Broken Promises, Hidden by a Six-Foot Berm

By Andrea Gaines
On August 9, 1825 at the age of 69, French military officer the Marquis de Lafayette was honored in Leesburg by former President James Monroe. The French-born Lafayette, inspired by stories of American independence, had sailed here to fight side-by-side with Americans at the young age of 20. Half a century later, he was back to visit old friends and a growing United States, watching former colonists work with their representatives to build a new country.

After the Leesburg ceremonies, the two men traveled down the Old Carolina Road (Rt. 15) to Oak Hill, Monroe’s home. Once there, they might have shared memories of the Revolutionary War. Maybe they talked about the fireplace mantles the Frenchman had given the president as thanks for intervening to save Lafayette’s wife during the French Revolution. Maybe they discussed architectural details that their mutual friend, Thomas Jefferson, had suggested for Monroe’s estate. Perhaps the conversation went to The Monroe Doctrine, written from Oak Hill in 1823.
Maybe, too, Lafayette and Monroe walked to the south portico to admire the view, with Monroe pointing out Leesburg to the north, the foothills to the east, and Washington, D.C. beyond. Middleburg to the west. Oatlands Plantation to the north. The small settlement called Gum Springs to the southeast …

Now, flash forward to 2016 and this very same spot – the view from the south portico. Incredibly, not much has changed in 191 years. But, due to an increasingly aggressive developer community – and the weak knees of a growing number of supervisors – it will. Without concerted citizen action, it certainly will.

Standing on the south portico of Oak Hill, just about everything you can see to the north and east falls into what is known as the Transition Policy Area – a sweeping, 27,000-acre section of Loudoun County designated as a “spatial transition” between the Suburban Policy Area to its east, and the Rural Policy Area to its west.

The innovative open space, road system, stream buffer, and density guidelines that apply here direct how and where development in the TPA can proceed, creating the spatial transition called for by the County Comprehensive Plan, and protecting some of the most precious land resources in the county.

But, on September 22 – after a long, drawn out fight – the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors used a nakedly transparent slight-of-hand to put its final stamp of approval on the Kirkpatrick West Commercial Center – a 135,000 sq. ft. Harris Teeter grocery store (105,000 sq. ft. was by-right) and a 10-pump gas station. Right here. Right here in the TPA.

While the board held the line on several special use permits that went along with the project, all that citizens got in exchange was the denial of something that should never have been proposed in the first place – three drive-thrus – along with lower lights, reductions in building heights and a few berms … visual barriers around the gas station.

The slight-of-hand used to take this action was two-fold. First, supervisors argued that although the commercial center didn’t fit with the open space and low-density standards of the TPA, it bordered on the nearby high-density zone and tended to fit in, at least in part. Second, argued the board, the Comp Plan is in the midst of review, at which time these standards might be reduced or even abandoned, so why not allow the higher density, now? Why not try to get as much as we can, even if it is just a six-foot berm?

Said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R–Ashburn): “ … there is a ‘zero percent chance’ the land in question will continue to be in the transition zone once the plan is complete.” But, in fact, although the Comp Plan is under review, this will be a lengthy, public process – as required by law – wherein all will be invited to discuss needed changes.

Said Geary Higgins (R–Catoctin): “On this location, the battle for protecting the transition area has already been lost.” But, in fact, the part of the TPA under discussion is still quite rural, still quite open, and with much less density – all per zoning rules that apply there.

And, for his part, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R–Blue Ridge), although seemingly sympathetic to the hundreds of residents who had opposed the project until the very end, failed to pull together enough votes to enforce TPA zoning on this land within his own district.

With these arguments in mind, think back to the two greats of American history standing on Oak Hill’s south portico in 1825. What hopes did they have for the area’s citizens and the people who might govern them?

The TPA contains 30 historic sites and 30 archeological sites, magnificent water systems, farms, old mansions, Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, small new and old communities.

Loudoun’s Comprehensive Plan was made final in 2003 – a massive effort that took citizens, elected officials, preservationists, and businesses years to complete.

Actions like this are indeed agreements. Agreements between the governing body and the governed. And here, government broke the agreement.
If, in the board’s opinion, the Suburban Policy Area was already encroaching, getting too close to the less dense TPA, why did the board approve such development in the first place?

If the board felt that the county should reconsider how the TPA was drawn, why did it not wait for the Comprehensive Plan Review, when citizens could have their full say, along with the developer community. Why did the board give away its authority to limit development here … in exchange for a six-foot berm?

It is ironic, even sad, that a place with such historic connections to representative government – with Monroe and Lafayette looking on – would be the scene of something that has such an undemocratic feel to it.




An Open Letter to the Citizens of Purcellville

Mark Your Calendar, They’ve Asked for Our Input So Let’s Give It To Them

By Steady and Nobull

The Purcellville Planning Commission has tentatively scheduled a series of public input sessions June 4, 11 and 18 at 7:00 p.m. at town hall for the proposed sweeping zoning changes. These major changes are similar to the changes that occurred in 2008 which gave us a six story project on 21st Street. By that we mean the town council at the time, based on developer input changed the height restrictions on 21st Street from 32 feet to 65 feet.

Will we, as a town, follow the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances developed in cooperation with the citizens, or will we liberalize our zoning regulations to the point that anything goes – a 55,000 square foot big box store next to a residential community, a high-density, multi-use, multi-story residential/commercial floating zone legal anywhere? Should 100 percent of the decisions be made by the developers?

In May of 2014, the voters in Purcellville spoke loud and clear, electing a new mayor and a citizen advocate and otherwise putting those in charge on notice.

