Loudoun County supervisors are taking steps to raze a privately owned house on Ashburn Road, the second time they will use the blight ordinance adopted in 2017 to force a property owner to knock over a building or have it knocked over for them.
And the owner of the property said the county government has backed her into a corner, with no way to sell the property or recoup a generational investment.
The abandoned house was one of the properties supervisors had in mind when they adopted a blight ordinance in October 2017. It stands between Gloucester Parkway and the W&OD Trail crossing in Old Ashburn, nearly across the street from the Ashburn Colored School—now known as the Loudoun School for the Gifted.
The property’s owner is Carmen Felder, a marketing professional, Leesburg resident, and among other things, co-founder of former Redskins player Santana Moss’s charitable nonprofit, 89 Ways to Give. She has retained legal counsel, and said if the county doesn’t back down, she’ll take them to court.
She also said the pressure from the county results from a complaint filed about the property by Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). Ashburn Road forms the boundary between Ashburn and the neighboring Broad Run electoral district; the property is on the Broad Run District side.
Jim Sisley, the at-large appointee to the county Planning Commission and the owner and principal broker of Paladin Real Estate, represents Felder. He said the abandoned, boarded-up building stands on a piece of black history in Loudoun. According to Sisley, tax records document the sale of a half-acre property on that site on Feb. 20, 1889, by a couple from Alexandria to Sally Simmons for $135. Based on the way the sale is recorded—to Sally Simmons, rather than to a Mr. and Mrs. Simmons, for example—he surmised Simmons was a single woman.
“This is a very rare instance where somebody of color owned property in the very late 1800s,” Sisley told supervisors at their meeting Nov. 21. “It’s reasonable to infer that an even smaller percent of improved properties were owned by single females of a minority ethnicity at that time.”
He also suggested Simmons may have been a teacher at the Ashburn Colored School, based in part on how close the property is to that historic building.
The long, narrow property—about 640 feet long along the road and about 100 feet across at its widest point, according to the county geographic information system—is also a sliver of industrial zoning in an area of residential and rural commercial zoning and development. When the rest of the area was rezoned away from the industrial park vision of a previous county comprehensive plan, this property was left behind.
“The primary reason for that was this distrust that the owners of the property had,” Sisley said. And he said supervisors’ action now imposes a difficult hardship on the current owner.
It would now likely be illegal to build on the lot under its current zoning without a special exception granted by county supervisors. Buildings in the Planned Development-Industrial Park district, like this parcel, can be no closer than 35 feet to a right-of-way, and no closer than 75 feet from a residential district—meaning the setbacks between the road and adjacent residential development overlap across the entire parcel.
That means the only place a building would be allowed is in the footprint of the current structure. If that is taken down, there will be no place to build on the property. That could also make the property difficult to sell, since no development is possible on the property without applying to the county for a rezoning, and even then likely to be limited by the property’s dimensions.
And Felder said the blight notice has only made the property harder to sell.
“This is generational wealth,” Felder said. “This will help my family, and I feel like the county could assist, but not only are they not assisting and making it a hard purchase—now they are making us accrue more debt.”
County supervisors said they have given the property owner plenty of time to get the property cleaned up, sold, or put on a historic register.
“We gave the owner a lot of extra time,” Buona said during the recent board meeting. “We gave them time to try to sell the property, about two years of time. We also gave them time to try to achieve a historical designation of some sort, and that was also not successful.”
According to a county staff report, the property owner was first sent a blight notice on March 29, 2018. Since then, the property owner and county have been in correspondence about securing, mowing and cleaning up trash on the property, and about selling it. With that work underway and the building secured against entry, county zoning officials deferred enforcing the ordinance. But on July 26, 2019, with no change in ownership, county staff members pushed ahead on a blight abatement plan.
“Every way we’ve gone, as a taxpayer, you [the county] have closed doors and opportunities,” Felder said. “Now with a blight on it—nobody’s going to want to buy a property with a blight on it.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) argued that, although the property may be old, it is not historic.
“The thing about a historic property, there has to be something historic that happened there,” Randall said. The boarded-up house that stands on the property today does not appear to be the house that existed on the property when Sally Simmons lived there.
To demolish the house, supervisors must first send the proposal to a public hearing, scheduled for Dec. 11, before taking a vote. The cost of cleaning up the property is estimated at $26,815.88, which the county’s blight ordinance allows the government to put back on the property owner through a lien against the property.
“There’s a lot of residential going up in this area, and it’s nice residential, and sitting in the middle of it we just have a very old property,” Buona said. “… We’ve been very patient, we’ve given them a few years, and you just can’t leave a dilapidated property sitting in the middle of what are $800,000 homes.”
Under the county’s blight ordinance, if someone submits a complaint to the county, and the property owner is unresponsive to a notice requiring a blight abatement plan, the county can take action. The ordinance defines a “blighted property” as any individual commercial, industrial, or residential structure or improvement that endangers the public’s health, safety, or welfare because the structure or improvement upon the property is dilapidated, deteriorated, or violates minimum health and safety standards.” It must be vacant, lacking in upkeep, and unfit for human occupancy.
Felder said she took over the fight for her mother, who is on dialysis, and who formerly lived in the house.
“I don’t know how many years she has left,” Felder said. “She couldn’t fight for it anymore, and so now I’m trying to pick it up, and I don’t want her to leave this world without getting some of what her father and her mother worked for her to get.”