What Every Citizen Should Know About the Comprehensive Plan

On June 2, 2005, Shenandoah County conducted a Public Hearing on the new Comprehensive Plan for the county. This was the first update of the Plan in 14 years. The Plan covered the years 2005-2025 and addressed the changes that had occurred, and were forecast to occur over those years.

These eight articles first appeared in a weekly series in the Shenandoah Valley-Herald. They are reprinted here in their entirety in the interest of educating our citizens on these vitally important issues of public policy.

1.  ABOUT GROWTH & SUBDIVISIONS

There is no question that controlling growth and conserving farmland and open space are paramount issues among citizens of Shenandoah County. Some would like to stop all growth, but short of building a wall around the county, this is not a practical solution. Some want no restrictions on how the land that they own may be used, meaning in the extreme that the landscape of this county could soon follow in the footsteps of Fairfax and eastern Loudoun county and be saturated with homes.

It has been the goal of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Comprehensive Plan to identify a practical solution to the growth issue that will serve the interests of the greatest number of our citizens, and to recommend that solution to the Board of Supervisors. In public meetings throughout the county we have shared our thoughts with our fellow citizens and gotten their feedback.

The first order of business is to direct new growth in and around the towns where water and sewer and other public services are available. The towns have their own zoning ordinances and thus the authority to set their own rules with respect to growth. The capacities of the towns’ water and sewer treatment plants will determine the upper limits on growth.

The second order of business is to encourage farmers owning land in the rural areas of the county to stay in farming. Conservation easements, agricultural and forestal districts, purchase of development rights, and tax incentives are among the tools recommended in the Comprehensive Plan to accomplish this.

Finally, we need to have a workable approach to meet the needs of those rural land owners who wish to sell off some or all of their land for the higher price of development. That approach is to allow single lot subdivisions every 3 years or rezoning to a rural residential zone if a larger subdivision is desired. In this case we are recommending that subdivisions be planned with as much as 70% reserved for open space and the homes clustered on smaller lots on the remaining 30%. The open space would be a permanent easement that could be retained in farming or kept in its natural state or used for recreation by the homeowners.

After studying what neighboring counties are doing and listening to what the majority of our own citizens have to say, we believe this approach best meets the future needs of Shenandoah County.

2.  FOSTERING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Shenandoah County’s unemployment rate hovers around 2%. This compares with a 5.2% rate nationwide. Economists say that 2% unemployment is as close to full employment as you can get. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that our county has a preponderance of relatively low paying manufacturing and service jobs. The result is that the median family income here is $9000 per year lower than that of Virginia as a whole and $3500 below the average in our planning district (Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Page, and Shenandoah counties). Every day over 6000 residents of our county commute elsewhere to jobs that pay more than they could earn here. Over the past decade there have been few new jobs created in the county that pay more than the average.

The Comprehensive Plan addresses this situation. First, the county’s policy should be, and is, to promote the health of the businesses and industries that are already here. They provide the livelihood for the majority of the county’s citizens. Secondly, and looking to the future, the county needs to attract a different kind of business and industry-those that require a better educated workforce, a more highly skilled workforce, a more technically oriented workforce, a more knowledge-based workforce. Such companies hire mostly college graduates, and they pay substantially higher wages and salaries. Echo Star, a satellite data servicing company scheduled to move to the Mt. Jackson Industrial Park later this year, is an example of such a business. Recruiting such companies requires a collective community effort to create a business-friendly climate. This effort should include hiring a professional firm to assist in a national search for new business. Over the long run we need to succeed at this. Otherwise we risk becoming a “bedroom community,” one in which an increasing portion of our residents work elsewhere. The companies that employ them pay taxes to their own localities while Shenandoah County bears the burden of providing all of the work force’s services, including schools. Bedroom communities tend to have high tax rates.

With its abundance of scenic rural landscapes, quaint towns, battlefields and historic sites, natural wonders, such as the caverns and Seven Bends, and a wide variety of outdoor recreation, our county is a natural for tourism. Tourism brings money to county enterprises and makes few demands on the county’s services. Along with agriculture, industry, and commercial businesses, tourism fuels the economic engine of the county. Promotion and expansion of tourism opportunities, both in the county and in the towns, is clearly in our best interests.

3.  CLEAN AIR & CLEAN WATER:

OUR MOST ESSENTIAL NATURAL RESOURCES

Although clean air and clean water are our most essential natural resources, neither is guaranteed. We have to work at it. As the population in the Valley grows, so does the threat to these valuable resources.

Our awareness that clean air might be a problem was nudged recently when our neighbor to the east, the Shenandoah National Park, was labeled as one of the most polluted parks in the nation. Unfortunately, many of the sources of air pollution are beyond our control – coal burning power plants upwind in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and the ever-growing traffic on I-81. But some of the sources are home-grown, including some of our manufacturing plants and our voracious appetite for driving. Every new subdivision represents more people, more gas powered engines and vehicles, and more potential for air pollution. A new regional entity, SHENAIR, has been created under the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission to become a center of excellence for dealing with air quality issues. The County is a member of that Commission.