  • Over are the days when developers call the shots.
  • Over are the days when a project such as Vineyard Square would be jammed through because of zoning use changes that citizens were not aware of.
  • Over are the days when citizens are given a back seat to a town run by insiders, handing out special exceptions and other zoning changes like they were candy and treating the citizen-inspired Comprehensive Plan like it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

While it is encouraging that citizens elected new leaders, the developer community has been just relentless. They want the Purcellville Planning Commission and Town Council to make an overwhelming amount of uses “by right” – this means that a developer can move forward on a project without public input.

  • No need to apply for a special use permit. The developers say it costs too much money, they don’t want any negative feedback from the public hearings either.
  • No proffers – no financial contributions from developers for the new roads and other infrastructure – kick that can down the road and let the taxpayers pony up.
  • No more 10,000 square foot limitations on big box stores. Raise the limit to 55,000 or 75,000 or more. As developer Mark Nelis said, his clients want the size of big box stores increased, furthermore he wants limitations on restaurant sizes increased dramatically as well.

And, here’s the kicker. Developers want to be able to put what are known as PDH Districts (planned developed housing) anywhere. And, they want to change PDH developments to include commercial – creating mini-town centers of sorts, combining high-density residential with commercial – on parcels as small as five acres. Drop a PDH District in the middle of nowhere, next to a working farm, or an established neighborhood. The district is proposed to have no firm definition, and according to the community development department this will give the developer a chance to be “creative.”

Chairman of the Planning Commission Gil Paist has said that he wants citizen input on what many see as extreme ideas that don’t feel like small town Purcellville. This will change Purcellville forever. So, let’s give it to them. Let’s avoid Purcellville’s impending by-right anything goes disaster.

What You Can Do

Attend the public input meetings in June and if you can’t, e-mail the town council as a whole at purcellvilleTC@purcellvilleva.gov and ask that your comments go into the record. Chairman of the Planning Commission Gil Paist has said that the commission will change the proposed uses based on citizen input.




Correct Course and Review the Comprehensive Plan

Like a ship lost at sea, many residents of Purcellville see the development patterns in and around town as having drifted dangerously off course.

The Autumn Hill/Mayfair development – which resulted in the annexation of previously open land, is one example of this drift. The Vineyard Square development project, which, if built, will in one fell swoop fundamentally and permanently degrade the historic nature of Purcellville’s downtown.

Town-based communities in Loudoun County are required to develop the planning and zoning document known as a Comprehensive Plan – a blueprint that directs both where and how development will occur, and provides protection for the historic and environmental resources communities have identified as essential to how they see themselves today and want to define themselves in the future.

Depending on whom you talk to, these communities – including Lovettsville, Leesburg, Middleburg and Purcellville – have managed to keep their growth patterns on course … or not; inspiring and accommodating growth while preserving what is unique and economically beneficial to the community as a whole, or failing to do so.

The storm-strength winds, currents and tides of growth rolling through western Loudoun County are formidable. And, as evidenced by the possible loss of much of it’s historic downtown, Purcellville is struggling. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Major zoning changes are being proposed, housing and commercial densities are being increased, special exceptions are becoming more and more common, and things that in prior years would have required formal amendment to the citizen-driven Comprehensive Plan are being decided “in committee.” This includes major proposed changes to the zoning in the Hirst Road corridor. Developers, town staff and some on council, are pushing for these changes while sidestepping repeated calls for a thorough Comprehensive Plan review first. Citizens need to know that this is the scenario that resulted in the approval of the Vineyard Square development – an outcome that few wanted and even fewer saw coming.

As embodied in the town’s Comprehensive Plan – the last thorough review of which occurred over eight years ago with three days of community input, now – the intended destination of Purcellville’s ship, as clearly expressed by the citizens is to accommodate growth but avoid uncontrolled sprawl. The Comprehensive Plan is designed to preserve the environmental, historic and small town character and encourage a varied, broad-based economy, rather than more subdivisions and commercial developments that benefit the few at the expense of the community, and to preserve Purcellville as a “sense of place,” rather than an indistinct spot on the map somewhere in between Tyson’s Corner and Winchester along the Rt.7 corridor.

It’s a new year and there are several new people “at the helm” in Purcellville, including a new mayor and several new members of the town council.

Like a ship whose future is threatened by strong winds, currents, tides and unexpected storms, Purcellville’s leadership must work with its citizens, and citizens must work with this new leadership to resist zoning changes that threaten the integrity of the Comprehensive Plan, lobby for a thorough Comprehensive Plan review, and get the town back on course.




Debt, Debt and, More Debt … Or, Is There an Alternative?

The entire trajectory of the Town of Purcellville can be summarized in one word. Debt.

The massive debt the town incurred to build the wastewater treatment plant – which currently operates at just 40 percent capacity – stands at $33 million. There was a $6 million mandated upgrade to the facility – which was paid for with a taxpayer funded grant. But, the balance of the $33 million spent was a choice by the town to dramatically increase the capacity of the facility- on the hope that the rapid growth in and around Purcellville would continue. Tap fees – the cost to be hooked up the system – now run about fifty thousand dollars apiece. And, that would keep the debt manageable.

But with the additional extravagant and ill-advised spending by the town (including the $8.5 million for the new town hall) and the housing crash recession, town debt has now ballooned to $61 million in less than a decade …

There is no looking back, but there is a way to look forward.

Davenport, the financial adviser to the town says we need to build, build, build. And, that is exactly what the present town council intends to do, if actions by the new majority are any indication. Build, build, build despite the forced spending that goes along with it.

