At one point during the Washington Town Council’s meeting Monday night, one woman sitting in the crowded public gallery leaned over to whisper to another, “This is like a reality TV show.”
TV it wasn’t, but there was plenty of reality – and sufficient viewership to fill the hall’s normally empty pews – at the council’s third hearing since October on community-action agency People Inc.’s proposal to buy the Old Washington School on Mount Salem Avenue from the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC).
The central controversy involves People Inc.’s plan to add nine low- to moderate-income apartments to the existing eight regular units carved out of the former school a decade ago by CCLC. For this, People Inc. needs a special use permit from the town; the permit is necessary for it to proceed with seeking grants and other funding in March.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, the council voted 4-0 to resume the hearing next Wednesday night (Jan. 23), when they hoped a representative could be present from People Inc., the southwest Virginia-based organization that has repeatedly emphasized that it is only interested in pursuing the project if it has the community’s blessing.
The seven-member council’s vote was 4-0 because vice-mayor Gary Schwartz is recovering from knee surgery (he’s expected to be up and around by next Wednesday) and because Mayor John Sullivan and council member Dan Spethmann announced at the start of the meeting that they’d be recusing themselves from the deliberations – per Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff’s advice – because they, with investor Bill Walton of Harris Hollow, had decided to make a counter-offer to CCLC to purchase the property.
The investors’ offer, Walton said by phone Wednesday, is specifically to allow the town more time to decide how the building could best be put to use. “There’s no grand plan to turn this into a real estate play, it’s not that at all,” Walton said. “I have a background in investing, and this is not an investment, per se, it’s more about owning the building so we can have some local say about how it’s used.” Walton said he preferred the term “socially conscious investment.”
The group, which has also brought in historic preservation expert Allen Comp from Sperryville as an advisor, made an initial offer of $585,000; People Inc.’s offer of $833,000 reportedly would allow CCLC to keep a subdivided half-acre plot adjacent to the school. CCLC’s debt on the school property is reported to be about $500,000.
CCLC board chair John Lesinski said he was “cautiously optimistic” that CCLC could reach a sale price with the investment group, but said Tuesday that CCLC had informed the investment group that their first offer was unacceptable. “But obviously we would love to see it happen,” Lesinski said. “We’re equal opportunity sellers.”
Affordable housing is among the options the group would consider, Walton said, if negotiations are successful. At Monday’s meeting, he also mentioned other possibilities, including a senior center, community college satellite campus and an arts-related school facility.
At Monday night’s meeting, it was clear no consensus has been reached.
“A number of us got together . . . and said that we would be prepared to buy this building with the intention of . . . [figuring] out what the best use is,” said Sullivan, at that point speaking “solely as a private citizen.”
“People Inc. is a fantastic organization; they’re very well-intentioned . . . what happens to that building is extremely important to this town,” said Sullivan. “I think that there are other uses for that building . . . that could be more consistent with my own personal vision for this town.”
Town treasurer Jerry Goebel, elected temporary chairman in Sullivan’s official absence and vice-mayor Schwartz’s absence, asked that only property owners and taxpayers of the town speak, although others wound up speaking as well.
Susan Stoltzman said she appreciated the contributions CCLC has made to the town and county, but felt the school’s board had “bullied the town in an attempt to solve [financial] problems of its own making.”
Stoltzman, who lives with her husband – council member Spethmann – on Mount Salem Avenue just two doors from the school, said the sale of the old school has “never been about affordable housing . . . make no mistake, it’s about money, plain and simple.” She said she, and several other long-term residents of Mount Salem Avenue, were never approached by People Inc., despite earlier claims to the contrary.
“I, and many others, oppose granting People Inc. a special-use permit – at this point in time,” Stoltzman said, and referred to People Inc. lead architect Michael Rush’s comments at the town’s first hearing in October. “That alone should be all that needs to be said, since Dr. Rush made it very clear that the folks at People Inc. didn’t want to come to a town that doesn’t want them.”
Stoltzman concluded by saying she was concerned about the increased density the apartments would lead to (as Schwartz pointed out in an email to the council, the apartments could hold up to 27 people, which “represents approximately 20 percent of the town’s population).
“I didn’t move all the way out to Rappahannock County . . . to live next to high-density housing,” Stoltzman said. “We moved to the county . . . specifically because of the sense of community here . . . I believe the right thing to do is to ignore the tactics of the CCLC board members and make logical, careful decisions taking into consideration all the aspects of the town.”
