Most people know Martha Mason Semmes as Middleburg’s town administrator.
She came to the town’s top administrative job in 2010 after a long career as a county and town planner, where her achievements have garnered recognition at the town, county and state levels.
Those accomplishments now will be recognized nationally in Phoenix, AZ, on April 3 when Semmes will be one of 61 individuals to be inducted into the American Institute of Certified Planners College of Fellows for her outstanding achievements in urban planning.
Only 2 percent of Certified Planners receive the coveted invitation, according to Milt Herd, former Loudoun County Planning Director and owner of a 25-year consultancy throughout Virginia. He and his successor, for 20 years, Julie Pastor, served as mentors on Semmes’ nomination. Both were previously inducted to the College of Fellows.
Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis is thrilled that her top executive has been honored.
“We are all extremely proud of her talent, skills, knowledge and her friendly demeanor,” Davis said this week calling the honor well deserved.
Being named to the prestigious AICP College of Fellows is the highest honor awarded by the planning profession.
It’s tough to get.
Invitations to join the College of Fellows are given only after a rigorous and lengthy nomination and review process to ensure the chosen candidates have had a positive and long-lasting impact on the planning profession.
The vetting process to see if a nominee is worth being elevated to the highest level means that “you’re not just doing the job well—you have to have gone above and beyond and made a difference in your community. That’s what’s special,” Semmes said of her nomination by the American Planning Association’s Virginia Chapter.
Herd said he and Pastor “helped her put together the application and stay on schedule, giving her advice and encouragement.”
“It’s pretty demanding,” he said.
The category for which Semmes applied was not just her planning achievements, but also leadership in the community.
“She’s done that and been an inspiration,” Herd said. “She has amazing energy, good will, and is very, very smart.” He noted her work has a clear focus on helping communities and a lot of individuals. “That motivates her,” he said.
Pastor said the honor for Semmes is great news, calling her “tireless and tenacious.” She said she was honored to have served as Semmes’ mentor. She is going to the induction herself. “I’m her date,” she said, laughing.
Semmes has served all of Loudoun’s seven towns in one capacity or another. She began her career with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, then left to be town planner in Leesburg from 1982 to 1988. She took time off while her son was born, then went to Middleburg as town planner in the mid-1990s to 2002. She worked for the Loudoun Main Street program for several years, after which she became town planner and zoning administrator in Purcellville for five years, before returning to Middleburg as town administrator.
She is a great supporter of Loudoun’s small towns.
“They’re each unique and such important pieces of Loudoun’s history,” she said in a recent interview.
“My passion is to preserve what’s unique and special about each town, and help them reach their full potential; to help people come together to achieve their vision,” she says.
Over her career in Loudoun, she has been a champion of small town planning, advocating the preservation of their historic architecture and ambiance, and of affordable housing and social justice in both her public and nonprofit work.
What does she mean by social justice? “We want to lift up everyone and celebrate everyone that makes up part of the community,” she says, citing her fascination with Middleburg’s Asbury Church that was so important to the African-American community that constitutes a significant portion of the town’s history. The building was donated to the town in 2014, and is planned to be a center for community use.
Middleburg may have an upscale reputation, but Semmes notes that the Windy Hill Foundation, with whom she worked when she was the town planner, has built 20 percent of the housing in town, to provide for low-income residents—white, black and Hispanic.
Towns as Support Systems
Semmes is a firm believer in promoting “quality of place—that our environment and structure of our communities should enrich the lives of all citizens and reflect our values as caretakers of our world.”
In her time in Leesburg, the town had 8,500 residents. It was a period when the town had annexed large portions of land, undergoing many re-zonings. “It was exciting, things were going on,” she said, citing Ida Lee Recreation Center, the town hall and other projects. She was the principal author of the 1986 “Leesburg Town Plan” that helped the town manage two decades of rapid growth.
At the other end of the scale, Middleburg was different, it had a real edge. “People want to preserve that; they’re very deliberate about the way it has grown,” she said.
In Purcellville, Semmes worked with Roadside Development on the Gateway shopping complex which has been praised for its overall design and touches reflecting the town’s historic past as an agricultural center.
Former Purcellville Mayor Bob Lazaro who led the council when Semmes came to town in 2005, said many of the town’s achievements, “came out of Martha’s shop.”
“She was very instrumental in helping the town adopt and implement the comprehensive plan—that led to taking more than 1,000 housing units off the planning map, the creation of the overlay [commercial] historic district, and formation of the Purcellville Board of Architectural Review and its initial guidelines,” he recalled.
Semmes also helped with numerous other planning initiatives, such as the protection of Fireman’s Field and the Train Station, the protection through easement of the town’s watershed, and the downtown Purcellville Streetscape Plan, Lazaro said.
Semmes is a member of the Loudoun County Design Cabinet, a program of the Department of Economic Development. The “cabinet” is composed of professionals who live or work in Loudoun, including planners, contractors, landscape designers, architects and engineers, and who hold design charrettes to help communities large and small with design problems.
For more than a decade, Semmes has relished that advisory role—on traffic-calming needs in Hillsboro, Lovettsville’s German heritage, Hamilton’s concerns with its downtown or planning for Round Hill’s 12-acre commercial center.
Semmes has served on the boards of the Virginia Association of Zoning Officials and APA Virginia, and currently is vice president of programs for the Virginia Downtown Development Association. She has served on the board of directors of Loudoun Interfaith Relief and as chair of the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter board.