A tentative decision by the Leesburg Town Council to not invest in storm water improvements may spell the end of an agreement between the county seat and the Loudoun Freedom Center.
Plans to transfer the 1.6-acre Sycolin Cemetery property to the Loudoun Freedom Center have been in the works since 2019. The land includes 65 gravesites associated with the Sycolin Baptist Church. Land near the burial sites was purchased by the town more than 30 years ago for the federally mandated Runway Protection Zone for the Leesburg Executive Airport. While the town has mowed and maintained the upper field of the area since its acquisition, it was not until 2015 that town staff ventured farther into the wooded area—outside of the Runway Protection Zone—to begin to maintain the land that includes the burial areas after receiving criticism from members of the community, particularly the NAACP, on its overgrown nature.
Criticism has followed some decisions of the council and town staff, who at separate times have considered creating a master plan for the cemetery and even leasing it to an outside group or organization to maintain it. The latter suggestion brought forward a strong rebuke, with Loudoun Freedom Center founder and current Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas likening it to a “sharecropper’s agreement” when the council debated it at the end of 2018. It caused the council to reverse course, and instead pursue a land transfer to the Freedom Center, which has been behind several efforts to preserve African American gravesites in Loudoun County. A resolution with council support for the land transfer passed in July 2019.
Since then, the town staff has worked to draft up a Memorandum of Understanding between the town and the Loudoun Freedom Center, and has also worked with outside consultants to complete a cemetery delineation study and survey and plat work, spending a total of $71,000. That sum does not include work performed by town staff, Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel said in addressing the council at its Monday work session.
The cemetery delineation study noted the presence of the 65 gravesites, 55 in the larger northern burial ground and 10 in a smaller southern burial ground, with the earliest burials occurring in 1913 and the last known burial in 1959. According to a staff report, there is no historical research that has shown it to be a slave cemetery; however, some who are buried in the cemetery were born prior to the Civil War.
The cemetery land would be carved out and transferred to the Loudoun Freedom Center as an outlot, or a plot of undeveloped land, and would include 50 feet of buffer between adjoining land. However, Markel emphasized, there was no risk of the town developing nearby land as it falls within the Runway Protection Zone.
Among items noted in the draft MOU are the town’s intention to continue mowing in the nearby RPZ, and to provide access to the burial sites. The Loudoun Freedom Center would be responsible for future maintenance of the cemetery land. The town is conveying the land at no charge.
However, a major sticking point is a wet one. Markel said while there has been verbal agreement on the draft MOU elements from the Freedom Center, the one exception relates to stormwater improvements. Markel noted that the area can become rather wet, with ponding of water near burial sites, after rains. Drainage naturally falls down a nearby hillside, and pools by the graves, causing soggy conditions.
“The area is known to have springs and those areas are consistently wet,” Markel said. However, he said, “drainage modifications would be a significant disturbance to the area.”
Preliminary cost estimates for drainage improvements include three options—digging a ditch, at a tune of $125,000; installing a French drain, for $135,000; or installing both a French drain and a wall, for $210,000. All three options would require removing trees and roots.
“Staff feels this is not a guarantee of solving the drainage concerns raised by the Loudoun Freedom Center. We are not certain that any of this work gets to a drying of the soil, and we do recognize the sensitivity of working around burial areas,” Markel said.
Town Attorney Christopher Spera also pointed out that upcoming construction work on Sycolin Road could change the drainage situation for better or for worse, and the outcome of that would be out of the town’s control.
“While it’s unlikely road construction would remove completely that hillside there could be significant complications,” Spera said.
Mayor Kelly Burk also raised the possibility that the town performing storm water work on this cemetery property may set a precedent for other churches requesting related work on theirs.
“Anything we do beyond facilitating the donation you probably do run some danger there of establishing a precedent,” he said.
All seven council members indicated support Monday night for moving forward on scheduling a public hearing on the land transfer, agreement on the MOU, and providing the land without drainage improvements.
Thomas said Tuesday she was “disgusted” by that decision. She contended that the cost of needed drainage improvements was a small price to pay “for 30 years of abandonment.”
Thomas also said, had staff put in drainage improvements before putting in a nearby path, the conditions would be greatly improved. She compared it to a car salesman washing a car to ready it for sale, but neglecting to fix the engine or other interior components.
“This is their error. They can’t shove it off their plates and say take it or leave it. That’s bullying tactics. We’re 90% finished [with the MOU] and now they throw up their hands and say take it or leave it,” she said.
Thomas said she planned to speak at the council’s Tuesday meeting and said the Loudoun Freedom Center would “absolutely object” to the MOU if drainage improvements were not completed. She also questioned whether the town was trying to use the Freedom Center’s objection to do something different with the property. When asked by Councilman Zach Cummings Monday what the town would do with the property if the MOU with the Freedom Center did not move forward, Markel said staff would maintain the land as it has been doing. There was no discussion of finding another community group to transfer the land to.
“They’re trying to use our objection to this, which is to their inaction, to either keep the property or find someone else to be a caretaker after five to six years of negotiating. It’s just disgusting. We’ve fought for this thing for the last five years. This is actually our last challenge and our most expensive challenge. This is the debt they owe; they broke it, they need to fix it,” Thomas said.