Leesburg Council Moves Forward With Arts District Signage, Delays Private Mural Decision

The Town of Leesburg is set to turn up the spotlight on its Arts & Cultural District, 10 years after it was created by the council.

The district, which includes the historic downtown area and portions of Catoctin Circle, was adopted by the Town Council in 2011 to encourage arts-related businesses and organizations to locate in town. Incentives including Business and Professional Occupation License tax rebates, real estate tax rebates and zoning permit exemptions are offered. The Commission on Public Art developed a marketing strategy for the district in 2019, acknowledging that many local residents or visitors to the downtown area are not even aware the district exists.

The town staff proposed a wayfinding signage system to draw attention to the district, according to Kate Trask, deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department. The signage system will be put in place in phases, she said. In the first phase, expected to be in place by the start of the fiscal year, July 1, banners will be placed on improved streetlight poles throughout the district, and small signs will be added to existing town wayfinding signs. 

The second phase will involve filling in more holes with Arts & Cultural District signage. Where traditional signs aren’t able to be placed, Trask said staff is looking at things like sidewalk inlays. This second phase would begin in 2022, and be finished by 2023. In the third phase of the project, banners will be affixed to forthcoming new black acorn street lights on West Market Street, West Loudoun Street, and North King Street. Staff will also need to perform ongoing maintenance of the banners, signs, and sidewalk inlays. 

Banners and signs will include the new Arts & Cultural District logo created by graphic designer Stilson Greene, which was unveiled last year. 

Funding for phase one of the project will cost $10,000, and is already included in the current fiscal year’s budget. The cost for the subsequent two phases is approximately $30,000 each year. This amount is covered in the approved fiscal year 2022 budget by using general downtown improvement funding intended for the replacement of benches and trash cans. The same funding source can be used in fiscal year 2023. Additional funding in the amount of $5,000 will be needed for annual maintenance by the Department of Public Works and Capital Projects starting in fiscal year 2023, according to a staff report. 

Talk of the Arts & Cultural District re-launch also brought forward a discussion on whether the council should allow murals on private buildings. Currently, the Zoning Ordinance only permits murals on town-owned buildings. Should the council want to permit them on private buildings, a Zoning Ordinance amendment would be needed, Zoning Administrator Michael Watkins said. The town’s public art guidelines could also be changed to create guidelines for private murals, he said.

But the council expressed hesitation about taking on the role of reviewing murals on private property. 

“What’s distasteful to me might not be distasteful to you,” Mayor Kelly Burk said. “The fact that it would come to this board to make a decision worries me even more. We will be the arbitrators of what is distasteful and what is not distasteful, and I do believe that free speech will come into play.”

Burk suggested that private murals be limited to commercial buildings, but not to be used as advertisements. Town Attorney Christopher Spera acknowledged that the First Amendment allows commercial speech to be restricted at a much higher level than noncommercial speech.

A subsequent work session on allowing private murals will be scheduled. The vote to approve the Arts & Cultural District wayfinding and signage system passed Tuesday by a 6-0-1 vote, with Councilwoman Suzanne Fox absent. 

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