Paxton Campus Vision Faces New Test

The future of 16 acres in northeast Leesburg is again the subject of debate, almost 20 years after it nearly was sold to a residential homebuilder. And that debate is again testing the limits of a 100-year-old will.

The Paxton property, now home to the Arc of Loudoun nonprofit that serves children and adults with special needs or disabilities through a variety of programs, could soon house another nonprofit, with a special exception application by the INMED nonprofit filed with the Town of Leesburg last year. 

The application seeks approval to construct an 11,488-square-foot school building and accompanying 27,000-square-foot greenhouse and classroom on seven acres of the property. The Nexus School, as it is envisioned, would serve the educational needs of children in grades six through 12 that do not adapt well to traditional classroom settings, with particular attention to immigrant and low-income youth. The proposal also includes a vision for an aquaponics program incorporated into its curriculum that would also serve to generate revenue for scholarships to defray the cost of tuition for students. The Nexus School is expected to serve around 165 students on the property at any given time. 

The public hearing on that application was first scheduled for July, then delayed until September, and now has been placed on hold completely. 

Jennifer Lassiter Smith, the director of U.S. programs for Sterling-based INMED and the one person who has been involved in the evolution of the property since Arc arrived in 2008, attributed the delay in part to waiting for lease negotiations between the Paxton Trust and Arc of Loudoun to be resolved. 

Some neighbors and local stakeholders, though, say there is more to the story.

Where It Started

Katie Hammler, a resident of Exeter, just outside the gates of the Paxton property, was elected to the Leesburg Town Council in 2004 when the future of the Paxton property and its Carlheim Manor was perhaps most imperiled.

The sprawling estate was once the home of Rachel Paxton, who in her will bequeathed the land to a foundation to run the Margaret Paxton Memorial for Convalescent Children. It was named for Paxton’s daughter Margaret, who predeceased her. Following Rachel Paxton’s death in 1921, her former residence, the Carlheim manor, was used from 1924 to 1954 as a center for children recovering from illness or injury. It would then shift to an orphanage, which operated until 1980, when it became a childcare center. It continued in that use until 2004 when it abruptly closed, and the trustees signaled that they would seek to sell the property, citing the high costs of operating the facility and the value of the land. A demolition permit had even been sought to take down Carlheim. At that point, local elected leaders, including then-Rep. Frank Wolf and Mark Herring, who served as state senator at the time, became involved. The council ultimately voted to place the property into the town’s Old & Historic District, preserving the property and ultimately preventing its sale for development.

Mary Pellicano was one of the first local residents to investigate what exactly was transpiring on the property. She and her husband had purchased their nearby home in 1999 and were mystified when the childcare center abruptly closed in the middle of a work week. She went down to the Loudoun County Courthouse to pull up a copy of Paxton’s will, and it was there she discovered the intent of her will—that the land in perpetuity be used to serve convalescent children. Pellicano also saw the will stated that a board of visitors composed of three members of Paxton’s former church, St. James Episcopal Church, and its rector be assembled to appoint a board of trustees and provide oversight to ensure that the intent of the will was being fulfilled. That revelation came as news to the local church, Pellicano said, which also happened to be her own church home, and further galvanized the effort to fight for the future of the property. 

It was a win for the community at large when, in 2008, the Arc signed a 10-year lease to take over the property and house the Aurora School, a facility in Purcellville that had been serving autistic children since 2003 but had outgrown its space. It was upon the signing of Arc’s lease on the property that Lassiter Smith first became involved with the Paxton property. She was part of a team of parents and community stakeholders, including Arc, that founded the Aurora School to serve students with special needs. Her involvement stemmed from her daughter Katelyn, who is autistic and needs high-level support. It was an “answered prayer” for many local parents, said Lassiter Smith, who would eventually become Arc’s executive director after serving as director of the Aurora School.

The Arc of Loudoun would expand over the years to serve thousands of special needs students region-wide, and would add on additional programs to serve people with disabilities at its Ability Fitness Center; children with developmental disabilities or delays at its Ally Advocacy Center; and its Aurora Behavior Clinic and the Open Door Learning Center preschool. It now counts itself among Loudoun’s largest nonprofits, employing 100 people and serving between 6,000 and 7,000 individuals a year.

