Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop began his second term on July 1, and we featured him in that month’s issue. He stated then that “… as a town, we have a tremendous amount of work to do, requiring clear heads and true public service on the part of elected officials—for the good of the community, the region, the state, our national historical park, and all of the visitors to our national treasure, historic Harpers Ferry.”
He established a vision and agenda for the next two years, and showcased much of it in the piece we ran in July. With his first 100 days now productively behind him, we circled back with Bishop to see where his initial vision has landed, and what the future holds for Harpers Ferry.
“So when I was reelected, I took the information—the substance of that last article—and I lined it out for the new Town Council as my plan for the next couple of years here,” he pointed out. “A lot of the things were and are already underway, but this is what I want to push forward—it’s important to have a vision for the community as a public servant.”
Public safety was an area Bishop wanted to give a lot of attention, and he has. “We’ve figured out a way within our budget to refinance, rebuild, and reinvigorate our police department—which is something I started a couple years ago, but we continue to improve, with a new officer and new equipment, new computers, body cameras, new vehicles, and as a result, we now have night-and-day coverage.”
Bishop also indicated that Harpers Ferry interfaces and coordinates efficiently with the National Park Service (NPS). “Because it’s not just not a little town—we’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming through here. But it’s a very safe community for people, so it’s working out. We also continue to try to negotiate with the town of Bolivar; I’ve written letters trying to get back into a negotiation with them because I think there’s a lot of residents in Bolivar that would like us to do the policing up there, because we’re right here, rather than the county. So, we’re currently trying to get that conversation started again.”
In addition to the support the police department has received, Bishop explained that he “… continues to improve the budget and level of support for the fire department as well.”
A Firm Position
On the residential property side of things, the mayor is moving forward on “buildable lots” in town. “We’ve got an engineering firm whose written and prepared a request for proposal, and that’s for the elected officials to decide—are we going to invest money into opening up some more buildable lots in Harpers Ferry?” he said. “So we’re looking into how we’re going to come up with that money and do those improvements—because there are people in town that own property that’s not accessible. If we engineer and improve some of these streets, there can be more residential housing … maybe a half-dozen lots or so. But there are other places in town that you could potentially improve similarly. I say that because I want people moving into town—there are some empty lots and I just think it’s an ideal place to live.”
One property in particular simply goes by its name at this point—a name which elicits passionate opinions, feelings, and perspectives, all of which Bishop has endeavored to navigate throughout his time as mayor. So, where does the Hill Top House situation currently stand?
“This is obviously a big topic—it’s unfortunate that so much negative information has surrounded it,” Bishop pointed out. “I’ve been dealing with these folks [SWaN Hill Top LLC, a Leesburg, VA-based hotel and resort developer] for a couple of years now as the mayor and they’ve communicated with me that our water rates are unacceptable—even though we’re in the process of building a new plant—and the systems to deliver the water … but in their view, it’s just too expensive. So, they think our water and sewer rates are too high. Additionally, our building permit fees are apparently too high, our review team is too expensive, our facilitator, our planner—they don’t like him—our public rights of way and streets that run through their development—they feel they need to privatize and own them. Our health and sanitation codes—and in some cases—our mayor and town council, are unacceptable.”
Bishop added that SwaN has either stated or put into writing all of these grievances. The path to success for Hill Top House quite literally depends on both sides figuring out how to resolve these issues. “There is such a path, I believe—there’s been a consensus of the previous council and the new council that we could come to some kind of agreement through either legal easements or leases of some of this property, but the stance has always been: we’re not selling you [SWaN] our national treasure to privatize. It’s an issue on that pathway to success, so I don’t know how we’re going to get through it, but I don’t believe the sale of that property is the right thing to do. They want to own it—and privatize it—which includes streets.”
