The Purcellville Town Council will soon be deciding on an application to change zoning and amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow the construction of a Low-Income Tax-Credit Apartment Complex (LIHTC) on Hirst Road, which borders Catoctin Creek. The complex would be situated on 13 acres of a 20-acre parcel with 176 units (and up to 205). Residents are banding together to oppose the change to allow residential building instead of the permitted commercial use (CM-1).
As part of their application, S.L. Nusbaum Realty stated, “there is no Comprehensive Plan adopted by the town for this property.” However, the Comprehensive Plan shows the area as “professional office use” and specifically states that we should “ensure that new residential construction is compatible with the Town’s existing small town character.” The plan also calls for the “protection and conservation of these mature trees within the community and especially along Catoctin Creek.” The developer is requesting four separate smaller buffers than what is required (the Comprehensive Plan specifically mentions, “maintaining a 100-foot wide buffer around streams and creeks to filter pollution”).
The Hirst Road Charrette, a resident/town initiative states, “New development will enhance the historic fabric of the community, exhibit architectural excellence, and create quality-scale environments.” At a recent Board of Architectural Review meeting, the developer presented the Catoctin Creek Apartment plan. Several board members expressed concern over many aspects of the project and when asked to use more “time-honored” materials, the developer’s representative stated it would be “cost prohibitive.”
“Making development predictable” as a key principle was recommended in the town Comprehensive Plan. Residents rely on zoning ordinances to protect their land and allowing exemptions erodes that equanimity. Allowing this zoning ordinance change and a Comprehensive Plan amendment may create a benefit for one property owner to the detriment of other owners.
The growth rate predicted in the Comprehensive Plan was that the town’s population would “not undergo the magnitude of increase it has experienced during the past decade.” The apartment complex, if built as proposed, would add over 6 percent growth to Purcellville when fully occupied and yet the traffic study commissioned for the development predicted only a 2 percent growth rate. The availability of water and sewer utility capacity is a concern and who will bear the brunt of the costs associated with capacity expansion and the ability to provide sufficient capacity should another drought occur.
There are three apartment complexes in Purcellville, all of which are LIHTC and less than .5 miles from the proposed apartment development. At 4.6 percent, Purcellville has the highest saturation rate of LIHTC apartments than any other community in Loudoun County today. With populations hovering around 45,000, Ashburn has a saturation rate of 1.5 percent and Leesburg is 2.9 percent. (Developers capture a greater amount of profit when they build where land costs are lower relative to market rents set by HUD, which explains their desire to build in Purcellville as opposed to other areas in Eastern Loudoun.)
In a statement to accompany the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, the developer wrote: “The nature of who lives in higher-density housing – fewer families with children – puts less demand on schools and other public services than low-density housing.” Contrary to this, family size is relative to the rent level, with luxury rentals being occupied by the fewest children and lower-rent apartments occupied by both large and small families with a higher average number of school-age children. With 176 units, the majority being two and three bedrooms, this complex could add more school age children to our local schools than a community as large as Locust Grove, for example. Concern for residents is the ability of the School Board to allocate funds in a timely manner to keep up with this growth, and this apartment complex, coupled with continued growth outside of town limits, could lead to overcrowding in the schools and boundary changes.
The Purcellville Town Council has committed to increasing the commercial presence in town to “keep the tax burden for residents more reasonable.” Renaud Consulting is advertising for lease/sale over 200,000 square feet of retail/business space next to the proposed Catoctin Creek Apartments. The Hirst Road Charette and town Comprehensive Plan suggest light commercial within this corridor, which the current CM-1 zoning supports. The developer wants to include a hotel in addition to an events center to be used as a drive-in movie theater and flea market; the concern for many is the unintended consequences of this type of expansion. “Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend when stores come to town,” says Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. “All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
The traffic study conducted by S.L. Nusbaum for the apartment complex did not include any impact of any future development, so residents are concerned about the true impact on traffic if all development within the Hirst Corridor being suggested by Renaud were to be built. The ability to reduce light pollution and promote the protection of dark night sky in Purcellville would be close to impossible with such a large-scale development.
The Town of Purcellville acknowledges the challenges of business growth in the Comprehensive Plan and how such “growth can affect the historic character and small community ambience that residents of Purcellville desire to preserve.”
Purcellville has changed in the past decade and is at a threshold for its future; whether via high-density housing or massive new commercial development.
The question is how best to protect the small town character and the reason most people moved here.