Letter: Washington: facts vs. friction

There continues to be some controversy over the direction of the town of Washington. RappNet abuzz. Letters to the Rappahannock News. As a resident of the town for nearly 10 years, and having served on the Washington Town Council since 2005 and as mayor since 2010, I would like to offer my perspective as well as some facts.

Is the town “dying” or “growing?”

Between 2000 and 2010 the population clearly declined, from 183 to 135. In 2010, there were nearly 10 empty buildings, some empty for more than a decade. As many recall, the town rested on decades-old, failing septic tanks which caused such significant health and environmental issues that the Virginia state government provided an approximately $3.6 million interest-free loan to solve the problems. The publicly stated purpose of the wastewater treatment system, which came online in 2010, was clearly to resolve health issues and to bring both residential and commercial growth to the town. The health and environmental issues have been resolved. So what about growth and revitalization?

During the past four years, 23 properties (12 residential and 11 commercial) have been sold/bought at a total value of more than $11 million. Reasonable estimates based on data from the Rappahannock County building office suggests more than $5 million has been invested in rehabilitating and bringing old houses and commercial buildings back to life. This, by the way, was money spent on local contractors. Of the 21 buildings, six had been sitting empty for many years. One new home has recently been been built, and at least 12 new families have moved to town, people committed to the town.

In addition to residential growth, there has been business growth. Ken Thompson developed the Kramer Building into the very successful Tula’s off Main, restaurant and now bar, as well as making available much-needed office space; Wine Loves Chocolate opened on Main Street; R.H. Ballard expanded into a new business, Artifacts on Main; Jackie Meuse created her Little Washington Wellness and Spa; The Inn expanded into the Clopton House; the Heritage House became an expanded White Moose Inn; Eve and Stew Willis are returning to town and reopening Rare Finds in Doug Baumgardner’s former office building; Debbie Winsor is opening August Georges; Foster Harris House expanded into a small and very successful restaurant. And yes, the Inn, Trinity Church and the town partnered to beautify the town center.

Quite simply, the town is not “dying,” but rather is reenergized and growing . . . perhaps not to the taste of some, but then not everyone shares the same taste and sensibilities, either. I tend to share the view of David Huff, longtime owner of the ever popular Country Cafe, who was recently quoted in EdibleDC magazine as saying Washington “is probably more beautiful today than it’s ever been. There were lots of places getting run down, but now it’s a beautiful town.”

Then there are some who believe the town should choose to give up its charter as an incorporated town and be taken over by the county. I know of no one in the town who is seeking such a change, which is pushed only by a small few living outside the town. Nevertheless, let’s address several of the issues raised by these “Take Over the Town” folks.

It has been said that the town would get more “scrutiny through the county’s fair zoning and permitting process.” May I point out that John McCarthy, the county zoning administrator, is the town’s zoning administrator. In all recent special-use permit applications, the town council has followed his recommendations, including the most recent Winsor application.

Some have created the misimpression that the town receives service for free, paid for by county residents. May I remind folks that residents of Washington are citizens of, and taxpayers in, the county! Indeed our residents, comprising 1.88 percent of the county population, contributed 3.3 percent of the county’s total tax revenue in 2014. Proportionately, we pay more county property taxes than folks living outside the town.

It has been said that there is “no affordable housing” in the town. That might come as a surprise to the senior citizens (mostly single women) and the young workers who occupy approximately 23 rental units in town which charge between $500 and $800 per month. Approximately 15 percent of the town’s population lives in these apartments.

Are citizens of the county willing to absorb the the town’s sewer debt (now approximately $2.7 million) and operating expenses for our wastewater system? Are county residents ready to assume the tax burden for a wastewater system for which they did not vote and which serves only the town of Washington? Are they willing to absorb the combined debt of $336,000 on the water system and Avon Hall? The town is prepared to deal with these economic issues.

I could go on, but let me address the larger issue of interest that has been raised: The town surely is small and no one would now charter a town this small. But it has been chartered since 1796, an older entity than the county itself. Why change it? For what purpose? To appease a few disgruntled outsiders?

For such a change to occur, the town citizens must vote to revoke our charter. The town council would then have to vote to revoke it, then the county supervisors and then the state legislature. The move to revoke our charter comes from outside the town, not inside. Nor does the board of supervisors appear to be interested in taking over the town.

Lastly, a word about elections and the town council. For two elections (in 2010 and 2014) the same slate has run unopposed. Perhaps, just perhaps, the town residents like the direction we are going. Perhaps town residents appreciate the efforts of those citizens who volunteer to serve on the town council, the planning commission, the board of zoning adjustment and architectural review board.

These folks are dedicated to the town in which they live and in which they have invested. They are dedicated to a vital town consistent with its history and maintaining its uniqueness. The decision-making process is open to the public and to the press.

The town is neither dying nor on the pathway to becoming a Rappahannock version of the Hamptons, Carmel or even Middleburg. Nobody wants that. It is on the pathway to being a vibrant 21st-century Washington, Va., unique unto itself.

John Fox Sullivan
Mayor, Washington

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