After months of debate, the Leesburg Town Council finally found a majority to support a donation to the Loudoun Freedom Center.
On Tuesday night, the council voted to award $25,740 to the Freedom Center, to put toward work needed at the Sycolin Cemetery.
In May, the council approved a land transfer of the 1.6-acre Sycolin Cemetery property to the nonprofit, but the Freedom Center waited to finalize the deal in hopes that the council would also help pay for improvements to address poor drainage and water ponding on the gravesites.
Located off Sycolin Road near the Leesburg Executive Airport, the burial ground includes 65 gravesites associated with the Sycolin Baptist Church, with the earliest recorded burial in 1913 and the latest in 1959. The town purchased the land more than 30 years ago for the federally mandated Runway Protection Zone for the municipal airport. According to a staff report, there is no historical research that has shown it to be a cemetery for the enslaved; however, some who are buried in the cemetery were born prior to the Civil War.
Since the land transfer was approved by the council, there has been a bit of a back and forth between council members and Freedom Center representatives on what financial contribution, if any, the town should make to defray the cost of drainage improvements. Town staff has estimated that these improvements could cost upwards of $100,000. In preparing for the transfer, the town also spent more than $80,000 on maintenance, a cemetery delineation study, and survey and plat work. Several motions have been brought up on the council dais, with varying amounts of money to award to the nonprofit, but none have had the necessary four votes to pass.
But that changed Tuesday night. Councilwoman Suzanne Fox brought up at the end of Monday night’s work session that she intended to offer a motion Tuesday to award $25,740 to the Freedom Center. She calculated that number based on the estimated annual maintenance the town currently expends on the property, estimated by Town Manager Kaj Dentler to be around $3,300 in staff time costs.
“I asked Kaj how much less we would pay when we gift some of this land, and he said it would be about 26% less. [That amounts to] $858 a year savings so I looked forward about 30 years, and that came out to $25,740,” Fox explained.
While the Freedom Center will take over maintenance of the cemetery land once the memorandum of understanding is signed, the town must continue to maintain the remaining RPZ land surrounding it.
Fox emphasized the money was to go toward preservation efforts, and not any revenue-producing enhancements.
Tuesday night, her motion was supported by all members of the council, except Mayor Kelly Burk and Councilman Neil Steinberg.
“I feel very strongly that we made an honest commitment to the Loudoun Freedom Center to move forward and to give them the cemetery,” Burk said in explaining her dissent. “We have spent a great deal of taxpayers’ money to get to this point. I think [$25,740], although I understand how Ms. Fox got to it, I don’t think that’s the way we should go at this point.”
Burk also said she did not believe it would be the last time the council would be asked for funding for the cemetery land from the Freedom Center.
Towards the close of Tuesday’s meeting, and following the passed motion, Burk attempted to find support for a future work session discussion on requiring the awarded funding to be issued in the form of reimbursements to the nonprofit for work they will have completed at the cemetery. She said in her reasoning that it would be a good accounting for taxpayers’ money.
Councilman Zach Cummings said the mayor should have offered that stipulation as an amendment to the motion, rather than proposing a work session on the topic. Vice Mayor Marty Martinez added that, in other donations to nonprofits, the council has stipulated whether accounting for the funding was a requirement.
“It’s a grant to do what they need to do to the cemetery,” he said. “It’s a misuse of staff time to sit there and verify their spending.”
Only Fox and Councilwoman Kari Nacy joined Burk in supporting the scheduling of such a work session.
Ron Campbell, executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, expressed his appreciation to his former council colleagues the morning after the vote. He particularly singled out Fox and Cummings for their support in pushing for funding for the cemetery project.
“I look forward to a wonderful partnership [with the council] as we move forward,” he said.
Campbell said he was not sure when Michelle Thomas, the Freedom Center’s founder, would sign the MOU, but she has previously indicated that she will sign the document for the land transfer. Thomas was not able to be reached for this article.