No fireworks in Hillsboro? No riding horses on Hunt Country sidewalks? No speaking ill of Purcellville’s women? Those are among the crimes still listed in the ordinance books and town charters of Loudoun’s municipalities, some dating back more than a century.
While some are simply outdated, others might seem unnecessarily arbitrary in the modern world.
Some of the most antiquated ordinances that are still in place today come from the Town of Hillsboro. In the times when horseback riding was the leading means of transportation and President Ulysses S. Grant was leading the nation through 12 years of Civil War Reconstruction, Hillsboro adopted an ordinance requiring business owners to install hitching posts to accommodate their customers’ horses.
Five decades later, in 1923, the town adopted an ordinance prohibiting the “willful and defiant contempt for the sanctity of the Sabbath day,” requiring businesses to close on Sundays. The town also adopted an ordinance restricting fireworks within the town limits.
Mayor Roger Vance said he’s unaware of any previous Hillsboro Town Councils ever rescinding those ordinances, which means it’s technically still illegal for the Hill Tom Market to not have a hitching post or to remain open on Sundays—or for the town to celebrate Independence Day with its popular fireworks display.
Mimicking State Law
As is often the case in other towns, some of the ordinances reiterate state law. Liz Whiting, the town attorney for Hillsboro and Lovettsville, said towns often have redundant ordinances because offenders can be charged and convicted of the local ordinance and required to pay their fine to the town, rather than the county.
One of Round Hill’s copycat ordinances makes it unlawful to “frequent, reside in or at or visit, for immoral purposes, any bawdy place,” with “bawdy place” defined as any place used “for lewdness, assignation or prostitution.”
Another Round Hill ordinance makes it unlawful to sell tobacco products to minors under the age of 16. That not only mirrors state law, but it’s also clearly outdated. Virginia law made it illegal to sell tobacco products to those under the age of 18 in 1991. Beginning July 1, the legal age to buy tobacco products in Virginia will be raised to 21, an action approved by the General Assembly.
Not only will people aged 18 and younger soon have to wait another few years to buy cigarettes, but they’re also already required to adhere to a curfew in three towns—something they should keep in mind with Loudoun County Public Schools out of session this week for spring break.
In Purcellville and Round Hill, minors are required to be inside between 11:30 p.m. and “daylight of the following day,” unless they’re accompanied by an adult. In Leesburg, minors are required to be indoors between “midnight and daylight,” unless they’re tending to an emergency situation, running an errand for their parent or guardian, or at work or school, among other justifiable excuses.
Another shared ordinance among Leesburg, Purcellville and Round Hill prohibits the throwing of a stone or “missile of any character” into or across streets, alleys or sidewalks.
Middleburg Police Chief A.J. Panebianco said the rock-throwing ordinance might not be too farfetched, since Virginia law makes it a felony for anyone to maliciously throw “any missile at or against … any motor vehicle … when occupied by one or more persons.”
In Panebianco’s jurisdiction, there are also a few out-of-the-ordinary ordinances.
Perhaps most notably, given Middleburg’s equestrian background, one ordinance in the Town Code prohibits people from “riding, leading or driving a horse, mule or pony on town sidewalks”—leaving horseback riding down Washington Street as a viable option.
That ordinance is also active in Round Hill and Leesburg. Leesburg Police Department Public Information Officer Sam Shenouda said that police officers have cited people for riding horses on sidewalks in town.
Middleburg’s code also contains an ordinance copying state law that prohibits anyone from gambling or owning or using “slot machines,” “punchboards” or “other device that operates on the nickel-in-the-slot principle.”
No Sleeping in Cars in Middleburg
A more controversial ordinance in Middleburg, adopted in February 2003, makes it unlawful for “any person to maintain any recreation vehicle, used for human habitation upon any plot of ground in the town.” Former mayor Betsy Davis said that although she couldn’t recall why the Town Council approved that ordinance, she said it was most likely related to a situation around that time when the town noticed a man frequently sleeping in his van around town.
Middleburg’s decision to prohibit people from using their cars for living purposes might be 16 years old, but it’s a topic that’s once again coming to the forefront. In February, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors voted to approve an ordinance prohibiting anyone from using their cars as “sleeping quarters” because it “poses safety risks … and can have a negative effect on neighborhood aesthetics,” according to a Roanoke County staff report.
Round Hill’s Town Code used to have a similar ordinance—one that more broadly prohibited “vagrancy” in the town—but the Town Council voted to delete that section in response to Virginia laws that require localities to provide “any or all child welfare services” to protect handicapped, dependent, neglected or homeless children.
In general, Panebianco said he’d use discretion when enforcing odd ordinances, as Virginia law allows him to do.
“I try to police with a commonsense approach,” he said. “One should never seek to enforce something that reeks of nonsense.”
No Photos or Rodeos in the Park
As for the largest town in Virginia, the Leesburg Town Code has a few unexpected ordinances regulating activities in town parks. Not only is swimming, bathing and wading prohibited in water at parks, but people also are prohibited from staging photo or video shoots that involve the use of “special settings, structures, lighting or apparatus … a cast of persons, either amateur or professional, or the posing of professional models” without prior written authorization from the town.
It’s also against the rules to hold rodeos in parks.
According to Leesburg Public Information Officer Betsy Arnett, rodeos were sometimes held at the former Izaak Walton League grounds in the 1970s. Arnett said that a “Rodeo Festival” was held at Ida Lee Park in 1994 and 1995, but the Town Council banned rodeos town-wide in 1995.
One ordinance that might upset the parents of young children upon first glance prohibits sleigh riding in locations “that aren’t designated as sleigh-riding areas.” That ordinance refers to sleighs in the sense of horse-drawn carriages, though, and not the downhill sled-riding in which children revel on snow days.
The Town of Purcellville has a few antiquated ordinances of its own, including one making it illegal to speak or write falsely about any woman “of chaste character.” Under the ordinance, that includes “any words derogatory of such female’s character for virtue and chastity” that could be “construed as insults.”
The ordinance leaves it up to the general public to determine what it means to be “a female of good character or reputation” and does not make it unlawful to slander or libel women of non-chaste character.
The Purcellville Town Code also features an ordinance that, if enforced, would allow Town Manager David Mekarski to keep Police Chief Cynthia McAlister on tight reins. Under the code, the police chief can’t leave town without the town manager’s permission, unless it’s necessary to do so “hurriedly on business directly connected with the police department.”
Funding the Fixes
To correct ordinances like those, the Purcellville Town Council might authorize staff to spend $13,000 to amend the Town Charter and Code within the next year—a task the Novak Consulting Group in December recommended the town perform.
The Towns of Hamilton and Lovettsville are one step ahead of Purcellville, as they both completed radical overhauls to their town codes in recent years, removing outdated ordinances that didn’t apply so much to 21st century life. Other towns could follow suit in the coming years.
If towns do set out to amend their ordinances, they’ll have to comb through hundreds of pages, determine what needs to be fixed and draft new language to be approved by the Virginia General Assembly.
While the town ordinance update process could turn out to be a tedious undertaking, Whiting said she could lend some help—she’s recently started a new niche law practice specializing in the efforts. She said that if a town requests her help, she’ll follow the Virginia General Assembly’s actions each year to track new mandates and determine which of the towns’ ordinances need to be amended or eliminated.