Unsurprisingly, what dominated public comment at the Washington Town Council’s monthly meeting Monday (June 16) was the controversy over a recent Washington Post profile of Jim Abdo, a developer known best for his neighborhood-rehab work in Washington, D.C. — at least until he made known to The Post his neighborhood-rehab visions for Little Washington, where he or his friends have bought 10 properties over the last two years for some $2.6 million.
More surprising — in light of the emotional response online, in print and elsewhere to the longtime Rappahannock weekender’s characterization in the June 8 article of the town as “empty,” among other things — was the thoughtful and calm discussion among the council and some 20 in attendance Monday that lasted through the better part of an hour and one seriously loud evening storm.
Most of the attendees were residents of the town, unlike most of those commenting online and via the local email list-serv, Rappnet — and likely different than the crowd expected today at 5 p.m. at the Theatre in Washington for a Rappahannock News-sponsored “Rapp Live” public forum with Abdo, Washington Mayor John Sullivan and others.
“I for one found it a very one-dimensional piece that totally focused on a particular storyline,” Sullivan said at the start, speaking of The Post’s business section article by Jonathan O’Connell (who is, by the way, no relation to council member and Inn at Little Washington chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell).
“A lot of people were understandably somewhat insulted by that,” Sullivan said. “It came across as, ‘Here is a town that needs to be saved.’ I understand a lot of the anger and frustration.”
That said, Sullivan cited the town’s installation of a sewer system and wastewater treatment plant as the catalyst that ended the two decades of declining population from 1990 to 2010. When the sewer system went online five years ago, he said, there were 10 or 12 buildings in town that were empty and disused, but the sewer system made it possible for the return of “growth and energy and vitality in the town.”
Three or four homes were rehabbed, he said, and then Ken Thompson “totally revitalized the Kramer building, adding offices and a restaurant — and soon, a bar. If there’s anyone who led the movement back to the town, it was Ken Thompson,” said Sullivan, who just started his second term as mayor and still holds the post of publisher-at-large at Atlantic Media.
“Now we come to the elephant in the room,” Sullivan said, referring to Abdo — who was not actually in the room, having earlier requested postponement of the scheduled public hearing on a special-use permit to allow the dwelling at 199 Main St., recently purchased by Abdo’s friend Deborah Winsor, to be used as a tourist home managed by Abdo’s White Moose Inn.
Abdo’s purchase of the former Heritage House B&B and his complete renovation and expansion into the White Moose over the last two years, Sullivan said, “I happen to think it was a step in the right direction. Some people, including my wife, don’t like the color [white] . . . but not everybody likes everything in this town.”
Sullivan said his conversations with Abdo, on bringing a Red Truck Bakery commercial bakery and cafe to town, were “the exact same conversations” he’d had over the past three years with Thompson and others. The others couldn’t make it work, he said, but Abdo could.
The Post reported that Sullivan put Abdo and chef O’Connell in touch with each other, he pointed out, because he told the newspaper he did that. “And then it was characterized since as some kind of conspiracy,” he said.
“That was as much a conspiracy as my working with Ken Thompson to try to get Red Truck Bakery into this town. It is my job as mayor to have an agenda that brings people to live here and businesses that will work in this town. It’s not done in secret, or whatever.”
The town is often characterized, Sullivan said, as being too dependent on The Inn — the county’s largest tourist draw by a wide margin, and the town’s largest source of tax revenue. “It’s true — this town is dependent on the Inn, financially. So the alternative to that is to have other businesses and other people here generating revenue to give you some kind of balance.”
“The fact remains that people have a right to buy and sell property, obviously,” Sullivan said. “But in terms of what’s done with that property, we have fairly good controls.” He cited the town’s comprehensive plan, the council’s and planning commission’s enforcement of the zoning ordinance and the Architectural Review Board (ARB).
“I’ve had conversations with Jim across the fence line — although we don’t have a fence,” said council member Gary Schwartz, who lives next door to the White Moose Inn that he and his wife Michelle sold to Abdo in 2011, and also serves on the planning commission. “I don’t think his direction is opposite the comprehensive plan, or our zoning ordinance.
“The fact that he bought so many properties, if he’s got the resources, and the town council on behalf of the citizens work with him, within the ordinances and the guidelines, I think we will be fine,” he said.
Several audience members cited the magnitude of Abdo’s plans as the principal issue worrying locals.
“If this was 11 people buying 11 properties,” said Caroline Anstey, a relatively new town resident, “we wouldn’t be as troubled by the idea of this over-arching vision — it’s that magnitude, paradoxically, that makes it easier to walk away. If these were 11 different individuals making plans, we’d be celebrating.”
