Keeping buildings low in Purcellville’s historic downtown

By Valerie Cury

Developers want higher building height limits in key parts of Purcellville, with periodic support from certain Council members, depending on the moment, they have tried to take power away from the local legislative body – and, in turn, the citizens – who don’t agree with them.

At the Town Council Work Session on May 25, the Council moved to reconsider lowering the height in the Historic Downtown area (C-4 District) from 3 stories 45 feet to 2½ stories 35 feet.

On June 8, the Council will debate the issue, and is expected to vote.  The discussion on this change has been going on for months.

The sticking point at a previous meeting was that Council Member Tip Stinnette wanted to take any appeal to the height limit away from the Planning Commission and Town Council, giving it to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Stinnette’s effort failed. His comments during this meeting were focused on the appeal process for the developers, and the money they had to spend to get what they wanted – not the height reduction issue itself.

Developers have plenty of recourse

At the Planning Commission and Town Council level, there are two public hearings before a vote would be made – if someone wanted to increase the height of a structure from the allowed limit.

At the Board of Zoning Appeals level, there is one public hearing where the people who can appeal the BZA’s decision are “aggrieved parties,” – those in close proximity to the project.

At the May meeting, Council Member Stan Milan said that after the failed vote from the previous meeting, he would “trust but verify,” noting he had looked at other jurisdictions to see how they handle special exceptions and special use permits.

Semantics

While Purcellville calls the process to change an allowed use to something more intense [i.e., higher structures] a “Special Use Permit,” most localities call it a Special Exception. But the effect is the same.

“The bottom line,” said Milan, “… from all the jurisdictions I talked to, anything that deals with ordinances, to the level concerning height and zoning – is a legislative act, because we create the legislation via the ordinances, and we should not abdicate the responsibility for that legislation to an appointed body.”

Milan noted he had researched Culpepper, Herndon, Fairfax County, Leesburg, Winchester, Rappahannock County, and Loudoun, and the process is “all done legislatively because … my conclusion is my research has shown Special Use Permits/Special Exception decisions reside with the Town Council and the Planning Commission, since these two bodies are responsible for the creation of the broader legislation.”

Council Member Chris Bertaut said, “The principal here is we as a legislative body want to set a height [limit] with our vision for the community, perhaps it’s communicated to us through the Planning Commission and the Comprehensive Plan, perhaps through public hearings.” 

He also noted that the Town Council receives its input from a variety of sources, and if anyone wants an exception to that, that person is in effect asking for a change in zoning law. “The principal at work here is that we don’t want to shuffle off the responsibility for rewriting a law to … another body or process.

“When we as a council enact an ordinance, there are a lot of eyes on us. There is a lot of public discussion, and hearings, so there should be just as many eyes on the same body, frankly … that took the responsibility of passing that original law. It should be with the same public visibility.”

Bertaut said the BZA as a body would look at the issue from a very different perspective “than the people who basically had to sit in the hot seat and put up with the public heat that accompanies the passing of any kind of law …”

Casey Chapman, who is part owner of the Vineyard Square project on 21st Street and the Trails End proposal on Hatcher (a multi-story proposal that would include tearing down three single-family homes) asked to speak several times during the discussion. He recommended another public hearing on something this “extreme.” 

Council Member Tip Stinnette spoke with Chapman at length after the meeting was over.

At a May Planning Commission meeting, commissioners weighed in on the subject. Commissioner Boo Bennett said she found it disturbing that there was so much emphasis from a few Council members on the developers having to spend $1,000 for the Special Use Permit process. “The median apartment monthly rent is just over $1,000, so we aren’t talking something that’s really burdensome.” She said it was good that the existing process calls for a Town Council public hearing. “A big part of this … is to have the citizens weigh in …”

Bennett also quoted Stinnette, when he ran for Town Council three years ago, when he wanted ‘to strengthen and preserve Purcellville, protecting its place in western Loudoun County as a sustainable small community.’

Commissioner Nan Forbes said she didn’t know of any community that refunds fees for applicants who go through the Special Exception process from start to finish.

 Chairman Nedim Ogleman said, “As a citizen, the two public hearings through the Planning Commission and the Town Council and the deliberations [are good] … Give every citizen an opportunity to be heard.”

 As far as the cost to go through the process, he then asked, “… If the developer is not paying for it, then it needs to come from … the tax dollars of all the other citizens. What business is it of ours to subsidize a developer’s application?”

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