Strasburg planning head looks forward to keeping the past

John Settle

STRASBURG — John Settle has served as Strasburg’s planning and zoning administrator for less than a month after working as an environmental planner and code compliance officer for Middlesex County. That shift, from one county government to another, has meant that he has had to adjust to learning new codes and regulations.

Knowing those regulations is a core part of his job.  Settle said that so far he’s been responsible for doing administrative work and responding to violations of the town’s code and development ordinance.

“It’s like going from one country to another,” Settle said of the shift. “The people are inherently similar; it’s just the little things that are different.”

But Settle said that the change has also allowed him to use his background in historic preservation.

Settle said that he received his bachelors degree from the University of Mary Washington in historic preservation and received a graduate certificate as a certified public historian during his time as a master’s student in urban and regional planning at Virginia Tech.

Settle said he never dealt with architectural review boards  or with historic preservation in Middlesex County, relegating his love for history to the status of a hobby.

“The only district in Middlesex County was in the town of Urbana, and they did their own zoning, so we didn’t really deal with one,” Settle said.

But Settle said that he kept his passion for history while at Middlesex County.

“I never forgot history or historic preservation,” Settle said. “It’s still my first love.”

Now, Settle has the chance to have his say on how buildings in Strasburg’s historic district get preserved.

Settle said that he thinks that Strasburg’s historic district is well preserved.

“Of all the historic districts that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot in Virginia, this is for a valley and ridge town, a very well-preserved example,” Settle said. “Others have been decimated through the merciful steamroller.”

Settle also spoke about what he sees as the role of historic preservation in a town.

Pointing to Virginia Beach, where he lived from the age of about 6 to the end of his high school days, Settle said that historic preservation can bring about economic benefits to a town.

“Coming from Virginia Beach, I grew up in an area where in the 1960s, had a higher concentration of pre-revolutionary war structures than anywhere else in the United States except for Colonial Williamsburg,” Settle said. “By 1970, there were only four left. Ten years, and they basically destroyed what could have been an outstanding money-making opportunity.”

But Settle also described historic preservation as a way of maintaining the character and culture of a town.

“You can look at a place like downtown Strasburg, and you know that it’s Strasburg,” Settle said. “Whether you’ve been there one day or you’ve lived there your whole life, you’ll know, you’ll remember it. That was Strasburg.

“However, you get out on the highway or you get out on [I-81] and you get off on an exit and you’re standing at a strip mall, you won’t know where you are,” Settle added. “You just know that you’re in an area where there’s business.”