Town weighs ‘balance,’ approves tourist home

Red Truck declines to park on Main Street; Foster Harris meals permit renewed; charter challengers observe quietly

After three months of delays, during which there have been a number of public arguments over whether those delays were intended to keep critics of town development from showing up at town hall, the Washington Town Council held a public hearing on a special-use permit application Monday night at town hall.

Everyone showed up, critics and otherwise, and there was no argument.

There was disagreement, yes, primarily about the balance of residential versus commercial presences in town, during more than an hour of discussion among the council and many of the 30-plus town and county residents who filled the pews and stood in the back.

In the end, though, the council unanimously approved a permit, with a one-year review and renewal, that would allow White Moose Inn owner Jim Abdo’s hotel staff to book and manage an occasional tourist home at 199 Main St. owned by Deborah Winsor.

The decision came at a meeting at which the council renewed two other special-use permits; at which Mayor John Sullivan announced that another Abdo initiative — to bring a Red Truck Bakery commercial outlet and cafe to the former Rappahannock News building he owns at 159 Main St. — would not be happening “in the foreseeable future”; and at which at several county residents who’ve been actively campaigning for the town to lose its charter and become an unincorporated part of Rappahannock County sat quietly, for the most part, and observed the evening’s markedly civil proceedings.

Winsor, a D.C.-based interior designer who said she plans to base her August Georges business and showroom in the adjacent building on the property (the former office of attorney Alan Dranitzke), told the council she also plans to live in the house next door whenever she is working in town.

She wants to make that house available when she’s not here to visitors — a maximum of four adults at a time, who would rent the entire home as a unit — to recoup some of the purchase and renovation costs, and that she and Abdo, a friend, came up with the plan to offer the house as more family-friendly option than any of the six suites at the White Moose.

“But I do plan on coming here with my kids,” she said. “I have three girls, and I’m looking forward to spending time there. I have two dogs. I lost my husband a year and a half ago, so this is sort of a respite for me.”

The application was opposed in letters written to the council by Elizabeth Buntin, 98, who lives next door and who worried that “if our property were hemmed in on both sides by tourist homes [Foster Harris House B&B is on the opposite side] it would affect our property value,” and that adding another tourist home would “put the residential nature of the town out of balance. Preserving the village atmosphere is very important; it is what draws people out here. I think there is danger that Main Street will become a tourist strip.” A letter from town residents Brad Schneider and Wendy Murdoch voiced similar concerns about whether a tourist home was a “commercial” or “residential” — the latter, in Schneider’s view, being the more desirable.

After town resident Krista Weeks rose and asked Winsor directly how often she would be staying in town and how often in the city, council member Dan Spethmann interrupted to point out that his wife and he own a home on Mount Salem Avenue and also have a home in Maine, and that “if someone were to ask me that question, I would frankly tell them . . . ‘We live in both places. These are both our homes, that’s how we conduct business.’

“If the applicant wants to have a business in an existing business location, and if it’s going to be part-time, which is rather common here, then how how much time they spend there or not is kind of outside the scope of this SUP application,” Spethmann said. “The SUP issue is, ‘Can the applicant have people stay, with the residence being maintained by the White Moose Inn?’ That to me is the only question that’s on the table.”

“The zoning ordinance, as [town zoning administrator] John McCarthy stated in his preamble, allows a bed and breakfast or tourist home in a village residential zone,” said council member Gary Schwartz. “As a matter of fact, a tourist home or a bed and breakfast is the only thing that’s allowed in all the zoning districts.”

Ray Gooch, who’s lived in town since 1983 and served on the town council for more than a decade, rose to tell the council members that he, and many others, are concerned that the town’s residential/commercial balance has tilted too far toward the commercial side.

“Your own comprehensive plan can’t really decide if a bed and breakfast is residential or commercial. In one section it’ll say, ‘Well, we won’t count it as commercial, we’ll count it as residential.’ My feeling is, if you’re running a business out of your home, that’s commercial. And we’ve got a residential property that was fully occupied, well-maintained, it wasn’t vacant, and my understanding is the initial representation by the new owner was that she was going to live there.”

“I do not believe that is true,” said Sullivan.

Gooch said the council’s precedents for continuing to approve permits that turn residences into commercial properties is heading in the wrong direction; among the examples he cited was the former residence of Claudia Mitchell at 309 Jett St. that is now the newspaper’s office.

Gooch quoted from the town’s comprehensive plan: “If too many residential structures were to be converted to commercial use, the town could further lose population and/or the current residents could become overwhelmed by commercial and tourist activity. While the town favors recapturing some additional commercial vitality, there must be limits on the commercial capacity of the town.”

“I think you need to think about that,” Gooch said, addressing the council.

Sullivan replied that Gooch had raised “legitimate issues and concerns. And what you say is true when you go back to 1983, but I would suggest most of the changes you’re talking about occurred many years earlier . . . It’s also true that the population of this town declined significantly from 1990 to 2010. But I would submit that, post 2010, or post-wastewater treatment plant — the purpose of which was meant to allow people to get off septic and have the town grow, both residentially and commercially — that there has been in fact quite a bit of growth. You can go building by building and see people who are buying into this town, and into residences . . . It’s becoming a place that people actually want to come and live.”

