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Posted at 2:47 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Leesburg out-of-towners gain Loudoun board's support on water, sewer charges

By Caitlin Gibson

Despite objections by the Leesburg Town Council, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to support state legislation that would protect out-of-town Leesburg utility customers from disproportionate water and sewer rate charges.

The Virginia Senate bill, introduced in the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 21 by Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) and state Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), seeks to provide a permanent solution to a years-long battle over utility rates charged by Leesburg to customers located outside the town.

In a 6-2 vote, with Supervisors Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg) opposed and Supervisor Susan Klimek Buckley (D-Sugarland Run) absent, the board supported Senate Bill 1475. It would require that the board approve any proposed increase in the percentage difference between utility rates charged to in-town Leesburg customers and rates charged to out-of-town customers. The bill would not prevent Leesburg from increasing utility rates and fees, but would necessitate board approval for any increase in the percentage differential beyond that established as of Jan. 1.

Delgaudio and Burk both argued that the county should avoid involvement in the matter and respect Leesburg's authority.

"Just remember how often the board complains about how Richmond takes away our power," Burk said. "Remember what it feels like and how frustrated we feel when it happens to us."

Burk also echoed concerns raised by Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd, who e-mailed to Herring, May and the Board of Supervisors, arguing that the bill was not well-written and would likely have negative legal and financial repercussions for Leesburg and the county.

Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin), who proposed the motion to support the bill, defended the legislation and said it seemed fair that if the Leesburg Town Council wanted to increase the rate differential affecting out-of-town residents, "then they need to come to the table with people who represent out-of-town folks also."

The vote followed a well-attended public hearing where several utility customers from communities outside Leesburg appealed to the board to support the legislation. Members of the Leesburg Town Council - which voted unanimously to oppose the bill on Jan. 25 - asked the board to respect their local authority.

Leesburg Town Council Member David S. Butler asked that the board give the town more time to arrive at its own solution.

"The Town Council right now is working on a number of initiatives to try to address these concerns by the out-of-towners," he said. Supporting the bill would work against finding a solution by "re-politicizing the environment."

The bill is premature, he argued. "Give us a chance to work through these solutions. This is the first chance we've had."

But his appeal was punctuated by disapproving mumblings from several residents among the crowd. As Butler stepped away from the podium, one woman said, "You've had six years."

Paul Kohl, a resident of Lansdowne, said that during the last six years he has spent more than $14,000 on water for basic needs such as laundry, bathing and watering his lawn. He asked that the board give the out-of-town utility customers a voice.

"The bills that I've seen as a father of four in my household over the last six years are just astronomical, and I look for some support from the board so that I have some recourse for the rate structure that I've been under for that long," he said.

The legal battle between Leesburg and out-of-town customers began in 2006, when a group of out-of-town utility customers responded to a soaring 100 percent surcharge on water and sewer bills by filing suit against Leesburg. The Loudoun County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the out-of-town customers in 2009 and banned the Leesburg ordinance. The town appealed the decision, which was then overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court last November.

By Caitlin Gibson  | February 1, 2011; 2:47 PM ET
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