A Fight Over a Falling Down Church

A crumbling, centenarian church building stands at the busy intersection of West Church Road and Davis Drive in Sterling and at the heart of a minor controversy in the Loudoun Planning Commission.

Commissioners are torn over whether to approve an application from Robert Young’s Davis One LLC to build a self-storage mini warehouse on the site, replacing the aging church and some landscaping business sheds with a modern, three-story building.

Although the church was built in 1870, county reports note that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources found the church ineligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The county also determined that it would be impossible or cost-prohibitive to relocate or renovate the run-down building, and recommended requiring Davis One to hire a restoration contractor to dismantle the church’s salvageable historic elements.

Nonetheless, some Sterling residents turned out to a public hearing Tuesday to make their case for saving the church.

“This one angers me,” said graduate student and Sterling resident Kenny Membreno, adding, “I refuse to believe that this is not an historic site. I refuse to believe that.”

Bill Ewing, who had come the planning commission to ask for a special exception to build a restaurant at nearby Ruritan Circle, said the church is part of Guilford’s identity and rapidly-vanishing historic character.

“A lot of people, I don’t think, had any idea that the church was in any danger,” Ewing said in a phone call. “We pass by it very day, we see it, and we like it, but we didn’t know it was in any danger.”

Comments like those ignited a debate among commissioners.

“Historic structures, whether they can go onto the national historic register or not, are really suffering in this county,” said commissioner Helena Syska (Sterling).

“Being someone who spends a tremendous amount of time around old buildings, I find myself troubled when a project such as this comes in, which albeit is a very nice project,” agreed commissioner Kevin Ruedisueli (At Large).

Hearing the complaints from the community seemed to sway Syska, in whose district the church stands. She said that although she had originally thought to recommend approving Davis One’s application, she would instead move to send the application to a planning commission work session.

“My reason for doing this is because I think the time is right for us to do something in that particular area,” Syska said. “It has been neglected for a long time.” She added that delaying a decision would give the applicant more time to work with county government exploring options to preserve the church.

Commissioner Tom Dunn (Leesburg) took a harder stance.

“I would rather be taking a vote on this tonight, rather than send this to work session to a new planning commission that may have different views, because I would just as soon recommend for denial tonight,” Dunn said. “Slowly but surely, this is setting up for the evaporation of historic Sterling.”

Tuesday’s public hearing was the final meeting of the commissioners’ four-year terms. The new commission will be sworn in next month.

Contrasting Dunn’s comments, Commissioner Robert Klancher (Ashburn) worried about wasted time saving the church.

“Unless there is an actual program set in place to achieve those goals, the property is going to sit there and rot,” Klancher said.

“I agree with Commissioner Klancher,” Vice Chair Kathy Blackburn (Algonkian) said. “Are we all set up here having a pity party over something that’s been sitting there for 30 years and nobody’s been paying attention to it?”

Blackburn said she was ready to approve the application that night, and challenged the people who spoke up against it. “I’m not willing to put any money into it… are any of you willing to put money into this?”

Chairman Jeff Salmon (Dulles) agreed.

“If something is going to happen, and I think something should happen, it needs to come from the community,” Ruedisueli said. “The community needs to step up, shoulder the burden, and carry it forward.”

Davis One President Robert Young said he was willing to work with county staff in the face of possible denial.

“I certainly will not stand here and say that we are not interested,” Young said. “I think we have demonstrated in many ways that we are very interested in historical preservation.” However, Young pointed out, dismantling or restoring the church may be unrealistic: “I believe at this point that it’s economically unfeasible because, as you pointed out, it costs many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and essentially to preserve this building will drive the value of the property for its current owner to zero.”

The owner of the property, who lives in Falls Church, could not be reached for comment.

Shouldering the Burden

Kenny Membreno is doing his part to save the building, and he may be well positioned to do so.

A graduate student at Georgetown University, Membreno was active in Koran Saines (D-Sterling) and Phyllis Randall’s (D-At Large) successful campaigns for the Board of Supervisors. Saines confirmed that he has offered Membreno a position on a county commission, although both have said Membreno hasn’t yet accepted a position.

Membreno said he has been organizing a community meeting at the sate at the Ruritan Circle restaurant, which got the OK to open earlier in the meeting.

“It looks old, it looks run down, but it’s still beautiful,” Membreno said.

Saines said he would likely get involved.

Membreno has not yet set a date for his meeting. The planning commission, meanwhile, will hold a work session at 6 p.m. Jan. 12.

Contact Renss Greene at rgreene@loudounnow.com.

3 thoughts on “A Fight Over a Falling Down Church

  • 2016-02-16 at 3:10 pm

    We’re too quick to knock things down – heavens – it could be renovated and incorporated like the house – was at the strip mall at the corner when you first go into Purcellville at the traffic circle.

    Sterling has given up a lot – one being the silo at the mall.

  • Pingback: On the loss of the Church | Sterling, VA News and History

  • 2016-10-23 at 3:39 pm

    The Sterling United Methodist Church was established in 1875 as the Methodist Church in Guilford. It occupied a one-room building that was also used as a public school located at 1101 W. Church Road. In 1879, the building and one acre of land was purchased for $200 to be used as a church. In 1890, the name of the community was changed from Guilford to Sterling, thus the name of the church was changed to Sterling Methodist Church. In March 1897, the church burned to the ground and a new building was soon erected on the same site. This church served as the sanctuary for the congregation until 1983 when the congregation moved into their new building at 304 East Church Road.

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