For example the approved Mayfair development includes 262 residential units and 19 acres of commercial/industrial building in an environmentally sensitive area. It is well north of the present boundary lines of the town and will spur more development. This in turn will give a good excuse to build the Northern Collector Road. The initiation of the NCR was negotiated by the Town of Purcellville and the county as proffers from Brookfield Autumn Hill/Mayfair. People along the road who want to be annexed will ask for boundary line adjustments – moving land from county to town control – because they are easier to negotiate than annexations. Those who do not want to be annexed could have their property confiscated by eminent domain. Wright Farm residents will be affected as well.

Growth used to be financed by proffers from developers – funds needed to pay for the expensive infrastructure, including roads that would serve the new development. In recent years the Loudoun County region has encouraged growth by offering much less burdensome terms for builders. Now, rather than the investor paying for the impacts a development has on the community … your and I, the taxpayer, pay for it. Look at your water bill – the fees have gone up because the residents are paying for the increase in the facility capacity- something that was a deliberate choice of the town – to accommodate future growth. Roads and schools and fire and rescue are now largely paid for by us. Every citizen of this state also pays for every grant this town receives.

The citizens of Purcellville have a decision to make. Do they want to live in a massively bigger town, with chain stores you can find anywhere and fewer small businesses?

Or, do they want to keep citizens in the growth and development driver’s seat – as staying informed and vocal gives the citizens a choice in their future? Engage with today’s town council and mayor. There is hope in our newly elected leaders. Tap into that and get involved in the future of your town. The solution to paying down the debt is to consider the costs that come with explosive and rapid development.




I Wanna Uh-Uh-Uh-Uh-Uh-Undo It

There’s a popular country western song that tells the story of a young woman who gets swept up in a night of partying and wakes up to find she has a ring on her finger, a new last name and a new husband. Knowing she had been duped but determined to take her future back, she proclaims “Boy you blew it, you put me through it I wanna uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-undo it.”

Many people in Purcellville feel the same way about the 100,000 square foot Vineyard Square mixed-use development project … a project which, once the zoning party got started moved from one excess to another, wedding the citizens and taxpayers of Purcellville to a decidedly unattractive future for their historic downtown.

Although seemingly a done deal, Vineyard Square has faced sustained longstanding opposition by many citizens and local businesses. In addition, because of the massive changes the project would require to 21st Street, the millions of dollars in public utilities infrastructure needed and problems on the developer’s end, it is also proving questionable that, in the end, it would come in anywhere near on time and on budget – leaving citizens and taxpayers with one big mess.

In one of its last actions before leaving office, one of the project’s greatest boosters – Purcellville’s outgoing mayor and town council – attempted to amend the town code to extend the expiration dates of what are known as “Certificates of Design Approval” or CDAs, a move many saw as tailor made to continue to grease the skids of Vineyard Square.

The vote was delayed, and when the town code change was taken up by the incoming town council and mayor it was rejected. Said incoming town council member Karen Jimmerson, this was a political power play, and should be voted down.

This is fair and balanced outcome. And, now the citizens of Purcellville have the opportunity to re-evaluate Vineyard Square, and – through an appropriate, reasoned and open process – reject these changes to historic downtown, if they choose.

The most important reasons for taking a very hard second look at Vineyard Square include:
The Fallacy of the Developer’s Original Buy-Right Zoning Argument. With by-right zoning, a particular property is zoned for the use the property owner proposes and the property owner can move forward with their project. In this case, however, the previous town council gave these developers a new zoning, which allowed them to propose a high-density development of up to six stories without regard to the historic nature of the area, including the businesses that had been operating there for 100 years or more. It was a developer give-away.

Previous Town Council Rejections of BAR Recommendations That Might Have Protected Historic Downtown While Allowing The Project To Proceed. Last year the Purcellville Board of Architectural Review, following their design guidelines, approved the project with major revisions to its size and scope. The town council overruled the BAR’s recommendations and gave the developers approval to proceed with the project virtually unchanged.

Competing Visions for What Purcellville’s Historic Downtown Should Look Like, and How It Should Function.

The Vineyard Square development will drop a Reston Town Center style development on the east side of Purcellville’s historic downtown, to include retail, condominiums, and underground parking. The development will be coordinated with an effort to turn the historic area into a modern streetscape with boulevard-style sidewalks and other features consistent with the taxpayer-funded tourism zoning the prior mayor and town council gave specifically to this developer. (Existing businesses such as Nichols hardware will need to fend for themselves and see if they can still make a go of it!)

If the citizens believe that one developer should be able to dictate what happens to a historic downtown, that an architectural review board’s recommendations can be virtually ignored, and that they agree with this vision of Purcellville’s historic downtown, they should let things lie.

Otherwise, they should work with their new mayor and town council to “uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-undo it.”




There’s a New Gang in Town – And Isn’t It Time?

For many, the recent town-wide elections in Purcellville present all of western Loudoun with a significant opportunity to launch a more citizen-focused future.

On July 1 there will be a new mayor and a decidedly different balance of power on the Purcellville Town Council, as four new members with fresh policy views join the group.

Growth is here and will continue. But, the question of exactly where that growth will occur, whom it will benefit and who will pay for it now has the opportunity to be answered – out in the open.

This will affect not just land inside the town, but land primed for annexation on its borders and every one of the individual smaller towns, villages and communities that dot the western Loudoun landscape – Lovettsville, Lincoln, Paeonian Springs, Waterford, Hillsboro, Philomont, Middleburg, Saint Louis, Bluemont and Aldie. Purcellville, because of its size, holds the key to what western Loudoun – and all of these precious places – will look like in ten or twenty years.

