Ten years ago this month, Leesburg leaders got about the worst public relations hit that a fast-growing jurisdiction working to attract businesses could take.
Wolf Furniture, the Pennsylvania-based retailer planning to open its first Virginia store, announced it would be putting its Leesburg land up for sale and abandoning efforts to win governmental approvals to build a showroom in town. Wolf called the town’s development review process onerous, cumbersome, and costly, thanks to the delays.
The incident prompted a restructuring in Town Hall. Then-town manager John Wells fast-tracked changes to the land development review process and the Town Council quickly got on board. This resulted in the reshuffling of some town staff, the eventual separation of plan review into its own department, the assignment of a project manager to each development application, and the ultimate goal of establishing the town as a business-friendly destination with a predictable, customer-service-first process.
Wells had been on the job as Leesburg’s town manager for three years when the Wolf announcement came down.
“When I was hired one of the things that was mentioned to me was there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the development process,” Wells said in a recent interview, adding that Town Council asked him to make improvements there a priority. “The Wolf Furniture event really caused us to move those things into a much higher gear.”
Both a cultural and attitude change for town staff was needed, he said, as well as an overall process change. About two months after Wolf’s announcement, Wells reorganized the Town Manager’s Office, promoting then-Parks and Recreation Department Director Kaj Dentler to deputy town manager; tapping Scott Parker as an assistant to the town manager; and moving Marantha Edwards to the head of the Economic Development Department. The concept was to have the Town Manager’s Office and Economic Development Department work in sync to avoid confusion in the process and present a unified front to existing or prospective businesses.
Five years later, the town was recognized by the Virginia Municipal League for its work in right-sizing its development process. And Wolf Furniture ultimately decided to give the town a second chance. The showroom opened on Fort Evans Road in late 2012.
“There was an enormous change in the attitude of the political situation toward growth from when we first acquired property and had difficulty getting approvals to develop it versus when the town came back and said, ‘let’s give it another try,’” Wolf said in an interview last week. “The difference was night and day.”
While pleased with Wolf’s Leesburg store—its only one in Virginia and among the top-third in store performance for the 115-year-old company—Wolf does regret the delay. When the doors finally opened in 2012, the nation was in the midst of a lingering economic recession and had missed the last crest of Loudoun’s booming housing market. “It would’ve been one of the higher water marks,” he said. Also, for all the “time, energy and capital” the company invested in the initial development process, Wolf may have been able to open stores in other markets.
Room to Improve
Since the development process was revamped, Leesburg town staff has said that no one should expect to see a “mission accomplished” sign hung outside of Town Hall anytime soon. The sentiment remains today, now with Dentler serving as the town manager since Wells’ retirement in 2014.
In his first year as town manager, he lead what he called a “focus group review” of the entire land development process. “It showed we are better but still have room to improve,” he said.
And that feeling remains today, felt by those both on and off the council dais, and in and outside of Town Hall.
Mayor Kelly Burk, who was a member of the Town Council when Wolf announced its 2007 exodus, said one of the key things she continues to hear from the development community is a need for consistency.
“Everybody wants to be treated fairly,” she said. “Whatever rules you put in place you need to make sure they’re consistently enforced. If [the business community] knows what the rules are [they’ll] play by them.”
Developers and property owners interviewed for this article were reluctant to share their views, fearing retribution or delay in pending reviews. While just about all agreed that town staff’s attitude was in the right place, many said that serious changes needed to be made to the process.
One developer noted that initial meetings with town staff that were supposed to focus on the general zoning concepts were instead focused on minutiae and design details usually reserved for much later in the process, an approach that adds to the length and cost reviews.
One developer who has regularly done business in Leesburg said the town still has “a long way to go” on fixing its review process. The developer, who asked not to be identified, said in recent conversations with town staff he believes there is the desire to make the changes, but said some Town Council members need to get on board if they want to attract new businesses and development.
“Those seven people have to be supportive of making themselves more competitive. The [development] standards are higher than most jurisdictions we deal with in all respects. There’s very little wiggle room for interpretation or varying circumstances; everything is very, very by the book and the book is very big. The attitude needs to change to ‘how do we get to yes’ instead of ‘how can we say no,’” he said.
