The transfer of Sycolin Cemetery to the Loudoun Freedom Center remains at an impasse.
Leesburg Town Councilman Ara Bagdasarian attempted to find support during Tuesday’s meeting to reconsider a recent council vote on a land transfer for Sycolin Cemetery and a Memorandum of Understanding between the town and its potential new owner, the Loudoun Freedom Center. The motion made by Bagdasarian that passed at the council’s May 11 to approve the land transfer and MOU included his suggestion to remove the northern trail on the property, allowing it to go back to its natural state and hopefully rectifying some of the ponding issues. Freedom Center staff had supported all facets of the MOU, but had asked the council to also provide some stormwater improvements on the site to lessen the instances of water ponding by gravesites.
Days following the May 11 vote, Bagdasarian said the adopted motion did not fully capture his intended desires, which also included enhancing drainage on the southern path of the site, which he hopes will alleviate some of the Freedom Center’s concerns. That fix, he said, would not rise to the level of the three options presented by staff that would have cost over $100,000. He said at the time that town staff was looking at fixes to the southern path to address the ponding issues. Bagdasarian said previous conversations he had with Freedom Center staff, and comments made at the council’s April 13 meeting, gave him reason to believe that his intended motion would have addressed their concerns.
Tuesday night, Bagdasarian put forward a motion to reconsider the May 11 vote, to address the discrepancy over improvements to the southern trail. The vote deadlocked on a 3-3-1 count though, with Bagdasarian, Vice Mayor Marty Martinez and Councilman Zach Cummings in favor. Mayor Kelly Burk and council members Neil Steinberg and Kari Nacy opposed the motion. Councilwoman Suzanne Fox was absent for the meeting.
Wednesday, Bagdasarian said he is planning to speak with Town Attorney Christopher Spera on whether there would be any procedural issues with bringing up another motion to reconsider at a forthcoming meeting. Had the motion to reconsider passed, he said he would have asked for support in scheduling a meeting with Freedom Center representatives, town staff, engineers and two Town Council members to determine how to find consensus on addressing the drainage issues.
“That would be my objective—to come to consensus so we can bring the MOU to conclusion, and transfer ownership to the Freedom Center,” he said. “It’s a sacred burial ground; we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing when it comes to respecting the deceased at the location.”
Freedom Center founder Michelle Thomas has stated emphatically that the Freedom Center will not sign the MOU until the drainage issues are addressed. She said Wednesday that there needs to be a comprehensive group brought together that includes both engineers and preservationists to determine what the best drainage remediation was for the cemetery site. She said fixing the southern trail may not be good enough.
“We need to get all the experts in the room who can really advise us properly on how to mitigate the drainage issues using best practices for preservation. Anything outside of that is completely unacceptable and does an injustice to African American historic preservation in Leesburg,” she said.
“More care, concern and expertise must go into plans for mitigating this issue. This is important,” she continued. “If you care about the community give the community a seat at the table. We have to do what’s right, we need to set a precedent and put policies and protocols in place so if this comes up again we can do it fairly.”
Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel said absent further council action, staff will proceed with removing the northern trail in its entirety, seeding it, and returning it to its natural state. He also said staff will look at minor improvements to the southern trail to address drainage issues.
“We’re going to go out and see if there’s any modifications on the minor side that would alleviate [Ara’s] concerns and make it a better situation,” Markel said.
Extensive redesign or tree removal, or other large costs identified with fixes to the southern trail, would require a report back to the council and a vote to proceed, he added.
Land near the burial sites was purchased by the town more than 30 years ago for the federally mandated Runway Protection Zone for the Leesburg Executive Airport. The transfer of cemetery land between the town and the Loudoun Freedom Center has been in the works since 2019, following several debates on what to do with the land before the council ultimately decided an outside entity was a better choice to maintain it than the municipal government. This came after several instances in which community members, particularly the Loudoun NAACP, criticizing the overgrown nature of the cemetery site. The land includes 65 gravesites associated with the Sycolin Baptist Church, with the earliest recorded burial in 1913 and the latest in 1959. According to a staff report, there is no historical research that has shown it to be a cemetery for the enslaved; however, some who are buried in the cemetery were born prior to the Civil War.