At a memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons meeting Monday night (May 11) at town hall, the Washington Town Council definitively — or defiantly, depending on the view from your pew — reaffirmed an action it first took in 2013 to abandon the stub end of Middle Street, a measure that two years later has landed the town in court.
Before the 4-1 vote, the council meeting before more than two dozen town and county residents packed into the town hall’s benches devolved briefly into a shouting match between members of the council, most markedly Mayor John Sullivan, and Rock Mills resident David Konick, the attorney who sued the town and The Inn at Little Washington in March.
Konick’s suit alleges the town broke state procurement and conflict of interest laws and violated the constitutional ban on church-state transactions when it participated in a partnership with The Inn and Trinity Episcopal Church in 2013 to improve the properties around the intersection of Main and Middle streets, voting then to vacate the street and convey it to The Inn, and also appropriating $20,000 for The Inn to use toward the reported $200,000 project.
“I have never been to a meeting like that,” said Rappahannock County supervisor Chris Parrish on Wednesday. Parrish and supervisor Ron Frazier attended the town council meeting; Frazier did not speak but Parrish rose at one point to say he had tried over the past month to broker some sort of compromise — and thought Konick and the town should pursue such an agreement. “It will save everybody some legal fees,” Parrish said Wednesday, “and it might just stop all this nitpicking, which as I said is not really doing any good for the county.”
A decision by Judge Jeffrey W. Parker on the Inn and town’s motion to dismiss the suit — a motion that challenges non-resident Konick’s standing to bring the suit in the first place — is expected within the next week.
Meanwhile, the council started Monday night by approving the town’s monthly bills, including some $20,000 in legal fees — 10 times the normal monthly cost — to town attorney John Bennett and Winchester attorney Robert Mitchell, hired to represent the town in Konick’s suit.
Sullivan then opened a public hearing on the town’s proposed FY 2016 budget, closing it a minute later after Sharon Luke asked, and was told, how much the town still owed on its wastewater treatment plant ($2.5 million of the original $3.8 million loan).
Then the mayor opened the hearing on the revised ordinance abandoning the 171-foot stub end of Middle Street west of Main Street, a 30-foot-wide dead-end that runs between properties owned by The Inn, including the Krebser office building housing the U.S. Post Office, the Country Cafe and other tenants. The measure, said Bennett (who has publicly taken the blame for the council’s defective 2013 measures to vacate and convey the street to The Inn), would automatically allow the half of the street to become part of the adjacent properties on each side.
David Fiske, attorney for The Inn and its owner Patrick O’Connell, who is also a town council member, stood to announce that O’Connell would be disqualifying himself from any discussion of the matter. O’Connell left the council table and sat in the front pew next to Fiske. He did not speak again until the matter was resolved about an hour and 15 minutes later.
Fiske then rose again to describe The Inn’s “unbelievably arduous process” to finish the improvements started in 2013.
“Inn has relied on everything that happened here in June and July of 2013. And frankly, we spent a lot of money in reliance on that. I gave Mr. Bennett some figures today, that’s $150,000 — good faith reliance, trying to do something good for the town.”
And some two years later . . . everything is questioned,” he said. “And we’re in complete limbo. I would hope you pass this tonight, once and for all, and get this behind us. I have no doubt that we’ll get sued again. And you know what my response to that is? So what. Mr. Konick has said he’ll keep suing us till the cows come home, my words not his.”
Fiske said the one major reason to settle the street abandonment is the post office — which he said The Inn has “always wanted to remain” in the Krebser building. He said it was the postal service which first decided it needed to stop negotiations for a new lease last year, and said The Inn persuaded the service to reconsider.
Those negotiations have gone on for more than a year, he said, and just as it appeared The Inn could reconfigure the current space to satisfy the postal service’s requirements for handicapped access and better parking — by moving the entrance to the post office to face Middle Street — the ownership of the street came into question (and into court).
“Let me make this very, very clear,” Fiske said. “We can’t keep investing money in this whole charade to move the entrance to the post office, and provide for pedestrian access, and do it in a way that satisfies Mr. O’Connell so it will look wonderful — we can’t keep spending money on that. And we’re not, until all the litigation is over.”
Fiske predicted the post office might tire of the “nonsense” and move elsewhere. “Enough’s enough,” he said.
