The Leesburg Town Council is moving forward on recommendations from its Economic Development Steering Committee in hopes of spurring even more economic activity in the county seat.
Council members were briefed on three recommendations in which it had previously expressed interest Monday night. One initiative, a façade grant program for downtown property owners, has been floated in recent years but without majority support to move it forward. Previously, and even as recently as this week, council members expressed concerns about the use of taxpayer money to fund improvements on privately owned buildings.
Preservation Planner Tom Scofield briefed the council on what a façade grant program would look like in Leesburg. Many Virginia localities offer such programs as a redevelopment tools, and they take many forms. For example, the City of Winchester uses a special assessment district; Hopewell has a downtown partnership; and Petersburg has an enterprise zone.
Scofield and Economic Development Director Russell Seymour recommended that a façade grant program in Leesburg apply to historic buildings in the downtown B-1 district only. There could be two competitive grant cycles a year at $50,000, or $150,000 over a three-year trial period. There would be a 1:1 match required with restoration grants capped at $10,000; design assistance at $1,000; and sign grants capped at $500.
Projects could range in scope from roofing improvements to shutter installation to painting and more. One type of project in particular—masonry restoration—is going to become a major concern for the historic district in the coming years, Scofield said. Many bricks downtown have been painted over many times with latex paint, which does not allow the bricks to “breathe,” he said. That can lead to the gradual breakdown of the brick as seen in many downtown buildings.
“We want to keep that Leesburg legacy,” he said.
A majority of the council appeared interested in continuing discussion on such a program, but it remains unclear whether there are four votes to use taxpayer money to do so. It is expected to come back before the council for discussion this fall.
Another initiative eying redevelopment in the town’s Crescent Design District also has traction at the council level. Following a series of recommendations from the steering committee to take another look at regulations in the district, council members voiced support for four initiatives regarding the 350-acre area.
“Over 40 percent of the district is ripe for redevelopment,” Planning and Zoning Department Director Susan Berry-Hill told the council Monday. “That means land values exceed the value of building improvements. That’s quite distinct from other areas of the town.”
But with all the opportunity in the district, town staff and council members over the years have heard loud and clear from developers that the regulations in the Crescent Design District need another look. When the council adopted the district, it employed form-based code zoning, a departure from Euclidean zoning that emphasizes a building’s form over its use in a pedestrian-friendly environment. Potential changes to the district’s zoning rules include everything from reducing parking requirements to allowing taller buildings in some areas of the district, even allowing some types of applications to go through administrative review, rather than requiring Town Council approval.
Berry-Hill said the town staff recommended a process that would use expert analysis based on Leesburg-specific input to develop the changes. The four-part process would kick off with assembling a team from the Form-Based Code Institute or FBCI to scrutinize regulations in the town’s Crescent Design District, a three- to four-month process at a cost of $15,000. In the meantime, the council would initiate an interim text amendment to allow for more flexibility in ordinance provisions “as long as the purpose and intent of the Crescent Design District vision is met.” The third part of the process, a beta test period, would allow more flexibility while the final changes are being developed. Finally, the council would initiate a comprehensive review to the Zoning Ordinance as it relates to the district. This would consider both the FBCI recommendations plus recommendations that arise from the beta test period. That comprehensive text amendment would likely come around next summer.
“The risk to the town of not moving forward is we’re not going to see the investment we want to see in the Crescent Design District, and that will translate into less tax dollars,” Berry-Hill said.
Councilman Tom Dunn said the council erred in taking too big of a bite when the form-based code zoning was initially adopted.
“We chose form-based code super-sized,” he said, pointing specifically to regulations governing a grid network of streets, streetscape and building design. “We said we want all of those and then supersized it and said we want a bunch of regulations in addition to that. If we don’t give [the FBCI team] a direction of emphasis they’re going to give us what we had before.”
Councilman Ron Campbell, who served with Councilman Marty Martinez as one of the two council representatives on the Economic Development Steering Committee, noted that the Crescent Design District regulations weren’t on the group’s radar screen when the committee started meeting, but numerous concerns about its rules were brought forward by developers.
“If we really want the Crescent Design District to work as intended it can only work as a partnership with developers,” he said.
A majority of the council expressed support for the four-step process recommended by staff. A resolution moving that forward was approved unanimously Tuesday night.
Council members also touched on the town’s desire for more affordable housing options in the county seat. This spring, the council voted to tweak its Memorandum of Agreement with Loudoun County relating to its Affordable Dwelling Unit program, increasing the maximum number of price-controlled ADUs in the town to 120. Monday, council members unanimously voiced support for conferring with Loudoun County regarding extending its Public Employee Homeownership Grant program to town employees. Assistance for that program is provided by the county’s Department of Family Services.