Strasburg wants to avoid another ‘cedarless valley’

The town is considering new building regulations

By Alex Bridges

Strasburg could prevent another “cedarless valley” with new building rules under review, officials say.

The town hired Planning Works to create the Unified Development Ordinance — a combination of Strasburg’s zoning and subdivision regulations and other enforceable guidelines.

The firm continues to work with Economic Development and Planning Manager Kimberly Murray, other town staff, the Planning Commission and Town Council members to revise the regulations.

The staff met with Town Council for a work session Monday to update leaders on the revision efforts and to seek guidance along the way. Council voiced support for the proposed revisions to the development and permitting requirements aimed at streamlining the process for developers.

Murray presented the council with a chart showing the steps in the development process, suggested time each should take, the staff and elected or appointed bodies involved. Town Manager Judson Rex also answered questions.

The ordinance will help prepare the town for when development returns to Strasburg, Murray told council.

But at the end of the lengthy discussion, Councilman Scott Terndrup focused a question on one issue.

“What is it about the UDO [ordinance] that would prevent another Cedar Valley from happening?” Terndrup asked. “What would prevent a developer from coming in, pretty much ignoring the town and just going ahead and build, starting to put in infrastructure?”

Cedar Valley went from a proposed major development with promises of local revenue to an unfinished construction site along U.S. 11. Construction crews early on in the process destroyed most of the trees on the site, hence the name “cedarless valley” given by critics of the development. When the housing and construction market collapsed, the developer abandoned the project and left concrete pipes and other materials on the site.

Rex and Murray pointed to required steps in the ordinance. A development agreement would include an improvement guarantee for the infrastructure construction, associated site work and maintenance, Murray explained.

“That’s the formal agreement that’s going to follow these plans like Cedar Valley that says this, this and this and you will phase it,” Murray said.

Rex noted that the current town code doesn’t allow a developer to move forward on a project at its own risk. A developer that performs certain site work ahead of required approvals faces a civil penalty for violation of the town’s zoning regulations, Rex said, trying to belay Terndrup’s fears.

A few years ago Town Council adopted a new policy to require developers put up a bond on their projects in case work ceased before completion. The change came too late for the town to seek relief from the Cedar Valley project.

Councilman Rich Orndorff Jr. also voiced regret for the situation caused by Cedar Valley.

“Let’s face it: Nine elected officials knew what was happening out there, as did staff,” Orndorff said. “You can’t put the onus on any one person or any one committee. If somebody’s doing it, we need to ask the questions.”

Rex explained that at the time construction of Cedar Valley began, Shenandoah County issued an erosion and sediment control permit to the developer before the town staff had a chance to complete work to review and approve the required permits.

Rex and Murray advised council that the steps in the process as proposed would prevent that from recurring and further solidify the coordinated effort between the town and county to review and approve necessary permits for development.

But Councilwoman Sarah Mauck voiced concern with the process by which a developer can seek a variance to the town ordinances. Mauck said the town has had “a couple of bad, historic incidents with variances.” She wouldn’t give specific details but explained that after the property owner went through the process to receive a variance, and ultimately obtained one through the circuit court, the town has a home in an inappropriate place. She said this has happened at least twice before she joined council.

But as Rex explained, Town Council has no say on variance requests. A zoning administrator reviews the request. The applicant can appeal a denied request to the Board of Zoning Appeals, a body appointed by a circuit court judge. The circuit court remains the applicant’s last chance for an approval.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com