A steering committee tasked with providing a comprehensive set of recommendations on Leesburg’s economic development strategy unveiled the results of its six-month effort during Monday night’s Town Council work session.
Committee Chairwoman Sharon Babbin, who also serves on the town’s Planning Commission, formally presented the council with the committee’s report—all 112 pages of it. The committee, made up of town commissioners, council members, and business representatives, met almost weekly since the spring to prepare the comprehensive set of recommendations. The committee also drew in a lot of additional representation with a series of panel discussions on wide-ranging subjects related to economic development.
“We’ve learned a lot over the last six months, but what we’ve learned mostly is that economic development is a competition,” Babbin said. “We have to build on our strengths and fix our weaknesses. We need to merge our vision and execution.”
Babbin said the report could be used both as an “action plan and a reference manual” to shepherd in improvements to the town’s economic development strategy.
Six key themes emerged from the recommendations.
The Development Process
Topping the list was the need to take a hard look at the town’s land development approval process, often criticized for its lengthiness.
“Speed, flexibility, and predictability,” Babbin said in summarizing the related recommendations. “These three words became a mantra for our committee.”
A fast track program should be implemented for land development application reviews, she said, noting that dragging out the process is costing developers more money and potentially making the town lose out on market opportunities. Requiring engineering drawings before the site plan stage, as well as an inflexible use list, were two criticisms heard widely. The town also needs to take a hard look at its ordinances, some of which were called “archaic,” and in more urban areas of the town still require a more suburban-style of development.
A key area for redevelopment opportunities in the town, the Crescent Design District, is another area of economic development that needs attention, Babbin stressed. The district endured its own lengthy process in its formulation, and a steering committee put together almost a decade ago to look at zoning controls for the area envisioned the use of form-based code zoning, which establish rules for building designs but more loosely regulates how the structures are used. But the end result of all that work missed the original intent, the report said.
“We were told by people involved in the [Crescent Design District] process that it suffered death by a thousand cuts. It was compromised out of its original intent so what we ended up with looks neither fish nor fowl. It’s not form-based code, it’s not Euclidean zoning; it’s some hybrid that is really the worst of all worlds,” she said.
Babbin said she and other committee members strongly urged the council to engage a consultant to do a peer review of the Crescent Design District to return the zoning rules to a true form-based code.
Noting the town’s recent popularity as a destination, the committee recommended continuing that momentum by adopting public-private partnership guidelines to create more economic development opportunities downtown, such as a performing arts center. The Liberty Street parking lot is an opportunity for the town to engage in a partnership to house such a center or a boutique hotel, more retail, residences, or structured parking, Babbin said.
“It’s time to take it to the next level,” she said.
One area that the committee advised staying away from, at least for the time being, is the pursuit of a Main Street organization to oversee downtown functions. The implementation of such a program was debated during the council’s fiscal year 2017 budget work after Town Manager Kaj Dentler recommended looking into it. But Babbin said the committee concluded it was an idea that should be initiated by the business community before the town government gets involved.
On parking, always a hot-button issue, the committee recommended the town government take on more responsibility to building parking infrastructure and concluded that the town’s current payment-in-lieu of parking fees charged to developers are “complex and unfair.” The panel recommended doing away with parking requirements in the urban areas of town and that be done to establish the downtown as a transit center for to support the workforce.
To help with the worker shortage facing many businesses, the report recommends increasing number of Affordable Dwelling Units available in Leesburg through the county’s homebuyer and rental program; and pursuing more incentives for workforce housing available through the state.
The committee recommended sending its report to a subcommittee of the Planning Commission to integrate changes into the Town Plan.
Council members Monday were unsure about the formation of another subcommittee, saying they preferred to leave that up to the commission to decide. But all present expressed gratitude for the exhaustive work of the steering committee.
Councilman Ron Campbell, who put forward the initial idea to form the committee, said the group’s work can be looked at as a “starting point.” He served on the steering committee as a non-voting member along with Councilman Marty Martinez.
“In order to meet our destiny, we have to plan for our future,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately and fortunately the pressures upon us as a town are our own doing—we grew. Now we have to grow into our size wisely.”
Before sending the report to the Planning Commission for review, the council is expected to develop more specific marching orders to guide the commission’s work.
The full steering committee report can be viewed online at leesburgva.gov/edsc.