No compromise yet in confusion over renaming Virginia Route 7 in Purcellville

The town of Purcellville asked Virginia for and was granted permission to change the name of a short stretch of Virginia Route 7 to Billy Pierce Memorial Pike, honoring a famous local dancer turned choreographer. But the Loudoun County fire chief expressed concerns that the change might cause confusion to first responders.

Tuesday evening, Loudoun County fire Chief Keith Johnson told the Purcellville town council that changing the name of Route 7 for the two-mile stretch through the town of Purcellville would cause confusion for police and other emergency responders.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the Purcellville Town Council was scheduled to vote on a compromise that could untangle the apparent oversight, which prompted the Loudoun County Administrator to threaten to ask the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board to reverse the name-change permission it granted the town one week earlier.

Under the compromise, described by Town Manager David Mekarski, the town could ask VDOT to approve the installation of a memorial sign and dedication of the town’s portion of Leesburg Pike after Pierce, in lieu of officially renaming it.

However, Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser tabled the issue during Tuesday’s meeting, in hopes of gathering more information, before the next council meeting on April 12.

At Fraser’s request, Johnson said he and county officials would research whether Loudoun County’s computer-aided dispatch system could integrate a compound name, along the lines of “Leesburg Pike (Billy Pierce Memorial Pike).”

The road to renaming two of Northern Virginia’s main commuter routes has been a long one.

The Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) voted on Feb. 15 to approve Loudoun County’s request to restore the historic names of Route 7 and U.S. Route 50 to Leesburg Pike and Little River Turnpike, respectively.

Route 7 had previously been called Harry Byrd Highway, named in 1968 for the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator, who opposed school desegregation.

Route 50 was previously known as John Mosby Highway, adopted in 1982 to honor the Confederate commander during the Civil War.

However, on March 15, the CTB also adopted a resolution from the town of Purcellville to rename its stretch of Route 7 to Billy Pierce Memorial Pike.

In its request to the state agency, Purcellville said the famous dancer and choreographer had been born in Purcellville in 1890.

“William Joseph Pierce (a.k.a. Billy Pierce) was an African American choreographer, dancer and dance studio owner who was credited with the invention of the Black Bottom dance that became a national craze in the mid-1920s,” the request states.

The town of Purcellville, Virginia, had hoped to name its stretch of Route 7 after famous choreographer Billy Pierce. (Courtesy Balch Library)

On March 17, Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet sent an email to Mekarski saying, “Loudoun County does not support this action, as it will negatively affect the safe and efficient delivery of public safety services.”

“This name change would not take place at an easily identifiable geographic feature such as an intersection, but at jurisdictional boundaries, on or near overpasses. The change in street name at a jurisdictional boundary will be confusing to 911 callers, who may be unaware of the name change and provide incorrect information when calling for emergency services,” Hemstreet said.

Hemstreet said Purcellville did not collaborate with county officials or staff on the proposed name change. Additionally, the county had not set aside funding to support new signs.

“The county intends to immediately petition the Commonwealth Transportation Board to reverse its decision to approve the request of the Town of Purcellville to name a portion of RT. 7 as Billy Pierce Memorial Pike and request that the entirety of RT. 7 within the county be named Leesburg Pike,” according to Hemstreet’s email to Mekarski.

Tuesday, Mekarski told the council he and Hemstreet had discussed options in a virtual meeting, attended by staff members, with Hemstreet suggesting the compromise measure, which was placed on Tuesday’s agenda for a vote.

However, after hearing Mekarski and Johnson’s compromise, Fraser said the issue would not be voted upon immediately, until hearing from Johnson whether including Pierce’s name in the jurisdiction’s computer-aided dispatch system was feasible.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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