200-plus hear Abdo’s plans, apology
Mayor, developer deny ‘collusion’; focus on homes urged, not just for ‘only rich folk’
The audio recording and transcript of this public forum are here.
The “Rapp Live” forum hosted June 19 by the Rappahannock News filled the 218-seat Theatre at Washington with folks wanting to be informed rather than entertained — though what brought them there has had the town and county buzzing.
They wanted to hear — and question, and, in several cases, decry — plans by developer Jim Abdo for the town of Washington. Some also came to voice support of those plans.
A June 8 profile of Abdo in the Washington Post raised concerns about what the man known for his neighborhood rehab work in Washington, D.C., may have in mind for the place many know as Little Washington, where he and his friends have spent $2.6 million on 10 properties over the past two years.
Abdo was present at the forum, seated on a chair in front of the stage, along with Mayor John Sullivan, County Administrator John W. McCarthy, supervisors chair Roger Welch and Trinity Episcopal Church pastor Jennings W. Hobson III.
Hobson at one point took the microphone to defend the integrity of Sullivan, who has been criticized by some who wonder if he is too close to Abdo (and to Inn at Little Washington proprietor Patrick O’Connell, who was on a business trip to Europe and could not attend), and too supportive of the developer’s plans.
Abdo and the others facing the audience each spoke for several minutes — Abdo speaking the longest — and then the forum was open to questions and comments from the audience. A three-minute limit on comments from the audience was sometimes exceeded. The nearly two-and-a-half hour forum was recorded and an audio file was posted the next day on rappnews.com (which can be found at bit.ly/rapplive1; comment highlights can be found here).
Hobson led off by saying that he was “an avowed country boy.” He said he’s told people who look at the open spaces between buildings and wonder what people do out here, “We’ve got more going on per capita than you in the city.”
“I do ask that we all listen to each other and learn,” he urged those in the audience. “It’s not hard to be civil; it doesn’t cost anything.”
Sullivan said that he first came to the town in 1986 and served on its architectural review board and council before becoming mayor. “I love this town . . . I love every building in this town. I like the people in this town . . . I think we have something special.”
The community has been “ripped apart obviously” by the recent controversy. “It’s a fragile ecosystem. To the extent I had something to do with it, I apologize,” Sullivan said.
He went on to note the decline in the town’s population, from a high of 500 in the early 20th century to 183 in 2000, and down to 135 in 2010. There were at least 10 empty buildings in the town five years ago, he said.
“Then the sewer [system] came. The whole goal was not to just get off failing septics but to allow the town to grow,” the mayor said. And that’s happened with new people coming in and businesses starting up, he added.
“I think there’s a sense of vitality. Jim comes along and buys a B&B and fixes it up, and I think it’s an attractive building,” he said of the White Moose Inn. “Then he bought up other buildings as people know … Some of those buildings have been sitting there empty,” Sullivan said. “Abdo and anybody else who is going in buy a building will go through an application process. He didn’t skip a step. What’s Jim going to do with the rest of the buildings is what’s on people’s minds.”
When his turn to speak came Abdo said The Post article “quoted [me] not exactly, but close enough.” He said: “I am deeply sorry. I never meant for anyone to be offended. People who know me know I wouldn’t offend anyone purposely. It was not intentional. I love this county and I love this town.” He said that, “I’ve been your neighbor for 22 years. That’s how long I’ve owned property in this county . . . I’ve taught my kids to ride their bikes on these streets [referring to streets in Washington].”
He said of the town, “I want to protect it, not undermine it.”
“There’s a lot of innuendo out there, but this is not my first rodeo,” he said. He urged that people “don’t jump to conclusions,” about his intentions.
Abdo said there is “no conspiracy” involving him and town leaders, who he said are ethical people the public is fortunate to have.
He narrated a slide show-style presentation showing buildings he has been involved in purchasing and the plans for their use, though the future of them hasn’t been determined in all cases yet. Abdo said he has sought to save buildings that have been vacant and deteriorating. One, a packing shed, is “slowly eroding. We should save buildings like this.”
Abdo bought a building that he said was built in the 1830s that he said “should be saved and not put in a dumpster. It’s funky, it’s weird,” he said, but he has in mind to fix it up for a farm-to-table eatery for Dan O’Brien, who runs the Seasonal Pantry restaurant in Washington, D.C., and plans to move the fixed-price, small-group-dining operation to the town of Washington.
