Purcellville moves to strengthen historic protections

By Valerie Cury

The Purcellville Planning Commission held a public hearing on July 15, on a request to expand the Purcellville Historic Corridor Overlay District. The proposal would include all eligible properties within the Town that are not currently within the district. 

The Town of Purcellville’s Historic Corridor Overlay District, which was created in 2005, is made up of parts of Main Street, North 21st  Street, North 23rd Street, and South 32nd Street.

This District is meant to protect the Town’s architectural and historical character, protect and preserve buildings, and ensure that new development is in keeping with Purcellville’s small-town feel. 

Currently, the HCOD does not include most of Purcellville’s historically-contributing homes.

Over the past year, the Planning Commission has been updating the Town’s Zoning Ordinance so it is in alignment with the Town’s newly adopted Comprehensive Plan. One of the goals of the Plan is to protect historic properties which individually and collectively contribute to the Town’s small-town character. 

The current goals of the Planning Commission are to bring all of the Town’s relevant historic properties into the Historic District, and to discourage demolition of historic properties. The demolition of properties is the main focus of the proposed ordinance, and does not place any restrictions on homeowners renovating or painting their properties. Homeowners would still have to abide by the current rules that are already in place. 

A large crowd attended the public hearing. Many said the public notification letter they received from the Town was confusing. Staff sent out the letter without first showing it to the Planning Commission for review.

The participants had concerns about secondary structures on their property, and didn’t want restrictions on them. Would they be obligated to fix up sheds, or accessory structures that they couldn’t afford to fix – or did not want to fix? That needed to be clear, they stressed.

Many citizens thought additions, renovations, paint colors, in essence any upkeep to their homes would be regulated. They urged the commissioners to check to see if there would be any additional fees for any renovations they wanted to make. 

The proposal states, “There are no proposed changes associated with permitted or unpermitted uses that may be located within any historic building or property included in the Historic Corridor Overlay District.”

The feedback wasn’t all negative. Carol Luke, one of the last speakers, said, “If I do something in Town that changes my building … don’t think that doesn’t affect my neighbors, because it does. I think there are things here that need to be preserved. If not, why don’t we just go live in Ashburn?” She concluded by saying, “We moved here because we like this little funky town.”

Another citizen voiced concern because she did not want “someone to buy a house and … be able to demolish it and build town houses on something that is not fitting” for her street. 

She said a parcel behind her was sold and they fit three homes on it. “It does not fit in with the neighborhood. The homes are close together. The noise from the families is terrible, and we are just scared this is just going to keep on happening – and will push out the residents that wanted the small-town character … I don’t want my neighbor’s house demolished, and put three houses on it.” 

Planning Commissioner Boo Bennett said it was “a travesty that there was so much misunderstanding” due to the letter the Town sent out. She agreed it was difficult to read.

“There are no restrictions for homeowners, except if you want to implode your home, and then you would be asked to come and have a public hearing like this – so your neighbor, because we don’t live in isolation – we live in a community – this way your neighbors can weigh in, she said.

Commissioner Nan Forbes said she lives in a house that is in the historic corridor and this expansion “would not make any difference, unless I wanted to tear my house down.” She said the theme she was hearing is that “people are here because they really like Purcellville. They like the way it looks. They like the way it feels. They like the small town – and I have not heard anybody say they don’t want that.”

“How do we keep small town Purcellville a small town?” Forbes asked. She pointed out that there are some properties in Town that are currently planned to be demolished in the next few months. When that happens, she said people will be outraged and will say, ‘How can you do this? How can you let this happen? Why is that permitted?’ 

“Well, because there isn’t anything to prevent it. So, the point of this is to try to figure out whether or not to create at least a hurdle. Does it mean it can’t be done? Is there a way to create at least a hurdle? It doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” She said there needs to be a procedure for a review, so “someone can’t just knock down your house …That’s what this proposal essentially is.

“You can do what you want with your house inside and additions, paint color, roofs, you name it …” The proposed ordinance also deals with demolition by neglect. “The idea is so someone can maintain the minimal bit of maintenance, so it does not become a hazard – and you can’t just get your tear-down because you ignore it completely.”

Commissioner Stosh Kowalski said that the intent of the proposed ordinance was “to prevent people from simply tearing down a house or a row of houses, and put up a block building.”

Purcellville Council Member and Planning Commissioner Stan Milan said the commission is “rewriting the ordinances to reflect what the Comprehensive Plan stated.” He said, “For years, there has been … a lot of development in the Town that was just haphazard … through the ordinances we are trying to control tearing down a house, and building three houses on that same lot.”

Said Milan, “There are issues with people trying to build three-story buildings on Hatcher [Trails End proposal] – 40 apartments dumping on Hatcher [Vineyard Square]. There are two cars at least per apartment. That’s 80 cars coming onto Hatcher, when at 4 [p.m.] traffic is backed up to the veterinarian hospital. It doesn’t fit. It deters from the small town character that we have here. We are trying to manage that and make it livable.” 

He said, “We are trying to preserve the historical value of the Town.”

Vice Chair Ed Neham said, “If you really like and want to keep Purcellville the way it is, then we should act to do that …One of the things we are aiming for in this ordinance change is … to discourage demolition of older houses that make up Purcellville’s quaintness. There is nothing else in the ordinance about controlling anything.”

Chair Nedim Ogelman said he lives under this ordinance, and living in the HCOD saved his house from the impact of demolition that was done across the street because the developer was not allowed to blast at the stronger levels that would have been most efficient for his development. If he had, it “would have damaged my house,” said Ogelman. 

“We live in a community, and so we don’t just get to be entirely free. We try to balance out and have those personal freedoms that we have, and balance that out with the value we get from being neighbors and friends and living in a community.”

The Planning Commission met July 28 to discuss its plan for going over the ordinance and refining it based on citizen input.

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