HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Public screaming matches erupt between neighbors, and death threats have been reported to the police. There are accusations of election-rigging. The county sheriff has confiscated the town’s ballots, and last week the mayor’s daughter agreed to plead guilty to illegal voting.

The strife seizing Harpers Ferry, population 281, cannot compare to the anti-slavery raid on the eve of the Civil War that made this rural hamlet famous. But while there has been no gunfire and no gallows — yet — the bitter political drama unfolding here easily rivals the one 60 miles away in Washington.

The conflict has spilled far beyond the half-square-mile that constitutes Harpers Ferry. Voting irregularities are being examined by the West Virginia Supreme Court and Secretary of State. In Charleston, state lawmakers are debating a bill that would strip this tiny municipality of much of its authority to govern itself — legislation that could dramatically affect other small towns in West Virginia.

Looming over this drama, figuratively and literally, is the windblown ruin of a 130-year-old hotel. Built in the late 19th century by Thomas Lovett, an African American businessman, the Hilltop House Hotel sits atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Once a destination for statesmen and intellectuals — among them Mark Twain, W.E.B. Du Bois and President Woodrow Wilson — the hotel had suffered years of neglect when out-of-town investors snapped it up in 2007.

In other parts of West Virginia, a state battered by the collapse of mining and other industries, developers promising a $139 million resort might have been celebrated. Not so in Harpers Ferry, whose population of sharp-elbowed D.C. emigres often seem to share more in common with the denizens of Capitol Hill than those of surrounding Jefferson County.

For the past 13 years, the town has been riven by disputes over the new hotel’s size and its design; its parking and sewage needs; and the effects of an influx of clientele for its $500-a-night rooms, underground golf simulator and restaurant overseen by celebrity chef José Andrés. Project consultants have quit in disgust. The owners, Fred and Karen Schaufeld, who live in Northern Virginia, have left the table and come back to it, only to leave again.

Along the way, Harpers Ferry residents coalesced into battle-hardened factions. On one side are those who assert the Schaufelds are trying to run roughshod over the town. Many say they want a new hotel, but that the proposed resort is too big and fancy for Harpers Ferry, whose shabby-genteel charm has changed little in the last 60 years.

“It would be beautiful somewhere else; it does not belong on a hilltop above a tiny 19th-century — 18th-century! — town,” said Carol Gallant, who moved to Harpers Ferry in 1972 and was formerly an aide to several members of Congress. “How many towns are there like this? It’s not just Broken Toe, Arkansas, trying to lure you there with Water World.”

An opposing and equally passionate contingent sees the Schaufelds as accommodating partners whose patience has been tried with a stream of picayune objections that at times defy satire — including, most recently, the project’s impacts on roads that appear in 19th-century planning documents but were never constructed.

“We were so lucky to have those owners of that property recognize its value to the town, to the public, and appreciate its history,” said Betsy Bainbridge, a former town council member who moved away late last year. “And the design of it, I thought, is lovely.”

The neighbors divided are, quite literally, neighbors, a number of whom live on the same street at the north end of town. And with town officials at an impasse, the Schaufelds have taken their case to Charleston, where a pending bill would enable the state to strip some towns of much of their power to regulate development projects that support the tourism industry.

Bainbridge said she worries about the bill’s implications but believes the alternative — continued stalemate and recrimination among town residents — is worse.

“I hate to see the state having to take over what should be carried out at the local level, but I think that it’s just gone on too long,” she said. “It’s gotten vicious.”

A ‘dysfunctional family’

Harpers Ferry is best known for the failed attack led against its federal armory in 1859 by abolitionist John Brown, who hoped to inspire an armed slave revolt. The town was later the site of a Civil War battle, and today it hosts a national historical park that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Unnoticed by most of those visitors is a more recent history of acrimonious conflict over everything from parking spaces to littering ordinances. In 1981, a mayor who had run on a platform of restoring harmony to Harpers Ferry quit after three months in office, alleging that his efforts were being undercut by an “ex officio parallel government.”

“It’s unbelievable such a small group of people could live so close physically and be so apart spiritually,” former police chief William Gallinaro, who quit around the same time, remarked that year. Gallinaro, who escaped to Florida, was once bitten on the arm by another mayoral candidate when he tried to impound her car.

For all the insularity and infighting, some residents of Harpers Ferry appreciate their town’s distinctive ethos, equal parts “Twin Peaks” and “House of Cards.”

“I’ve always found it to be like a big, eccentric, dysfunctional family that gathers every year at Christmas,” said Midge Flinn Yost, a longtime town activist and former council member who has sided against the current hotel proposal.

Before its 2007 purchase, some residents say, the Hilltop House Hotel was emblematic of the town’s offbeat appeal. Stones that survived a catastrophic 1919 fire still stood in the building’s walls and dark, paisley carpets stretched down the hallways.

“It was like in ‘The Shining,’ ” Barbara Humes, a council member who worked at Hilltop House as a teenager, said approvingly.

The Schaufelds, who bought the hotel for about $10 million in 2007, had something besides Stephen King’s famous Overlook Hotel in mind.

In an overwhelmingly conservative state long dominated by the coal and timber industries, Fred Schaufeld wasn’t a typical corporate incomer. The managing director of the venture capital firm SWaN & Legend — an investor in companies ranging from Pinterest to Cava — Schaufeld is also a partner in the Washington Nationals and prolific Democratic donor.

He said he and his wife fell in love with Hilltop House during a visit to Harpers Ferry and dreamed of restoring it to its early 20th-century grandeur. Their plans — which initially envisioned 180 rooms before being downsized to 130 — were inspired by an old postcard depicting the structure in 1914.

