Keeping it low in historic downtown Purcellville

By Valerie Cury

The Purcellville Town Council has voted 4-2 to reduce building heights in the Town’s C-4 District (historic downtown). Mayor Kwasi Fraser, and Council Members Stan Milan, Chris Bertaut, and Tip Stinnette voted in favor of the new limits with Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams and Council Member Joel Grewe voting against.
The vote was to amend the allowed height from 45 feet or 3 stories, to 35 feet or 2 ½ stories – with the one-half story allowed for attic space. Anyone who wants to build something bigger would have to go through a Special Exception process. 

Applications for exceptions to the new height limits go through the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review, and finally to the Town Council for a vote. Developers had objected to this idea, since it is often a harder sell and gives the community more opportunities to weigh in.

According to a staff report, all current buildings measuring over the new limit – between 35 and 45 feet – will be “deemed to have obtained approval from Town Council for their existing height. By adding this provision, those structures will avoid becoming non-conforming” now that the ordinance has passed. 

In objecting, Council Member Joel Grewe said the ordinance “takes creativity out of the builder’s hands.” He also said he likes “preserving opportunity for entrepreneurs,” but “agrees with preserving small town Purcellville.

Vice-Mayor Mary Jane Williams, although she just a year ago campaigned on preserving Historic Downtown, said she agreed with Grewe. In a previous meeting she lamented that the fee the developer would have to pay to go through the process, and then is denied, would not be reimbursed for required fees. This of course, is standard procedure in all zoning applications, and other localities, unless the application is pulled before the process is completed; then the fee is prorated. 

Council Member Stan Milan said the ordinance was being “implemented because of the current Comprehensive Plan.” Extremely popular with the voters, the plan prioritized preventing mega mixed-use commercial and residential projects and attendant parking, lighting, roadwork, and infrastructure costs from overwhelming historic downtown. Lowering the height limit to 35 feet and 2½ stories is something Milan has strongly supported over the six-plus months of Town Council and Planning Commission work on this amendment.

Council Member Chris Bertaut pointed out that it is rare for someone to request a Special Exception, making new limits like this a very effective way to enforce voter sentiments.

Mayor Fraser said, “I do not subscribe to the claim that height equals economic development, or height allowance equals creativity and innovation. We have the last building of over 35 feet and it was built over 30 years ago. So we have had places in downtown over the past eight years that could have been creative. We are still waiting for concrete to be poured on them.

“I do not think by us passing this ordinance, we are in any way restricting innovation and creativity, and so I will support this ordinance.”

Fraser explained that this ordinance “enables us to have a discussion and engagement as a community to build something that will be worthy of restoration ten, twenty, thirty years from now … We are executing on the Comprehensive Plan.”

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