Harpers Ferry at the mercy of landmark decision in Charleston.   

A bill has passed the Legislature taking away the authority of the Harpers Ferry Town Council regarding anything relating to the Hilltop House hotel.

A developer has proposed demolishing the remains of the current hotel (it’s partially collapsed) and replacing it with a resort hotel/conference center. Clearly, this would be a boon to tourism in Jefferson County.

But the developer and the town government have had great difficulty agreeing on circumstances that would get the town’s approval to move forward. Each side has blamed the other. This has gone on for several years.

Senate bill 657 passed the Senate in mid-February. The House bill (they were identical in content when introduced) has a different number. But since the Senate bill moved first, that’s the one that was officially considered by the House. That’s the way we usually do things in the Legislature.

The gist of SB 657 is that the state Development Office could, under certain circumstances, take over the authority of a Class IV municipality in the case of a tourism development project. The Development Office would declare that the municipality had been dragging its feet. The governor appoints the director of the Development Office. A Class IV municipality is a town of 2,000 or fewer population.

The bill authorizes the Development Office to declare a “tourism development district” completely or partially within a town. Every property in the “tourism development district” would have to be under the ownership or control of the developer in question. Within that district, the town loses the ability to have any say regarding planning, zoning, water, sewer, streets, historic preservation, the viewshed, and other functions of government. Once declared, the “tourism development district” lasts for 99 years.

I support the proposed hotel. But I think it’s a travesty to allow the governor to usurp the authority of municipal government in a small town just because the governor doesn’t like decisions made by that town’s government.

Terrible Precedent Set

A particularly serious problem with SB 657 is that it removes all authority to regulate “historic preservation.” I argue there is more real history per capita in the town of Harpers Ferry (population 290) than in any other town in the country. Yet this bill says history is irrelevant when considering Harpers Ferry.

I had thought that an amendment would be offered placing the state Historic Preservation Office in charge of regulating historic preservation in a “tourism development district” created under this bill. No such amendment was offered. Had I been made aware in time that no such amendment would be forthcoming, I would have offered one myself.

I did propose an amendment to the bill which would have provided that the Development Office could only exercise the authority given it in the bill after a referendum was approved in the municipality in question.

I don’t like removing the authority of a municipal government. But if we’re to do such a thing, we should give that authority to the people of that municipality, not the governor.

On Friday, February 21, my amendment was defeated by a large margin: 84-13. On Monday, February 24, the bill passed the House of Delegates 88-11 (I voted NO).

The problems with this bill go far beyond Jefferson County. SB 657 permits as many as five “tourism development districts” in Class IV municipalities. I think we’ve set a terrible precedent by the passage of this bill, and that precedent goes beyond just Class IV municipalities. I fear that any town, city, or even county government is, at least theoretically, potentially in danger because of SB 657.

— Mr. Doyle represents Jefferson County in the WV House of Delegates—District 67.

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