As individuals, we have a lot more control over the quality of our water supply. This is particularly true for those who live outside the public service areas of the towns – those who have private wells and septic systems. Because of the limestone geology underlying much of the county, our groundwater is especially vulnerable to contamination. Sinkholes, failed septic systems, and improper manure management are typical sources of contamination.

Our surface streams are also vulnerable. Several streams in the county have been designated as “impaired” by the state, meaning they are unsafe for swimming or for eating their fish. Failed septic systems and runoff from residential properties, farmland, parking lots, roads, and rooftops contribute toxic materials, fecal coliform, and excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to our streams. Inasmuch as we are in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, these conditions have contributed to the declining health of that vitally important estuary.

The draft Comprehensive Plan addresses all of these issues and proposes a number of initiatives such as protecting sinkholes, pumping out and inspecting septic systems, improving storm water management, and expanding the existing cost-sharing program to apply Best Management Practices (BMPs) along stream banks.

Improving and protecting the quality of our air, our wells, and our streams is a continuing challenge and one that we MUST meet.

4.  SAVING OUR FARMS

Farming is the traditional economic lifeblood of the Valley and of Shenandoah County. It is also the foundation for much of the county’s culture. Many families trace their farming heritage back over 100 years or more. Today the county ranks 5th in the state in agriculture.

There are many current trends, however, that are slowly eroding the agricultural orientation of the county. Since 1980 there has been a 20.7% reduction in farm employment. In just the last five years over 50 new housing subdivisions have been created in rural areas, and the process is accelerating. The farm acreage lost during that period is the most in the Valley. Preserving farmland and farming as an occupation is becoming a challenge of major proportion. Increasing costs of production, increasing land values, the uncertainties of weather, markets, and animal disease, and a rise in the average age of farmers all work to make the challenge greater. Nevertheless, many farmers want to stay in farming, and don’t want to see their prime farmland converted into housing developments.

The draft Comprehensive Plan documents the trends described above and proposes initiatives that will preserve and protect our farms. Conservation easements, characterized by substantial tax benefits, have been used sparingly so far in the county. Purchase of Development Rights (PDRs), wherein a farmer sells his development rights to the county in exchange for the difference in the price of his land as a farm versus as a development property, holds great promise. It has been employed successfully in several other Virginia counties. Other initiatives include even more emphasis on agricultural programs in the schools, promoting niche farming (for example, vineyards, tree farms, organic truck farms), promoting new markets, exploring further agricultural tax relief, and promoting the health and growth of agriculture as an industry.

The next 10 years are crucial in determining whether or not we, as a community, are successful in saving our farms. The inexorable pressures of population growth spilling out from Northern Virginia are a formidable challenge.

5.  CAN OUR SCHOOL KIDS COMPETE?

No, that’s not a question about athletics, but about academics. Can our kids compete in the classroom?

Let’s explore that question. All of the public schools in the County are fully accredited by the State of Virginia, and the pass/fail rates on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests are competitive with the state averages. That says that the school system is doing an adequate job of getting our students across the minimum thresholds of learning and beyond. As the county shifts toward new businesses which require a more highly educated workforce, however, more emphasis will need to be placed on the preparation of high school students to advance to four-year college programs. In this regard, the academic competitiveness of the county’s high schools is very much open to question.

In some four different units of measurement, our high school seniors are lagging significantly behind the state averages: percentage taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) for college entrance, average scores on the SATs, percentage receiving Advanced Studies diplomas, and percentage going on to four-year colleges. A major factor behind this is the high pupil/teacher ratio in the high schools, the 6th highest in the state. Put succinctly, our high schools need more teachers, ones who are both masters of their subject matter and gifted motivators. Of course, motivating students to aim higher than a high school diploma needs to start in the elementary and middle schools.

It will take an additional 34 high school teachers to equal the same pupil/teacher ratio as the rest of the state. This of course will mean additional money from tax revenues. To put things in perspective, the County school system now spends $1275 less per pupil per year than the state average, grades K-12. The Comprehensive Plan proposes that this be  addressed by phasing in the needed funding over a five-year period, at the rate of 5% per year. The Plan also sets a series of numerical goals for the schools to achieve by the end of the five years.

Shenandoah County is at a crossroads. If we want our students to be able to compete in the local, national and global marketplaces, then we need to educate them to do so.

6.  CAN WE AFFORD THE 21ST CENTURY?

At this writing Shenandoah County’s population stands at 38,000. It has nearly doubled since 1980. Just since the census of 2000 the rate of growth has picked up speed and shows no signs of abating. Major demographic changes are taking place. Whereas most of the new growth before 2000 was in the form of older families and retirees, new growth now is mostly in the form of younger families with children, and much of that is occurring in the northern portion of the county. The change in growth patterns  has a major impact on our schools. Between 1980 and 2000, our school age population increased by a total of only 3%. Since 2000, it has increased by 2% every year and by 3.8% on the Strasburg campus. New or expanded school construction will surely be needed within five years.

