County supervisors are looking for a range of new details on the envisioned Black Kettle Commons project in advance of any formal vote to accommodate the mixed-use project by allowing the town of Washington to take in a slice of land now outside its borders. More broadly, they hope to address the worry among some of their constituents that by agreeing to one boundary shift — albeit a small one — the county may open the door to a flurry of similar requests.
Last week the Rappahannock News reported that three supervisors were now open to a boundary adjustment, but Supervisors Debbie Donehey and Chris Parrish have since emphasized that they need more information before taking a firm position. At this point, the project is a concept, not a formal proposal, but as currently structured, it would require the county to reassign about 3.5 acres to the town since the parcel involved straddles the border.
Supervisors, briefed on the evolving development last year, remain cautious, though Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson has signaled his support for the plan.
As envisioned, the structures making up Black Kettle Commons would occupy land now owned by Washington resident Chuck Akre. Currently the parcel includes wetland sections, a stream, and a deserted motel and restaurant from which the name Black Kettle is derived. The investment manager would donate his parcel and build a new home for the county’s Food Pantry. Other components of the development could include rental housing, offices for local non-profit organizations, and community space. There is also the possibility to house the Rappahannock County Library on the property.
Donehey, Wakefield’s representative, has said the potential project is “an interesting idea” but “I need more information” before making any decisions. For his part Parrish, of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district, reasons that the county must exert care in “relinquishing control” of the land and its uses to the town. He also notes that the parcel is directly across Route 211 from the Rappahannock County Park where dark-skies observation programs are offered and light pollution is a concern. Supervisors Ron Frazier and Christine Smith declined to comment, but are expected to oppose the boundary adjustment when it is formally proposed.
Supervisors may also need further convincing that the boundary shift is necessary for the development to proceed. Washington officials have said that after legal analysis, they determined that it would be difficult for the town to be legally and operationally responsible for portions of its water and sewer system that lay beyond the town borders. In briefings last year, Akre said the boundary change was necessary for the plan to go forward.
Supervisors say they are aware of constituent apprehension of domino-effect boundary expansions, but town officials say these worries are based on fear more than evidence, noting the absence of any other boundary adjustment proposals. (However, the owner of the old grist mill near the entrance of town has proposed converting it into a hotel, which would also require a boundary adjustment to access Washington’s water system.) Parrish acknowledges the tendency for individuals to argue, “if you accommodated somebody, why can’t you accommodate me?” But he says that “every proposal would be analyzed separately,” adding that “it’s extremely unlikely” that proposals similar to the Akre idea would emerge.
What seems clear is that the county could expect a significant jump in general property taxes if what is currently low-value land were developed. Property taxes represent the single largest contribution to county revenues, crucial to support the Rappahannock County Public Schools, public safety, and the full panoply of county services. Supervisors Parrish and Whitson have both pointed to the effect on the county’s general property tax receipts.
The main financial benefit for the town would be hook-up fees for the water and sewage system, and usage fees over time.
By Tim Carrington
For Foothills Forum