Thursday, February 23, 2017

‘Let’s be truthful’ on Hilltop House

Steven Ramberg has been Harpers Ferry’s most vocal advocate for giving SWaN Investors everything they desire for developing the Hilltop House properties.  As Chair of the Planning Commission, Ramberg was relentless in making sure SWaN’s Overlay District became a reality. 

Ramberg’s wife, Betsy Bainbridge, is the most vocal SWaN partisan on the Harpers Ferry Town Council.  She has been the driving force behind the new ordinances, and the Overlay District.

Together, Ramberg and Bainbridge have used strong-arm tactics and intimidation to make sure SWaN’s project moves forward, no matter how many oppose it within the Harpers Ferry community.

It was no surprise that on February 15, 2017, Ramberg wrote a blistering Letter-to-the Editor of the Spirit of Jefferson assailing the National Park Service for raising federal concerns by letter and in remarks before the Town Council.

The following response was published in the Spirit of Jefferson on February 22, 2017.

It is unfortunate that the nine-year struggle over the Hilltop House project has been plagued by lack of valid information and an abundance of disinformation.  The recent letter sent by National Park Service to the Town of Harpers Ferry was an attempt to sort reality from rhetoric.

The National Park Service has a legal responsibility to protect the historic integrity of Harpers Ferry.  Without the Park Service, Harpers Ferry would be under 200 feet of water from a proposed Potomac River Dam in the 1940s. Without the Park Service, the C&O Canal would be a four-lane highway proposed in the 1960s.  Harpers Ferry is now facing another fundamental threat from an oversized project that would loom over the town and the Park.  The National Park Service is obligated to step forward to raise concerns and probe for answers.

The Park Service letter contains a well-established check list of issues arising from the National Environmental Protection Act, Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act, and laws governing National Historic Districts.  These federal issues can be raised at any time, and must be fully resolved. There are additional regulatory issues affecting CSX, Amtrak, MARC, Maryland Transit Administration, and the Chesapeake Bay that must also be addressed.

The Park Service has a substantial investment in Harpers Ferry and has a legal responsibility to assess the impact of SWaN Investors’ Project on these federally funded operations.  This includes the Park’s annual funding for Harpers Ferry’s Police. Town documents pledge police to support SWaN’s construction.  The Park Service is the largest ratepayer to Harpers Ferry Water Works.  From 1988-1990, the Park directly funded and project managed the rebuilding of the Water Works’ intakes, pumps, mainline pipes, and water tanks.  Town documents pledge to meet all of SWaN’s water requests.

The federally funded Potomac Street rehabilitation project, managed by the Town, has also impacted the Park.  Federal funds were diverted from the original approved grant to enlarge the storm water system to handle the anticipated runoff from SWaN’s properties.  One result has been storm water now bubbling up onto Park property.

Mr. Ramberg’s Letter-to-the-Editor asserts, “no one has proposed any blasting to my knowledge”.  This is interesting, because in a December 7, 2015 letter, Mr. Ramberg wrote to Gordon Associates, a SWaN contractor: “I am wondering about an issue that keeps arising.  Did SWaN ever contemplate blasting for the garage or elsewhere on the site in the original concept proposal?”  Gordon Associates responds to Ramberg, “Blasting was expected for the construction of utilities, garage, and hotel.” 

On March 28, 2008, Gordon Associates sent Mr. Ramberg their “Surface Exploration and Geotechnical Evaluation for the Project”.  It clearly identifies multiple locations for blasting of the bed rock and outlines warnings for proceeding.

Harpers Ferry sits primarily on shale.  Most of Harpers Ferry’s structures are all or part masonry.  Any reverberations from blasting will affect the structural integrity of basements, foundations, and walls in buildings dating to 1748.  Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has more historic structures than any other Park unit in America.  The August 2011 Virginia earthquake caused over $1 million in structural damage throughout the Park.  It is therefore prudent for the Park to be concerned about blasting.  A reasonable approach would be for the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a blasting impact analysis before the Harpers Ferry Town Council approves their Ordinance.

In his letter, Mr. Ramberg questions the integrity and motivations of Park officials, while dismissing valid concerns as hysteria. He insists that the Town’s Ordinance must be enacted so we will know what needs to be changed.   This is why the SWaN project destroyed public trust and divided Harpers Ferry long before the Park’s letter.

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