In Purcellville, cherished for its small-town charm, passersby can stop at the Loudoun Valley Shopping Center off East Main Street and visit any number of homegrown businesses. Then they can take a short jaunt to the staples of suburban America: a McDonald's restaurant, a BP gas station, a Domino's Pizza.
That the town has become home to such chains is the reality of the present. It is the future that some people in Purcellville now want to keep in check.
In that spirit, Town Council member Robert W. Lazaro Jr. has asked the council to consider his proposal to amend the town's zoning ordinance to limit the by-right size of retail stores to 10,000 square feet. That would be far smaller than most big-box stores, such as a Wal-Mart or a Kmart, some of which include more than 100,000 square feet. Large retailers would not necessarily be kept out of Purcellville, but they would undergo more scrutiny from the town and be required to obtain a special-use permit to build.
Lazaro said he viewed the proposal as more of a "pro-small-business provision" than as a measure against large retailers. Still, he makes little effort to conceal his concerns about what he sees as the potential consequences of a big-box store.
"Purcellville is a little bit smaller than what Leesburg was 20 years ago," he said. "We don't need a Wal-Mart, Costco, Price Club in our community. It would do a lot of damage to the small-business community."
If the Purcellville Town Council approves the proposal, it will follow in the footsteps of several regional jurisdictions that have tightened controls on large retailers. In April, supervisors in Prince William County approved an ordinance that requires retailers that want to build free-standing stores of more than 80,000 square feet to gain permission first and meet a number of design, site and size restrictions. Alexandria requires stores larger than 20,000 square feet to get permission.
Purcellville officials and real estate agents say there is hardly any available commercial space in the area. A grocery store has vacated a large space at Loudoun Valley Shopping Center, and two small parcels just north of town are undeveloped. Overall, however, the site options for a large retailer would be extremely limited.
Lazaro said there was no reason to "wait until someone is at the doorstep." Some business owners agree. Linda Singer, owner of Final Draft Booksellers on North 21st Street, said it was not necessarily the competition that big-box stores could bring that worried her. Her main concern was how the feel of the town might change. She said she likes the more personable feel of smaller retailers. "Once you bring the big boxes in," she said, "it changes the community completely."
Purcellville happens to be the fastest-growing incorporated town in the fastest-growing county in the nation. But it remains a town of 21/2 square miles and just over 5,000 people.
Its size allows small-business owners opportunities they might not have elsewhere, said Robert Lauten, president of the Purcellville Business and Professional Association.
"I think a lot of people like that about the town, that there's still an opportunity for small businesses to get started and to get some air under their wings before they have intense competition," Lauten said.
Mike and Susan Parker, who opened Purcellville Computers in the Loudoun Valley Shopping Center, acknowledged that their business would be affected if an electronics store such as Circuit City or Best Buy opened in the center's vacant space. But they said Purcellville Computers would still offer customer service and a knowledge of products people couldn't find at a large retailer. They also noted that growth could lure more people to Purcellville to shop.
"There's no point in fighting the growth. It's here," said Mike Parker, who said he did not have a position on Lazaro's proposal.
Lazaro said he was interested in ensuring that small businesses thrive. Large retailers are not necessarily bad news for Purcellville, he said, but the town and its residents should have a chance to weigh in on the issue.
The Town Council and the Planning Commission plan to hold a public hearing on the proposal Aug. 5 at the town office.