Leesburg Council Balks at Historic District Expansion

The Leesburg Town Council on Monday got a detailed briefing on the proposal to expand architectural controls and, while there was agreement on the goal of making the town look better overall, questions remain about the best strategy to accomplish that.

The proposals emerged from a study committee with members of the Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review. The goal was to improve or eliminate the town’s H-2 historic district overlay zone. Adopted in the early 1990s, the H-2 was designed to set higher architectural design standards for development on the corridors leading into downtown. Town leaders generally agree the regulations have been ineffective.

The committee recommended replacing the H-2 with a new Gateway Overlay District that would have improved design standards and be applied to commercial structures along all town gateway routes, not just Market and King streets. The panel is also recommended expanding the downtown Old and Historic District, known as the H-1 district, to include homes along Edwards Ferry Road.

During the council’s review, a majority agreed to pursue replacement of the H-2, although it wasn’t clear that the proposed Gateway Overlay would find support.

Councilman Tom Dunn made a case for pressing for improved designs for shopping centers and other commercial buildings by using form-base zoning code rather than a zoning overlay district. He said that past efforts by the town have focused too narrowly on controlling details of development rather than setting design standards and letting property owners find creative ways to achieve them.

The council strongly supported the committee’s recommendation to invest in streetscape improvements at the town’s gateway entrances, with only Councilmen Marty Martinez abstaining from the endorsement vote. The projects could be added to the town’s Capital Improvement Program, although Planning Commission Vice Chairwoman Gigi Robinson suggested working with students in the school system’s vo-tech classes to build benches and other features could be used.

Only the panel’s H-1 recommendations failed to find council support during Monday’s session. Council members discussed options to reach out to the 71 Edwards Ferry Road homeowners to gauge their interest in voluntarily adding their land to the historic district. The Town Charter does not permit the government to add land to the district without residents’ consent.

Committee members and Planning Director Susan Berry-Hill acknowledged they have no information on whether the residents support the proposal, which could offer tax credits for some property renovations as well as to prevent homes from being knocked down to make way for higher-density development. After debating whether to hold community information sessions or to conduct door-to-door surveys to gather input, only two council members supported moving ahead with the proposal.

“I don’t think I want to tell 71 people that they are suddenly going to be in the H-1 district. Edwards Ferry Road is fine as it is,” Councilman Ken Reid said.

Town staff members and committee members said it was important to push for better designs.

“If your image of Leesburg is that corporate branding is the brand we want in Leesburg, that’s fine. That is your prerogative,” said Brian Boucher, the deputy director of Planning and Zoning.

He shared the story of a recent plane trip when he sat near an Ashburn resident who said she didn’t like to visit Leesburg. “It’s sort of ugly and it looks sort of like nobody cares,” Boucher recalled her saying, presumably about the town’s East Market Street approach to the downtown historic district.

“I feel like we are on the cusp of something wonderful,” BAR member Teresa Minchew said, urging the council to pursue a long-term vision for the gateway corridors.

The council was scheduled to adopt a formal resolution setting its direction its meeting Tuesday night.

Leave a Reply