In major citizen input sessions over the last many, many years the citizens of Purcellville came together and with their government created the town’s Comprehensive Plan. A blueprint of sorts, the plan identifies established residential areas and commercial areas, undeveloped land available for various kinds of uses and the basic rules by which growth and development can occur. The plan provides a measure of surety. A homebuyer, for example, will know what might go in on the undeveloped land adjacent to his or her back yard.

The plan also establishes densities – how much of a particular thing can be accommodated on a particular parcel of land based on its size and how it relates to nearby homes and businesses. And, the plan identifies places and features of special interest and sensitivity to the public or otherwise legally protected – including wetlands and watersheds, historic districts and structures, public lands and facilities.

Purcellville’s new mayor, Kwasi Fraser, has pledged to get back to this basic document known as the comprehensive plan. Review it, change it if need be – based on what the citizens want – but make it the working document that citizens and government use together to direct the area’s future. Put it out there for all to see, and follow it.

The most controversial growth decisions the Town of Purcellville made over the last several years involved planning and zoning decisions that in reality paid lip service to the idea of a comprehensive plan and, outside of that, were a total failure in terms of their attention to the public trust. This includes routine comprehensive plan amendments, zoning amendments and changes to the process which in effect change the essential nature of the plan the public had helped direct. For example, the planning commission is currently addressing the issue of eliminating most “special use permits,” a process in place to provide for public input on things not allowed “by right,” such as drive thrus.

An example of Purcellville not following the Comprehensive Plan was when the town council approved intensive additional commercial at the “gateway” to Purcellville – the over 50,000 square feet mixed use Catoctin Corner development located at the corner of Rt. 7 and Rt. 287 (across from Harris Teeter, now in the pipeline and waiting to be built). Not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, citizens didn’t direct this decision, developers, did.

The Vineyard Square debacle, 100,000 square feet of mixed-use development threatens the very existence of historic downtown Purcellville. Citizens didn’t direct this decision, developers, did.

Catoctin Creek Town Center, a development put on hold but all assume not for long would have brought bumper cars and more candy-style entertainment right into the back yards of peoples’ homes. Citizens protested earnestly, and the developers back off, for now.

Each of these projects fed themselves and moved slowly forward not based on a comprehensive plan or a willing and open partnership between the citizens of Purcellville and the town, but backroom deals negotiated between the town – who gave property owners the zoning they wanted – and developers seeking to maximize their profits.

And, there are new but related schemes bubbling up out there, including a “northern collector” road obsessively intended to service the new Autumn Hill/Mayfair development, but really paving the way for totally unplanned future speculative development, as investors buy up land, promise to build more of the road and push for the zoning of their choice.

This willy-nilly carving up of land serves the developer and land-investor’s needs just fine, but serves nothing close to the public trust and has no connection to the concept of a true comprehensive plan.

There’s a new gang in town. Citizens need to engage with them and support them to turn things around. Isn’t it time?




Will the Voter’s Changing Mood Express Itself on May 6?

Interesting …
Businesses and homeowners in Purcellville took up the cause of parents to the east, west, north and south fighting to save their small schools.

If you drove through the village of Hamilton to the east and the village of Lincoln to the south you saw signs of every kind demanding to “Save Lincoln Elementary,” “Vote For Kids,” “Save Hamilton Elementary,” and “Small Schools = No New Debt.” And, then those same signs started popped up in Purcellville proper. And, then there was a very-well attended school board meeting on Monday, April 21, followed by a 6-3 vote on Tuesday, April 22 which settled, for now, whether these small community-based schools would close. And, the answer was, NO.

I don’t know if the simmering sentiment that our elected officials plan other things with which we fervently disagree will spill over into Purcellville’s town-wide elections on May 6. But, I hope that it does. At the very least, I hope there is a bang-up turnout at Purcellville’s May 6 polling place … ironically … Emerick Elementary School.

In recent months Purcellville expanded its town borders significantly by annexing the Autumn Hill/Mayfair development, which will add 257 residential units to the town, overcrowding our near-capacity schools and adding to the town taxpayer’s ever expanding debt (now $7,000 for every man woman and child). Late April papers filed by the developer indicate that the interests behind this development want even greater densities – 32 additional homes and more industrial.

The current town council also overruled the experts on its Board of Architectural Review approving, virtually unchanged, the massive 100,000 sq. ft. Vineyard Square project – smack dab in the middle of Purcellville’s still-commercially vital historic downtown. Has the project’s self-described Monticello-like style made citizens feel a little better about the impact this 4-5 story structure will have on the historic Nichols Hardware, Magnolia’s at the Mill and other small businesses that operate there?

Then, in a really out-there proposal, in March the town considered an entertainment center/apartment complex of sorts that would have included bumper boats, miniature golf, batting cages, a go cart track, a laser tag course, an arcade and more – right next to a private residential neighborhood and not far from a high school. Citizen opposition caused the developers to pull back and rethink their bumper boat strategy, but, for how long? Will it come back repackaged (a third time) right after the election?

One person commenting on the proposed closings of Lincoln, Hamilton, Hillsboro and Aldie elementary schools said, basically, shut’em down – they’re old buildings, not “monuments.”

Not so fast. Monuments represent something from our past we set aside for future generations to reflect upon. But, they are static. Not used in the way they were before. Symbols.

However, places such as our small village elementary schools, our historic downtown commercial areas, and the operating farms and vineyards that ring old but growing towns such as Purcellville, these are not monuments.

