Strasburg approves first-floor apartments downtown

STRASBURG — The Town Council decided Tuesday to allow first-floor apartments in downtown Strasburg.

In a 4-3 vote, council members decided that allowing business owners to apply to the town for ground-floor apartments would give businesses an incentive to move to downtown Strasburg. Council Member Don LeVine compared the decision to a tax break, saying that this would give business owners a reason to come to Strasburg, where commercial businesses have often struggled to make a profit.

“If we don’t do something, I guess we don’t get the businesses,” LeVine said.

But other members of the council were more skeptical.

Council member Kim Bishop, a critic of the town’s unified development ordinance, said she opposed the measure partly because it gives the council the final say on whether or not a business can have an apartment on the first floor. Under the provision, businesses in downtown Strasburg have to apply for a special use permit with the town in order to be allowed to have a ground floor apartment.

Businesses in downtown Strasburg are required to have commercial ground floors but can have residential apartments upstairs.

“I complain about the [unified development ordinance] a lot,” Bishop said. “But it’s not about the rules that are in it, it’s that the rules can be changed whenever. And I actually like the idea of having the ground floor as commercial and the upstairs residential.”

Councilman Seth Newman stated that he supports the town’s use of special use permits. But he still opposed the measure, saying that developers are likely to abuse the rules and turn as much of their buildings into residential apartments as they can.

“I do like that review process,” Newman said, of the special use permits. “What I don’t like about it in this instance is that there’s just all kinds of room for misuse, in my opinion.”

But other council members supported the decision to allow ground-floor apartments upon the town’s approval. Barbara Plitt  said she thought it made sense to approve the apartments on a case-by-case basis.

Under a previous version of the provision, businesses would have been able to have ground-floor apartments without applying for a special use permit if they had a certain amount of space on their ground floor allocated for commercial purposes. But council members were concerned that those provisions were too arbitrary.

While town officials decided against prescribing conditions where downtown business owners would automatically get town approval for ground-floor apartments, they nonetheless decided that the new measure was necessary.

Michelle Bixler, the town’s economic development and marketing manager, said people struggle to make a profit in downtown.

“I would love to say (only) commercial on the first floor, but it has to be viable” for businesses, Bixler said.