In a little more than an hour, the three candidates vying to be Leesburg’s next mayor touched on some of the town’s biggest hot-button issues, and in the meantime, showed some comparisons and contrasts among them.
Thursday night, the League of Women’s Voters of Loudoun County held its first of two candidate forums for the upcoming Leesburg Town Council elections in November. This week, it was the mayoral candidates’ turns, with current Mayor David Butler and challengers Vice Mayor Kelly Burk and former Town Council member Kevin Wright sharing their viewpoints. The forum was moderated by Loudoun Times-Mirror reporter Trevor Baratko.
With questions offered both by the moderator and members of the audience, the candidates shared their comprehensive ideas on how the town can improve, and many areas it is already doing well.
The subject of the downtown area, always a topic that generates passionate opinions, came up on several occasions.
“I don’t think that downtown is dying. I don’t think downtown is thriving. I think it is going through change,” Wright said.
A former manager of the Tally Ho Theatre, Wright said what the council needs to do is find a way to support the downtown businesses, “without getting in their way.”
Wright said it was important to “cut the red tape,” and make it less time consuming for land development applications to make it through the development process. He pointed to pending applications that could bring hundreds of “feet on the street” to the downtown area, by way of nearby residential development. On how to partner with downtown property owners, he said the council needs to have a better dialogue to understand if there are issues the town government can help them solve.
“We need to listen to [downtown] property owners,” he said.
Burk concurred that it is the businesses that make the downtown area thrive, but offered that revitalizing the downtown Loudoun Museum or adding a small library geared toward children in the area could be positive enhancements. She suggested creating incentives or some type of program to make it easier for downtown property owners to make often expensive improvements to their buildings.
“One of the things that we could do is we do have a Zoning Ordinance that does require that buildings be maintained in certain ways. We could be stronger about enforcing those Zoning Ordinance [regulations] but it would be a very traumatic experience for some landlords,” Burk said.
She said she has tried to get all the downtown landlords together in a meeting, but that has proven to be difficult.
Butler said the best thing the council can do for the downtown is to “give it customers,” and pointed to residential developments near downtown, like Crescent Place, as creating needed foot traffic. He said it is important to push the downtown area as a destination for arts, entertainment, and dining. Like Burk, he also offered that creating incentives for property owners to improve their buildings was something worth exploring.
“One of the main reasons businesses have moved is not because of a lack of business but because property owner did not maintain [the building] well enough,” he said.
Butler also said that reducing cut-through traffic congestion in the downtown area, by removing traffic lights at the Leesburg Bypass, Edwards Ferry Road, and Fort Evans Road, would be a major way to help the downtown area.
The exploration of city status is another item that has seen some renewed debate as of late. In the past, some Town Council members have expressed an interest in exploring the ramifications of Leesburg changing from a town to a city. However, the General Assembly has had a moratorium on municipalities exploring such a change since 1987, and state legislators have appeared keen on extending that.
Burk called the issue “a moot point” since the moratorium remains in place, but said she would not be opposed to studying city status for Leesburg.
“When you are a city you have to provide all of the services. You’re talking about 50,000 people paying for it rather than 350,000 people [in the county] paying for it,” she said. “Some other cities have lower tax rates than us. I wouldn’t take it lightly.”
Butler said the current situation is a bit of a “catch 22” as state legislators won’t consider lifting the moratorium until a municipality does a study on its feasibility, yet many towns don’t want to spend the tens of thousands of dollars to do such a study unless there is a good chance the moratorium will be lifted.
“Somebody’s got to get some guts to do this,” he said. “We’re larger than 70 percent of the cities in Virginia. There’s absolutely no question we would have the resources and wherewithal to become a city. And I’m certainly willing to spend a few dollars to determine if it’s right or not. It could be a big benefit to the residents of this town.”
Wright cautioned that past talk of Leesburg becoming a city has caused uproar with county officials.
“It immediately fractures our relationship with the county,” he said. “If we don’t pursue this in the right way that savings and the efforts we’re trying to get … come to a screeching halt because it gets back to an us versus them relationship with the county.”
The controversial Crescent Parke rezoning application was also brought up as a topic Thursday night. The council failed to approve the rezoning in August, following months of review at both the Planning Commission and Town Council levels. The applicant, Lansdowne Development Group, has tried to submit a revised plan to the Planning and Zoning Department, but it has not been accepted, as town staff contends the rezoning was denied. The applicant has appealed the decision to the Loudoun County Circuit Court, alleging that, absent a motion to deny the project passing, the application remains active.
This was one area where the three candidates found themselves on different sides of the aisle. Burk was one of four council members to vote against the rezoning’s approval, while Butler was on the minority side.
Butler said the rezoning project is a “great way to protect the neighborhoods” that surround it, and noted that residents living in that area were largely in favor of the project moving forward. He said, if the land were to be developed by right, it could mean that a gas station or industrial development is erected, without needing legislative approval. Butler also added that the applicant has made “outstanding changes” to the original proposal.
Although Burk said she has not personally seen the changes the developer has proposed to the application, she is fine with the project being reviewed again, but only if it follows the proper channels. That would mean re-navigating staff review of the application and review by the Planning Commission prior to a return trip to the council.
“If it wants to come back as a new application of course I’d be happy to look at it, but it has to go through the process again,” she said. “It can’t be short circuited to point that it doesn’t get vetted the way that it needs to be.”
When asked what would need to change for her to approve the rezoning, Burk responded “quite a few things,” among them the proposed residential density.
The lone candidate to not have had to cast a vote on the rezoning, Wright said the uncertainty surrounding where the project goes now “is helping no one.” He said, with any Town Council development application review, a council member has to look at whether the impacts of a proposed development are properly offset.
Next up will be a forum featuring all seven Town Council candidates vying for one of three open Town Council seats come November. The Sept. 22 forum, also at Rust Library from 7 to 8:30 p.m., will feature council incumbents Tom Dunn and Katie Hammler, and challengers John Hilton, Evan Macbeth, Gwen Pangle, Ron Campbell, and former Town Council member and county supervisor Ken Reid.
For more coverage of the Sept. 15 forum, pick up next week’s issue of Loudoun Now.