Firehouse, new citizens group compete for water tower

The Manassas City Council voted this week to give the city’s 100-year-old water tower a six-month lease on life.

After the waiting period, the council will discuss again whether to demolish the locally iconic blue tower, which says “Welcome to Manassas” to motorists approaching the city’s historic center but requires costly upkeep and plays only a small part in the city’s modern water system.

Anticipating an upcoming need for costly repairs, the Water and Sewer Department has sought permission to tear down the tower, which processes only a tiny fraction of the city’s water but costs an estimated $10,000 per year to operate.

The Architectural Review Board contested the utility’s request, and it is now up to the council to determine whether the 1914 structure is worth saving for its historic merit. Residents have sent letters and started a 600-member Facebook group in an effort to convince the council of the tower’s significance to their city.

Now, Stephen Hersch, who has led the citizen effort, says that the group is moving beyond Facebook posts. He is leading an effort to incorporate a nonprofit organization that would purchase the tower from the city.


The Manassas water tower, built in 1914. (J.C. Reed/The Washington Post)

Hersch estimated that the group would have 25 to 30 members initially, and would need to raise $7,000 to $10,000 per year for maintenance on the tower, although it would no longer be a functional part of the city’s water system.

He said he thought the city would sell the tower and the land beneath it for a “de minimis” price, because the nonprofit organization would spare the city the cost of demolishing the tower.

But Manassas Mayor Harry Parrish II said that the council has had no discussions about the price they would ask for the tower or the land. “Literally, there have been no discussions, to my knowledge, at least by the council, about what they would want to sell it for,” he said.

Parrish said he supported the six-month postponement, which council member J. Steven Randolph said he proposed to allow the council to further study the issue, in part because it would allow the nonprofit group to determine whether it could raise money for the tower.

“The one thing you don’t want to do is turn it over to someone that doesn’t have the wherewithal to maintain it properly,” he said.

The city’s fire department has also expressed interest in the land that the tower sits on, which is adjacent to a fire station. The city’s fire chief has asked for public support for demolition of the tower so that the station can have the land for training ground or a possible expansion of the firehouse.

Parrish said that one citizen wrote him an e-mail asking whether he would recuse himself from voting on the issue because he is a lifetime member of the fire and rescue service. He said he would not but that he would disclose his ties to the fire department before the discussion when it next comes before the council.

He said that he would have the fire department’s request in mind when he considers the best use for the land.

“If we leave the water tower there, we may be absolutely shortsighted with regard to the future of our fire and rescue department,” Parrish said. “That’s a key piece of information that many people are forgetting.”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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