Strasburg department homeless as building evacuated

By Alex Bridges

A Strasburg department vacated its space for safety reasons this week after experts found problems with the building.

Town Manager Judson Rex said Thursday the building that houses the Department of Public Works next to the Wastewater Treatment Plant does not face imminent collapse. But, acting on engineers’ recommendations, officials vacated the building out of “an abundance of caution,” Rex told Town Council at a special meeting called by Mayor Tim Taylor.

“Based on all available resources and information, I’ve decided that in an abundance of caution, we need to begin managing access and use of the building on a very strict basis,” Rex said. “The information that we have does not say this is going to collapse tomorrow and that if we were to maintain operations as is that something detrimental and catastrophic is going to happen.”

Department workers currently have only limited access to the 5,000-square-foot building. Rex said workers turned in their keys to the building.

The situation now leaves the town with the task of finding a temporary home for the department until the new facility in the North Shenandoah Industrial and Business Park is completed. Town officials have not come up with an estimated cost for a temporary home because they are still considering options. These alternatives may include office trailers, vacant buildings, the former Water Treatment Plant office space and areas in Town Hall, Rex said.

“Our focus right now is on the safety of the employees, making sure that were not putting them in a hazardous work environment,” Rex said.

Council members gave numerous specific suggestions the town may consider for the department. Councilman Rich Orndorff Jr. and other members agreed that officials took the right steps.

“What’s prudent is get them out of the building,” Orndorff said.

Rex showed photographs of the building that showed cracks in the cinder-block walls, one that stretches from top to bottom and another visible above the main entrance. As Rex pointed out, the cracks not only run along some of the seams but also through many of the blocks. A wider crack in the block wall is visible from inside the building. Cracks indicate the wall is bowing in, Rex said.

Concerns over the building arose in January when a beam in the attached salt shed broke, likely as a result of heavy snowstorms, Rex said. This wasn’t a major concern at the time and the town made the necessary repair. But the break did prompt town officials to look closer at the building itself. The town first hired Structural Concepts Inc., out of Winchester, to study all the department buildings, Rex said.

“They reported many deficiencies in the building and the recommendation that the building be vacated and not used until repairs are made,” Rex told council.

Structural Concepts based its report on some assumptions about building construction methods, Rex said. At this point, town officials saw the need to get a second opinion and hired Alpha Corporation out of Winchester to study the building. The firm provided a draft of its report to the town earlier this week. But even in draft form, the report backed up concerns officials had with the building, Rex said.

The cinder-block structure, built in the mid-1990s, houses the department’s administrative functions, serves as a storage area for materials and includes garage bays for equipment. Town staff at the time constructed the building. Rex pointed out that the building was neither engineered nor designed by an architect.

In the past day or so, town officials investigated whether or not the building walls were reinforced with steel, as is often the case with cinder block construction. Tests determined that none of the walls are reinforced. As Rex explained, the cracks are a symptom of cinder-block walls that are not reinforced.

Councilman Richard Redmon asked if the foundation has failed. Rex said the town doesn’t know the composition of the foundation. The investigation also discovered a wooden beam in the break room in place to support the floor joists appear to be taking on more weight that designed to handle and is buckling. There is also little extra support around a garage door to help it withstand high winds.

Town officials and Strasburg’s engineer, William Johnson, discussed the matter and reached out to more resources in the past day, Rex recalled. Virginia Municipal League Insurance covers the building for Strasburg and recommended the town vacate the facility and transition to another space. Town Attorney Nathan Miller told officials Thursday that, from a legal position, they took the right course by obtaining a second opinion, Rex said.

Shenandoah County Building Official Michael Dellinger visited the site on Thursday. Dellinger’s inspection report recommended the town have engineers look at the building. Town officials also reached out to staff members who may have been involved in the construction of the building who confirmed that the structure was not reinforced.

Town officials had planned to reuse the department building for the Wastewater Treatment Plant, possibly saving some money in the expansion project. That now remains uncertain, given the structural issues.

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