Marcia Nagle, another Mount Salem resident, echoed Stoltzman’s comments, saying she hadn’t been approached by People Inc. and felt that the apartment decision “should really be looked into and should not be rushed.”
“This tenement building will fundamentally change the town in a very basic manner,” said Andrew McIntyre, another Mount Salem resident. McIntyre said he believed a vote would be “out of line” as he felt not enough research into the project had been done.
Rose Ann Smythe, executive director of CCLC, did not speak at the meeting, but did present the council with a petition signed by more than 50 people, including several who live on Mount Salem Avenue. She noted later that not everyone on the street is against the apartments.
Erin Switzer, who works on Main Street, spoke in favor of the apartments, describing the chance to live in the same town where she works as being an amazing opportunity. After noting that she, and many like her, would still struggle to make the proposed rent, Switzer continued, saying, “I’m exactly the type of person you want living in your town.”
James “Jimmy” Debergh, who had previously offered to sell the town a parcel of land he owns in partnership with former Sunnyside entrepreneur David Cole as part of the town’s long-term plan to create a natural wetland area between Avon Hall and U.S. 211, urged the council to make a decision “out of professional courtesy [to People Inc.]” and to refer to the town’s comprehensive plan when making it.
Debergh said that this was an opportunity for the town to diversify and encouraged the council to go out and investigate Tom’s Brook and other People Inc. properties and consider what former Washington mayor Gene Leggett would do in this situation.
“Has anyone bothered to go to these facilities and see how they’re run?” Debergh asked. “I think we should consider what it means for the town [in terms of] being more diverse . . . we’re all basically the same age group, same economic class. Make Gene proud.”
Both Schwartz, who is the council’s zoning committee chair, and town zoning administrator John McCarthy, have said the proposal falls into the “adaptive re-use” category and represents a good use of the property. McCarthy recommended approval.
Lesinski said he was “dismayed” at some of the remarks made earlier in the meeting, and rejected the notion that CCLC had been “bullying” anyone. “It’s a part of the democratic process and the dissemination of information . . . not bullying,” Lesinski said.
Lesinski denied that CCLC was motivated by making money, pointing out that they are a nonprofit organization, and maintained the process had not been rushed; People Inc. submitted a special-use permit application back in October, had the project’s architect speak at the November meeting and had results of the council-ordered market study delivered to them by People Inc.’s director Rob Goldsmith.
“The original eight apartments here were approved without much dialogue,” Lesinski said, adding that if a decision isn’t reached before Jan. 28, People Inc. will move on from the project (People Inc. must apply for grants with the Virginia Housing Development Authority by that date).
“A vote tonight doesn’t preclude CCLC from looking for other buyers,” Lesinski added, referring to the fact that even an affirmative vote by the council didn’t lock CCLC or People Inc. into any sort of binding contract. “But the time is upon you now and they are owed a decision.”
Once the public discussion subsided, council member Mary Ann Kuhn read from notes of a conversation she had with People Inc. architect Rush, the same man who had spoken to the council during last fall, but who was absent last night due to People Inc.’s desire not to be seen as “filibustering” and to let a decision be made freely by those affected.
Kuhn said Rush again stressed that People Inc. had no desire to do anything or be anywhere they were not wanted, adding that it “wouldn’t be mad” if the council refused its special-use permit and that passing on this project didn’t mean People Inc. wouldn’t still be open to helping the county in another capacity, either in terms of housing or other projects.
“The town could even come back to us again next year and we could get involved in the process again,” Rush said by phone Wednesday (Jan. 16). “We don’t corner the market on good ideas.”
Rush said that if the town could put the building to use in a similar capacity, there was no need for approval of the special-use permit, Kuhn said. “If I were a council member, I’d ask if John and Dan were going to do it [buy the building], and if so, then there’s no need for our special-use permit,” Rush concluded.
Council member Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of the town and county’s biggest visitor attraction, the Inn at Little Washington, said he finds it a “great relief that People Inc. is so neutral and objective” on the matter, pointing out that an amount equal to what People Inc. offered CCLC was not out of the question.
“My interpretation of reading the notes that Mary Ann presented is that Dr. Rush is actually saying . . . if we’ve found a more attractive alternative, [his] recommendation is to go for it . . . If we can do both – do good and do well – it’s the superior option.”
Ultimately the council voted unanimously to delay a final decision on the matter until Jan. 23, when, ideally, both Schwartz and a representative from People Inc. could be in attendance.