News & Politics

Tempers Flare in Little Washington, Virginia, Over Proposed Town Development Plans

A town meeting has been called for Thursday in a controversy that involves a famous chef, a successful DC developer, the town’s mayor, and “Cooter.”

Main Street in Little Washington, Virginia, is only blocks long but has attracted big Washington development interests and controversy. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

A stew is brewing in Little Washington, Virginia—not on the stove at the fabled Inn at Little Washington, but over development of the quintessentially laid-back rural town that is also the seat of Rappahannock County.

The heat started to rise in the town of 135 after a June 6 Washington Post report on DC developer Jim Abdo’s growing investments in Little Washington. Bearing the provocative headline “He remade H Street and Logan Circle. Now D.C. developer takes on a country town,” the Post story laid out Abdo’s bold vision for the ten buildings—“half of Main Street,” according to the Post—that he and his business partners bought for a combined $2.6 million.

Town residents have responded with threats of boycotts and other actions; a town meeting has been called for this week.

What seems to have especially vexed residents were Abdo’s words about their beloved town. “It was hollow, it was vacant, it was empty,” Abdo told the Post. “There was no pulse. . . . I’ve gone into corridors that didn’t have a catalyst like the Inn at Little Washington. And why isn’t that properly being leveraged?”

As far as Ben Jones is concerned, each sentence contained fighting words. In his own June 13 Washington Post opinion piece, Jones, the former congressman who found fame as the character “Cooter” on the Dukes of Hazzard TV show, called Abdo’s comments about Little Washington “self-serving” and “shocking” and Abdo himself “a stranger to most of us.”

“This is our worst nightmare,” Jones wrote. “Suddenly we are corridors, we have catalysts, we are being leveraged. Our town is not hollow. It is not vacant or empty. It has a pulse. It is quiet, thank the Lord, for that is why we love it.”

Jones also called out the Post for not pursuing “the feeling of everyday Rappahannock folk, a lot of proud people who don’t want to be made over.”

Jones is among some who have said they would begin a boycott of the Inn at Little Washington, because chef Patrick O’Connell was cited in the Post as endorsing Abdo’s plans, having “bonded” with him over a dinner hosted by Mayor John Fox Sullivan*. Sullivan, the semi-retired Atlantic Media executive who has been the town’s mayor since 2010, is said to be trying to keep the peace while staying involved in the plans of investors with big ideas—such as Abdo, who already has bought, renovated, and opened the White Moose Inn on Main Street.

Future businesses are in the works for Brian Noyes and his Red Truck Bakery, now based in Warrenton, Virginia; DC’s Debbie Winsor, who hopes to open a home-goods store; and Daniel O’Brien, the chef and owner of Shaw’s Seasonal Pantry.

Comments on a local listserv, Rappnet, have been the most venomous, with name-calling aimed at Abdo, Sullivan, and O’Connell. Late last week the Rappahannock News weighed in. Editor Roger Piantadosi called Jones’s op-ed “among a diversity of opinion about the issue.” Announcing the June 19 forum that the newspaper will host at 5 in the small Theatre at Washington, Virginia, he wrote “it seems clear there is much more to say” and “your hometown newspaper believes it should be said while everyone’s in the same room.” To that end, he said he has promises of attendance from Abdo and Sullivan. O’Connell reportedly is out of town.

Jones has not said whether he’ll attend. He lives near Little Washington but outside the town line. In a recent e-mail, Jones wrote, “The public meeting at the Theatre is somewhat vague in purpose. This has been given to us as a ‘fait accompli,’ so what is there to discuss? A real discussion is not on the agenda there. Until we are able to sit with Mr. Abdo, eyeball to eyeball across the table, the discussion and debate will continue on Rappnet, on the street, at the mini-mart and the cafes.”

Jones recalled the last time big money came to Little Washington and bought buildings and opened businesses. In 1996 former AOL executive David Cole bought several buildings and started the organic Sunnyside Farms, and related farm markets. “David was totally unaccustomed to small-town farming and small-town business ways and he ‘rubbed some people the wrong way,’” Jones wrote. “He would not take advice about anything, even when he asked for it.”

Jones said Cole “was not a developer in the sense that Abdo is, but he had a vision without a plan. The businesses were bleeding money.” Cole sold Sunnyside and his buildings in approximately 2006. Some of the business locations closed and sat empty. “He picked up his marbles and went back home to Hawaii and the family pineapple business.”

* Subsequent to publication of this story, Mayor John Fox Sullivan gave an interview to Washingtonian.