Historic District height limit runs into a snag

By Valerie Cury

The Purcellville Town Council, on April 27, voted 3-3, with Council member Ted Greenly absent, on lowering the height in the downtown C-4 District. 

Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams, and Council members Joel Grewe and Tip Stinnette voted against lowering the height limit from 45 feet and three stories, to 35 feet and 2 ½ stories. Mayor Kwasi Fraser, along with Council members Chris Bertaut and Stan Milan, supported the motion. 

The ordinance will go back to the Planning Commission, and commissioners will decide whether to support Stinnette’s amendment – which would make a request for height increases a Special Exception and not a Special Use Permit.  Special Use Permits go to the Town Council for a decision. Special Exceptions go to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Developers want to avoid the Town Council.

The Special Exception Process

This process takes the height decision away from the elected body, the Town Council, and puts it in the hands of a judicial body.

“Pushing it to the Town Council gives it more control, what ever that decision may be,” said Don Dooley, Director of Planning and Economic Development.

Different points of view

Comments by Council Member Tip Stinnette focused on what process the developer would have to go through to get a higher building height in the district. He asked how long would it take a developer to apply for a Special Use Permit, and how much would it cost. 

“I was looking at this from an applicant’s perspective,” said Stinnette, “who puts down $1,000 … I don’t really have any way to really measure my chances of getting my application approved …” Stinnette also said there were not enough guidelines. 

“The provisions currently that limit buildings to size and scope of neighborhood … we would go back to the Comprehensive Plan,” said Dooley.

Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams was concerned about the cost to the applicant. She said there were more costs other than the $1,000. You have to make 12 copies, and it holds up construction, she noted.

Council Member Stan Milan remarked that the discussion was supposed to be about lowering the height limit, not the appeals process. “There’s guidance in the ordinance that identifies those things,” said Milan.

Mayor Kwasi Fraser said that based on the line of questioning, “it sounds like there is a level of advocacy for developers, and I am just here to be an advocate for our citizens – because ultimately they put us in here to represent them.” 

Fraser pointed out that the emphasis on the application cost to build higher than the allowed limit was “being painful to the developers and hidden costs … [We] need to make sure we are addressing the hidden costs to our citizens.”

April 15 Planning Commission Meeting 

The Planning Commission had discussed lowering the building height in the C-4 zoning district and voted 7-0 in favor of lowering the height, and sent its recommendation to the Town Council. 

This is one step the Planning Commission took to bring the current zoning ordinance in line with the new Comprehensive Plan. 

“It sounds like there is a level of advocacy for developers, and I am just here to be an advocate for our citizens – because ultimately they put us in here to represent them.” 

– Mayor Kwasi Fraser

Staff recommended removing the limit on the number of stories and just caping the change to 35 feet. However, this recommendation could have allowed for three stories, which is the current limit. 

If someone wanted to build higher, developers would have to go through a Special Use Permit process via the Town Council, thus giving the community a chance to weigh in on the matter.

Staff’s recommendation of taking out the story limit was “in order to avoid the administrative difficulties caused by attics, basements [which would not be counted in the story limit anyway], and the space under gabled roofs.”

Commissioner Boo Bennett said that “administrative issues are part of the job. I have administrative issues as a parent … any job I have ever held has administrative difficulties.”

“The staff and the Planning Commission don’t have to always agree on everything; we have different areas of expertise,” said Commissioner Stosh Kowalski.

Chair Nedim Ogelman pointed out that as long he had known about the ordinances, the Town has always had height and story parameters.

Regarding staff’s mention of administrative difficulties, Commissioner Nan Forbes said that at this point “this is not an amendment that addresses the zoning ordinance comprehensively.” She explained that the review will come at a later date, when the commission will be addressing the definitions and all the details in the zoning ordinance.

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