At its meeting next Monday night (May 11), the Washington Town Council is scheduled to consider measures to vacate and convey public property — for free — to a private business, The Inn at Little Washington. The town property in question is the Middle Street “stub” adjacent to the building housing the Post Office and the Country Café. This property is used frequently and regularly by county and town residents.
I urge all county and town residents to attend the 7 p.m. meeting Monday in the town hall. Great plans are afoot in our county seat, none of them benefiting the public — quite the opposite. There are many county and town residents who will be directly affected by the abandonment and conveyance of this street.
As many people already know, the town took its first action on the stub street in July 2013 and a lawsuit resulted. The case is now before the Rappahannock County Circuit Court. Although the mayor promised in March of this year that this matter “would be re-examined,” subsequently the council decided to take advantage of a legal technicality to avoid judicial review of the merits of the giveaway and how they did it. Why are they fighting so hard and spending so much on lawyers’ fees to keep the court from examining the facts and ruling on the actual merits (or lack thereof) of the giveaway?
There is no historical precedent for the town to convey vacated streets to private owners. There are several streets in the town that have been vacated as public thoroughfares — for example, Jett Street was vacated in 1989 without any conveyance. A street should be vacated or abandoned only if it isn’t used by the public. But Middle Street is used constantly, on a daily basis, by town and county residents parking there to pick up mail, by delivery trucks, and, ironically, by limousines waiting for their passengers who are dining at The Inn. Abandonment of this street and giving it to The Inn will exacerbate the already serious lack of parking space in Washington — yet another significant inconvenience to residents as well as tourists who bring welcome dollars to town and county businesses.
Another serious problem with the stub street proposal is that there is no provision in state law allowing such a giveaway of public property. State law requires that the property in a vacated street be sold at its fair market value (thus adding funds to the town’s budget!). Under the Dillon Rule, towns have only the authority granted to them by state law. In addition, a specific provision in the Code of Virginia allows for gifts of money or property only to nonprofit organizations for parks and that sort of thing. Nowhere does the state code allow gifts of real property to private individuals or for-profit businesses. And if state law defines how something can be done, that’s the only way it can be done lawfully.
How can the council justify giving away public property to a private citizen at the expense of the town’s citizens? This street is public property and its sale could provide much-needed funds to the town. If this proposal is approved, it will result in the citizens of the town of Washington subsidizing a private business. Not only is this without precedent and without any basis under state law, it is discriminatory towards all the other businesses in the town.
Funds from the purchase of the stub street could be used for the public interest, thereby reducing the town’s relatively high sewer and water rates instead of giving the town’s largest landowner a freebie.
Think about it. Then come out and make your presence and your views known to the council on May 11. It’s in your interest and the interest of your fellow citizens, whether county or town.