Nearly 40 western Loudouners turned out at a Oct. 12 public hearing to oppose plans to operate an events and banquets center at Catesby, perplexing supervisors.
If supervisors approve Michelle LaRose’s application to open an events and banquets center at her family’s property on Welbourne and Willisville Roads west of the Village of St. Louis, the family can hold 20 events each year at that property with up to 200 people at each and with at least a week in between.
But if supervisors turn down the application, the LaRoses can open what Loudoun rules call a bed and breakfast country inn without asking for permission from the board. Under the country inn designation, the property could host as many as 100 people every day of the year, and hold 20 events each year with no limit on the number of guests, and also have people spending the night, theoretically, up to 40 rooms every night. Michelle LaRose told the board if her application is not approved, “we fully intend to pursue other by-right uses.”
So why are residents across western Loudoun pushing against this self-limiting application so fiercely?
Thirty-five speakers from as nearby as next door and as far away as Bluemont spent a late night asking the board to turn down the Catesby Farm application, and many more signed a petition in opposition. The historic Catesby Farm property is in conservation easement and at the site of the Civil War Battle of Unison in 1862.
“This place still looks essentially like it did 150 years ago, and it was on these very fields that thousands of cavalry and infantry of the advance guard of General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac faced the guns and cavalry of General J.E.B. Stuart,” said Steven Chase president of the Unison Preservation Society.
“Controversial Catesby sits in the heart of an area so well preserved to date that a Civil War soldier, brought forward 154 years from the day he’d fought there on November 2, 1862, could recognize exactly where he stood,” said Richard Gillespie, executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area Association. The association is one of a number of historic preservation and conservation groups that have joined the opposition to the application.
Catesby Farm is also next to Willisville, a village founded by free blacks shortly after the Civil War.
“I can stand there and know that the blood, sweat, and tears of many people who endured the hardship of slavery, they initiated and bore fruit there,” said Kevin Grigsby, whose family traces its roots through Willisville. “I know that that ancestor who was a slave, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, that they started their journey there, in a place like Willisville.”
Grigsby is the author of “Howardsville: The Journey of an African American Community in Loudoun County, Virginia” and “From Loudoun to Glory,” which trace African-American history in Loudoun County during and after the Civil War.
The LaRoses have purchased two additional parcels, bringing their property holdings up to 241 acres, to provide access to the estate from Willisville Road without sending traffic down narrow Welbourne Road. The family doesn’t live on the property, and Stearns said they want the property to generate some income to pay for maintenance. The two new parcels are right next door to James Hennigan, who worries about event traffic going by his home.
“We thought since these farms were in easement that we were good, that nothing drastic was going to happen around us,” Hennigan said. “Not that I would consider this drastic, but certainly it’s going to be a huge interruption in our way of life.”
And Bill Ferster lives on a property next door, overlooking Catesby Farm.
“If they were really worried about making money, there are a lot of other ways to make money off this property,” Ferster said. “I don’t know what they’re up to, why they want to do it, that’s their business, but it’s an inappropriate use.”
Despite the potentially much busier prospect of a country inn over what the LaRoses are applying to do, residents around the area say a bed and breakfast or country inn would be more in keeping with the character of the area.
Donohue & Stearns attorney Frank Stearns, who is representing the LaRoses in the application, said the LaRoses recently inherited the property from their father and that “they are willing to limit themselves for the certainty of knowing they’ll be able to do it.”
“Let me just say, they tried from the beginning to have as minor impact on this neighborhood as they can, and that’s why they came forward with what they thought was a reasonable, limited proposal to help the people in the vicinity know that they were not trying to create an issue,” Stearns said. “And I must say, I am greatly surprised by the level of hostility that has arisen.
And a handful of people spoke out in support of the LaRoses.
“Scott [LaRose] is the type of neighbor I would like to have, and even if I didn’t know all that I know about Scott and his family, I would still support this,” said Paul Burkard, who said he has worked with the LaRoses for years. “He and his family, they’re good people.”
Even western supervisors, who have often opposed projects that threatened historic and scenic areas, seem baffled that residents are asking them to turn down the application, when the applicant has threatened to operate as a country inn if the application is denied.
“That use is much more intensive than what they’re proposing,” said Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin). “It defies logic for me that that’s what you would want, because you’re going to get worse. Now that’s just the way it is.”
And Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), whose district includes Catesby Farm and who has met with residents in the area, seemed surprised and perplexed.
“This is not what I was expecting tonight,” Buffington said during the public hearing.
Grigsby said either way, the county’s historic resources could suffer. He said on individual applications when the county counts its costs, it doesn’t always include its history in the discussion.
“I always have this fear that I’m going to be an old man at some point going before the Board of Supervisors talking about not allowing some massive subdivision to wipe out Howardsville or Willisville, because we don’t quite have the protections there,” Grigsby said. “The way county staff explains the impact of this or that, that historical impact isn’t part of the conversation.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to vote yet,” Buffington said. “We’re not there yet. I heard you loud and clear just now.”
Supervisors pushed the decision first to Nov. 17, but later to Dec. 6. The board will try not to meet Nov. 17.
“If we were going to move it, I didn’t want to move it sooner,” Buffington said. “I wanted to move it farther way to have more time to deal with the public and the applicant.”