These are choices. These are American ways of life we want to preserve, perpetuate and hold out as ongoing working models of our best selves.

We accept change, but we don’t bow to it as if we didn’t have a voice in what change should look like.

We are also becoming more sophisticated about the fiscal choices put to us.

We heard that some of the small schools the Loudoun County Public School System suggested we close had higher per-pupil costs that our larger, newer schools. But, we knew that some of these small schools were operating at a lower cost per-pupil and that building new and bigger elementary schools in the west will require taking on more public debt.

We heard that the additional residential water and sewer hookups that come with increased residential development would bring in more utility fees to places like Purcellville. But, we also knew that residential development requires $1.62 in infrastructure costs for every $1 it returns in taxes.

We heard that the development of historic downtown Purcellville was inevitable because the developers had the zoning. But, we also knew that our public officials determine what the zoning on a particular parcel should be. And, we knew that our elected officials set that debacle in motion in 2008 when they gave the developers the zoning for Vineyard Square.

Maybe that’s why the voter’s point of view is changing on these issues.

Maybe we’re taking on a different mood. Maybe we’re getting just a little but smarter.

Maybe Purcellville will vote that way on May 6.




Rural Loudoun Is Different, and We Say Dark Skies Do Matter

In February of this year a sell out crowd gathered at the county public seat in Leesburg to provide feedback to the Loudoun County Planning Commission on the idea of adding additional sports lights to the upper athletic fields at Franklin Park.
Franklin Park includes a really wonderful performing arts center. A community pool complex. Beautiful natural areas. Walking paths. A frisbee golf course. Tennis courts. Campfire and grill pavilions. Baseball and soccer fields. It, in short, is a really wonderful place, purchased, crafted and planned by a board of supervisors with active community involvement. A community that knew what it wanted and worked, through its government, to get it done.

Per the citizens, lighted ball fields were great. But, let’s keep the lighted ball fields on the park’s lower levels and make sure they are turned off by 9:00 p.m. during the week and 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. And, let’s keep the lights off completely on Sundays. Why? Because, while providing the area’s growing youth populations with expanded recreational activities, western Loudoun citizens also wanted to preserve the right of Franklin Park’s neighbors, including adjacent homeowners, to enjoy their properties free of late-into-the-evening floodlights and noise. A win-win for all.

The reason so many citizens showed up at the February public hearing is because they know the history of the issue. And, they didn’t like the fact that contrary to previous agreements, Blue Ridge Supervisor Janet Clarke was pushing a $2 million project to install more lights to allow nighttime play on those upper fields at Franklin Park.

Anyone who follows these kinds of issues knows the deal. As Lincoln resident Jean Brown said that night, “western Loudoun is different.” Here, rural values matter. And, as newly-relocated small business owner Barbara Anderson said to me recently, “I moved here for a different way of life.”

They are all related – the Franklin Park lights issue, the monstrous, newly-approved Autumn Hill/Mayfair development, the Reston Town Center-style development know as “Vineyard Square,” the proposed bumper-style Purcellville project known as Catoctin Creek Town Center. Each of these seems to say that what is good and appropriate and preferred for other densely developed regional counties and communities is good and appropriate and preferred for western Loudoun.

Well, not really.

The planning commission seems to be on the side of western Loudoun. As its February public hearing worked its way to conclusion, the commission voted to oppose the Clarke proposal to install more lights at Franklin Park.

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors needs to accept their recommendation. Western Loudoun is different. Sometimes horses and cows cross the roads here. And, dark skies matter.




Purcellville’s Broken Heart

It is both interesting and so disheartening to read Wikipedia’s description of the place known as Purcellville.

It describes how in 1764 the town’s first known settler, James Dillon made his way here from Buck’s County, Pa. How an “early ox cart track” stretching west from Leesburg toward the Blue Ridge Mountains served as “the nucleus” of the town. How the first recorded business – “a combined store and inn” – arrived in 1799, followed by Purcel’s Store and Post Office, the town’s first stagecoach delivery (1841), a blacksmith’s shop (1848), and the first public school (1883). And, how on March 14, 1908, the town was incorporated by an act of the Virginia General Assembly.

The language on Purcellville’s official website pays homage to this fascinating and extraordinary history – describing the place as an award-winning town known for its green initiatives, flanked by the historic W&OD Trail and proud of its “historic old-town feel.” “Everybody’s Home Town” so the saying goes. And note, says the website, the town’s restoration and maintenance of its many downtown structures … and how Purcellville is a popular weekend destination for antiquing, entertainment, farmer’s markets and wineries …

Indeed, Purcellville – at least from the outside looking in – is a model for preservation. Its Downtown Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. The equivalent of royalty in preservation circles, the district boasts an incredible 498 contributing buildings and structures. The Purcellville Train Station, Locust Grove farm house, Rich Bottom farm, and the Tabernacle-Fireman’s Field – historic companions to historic downtown – are also on the National Register. And, Purcellville’s Historic District is also part of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ National Historic Landmarks of Virginia program.

So, how could it be – how could it be – that the Purcellville town council has just taken a vote to compromise all of this history by approving the 100,000+ sq. ft. mixed residential/commercial project known as Vineyard Square in the heart of historic downtown?

