Washington Mayor John Sullivan announced at Monday night’s (March 9) town council meeting that the council would take a second look at — and undo, or possibly redo — the measures it adopted two years ago as part of a town-center beautification partnership with Trinity Episcopal Church and the Inn at Little Washington.
Since then, lawyer David Konick sent the town a notice Wednesday that he would file a petition in circuit court if town officials do not comply, by Tuesday, with his request for email and written discussions related to the town’s 2013 actions.
Over the last month, legal questions have been raised about the actions the council took in June and July 2013 — deeding the 170-foot stub end of Middle Street west of Main Street to the Inn, and appropriating $20,000 toward what the Inn described then as a $160,000 to $180,000 project to improve and landscape the stub street as well as the parking lot across Main Street that it leases from Trinity.
“These are serious charges, which the town council takes seriously,” Sullivan said to a not-quite-standing-room crowd of more than 30 at town hall, referring to claims made by (among others) a longtime Harris Hollow resident — the actor, writer and former congressman Ben “Cooter” Jones — and Rock Mills resident Konick, who say the $20,000 appropriation violated Virginia’s church-and-state-separation statutes. Konick has also questioned the legality of the resolution by which the town abandoned its claim to the stub street.
Before the council and Sullivan even got to the town beautification issues — during an initial joint council-planning commission public hearing on a boundary adjustment on the Clopton House-Stonyman property, which is now owned by the Inn — Konick also managed to persuade the council to postpone that decision as well, insisting the town’s subdivision and zoning ordinance required that the applicant prove a “hardship.” Town zoning administrator John McCarthy disagreed, but deferred any final reading of the relevant ordinances to town attorney John Bennett, who is away on a longstanding family trip until March 16.
“You can’t just do a thing on the basis of ‘that’s what Patrick wants,’ ” Konick said, referring to Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of the 38-year-old luxury inn and five-star restaurant, who also serves on the town council. The comment summed up Konick’s and other town critics’ perception that the council is too close to the Inn — which is, to be sure, the town’s main economic engine and Rappahannock County’s biggest visitor attraction and private employer (with about 130 employees — almost exactly the population of the town of Washington).
O’Connell, who had recused himself from the boundary-adjustment matter and was seated against the wall, appeared agitated but said nothing. Artist Kevin Adams and his partner Jay Brown, who hope to purchase the reduced-in-size Stonyman property and mercantile store from the Inn and turn it into a studio and gallery, left the building immediately after the council and planning commission tabled the matter.
At the start of the town beautification discussion and public forum that followed, Sullivan quoted from a letter (copies of which were available in the foyer) from town attorney Bennett, who took the blame for not insisting that the council’s 2013 measures include “specific language excluding expenditures in any way related to church property.”
“For any oversight,” Bennett added, “I apologize and accept full responsibility.”
“I might add,” Sullivan said Monday, “at no time did council members, past or present, intend to violate cherished separation of church and state. To my knowledge our critics have not chosen to accuse us as purposely doing so . . . .
“In light of our own concern for doing the right thing,” he added, “and on the advice of Mr. Bennett, I suggest that we review the circumstances and take a second look at the entire project and related issues, including the issue of the stub street, at our next meeting, when John Bennett will be present.”
Bennett’s March 6 letter recommended that the council, at its April 13 meeting, include agenda items for receiving legal advice from him on the $20,000 appropriation as well as the resolution vacating the stub street, for which, he said, “I became aware yesterday morning for the first time that it is alleged the notice for the public hearing may have been defective.”
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Konick said, “for what you just said. I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
(Konick has been pursuing, meanwhile and since the council meeting, a Virginia Freedom Of Information Act (VFOIA) request for council members’ and town officials’ email and written discussion in the months leading up to the 2013 actions. He said Wednesday that the mayor and town clerk Laura Dodd “have been very cooperative,” but there’s still this huge gap between March 28, 2013, when [Inn attorney David] Fiske first proposed the stub street abandonment to Bennett, who relayed it to the mayor, and the beginning of June.” Konick said if the missing emails are not provided soon, referring specifically to any from O’Connell or Fiske, “then the only remedy is to file a petition in circuit court.” Later on Wednesday, he sent the town the official notice of his intent to petition the circuit court to compel the town to comply fully with his FOIA request.)
After reading from his prepared remarks Monday, Sullivan had added: “To the extent that there are legal issues, we’ll deal with them. To the extent that there are process issues, we’ll deal with them. But as for the merits of the overall project, the effort to make the center of town more attractive, more accessible, greener and safer, for both citizens and visitors, is still a very important consideration.”
Others who rose to speak during the town-beautification session’s public forum — and near the end of the meeting, when the regular public forum session is normally held at council meetings — included Alma Viator, an announced candidate for the county board of supervisors, who is also married to Ben Jones.
“When I first read about what you had planned in the newspaper, it sounded really exciting, and I’m happy you’re going to continue — with all the backtracking and whatever you must do — that you will come around again to making the center of town as beautiful as it sounds that you want to.”
Town resident Charles Hunter said that while he, and others in town, support this and other efforts to beautify the town, the council “does not make it easy, in general,” for citizens to participate in the town’s official efforts. Hunter also suggested that the town beautification be extended to the entire town. A block from the “town center,” he noted, “we have a large unannounced parking lot, that goes from Main Street to Gay Street. It’s a gaping . . . gray, gravel mess. Shouldn’t the whole town be beautiful?”
Town resident Gail Swift suggested the town create a “beautification committee,” to gather and discuss ideas from community members. Her neighbor, Christa Weeks, recommended that the town’s definition of beauty be expanded, encompassing measures that reduce speeding and provide crosswalks and sidewalks where walking is hazardous or uncomfortable.