Avon Hall: To carve or not to carve

After more than a year of long and thoughtful discussions of the future of the town-owned former Avon Hall estate — the latest of which took up most of its monthly meeting Monday night (Dec. 14) — the Washington Town Council moved another step closer to putting the nine-acre tract on the market early next year.

Or, possibly, one or more pieces of it.

With the two members of council absent who have most often expressed the opinion that the land ought to be sold in one piece (they being Patrick O’Connell and treasurer Jerry Goebel), the council took no official action.

At the end of nearly an hour of discussion, it did reach a consensus that it should expect recommendations for action at its meeting next month. Those would come from council members Gary Aichele and Mary Ann Kuhn and planning commissioners Fred Catlin and Judy De Sarno, all of whom were part of ad hoc Avon Hall Study Group convened last year.

After hearing presentations from the study group this summer, the council hired planner Milt Herd, who refined and elaborated on a concept first presented by study group member and town resident Allan Comp, which suggested that at least part of the tract be devoted to some kind of “cluster” housing — although Comp’s idea started with half-acre lots and fewer than 10 homes, and Herd’s ideas included at least one concept that included 18 sites.

Catlin, rising to speak Monday night “as a resident of the town, not as a planning commission member, nor as a member of the study group,” distributed a rough drawing of the property divided into four sections — the largest of which seemed to be the piece containing the Avon Hall main house and pond, and the smallest being the property at the corner of Warren Avenue and Leggett Lane, which now holds a long-empty small two-story structure that has been a home and a business in past years.

Catlin suggested the town focus first on that piece of the land — roughly a half acre, with frontage on the road most visitors take into town — and market it as a likely site for a commercial or retail use. He also suggested that section his map labeled as #3, about 2.5 acres just west of the wastewater treatment plant and on the Mount Salem Avenue side of the tract, could be the site of a “cluster” housing development of 10 or 12 small homes.

He suggested that if the town went ahead with the small commercial lot on Warren (labeled #1 on his map) and some kind of well-controlled cluster development in section #3, the town would be under less pressure to sell the remaining three- to four-acre sections — the Avon Hall estate being one, the other being the section behind the small Warren Avenue section, which now contains a nature trail, and which Catlin suggested could be expanded into more green area — or the property “could be marketed as another mini-estate,” or possibly more cluster development.

“The point is, if you move and are successful with a plan and sale of sections #1 and #3, you can take your time on the other two properties,” Catlin said.

Aichele agreed, guessing — after disclaimers related to lack of a Realtor license — that even the small, half-acre Warren Avenue property could bring somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on zoning, and on whether the town specified that the existing structure had to be restored or could be replaced.

Vice Mayor Gary Schwartz added that assessments in the town, unlike in the majority of the county, had recently gone up significantly. He said his property, excluding his home, had risen from an assessed value of $75,000 to $100,000 — “and I have a tenth of an acre,” he added.

The town has been feeling increasing pressure to dispose of the Avon Hall property — sold to the town by longtime owner William Carrigan’s heirs after his death more than a decade ago — as it attempts to remain solvent while paying down the debt of its $4 million wastewater treatment plant and its money-losing water system.

Rates for both systems were increased this fall — doubled, over the next two years — and in a related move, the town also Monday night agreed to enter a new maintenance contract with ESS, a Culpeper company that operates its wastewater plant. The contract for the first time would include maintenance of the town’s water plant, for almost the same price as ESS was charging to maintain the sewer system.

The town will save more than $31,000, which is roughly what it has paid annually the last two years to the Rappahannock County Water and Sewer Authority to maintain the water plant. (Until two years ago, the sewer authority hadn’t raised its rates significantly for a decade, and the town was paying about $12,000 a year. The authority is hoping to build a surplus to deal with the eventual replacement of the Sperryville wastewater treatment plant, which is more than 30 years old.

The council also voted unanimously to appoint Robert Ballard to the town’s Architectural Review Board. The town had received letters of interest from Ballard, a longtime artist, shop and gallery owner in town who has recently moved back into town, and from Selma Thomas, an experienced historic preservationist.

“It’s a wonderful problem to have,” said Mayor John Sullivan, referring to having to choose between “two talented and qualified people.”

Ultimately the council chose Ballard — with Aichele’s nomination — after it was noted that while Thomas and her husband (the aforementioned Allan Comp) have recently begun spending more of their time in Little (as opposed to Big) Washington, Ballard “is, and has been, working and giving his attention to this town full time for many years, even before actually moving back.”

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