News that Leesburg leaders have the opportunity to purchase a prime piece of town real estate came as a surprise to many last week—including some Town Council members.
Chuck Kuhn, CEO of JK Moving Services and a noted Loudoun land conservator, sent a letter to Mayor Kelly Burk last week with an offer to sell 137 acres of the former Westpark Golf Club property to the town for $3.4 million. Kuhn is the contract purchaser for the property, which operated as a golf club for more than 50 years before ceasing operations last year. The property went up for sale in 2017 and was initially under contract by CalAtlantic, later Lennar Homes, which envisioned a townhouse development. That rezoning application was denied by the Town Council, and Lennar eventually backed out of the purchase.
Under the conditions of sale spelled out in the letter, which was obtained by Loudoun Now via a Freedom of Information Act request, the 134 acres would be placed into conservation easement. Kuhn would retain the eight acres of the Westpark land that is currently zoned for commercial use for the development of a hotel site. He said via email that he has not yet determined what he would do with the commercial property. The letter states that the purchase agreement must be drafted between the two parties and executed by the seller and purchaser no later than July 1.
The biggest cheerleader of the proposal thus far has unquestionably been Burk. Over the weekend, a Loudoun Impact podcast featuring Burk and Kuhn circulated on social media, and it shed some light into how Kuhn’s offer to the town came to pass.
Burk said when she read an article that unveiled Kuhn’s interest in the Westpark property she decided to reach out to him herself. At the time, Kuhn said, he had already planned to place the golf course land into conservation easement and was planning to find a nonprofit to hand it off to. On the call, Burk suggested he consider the Town of Leesburg. She arranged a meeting with herself, Kuhn and members of town staff, including Town Manager Kaj Dentler, to talk about how such a transaction would work. Following Kuhn’s letter to Burk last week spelling out his offer to the town, the mayor has been active on social media soliciting resident feedback on the proposal, and whether there is support to convert the land into a town park.
She’s made her position on the proposal clear.
“I think it’s a great opportunity and shame on us if we let it slip through our fingers,” she said. “We should be preserving this for our children and our children’s children and the children after that.”
The council as a body has not yet discussed the proposal, but is expected to at its May 26 meeting. Councilman Neil Steinberg has also been effusive in his support for the land buy, sending an email to constituents last week urging residents to reach out to council members to make their feelings known.
“I recognize that some will question the wisdom of such a move in the midst of our current health crisis, but opportunities such as these do not always occur under ideal circumstances and, if nothing else, we have come to appreciate the extraordinary value of the space that Westpark will provide,” he wrote.
But timing is everything, as they say, and Councilman Ron Campbell is waving the caution flag. Ponying up $3.4 million in challenging fiscal times, with the COVID-19 pandemic likely to have a profound effect on town government revenues, is less than ideal.
“The complete financial impact for acquiring and maintaining the open space, of which the majority is located in a flood zone, is yet to be determined, so it’s premature to call this a good opportunity,” he said in a letter shared to his Facebook page. “Our town is facing severe financial impacts resulting from projected multimillion-dollar losses in revenue due to COVID-19. I think that you would agree we have far greater priorities as it relates to spending and the impact on our residents, our town employees, our businesses and town services.”
Campbell also pointed out that the previous rezoning application for the property, from former contract purchaser Lennar, would have gifted the 137 acres to the town free of charge. He and Vice Mayor Marty Martinez were the only two council members to support that proposal, which was denied by a 5-2 vote last year.
Councilman Tom Dunn expressed his frustration with the messaging used by Burk to drum up support for the proposal, before it has been fully vetted by Town Council or the town staff. He also said that she has been working behind the scenes on the deal for months and should have involved the council at an earlier juncture.
“This is Kelly Burk’s version of mob rule,” he said, also calling it an “election year stunt.”
That’s a perception both Kuhn and Burk said on the podcast they wanted to avoid.
“I hope [the council] can look at this opportunity to protect the open space on its own merit and I really hope it doesn’t become a political situation in an election year for the town,” Kuhn said. To which Burk replied, with a laugh, “You and me both.”