Critics of the project, however, have expressed a distrust of Lassiter Smith.

Lassiter Smith resigned from the Arc in January 2017—in a move Scott Billigmeier, who served on the Arc’s Board of Directors on several occasions over the past 20 years, characterized as unsurprising claiming she was “on the path to either being fired or forced to resign.” What did catch some off guard, though, was an announcement by the Paxton Trust just days later that it had named Lassiter Smith its CEO, the first and only time the Trust has had such a position.

Lassiter Smith points out that INMED first approached her for a job when she was still with the Arc in 2016, but the job offered to her at the time, the director of its Opportunity Center in Sterling, was not an ideal fit. 

“The Trust had the idea of working together, coming onboard and expanding how they serve children in Leesburg. That was how I ended up there. It meant that I could continue the work I loved from the Arc, but not with the Arc. Seeing the needs in the community, and meeting those needs is what I have done,” she said.

Mindy Hetzel has worked with the Paxton Trust since 2006, but officially joined its three-member board of trustees in 2010. She said the decision to hire Lassiter Smith as its first and only CEO following her exit from Arc came down to her reputation for working with outside groups to serve children with a variety of needs. At the time of her hire, Hetzel said, the Trust wanted to put its fundraising hat on to help serve these other community groups and thought Lassiter Smith would be an ideal fit for that role.

In June 2019, Lassiter Smith was announced as the director of U.S. programs for INMED, leaving the Paxton Trust CEO job. Since Lassiter Smith left the Trust, Hetzel said the nonprofit is now focused on creating a new master plan for the Paxton property and focusing on infrastructure needs to allow for INMED to use the property. That has meant a shift away from a fundraising focus with no current plans to fill the CEO position, Hetzel said.

How It’s Going

Lassiter Smith said she began working with INMED as a volunteer while still with the Arc. She was already looking ahead to options for her own daughter, who would be aging out of the Arc programs and had few options as an adult with special needs. Now 26, her daughter was able to participate in an INMED program in Maryland that trained adults with disabilities to work in aquaponics. Through seeing this work firsthand, Lassiter Smith said, a lightbulb went off. She approached Paxton’s Board of Trustees with an idea to use the field at the Paxton property to house an aquaponics program.

“When I presented it to the trustees as a project for the field, they couldn’t help but be excited about it. It helps different kinds of kids with different kinds of needs,” she said. “When you’re talking about low-income kids that’s a hard demographic to reach without being completely a nonstarter financially. The INMED business model of aquaponics helps fund programs for people that can’t pay.”

Both Hetzel and fellow trustee Paige Buscema said their ultimate goal is to maximize the use of the Paxton property.

“Our focus is to be a campus to serve children. It won’t be just Arc. It won’t be just INMED. It won’t be just one tenant any longer. [The goal] is to maximize to the highest and best use of the value of the property across the board. Everything we do as trustees from this day forward, this is what we’re focused on, creating a mission-focused action statement—make sure tenants are fully supported, make sure the Arc has everything it needs to thrive and survive, and bring in other programs and services to be symbiotic,” Buscema said.

The two emphasize that they believe INMED’s project fulfills the vision of Paxton’s will. 

A 1954 Loudoun County Circuit Court order clarified that the term “convalescent children”, which has long left the vernacular, can be defined to serve children “who, because of ill health, accident, neglect, poverty, or any other cause, are in need of maintenance, care and comfort.”

But there are those who are leery of INMED’s proposal and, ultimately, the future of the Paxton property. Hammler and Pellicano led the charge to start a petition, signed by 170 homeowners, to the Town Council objecting to The Nexus School application citing a variety of concerns, not the least of which is whether it meets with the intent of Paxton’s will. 

Perhaps most of all, they fear for the future of the Arc. In a letter shared with Loudoun Now, Hammler alleges that the trustees are creating a toxic environment to ultimately drive the Arc off the property altogether. She alludes to a number of concerns, including a goal written in a 2014 application for a Loudoun County tax exemption to lease the entire Paxton property to the Arc. 

