By Alex Bridges
Strasburg leaders Tuesday reversed their stance on getting involved with an effort to protect a large piece of land in town.
Town Council voted 5-2 at its regular meeting to participate as a co-holder of a conservation easement in conjunction with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation for property known as the Island Farm. The action included the approval of a deed of partial gift and partial sale of the conservation easement, the supplement to the easement, and a memorandum of agreement between the town and the foundation.
The town has agreed to co-hold the easement on the 171.9-acre property owned by Doug Boyd and Madison Development. The easement allows for the construction of one dwelling on the entire property. The town and foundation will be responsible for enforcing the easement restrictions. Holding the easement does not obligate the town to spend money.
Council members Jocelyn Vena and John "Red" Hall Jr. voted against the motion. Hall said the town has too many issues and responsibilities on its plate to take on the easement. Councilman Robert Baker recused himself from the discussion and vote on the matter.
Councilman Rich Orndorff Jr. pointed out that the town annexed the land and zoned it for residential development. Housing construction on the site would prove more of a burden on the town, Orndorff said. The town would need to supply utilities to the site and provide police coverage for any development that arises on the property.
Orndorff recalled that years ago council chose not to annex the land years ago as a way to avoid covering the costs associated with development of the property. A council made up of different people chose to annex the land -- an action Orndorff called a mistake.
"I think this is an opportunity for this council to protect the scenic beauty of the Island Farm," Orndorff said.
Councilman Scott Terndrup thanked the foundation for coming to Town Council to find a co-holder for the easement.
Council spent about 40 minutes on the subject, hearing from Town Attorney Nathan Miller who explained the docment changes.
Councilman Donald Le Vine asked about the easement and how it relates to the town's responsibilities.
"I don't think the town should be involved in everything but I want to be sure we can protect our rights," Le Vine said.
Any owner or developer of the property must abide by the town's regulations, Miller explained. Also, the town would not need to act against a developer within a specific time should officials see construction or other disturbances take place on the property.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program serves as the primary source of funding for the easement purchase and must approve the final deed, according to information from foundation Conservation Director John Hutchison, who appeared at the meeting. Hutchison told council the federal agency has a 60-day commitment to provide the necessary funds for the effort once they receive the documents. Hutchison said he doesn't expect to take that long.
The foundation came back to council requesting its involvement in the easement after efforts to have the state Department of Historic Resources supposedly stalled.
However, the agency remains involved in the effort, according to information from Randall Jones, public information officer for the department. In an email Wednesday, Jones stated that the department has not yet made a decision on whether or not the agency will serve as a co-holder of the easement.
"Last month, the Historic Resources Board, the body that holds the easements, decided to defer on making a decision about the easement donation because the current easement proposal has multiple unresolved issues regarding ongoing stewardship of the property," Jones stated.
The easement has undergone several incarnations since the historic resources board approved the original plan in 2011.
"The easement has been among the more complicated or complex negotiations we have undertaken," Jones stated. "In that regard we can say it is certainly not a typical, straightforward easement."
At the same time, Jones noted that money through the Civil War Site Preservation fund remains available for the easement.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org