Demaris Miller, a former resident of town who now lives nearby, rose to say: “In this case the town council is giving a street to a very successful business, but there is nothing in that conveyance to allow further use of that street by the public . . . I think the use of public money and public property should be for public uses. If The Inn is so hot to have that street and the town is so hot to let The Inn have that street, why not let The Inn buy it for appropriate appraised real estate value?”
Marian Bragg, another non-town resident with a Washington mailing address, said she thought the public had a right to know the identity of all owners, directors and officers of the Inn LLC that would own that is now a public street.
Sperryville resident Beth Gyorgy rose to question why the town would take action on the stub street before the circuit court makes any decision in the lawsuit. “I find that amazing,” she said.
Town resident Judy DeSarno pointed out that “all of us have struggled with parking at the post office. I consider it a service that The Inn is willing to take on making that available. Whether [the town’s] $20,000 is involved or not, it will be a service to this community to be able to keep our post office — and I don’t think the post office will stay unless they have better parking and better handicapped access.”
“This will be a convenience for all of us,” she said. “I’m astounded at the people who’ve taken this on as an issue, who don’t live in the town, who don’t pay taxes in the town. I support the town’s action.”
“I think The Inn has a great track record of taking care of all its properties,” said Diane MacPherson, a town resident and co-owner of the Foster Harris House B&B and restaurant. “We think it’s a bargain if you’re able to allow The Inn to do the things to the stub street that they plan to do. [My husband] John and I, and our son Finn and our dog Stella, spend a lot of time on The Inn’s property — the perimeter walking path, the gardens behind the restaurant. We’ve never been booted off the property or been given the stink-eye for being there. It’s made our lives better and we support it.”
Christine Smith, a former Washington resident who now lives in Sperryville, said she was “shocked that anyone would think it’s appropriate to limit parking to a place where people are obviously going, juggling packages and multiple letters. . . . And that was all I was going to say until I heard Mr. Fiske’s comments, and . . . in light of the stranglehold he’s putting on the post office tonight, I shudder to think about what would happen to the post office if the Inn controls the only entrance to or from it.”
Town resident Brad Schneider pointed out that, according to the signs from Main Street to the back of the Krebser building, “there really is no parking now on the stub street.” Schneider’s wife, Wendy Murdoch, pointed out that The Inn has “acted as owner of the stub street for nearly two years. And in those two years, there’s been no change in restrictions, they’ve not stopped people from parking there . . . I have my trust that The Inn to do the right thing and make it work, make it actually easier for handicapped people to get in the post office . . . . Sounds to me that The Inn has actually been held up by the [legal] questions about the stub street . . . .”
Jay Brown, a former town resident who with partner Kevin Adams plans to open a new gallery and art studio on Gay Street, said all comments should be welcomed at town meetings, “because not all wisdom is to be found solely within the limits of the town.
“On the other hand,” he said, “the town council is elected to represent people who live in this town, and I would urge you when you vote on the issue before you to pay particular attention to the views of the people who live in town, first and foremost. And I for one have not heard a single resident of town, either in this forum or in prior meetings, or any other context, speak in opposition to the plan to transfer to the stub street.”
At this point, Konick rose to say he was not a town resident but has had a post office box in town since 1977, and “I’ve lived in the county and been an active participant, one way or another, in town affairs and county affairs for longer than almost everybody on this council . . . .”
Konick then presented a petition signed by about 50 people who he said were patrons of the post office, including six town residents (including former town council member Dorothy Hawkins and north end residents Lisa Leftwich and Skippy and Pat Giles, among others), to request the town appoint a three- to five-member panel to “view such public right-of-way and report in writing any inconvenience that would result from discontinuing the right-of-way in accordance with Virginia Code 15.2-2006 before abandoning or vacating any portion of Middle Street.”
“If it is requested by any person,” Konick said, “you are required by law —”
“Let me stop you right there,” town attorney Bennett said “It says ‘may.’ It’s not a legal requirement. ‘May appoint viewers,’ the code says.”
“All right,” Konick said, “thank you for interrupting me.” He noted that the request had now been made, via his petition.
Sullivan then cut in and asked if Konick wanted him to read the petition aloud. Konick hesitated, and said “Sure, you can go ahead and read it but don’t cut into my time, if you’re going to interrupt me — ”
“Mr. Konick, I will read it,” Sullivan said, clearly losing his temper, “and you will not tell me what I’m going to do or not do, and you will get your fair shake. This is not your meeting. This is not the David Konick Show.”
Sullivan read the petition aloud.
