By Katharine DeRosa and Patrick Szabo
Last week, more than a dozen Aldie residents spent an evening in the county seat letting the Board of Supervisors know that they don’t want their village deprived of its historic character.
The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing last Wednesday night to solicit resident input on the county Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure’s appeal of a decision by the Historic District Review Committee to disallow the demolition of two historically-significant buildings in the village’s Historic and Cultural Conservation District—known as the Dry Goods Store and the Smokehouse—to make way for a new firehouse. Fifteen residents took to the mic, all voicing their support for the committee’s decision.
The county in the last year unveiled plans to build a new, 19,000-square-foot fire station on a 2.71-acre property on the south side of Rt. 50 just east of the existing volunteer fire station, which, according to the department’s appeal, is too small, outdated, and prone to flooding. During the station’s lifetime, firefighters have been forced to evacuate more than 20 times for flooding. They also frequently find snakes in their gear.
To build the new firehouse, the county opted to raze three historic buildings in the village, including the Tavern House.
While a later redesign took the Tavern House out of the equation, the Historic District Review Committee denied the Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure’s application altogether in February. That prompted the department to appeal on March 6.
More than a dozen residents took to the public hearing to praise the Historic District Review Committee’s decision.
“The buildings in demolition play a critical role in creating that experience [of timelessness and tranquility],” said Aldie resident Eleanor Morrison.
“You cannot replace or reconstruct a 1850 cellar house,” added Evan McCarthy. Marla Collum questioned why the county hadn’t looked elsewhere to build the new firehouse. “We know they exist,” she said.
According to the department’s appeal, the county has looked at eight different sites, finding that the Tavern location was the only feasible option.
Resident Katherine Johnson said that if the firehouse is built in the village’s historic district, and if the county two decades from now presents plans to demolish that station to build yet another one, residents could be back in the boardroom at that time with the same concerns about preserving the historic district.
Malcolm Collum said that preserving the historic district by means of disallowing the demolition of buildings wasn’t the only issue at hand, but that the county should also be looking at ways to actively preserve the Tavern House if the county does tear down the Dry Goods Store and the Smokehouse. He said that if the county builds a retaining wall between the new firehouse and the Tavern House, it would turn the historic building into a “zombie building … a haunting ghost from the past, rather than a living part of the present.”
While all the residents made it clear that the project should be done in a way that doesn’t require the county to tear down historic buildings in the village, some still acknowledged Aldie’s need for a new firehouse. “I think we owe it to our Aldie volunteers,” said Marla McIntyre.
Supervisors were split on the appeal.
“Why should we even have a [Historic District Review Committee] if we’re going to reverse their decisions—especially when they vote unanimously on something, like they did in this case?” said district Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge). “But let’s get straight to the point: We all know the size and scale of the proposed station is way too big, and doesn’t fit the character of the village.”
Others, like Supervisors Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) pointed out that the county government has been looking for a site for a new Aldie firehouse for years.
“I am mindful… that we’re running out of options on alternative locations, and I do believe that Supervisor Volpe makes a good point when she says that we need to make sure that we can protect life and property,” Umstattd said.
Supervisors hold discussions on buying real estate behind closed doors—something which Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) incorrectly claimed they are legally obligated to do.
“By law, I can’t talk about it,” Buona said. Most exemptions to Virginia’s government transparency laws—including the exemption allowing supervisors to discuss real estate transactions in secret—are voluntary, and allows for elected officials to talk about those topics openly even after they have been discussed in closed session. After the meeting, he acknowledged that, but said discussing negotiation strategies publicly would be “a violation of our fiduciary trust as supervisors.”
The board is scheduled to take a vote on the appeal at its June 4 meeting.
Deputy Editor Renss Greene contributed to this story.