A gate surrounds the Hill Top House grounds purchased by SWaN investors, including several historic buildings and structures. Photo by Ian Karbal

UPDATE: On March 31, 2023, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Maryclare Akers dismissed the lawsuit brought by residents over the constitutionality of the Tourism Development District law.

HARPERS FERRY — From a bluff in Harpers Ferry, tourists and residents could once catch a view of the shale cliffs and tree-covered Appalachian mountains lining the Potomac river as it flows northeast towards its ultimate mouth in Chesapeake Bay. It’s one of the town’s most iconic views, featured on postcards and promotional material for the town as a tourism destination. 

Now the view is blocked by a black fabric fence, sometimes guarded by security. It’s covered in renderings of what the area could look like someday, once the long-delayed replacement of the 134-year-old Hill Top House Hotel with a brand new resort is complete. Over the past 15 years, debate over the project has divided the small town’s residents — including screaming matches in public forums, accusations of voter fraud and even death threats. But now, even while some continue to oppose the project, one thing is clear: the town no longer has a say in whether or not the hotel is built.

In 2020, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill allowing officials to create special districts to encourage tourist-attracting projects in small towns. But these Tourism Development Districts come at a price: they’re allowed to bypass hurdles imposed by municipal laws. 

A sign marks the Harpers Ferry Historic District. Photo by Ian Karbal

The land around the Hill Top House Hotel is the first, and so far only one, of these districts, but the new law means the town itself has little control over what is one of the most beloved and well-trod overlooks in the region. While investors in the new resort have promised to keep access open to the public, the legislation has allowed them to strip the town of powers that have long been the bedrock of municipal governance and could ensure the historic slice of land remains accessible and not overdeveloped.

Now, the fence is up and local laws like zoning requirements keeping certain parts of the property open to the public no longer apply. For former mayor Wayne Bishop, who opposed the legislation, the new tourism district has taken away a resource that was central to Harpers Ferry’s character and continued financial success. 

“That’s a 19th century village and that’s not a renewable resource. That’s why people like to come here, and it’s unknown as to what will come there,” Bishop said. “They used to say we want a hotel at this end of the town, not a town at this end of the hotel.”

The hotel’s developers have promised to keep their new building in the spirit of the original, and to ensure public access to the land.

“It’s our intention to honor the legacy of the hotel’s founder,” Karen Schaufeld, one of the lead investors, wrote in their application for Tourism Development District status. “We have agreed to maintain permanent public access by pedestrian easement to the Promontory Overlook.”

A stalled project

It was 2007 when the Schaufelds — Karen and her husband Fredrick, two investors from Virginia — first proposed the idea of turning the run-down and defunct Hill Top House Hotel into a luxury hotel that could rival the Greenbrier. They promised to respect the historic property’s footprint, as well as its history. The property sits just blocks away from the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park — the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid of a federal armory. And Hill Top House itself was established in the 1800s by a Black West Virginian born into slavery before the start of the Civil War; the hotel later housed multiple U.S. presidents. 

Initially, according to Bishop, the plan was a welcome one. But over time, the investors’ demands on the town, and the scope of their proposed project, ballooned.

In various iterations, an underground parking lot, a virtual golf course and tripling the original hotel’s number of rooms were all proposals on the table, each requiring unique transformations of the original hotel they promised to respect and the land it sat on. Along with a pause in development after the 2008 recession, the effect was a back-and-forth between the investors and the town, when development would begin and demands would be made, and then the process would stall. Throughout, conflicts between residents grew more heated, with each side blaming the other for the slowdown. Meanwhile, the hotel sat unmaintained and began to fall into disrepair.

But the project gained a powerful ally in 2020, when Sen. Patricia Rucker heard there was a chance of the Schaufelds and their company, SWaN, pulling out over disagreements with the city over how they could use and maintain the property. 

“That was like, ‘oh my goodness, we can’t let that happen,’” Rucker said. 

The result was a bill that established special tourism carve outs, exempt from local laws. It allows these districts in up to five West Virginia towns of less than 2,000 people set to receive investments of more than $25 million — like Harpers Ferry and the Hill Top House Hotel renovation.

