Inflexible Zoning, Regulations Cited as Key Obstacles in Leesburg

In a series of weekly meetings through the summer, members of a town task force explored the challenges and opportunities facing the Leesburg business sector in unprecedented detail.

The Leesburg Economic Development Steering Committee held nearly 20 hours of talks with property owners, business operators, developers and government representatives from near and far. The sessions often featured wide-ranging and frank conversations that aren’t possible in more formal settings where speakers frequently are limited in the length or focus of their remarks.

The panel now is sorting through those comments to prepare a formal report for presentation to the Town Council by next month. Their recommendations will target updates to the economic development strategy outlined in the Town Plan—the panel’s central assignment from the Town Council—but will likely touch on other areas of town government, as well.

What has been most surprising to the panel’s members is the commonality of issues raised by the various groups of speakers.

That begins with optimism that Leesburg is on the cusp of something special. That is especially so in the downtown historic district, which has experienced a sharp increase in private sector investment—particularly in the restaurant industry—and in foot traffic. The popularity of the Crescent Place development on Harrison Street, brought new businesses to town, but also demonstrated the pent-up demand for housing within walking distance to the downtown core.

But speakers agreed that building on—or even maintaining—that success would require significant work. At the center of these concerns were the town’s zoning regulations, especially the Crescent Design District development rules, which developers said were cumbersome and unlikely to spur the type of redevelopment town leaders say they want in the areas around the historic district.

“We heard that Leesburg’s zoning ordinances are outdated,” said Committee Chairwoman Sharon Babbin. “Opportunities are lost while we try to fix them piecemeal to respond to situations.”

Other commonly cited challenges to sustaining economic growth downtown were shortages of workers and of parking, although there wasn’t agreement on whether the latter is a real or perceived problem. Creating opportunities for more affordable housing and the development of a public transportation system—one that is still running when restaurant workers end their shifts—were frequently suggested. Also, the investment made by the Fredrick, MD, government in building public parking garages was cited as an element in that community’s economic boom.

From the earliest meetings, it became clear that Leesburg continues to be hampered by a perception that it’s a difficult jurisdiction in which to do business. Speakers said the regulatory review processes are prolonged and provide an uncertain outcome—especially with so many decisions requiring approval by a Town Council that is frequently divided on development issues. As one developer put it, a single council member who “isn’t feeing it today” can derail years of work in a final vote. Another common theme was that the town was too rigid in its regulatory administration and that too often staff members feel unable to enact common sense solutions to even to address minor problems.

The panel was created after the Town Council debated during its spring budget deliberations whether to earmark money to create a Main Street economic development organization in town. After meetings with representatives of jurisdictions that work with Main Street organizations and others that don’t, it remained unclear what the Leesburg committee would recommend on that topic. What was clear to members was that communities with robust businesses environments depend on public and private sector leaders working closely together.

“We heard that the culture of the town government toward business leaders and development needs to be changed from ‘what will you do for the town’ to ‘what can we do together,’” Babbin said. “And to find ways to say ‘yes.’”

The committee will continue to meet weekly through the month to finalize its report. Currently it is reviewing an 18-page summary of issues raised during its summer sessions.

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