One developer pointed to Market Station in downtown Leesburg, a past recipient of design awards, and said such a project would never be able to get approved with today’s standards. Current town ordinances as they relate to engineering, stormwater, and transportation are out of sync with urban compact environments and instead are more geared to suburban-style development, he said.
Hobie Mitchel, whose projects include Crescent Place and Crescent Parke, said it’s all about expectations when it comes to doing business with the county seat.
“You’ve got to have good quality plans and good quality things to go and submit. It’s about sitting down with [town staff] and making sure you’re clear about what the expectations are,” Mitchel said.
He suggested that the town staff could start by asking “how far into the minutiae do you have to get, what are the important things and are [they] overdoing some things?”
Edwards and Public Information Officer Betsy Arnett are tasked with reaching out to property owners, developers, and stakeholders to get their input about the current review process. They will present a report to the Town Council on their findings next month.
“In many ways, it’s the follow-up of ‘hey we’ve made all these changes.’ Some of it is process, procedural changes and some of it is cultural within the organization,” Arnett said. “We’re looking at what’s stuck, what’s working, what do we need to focus on next.”
There’s always room for improvement, all agree.
“We don’t ever want to dust off our hands and say we’re done. I genuinely do believe we are better than we were. There’s no question—that’s empirically true,” Arnett said.
Edwards said the recent interviews they’ve engaged in have revealed some frustration with the current review process, some as it relates to consistency, others as it relates to zoning rules and regulations.
Something Has Changed
For Nils Schnibbe, co-owner of Captain Catoctin’s Crabs and Concoctions in downtown Leesburg, the process has gotten better, just in less than a year. Captain Catoctin’s opened in the spring and Schnibbe is working to open a second restaurant on S. King Street called SideBar.
“Something has changed,” he said. “[Town staff] was way more welcoming. With Captain Catoctin’s we were slowed down in a way where it was not really that helpful. But with this process we’ve been working on the last few weeks it’s different, much better. The support from the town, the response time is way faster.”
Schnibbe said there still is a need for more hands-on support for small businesses. Those new to Leesburg can easily be overwhelmed by the amount of required paperwork and red tape.
“It’s really hard to go through these guidelines and some things there are just no guidelines,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of rules and regulations but it would be nice to have a person who can walk you through the process especially if you’re new to this.”
Now retired and splitting his time between homes in Pennsylvania and Arizona, Wells still manages to pass through Leesburg on occasion. And he is pretty pleased with what he sees.
“I think what I’ve seen in the last three years since I’ve gone is success was defined not by what wasn’t approved, it’s what got built. I’ve seen the work that’s been done at Barber and Ross, Oaklawn, Lowes, the continuous development of the Village at Leesburg. Those things are in the ground now. That’s really the ultimate measure of how the process works—do things get built,” he said.
Bill Ackman, head of the town’s Plan Review Department, said, on average, the town is getting applicants through the development review process between five and eight months. Some sooner if it’s a Town Council priority, he said, pointing to the K2M headquarters relocation from a couple years ago. That’s progress compared to a decade ago, when the average review process took a year or more, with multiple submissions. Today, the average number of submissions is three, including final signature sets, he said.
“One of the things that has really helped the process is we have meetings with the developer and engineer throughout the process and that was lacking before,” he said. “Things are so much better because time isn’t wasted anymore on guessing what the town wants. It’s more predictable.”
Like his predecessor, Dentler isn’t keen to rest on his laurels when it comes to the development review process. In the New Year, he is kicking off a five-day process improvement initiative that will scrutinize the development process piece by piece.
“Ultimately, it allows us to break down the process and [ask] why do you do this, do that, and how to do it better. It will create a report that includes a variety of action steps to do those improvements,” he said.
For Dentler, his goal is a streamlined process that is more predictable.
It’s just another rung in the ladder of Leesburg leaders’ goals to never go back to the darkest days of a decade past and to always look for ways to be better.
“The goal is to continue to encourage the community and world around us to feel confident in Leesburg,” Edwards said. “To treat people like investors. Nobody wants to invest in something you don’t trust.”