How to maintain a long-abandoned burial site in town has been the subject of much back-and-forth between the Leesburg Town Council and community leaders over the past several months. Now, council members appear willing to entertain the thought that an outside entity may do a better job of maintaining and preserving the cemetery.
In the spring, the topic of maintenance of the Sycolin Cemetery across from the Leesburg Executive Airport was brought before the council following concerns about illegal dumping and the overall appearance of the property. The land, purchased by the town almost 30 years ago, is the final resting place for 55 people in two cemeteries. The town purchased the eight-acre site across from the Leesburg Airport in 1989 and 1990 to provide a buffer for the south end of the airport runway. The land remains undeveloped and the discovery of the two cemeteries was made in 2007. The burial areas were affiliated with the community of black families who lived in the Lower Sycolin in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Two years ago, Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, of the Loudoun Freedom Center, approached the town about an opportunity to preserve the burial area. A clean-up of the site ensued, with many volunteers donating their time. It was at that time that the first instance of deer carcasses being dumped on the property was discovered. Instances of illegal dumping were also reported in 2017 and earlier this year, resulting in four arrests.
Following the latest instance of illegal dumping, Mayor Kelly Burk broached the idea of creating a master plan for the site. During Monday night’s work session the town staff presented options for doing so, including creating a task force with council member appointees to determine future maintenance for the site and any improvements. But that idea did not seem to gain traction among council members. Instead, the council seemed inclined to look into leasing the property to an outside group to preserve and maintain the sacred grounds.
Because the town purchased the land using Federal Aviation Administration funding, any sale of the land would require full market compensation back to the FAA or an airport project. However, the FAA would allow a Memorandum of Understanding or easements to a third party to be placed on the land for the purpose of cemetery upkeep.
While town public works staff is responsible for clearing debris, mowing and maintaining access to the graves, some in the community, including Thomas, have criticized the unkempt state of the site.
“Is the town able and capable of maintaining the cemetery,” Councilman Ron Campbell, who is the executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, questioned Monday night. “For 29 years that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“I know there are people out there who want to help take care of this property,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox said. “I think there needs to be a legal mechanism to do so.”
Town Manager Kaj Dentler said the town would need to issue a Request for Proposals process to solicit interest from those who want to lease the site to oversee cemetery upkeep and maintenance. A draft RFP will be back before the council for its consideration within two to four weeks, according to Dentler.