News & Politics

Little Washington’s Mayor Speaks Out on the Fury That Has Gripped His Town

John Fox Sullivan looks forward to the Thursday town meeting, but expects drama.

Little Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan and his wife, Beverly. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

As far as John Fox Sullivan, the mayor of Washington, Virginia, is concerned, Thursday evening’s planned town meeting is likely to be charged with emotion—but he hopes it will be the beginning of a community conversation about the future of the historic village. “I’m really looking forward to this meeting,” Sullivan said in an interview Wednesday morning. “I don’t know whether the town has ever had one like this before.” He knows to expect verbal fireworks as upset townsfolk gather to hear the thoughts of DC developer Jim Abdo and his plans for ten buildings he and partners have bought to turn into businesses, one of which already has become a bed and breakfast. Abdo’s plans have caused a firestorm of debate with very clear sides—those who are open to the development, and those who oppose Abdo and don’t want to change a thing.

Among the most vocal in opposition is Ben “Cooter” Jones, a former congressman who starred in the ’70s TV hit The Dukes of Hazzard, and who lives just outside the town. He’s been writing op-eds and posts regularly on the town’s listserv, Rappnet, which has hundreds of members. But Sullivan says, “I’m not going to go after Ben Jones.” Sullivan credits Rappnet for providing a forum on subjects as diverse as where to get a plumber, how Eric Cantor got defeated, and the politics of Ukraine, but wonders whether it represents the popular voice on the real-estate development issue. “Rappnet is not representative of the county of Rappahannock,” he says.

Sullivan did share strong feelings about how Abdo should handle the community gathering: “Jim needs to convey what his ambitions are specifically, to make clear he is not interested in this town becoming the Hamptons.”

That glitzy Long Island beach enclave favored by the rich and celebrated is what was conjured by some when they read an interview Abdo gave to the Washington Post. In expressing his vision for the future, Abdo was dour in describing the current appearance of Little Washington, the moniker used for the town that is also home to the renowned Inn at Little Washington. Abdo used words such as “hollow,” “vacant,” and “empty” and said the community of 135 residents “had no pulse.” Few, if any, took that well. Angry community members felt they were ignored, which prompted the Rappahnnock News to organize the 5 PM Thursday meeting at the 200-seat Washington Theatre.

Sullivan mentions that Monday’s monthly town council meeting, which he presided over, drew a much larger turnout than usual. “Instead of four people, we had 24 show up, virtually all of whom live in Little Washington, about 20 percent of the town,” he said. “But the people from Rappnet didn’t bother to show up.” Apart from routine council business, there was time for public comment, which Sullivan described as “an intelligent, civilized discussion of important issues, including Jim Abdo. We settled some people down and had a good discussion. People went away feeling better.” He hopes the meeting could count as the dress rehearsal for Thursday’s larger meeting, where anybody who wants to speak will get three minutes.

We reached out to Abdo for comment, but he said he would not make public comments until the town meeting.

The three-minute speaking rule follows the meeting protocol of the county board of supervisors; the only way to speak twice is to wait until every other speaker has had his or her say. In no set order, they will hear from Abdo, Sullivan, Inn at Little Washington general manager Tom List (representing chef/owner Patrick O’Connell, who is in Italy), county administrator John McCarthy (whom Sullivan called “the most admired person in this county”), board of supervisors head Roger Welch, and Jennings Hobson, rector of the Trinity Episcopal Church. Jones has said he will speak, too. Roger Piantadosi, the editor of Rappahannock News, will moderate.

Sullivan says the meeting is an opportunity for him and Abdo to repair the political damage caused by the “very one-dimensional” story from the Post. “I truly get it that people are upset by the article. I wasn’t so crazy about it myself,” he says. “Abdo comes off as a DC bigfoot,” and the impression is given that “there is some kind of collusion or conspiracy between me, Abdo, and O’Connell.” He says that while he is acquainted with the two, even friendly, and has met with them “to discuss buildings,” he’s been doing “what mayors do. I’ve been trying to make things happen. It is my job as mayor to strengthen the town and attract more businesses and people.”

Sullivan, referring to census data, says that between 2000 and 2010 the town population dropped by 26 percent and that of the roughly 100 buildings in the town, 10 percent sat empty, some of them “for five, ten, even 15 years.” In the past four years, Little Washington got a much-needed sewer system—“the town had been floating on stuff for 50 years”—and some growth, he said. “Over $10 million in real estate has been bought and sold in Little Washington,” representing 17 transactions, including ten in which Abdo and his partners are involved. “There’s been $5 million of fix-up of buildings,” including a new wing of rooms that is part of the Inn at Little Washington complex.

To the extent that he defends Abdo, Mayor Sullivan said the town ordinances are “tight” and a developer “can only do what’s already allowed. If they have to get a special use to do something, we have a lot of control over what they can do. He didn’t try to get around proper procedures.” Sullivan hopes that as a result of the meeting the community will become “a little more comfortable” with the developer, who started his company in 1996 and whose area projects include the Capital Children’s Museum, Monroe Street Market in Brookland, and Gaslight Square in Arlington. “He has to be sensitive to the fact a lot of people have a big stake in this county and have lived here a long time.”

Most of all, Sullivan wants to assure his constituents, who recently reelected him unopposed, that whatever happens going forward with Abdo “has to meet the test of whether it is appropriate—all the ordinances, building by building—and go through all the gates.”

But the town authorities have no say on paint color, he says. Abdo’s bed and breakfast, the White Moose Inn, has a yellow door, which is another source of controversy. “Even my wife doesn’t like it,” says the mayor.