Up in the Hollow: ‘They Destroyed Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot’

The parking lot at the Trinity Episcopal Church recently got all gussied up with new pavement, pretty shrubbery and some retro-looking street lamps. Surely everyone in Rappahannock County has used that parking lot at some point in their lives. Over the years, the Church has been generous in sharing it with customers of the Post Office, the Country Café and the Inn.

The new lot is smaller and seems somewhat less welcoming than its previous incarnation. It appears more to be a parking lot for the old Clopton House, now called “The Parsonage,” yet another major addition to The Inn at Little Washington.

But the story of the renovation of that parking lot reveals more about the dynamics of our county seat than about that little patch of asphalt. For many of us, who have become accustomed to shaking our heads in disbelief about the machinations of the town council, this one might take the cake, and I don’t mean those delicious coconut cakes at the Café.

Several years ago, the Inn did some exterior work on its front, and began the renovation of the Clopton House. Then in June 2013, at a town council meeting, Mayor John Sullivan announced a “partnership” between the town, Trinity Church and The Inn at Little Washington to create a “Town Square” at the corner of Main Street and Middle Street. (Never mind the fact that the intersection of Main and Middle Streets looks about as much like a town square as Mayor Sullivan looks like Lady Gaga.) Accompanied by architectural renderings of the church’s parking lot and the Inn-owned Krebser Building, which houses the U.S. Post Office, council member and Inn owner Patrick O’Connell said the project would cost as much as $180,000. The praise for the plan was effusive and self-congratulatory. The mayor said that the project had “been in the works” for quite some time.

Rev. Jennings Hobson of Trinity Episcopal Church made a pitch for $15,000 from the town to improve the parking lot. Following Hobson’s appeal, Vice-Mayor Gary Schwartz said, according to the News, “I think this is a good place to put some of the town’s beautification funds (and) added that he’d like to see some sort of safety lighting installed around the Trinity lot.”

“It’s time to do it,” agreed Council member Mary Ann Kuhn, “and I’d like to see the town help (out) in some way.”

“Kuhn then suggested the Council donate $20,000 ‘to parties performing the work, or other parties responsible for the enhancement of the Trinity Church Parking Lot.’ ”

At the same Council meeting, Mayor Sullivan and Councilman O’Connell made it clear that as part of the arrangement, the “stub” of Middle Street would be transferred to O’Connell’s ownership. That busy little piece of the street is familiar to anyone who eats at the Café, visits the Post Office, or does business in the offices in the rear of the Post Office.

“… Sullivan introduced the idea of ceding ownership of it to the Inn. That would put O’Connell in charge of the upkeep of the road and enable him to more fully include it in the beautification project,” the News reported. “The town puts forth no real effort to maintain that street,” Sullivan said.

Perhaps at that point the mayor might have explained why the town “puts forth no real effort to maintain that street.” He is, after all, where the buck stops on maintaining streets. And the town had all that beautification money left in the budget!

But never mind. What you had here was a deal that was cooked up and done before the council meeting. It was yet another “fait accompli” presented to the 30 or so citizens who bothered to vote for the unopposed town council in the last election, and the 80 or so non-voters who felt that voting without a choice would not have mattered. So it was politics as usual in the county seat, and everyone congratulated everyone else on what a wonderful “win-win” the whole thing was and went off for drinks.

One cannot help thinking that this work would have gone on normally without the involvement of the town government, as it has always gone on before. And there is a serious “flaw in the slaw,” as Rosco P. Coltrane used to say. Where in the laws of the commonwealth does it say that a municipal government can give money to a private enterprise? The answer is it does not. And Virginia law is very specific that municipal funds cannot be appropriated to a church.

A six-year-old kid could Google section 15.2-953 of the Virginia Code, which states that appropriations to churches are expressly forbidden, saying, that monies cannot go to any “institution or association … controlled in whole or in part by any Church or sectarian society.” In Virginia, churches may not receive public funds. Perhaps the town could find a six-year-old kid to do their legal research.

So let us review: The “partnership” consisted of the Inn, the Trinity Church and the town of Washington. The Inn owns more than 20 properties in the town and is constantly repairing and renovating its properties. Out of this deal, The Inn got a free street and a nicer parking lot for the church, a lot the Inn uses. The church asked for and got $20,000 from the town for their parking lot.

And the town got … well, the town is out one very valuable public street and $20,000, and apparently broke the law while doing so. Brilliant.

There’s a front-page story about this same subject here.