From early on, the plans for Hilltop House were plagued by discord. The disputes were of the kind that consume zoning and planning boards across the country: boundary lines, public rights of way, traffic control, utility fees. But in Harpers Ferry, compromise was elusive.

Matt Ward, an independent consultant hired to shepherd the project’s regulatory review, resigned in 2010. “I have seldom seen such a dysfunctional local process as the one that is present here, which has resulted from the shenanigans of a few and the apparent unwillingness of the community to reject those tactics,” he wrote to the mayor and council.

The project languished through the Great Recession, as the hotel — shuttered after the new owners discovered unsafe building conditions — turned into an imposing ruin. By 2013, the process began to lurch forward again, and in 2017 town officials approved a landmark ordinance laying out the land-use regulations that would govern the new structure.

“There was a very mild kumbaya moment,” said Wayne Bishop, the current mayor. “Not everybody was happy. But it was done.”

From paper streets to euthanasia

It wasn’t done.

The Schaufelds were soon back before the town’s elected officials, asking to buy several spurs of land known as “paper streets” — routes laid out in the town’s early-19th-century planning grids but never built out for auto traffic. The streets can be used as public rights of way and dot the Hilltop Hotel property.

The owners said they needed a fully intact property to secure financing, but some residents feared a loss of access to the hotel’s promontory and famous views. Schaufeld said he has offered to leave the overlook permanently open to the public, and bristles at the rumors suggesting otherwise.

“It’s one of the points that we hear — that we’re going to take this great asset that belongs to the town and make it unavailable, and only people from Aspen who are going to be wearing, you know, mink stoles and all that are going to come,” said Schaufeld, who still speaks with a trace of his native Long Island.

With the project stalled over the town council’s refusal to relinquish its paper streets, the 2019 election became a referendum on the hotel. The debate didn’t fall along the lines of conventional left-right partisanship. Among those supporting the Hilltop House plans was Martha Ehlman, a progressive Democrat who owns a fair-trade boutique downtown.

Ehlman said she had never taken the side of a big business in a political dispute — and she endured much on account of her activism with Make It Happen, a political action committee formed by residents who support the proposed hotel.

Last spring, she reported harassment on social media from an opponent of the hotel who threatened to “take out every individual involved in your little group . . . starting with you” and suggested to his allies that they “help make [hotel supporters’] world a brighter place by offering a safe place and possible help with euthanasia.”

“Here’s the sad thing, all right? Let me tell you: I love some of these people,” Ehlman said on a recent afternoon, standing in her store amid Peruvian gourd birdhouses, ethically sourced beeswax lip balm and bars of chocolate with a suitably high cocoa content.

“I’m going to cry,” she said, and began crying.

Bishop, the standard-bearer for those who opposed the hotel owners’ plans, saw someone suggest on Facebook that he be drowned in the Chicago River. His wife reported to police that one of their neighbors called her “a piece of s---” while she was walking the dog.

But it was after the campaign was over that things truly got contentious.

After ballots had been cast on June 11, 2019, Bishop’s faction held a four-seat majority on the seven-member council — albeit by the slimmest of margins. Charlotte Thompson, an incumbent opposed to the Hilltop House plans, kept her seat with 84 votes. Nancy Singleton Case, a pro-hotel candidate (and the mayor’s next-door neighbor), had 82.

There were four provisional ballots that had not been tallied.

Those voters were excluded from the town’s poll book because of technical errors involving their addresses at the DMV. Two of them, George and Linda McCarty, are the innkeepers at the Harpers Ferry Guest House, indisputably within town boundaries. The McCartys had placed signs in their yard supporting the Hilltop House slate.

When Case and Deborah McGee, another losing pro-hotel candidate, contested the election, the town council — which doubles as an elections tribunal, and was still controlled by critics of the proposed development — refused to open the provisional ballots.

Linda McCarty, 79, was stunned. “It hit me hard, really hard,” she said. “For the first time in 57 years, my vote wasn’t worth anything.”

Termite takeover

Case and McGee sued, and in November a circuit court judge reversed the decision of town council members, ordering them to count the provisional ballots. The town appealed the case to the West Virginia Supreme Court, where a decision is pending. The unopened ballots have been moved to the evidence locker at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

In a separate drama clouding the integrity of the election, the mayor’s 29-year-old daughter, who lives in Utah, agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of illegal voting last week. The Bishop family declined to comment on the charge.

For the Schaufelds, the electoral antics in Harpers Ferry were the last straw.

Working with a lobbyist in Charleston, they approached state officials to seek a way to build the hotel. Last month, a group of state senators introduced SB 657, which would limit the power of municipalities of 2,000 or fewer residents to regulate the development of tourism-industry projects worth at least $25 million. Such projects would instead be overseen by the state development office. Up to five such “tourism development districts” would be allowed statewide.

The state senate approved the measure Feb. 11, and the House is expected to take it up in the coming days. Last week, the Harpers Ferry town council voted 4-3 to pass a resolution opposing the bill, which critics say will give developers too much power.

State Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), the legislation’s lead sponsor, said she understands those concerns. Nevertheless, she said, “the situation that has occurred in Harpers Ferry is a good example of why we may want to have this tool as an option.”

Rucker, whose district includes Harpers Ferry, supports the proposed Hilltop House redevelopment, and like many of her constituents has fond memories of the old hotel before it closed. For years, she said, her family would eat breakfast there at Christmas.

It has been a long time since she or anyone else sat down in the old building’s dining room, but a feast of sorts continues. Visitors to the bluff overlooking the confluence of two great American rivers must bat away swarming termites — perhaps the only constituency that has profited from the last 13 years in Harpers Ferry.

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