“Your point is well taken,” Sullivan said. “But the notion that the town is currently in a decline, and the notion that residential is disappearing in some significant way, I think it’s not true. What this council has been trying to do, and it’s never been a secret, is getting people to want to move here, to live here and to do business here.”

“I don’t want to debate my feelings or emotions,” said Schwartz, “but I’ve been on the planning commission for 10-plus years, and with that, and with the implementation of the wastewater system — the basis for that was to get growth going again. Four and a half years later, growth is happening. The zoning ordinances have stood the test of time . . . Let’s talk about population. Yes, it’s dwindled down. Has it dwindled because we’ve turned one or two residences into commercial? I don’t think so.

“If there’s 107 structures and many, many years ago we had 500 people in town, those structures didn’t disappear — so there was probably about five people per structure. Anybody knows that families disappear and lifestyles have changed, and children move out, and if we have 130 people in about 100 structures, we now have 1.3 people per structure . . ..”

Schwartz said his analysis of town zoning shows that 67 percent of the properties are residential. In residential zones, he said, 55 percent of the properties are owner-occupied, about 20 percent rentals. Owner occupied B&Bs, tourist homes and hotels account for about 3 percent of the properties in town.

“From a zoning standpoint,” he said, “the sky is not falling.”

After commenting on the town’s struggle to achieve “balance,” Gay Street Inn owner Gary Aichele said, “I guess it boils down to . . . are we being bought? Or are we welcoming new neighbors?”

Winsor rose at that point to say she hoped she would be welcomed as a neighbor, noting that she’s not new to the area and hiked the mountains here when she was a teenager.

“I have a tricky situation . . . I have a third-grader, a sixth-grader and a sophomore in college. I don’t know, and I can’t answer those questions [about how much time she will spend in town] because I’m still working through it all. But am I committed here? Yes . . . I’m hoping I’m an asset to the town; I want to be. ”

McCarthy spoke briefly to explain that B&Bs and tourist homes were originally put into the village residential districts in the zoning ordinance because many were using their homes as B&Bs but didn’t offer minimum off-street parking allowances, which the ordinance requires. “The comprehensive plan is the poetry,” he said. “The zoning ordinance is the prose, and it may be time for the council to rethink whether you want to allow B&Bs and tourist homes in every zoning district.

“But then, when I came here, Claudia’s house was a doctor’s office. The Pullen house was a telephone exchange. Things will always change,” he said.

The council approved the permit on the condition that it come back before the council for a review in a year.

Other developments in town

The council also approved, unanimously, renewing permits — without further reviews — for Foster Harris House to continue serving meals to non-guests on weekend evenings, and for the county to continue to use the emergency pager broadcast tower near the old jail. The Foster Harris house permit had been approved a year ago with the provision that it be reviewed again a year later; McCarthy said his office had received no complaints.

Sullivan mentioned near the start of the council session that Red Truck Bakery owner Brian Noyes had decided against moving a commercial-baking and cafe operation into the former Rappahannock News building. Noyes said this weekend that he was considering a commercial site in Marshall, closer to I-66 and shipping routes, but that having some sort of place in Washington “was still an ultimate goal.”

Meanwhile Stonyman Gourmet Farmer owners Susan and Alan James’ second attempt to gain an injunction on the impending sale of their leased property on Gay Street to the Inn at Little Washington failed for a second time to gain traction in circuit court early last week.

Their 15-day deadline to file further actions against Sunny View, an LLC owned by former Sunnyside Farm owner David Cole and local agent Jimmie DeBergh, is up tomorrow (Friday, Aug. 19); as of this Wednesday, no filings had been recorded in the clerk’s office.

The Jameses’ suit, filed on May 20, alleges Sunny View failed to honor a 2011 oral agreement — a “right of first refusal” for Stonyman to purchase the property should it come up for sale. DeBergh has said the property was to be sold to the Inn at Little Washington for $550,000. The Jameses also alleged DeBergh failed to honor a second oral agreement to extend their lease to April 30, 2016.

Meanwhile, longtime Huntly resident Tim Pagano, who was present at Monday’s town council meeting but didn’t speak, said this week he has not had any substantial response from state Del. Michael Webert or Sen. Mark Obenshain about his request — also presented to the county supervisors at their monthly meeting Sept. 8 — that they pursue the revocation of the charter for the town of Washington, based on its decline in population to 130, and that its management would be more properly and cost-effectively handled by the county government.

Pagano, who also requested that the legislators work to amend the relevant current state laws, which appear to favor the revocation of municipal charters if the municipality itself initiates the action.

McCarthy, in his role as county administrator, said he is working on a memo to the supervisors about the probabilities (not very high, he said) and challenges (numerous, and related primarily to a jurisdiction’s debts being transferred to another) of such an effort. He said the issue could be on the agenda for discussion at the board’s Oct. 6 session.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 545 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.