Images posted on the fence surrounding the Hill Top House grounds show what is expected when demolition and construction is finished. Photo by Ian Karbal

As the state’s first Tourism Development District, the Hill Top House Hotel developers now have rights they sought for years that local officials refused to give them. That includes control over a series of historic walking paths called “paper streets” that lead up to and crisscross the historic bluff. The new district could also allow the project to bypass building and light restrictions, redirect once-public trafficways on their property, and more.

Carol Gallant, a resident who has become synonymous in Harpers Ferry with opposition to the Hill Top House renovations, says she’s not opposed to a luxury hotel in principle. But she believes the proposed project is simply too large, and doesn’t respect the historic property overlooking perhaps the town’s most famous and coveted view of the Potomac.

“They could have accepted the zoning, the lighting, the street grid and started designing a hotel, all the while keeping in mind the character of the original hotel,” Gallant said, which was what she initially believed would happen.

But as SWaN continued to adjust their proposals, she noticed the word “hotel” being replaced with words like “resort” and “campus.”

“It’s hubris,” Gallant added.

Representatives for SwAN didn’t return requests for comment for this story. 

A hotel and its history

Just blocks away from the hotel construction site, Yinching Lin-Chen is frustrated by who she sees as “small town people who don’t want change.” She manages the local Quality Inn and thinks a luxury hotel would be a boon to Harpers Ferry businesses — even less expensive franchise hotels like the one she runs. 

The more interest there is in Harpers Ferry, she says, the better. “And if they don’t want to pay $600 a night or whatever, they can come here,” Lin-Chen laughed.

Before the proposed demolition of the old Hill Top House hotel and the bluff being gated off, Lin-Chen used to sometimes pick up tourists staying at the Quality Inn from the Amtrak station, and many asked to be driven up to the Hill Top House to see the view.

“It really is special,” Lin-Chen said. “I want them to get this thing done so we can go back there.”

But to other longtime residents, the project represents a betrayal of the town’s history which they see as a part of both its character and its tourist draw.

Gallant is one of five residents suing the state of West Virginia over the Tourism Development District legislation that has restricted the town government’s ability to intervene in the project. They’re arguing that in spite of the bill’s allowance for up to five Tourism Development Districts, the measure was designed narrowly to strip Harpers Ferry of its rights of self governance and aid the development of the new Hill Top House Hotel. They’ve also argued that the legislation illegally impedes future legislators’ ability to reverse it with a clause that notes tourism development districts will remain for 99 years.

In an interview, Rucker said the bill was in fact designed with the Hill Top House project in mind. She had heard about the drama and believed that the hotel would be good for the area she represents. She said she wanted to craft legislation that could keep the developers, and others who may end up in a similar situation in the future, from pulling out despite fights with residents.

“I had never once spoken with SWaN or met [the Schaufelds] or had anything to do with them,” Rucker said. “But I went to the session that year thinking, basically, we need to figure out a way to fix this.”

According to Rucker, she and Sen. President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, met with the investors to hear their concerns. They ultimately crafted the Tourism Development District bill with Harpers Ferry in mind, as well as an eye toward potential future situations where similar issues may arise.

Rucker is a far-right Republican who is generally sympathetic to arguments about local control. But she said, in this case, the state’s needs were too important.

“I am for local control — I actually have pushed legislation for local control — but they also need to understand when you close the door on a major project…that is money that could help the kids in the schools, that could help the firefighters,” Rucker said. 

A structure fallen into disrepair on the Hill Top House grounds. Photo by Ian Karbal

The Schaufelds have promised to keep significant historical artifacts intact, and the tourist-drawing view open to the public. But after 15 years of promises, new proposals, negotiations and the drama that divided neighbors in a town of less than 300 people, some are hesitant to believe that with total control of the land, the investors have any reason to stick to their word.

And because of the Tourism Development District, they have no obligation to maintain the historic structures on the land, let alone keep it open to the public.

Now, a judge will decide whether the law is constitutional. Gallant and four other Harper’s Ferry residents are suing Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch in Kanawha County Circuit Court. They’re arguing that the Tourism Development District legislation amounted to state-level intervention in what should be municipal business, and that the law targeted Harpers Ferry itself.

If they succeed, they could overturn the law and potentially delay the Hill Top House project even further. If they don’t, there could be four more Tourism Development Districts coming to other small West Virginia communities.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.