“All I would add to that is,” Konick said, “you can’t vacate the street . . . unless you make a finding that it doesn’t serve a public purpose.” Konick then added the town was improperly combining the abandonment and conveyance of the street, and that the law required the town to assess the property at its fair market value.
The other streets abandoned over the years by the town, Konick said, were never conveyed to the abutting landowners. “This is not what the town council did in the other cases . . . . Unless and until you, Mr. Mayor, disclose whether you have an interest in this, and who has an interest in this limited liability company, I think it’s a bad step, because —”
“— Mr. Konick, I don’t have a goddamned cent of interest in anything to do with the Inn at Little Washington,” Sullivan said, “in any form whatsoever, so just cut that stuff out —”
“— I’m just asking if you do,” Konick said. There ensued a brief shouting match, in which others joined in.
“Why am I being cut off and Mr. Fiske got 15 minutes?” Konick said.
“Mr. Konick, you are no longer recognized by the chair,” said Bennett.
“You want to keep going after my character, something you’ve been doing for a year?” Sullivan said.
At the point at which Konick began shouting at Sullivan that “You started this, not me,” Harris Hollow resident Sarah Walton, sitting in one of the side pews, shouted, “Just shut up!”
After Sullivan raised his hands and said, “We should all just calm down, including me,” Gary Aichele, the newest member of the town council and co-owner of the Gay Street Inn, took the floor, and made a motion that the meeting be adjourned for 10 minutes.
“You all don’t want to adjourn just vote me down,” Aichele said. “But this is not helpful, this is not productive. Yelling and screaming at at a town meeting, to the point where someone should get the sheriff, is not helpful.
“Public meetings, the meetings I attended the first year, when my wife moved to this town, were not like this — because I would not have stayed! And I would certainly have not accepted appointment to this council. In the past year, what I believed I knew about the place I moved to and invested my entire future life to, has proven to be something rather different.
“If I wanted this crap, I could’ve stayed in the city,” he said. “And dealt with the crap politicians.”
Aichele said he still feels he and his wife made the right decision to move to the town of Washington, but added that “I’ve felt pulled and tugged to join one camp or another over the last year.”
“At some point,” he said, “civility, trust, common sense have to prevail. I don’t know if you’ve noticed the character of the people in this room — we all care deeply . . . . But we’ve got to not shout at each other. We have to stop impugning each other’s characters and motives, and try to deal as much as we can with facts as they present themselves.”
The shouting did not immediately cease.
Audrey Regnery, another non-town resident with a Washington mailing address, stood to suggest that recent court cases allowed the town to restrict the comments of non-residents, and recommended the town council consider doing this themselves.
Sharon Pierce, a former county planning commission chair from Woodville, started to speak about how county “supports the town,” at which point one council member started to protest, “Excuse me, do not interrupt me, haven’t you ever been to a county meeting — we don’t do this!”
Bennett pointed out that every town resident pays county taxes. Aichele said that it was frustrating to hear statements made by members of the public that were “just not true” and to keep quiet.
Gyorgy, rising a second time to protest the interruptions and rudeness that marked the night’s meeting, added: “I would suggest that people look at why lawsuits are being filed . . . I think the world of Patrick, and what he’s done for this town — that’s not the issue. The issue is, some day, Patrick’s going to be gone, it happens to all of us — the issue is the proposal to convey this street to an LLC whose investors are unknown.”
Town resident Lisa Leftwich said that in her part of town, in its northern, primarily residential end, “it feels like the only part of town that’s homey anymore. When I go into the middle of town, I feel like an outcast and unwelcome stranger, and it’s because of the presence of all these cars in the parking lot, and there’s nowhere to park at night to get my mail . . . I just want the town to not become a resort, where I’m a stranger. And my heart is really kind of broken to see this kind of hatred and fighting going on here tonight.”
There were more comments from the public, council members and, especially, from Bennett — who maintained that the town could never hope to draw any “market value” from a dead-end street completely surrounded by private property, that the stub street itself represented no public interest, and that a 15-foot right-of-way would exist for if the property were transferred to anyone other than a “successor in interest” (a phrase Konick later called a “legal impossibility”).
Council member Mary Ann Kuhn asked, since the ordinance had only been delivered to council members an hour or so before the meeting, the decision could be tabled until next month. Katherine Leggett seconded the motion. Sullivan, Aichele and treasurer Jerry Goebel defeated the motion to delay the decision.
When the vote came to pass the ordinance as it was written and published, Kuhn cast the only vote against it.