Town council hires lawyer, hears opinions, legal and otherwise

Inn/Sunnyside lot dominates Monday discussion

The Washington Town Council hired a lawyer Monday afternoon, and then heard legal opinions in an almost two-hour closed session about two pending lawsuits challenging the town’s and the Inn at Little Washington’s actions in 2013 to help beautify the intersection and Middle and Main streets.

And then the council, in joint session with the planning commission, heard another hour’s worth of opinions at a well-attended meeting later that same night — the latter primarily from county residents concerned about the legality of a pending property-line adjustment for two Inn at Little Washington parcels that would allow an independent art gallery and studio to buy the former Sunnyside/Stonyman Gourmet mercantile store on Gay Street.

And then it heard from several town residents concerned about why out-of-town residents would be so concerned about what one called “basically a real estate transaction between private parties” that would “ultimately increase the town’s diversity and appeal to visitors.”

The town’s approval of the proposed division of two nonconforming lots into one that would thereafter be above the minimum lot size — that’s the lot that includes the former Clopton House, now the Inn’s luxury-suites Parsonage annex — and one that would be even smaller (the mercantile, which the Inn wants to sell to artist Kevin Adams and his partner Jay Brown) would be in keeping with the town comprehensive plan’s encouragement of “in-fill development,” several speakers said, citing the policy meant to make it easier for smaller or non-conforming lots to be converted into small businesses.

And then the town council postponed action on the former Sunnyside property matter to a second special meeting scheduled for last night (Wednesday, April 15, after this edition’s deadline), at which the council also planned to hear more public comment and discussion on the challenged “Town Square Beautification Project.”

Lawyer David Konick has sued the town and the Inn for what he alleges are its violations of procurement, conflict of interest and church-state separation laws in its 2013 actions to contribute $20,000 to the Inn’s reportedly $200,000 project to improve the “town square,” including the parking lot it leases from Trinity Episcopal Church (hence the church-state citation). Konick has separately filed a lawsuit against Inn owner-chef Patrick O’Connell, a town council member, for his alleged violations of conflict-of-interest laws in pursuing the town’s cooperation, which included the $20,000 appropriation and deeding the 171-foot stub end of Middle Street to the Inn.

O’Connell’s attorney David Fiske filed a response to the second suit last week urging its dismissal on the grounds that it was filed for an “improper purpose” — that, Fiske said in his filing, being Konick’s “vendetta” against O’Connell and the Inn, and what he called Konick’s homophobia. The suit is scheduled for a hearing April 28 in Circuit Court.

Asked after Monday night’s session if he was considering resigning from the council, O’Connell answered quickly. “No. Absolutely not,” he said, and then added: “Why would I?”

Konick also challenged the Inn’s Sunnyside subdivision when it came up at last month’s council/planning commission meeting, saying the town’s zoning ordinance required the applicant to show “hardship” to create a new nonconforming lot, prompting the council to postpone the matter until town attorney John Bennett could also be there. Konick wasn’t at Monday night’s meeting, but his hardship argument was quoted several times.

Eric Tollefson of Sperryville rose to cite the Virginia code and town zoning sections from a letter sent to the town by Konick, and asked whether the town was planning to seriously consider the argument. Christine Smith, also of Sperryville, asked similar questions, as did former town resident Demaris Miller.

Said Tim Pagano of Huntly: “It sounds like Mr. Bennett has said this proposal is in concert with your comprehensive plan, as certified by your zoning advisor [McCarthy]. I’m curious that the town’s comp plan includes a willingness to break the hard rules in the zoning code itself about the [property] size changes and the requirements to do so. Because it sounds like — it actually sounds like — you’re suggesting that those should be ignored for some . . . loftier goal.”

Foster Harris House B&B owner John MacPherson, who says he’s collected 135 signatures on an informal petition to urge the town to go ahead with a revised beautification plan, rose to say the boundary-adjustment approval would “serve the town even better than, say, the Inn owning the whole parcel — it brings diversity . . . it’s good for the town, the county, and those who visit.”

“A lot of this is nonsense, people stirring the pot for the sake of it,” said former town council member Jeff Benson, a longtime resident of town. “I have seen a lot of good things happen in this town, and some bad things over the years. I do not own a business in town, but I support the businesses in town, and I have not heard anybody in town say anything bad about this plan! This is the sort of thing that causes rifts . . . .

“I’m not a religious person,” Benson added, “but . . . love thy neighbor as thyself, I say.”

Benson’s comments were followed by applause from the crowd of about 30.

Applause also greeted town resident Wendy Murdoch’s brief but emotional comments, during which she noted that her property is surrounded by Inn-owned properties, and that “the Inn is a good neighbor. They actually serve our community, our county and our town — instead of all this . . . pardon my language, but this . . . bullshit. We have someone who wants to open a gallery, bring art and beauty to our town . . . . You’ve seen Kevin’s work; it is truly beautiful. Instead of calling them names, we should be welcoming them . . . We should be working together to make everything here better for everybody.”

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