The vote – and we could all see it coming – has been winding its way toward this fateful conclusion for months, fuel by the developers’ extreme inflexibility and the town council’s feigned hands-off attitude. But, the excuse pushed by the town council, that the developers “had the zoning” is disingenuous at best. Not only did the town overrule its Board of Architectural Review in voting to approve Vineyard Square, Mayor Bob Lazaro and the council put the zoning in place to allow this as a by right development.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, the Town of Purcellville has had seven long years to use its zoning power to protect historic downtown. But, with ambitious and competing plans for an award-winning downtown tourism district, complete with federal and state taxpayer funded grants and infrastructure … it is clear that the town did not want to take any step to protect historic downtown. It had other plans.

When an area or property achieves National Register status, that status imposes no restrictions on what property owners may do with a designated property. Fair enough. But, you’d think that a town like Purcellville, which has promoted its preservation-friendly reputation for all it is worth and basked in all of that glory, would have had the courage to put its money where its mouth is. “Everybody’s Home Town?” No. “Nobody’s Home Town,” now.




A Citizen-Directed Future for Western Loudoun?– What It Will Take

The Blue Ridge Leader’s View From The Ridge feature was introduced in 1984.?This feature is intended to present to the public our big picture assessment of what is going on in our western Loudoun community – an independent and spirited assessment, free of the special interests that seek to control the day. As we begin 2014, we recommit ourselves to being that independent voice for you.

Why Is An Independent Voice So Important To Western Loudoun?

All communities, even small ones, have centers of power. As the people run their businesses and live their lives, it’s up to government, even if it is a small town council or county board of supervisors, to make sure everyone’s getting a fair shake. And, it’s up to the news media to make sure government is doing its job and conducting its business out in the open, while providing citizens a microphone with which to express their views.

This is critical in a fast growing community such as western Loudoun where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in land deals, residential and commercial development and political favors. And, it is absolutely urgent in a political atmosphere where town councils and boards of supervisors seem more interested in greasing the skids for developers than in serving the public.

The good news is that western Loudoun has not yet been overrun by development. The challenge is that developers have their sights set on western Loudoun, and, without an engaged and educated public, really bad things can happen.

Western Loudoun’s Growth Patterns – Environmentally Destructive and Fiscally Foolish

Great small towns such as Purcellville can continue to be successful and distinctive towns, but only if the people in charge of running things serve and work for everyone, managing growth in a way that preserves the essence of why people came here to live in the first place. Just because you can make more money putting an apartment complex on a piece of property instead of developing it into larger lots at a lower density, doesn’t mean you should have a right to do so.?This balance between the money to be made and what residents want is under significant threat today.

The annexation project known as Autumn Hill/Mayfair is the largest in the history of the town. Enormous in scale, this development will carpet bomb a now rural/large lot residential area just north of town with high-density residential development. Purcellville will get the benefit of approximately $12 million in utility hookups … but taxpayers and neighbors will pay dearly. Each of the new homes will cost the town and county taxpayer $1.70 in government services for every $1 they return in property taxes. And, the property owners next to Autumn Hill/Mayfair will see their rural way of life lost to high-density residential and commercial development as close as 25 ft. from their property line.

The Catoctin Town Center – originally Catoctin Creek Apartments – is a huge residential and entertainment complex within town boundaries which will bring another 178 residential units into Purcellville. Citizens spoke out strongly when Catoctin Creek Apartments was proposed. In response, the developer got together with nearby property owners/investors and the whole thing was cleverly “repackaged” into an retail/residential/entertainment project, to include bumper cars, go carts, a water park, a flea market and music venue and more fast food and drive-through restaurants.

Vineyard Square is a gigantic five-six-story retail/residential project that will dwarf Purcellville’s historic downtown area. As proposed by the developer, this project will require the demolition of structures that are on National Register of Historic Places. The Purcellville Town Council is on the side of the developer’s project, which will degrade the area’s history, possibly threaten the area’s historic designation and leave businesses in the area wondering if they will survive the changes proposed for the area.

Greasing the Skids for Development 

At a recent hearing on the Autumn Hill/Mayfair annexation, one impassioned citizen who opposed annexation said: “This is not about one person’s property,” expressing frustration that the county and the Town of Purcellville seemed unconcerned about how approving a project of this size would affect adjacent homeowners.

The source of this citizen’s frustration is the game playing – an increasingly rushed, insider, not-always-fact based way major development projects are moving forward in western Loudoun County.

One such game is “the false dilemma.” With respect to Autumn Hill/Mayfair, in a long and tortured path the Town of Purcellville had twice before rejected the developer’s application to have this property annexed into town and developed with high-density residential. When the developer later sued to go forward, reversing course, Purcellville – and the Blue Ridge Supervisor – lobbied the county board of supervisors to settle the lawsuit, saying that going to court would put the area at risk for more intense development. But this was a false dilemma, a game. The developer’s septic permit had expired prior to the scheduled court date, and it could not have been renewed because the developer did not have and could not have gotten an active building permit.

With respect to the Catoctin Creek Town Center/Apartment Complex, facing significant opposition to the project as originally proposed, the developer combined its effort with adjacent property owners, renaming the project “The Catoctin Town Center.” This kind of bait and switch or “repackaging” is routine in Purcellville and county zoning politics. But it can’t hide the fact that both the apartments and the other parts of the project are inappropriate for the area.

“Sorry … it’s out of our hands.” With respect to Vineyard Square, the Purcellville Town Council has been working with the individuals who own the properties for years. Town-secured grants (taxpayer-funded) will help pay for some of the infrastructure needed, due to the enormous size of the project. And, while the area is extremely important from an historic perspective (on the National Register of Historic Places) the council has been absolutely silent, sitting on it’s hands for years instead of simply limiting density and/or making changes to the zoning regulations that could have protected the area. Sorry … nothing we can do?”

