Avon Hall pre-sale changes OK’d

Town council adopts budget, approves Inn-organized farmer’s market

After the briefest of public hearings, the Washington Town Council this week approved a subdivision and changes to its zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan that will allow the prospective buyers of the town’s long-disused Avon Hall estate to move closer to writing the town a check for $750,000.

The 6-0 vote (with council member Patrick O’Connell out of town) came after a public hearing at which only one member of the public voiced an opinion, despite the relative fullness of the town hall’s pews during Monday night’s regular monthly session.

The council also unanimously approved a resolution that would allow the Inn at Little Washington to operate a weekly farmer’s market on Sundays in the courtyard next to its Parsonage annex, and by a similar vote adopted its $336,000 fiscal 2017 budget (which inspired exactly no public comments at last month’s hearing).

It also continued its meeting to 7 p.m. July 5, when it plans to hold a public hearing on the ordinances or resolutions necessary to effect the actual sale of Avon Hall.

The single opinion offered during the public hearing Monday on Avon Hall was that of town resident, historian and preservationist Allan Comp — whose own ideas for moderate development of the site as possible clustered housing in a park-like setting helped kickstart the council’s renewed effort last year to resolve its 14-year-old “what to do with Avon Hall” dilemma.

The council ultimately, in February, decided against developing the site in the way Comp, and later planner Milt Herd, had outlined for them, and that the town’s own Avon Hall Study Group had recommended. Soon after it was revealed that serious buyers, Washington, D.C. residents Drew Mitchell and Bill Fischer, were interested in the nine acres of the estate that contained the main house and its iconic pond. Mitchell and Fischer put a $50,000 deposit on the property two months ago, with plans to renovate it in a historically sensitive way, and move to town.

“As a resident and longtime planner,” Comp told the council, reading from a prepared statement, “I’m delighted to see a conclusion to the story.” He noted that “what amounts to a gentleman’s agreement” between the town and Mitchell and Fischer (which allowed the creation by Monday night’s actions of a separate 1.5-acre property along Leggett Lane, and includes the couple’s promises to retain and enhance public access to the pond and nearby nature walk) should be “at least acknowledged” as such, and then added:

“The apparent willingness to move away from any commitment to smaller, affordable housing on the site, particularly the decision to sell off the land along Leggett Lane, is deeply regrettable . . . . I might add that the isolated parcel at the back of the property is likely to remain in town hands, and require town maintenance, for a very long time. To talk about that parcel as a potential low-income housing location may be both delusional and discriminatory,” Comp said.

Comp ended by reminding the council — and three members of the town planning commission, which was meeting in joint session for the hearing — that “the happy sale of Avon Hall does not end the need for thoughtful action by council and the planning commission. . . . There are far too many vacant and neglected properties, zoning issues, and the town still needs more people, more sewer hookups and water accounts, for its own sustainability.”

The consequent low-key flurry of responses all came from the head table, first by Town Attorney John Bennett, who noted that the terms of any “gentleman’s agreement” were all included in deeds, covenants and other legally enforceable documents.

Council member Gary Aichele, vice chair Gary Schwartz, Mayor John Sullivan and planning commission member Brad Schneider all gently rebutted Comp’s characterization of the three-acre plot between the back of Avon Hall and the town’s wastewater plant.

“As to Mr. Comp’s concern about going forward, I share it,” said Aichele. “One of my concerns is that, having brought us to the point where we might be able to take care of the principal issues — the monetization of the property and preserving Avon Hall — all that energy and all that focus, might stop.”

He said “there is no reason” that, in the months to come, the council and planning commission, and citizenry of both the town and the county “couldn’t find a solution to have an increase in what I would call workplace or moderately priced housing. I don’t how many that will be — but any increase would be a benefit . . . there’s no reason it would be discriminatory.”

“When all the transactions [on the Avon Hall sale] are done,” said Schneider, “what is done with that small remaining property in the back is anyone’s guess right now. So to say that it is going to be affordable housing, or whatever label you want to put onto it — there’s nothing going to happen yet. We’re going to take a lot of care and effort to think it through, analyze it, talk to experts, to find how that property is best utilized by the town and by the people who live in or come to town.

A brief discussion preceded the council’s unanimous approval of a temporary permit — good through 2016, and set to be reviewed again in November — for the Inn at Little Washington to operate a weekly farmer’s market in the courtyard between Gay and Main streets, adjacent to its Parsonage annex.

Joneve Murphy, who’s organizing and putting on the market for the Inn, said it’s planned to go on, with about eight vendors of produce, cheeses and other specialty products, from 10 to 2 on Sundays, starting next month and continuing through October.

She said the market amounted to a pilot project, and that if successful, the project would be proposed again for next year. “We’re starting late in the season,” she said, “so the vendors are all local, but not all of them from Rappahannock.” Next year, she said, “if we start as we’d like to in May” and can get commitments from farmers and vendors before the growing and selling season, she said there are several Rappahannock farms and providers who’ve said they would participate.

The council approved the permit, good only for 2016, by a 6-0 vote.

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