Purcellville debates height limits for historic downtown

By Valerie Cury

At the Dec. 8 Purcellville Town Council Meeting, the Council moved forward to decrease the maximum height of buildings in the C-4 District. The district includes Hatcher Avenue and 21st Street and parts of Main Street – and is referred to as the old downtown area.

The Town Council voted 5-2 to direct staff to prepare a motion on the subject, with Council Members Joel Grewe and Ted Greenly voting no. 

Currently, the height limits are three stories/45 feet. The Planning Commission had voted 7-0 to reduce the height of the C-4 District buildings to two stories/30 feet. The Town Council could approve additional height by special exception. This would allow for the public to weigh in, and have a voice on a potential project – if the proposal were to be above two stories/30 feet. 

Any legacy buildings, such as Magnolias (an old mill), would be grandfathered in, and would not be affected, if they had to be built over in the same style. But, if a legacy building were to change the style completely, then it would have to adhere to the current zoning of the area.

Town Council discussion and background

Last June 30, the Purcellville Town Council voted to adopt the Town’s new Comprehensive Plan. In accordance with the new Comp Plan, the Planning Commission developed a work plan to focus on zoning regulations for the Town’s seven focus areas. In a Sept. 3 email, Town staff identified priorities of properties that were inconsistent with the new Comp Plan.

Said Town Attorney Sally Hankins, “Since the adoption by the Town Council of the Comprehensive Plan on June 30, 2020, the Planning Commission has started the large task of … amending the zoning ordinance, so that the zoning ordinance can give us that vision that was laid out in the Comp Plan.

“The Planning Commission has developed a work plan for this task …, They have prioritized the focus areas … [including] Downtown South [the C-4 District],” said Hankins. She explained that the height regulations were a result of this priority.

Planning Commission Chair Nedim Ogelman took a survey of the building heights in the area to see what would be compatible, and the unanimous consensus of the Planning Commission was “that the existing maximum heights in the C-4 District are out of scale with the existing development in that area,” said Hankins.  

“Because the vision of the Comp Plan is to maintain the existing character of the Town, the Planning Commission recommendation is to initiate a height zoning amendment to reduce the height in the C-4 zoning district from 45 to 30 feet. However, they would like to preserve an option of 45 feet. and three stories with a special exception or special use permit process,” said Hankins. 

Ogelman said, “Your Planning Commission voted unanimously to support this resolution, and we believe it provides a good way to achieve … what the new Comp Plan is asking for … the principal of do no harm to the small town character … We looked at 92 properties … The heights of those buildings were in the low twenties, to the high teens. The number of stories above ground from the street were either two stories or something between one and two stories.”

Ogelman said the Comp Plan does recognize that there are some taller buildings, but he noted the Comp Plan says “these are not the heights to be emulated.” He said that “height should be at the characteristic of or our small town, in the Historic District – which is two stories and below 30 feet.” He pointed out that if someone wants to build something three stories high, they would have to apply for a special exception, thus giving the citizens a chance to weigh in on the process. 

Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser stressed that an applicant can apply for a three-story height.  “You are not saying no to three stories …You just need to go through a special exception process to build higher.”

Ogelman agreed, “We are not saying no to three stories … we are saying not without our permission as citizens of the Town … because we the citizens of the Town incur the risk for anything that happens.”

Council Member Stan Milan said, “We don’t want a structure that is out of feel with the area it is going to be placed in.” 

Council Member Joel Grewe said he had problems with the change, saying it targets a proposed new development. The current proposal includes tearing down three old homes on Hatcher and consolidating the three lots which are next to the W&OD Trail, on a street with single family homes – commercial on the main floor and two floors of 30 apartments, or assisted living.

Council Member Ted Greenly concurred: “It seems to me we are targeting a specific area, so I have … an issue with that.”

Council Member Tip Stinnette had the same concerns. He was also concerned about existing properties that would not conform with the new change. This however, would not be a problem, since they would be grandfathered in.

Hankins responded that she has spoken with the property owners, and they said that they are aware of the zoning ordinance process which the Planning Commission is tasked to review.

Milan said, “If this corresponds to someone’s proposed development of a property, that does not fit into that area and just so happens that a height limitation is implemented – this has no bearing on anyone doing anything surreptitiously. It is to maintain the character of Purcellville.

Planning Commissioner Nan Forbes said that the natural outcome of having a new Comp Plan is that “we develop a zoning ordinance … By definition that means there will be changes in the zoning ordinance. Changes in the zoning ordinance might make some land owners happy and some not so happy. That doesn’t mean the zoning ordinance doesn’t get changed in order to conform with what our Town Council has approved in the Comprehensive Plan.”

Fraser said, “There are only two people who would see this as retaliatory. In this position, we can’t please everyone. People will make their assumption whether it is based in fact or not; and so, we need to make a decision that we believe is right, and of course, we believe any risk would be addressed. The Planning Commission has taken into consideration what a developer might make. I am putting my trust in the Planning Commission.”

The Town Council and Planning Commission will hold a joint meeting Jan. 12 to discuss the issue.

Editor’s Note: The joint meeting on January 12 has been taken off the agenda.

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