager for Abdo’s hotel. We have power over very specific things.

“Do we have control over who buys and sells property here? No,” Sullivan says. “Can we say who gets to buy and who gets to sell and at what price? No.”

“I know Abdo’s plans and The Inn’s plans are big news to people,” Sullivan says, but there’s more happening in the town. “I don’t see a continuing diminution in the number of people living in town; that trend seems to be reversing,” he says, and names four or five couples who have “chosen to live in town” over the last year. “There were a lot of empty houses and buildings in town five years ago, and that’s not the case now.”

Asked where — or whether — the town can draw the line at development, Sullivan says the town’s physical limitations and existing regulations will take care of most of that.

But what if VDOT decides that increased traffic dictates that county’s first stoplight go up somewhere in town?

“Over my dead body,” Sullivan says.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 534 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.