The ‘Davis Church’ Battle of 2016

150 years after the end of the Civil War, a classic battle is playing out silently in Sterling. On one side: citizens devoted to preserving relics of the past. On the other: property owners wanting to make better use of a valuable piece of land.

You know the old Methodist church on Davis Road ‐‐ coming East on Church Road, it’s on your right as you wait for the first stop light after Rte 28. We pass it twice every day. It was once beautiful but has been neglected for decades.

The church was one of two that gave Church Road its name back in the 1860s. Back then, the W&OD Railroad tried to bring passenger service to “Guilford” as this part of Sterling was then called. The Civil War made that temporarily impossible. The other church (2 blocks East) was, until recently, a Baptist Church. It’s now Ethiopian Orthodox.

In the 1980s, the congregation grew too large for the structure and moved to a new, nearby location. This left a significant part of the history of Guilford in the hands of a private owner.
For decades, we’ve watched and admired the Davis Rd church and hoped something good would happen to it. On December 1, 2015, the Young Group brought to the Loudoun County Planning Commission a plan to buy the one‐acre lot and the church, tear it down, and replace it with a massive (89,000 square foot), five‐floor “mini‐storage” facility.

The average home is 2400 square feet. This storage facility would be thirty seven (37) times larger! The property is zoned C1 under Loudoun County’s 1972 Zoning Ordinance. The ordinance says that building “indoor warehousing storage” requires a Special Exception (or “SPEX”). To get a SPEX, the Planning Commission must first make a recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The BZA has final authority to grant the SPEX. (The Supervisors – our elected officials – are not involved.)

By the way, the owner of the church can legally tear it down at any time. No law prevents that. The Department of Historic Resources looked at the church a few years ago and decided that the surrounding area had been too neglected for them to consider the church.
In the Commissioners’ first meeting on December 15, several members of the community spoke out in favor of preserving the church. Several Commissioners made statements in favor of preserving the church. The Board decided not to approve or deny the plan but to discuss it in a January 12, 2016 “Worksession”.

The Commissioners discussed ways to partially preserve the church. One idea was to cut the church in half, discard the back half and move the church’s front half to the back of the lot. The idea was to refurbish the church down to the original boards, leaving the church open on the back side. This concept came to be called the “Pocket Park”.
After the Commissioners’ meeting, a group called “Save the Historic Church Road Methodist Church” formed. The group organized primarily on Facebook with the goal of building a grass‐roots movement to keep the church intact.

Then, something interesting happened. Loudoun County has 9 Supervisors – one for each of the 8 districts and one “at large”. Each Supervisor appoints a Planning Commissioner. Several Supervisors were voted out in November 2015, so four of the Commissioners were replaced. This included Sterling commissioner Helena Syska, who strongly supported preserving the church while respecting property rights.
The “Save the Church” group hosted a meeting of concerned citizens to discuss alternatives. Koran Saines, the newly elected Sterling District Supervisor asserted himself at this meeting, possibly because he had not yet chosen his Commissioner. The meeting was largely informational. Various ideas and problems were considered but there no clear strategy emerged.

After the meeting, Mr. Saines contacted the Young Group. Together, they decided that the “Pocket Park” made sense. Mr. Saines then called a second, brief meeting, again hosted by “Save the Church”, to present the Pocket Park idea. The only other alternative discussed was to disassemble the church and store it. (Most of the attendees identified themselves as members of the Sterling Foundation, an organization chiefly known for maintaining the Sterling Boulevard grass.) In a hasty show of hands, the majority chose Mr. Saines’ “Pocket Park”. However, the “Save the Church” members strongly disliked the Pocket Park idea and vowed to continue working to save the church in its entirety.

The Commissioners’ worksession was delayed to January 19, 2016 because the new Commissioners needed an “orientation” on 1/12. The “Save‐the‐Church” group then produced a video showing how the storage facility would look. They released the video with a passionate plea asking people to tell their Commissioners to deny the SPEX.

But the Sterling Supervisor quickly countered the plea online, claiming that the Developers could build the storage facility without permission – a “By‐Right” use. (Of course, this is not true – they require a SPEX.) The statement then said that the Developers are doing a favor by offering to build the Pocket Park. This effectively killed the grass‐roots movement
On January 19, the new Planning Commission met, with Dan Lloyd now representing Sterling. Mr. Lloyd put forth the storage‐facility/Pocket‐Park plan. The Commission voted 7‐2 to recommend the plan to the BZA.

A group of citizens formed a preservation committee whose initial goal was to legitimize and focus the “Save the Church” group. Initially the “Sterling Historical and Heritage Preservation Committee” (SHHPC) under the Sterling Foundation, the group is now independent, calling itself “Save Old Sterling” (SOS). SOS’s broader mission is to preserve and/or restore what remains of the history of Guilford, Sterling and the surrounding area.

Using print and online media, the SOS worked to get its members and other citizens to contact the BZA, asking them to reject the plan outright or require the Developers to include the disposition of the church in its plans. The SOS believed it was possible to find a suitable, permanent, nearby site to accept the church and to work with the Developers to move (or worst case, disassemble and store) the church.

On February 25, 9 citizens spoke passionately at the BZA public hearing. However, this was not sufficient to persuade the panel. In a 3-to-2 vote, the SPEX was granted. The panel felt that the Developer had met all legal qualifications for the SPEX and that the BZA was not charged with what happens to the church.

SOS has vowed to continue the fight.