Billigmeier, Hammler and Pellicano also point to the lagging lease negotiations between the Arc and the Trust, with the Arc now leasing its portion of the property on a month-to-month basis, as its 10-year initial term ended in 2018. 

In an interview this week, Hetzel said that negotiations with the Arc are ongoing, and there is no desire to see the nonprofit leave altogether. Publicly, the Arc has come out in support of The Nexus School project, with Chief Development Officer Denise Daffron saying “of course” the Arc and INMED could co-exist on the property. 

“Where our mission and families collaborate and converge it’s a great opportunity to help those families,” she said. 

Billigmeier, however, said Arc employees need to be outwardly celebratory of any plans for the property so as not to jeopardize the nonprofit’s own future there. 

“This is a one-way war. [The Arc] is simply being defensive, trying to at least keep their home until they can find another home,” he said.

While Daffron did not concur with that assessment, she acknowledged in a recent interview that the nonprofit could eventually outgrow the Paxton property. The nonprofit serves children from nine different public school systems throughout the region, has dozens on its waiting list, and the county alone is estimated to have more than 23,000 individuals with special needs or disabilities, not to mention its family members who require support.

“Our need to grow is significant,” she said. “We need to be able to have the flexibility to transform things.”

Where Will It End?

The Paxton Trust and the Arc are still in the midst of lease negotiations, with a five-year extension under consideration. Hetzel said the goal is to create a “universal lease” that would apply to INMED or any other entities that use the property, in addition to Arc. Negotiating a lease with a nonprofit tenant that doesn’t pay rent is an unusual situation, Hetzel said, and one that can take a bit of time. A chief concern for Hetzel and other trustees is that parts of the property, such as the Carlheim mansion which is used exclusively for the Arc’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the Shocktober haunted house, have deteriorated. 

“What our lease says is, in 2008 when they took over the property, they could not allow the property to deteriorate. They have done some maintenance but there are major issues that have occurred,” she said.

She cites a recent visit by a structural engineer, with a final report yet to be furnished, that found a number of deferred maintenance items that have raised significant concerns. The roof of the Carlheim mansion, in particular, is in a precarious state should a significant snowfall occur.

With that in mind, Hetzel acknowledged that, for the first time ever, the Trust is asking Arc for a percentage of its profits from Shocktober to fund these improvements. Being proper stewards of the Paxton property, she said, is a major charge for trustees.

“The goal for us is to figure out a way for this to go forward,” she said. “Despite what everyone says, we think the Arc has amazing programs, we want them to stay on the campus and we know being able to fundraise at Shocktober is important to make that happen.”

While the Arc and the Trust work through lease negotiations, The Nexus School project has been put on a temporary hiatus, Lassiter Smith said. 

“From our standpoint we’re waiting completely on that,” she said. “We had planned some fundraising around a capital campaign this fall; we’ve paused that as well. We’re giving them whatever time they need. Sometimes you just need to let things happen the way they happen. That issue with those two needs to be resolved first because it’s impacting our project.”

While a public hearing and legislative review will wait for the INMED project, a vision for the overall Paxton property is already being charted. Local attorney Peter Burnett is assisting with putting together a planning group to work on a master plan for the sprawling property. 

“The concept of the process is being initiated completely through the Trust, while we’re simultaneously trying to come up with various volunteer experts that would be a good fit,” Burnett said. “At the same time we want to make sure the Arc is aware that we’re doing this with the primary view to them being there, as an expanded and major resident component on that site for the foreseeable future. From my perspective, the last thing I want to do is come up with a design of a school and a game plan that doesn’t work for them.”

Burnett questioned whether the best configuration for the Arc is to have its programs divided between several small, brick cottages. “My recommendation to [the Trust] was they engage in master planning starting with the notion of rehabilitating and saving the old buildings that are there, constructing an ideal classroom, administrative center and school, and getting rid of all those junk buildings. Once you’ve got that figured out contemplate whether INMED or some other type of school makes sense on that 16 acres,” he said. “The interest and the funding could well be there if it’s done in a first class progressive education cutting edge way which seems to be right where Arc is. I think it could be a real community asset.”

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