In just the last decade the county has added $40 million in school capital improvements and also a new government center, a new county library, a new landfill cell, and the North Fork Wastewater Treatment Plant. Nevertheless, outstanding facility requirements remain. Our county jail is outmoded and undersized; our county court facilities are inadequate, and the county needs a public safety center to house its growing emergency coordination and law enforcement responsibilities. Our elected officials are actively seeking solutions to these requirements.

As the population continues to grow there will be increased demands for services and facilities. Some of these demands can be met from the private sector, some from tax-supported public sources, and some through a partnership of private and public entities.

The proposed cultural arts center to be located in the old Edinburg school is an example of a possible partnership between the county and private funding sources. At some time in the 20-year span of the Comprehensive plan a county-wide wellness center should become a reality. It too should be thought of in terms of a partnership by the county, the health services community, and private citizens.

As the county moves further into the 21st century, balancing the cost of increased facilities and services with tax revenue policy will be a major challenge for the county leadership.

7.  WHEELS!

The first in this series of articles spoke of controlling rampant growth, a phenomenon that is sweeping the northern Shenandoah Valley. Even with controlled growth, some amount of growth is both inevitable and healthy for the community. Just as in the past, a growing population tends to put some stress on the towns’ and the county’s infrastructure — the water and wastewater treatment systems, the schools, and the transportation system, for example. In this article we’re going to talk about transportation.

We are a much more mobile society today than we were even two decades ago. Between 1980 and 2000 our population increased 27% while the vehicle miles traveled increased 190%. In the meanwhile, the county road network has remained essentially unchanged. Looking to the future, the draft Comprehensive Plan calls for a professional study to develop, in conjunction with VDOT, a transportation plan for the county. Such a plan should strive to preserve the rural, scenic, and historical character of our primary and secondary road system, identify safety and volume improvements that are needed over the next 20 years, and address special issues such as integrating the Old Valley Pike (U.S. Route 11) Corridor Plan and the advisability of adding an I-81 interchange north of Woodstock. It is important that our transportation system for the future be a planned one, not a piecemeal one.

Unquestionably, the most pressing transportation issue in the Valley is the future of I-81. Traffic volume on the interstate has far exceeded its design expectations. For example, in 1980 average daily truck traffic was 4770. Today it is in excess of 14,000 and growing. In Washington and Richmond there is strong advocacy to widen I-81 to at least eight lanes and in congested areas to as many as twelve lanes. If that were to come to pass it would have a profoundly adverse environmental, economic, historic, and quality of life impact on the entire Valley. So far, other alternatives, such as a north-south high speed rail service following an existing roadbed east of the Blue Ridge, have been given scant attention. Clearly, the I-81 issue can only be addressed on a regional basis, but Shenandoah County needs to have a voice in this process. The draft Comprehensive Plan recommends that the county join with other jurisdictions up and down the Valley to petition the Governor and the General Assembly to explore all strategic alternatives to widening I-81. Further, the county should remain engaged on this crucial subject until it is resolved.

8.  A “LIVING” DOCUMENT

A common problem with things like comprehensive plans is that, once written and adopted, they tend to be pushed to the back burner. Occasionally lip service will be paid to them, but for the most part the press of current business overrides the “big picture” orientation of the comprehensive plan. Unless frequently updated, the statistical base of the plan becomes obsolete and the plan becomes more and more irrelevant. The statistical base of the 1991 plan currently on the books is mostly from the 1980 census, which means that today it is 25 years old. Assuming that our Board of Supervisors approves the draft Comprehensive Plan 2005-2025, things will be different.

This Plan will be a “living” document in that it will be regularly and frequently updated to keep it abreast of what’s going on in the county. To make this happen, the Plan proposes that a Citizens Advisory Committee be appointed to work on a continuing basis with the county’s Director of Planning and Code Enforcement to propose updates and revisions to the Plan as needed. This committee would be similar to the committee which has been engaged for the last 30 months in producing the new draft. Its members would be appointed by the supervisors and they would rotate off the committee every two years, thus affording more and more citizens an opportunity to participate.

One of the duties of the Citizens Advisory Committee would be to conduct an annual review of the actions of the previous 12 months and report its findings to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.  Measures such as this would ensure that the Comprehensive Plan never makes its way to the back burner.

One final thought. Our readers should know the names of those dedicated citizens who were appointed by their supervisors 30 months ago to serve on the Citizens Advisory Committee. Working closely with Mr. Rob Kinsley, Director of Planning and Code Enforcement, these men and women gave unselfishly of their time and talents to craft the draft Comprehensive Plan 2005-2025: Carolyn Long, Vito Gentile, Steven Baker, Jane Rea, the late Allen White, John McAlpine, Russell Adams, Hilda Vann, Jimmy Hockman, Barbara Adamson, and John Adamson.  They have been a terrific team!

George Sylvester Chairman

Citizens Advisory Committee on the Comprehensive Plan