Just one week before Leesburg voters head back to the polls to fill a vacant Town Council seat, a crowd of 150 residents gathered at the Lightfoot Restaurant to learn more about the three candidates.
Gwen Pangle, Josh Thiel and Neil Steinberg are vying to serve the remaining three years of the term held by Ken Reid, who resigned because he had accepted a job in the Tidewater area.
The election, open to registered voters within the town limits, is Tuesday, Feb. 6, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The candidate forum, hosted by Loudoun Now, featured questions on topics ranging from development, to allowances for food trucks, and the future of the county’s Confederate war memorial.
A popular topic was the plan by CalAtlantic Homes to build a residential subdivision on the 141-acre Westpark Golf Course property. Under current zoning, a maximum of 27 homes could be built by-right, without Town Council approval. The property also includes 8 acres of commercial land. Neighbors have campaigned to preserve the golf course and oppose the subdivision plans.
The candidates agreed that, so far, there is no role for the Town Council in the debate, but they encouraged residents to stay involved as the developer puts options on the table.
Pangle said the town should respect the property rights of the golf course owners to sell the land and the buyer to develop under the town’s rules. She encouraged those concerned about the project to be proactive and work toward a better result for the neighborhood.
“What can we do to buffer this? What can we do to make it more palatable? Because at some point it is going to change,” she said. “Get in front of the developer, not in an angry way, but in a way that promotes dialogue about what could possibly happen there and what that could look like so we can ease the pain [of change] a little bit.”
Thiel said the town is still waiting to see what the developer has planned and complimented the neighbors for reacting quickly. “I’d like to see as much of it preserved as possible. That’s where I learned to play golf and that’s where I’d like my kids to learn how to play golf,” he said. However, with golf course operations unlikely to continue, he said the town should work to preserve as much open space as possible.
Steinberg said that the property’s extensive floodplain makes its “highly unlikely” 27 homes could be built on there under the current zoning. He encouraged residents to wait and see what the new owners formally propose. “It may turn out better for the Westpark neighbors than they currently envision,” he said.
He noted that even Westpark neighbors don’t agree on what is the best option.
“This is one of the things that makes serving on the town council very difficult,” Steinberg said. “We know there are real concerns by everybody in this room. We know that. And in the end it is a balancing act and, in the end, not every decision is going to make everybody happy. Absolutely not.”
Steinberg said town leaders should stay the course when it comes to downtown Leesburg and economic development generally. He has seen the ebb and flow of the historic district during the past 40 years from the windows of his Photoworks office at the corner of King and Loudoun streets, just across from the booming Delirium Café.
“But now we are definitely in a renaissance, if you will. There has been substantial investment, primarily by restaurants and breweries in the downtown area,” he said, adding that’s bringing more nightlife. “It behooves the council to help that, not get in its way.”
Pangle, a longtime member of downtown business advocacy groups, agreed the recent changes offer a lot of new opportunity. “We’re all about the food now, rather than the antique shops,” she said. However, there are challenges to restoring historic buildings for new uses and said the town should look at relaxing regulations that make those improvements easier.
“We are a destination place now. We are massaging that and making that even better. We are becoming a place people want to come to eat and drink and have some nightlife and arts and culture,” Pangle said. “I think we should foster those things to community thriving.”
Thiel said the business revitalization has fostered a youth movement in town and highlights the need for new energy and new ideas in the town’s leadership. He drew a blend of cheers and jeers from the audience when the 27-year-old pointed out his two rival’s gray hair.
“I’m going to bring different ideas, different ways of doing business,” he said, adding he wants to focus on reducing red tape and streamlining processes to get businesses up and running.
Confederate War Memorial
Responding to an audience question, all three candidates agreed that the Town Council won’t have a role in deciding the future of the Confederate War Memorial in the courthouse square, but Steinberg and Pangle said moving the statue to the Ball’s Bluff battlefield would be a good option to consider.
“It’s a painful reminder of a painful part of our history,” Steinberg said.
“I think people coming into Leesburg have a perception about what Leesburg is all about. When that lone figure is in front of our courthouse. It’s not necessarily a perception I think they should have,” Pangle said.
Thiel said the future of the war memorial isn’t a Town Council issue, but would be solely decided by the Board of Supervisors, and then only if the General Assembly allows counties to alter or move such monuments. The Town Council, he said, should be more concerned with snow removal than removing the statue.
The candidates also shared their views on the town budget priorities, the town’s planning and development polices and food trucks, among other issues.