- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2007

Nearly a year has passed since the fire at the historic Morgan County Courthouse, one of Berkeley Springs’ best-loved landmarks that was built in 1908.

Locals’ shock may have worn off by now, but their yearning for tradition is stronger than ever. That’s why the architect leading the rebuilding is considering using West Virginia sandstone for the new building, and why some salvaged pieces of the old one may find new uses around town, says Bill Clark, executive director of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority.

“The old dome was pretty burnt up, but it could make a great gazebo in one of the parks,” says Mr. Clark, who, along with other county employees, now works out of temporary units surrounding the building’s remains.

Money is still being sought to restore the building to its former grandeur. In fact, “we’re about $4 million short of what we would like to have. We’re going to hold out a little longer” to see if new state or federal funds are forthcoming; if they aren’t, “we’ll start building the building we can afford now, though it would be nice to have some growing room for the future.”

Berkeley Springs’ reverence for tradition — coupled with the sensual delights of the town’s hot springs-fed baths and the region’s abundant recreational opportunities — are some of the reasons home buyers and tourists continue to flock to the place, an easy drive from Cumberland, Northern Virginia or the District. Here in Bath — its official name since the late 18th century — those healing waters have drawn those afflicted with joint pain, gout, stress and other ailments for hundreds of years. If it’s good enough for the teenage George Washington, who relished his soaks in “Ye Fam’d Warm Springs,” it’s probably good enough for you.

The springs themselves issue from the base of Warm Springs Ridge, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are five main sources from which the springs flow — at 74.3 degrees — at the rate of 2,000 gallons per minute. In the bathhouses of Berkeley Springs State Park, in the middle of town, visitors can take the waters in a traditional tub or in one of the Roman baths, a miniature private pool that holds 750 gallons of water.

Residential and commercial development, of course, is shaped by water access, and “right now there is a moratorium on new water hookups,” says Jeanne Mozier, a longtime resident, owner of the Star Theater downtown and a promoter of the area’s attractions and resources for artists and visitors.

The local water department is fixing old and inefficient pipes that were said to be losing half the water they were pumping from the springs; the ban on new hookups could be lifted in a matter of months.

Ms. Mozier and her husband purchased a home in town for $65,000 in 2001. Were she to put it on the market today, she figures she could get $150,000 for it.

“You can’t buy a shack in this town today,” so great is the demand for a home within city limits, she says.

Change is coming just outside of town. The Coolfont resort and spa is no more, having been purchased by developer Carl M. Freeman Communities. Plans call for the Coolfont site to be developed into a mountain resort community in the years ahead.

“They saw potential in that property,” says David Hartley, executive officer of the Eastern Panhandle Home Builders Association. The Freeman firm “is well known for doing high-quality, well-thought-out work,” he adds.

Bob Marggraf, vice president and general manager for Freeman’s communities division in West Virginia, says the company is obtaining the correct permits and approvals for the project, which will be spread over nearly 1,000 acres.

“We expect to begin the demolition phase in the spring of 2008,” with 42 of the old Coolfont’s buildings slated to be razed to make way for the first 130 homes.

The residences — some of which will be clustered in what Mr. Marggraf calls “hamlets,” or small neighborhoods — could ultimately number 1,200 during the next decade.

Yes, there will be a spa, one accessible to residents of Berkeley Springs, the occupants of the new Coolfont homes and to visitors renting one of two dozen “honeymoon cottages” slated for construction around the edge of the lake on the property. A small hotel is also under consideration, Mr. Marggraf says.

At a meeting last fall to apprise citizens of Berkeley Springs of Freeman’s plans, the response was positive.

“Everyone applauded” after Freeman made its presentation, says Mr. Marggraf. “It’s not to say we won’t run into issues going forward, but we see the town of Berkeley Springs as a component to the resort/retreat we are building. We’re not out to compete with the town.”

The Coolfont project is a bit of an anomaly in what Mr. Hartley characterizes as a “softer market” than in previous years. “There’s tightening credit for both lenders and borrowers,” he says. “Gas prices are higher than before, which impacts the number of buyers from Washington and Baltimore” visiting to look for a new home or a weekend retreat.

As the market softens, so do applications for building permits. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, building permits for the unincorporated area of Morgan County stood at 65 for June 2007; for unincorporated Jefferson County, 37; and for unincorporated Berkeley County, a mere three.

Perhaps there is no more ideal time to purchase in Berkeley Springs in particular and Morgan County in general.

“We have lower housing prices, taxes and cost of living” relative to the rest of the greater Washington metropolitan area, “and we have a slower pace of life, lots of recreational opportunities, and a low crime rate,” says Mr. Hartley.

“Berkeley Springs,” Ms. Mozier says, “is one of those places where people say, ‘OK, I can live anywhere, but I choose to live here.’”

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