Three supervisors open to the project

Black Kettle 3

The concept/preliminary layout illustration of the proposed Black Kettle Commons project in Washington.

Clarification: This story has been updated from the print edition version to more accurately represent Supervisor Debbie Donehey’s position on the project. 

The Black Kettle Commons Project — suspended somewhere between a vision and a formal proposal — has quietly cleared a show-stopper hurdle, with three County Supervisors now open to a boundary adjustment that would slightly enlarge the town of Washington and pave the way for the mixed-use development to advance. 

Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson has joined Chris Parrish (Stonewall-Hawthorne) in expressing support for the boundary adjustment. Debbie Donehey (Wakefield) said, “I still need more information on the project,” but isn’t rejecting the notion of an eventual adjustment. Still Donehey is sensitive to concerns about redrawing lines: “I know people are concerned that if we do one boundary line adjustment there will be more.”

“There are elements that would be of benefit to the county,” Whitson said in an interview, “and the upside for our citizens appears to outweigh any downside of making that small adjustment.” Action on the issue awaits submission of a formal proposal, setting out in detail how the project, unveiled last year, would take shape on land that currently straddles the town and the county. As the specifics emerge, legal, financial and environmental snags could complicate the realization of the project, but barring surprises the crucial boundary shift appears secure. 

Washington resident Chuck Akre, who owns the nine-acre parcel, would donate property and a building to serve as a permanent home to Rappahannock County Food Pantry, which loses its rental space near Sperryville late this year. Other elements of the mixed-used project could include up to 20 rental housing units, designed for elderly people or young couples, groups that might value convenience and affordability. There would also be community spaces, offices for non-profits, and possibly a new home for the Rappahannock County Public Library. The parcel abuts the land where the new Washington Post Office is under construction. 

Last year, in a meeting to explain the concept to the Board of Supervisors, Akre said that the boundary change would be necessary because the town declined to extend its public sewer system outside the town limits. But assuming the property can be tucked inside the town, Washington officials for the most part are prepared to embrace the Black Kettle idea.

Financially, the town would benefit from sewage hookup fees, followed by new usage fees that would spread the costs of its $4 million wastewater treatment plant. The county, for its part, would bring in new property taxes, which constitute the largest contribution to county revenues. Currently, the largely neglected parcel is defined by swampy wetlands and the ruins of a motel, and contributes little to the coffers of either town or county. 

Washington Treasurer Gail Swift said she supports the project with the boundary adjustment, but she warned that “Black Kettle won’t be a rescue” to the town’s financial strains. She is pushing a water and sewage rate increase, which will be the focus of public hearings on April 12. 

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Similarly, Washington Council member Joseph Whited said the project “could be a dent” in the town’s obligations related to the wastewater project, and he has also said that rate increases are needed independent of what happens on the new project. He adds that “capacity won’t be a problem” for the treatment plant if and when the project comes to fruition.   

Residents who are supportive or broadly sympathetic to the proposal worry that Black Kettle Commons will reignite old firestorms in the county. Some have dubbed the mixed-use idea “Bike Trail Two,” referencing the bitter debate over a mile-long trail that, if approved, would have connected the high school with the elementary school at no expense to the county using donated and state-provided funds. (The Board of Supervisors ultimately rejected the idea.)

While Washington is associated with costly meals and pricey real estate, Black Kettle Commons wouldn’t be a playground for wealthy residents and visitors. The Food Pantry, for example, serves the least wealthy residents of the county, and the library and other community spaces would be designed to appeal to all residents and non-profits in the county. Similarly, rental housing for young families and the elderly wouldn’t appeal primarily to those seeking luxury.  

Swift noted that the proposed project “satisfies both the town and county comprehensive plans.” The town’s 2017 plan noted that Washington’s population had dwindled from 247 in 1980 to 128 in 2015. The plan called for Washington to “address the need for a small increase in population while maintaining the spirit of a small town community and its culture of hospitality.” 

The county’s comprehensive plan encourages “residential development within the designated village areas.”

Whitson also underscored the small scale of the plan: the boundary adjustment, which has prompted some warnings of a domino-effect annexation drive, would slice 3.5 acres from a total county acreage of 170,496. 

These endorsements notwithstanding, the details of the project will be scrutinized from legal, environmental and financial viewpoints, and opponents will be unlikely to shy away from active debate. 

Akre declined to comment for this article.