In Split Vote, Purcellville Council Halts Historic District Plan

A divided Purcellville Town Council on Tuesday night killed the proposed Historic District Preservation Overlay Zone that was proposed by the Planning Commission as a tool to discourage demolition of buildings deemed to have historic significance. 

Following a public hearing on the proposal last month, the council had been expected to approve a plan to update the 2006 survey that identified 283 properties that were designated as having structures of historical significance but were located outside the town’s Historic Corridor Overlay District. The intent was to address one of the most common public criticisms of the plan by confirming that the targeted properties still met the qualifications to be viewed and protected as historic structures.

However, proceeding with that study failed to find majority support. Four council members said the proposed overlay district lacked public support to make it a priority for the town. 

Updating the Department of Historic Resources survey before enacting new anti-demolition regulations was pushed Councilman Tip Stinnette, who said it was important to confirm which buildings should be designated as contributing to the historic district. Failing to do so, he said, would equate to legislative malpractice and leave the new ordinance venerable to legal challenges. 

Initially, the new survey was expected to reexamine the 283 properties that had been identified as significant in 2006. However, the town staff said a broader survey should be conducted to determine whether other buildings in the protection zone have come to meet the qualifications during the past 16 years. That would be another 193 properties. The staff estimated the cost of the surveys at $150 per property. 

Stinnette said he supported the effort to discourage demolition of historic homes but, in the end, did not feel that spending money on the survey and devoting more time to hone the proposed regulations was a top town priority.

Councilman Stanley J. Milan Jr., the council’s liaison to the commission, said the survey could be done quickly and urged the council not to pull the plug on the project after eight months of Planning Commission work. 

He initially made a motion to conduct a survey of the 193 properties not currently included in the overlay zone, but Mayor Kwasi Fraser said he opposed adding any of those immediately, suggesting instead they be addressed in a second phase survey.

Milan then moved to fund a resurvey of the 283 properties currently proposed for the district to determine whether any of them should be excluded because of a change in their condition.

Town Manager David Mekarski and Town Attorney Sally Hankins to recommend all 476 properties be surveyed to ensure all properties were treated equally in the district, providing a stronger legal standing for the effort.

As it became clear a majority of the council either opposed the concept of the overlay district or did not support spending money on the survey effort, members discussed postponing a vote or conducting a poll of residents to gain more input. 

Without reaching agreement on any other option, Councilman Joel Grewe moved to end consideration of the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. That passed on a 4-3 vote. 

Grewe was joined by councilmembers Erin Rayner, Mary Jane Williams and Stinnette in voting to end work on the ordinance. Milan, Fraser and Vice Mayor Christopher Bertaut opposed the motion.

The meeting also featured complaints by the Planning Commission on the conduct of the council and staff and complaints about the Planning Commission by public speakers and council members. 

Planning Commission Chairwoman Nan Joseph Forbes charged that the panel was not adequately consulted by the council or the town staff on the final round of debate on how to implement the program. The commission presented its own recommendations after objecting to elements of the report developed by the town staff. She said there was a pattern of the commission not being consulted or receiving information too late to provide meaningful input to the council.

Meanwhile, speakers from the public voiced objections to comments made by commission members during a recent meeting that were dismissive of concerns raised by critics of the overlay district plan, suggesting they were based on misinformation or part of a coordinated opposition effort that did not represent the position of most town residents. 

Some council members agreed that the commissioners’ comments were out of line. 

“All citizens, no matter how much I disagree with your perspective, are always welcome there. I want to hear,” Grewe said.

Rayner said the commission, in its zealous advocacy for the district, appeared to have lost its objectivity and public trust. “This ordinance has become personal for the commission. They have moved from a body of advisors to activists and that is not their role,” she said.

As proposed by the Planning Commission, the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone would have included lots with buildings deemed to have historic value that are located outside the town’s existing Historic Corridor Overlay District. Those properties include buildings listed or eligible for listing on the national or state historic registers or deemed a local landmark as designated by the Town Council.

After its initial proposal sparked controversy during a public hearing last July, the commission worked to provide a balance between efforts to preserve the historic character of town and the rights of property owners. Among the changes were to exempt accessory buildings, such as sheds, from the new requirements; and to attempt to make less onerous the requirement that any building in the protection zone planned for demolition first be offered for sale to buyers who would preserve it. Specifically, if the town’s Board of Architectural Review denies a demolition permit for a principal structure within the overlay zone, the property owner may still raze the building if it first has been offered for sale for six months—less than the maximum 12-month allowance permitted by state code.

4 thoughts on “In Split Vote, Purcellville Council Halts Historic District Plan

  • 2022-03-10 at 2:13 pm
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    I can’t keep up with everybody’s politics. I’m just glad Purcellville is paying attention to its wonderful historic structures. No one expects P-ville to remain frozen in the past. But everything reasonable should be done to maintain the historic character of this great town. Happy Women’s History Month Loudoun!

  • 2022-03-13 at 8:04 am
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    Once the overlay is in place, the maintenance ordinances follow, and have fun with the extra costs and fighting if you want to put on an addition or add something your neighbor doesn’t like.

  • 2022-03-13 at 11:15 am
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    If you have followed this and a lot of the other issues going on in Purcellville, you are aware there seems to be some shady things and out of touch politicians and committee members in town. They seem to be looking out for personal agendas and not the people they represent. They need to do something about water rates, getting way out of hand and only going to get worse.

  • 2022-03-14 at 4:50 am
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    Thank goodness another of the behind the curtain efforts of the out of control Planning Commission to institute government control over residents was defeated.

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