Utility rates go up, Avon Hall goes . . . on

Avon Hall, which has gotten a facelift since this 2013 photo was taken and will be open for the curious, is the site of CCLC's garden party June 20. | Rappahannock News

After months of study but a relatively brief public discussion Monday night, the Washington Town Council voted to double, in two annual phases starting Jan. 1, its rates for usage of the town water and sewer systems.

Then, after more than two years of study and more than an hour of often fervent discussion Monday on the future of the town-owned Avon Hall estate, the council voted . . . simply to discuss it further.

Both actions — increasing the utility rates so that both systems break even, and disposing of the Avon Hall property — are being pursued for a common purpose: to increase the town’s revenue. The town’s main source of revenue is its meals and lodging tax. The lion’s share of that revenue — some have said in excess of 90 percent — is paid by Rappahannock County’s largest employer and biggest tourist draw for more than 30 years: the Inn at Little Washington.

The Inn’s chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell sits on the council. And the inn’s own legal counsel, David Fiske, rose at one point during Monday’s meeting to urge, in a restrained way, that the council ensure that its financial affairs are in order — and to express support for the utility rate increase. He also suggested that the town consider having a bulk rate, as neighboring jurisdictions do, for its largest users.

“There’s a responsibility of the town council to make sure that this is all going to work,” Fiske said, “and that we don’t have any surprises in the future. . . . Have we done everything possible to ensure this [sewer and water system] is going to continue to work fiscally, going forward? Should the town be looking at partnerships, or some other solutions? I don’t know the answer, but I’m asking the question.”

“I would agree with 95 percent of what you said,” Mayor John Sullivan said after Fiske finished, “except, and this is just a minor little thing, that at the end you said the [rate increases] fall disproportionately on the Inn. I would say they fall proportionately on the Inn.”

It was an odd 2½-hour council meeting.

When the council voted on the sewer rate and water rate increases, O’Connell abstained from both votes; the other council members cast “yes” votes.

When the council voted on an amended resolution to meet with the planning commission next Thursday (Oct. 22) in a joint work session to consider the Avon Hall recommendations, Vice Mayor Gary Schwartz abstained, and the other six members cast “yes” votes.

In the Avon Hall vote, it was not the decision initially urged by council member Gary Aichele, who co-chairs the two-year-old Avon Hall Study Group with council member Mary Ann Kuhn (its core members being town planning commissioners Fred Catlin and Judy DeSarno, resident and historic preservationist/rehabber Allan Comp and longtime resident and former council member Ray Gooch).

Aichele, after an impassioned presentation by Catlin, had pushed for the council to focus primarily on the option — of the four considered — that the group had actually recommended in its report presented to the council Monday: That the town consider retaining the main Avon Hall house and its pond and adjacent nature areas improved in recent years by local conservation and naturalist groups — but allow the remaining seven or so acres of the nine-acre tract to be subdivided and developed into as many as 13 residential home sites of varying size.

The study group had not chosen to recommend what it called “Option 4” — that the town just continue trying to find a buyer for the entire nine acres. It held several public forums and got the council’s blessing over the past several months to hire surveyor Dan Clark and land planner Milton Herd, mostly to see if it were feasible to pursue the idea, originally proposed by Comp, of allowing what Catlin on Monday night called “the last great space in town” to become a sort of “micropolitan area” — smaller, more reasonably priced lots and homes that the next generation, Catlin said, both favors and can afford.

Several council members balked at Aichele’s proposed resolution — to specifically, in its work session with the planning commission, consider the “development” option — an option that Herd, in a lengthy presentation, suggested would involve rezoning the tract to make such a plan possible (but not going much further until an amenable buyer/developer could be persuaded to take it on).

O’Connell, Schwartz and council member Jerry Goebel said they thought the joint work session should look at all the options — including continuing to search for a buyer interested in the entire property.

O’Connell recalled when town residents feared former owners of the 40-acre Mount Prospect estate on the south edge of town (half of the estate is in fact outside the town’s borders) might subdivide it.

“It was as though the end is near, this terrible thing could happen right in our midst, this beautiful old house on a hill could turn into tiny lots and little houses — by a developer,” O’Connell said of the estate — which was, in fact, purchased for $2.3 million last March by Charles and Deanna Akre, who are reportedly spending at least that much to enlarge and restore the original Federal-style mansion and grounds.

“We had a developer recently come to town who wanted to fix up a few old houses — and he was practically tarred and feathered,” said O’Connell. “So it is a bit mystifying that now the town is playing the role of the developer.

“The fact that we believe there is not an individual who could afford to purchase Avon Hall and fix it up, and turn it into the grand home it once was — confuses me,” O’Connell said. “Why is it we all would have been so saddened by this happening at Mount Prospect and . . . so delighted that it’s happening here [at Avon Hall].”

Aichele pointed out that Mount Prospect is not in the center of town, and that “the lay of the land” at Avon Hall would allow development of residential sites that would be “relatively self-contained” and would hardly change the view of the town.

“We’re dealing with very different buyers, with very different things in mind,” Aichele said. “The day of the great country estates still exists for some, but it’s not what younger — and sometimes retired — buyers are looking for nowadays.”

But he reluctantly amended his resolution that the council and commission consider all the options at its joint session next Thursday. Mary Ann Kuhn seconded his motion, for the second time.

Before the Avon Hall vote, County Administrator John McCarthy, who also serves as the town’s zoning administrator but was seated in the first pew with the rest of a crowd of about 20 citizens, rose to support the concepts presented to the council months ago by Comp and put into more practical terms Monday night by Herd.

McCarthy said he supported the notions presented by Aichele, Herd and especially Catlin, the last having suggested that the council had a chance to “take charge of the town’s future,” akin to the town and city fathers whose decisions changed such now-popular but once-disused places as downtown Charlottesville and Martha’s Vineyard in the 1960s and ’70s, and even Georgetown and Alexandria a decade or two earlier.

“The rich plutocrats’ interest will largely resolve itself,” McCarthy said, “and if you earnestly plan this property, think about what you want to have happen to it, think about ways to develop it into a multiple number of lots — if there’s somebody who wants to buy the whole property at a higher price, all of that would only add value to it, and make him or her decide to pay more to get it.”

“A mix of housing styles, density doesn’t detract from value, it contributes to quality of life — it contributes to the different mix of people,” McCarthy said, noting that not everyone who enjoys living in the country wants to continue to take care of a house and five or more acres of land.

“The only way you make that possible [in the town] is by densifying, and by densifying, you increase the revenue that the water and sewer system is going to need, you also increase the quality of life by creating a place where kids ride bikes, where dogs chase sticks, and where you see strollers on the street.

“Please take a due amount of time to consider this,” McCarthy said.

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