Leesburg Council To Consider BAR Changes, Applicant Feedback

The Leesburg Town Council is looking to streamline the review process for the Board of Architectural Review, and also to ensure applicants are having a productive experience.

Both matters came before the Town Council for review at its Monday work session. Councilman Zach Cummings had recently suggested that the town staff conduct a survey of those who have navigated the BAR review process, and the council took it a step further to include those who have appeared before the board within the past year. 

“One of the ways we can borrow from the business world … folks are always surveying, trying to make their processes even better. It’s a very important piece of customer service [and helps to] track and measure how we’re performing, and give the BAR some feedback on what’s happening,” he said.   

Preservation Planner Lauren Murphy said such a survey would be around 10 questions, and the staff was looking at offering the survey both electronically, written and even conducted over the phone, with help from the Public Information Office. Council members suggested that an over-the-phone survey may be more productive, with current and past applicants likely to be more thorough in conversation. 

The survey will focus on primarily three areas, Murphy said. Those are the overall user experience during the application process, the experience with the BAR during meetings, and whether the H-1 or Gateway District guidelines were user-friendly and helpful for their projects. During the pandemic, Murphy noted that the town began offering all-electronic submissions for architectural approvals, so the feedback on that process will be especially useful. 

The council also looked at ways to put less work in front of BAR members, by adding more projects that could be approved administratively by the preservation planner. In researching this possibility, Murphy looked both at what other nearby jurisdictions consider for administrative approvals, and also what projects are currently finding themselves on the BAR’s consent agenda. A consent agenda is typically voted on at the beginning of a public meeting, and includes projects that generally do not stir controversy and are fairly routine. The entire consent agenda is voted on at once, rather than in separate motions.

Possible areas to explore for administrative approvals are minor amendments to already-approved Certificates of Appropriateness; minor alterations to small architectural details, such as vents or handrails and even gutters and downspouts, Murphy said. On the latter point, Murphy noted that in some instances she is able to review a roof replacement administratively, but an application for a gutter or downspout in the historic district would have to navigate through the BAR process. 

Awning projects are another possibility, as well as walkways for commercial projects. Currently, only residential walkways may be reviewed administratively. Landscape features to include pergolas, patios and retaining walls, which all typically find themselves on the BAR’s consent agenda, could also be ideal for administrative review. 

In her research, Murphy said she was surprised to see the number of sign applications that had recently been on BAR consent agendas. 

“Signs are allowed to be administratively approved but only if they’re consistent with the guidelines,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately, the guidelines have very specific size limits and in some cases very specific location limits which prompts me to send them to the BAR.”

As an example, if a business wanted a six-and-a-half-foot wide sign, but the H1 guidelines only permitted a six-foot width, the application would have to go before the BAR, unless the applicant agreed to reduce the size. 

To fix the sign concern would likely require an update to the H1 guidelines. A wholesale, comprehensive update may be in the cards in the future, Murphy said, though that would have a significant budgetary impact. The guidelines were last updated in 2009 and Murphy said she is finding that there are some projects that were not anticipated 12 years ago, and thus are not captured in the current guidelines. That includes things like small cell equipment. 

In response to a question from Councilwoman Suzanne Fox, Murphy said adding more projects as candidates for administrative approval would have a neutral impact on her workload, as her time would not need to be spent on preparing staff reports, PowerPoint presentations or public hearing presentations for the BAR.

The council initiated a Zoning Ordinance amendment to consider such changes at its Tuesday night meeting. Council members also requested that BAR members be given the opportunity to weigh in on any changes ahead of potential adoption.

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