Town council briefly bites, shakes hand

Inn feeds town, Aichele says, but there’s a ‘tension’; council also appoints planning, ARB members

The Washington Town Council’s regular monthly meeting Monday night (Dec. 12) was short and sparsely populated, on both sides of the head table, and still failed to provide a dull moment.

The council — or at least Mayor John Sullivan and members Mary Ann Kuhn, Gary Aichele and Katharine Leggett, their three fellow council members being on the road — appointed town resident Allan Comp to fill the last remaining vacancy on the town’s planning commission.

A historic preservationist and until recently a longtime Interior Department volunteer coordinator, Comp was an early advocate and participant in the council’s two-year study and discussion of the town-owned Avon Hall property, much of which was recently sold to a new private owner (though Comp pushed gently but early for solutions that would have led to a more community-oriented development).

The council also appointed Selma Thomas to fill a vacancy on the town’s architectural review board. Thomas, who is Comp’s wife and moved with him to Main Street two years ago (after the couple owned and renovated several other places in Rappahannock County over some 20 years), has worked in historic preservation for most of her career.

Planning commission chair Fred Catlin strongly endorsed Comp’s appointment.

Because of the absence of council members Patrick O’Connell, treasurer Jerry Goebel and the newly appointed Brad Schneider, Sullivan suggested that the planned agenda item for election of a vice mayor — a post held for a dozen years by Gary Schwartz, who’s moved to North Carolina — be postponed for a month. The council agreed.

During the treasurer’s report, an abbreviated version of which Sullivan delivered in Goebel’s absence, the mayor mentioned that the town’s meals-and-lodging tax revenue for the last month totaled more than $40,000, an increase over such revenue during any other month in the town’s history, Sullivan said, of $7,000 or $8,000.

Sullivan (and others) guessed that it was in large part due to the Inn at Little Washington’s award, two months ago, of a coveted two-star rating by the Michelin Guide, the impact of which he said he’d been told was “immediate and substantial.” Though precise figures are not available by law, the 38-year-old Inn is far and away the town’s largest meals-and-lodging taxpayer.

The subject came up on the council’s “old business” agenda, when the Inn’s Joneve Murphy, who ran the Inn’s first-ever Village Market this summer and fall, spoke briefly on the success of the Sunday-only farmer’s and vendor’s marketplace in the village square (beside the Inn’s Parsonage, between Gay and Main streets).

“It was a great first season,” said Murphy, who noted that there were ups and downs in attendance, but that overall business at the market “really picked up at the end.” The markets, which ended in October (but were revived for a day during the Christmas in Little Washington parade and festival early this month), will resume in May of next year.

“Any idea whether there are plans to resume on April 29 of next year?” Sullivan asked. “For Garden Week?”

Murphy wasn’t sure, but said that it was possible. Though it wasn’t immediately clear, Sullivan was referring to Historic Garden Week, a statewide week-long series of private garden and home tours sponsored by the Virginia Garden Club, on which properties around Little Washington are included for the first time in quite a few years.

Among the tour properties: The Meadows, the Sullivans’ home, located within the town’s National Historic District, as well as Jessamine Hill Farm, the Lodge at Rush River Springs and Greenfield Inn. The event can bring hundreds of visitors, or more, into the county for a day.

Echoing the comments of Kuhn, who operates Middleton Inn B&B and noted that the Inn’s market was something guests “really enjoyed” on what was often their last day in town, Aichele — who co-owns the Gay Street Inn B&B — said “we also hear only very, very positive things from our guests about it, and I like seeing the town more full. It’s nice coming out and not seeing empty streets.”

On the other hand, Aichele added, “I’ve also had a number of people say, ‘It’s really not a farmer’s market, it’s really not for anyone who lives in town, it really is just one more thing that the Inn does to bring more strangers to town, it makes us feel even less welcome in our own town.’ ”

To the sudden subtle accompaniment of people shifting uncomfortably in their seats, Aichele went on:

“I think those are both true statements. And I think that as we move forward, if we’re talking about housing, or possible boundary line adjustments, or anything that has to do with the next 20 years of this town, we’re going to have to realize that there’s this continuing . . . tension . . . between what an authentic Virginia Piedmont town is, and what a very attractive, exciting destination resort is. I think they’re compatible; I think they almost have to be compatible. I don’t think one can survive without the other.”

“But there is this ongoing sense of tension . . . I raise it, if there are ways to encourage more locals to be vendors, which I know you are working on,” Aichele said, addressing Murphy, “that’s a help. Or maybe to encourage people to sell things that aren’t high end. Again, as you said, the vendors set their prices . . .”

Murphy said the market “wouldn’t be possible” without substantial local patronage, and pointed out that about 70 percent of the vendors are from within the county or within a few miles of it. She said there were not that many vegetable/produce farms in the county interested in participating in the Inn’s market, including The Farm at Sunnyside — “They do the Dupont Circle market on Sundays,” she said, “and I can’t compete with that.”

Both Sullivan and Murphy pointed out that produce and cheeses bought at farmer’s markets, for example, are “always going to be more expensive than at the grocery store.”

“I agree with Gary that there is that tension,” said Sullivan, “but I think we risk overblowing the issue.”

Aichele wound up making the motion to thank the Inn for holding the village market and “acknowledge our support for the events, and hope that it will continue,” which Sullivan seconded, and the council unanimously approved.

A question asked by property owner and former town resident Jay Brown during public comment about whether any town businesses were delinquent in payment of their meals and lodging taxes (the answer: those that had been behind have made arrangements to get current) prompted a brief discussion of the future of such tax revenue, and local regulation in general.

Town attorney John Bennett spoke up to note that the Virginia General Assembly is again considering during the annual session that starts next month in Richmond a bill that enables property owners in Virginia to engage in tourist rentals of their homes, or parts of their homes, without significant control or regulation at the local level. Last February the state legislature actually passed the bill — a bill originally penned by lobbyists for the online tourist-rental industry, often referred to simply as Airbnb — but held off implementing it until a year of “study” was completed.

“It is a bill that essentially, if it goes into effect — anything, anywhere goes,” Bennett said. “There’s no zoning, no guidelines, there’s no nothing. It’s just, do whatever you want to do. And it would take away . . . well, the taxes would go to Richmond, not to the town, and how much would come back to the town” is unclear, Bennett said.

“Jurisdictions all around the state rely on meals and lodging taxes,” Bennett said, noting that such taxes were authorized at a time when a lot of towns were on the verge of bankruptcy.” It could cause implementation of new real estate taxes, or increases in existing real estate tax rates, Bennett warned.

Aichele said some of what has occurred — everywhere, but recently in the town itself — could be caused by “someone’s misunderstanding” of the contract between Airbnb and a property owner. The online contract that he saw, he said, made it clear that Airbnb would be responsible for paying any related taxes on the property owner’s rental. In the in-town case, he said, no meals-and-lodging tax payments were ever sent by Airbnb to the town. Other jurisdictions around the country have recently filed tax liens against properties improperly rented via airbnb.com and other similar web sites, Aichele said. “If word gets out about that, it could give property owners pause,” he said.

“This is a huge, huge, huge issue,” Bennett said. “But somehow it’s stayed under the radar so far.”

“It seems to me that every time the General Assembly meets, local government suffers,” said longtime Flint Hill resident Phil Irwin. “Over the years, we’ve lost the right to control house trailers, we’ve lost the right to control sludge application . . . and this year, there are various threats approaching the General Assembly, but the most pressing is to take away any local control over B&Bs. . . .”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 539 Articles

Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.