About a week ago, Thursday evening January 2, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave the go ahead on Autumn Hill/Mayfair. This was the night of the area’s terrible snowstorm. A public input session was held that night, but prior to that public input session, impatient, Chairman York called for a vote indicating that the issue needed to be “settled”, and the project was approved. Meanwhile, the citizens who braved the weather were able to express their opinions on Autumn Hill/Mayfair … but only after the board had “settled the issue”. Wow.

Happy New Year … Stay Vigilant.

We wish all of western Loudoun a Happy New Year. We promise to keep you informed of the games that are played and what’s at stake for the community we love. We thank you for your input – whatever it may be. And, we cherish continuing to serve as your independent voice.




The Last Hardware Store?

In their 2011 documentary The Last Hardware Store, noted portrait photographer and executive producer Sarah Huntington, director and veteran videographer Peter Buck and well-known advertising agency owner and writer/editor Drew Babb tell the nearly 100-year-old story of Nichols Hardware.

Representing, in many ways, the commercial lynchpin of Purcellville’s Historic District, Nichols Hardware is remarkable not only for the fact that it will celebrate it’s 100th anniversary next year, but also for the fact that you and I, old timers and newcomers alike can walk into Nichols today and experience the same thing a customer in the early part of the 20th Century would have experienced. Personal service. Quality products. Problem solving for that pesky household job.

Just as Nichols advertised back in the day, “We have the largest and most compete stock of hardware and furniture in the county … “ so goes the Nichols story today – not withstanding the product selection, size and reach of big box stores such as Home Depot.

Nichols’ storefront and signature pale blue barn – the later structure identified by Virginia historians as our state’s “outstanding building of that type and style” – have looked the same for years. And, Nichols is the oldest retail store in the Virginia Piedmont still owned by the family that founded it.

Each time I’m in Nichols Hardware I long for my Long Island childhood. Then I realize that when you are in Nichols you need not long for anything – because everything you want and value is right there, alive and in the flesh. I even like to think that the section of plumbing pipe a Nichols Hardware guy sold me as a perfect fix for a broken pair of crutches was the same item that a Nichols clerk from the 1950s might have suggested for the same purpose.

American history has walked hand in hand with Nichols Hardware for each of its 99+ years.

There was a time when Purcellville’s electricity came on at 5 a.m. and went off at midnight, and that basically determined Nichols’ working hours. Dairy farmers brought their milk to this part of Purcellville in the early morning hours, where the milk was put on the Washington & Old Dominion train bound for Rosslyn for thirsty Washington, DC.

Lester Cummings’s livery stable – now the Nichols storage barn – was purchased by the store in 1923. History walked hand in hand with the store as the livery business, previously sustained by rural life’s use of horses and buggies, was being replaced by the automobile business.

Before electricity found its way to surrounding farms, Nichols was the source of the batteries local folk used in their radios so they could tune in to the world. And, when the Tri-County Electric Cooperative’s lines finally came to the western Loudoun countryside, and radio batteries were no longer needed, Nichols branched out into the sale of increasingly popular refrigerators while the cooperative made the customer’s $5 a month Nichols payment easy by adding it to their electric bill.

People often wonder how a place like Nichols Hardware still exists. I believe it exists because certain people buck the sometimes trite saying that “you can’t stop progress,” understanding that progress does not simply include replacing something old with something new. This is why the old grain mill and train station a couple of doors down from Nichols was not replaced by a small strip mall, but tastefully restored to an open public space for people using the old WO&D rail bed (now a bike trail) and a successful and beautiful restaurant. This is why, for the moment, when you are shopping, dining or just strolling through this part of Purcellville you somehow feel like you are “coming home.”

But, while Purcellville’s historic downtown has in many respects managed to maintain the best of the past while providing for the needs of the new generation – with high-speed internet access, fun gourmet cafes and thriving small businesses – plans for at least one major new development named Vineyard Square threatens to turn Purcellville’s historic downtown into a dense, squeeze every penny out of it that you can residential and commercial center.

As with the Harris Teeter shopping center – punctuated by a lighted water fountain where a stream use to be, and the expansive Southern Collector Road – which now bisects Purcellville’s last working farm, what is proposed for our historic downtown area is development that replaces something economically viable and truly unique … with inappropriate and oversized town center style development – development you’d see anywhere.

Nichols Hardware changed over the years in order to survive; yet somehow emerged to be just as relevant to Purcellville today as it was in 1914.

I hope that Purcellville’s old timers and new residents work together and buck the trend to turn Purcellville’s historic downtown into another residential and commercial strip center, versus a place that honors where the town has been, has some historic style, and, by the way, meets our needs just fine.

Towns like Purcellville lose their soul when they allow new development to eclipse and replace what is truly important to us.




It’s Not “Time For Compromise”

The photo op tents are in place and the state and local government officials, local business leaders and more are lined up – current and former mayors of Purcellville, Virginia Transportation officials, members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, local developers.

The press is here, and a broad white ribbon has been pulled across part of the Southern Collector Road. Bob Lazaro, the Mayor of Purcellville has conducted his ceremonial ribbon cutting signaling that the road is open, and a muted moment of hand-clapping has blown off into the warm June breeze.

Yes, the Southern Collector Road is open and ready for our cars and trucks and commercial vehicles. And, it’s a big, beautiful wide and majestic road.

But, if you know the path it takes – and recognize that the tall wooded areas on either side were once part of a contiguous (and still functioning) farm – you know you are travelling across, not just a new roadbed, but old farm land that a family probably fought tooth and nail to save.

