Monongalia County’s new director of planning aims to get everything working together for the future we want.
Before the turn of the millennium, Monongalia County’s population had been about 75,000 for decades. That changed after the 2000 census, when the U.S. Census Bureau delineated the Morgantown Metropolitan Statistical Area. National developers took notice and, since then, the county’s population has grown 30 percent and shows no sign of slowing down.
Wisely seeing the coming need for planning, the Monongalia County Commission in 1999 formed a Planning Commission. The Planning Office is led by a director of planning and, since April, that’s been Andrew Gast-Bray. He’s an engineer with a master’s degree in community planning from the University of Cincinnati. Among other positions, he’s headed up planning offices in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Albemarle County, Virginia—both university communities with big medical centers.
“What a director of planning does is coordinate land-use planning,” GastBray explains. “And that has to take into account things like transportation planning, green infrastructure planning, and economic development. My job is to make sure it all works together.”
Gast-Bray grew up in Cincinnati in the 1960s and ’70s, and he laughs now about his childhood impressions of West Virginia. “It was an era when mines were closing, so a lot of people came downriver to find opportunities. They didn’t always meld well in Cincinnati and, in fact, there were a lot of fights at my school. So I grew up thinking, What’s with this West Virginia? Are they kind of violent people?” But later, working for an international firm in the mid-1990s, he was stationed in Bridgeport and lived in Philippi and loved it. “It was a great time for my family—we had a lot of fun there. I really fell in love with West Virginians, and it transformed my opinion of the state.”
As an engineer and then a planner, Gast-Bray has worked in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and has also taught university classes, and he brings a respect for all of those interests to planning. “You can’t give any of it short shrift,” he says.
In previous planning positions, GastBray has seen working solutions to some of the issues we face in Monongalia County. In New Hampshire, where, like here, rugged terrain constrains transportation corridors, he was involved with a bus system that has been recognized as among the highestperforming rural transit systems in the nation. And in Virginia, he participated in a large project to revitalize the U.S. Route 29 corridor between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—finding productive new lives for old malls and adapting the highway to multimodal use.
“Retail is struggling, redefining itself,” Gast-Bray says as an example of the value of planning in a changing society. “It’s not dead, but sprawl bricks and mortar is dead.” In reaction to internet commerce, community development is moving beyond the model of the strip mall. “People want vital places,” he says. Shopping districts of the future won’t be big box stores strung along treeless corridors—they’ll be multiuse village centers where shoppers live close by or park once and stroll among shops and restaurants. By planning ahead for clustered rather than sprawling development, the county can map out future utility and transit lines and other infrastructure and stay current with the lifestyles companies will look for for their employees.
The Planning Commission’s current priority is to enact the regulation of subdivisions. Unregulated development can lead to problems like flooding basements and inadequate turnarounds for schoolbuses and emergency vehicles. Regulations will ensure that minimum standards are met for stormwater, roadway, and other infrastructure development, protecting the investments of future residents. Public meetings are scheduled through mid-October.
Once subdivision regulations are in place, Gast-Bray will soon turn his attention to the next 10-year comprehensive plan, due in 2023.
“Looking ahead requires a lot of heads,” he says, so he works closely with officials in Morgantown, Granville, Star City, and Westover and in county and university administration. “When you work together, that’s when the magic really happens. Things start to pop.”
Also on the theme of “a lot of heads,” the Planning Commission has a few vacant seats to fill. “You can do great things for your community without a big time commitment,” Gast-Bray says.
Among Gast-Bray’s observations that make him excited about Monongalia County’s and West Virginia’s future— that the PRT was the first autonomous vehicle, for example, or that West Virginians can make and fix most anything—he notes, “A nice thing about Morgantown and West Virginia is, we didn’t screw everything up when everyone else did—we weren’t wealthy enough. Now, why not lead for once?” monongaliacounty.gov/moncpc