The Commissioner — Spring 2009

Commission Profile

Purcellville, Virginia

Residents see the planning commission as a way for their voice and views to be heard," says Mike Reles, vice chair of the Purcellville Planning Commission. "We try to give townspeople regular opportunities by holding public input sessions and charrettes in addition to our regular meetings."

The seven-member commission serves primarily in an advisory capacity to the town council. "We will approve site plans but make recommendations on annexations, rezonings, and special use permits," says Reles. "When it comes to ordinance changes, we recommend, but the council makes the final determination." 

Planning commissioners are appointed by the town council to four-year terms. There is no term limit. The only requirement for service is to be a resident of Purcellville, "but the council likes to have people from different neighborhood associations," Reles explains.

A diversity of backgrounds and experiences also is important, says Tom Priscilla, a town council member who also serves on the commission. "We have a builder, someone from the real estate industry, a fellow who is involved in parks and recreation, an architect, someone who works for a federal agency dealing with drug and substance abuse, and an engineer. In the past we've had a teacher and someone with the environmental industry."

The planning commission meets the first and third Thursdays of each month. Members receive a $150 monthly stipend; the chair gets $175. The planning department provides information packets to each member the Friday prior to the meeting. "Right now we are doing it physically, though they'd like it done electronically," says Martha Mason Semmes, AICP, the town's director of planning and zoning. "Once we get a new scanner, we're hoping to be able to put out agendas and background information via email."

Members new to the commission receive training from the Citizens Planning Education Association of Virginia. "It's mandatory that you graduate, that you become a certified community [volunteer] planner," says Priscilla.

"We try to provide all the members with opportunities for training," says Semmes. "We make sure the dollars are in the budget. We also subscribe to planning commissioners publications."

While commissioners historically have not done a lot of site tours, Semmes said there have been discussions recently about doing so. "They have talked about wanting to take a guided bus tour around town with the transportation consultant to compare future plans for cross sections with what's there now. Will it fit? Will it take people's front yards?"

In addition to its monthly meetings, planning commissioners attend other meetings. Reles, for example, serves as the commission's representative to the town's Committee on the Environment. "The neat thing about the planning commission is that you're ahead of the curve, looking at things you hope will happen," says Reles. "With other positions in town you're managing what is."

To those considering serving on a planning commission, Priscilla offers this advice: "Hold fellow members accountable to your standards, come prepared and be knowledgeable about the applicable ordinances and the comprehensive plan, speak your mind but respect those with a different approach to problem solving, and, after a vote, move on."

Retaining that Small-Town Charm

One of Washington, D.C.'s fastest growing suburbs, the Town of Purcellville is focused on maintaining its small-town flavor. The extension of the Dulles Toll Road and improvements to Route 7 have helped drive up the town's population from 1,500 to about 6,000.

The town, west of Leesburg, Virginia, encompasses just under three square miles of land. It is home to four Loudon County elementary schools, two middle schools, and a high school. "When school is in session we have more students in Purcellville than we do residents," says Mike Reles.

Following the settlement of a lawsuit, brought by the town, a second high school is to be built. Traffic impacts as well as water and sewer remain a concern, Reles says. "How do we provide the infrastructure for that much public use? We work hard to create a small-town look and feel and that's stretched a bit by the addition of public facilities."

On the upside, the new school will provide additional jobs. "And with schools come a lot of hometown-type events and sports, something we do well in Purcellville," Reles says.

A third of the population is under age 19, so the commission has involved young people in planning, says Tom Priscilla. "The mayor, planning director, and I went and met with over 400 high school students. We gave them an overview, handed out questionnaires, and talked with them to get their input on what our needs are." Open space and a Taco Bell were tops on the list.

"One of the most popular classes is environmental science, which makes use of the stream," says Priscilla. "So we revised an ordinance for a stream buffer to provide additional protection. One property owner put 11 acres in easement to preserve it for the kids and school."

An attempt to bring a Taco Bell to town created some controversy. After much debate, the commission in March recommended approval of a special exception that would allow for a drive-thru Taco Bell. Eleven conditions were attached, including one that would limit operating hours. "We allow fast food [restaurants]," says Priscilla, "but those larger than 4,000 square feet or a drive-thru require a special use permit."

"Several of the conditions were designed to protect the adjoining neighborhood," adds Martha Mason Semmes. "Another called for the use of compatible materials ... so we're assuming it'll be brick. It still has to go through the board of architectural review."

Looking forward, the commission continues to update the comprehensive plan. "We're about two years into the last revision and we're currently working on one-year items such as improving our environmental regulations, adding parks and bike lanes, and completing the connectivity of pedestrian walkways," says Reles.

The commission also is looking at commercial and residential zoning districts to make sure they are in conformance with the plan, said Semmes. "They were really out of date. In one place it still referred to blacksmith shops."

As its agricultural base diminishes, Semmes says, Purcellville has the challenge of accepting this change without losing its historic identity and small town charm.