“He wants to do that here. I told him I’ll build it for you,” Abdo said of O’Brien. “We want him to hire people and want him to add to the tax base,” buying from local farmers to supply his business.
Abdo noted the town’s own comprehensive plan calls for more jobs and adding to — and diversifying — the tax base. (The Inn at Little Washington’s share of the town’s meals-and-lodging tax is the reason the town takes in two-thirds more such tax revenue as the rest of the county combined, even with a rate that is close to half the county’s 4-percent rate.)
Abdo also got involved in helping Brian Noyes, owner of Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, establish a commercial bakery and 18-seat cafe in the town of Washington (reportedly to open this fall at the former Rappahannock News building on Main Street). Noyes was also at the forum and spoke. He said he initially considered Washington for his first bakery but, in part because of a lack of sewer service at the time, he decided to open his bakery in a former gas station in Warrenton.
Abdo bought the former Heritage House, which was renovated “with all local subcontractors,” he said, and is now the White Moose Inn.
Once the microphone was passed to audience members, Sharon Kilpatrick of Slate Mills, a resident of Rappahannock County for 40 years, said she believes “the town of Washington has plenty of life, plenty of pulse,” contrary to what was reported in The Post article. What it’s short on are residents, she said, noting houses that have been converted to bed and breakfasts and offices for lawyers and realtors, and that the town last year rejected an offer by a community-action organization to build moderate-income apartments.
“Only rich folk are welcome. That is a disastrous message,” she said, getting applause from the audience. She told Sullivan that his job should be to increase the number of residential dwellings.
Ben Jones of Washington, one of the most vocal critics of Abdo and his plans, which Jones has said will irrevocably change the character of the town, objected to the amount of time Abdo spent showing photos and explaining his plans for most of the 10 properties he and his friends have purchased over the last year: “We got a PowerPoint presentation on how grateful we should be . . . Your style, sir, is different from most folks here,” he said, addressing Abdo. “Do you still think we don’t have a pulse?
“Most of us . . . maybe half of us . . . were just gettin’ along fine without you, Jim,” Jones said, adding that the forum was merely an opportunity for he and others to present the community with “a fait accompli.”
Bill Fletcher of Sperryville said that “this county needs more business. The county has decreased in population. I don’t think Mr. Abdo is doing anything but exercising his constitutional rights . . . On Sept. 30, there’s gonna be a play here that I advise everyone to come to watch: ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ ”
Patty Hardee of Flint Hill said she hoped that newcomers to the town will include support for existing nonprofit environmental and arts organizations.
Harris Hollow resident Henry Gorfein wondered if new businesses coming in will put a strain on public services such as schools and police, fire and rescue services. Welch responded that any increase in businesses and population will put a greater demand on services.
McCarthy said that the county gets a portion of the sales tax generated within the town’s borders, so revenue to pay for essential services will increase. He said the public school system, rather than being strained, “can stand to have more students.”
On the topic of regulations on development, “the rules are going to be the rules whether you have one person buying 10 properties or 10 people buying 10 properties,” he said.
McCarthy said that Washington “is a company town” because of the Inn at Little Washington’s presence. “Diversity is good to have for the tax base” to prepare for the day when that could change, “so that it will be a bump rather than a train wreck.”
He also said the county is open to a change in borders to put land that could eventually become residential development — mentioning tracts set aside for such a purpose along Harris Hollow Road — within the town’s borders, thus providing the town with younger families with children.
Gary Schwartz, vice mayor of Washington and chairman of its planning commission, sold Heritage House to Abdo.
“I guess I’m part of the problem and I guess I’m part of the solution.” He said he welcomes public input and he urged residents to attend the meetings of the town council, the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board, where Abdo’s plans have been discussed over the past year or more.
“I welcome Jim as a neighbor, and his vision,” Schwartz said.
With 135 residents, said Sharon Pierce, the town of Washington is “too small to be a political entity. This is our county seat. As such . . . it belongs to all of us. But we, as county residents, don’t have any vote in what goes on in the town.”
Abdo said he attended three separate hearings at town hall, which were publicized in public notices beforehand. “I showed all of these plans. There’s been no collusion. Everything I’ve done has been right down the strike zone,” Abdo said.
He said that since acquiring the properties he’s been contacted by people who proposed putting in a tattoo parlor, junk shop, consignment shop, gun store and mini-storage facility. “I said no, no, no. I’m trying to save old buildings and broaden the tax base of the town.”