In what one Loudoun County supervisor recently called "a peculiar situation," a group of Sterling Park business owners have been paying the rent for offices used by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Department since 1981.

Although two supervisors last week questioned whether accepting free rent was proper, the board decided to continue discussing the matter on Jan. 7.

"I don't feel comfortable with the sheriff's office getting free rent . . . . I don't think that the sheriff's office should be beholden to anyone," Leesburg Supervisor Frank Raflo said at the board meeting.

Catoctin Supervisor Frank Lambert told his colleagues, "I am not really happy with the idea of 12 people picking up the rent for the sheriff's office. I think perhaps that is something that should be shared" by taxpayers.

In a telephone interview late last week, Lambert said, "I think it's kind of a peculiar situation. I think it ought to be normalized and they ought to pay the rent like anybody else. I don't like to think the sheriff is building protection in eastern Loudoun around free rent."

Raymond J. Hamrick, one of the 12 merchants at the Sterling Park Shopping Mall who have been paying the rent, said the merchants volunteered the rent-free offices, which the sheriff's department calls a substation, in order to have deputies nearby in case of emergencies. Merchants also believed that the uniformed officers would be a deterrent to loitering and other problems at the mall.

The merchants told a former Loudoun sheriff that they would provide the space if the sheriff's department would pay all costs other than rent, which the department agreed to do. The results of the move have been "outstanding," Hamrick said.

"As far as residents and businesses are concerned, they've just done an excellent job. It certainly accomplished its purpose . . . . It's one of the better investments we've ever made," Hamrick said.

But until recently the Board of Supervisors apparently was unaware that the merchants were making this kind of investment.

The matter came to the attention of several supervisors last month during the county's review of a special exception for a business at the mall. At that time Raflo expressed concern about the situation and said that the county should pay the rent.

The matter came up again last week during the supervisors' regular meeting while they were discussing Sheriff John Isom's request that the Criminal Investigations Bureau, now in the offices at the substation, be moved to a larger, centrally located office. The board voted that day to authorize advertising for bids on a new location for the bureau.

Isom, who inherited the situation when he was elected last fall, said he does not believe there is a conflict of interest involved in the situation.

He said that despite his plan to move the 10 investigators to a new office, he has no plans to remove deputies from Sterling. He said that the office was "intended for use of uniformed patrol officers," but that lack of space elsewhere caused the investigators to move into the substation, which uniformed patrol officers in the area also use for making telephone calls or filing reports.

Raflo and Lambert said last week that they will not press for a change in the rent payment situation. But Raflo said there is "a feeling on the board" that the matter should be investigated.

"The sheriff should not be under any obligation whatsoever by having a portion of his rent paid by a group, no matter how well intended," Raflo said.