For, on either side of the political handshaking and ceremony is not only remnants of apple trees, but citizens who worked for years to save Crooked Run Orchard from being split in two by a highway that the town’s own studies showed would relieve traffic in Purcellville by maybe two percent … feisty, never give up citizens of every political stripe and color with hand-made signs reading: “Scar on the Land,” … “Road to Lazaro’s House” … “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse Who’s Next?”

One of the sign holders is good old Sam Howell Brown. Looking at the picture of him standing out there in the sun, I really can’t imagine what it took for him to come out today. He has farmed this land for years, cultivating pick your own berries, a wide variety of apples and peaches, herbs, vegetables, pumpkins and squash. Sam’s dad, Howell Brown farmed it before that, and many generations of Brown’s before that, going back to when the family was deeded the land by Lord Fairfax in 1741 before we became a nation. Today, 20,000 customers pass through Crooked Run Orchard each year.

On this day, police officers have respectfully directed the concerned citizens to stand behind a line near the ceremony lest they be given a ticket for trespassing. Trespassing on land that was once owned by the Brown family, but taken by eminent domain and the dysfunctional and self-serving Purcellville political system – a system of you-do-this-for -me-and-I’ll-do-this-for-you that now threatens western Loudoun County’s remaining agricultural jewels and small town and village ways of life.

One of the public officials speaking at the event suggests to everyone present: “It is time for compromise,” meaning, presumably, can we just move on? Ok, time for compromise, time to move on? But, what have the forces that be compromised to serve their own interests (the road) while at the same time protecting this farmer’s property rights and family heritage? Nothing. No shifting of the roadbed so it wouldn’t split the farm. No safe crosswalk or access to Sam’s back orchard. No assistance in minimizing how the years of construction on the road bordering his farm would affect his business.

It’s not “Time To Compromise.” No, I don’t think so. It’s time all of western Loudoun got behind a citizen-directed plan to make Sam Brown’s situation the last time politicians and others are allowed to sacrifice our historic farm businesses and agricultural heritage for the sake of a vision we don’t share.




What Is Our Vision For The Future?

On a beautiful spring day like today – or on any of the beautiful days we’ve experienced here in western Loudoun County lately – it’s hard to imagine that one morning you might wake up and wish things were different.

The sun is out and the weekend is here. You’ve got lots of errands to run but that’s OK. You’ll hit more traffic than you are used to if you head into Purcellville or Leesburg, or Tyson’s Corner, but you’ll put up with it. Once back home, maybe you’ll do a little gardening, take your kids to practice and then take a walk around the neighborhood, or maybe you’ll head out to a winery or a local farm to enjoy what the still rural aspects of our area have to offer.

Yes, it’s pretty nice living here in western Loudoun County. And, although everyone knows big changes are afoot, you don’t get the sense those changes will one day shock you.

But flash forward a year or two, or three, to Saturday, April 27, 2014 … or 2015 … or 2016 and imagine this scenario.

Your favorite old farm, the one trying to continue operations despite the road that was going through it, finally gave up and closed. Your favorite old time hardware is closed down, too – seemingly benign changes to the old downtown made it too difficult for their suppliers to get in and out of their loading dock. The woods that your yard backs up to got replaced. And, not just by another subdivision, but a huge apartment complex. The “back way,” that gravel road you’d take to avoid the more congested commuting routes has been made wider and is now paved; no longer a road that blends into its rural surroundings, it’s now just something that gets you from Point A to Point B. Looking out toward the west one night, instead of rolling hills and rooftops and the occasional horse farm, you see a big parking lot full of cars.

As we all enjoy our beautiful western Loudoun community today, new development projects in the works, new roads, and changes to how zoning decisions are made and government interacts with its citizenry are acting against the vision that is our rural and small town, quiet village way of life.
This includes the proposed 176-unit Catoctin Creek Apartments complex in Purcellville; changes to the town’s comprehensive and zoning plans; elimination of the special exception process, resulting in less public input on big box stores and other zoning changes; the Catoctin Corner commercial development that will add more drive-thrus and commercial strips near the entrance to Purcellville; the new hotel (or retail/condos) and parking complex planned for downtown Purcellville, and the plan to widen and level out this historic area’s sidewalks … all in the name of a new “Tourist District.”

And, then, for people in Purcellville and the communities within the town’s sphere of influence – including the towns of Hamilton and Round Hill and the villages of Lincoln, Philomont and Paeonion Springs, Waterford and others – will we see the open space buffers that now separate them from Purcellville shrink to the point where you don’t have a sense of being in a distinct community at all, and western Loudoun looks more like a Leesburg or an Ashburn? (Nice places to live, but not necessarily what you had in mind when you came here or chose to stay as a long term resident of the area.)

As newer residents and as long time residents, as we enjoy what we came here for and stayed here for, it’s important to remind ourselves that there are good forces of change and bad forces of change.

High-density development without regard to the quality of life of those around that development is not inevitable, unless we decide it should be.
Excessive new commercial development that enriches big national chains at the expense of smaller downtown businesses is the way most communities are going these days, but it doesn’t have to be the way western Loudoun goes.

Our agricultural heritage – and the local economic engine it represents – can be ours to cultivate and keep, if that’s what we want. (A Purcellville planning commissioner recently said that he couldn’t see a farm in town … is that how you feel?)

We elect our public officials to reflect what we want … and we should hold them to task.

We should be able to wake up on April 27, 2016, and know that, while we saw lots of change in western Loudoun, it matched our vision for where we wanted to live and what we came and stayed here for.