“If he [Abdo] retains control of these properties and other businesses come in to lease his properties and ‘test the waters,’ I worry about their commitment,” said Nancy Buntin. “It isn’t like those people who bought here and moved here and worked here, where if it doesn’t work — goodbye. And we’re back to square one.
“We’ve all watched Patrick O’Connell buy properties here [more than three times as many as Abdo’s recent acquisitions],” she said. “But he stayed here, and he built his business, over 30 years. You’ve gotta give him that.”
“You said the town has a hard time keeping businesses,” said Diane MacPherson, co-owner of Foster Harris House B&B, speaking to Sullivan. Over the last 10 years, she said, “there have been people who have come and gone because . . . they didn’t have any skin in the game.”
“We feel like we have . . . all our skin in the game,” she said, gesturing to her husband and son on the pew next to her, as the crowd laughed. “But if people come into this town and they are motivated and have the right thing that people want, I believe anyone can succeed in this town. There’s plenty of opportunity here.
“My fear is we will be the type of town that feels like an island,” she added. “When the last ferry leaves Sunday night, and all the business owners have gone to wherever they actually live, the people who actually live in the town will feel all alone, like a ghost town.”
Gay Street Inn co-owner Gary Aichele said he and his wife have fielded several phone calls from prospective guests since The Post article appeared “who want to come and stay here soon before whoever it is comes and ruins the town,” he said, generating several laughs.
“My wife and I cashed out our retirement funds to make a bet that running a B&B in Little Washington would, in the long run, be more rewarding” than other alternatives, Aichele said. “So it is true, as Nancy said, that some of us sunk our life’s savings into the town of Washington in the hope that our due diligence will pay off.”
Aichele said the town is highly regarded among those who’ve visited — “it’s almost like Brigadoon to some” — and that the town should take its role seriously as stewards. And secondly, he said, the town should work on finding as many ways as possible to make the place friendly to residents — as opposed to businesses.
“I like to walk,” he said, “and when I walk, I like to see lights on in the living room, see people on the street, walking dogs, or with their kids. We don’t want a town that is just here for businesses — but that is not to say anything critical of the businesses here who already work so many hours” that they might as well be living here, Aichele said.
“I’ve been checking,” said Gay Street resident and longtime town property owner Ray Gooch. “South of Middle Street, I am now only one of two residential properties on Gay Street. I don’t count B&Bs as residential [the town does].
“I understand that it takes a village” to affect change, Gooch said, “But it’s going to take some villagers.”
Before the public forum began, the council sped through its agenda, topped by an item that would have normally topped this report: It unanimously adopted its $907,500 fiscal 2015 budget. At the last public hearing May 12, none of the half-dozen citizens present had anything to say about the budget, and Sullivan closed the hearing about 30 seconds later.
For the fiscal year that starts July 1, the budget is $129,700 higher than last year’s, the single largest increase coming under the budget’s “Operations” category, where a $90,000 “Contingency Fund for All Uses” appears for the first time. The line item is meant to allow usage of the town’s meals-and-lodging tax revenue — the town’s largest source of revenue and estimated to exceed $360,000 in fiscal 2015 — to be used for less self-supporting operations, including the town’s water system and sewer-system financing.
Council member Mary Ann Kuhn, serving with Dan Spethmann on an ad-hoc committee tasked in January to investigate options for the town-owned Avon Hall property, reported having received an initial report from zoning administrator (and county administrator) John McCarthy.
Kuhn called McCarthy’s brief report “a great job”; it includes suggestions that the council first “engage the public in the disposition of Avon Hall,” prepare an assessment of the financial needs to be met by its sale and “engage a facilitator to walk the council and public through a discussion of what would be positive uses for Avon Hall but likely still meet the financial needs identified.”
In his report, McCarthy noted that the Avon Hall property could well be divided into multiple parcels, the sale of which could result in greater income. “But will you be happy with the result?” he asked.
“What are the effects on the Gateway to the Town [as many perceive the long-vacant estate], if any? Would the town be better served by moving its public meeting and other operations there and to sell the current town hall instead? There are a lot of moral and economic values tied up in these questions that I think should be informed by public opinion,” he wrote.
The council also appointed Piedmont Avenue resident Judy DeSarno to serve on the planning commission, and Sullivan announced an opening ceremony for the town’s Nature Trail will take place June 27.
After Mayor Sullivan, treasurer Jerry Goebel and Kuhn, Schwartz and new council member Katherine Leggett were sworn in by Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Ralph, Sullivan again thanked departing council member Alice Butler for her many years of dedication and clear-eyed service to the town. Butler, and who decided this winter not to seek a fifth four-year term on the council, sat smiling quietly through the applause that followed.