The off-and-on pursuit of a prime piece of undeveloped land and the controversial dismissal of Leesburg’s town attorney challenged the COVID-19 pandemic for the headlines of the year in the county seat.
No piece of Leesburg land was as hotly debated during 2020 as the former Westpark Golf Club property. And while many hoped it could become a town park, at year’s end it appeared it would be the county government left to potentially operate it as such.
Following the Town Council’s denial of a rezoning application on the land at the end of 2019, for a project homebuilder Lennar envisioned a townhouse community, the future of the former golf club property was in limbo. But in the spring, Chuck Kuhn, the founder and CEO of JK Moving Services and a local land conservationist, announced he was under contract to purchase the entirety of the 142.3-acre property from property owner Dittmar Company. Lennar backed out of its purchase of the property shortly after the rezoning was denied.
Kuhn offered to sell 134 acres to the town for $3.4 million but, after months of debate, a council majority could not be found to support that offer. Those who opposed moving forward with a purchase cited tight government revenues in the times of COVID-19 and potentially high capital and maintenance costs of a park operation. Those in favor of the purchase cited a rare opportunity to keep a large undeveloped parcel as open space, or perhaps a town park. In its annual capital funding request, the Town Council asked Loudoun County to contribute $6 million toward the purchase of the property.
The council may end up getting that wish after all, with news in early December that the Board of Supervisors was pursuing a purchase of 134 acres of the land directly from Kuhn, who was closed on his purchase Dec. 28.
Town Attorney Barbara Notar found herself in more headlines than she would likely prefer at the beginning of 2020. Controversy kicked off when three members of the Town Council—Mayor Kelly Burk, Vice Mayor Marty Martinez and Councilman Neil Steinberg—accused their three council colleagues of an orchestrated campaign to terminate Notar over their dissatisfaction of her handlings of the town-county boundary line adjustment negotiations and a project at nearby Graydon Manor. The accused council members—Suzanne Fox, Ron Campbell and Josh Thiel—roundly criticized their colleagues right back for bringing a personnel matter into the public limelight. Following several closed session meetings that ended without action, the council ultimately approved a separation agreement with Notar in February that, among other things, netted her nine months’ pay. She had served as town attorney for five years, following seven years as Leesburg’s deputy town attorney.
Martin Crim served as interim town attorney for several months, before the council announced the hire of Christopher Spera in July. He began his post as town attorney the following month.
It turned out to be a fortuitous year to hire the first emergency management director in Leesburg’s history.
Joe Dame took up his post in early January, and only weeks later would be greeted by an EF-O tornado charging through the county seat. But natural disasters would pale in comparison to the challenge Dame and the rest of the world have been pitted against for the last nine months —the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many localities, Leesburg saw its revenues dip dramatically with facility closures, including the Ida Lee Park Recreation Center, and declining receipts at local eating and beverage establishments. In the spring, the deficit for Fiscal Year 2020 was projected at just shy of $5 million, which town staff balanced by cutting expenditures and delaying maintenance projects, among other things. Initially, the picture for Fiscal Year 2021, which began July 1, was even bleaker, with staff at first predicting shortfalls of up to $2.76 million per quarter. As the year has worn on, however, the revenue picture for FY21 has greatly improved, with facility reopenings, and an uptick on some consumer tax receipts. Still, Town Manager Kaj Dentler has warned that this upcoming spring’s budget deliberations for Fiscal Year 2022 could be challenging, with some of the frozen staff vacancies and halted maintenance projects needing to be taken into consideration in an already tight budget.
When council members learned of the town’s CARES funding allocation, they made it a vocal priority to get as much of that money into the hands of town businesses and area nonprofits. But the remaining $3.5 million out of the $9.8 million given to the town ended up going into the General Fund, to be used for the town to reimburse itself for police department salaries. That funding, staff said, could prove to be very helpful in balancing the current year’s budget.
It was an often-contentious year on the Leesburg Town Council dais and perhaps that was most evidenced by its inaction on filling a council vacancy.
After Josh Thiel announced his resignation from the council in May, the council spent considerable time wrestling with the process it should use to consider Thiel’s replacement. The chosen Leesburg resident would have served out the remainder of his term, which expires Dec. 31. After deciding to only consider candidates who received at least five votes of support from council members in ballots turned in to the Clerk of the Council, a majority of the council chose not to follow that process. Planning Commissioner Nick Clemente was the only one of 18 candidates to receive those five votes of support but, when it came time to take action, three council members—Mayor Kelly Burk, Vice Mayor Marty Martinez and Councilman Neil Steinberg—voted against his appointment. Additional nominations of candidates were all unsuccessful, often falling along the same 3-3 split, until the council decided to punt the appointment to the Loudoun County Circuit Court in August. The judges decided, however, not to step in ahead of November’s elections, thus leaving the seventh council seat empty since May. While the back-and-forth generated some hostility on the council, it did not deter Clemente, who recently announced his own run for elected office, throwing his hat into the ring for the 10th District House of Delegates seat on next November’s ballot.
But while the year certainly had its lows, optimism abounded as sitting council members looked to the arrival of three new Town Council members Jan. 1, marking the most turnover the council has seen since 2004. Having secured her third mayoral term, Burk will be joined by newcomers Ara Bagdasarian, Kari Nacy and Zach Cummings. The three join current council members Martinez, Suzanne Fox and Steinberg. Leaving the council will be 12-year council member Tom Dunn, who initially filed to run for re-election before withdrawing from the race, and Councilman Ron Campbell, who was unsuccessful in his second attempt to challenge Burk for the mayor’s seat.
Although the council is a nonpartisan body, five of the seven members were endorsed in their most recent election bids by the Loudoun County Democratic Committee. Fox and Nacy have been supported by the Loudoun County Republican Committee.