The Board of Supervisors looks set next month to sell the Aldie Assemblage, a collection of properties at the heart of controversy almost since the county government bought it in 2015 to build a new fire station.
The board is expected to approve a sale at its July 20 meeting.
“This Aldie Fire-Rescue Station is located in a unique historic area where it will be necessary to work directly with several neighborhood community and historic preservationist groups. Gaining community support for the building desirable aesthetic characteristics is critical to the success of the project,” a county staff report noted presciently as the county prepared to award a contract to design a new fire station on the property in January 2017.
Community support proved lacking.
The Aldie Assemblage was the second property the county bought with plans for a fire station to replace the Aldie volunteer fire station, which is undersized and prone to flooding, posing health risks to the people working inside. But the fire-rescue crews would have to wait for years as county supervisors negotiated property purchases behind closed doors, then were chased off site by community opposition after revealing their purchase. The new Aldie fire station finally found a home on a fourth site at Gilbert’s Corner, the intersection of Rt. 15 and Rt. 50, and is expected to be finished in the winter of 2022-23.
As plans progressed at the Aldie Assemblage—three parcels totaling just over 6 acres that includes floodplain and sloping terrain, and a portion of which is in the Aldie Historic and Cultural Conservation District—area residents organized against it, putting together a meeting and campaign about the history of the property and against the county’s plans.
Even amid public outcry, supervisors went so far as to skirt their own development rules and Historic District Review Committee by beginning the process of removing the property from the village’s historic district. They would later reverse that decision and vote instead to expand the district.
After abandoning their plans for a fire station, supervisors sought to solve two problems at once, striking a deal in which a developer would drop plans for a subdivision near the village of St. Louis in exchange title to the Aldie land and additional cash for improvements there. Although they sought to protect both the Aldie property and St. Louis, that deal, too, fell through amid distrust of the developer from Aldie residents and preservation organizations speaking at public hearings.
Now, supervisors are seeking to sell the property, and have received an offer that has been celebrated among advocates for the property.
Aldie resident and Aldie Heritage Association member Guy Gerachis has proposed to buy the property, restore the Aldie Tavern and nearby Satterfield Cottage as residences, and refurbish the 19th century “Cellar House.” Other buildings in the assemblage would be renovated for retail space and possibly another residence. There are no new buildings proposed. He has offered $600,000 to buy the property.
“I feel villages are the original town center of Loudoun County. Aldie is a thriving village,” Gerachis told supervisors during the June 9 public hearing on the land sale. “There isn’t a vacant building in the village with the exception of the assemblage, and I intend to fix that.”
“You have asked for a community-based solution for the sale of the Aldie Assemblage and, as requested, have received an offer from the Gerachis Construction Group that checks that box and more,” said Gem Bingol of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Although that is the favorite offer among people speaking at county board meetings and at least some supervisors, it is not the highest offer.
The highest price offered for the property is $750,000 plus a 50-acre easement on an adjoining property for use as a public park. It comes from Aldie Community Development Company LLC—a development firm composed of the same developers behind the Mojax project in St. Louis whose involvement soured the prospects for the Aldie-St. Louis land swap.
Their proposal has been scaled back from what they previously proposed, now limited to restoring and converting the existing structures on the property. They propose a tavern plus art studios, retail, office space and a foundry.
And attorney Jim Campbell, representing Aldie Community Development Company, hinted at litigation if their offer is not accepted.
“What I’m here to say is that, by what standard do we as a county government decide this type of issue? If it were procurement, if it were buying something, we’d be obligated to buy it at the best price with a qualified seller. But in this circumstance, is there a standard? Is this a popularity contest based on what the people of Aldie think? We think not,” Campbell said.
He said if supervisors’ decision is challenged, “the relevant determination is a quantitative and qualitative test about what’s before you.”
“From a quantitative test, we’re offering exactly what he’s offering, except we’re offering to do more, with the park behind it, the trails and preserving all the structures, and from a quantitative test we’re offering a $150,000 more, and that should be of significance,” he said.
A third offer came from Tanya Finch, who offered $300,000 for the smallest of the three parcels that make up the assemblage. She said she would like to rehabilitate it for a home.
Supervisors voted to take the matter to a closed-door meeting on July 6 before casting a vote on July 20—although Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) preferred a more straightforward approach, only moving ahead with considering the Gerachis proposal.
“The whole purpose for this was to pick someone, and if we’re going to move forward with just all three, then I feel we’ve not been honest with the public and we’ve misled them to this point, and we’re going to drag this on further,” Buffington said.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to keep us out of court.”
“I need the community to know I heard you, I heard you, but there is a process by which these things are done, and to go outside the process by which these things are done opens the board up for issues that we don’t need to be opened up for,” Randall said. “And so please don’t mistake my motion for thinking I didn’t hear the will of the public in this public hearing. Please know that my motion is following public order and how we always do things.”
Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) said she was not prepared to take the Aldie Community Development Company proposal off the table.
“I worry a lot about the voices that we don’t hear, and there may be a vast majority of Aldie residents who are interested in the ACDC [proposal.] I understand some of the distrust of Mojax and what’s happening in St. Louis and I support fixing that problem, but I don’t think we should conflate the issues,” Briskman said.
And Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said, “we do have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers—all the taxpayers in the county.”
“I am not going to consider or put a lot of stock into particular personal attacks and feelings about individuals,” Letourneau said. “We have to look at what’s in front of us.”
“I can remember some bruising public sessions I had with citizens of Aldie, and so I don’t believe that Aldie citizens are people who are shrinking violets, who don’t pay attention, and don’t come out, and don’t voice their opinion,” Randall said. “Aldie’s not that big, so there’s not, like, thousands of voices of Aldie that we’re not hearing.”
“I think it’s important that we hear all voices, but I also think it’s important that there are times when consistent voices over years come into the room, call us, email us, talk to us, consistently,” she added.
Supervisors voted 9-0 to take the issue to a closed session July 6 and a vote July 20.