Harpers Ferry’s position is firm, said Bishop—it’s not selling the land, for a reason. “The people that both live here as well as come here—from all over the country—they walk these streets, and one of these streets leads to these amazing views on this hill top. They’ve done so for 150 years. Limiting that access strikes a nerve with this community, so maybe it’s a deal breaker, maybe it’s not. But that’s where we are overall, right now. They’re not hotel builders; they’re a private equity firm. So we’re trying to get to some kind of a road deal done here. And truthfully, the thing the town council and mayor look at are these public rights of way. Once we do that, it goes to the board of zoning appeals—then it’s their baby. Looking back, it was supposed to go to the planning commission, then to the BZA, and the place would have potentially been under construction already, but they [SWaN] pivoted onto this road thing, which was never brought up before. And that brought Harpers Ferry back into it.”
Getting Over the Hump
The aforementioned new water treatment plant is a source of great pride and excitement for Bishop. “We’ve developed a state-of-the-art water system to service our town—a brand-new facility, the finest in the state,” he emphasized. “We’re going to build the new plant on Bakerton Road and run about three and a half miles of new service lines into town—including a brand-new connection for the hotel. Our design is done, our permitting is done, and our financing is done. The only thing holding us up—we’ve got a couple of easements with the NPS. One particular easement. But they’re completely behind it overall.”
That easement is actually being held up because the for-profit Jefferson Utilities (JUI) wants in on the action and keeps filing lawsuits against Harpers Ferry.
“The Park Service wants to know that this whole lawsuit issue with JUI is done before they give their blessing on the easement, and we need that easement,” said Bishop. “So it’s been a long road to getting here, but we’re ready to move towards closing on the loan and putting this thing out to bid. Now, the Public Service Commission has already ruled in our favor, so JUI has a couple weeks before the PSC tells them again—stay out of Harpers Ferry. JUI’s last step would be to go to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately keeps delaying progress, causing rates to rise. Hopefully we’re just about over the hump with that.”
To that end, Harpers Ferry and JUI have actually gone to trial in Harpers Ferry Town Hall. “A judge came in and listened to the testimony,” said Bishop. “The judge said Harpers Ferry had done their due diligence—they need to improve their water system—we award in their favor, they’re good to go. But JUI keeps jumping in and filing motions. They actually just filed another motion. They’re a private business; they want the revenue.”
On a related note, storm-water runoff is always an issue with a town that largely sits on one hillside or another. But Bishop has a plan in motion for that too—along with some beautification projects that have also gotten underway.
“One grant we’ve received from the governor, for over three hundred thousand dollars, is being used to fix High Street because it’s a bit of a mess with the way the storm water comes off the hill,” he maintained. “We’re going to fix all that up, and that’s real—in engineering and design right now. And then we have another project down on Washington Street, which is where the hotel’s outfall would be. We’ve been working on fixing up some residential damage caused by runoff where it pours over the hill, but we have to consider that area as well for the hotel’s potential outfall—everything that drains off the parking lots, the buildings, etc. And there’s easements there we have to get as well.”
Ultimately, Bishop is proud of what he’s been able to both accomplish and set in motion as mayor, and continues to cultivate good working relationships and productively enhance his town.
“Our relationship with the Park Service is great—they’re currently putting in fiber optic lines throughout the town for their buildings and offices. They’ve got some projects underway as well, and I’ll continue to support and work with them on those issues. I like that relationship, and we help each other out.
“What people outside of town might not realize is that we’re working hard every day to preserve the parts of this town that make it so special—the historical byways, mini-parks, paper streets, and viewsheds. With the help of some great people in town, we’re finishing up a beautification project on Potomac Street—dimming the lights and putting in benches and trees. And the armory canal trail at the end of Potomac Street—we received a grant to put in a hiking and biking trail moving forward in that area.”
Bishop urges the Panhandle community and beyond to visit Harpers Ferry and experience what it has to offer for themselves. “Some people may not think what we’re doing is a big deal, but I think it’s a huge deal, and I’m glad I have the support to do it,” he noted. “We’re hanging on to our small-town traditions here—for kids, parents, and community. Coming up is our annual Christmas celebration and tree lighting, and then it’s on to Easter. We’ve got beer and wine festivals, music. We’ve got a dark sky at night—you can see the stars. There’s really a lot of positive things happening in town here. Our streets are filled with walking, running, touring, outdoor lovers—it’s a happening little place.”By Mike Chalmers