Seven candidates vying for three seats on the Leesburg Town Council provided glimpses of their goals during a Sept. 22 forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Loudoun County.
During an hour-long question and answer session, the candidates agreed that the town has much to be proud of. Veteran members urged voters to stay the course with their leadership, while challengers said they wanted to bring new ideas to Town Hall.
Katie Sheldon Hammler is the most tenured of the candidates, seeking her fourth four-year term. She said the council has done a good job of making Leesburg a great place to live and attracting new businesses while also enacting fiscal policies that earned triple-A bond rates while still keeping tax rates low.
Tom Dunn, who has served on the council for eight years, highlighted his consistent efforts to support lower taxes and utility rates and to help constituents work with the town staff to solve problems.
Ken Reid is hoping to return to the council after serving as the Leesburg District supervisor for four years. He said the town needs a better relationship with the county government and to improve its cumbersome development review process. He highlighted his efforts to advance several transportation improvements around town while serving on the council and county board and said his top priority would be addressing the back up on Rt. 15 north of town.
Four other candidates are making their first run for a council seat.
Ron Campbell said fresh voices are needed on the council. If voters always elect the same people, “we really don’t get a chance to see how far we can go,” he said.
John Hilton’s campaign is focused on land use issues. He called for a halt to high-density housing and wants more focus on expanding the commercial tax base. “I will do my very best to keep life livable despite these [growth] pressures,” he said.
Evan MacBeth said his goal is to retain the family-oriented qualities that attracted him to move to Leesburg 10 years ago. “Ultimately, I want to build a Leesburg where my kids will want to raise their kids so we don’t have to chase our grandkids across the country,” he said.
Gwen Pangle, after hearing the concerns of business owners and residents, said she wants to be part of the decisions the town is facing. She also wants a Town Council that more quickly solves problems and works better together.
The candidates drew the most distinctions when addressing two topics—development planned in the Crescent District and the needs of downtown businesses and residents.
The candidates said they support the overall vision of the Crescent District, an area south of the historic district planned for development as a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use community. The Crescent Place project on Harrison Street was the first to be built; the Town Council last month balked at the larger Crescent Parke proposal on land at the southern edge of the district. The candidates also seemed willing to give Crescent Parke a second look.
“I’m open to suggestions in that area,” said Dunn, one of four council members who voted against approving the rezoning. He said the application got extensive review by the Planning Commission and the council, but he would be open to reconsidering the plan if neighbors support it.
Hammler made the motion to approve the rezoning at the Town Council meeting. She said she was hopeful it would get another chance and that the final version would help achieve the vision of the Crescent District. “Everything that we have asked for, the developer has negotiated with us.”
MacBeth agreed with the goals of the Crescent District, but said he was looking for the right development application—one that would have a consensus of support from town residents. If Crescent Parke returns, he said it should go back to the planning commission to hammer out the compromises residents want.
Pangle said implementation of the Crescent District plan was important to the success of the downtown area. Crescent Place has already shown benefits of providing housing for downsizing families and for millennials, as well as bringing more foot traffic downtown, she said. Crescent Parke could have a similar impact, she said.
Reid said the town may have trouble implementing the Crescent District plan because previous councils spent too much time debating the development rules before the housing market collapsed.
Hilton seemed most critical of the plan, saying the type of high-density housing envisioned isn’t what is needed in town. Campbell also said town leaders should step back and look at the overall housing needs, including affordability.
Candidates expressed a variety of views when asked what should be done to help downtown prosper and about growing conflicts between businesses and residents.
Hammler said the investments made by the town to improve the streetscapes have helped, as have the influx of new restaurants. “The downtown is thriving,” she said.
Dunn and Reid said the town should do more to increase housing downtown. Reid noted it had been decades since any significant new housing had been built in the historic district. Dunn suggested the town consider options to convert vacant commercial space to residences in an effort to increase foot traffic.
MacBeth and Pangle, president of the Leesburg Downtown Business Association, said more needs to be done to bring businesses and residents together.
On the noise issue, Hilton noted that Leesburg’s growing nightlife isn’t a problem for most town residents, but the concerns of those living near concert venues should be addressed by the town.
Pangle said businesses, too, need more certainty when it comes to noise complaints. They need to be able to hire a band and not get shut down five minutes later because a neighbor complains, she said.
Increasing the town’s nightlife will be an important part of the mix, Pangle said. “You won’t want to live in a town that turns into ‘oh isn’t that nice? That old historic town where nobody stops.’ So there is a middle ground before we don’t have any business downtown,” she said.
MacBeth and Campbell also said it was important for town leaders to look beyond the historic district boundaries. MacBeth noted that most residents live outside the town bypass in areas that get little Town Council attention. Campbell said that the town needs to change the conversation, and not just worry about building a vibrant downtown, but also look at the needs of other town businesses and market the town’s businesses differently.