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Leesburg Council Overturns Courts Hurdle

© Leesburg Today - 07/28/2015

The Leesburg Town Council voted 6-1 Tuesday night to allow the county government to demolish four historic district buildings to make way for the expansion of the Loudoun courts complex.

After weeks of deliberation, the council overturned the Board of Architectural Review's denial of the county's request to remove four Edwards Ferry Road buildings. Council members said the expansion project was important to the town's economy.

""We don't want to risk our town's future in the business sector in favor of the buildings,"" Councilwoman Suzanne Fox said.

Councilman Tom Dunn cast the sole dissenting vote, saying the loss of the structures would undermine the town's historic character and set a dangerous precedent for future preservation efforts. He also dismissed concerns that having the county government offices move out of the downtown area-an alternative county supervisors said they would pursue if the expansion project stalled-would harm businesses.

""People move here because of the historic charm, not because of a county government center,"" Dunn said. ""I'm afraid of what's next for another developer who wants to demolish a building.""

In May, the BAR approved only the partial demolition of the four buildings, which were built in the early- to mid-1800s. Under that action only non-historic additions could to be removed. The county appealed that ruling, saying construction of a new District Court building on the former county jail site along Church Street could not be accomplished without tearing down the buildings.

The Town Council held a public hearing on the appeal July 14, but postponed action, as many members wanted more information from the county and some hoped to work out a compromise for incorporating the buildings into the new District Court structure.

But the tune of many members changed when the Board of Supervisors voted 7-2 to initiate a study of moving the county government operations from Harrison Street to outside property south of Leesburg or to Ashburn, and to move court operations into the government center. Downtown business leaders, several of whom addressed the council Tuesday night, warned that having more than 500 county government workers leave the area would have a sharp impact.

""We need to accommodate growth in this stage in our town's development,"" Mayor Kristen Umstattd said. ""We've heard enough from merchants and restaurateurs to go forward with this courts complex.""

""There is a larger picture that you have to watch out for as the political leaders of your community,"" said County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) told the council.

Councilwoman Katie Sheldon Hammler, who made the motion to overturn the BAR, called the courts expansion an economic opportunity, and said it's an ""important anchor"" for the town. But Councilman Dave Butler said the economic impact of the government operations was being overstated, and in the long term they would change the town and ""we hope for the better.""

Some council members who voted for allowing demolition said they were disappointed that a compromise couldn't be reached and that the county and town didn't work together well enough.

""If we saw the writing on the wall that it was going to be a standoff, we would have dropped our gloves and gone into a room and worked this out,"" Councilman Marty Martinez said.

That's something Del. Randy Minchew (R-10) advocated when he spoke Tuesday night. He said there needed to be more collaboration between the town and county, as was accomplish when the first phase of the courthouse expansion was completed for than a decade ago.

Hammler's motion left room for a compromise to emerge, with a requirement that the county work with anyone who wants to relocate the buildings and can do it within the construction timeframe. Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesbug) said that two parties have expressed interest, Peter Burnett and David Austin.

The action clears a key hurdle for the courts project, but there remain many more regulatory requirements to complete, including a rezoning of the property. No demolition can occur until building permits are in hand.

York said town and county leaders have worked well together on the issue, but much of that work hasn't been in public view. He noted that the county board has yielded to the town's wishes and opted for the design option with the smallest footprint with a height that follows the downtown's 45-foot-tall limit.

""So it is and continues to be a collaborative effort,"" he said, and noted that the two jurisdictions will need to work together moving forward on issues such as parking and storm water drainage around the complex.

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