Town of Washington officials are in the process of exploring expanding the town’s corporate limit so that Rush River Commons’ entire lot, which straddles the town and county lines, could be brought under Washington’s jurisdiction.
Any decision on boundary adjustments would be between Washington Town Council and the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, with both having to independently approve changes then receive the OK from a circuit court judge. While the town appears amenable to property owner Chuck Akre’s request, the path toward approval with the supervisors is much less certain.
Akre and his team at Black Kettle LLC requested in August that the town and county consider making the change so they could gain access to Washington’s water and sewer lines for a portion of the land they hope to one day develop, Akre said. Part of Rush River Commons was approved by Washington Town Council in September, but Akre and the developer want to expand it further.
Since Washington won’t provide water and sewer to the segment of property that sits outside town limits, Mayor Fred Catlin suggested that the developer move forward with the boundary line adjustment request, Akre said. He and his team hope to bring the property under a single jurisdiction to simplify future development.
“It’s easier with one master, rather than two,” Akre said in an interview.
When Town Council approved the first phase of Rush River Commons in September, they also agreed at the recommendation of Catlin to appoint a group, led by former Town Council member and former Washington resident Gary Aichele, who has past experience with boundary adjustments, to study potentially expanding the town’s lines to include Akre’s entire property.
While the study group has yet to be formed, Aichele spent recent weeks reviewing both the town and county’s comprehensive plans, annotating pieces pertinent to development and boundary adjustments, he said.
Catlin said he and Aichele remain in the process of consulting with people to potentially appoint to the group, but the mayor provided no names.
“I’d say it’s premature to give you any kind of sense of where we are. We’ve been doing a lot of heavy lifting. We’ve been doing a lot of exploration … Now we’re just trying to figure out what the study group would look like, what its makeup would be and what its purpose is,” Catlin said.
Unlike the last time Aichele tackled a boundary adjustment involving the Avon Hall property in Washington, Akre’s case will be much simpler, he said, begging the question whether a study group is even necessary.
“It’s quite clear this is a question of two public bodies — the Town Council and the Board of Supervisors — deciding whether they will voluntarily agree to adjust this line. There’s really no study involved if the county says ‘yup’ and the town says ‘yup’ … That’s the law,” Aichele said. “The politics is, why would either side say yes or no. And that’s not really something a study group can [determine].”
Aichele, who’s expected on Oct. 11 to share with the Town Council a recommendation as to how the study group should proceed, indicated the town government is poised to approve the boundary change. But it remains to be seen whether the supervisors follow suit.
Looming over the entire process is the upcoming election, which could shift the supervisors’ ideological leanings on Akre’s request depending on the outcome. Akre declined to comment on how the election may be influencing him and his team. Catlin said he wouldn't comment on “political prognostications” as they relate to the boundary change request.
Nonetheless, town officials plan to move swiftly with the boundary change process.
“There’s no reason to not be expedient … I think Mr. Akre has desired to have this process moved at a decent pace, and I think a lot of times things can get bogged down … for months and months and months, and I’d prefer not to do that,” Catlin said in an interview. If the boundary line is officially adjusted before Rush River Commons’ first phase is expected to break ground in early 2022, it could make construction of the entire lot easier, he added.
In the past, Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, whose district ecompasses Akre’s property, has expressed support for a boundary adjustment, but questioned why it was necessary since the land is already zoned commercial.
“As his local representative, I have assured Mr. Akre that I would do everything possible to make the county permitting process a smooth, professional and objective one,” Whitson said in August.
Wakefield Supervisor Debbie Donehey said she doesn't understand the need for a boundary adjustment, and would need to better understand what the county could gain in return before commenting on how she’d vote.
Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Chris Parrish, who is retiring from the board at the end of this term, declined to say how he would vote on the boundary change before the town makes its decision, but said he sees potential long-term benefits the move could provide for the county.
Allowing the boundary change and Akre’s development would effectively eliminate the possibility of the commercial zone being taken by a big box store or fast food chain, he said. The county would also be able to collect the development’s real estate taxes, and the planned space could potentially be used for future Board of Supervisors meetings, since the courtroom where they currently meet is a temporary site.
“The county wouldn’t really give up anything. It would just be gaining, as far as I can see,” Parrish said.
Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier previously declined to comment on the request since there has been no formal proposal made by the town; Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith declined to comment on Tuesday for the same reason.
Rappahannock County Administrator Garrey Curry in his monthly meeting with Catlin told the mayor last week that the county was waiting for the town to move forward with its end of the deal before formally acting on Akre’s request. The topic isn’t expected to appear on the agenda for the upcoming supervisors meeting, Curry said.
“It’s premature for the county to get too far down that road without even knowing where the Town Council is on the matter,” he said.
While it’s clear what will be developed in the first phase of Rush River Commons (affordable housing, a cafe and a new location for the Rappahannock County Food Pantry), it’s not certain what would be constructed on the remainder of the lot should a boundary change be approved.
Akre said they’re hoping to build a community center and space for the Rappahannock County Public Library to relocate should officials with that organization choose to do so. Aichele said preliminary plans for the land could also include a space for small music concerts or seminars, private temporary workspaces available for rent, and art or tech studios for temporary use.