WOODSTOCK – The Citizens Advisory Committee has waded into addressing the future of housing in Shenandoah County, asking the question of whether the county truly is a rural one.
Members of the committee, who were appointed by the Board of Supervisors to advise them on revisions to the county’s comprehensive plan, took their time Wednesday evening working through their suggestions for shaping Chapter 4, which covers principles and goals for economic development in the county. Committee Chairman Vito Gentile said work on Chapter 6, which addresses housing, will likely take up to 18 months.
County Planner Tyler Hinkle said before any discussions take place that the committee had to address what kind of identity the county wants to have. Housing, Hinkle said, will have massive impacts on that identity.
In 2008, the committee adopted a lengthy definition of what the county’s rural identity meant. Conditions included “clean edges to villages and towns,” and “[s]uburban development patterns are not present, but rather, low-density residential development persists.”
Hinkle suggested the county is not actually rural as the committee laid out 11 years ago.
“If we are rural, what is suburban?” Hinkle asked the committee. “[Suburban] is typically seen as the antithesis of rural. Sometimes you may call it urban … yet suburban has been the main priority to prevent in the county.”
Despite resistance to adopting a suburban identity, the county has played into the hands of suburban planning — design focused for and around the use of a car. Hinkle shocked committee members when he referred to census data to show how much time the average person from each of the towns spends in the car driving to and from work each year.
Woodstock residents blew away the rest of the county, spending more than 75 days a year driving to and from work. Strasburg residents were a distant second, clocking more than 30 days of driving every year.
The size of the county won’t allow for the elimination of vehicles, but Hinkle said the committee could start to shape a conversation that focuses on building walkable communities that contain amenities that will draw people to them.
In the past, Hinkle said, the problem has been that “walkable” communities didn’t have anything residents wanted to walk to. The committee could suggest some options and provide some vision for the supervisors to consider implementing to the 2025 plan.
Instead of continuing down a road of the erosion of its rural identity, Hinkle suggested the committee insert into its plan a vision for an urban future in the county. Urban, Hinkle said, does not mean the county will look like New York or San Francisco, but it will create communities where people live.
“Urban doesn’t exactly mean skyscrapers,” Hinkle said. “ It means it allows people to meet from different backgrounds who would not otherwise be able to meet without the use of a car.”
Hinkle suggested the committee consider a wide range of alternative community plans, zoning requirements and code suggestions that would offer the county more power over how development happens. The plan, Hinkle said, could include stricter zoning codes that would force developers to build in line with the county's vision rather than having total control.
Regardless of how strict zoning ordinances may become with a more binding comprehensive plan, the use of currently owned land is still up to those who own it, committee members said.
Committee member Peggy Boston said the group should consider what members think the focus of the housing chapter of the comprehensive plan should address. They could suggest the county focus on current needs and maintaining a population similar to what it has had in the past. Or, she said, they could start the process of looking outward and weigh different avenues of how to attract new blood.
Gentile said he thought having a vision was a good idea but the conversation about housing had to start with the basics — what kind of housing does the county have and what kind does it need to develop? What are the current needs of the county?
“I think we need to start with something that uses the same footprint [as the current chapter],” Gentile said. “What is our inventory? What is our population? Where are there shortfalls?
“Whether we get into a vision of other opportunities in the county, that I think will evolve,” he continued. “But I think we need to start with something more basic.”
After the meeting, Hinkle said he thought it was important for the committee and the plan to emphasize a vision for the county once all of the basic information is addressed.
The committee is a deliberative body that takes things slow, Hinkle said, and that was why he wanted to start talking about what could happen and where the conversation could go early on. He said he was encouraged by the reception of his ideas and thought the committee members showed some excitement in what the county could become.
“A comprehensive plan is a vision,” Hinkle said. “That’s the main idea of what a plan is. Not just a ‘here’s what’s going on.’ We’re going to have a vision moving forward.”