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 have been no gunfire and no gallows 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 District of Columbia 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 that 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 past 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 northern 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."
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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 a range of issues 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 a 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."
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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 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 he 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, New York, accent.
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 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, 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."
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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 Wednesday, 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 thrived in the past 13 years in Harpers Ferry.
President Donald Trump has lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the growing coronavirus outbreak - a posture some in his administration are growing increasingly uncomfortable with as his advisers remain concerned about China's lack of transparency and handling of the epidemic.
Worries about rattled financial markets and their effect on the economy as well as the delicate negotiations with China over a trade deal - a key to Trump's re-election - have played a large role in influencing Trump's friendly posture toward China over the deadly coronavirus, according to several senior White House and administration officials. Trump has heralded Xi's leadership and "discipline" in responding to the outbreak.
"I had a long talk with President Xi - for the people in this room - two nights ago, and he feels very confident. He feels very confident. And he feels that, again, as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus," Trump told the nation's governors last week. "So that would be a good thing. But we're in great shape in our country."
But U.S. and international health experts have for weeks expressed concerns that China has not been fully transparent about the breadth of the outbreak and that it cracked down on doctors who tried to sound the alarm in December. Officials still do not have the information they have repeatedly asked for from China, which some officials have argued warrants a tougher line from the United States.
Trump has repeatedly told advisers pushing for a harder line against China could backfire because Xi controls the government "totally" and will not work with the United States if they say anything negative about the country, said one of these senior administration officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
So far, the United States has only 15 confirmed cases, though officials have warned they expect to see more. On Sunday, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post that 44 Americans who were traveling on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan have been infected.
Trump has remained uncharacteristically restrained in his public comments about the epidemic, which has infected more than 69,000 people, the vast majority of whom are in China. Trump's praise toward Xi has irked some advisers, who believe the compliments are unwarranted as the U.S. is still working to get a team of experts access to data and Chinese sites to study the virus, aid in the response and secure all the needed information.
The U.S. has been working closely with the World Health Organization and engaged in other diplomatic efforts to get its experts into China. Several U.S. experts are now in Beijing, three senior administration officials said, but officials are still working to ensure those experts get access to the data and sites they need. And the CDC still does not have the information it wants, administration officials said.
Although the United States has so far effectively contained the virus, some senior administration officials said there have been tensions within the administration over what information the president should receive, his posture toward China and what message to send to the American public. And several officials said there has been too much focus on evacuating Americans overseas - and too little on what to do if the epidemic spreads within the United States, given the continued growth of the virus.
Trump named a coronavirus task force last month that is led by Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar and composed of top officials from the CDC, National Institutes of Health, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the White House. It came after a Jan. 27 meeting in Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's office, where some officials argued that the administration was not taking the threat seriously enough.
For weeks, the administration's message was that the threat to the American public remained low and the virus was not spreading within communities - but warned that could change. Some advisers recently pushed for a more balanced message because they now expect there to be wider spread in the community as more cases have been reported in countries outside China, according to three officials, and the administration has since adjusted its message to reflect that.
When it became clear late last month that the epidemic was far more serious and widespread than previously known, several major international and U.S. air carriers suspended flights to China for weeks. China has also halted work at several factories across the country as it works to contain the virus, impacting some international companies' ability to conduct business, including Hyundai.
The United States subsequently escalated its response, barring most non-U. S. citizens who recently visited China from visiting the United States and mandating federal quarantines for any Americans who had visited China's Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, within the last 14 days.
The market fell as the outbreak grew. On Jan. 31, the same day several airlines suspended flights and the U.S. announced its escalated response, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 600 points, or 2 percent. Trump grew concerned that any stronger action by his administration would hurt the economy, and has told advisers he does not want the administration to do or say anything that would further spook the markets.
He remains worried that any large-scale outbreak could hurt his re-election bid. Four senior administration officials, including Fauci, a member of the task force, insisted that U.S. actions have been driven entirely by public health considerations and a desire to contain the outbreak.
"President Trump's top priority is the health and welfare of the American people," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. "The president has received regular updates, including from experts within the federal government on infectious diseases."
He added: "Secretary Azar is leading this whole-of-government approach in close coordination with the National Security Council, and is working around the clock to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus."
HHS officials have told Trump that the number of infections could go down in the spring when it gets warmer because most coronaviruses and upper respiratory infections - including the flu - level off as the weather warms.
The coronavirus spreading through China and in about two dozen other countries, however, has never been seen before and little is known about how it behaves or whether it will eventually mutate. The idea that it will taper off in the spring is "mainly an educated guess," according to one senior White House official. In Singapore, for instance, it is above 80 degrees and humid but there are still more than 50 cases of the virus. CDC officials are now warning the president and others in the administration that cases could grow, administration officials said.
"In fairness to the president, someone told him something that has a basis in reality. ... There is some validity in saying respiratory viruses like flu and coronavirus are seasonal," Fauci said. "The only thing is when you're dealing with a pandemic-type virus that is brand new, there's no way of knowing what's going to happen when the weather gets warm."
Some of Trump's own advisers have contradicted his friendly posture toward China in public. Larry Kudlow, the National Economic Council director, said this week the U.S. was "disappointed" in China's response and called on Beijing to be more transparent. Other officials, including Joseph Grogan, the head of the domestic policy council, has told others that China cannot be trusted at all. Peter Navarro, one of the president's top trade advisers, has repeatedly pushed for a stronger tone.
Trump's public statements about the virus and China's handling of it are a stark contrast to his response as a private citizen during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, in which he panned the Obama administration's response and called for the United States to shut its borders and not allow doctors who had been treating patients in Africa to come back to the United States for treatment.
Some officials have complained that Trump's comments about the virus emanate from his briefings with Azar, who they say has been overly controlling in the response and has told other doctors not to get too far into the details of the virus and the outbreak with Trump. Azar is disliked by many in the White House, four administration officials say.
Fauci, however, said Azar has brought medical professionals with him to nearly every briefing and insisted they be part of Oval Office meetings.
Azar "always defers to the scientists. That's the reason why whenever we're in the Situation room and the president would like some briefing, Alex always takes me and (CDC director) Bob Redfield in with him," Fauci said. "He always wants us to give the straight scientific information to the president."
Azar has also wanted to be the one to announce major updates about the administration's response to the virus, several officials said. On Thursday, he briefed the Senate Finance Committee that the CDC would use public health labs in five cities that normally test for influenza to also test for coronavirus, taking state health officials by surprise. One senior administration official said it was part of an effort to execute "radical transparency" with Congress and the public, noting that officials are doing their best to communicate clearly and effectively in a fast-moving situation.
It was not the first time state officials have been caught off guard by the administration's actions. After the administration announced late last month it would quarantine travelers who had been in the hard-hit Hubei province within the last 14 days, federal and state officials were struggling with how to carry out the travel restrictions and where to quarantine passengers because they said the order came with no advance notice and little planning.
Two administration officials said the Trump administration was also struggling with the logistics, including last-minute planning for when planes landed with patients and potential patients. "Doing the best we can," one official involved in the response said.
Some officials said the response has become smoother and better coordinated in recent weeks, with daily task-force calls.
"Our public health system's the best in the world, and it's working," Azar said Friday. "That system is what identified the 15 cases that we have."