WINCHESTER — Alfredo Gutierrez Velasquez is a 28-year-old Arizona native who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he came to the Northern Shenandoah Valley a decade ago.
Today, he’s the zoning administrator for the city of Winchester.
“It’s been a weird journey,” said Gutierrez Valesquez, who started his new job in early October.
Gutierrez Valesquez said he graduated from high school in Arizona with no real plan for the future, so he worked a series of odd jobs before family members in Frederick County invited him to come east for an extended visit.
Not long after he arrived, the 18-year-old found work at the Viva Mexico restaurant in Inwood, W.Va.
“Three months later, I bought a car,” Gutierrez Valesquez said. “Once I bought my car, I knew I wasn’t going back [to Arizona].”
Instead, he enrolled at Lord Fairfax Community College (LFCC) in Middletown and, for the next three years, balanced studies with his restaurant gig.
Gutierrez Valesquez didn’t figure out what he wanted to do for a living until he enrolled in a geography course taught by LFCC professor Mark Pennypacker, who infused him with a passion for geographic information system (GIS) mapping.
A short time later, Gutierrez Valesquez transferred from LFCC to James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geographic science.
While enrolled at JMU, “I worked for the city of Harrisonburg’s Public Works Department as a GIS intern for two summers in a row,” Gutierrez Valesquez said.
Following graduation, he was promoted to a full-time job within the department.
He also started a family but had difficulty arranging child care in Harrisonburg. Gutierrez Valesquez decided to return to Frederick County in 2018 so his family could help watch his daughter and he could accept a job as GIS coordinator for the town of Front Royal.
He worked in Front Royal for three years, during which time the town downsized its Planning Department from five employees to three. Since there were fewer people in the department, Gutierrez Valesquez had to expand his skill set beyond GIS in order to handle other planning and zoning tasks.
“I just kind of fell into that realm and thought, ‘This ain’t that bad. I could see myself doing this,’” he said.
Meanwhile, Winchester’s Planning and Zoning Department was undergoing changes of its own. Zoning Administrator Aaron Grisdale resigned in September 2019 to become Woodstock’s deputy town manager, and his successor, Frank Hopkins, came aboard in December 2019 but left in July of this year to become planning director for Powhatan County.
When Hopkins left, Gutierrez Valesquez applied for the vacancy.
“I happened to get the job and now I’ve been here for almost two months,” he said Wednesday morning while seated in his third-floor office at Rouss City Hall. “I like the work culture, I like the people I work with, I like working for a city.”
Gutierrez Valesquez said one of his first tasks is ensuring Winchester’s zoning policies complement recent updates to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a document issued by City Council that provides a blueprint for future growth and development.
“That’s an ongoing process,” he said. “Pretty basic, bland stuff, but that’s what I’m here for. I’m ready for that challenge.”
He’s also eager to work with residents to help them develop their properties within the rules set forth in the city’s zoning code.
“We don’t try to shoot down any people, businesses or uses, but at the same time, it [the zoning code] is in place for a reason,” Gutierrez Valesquez said. “Otherwise we’d have houses right on property lines, 8-foot fences, things like that. You don’t want an industrial use like refining mercury right up against a residential district. You’ve just got to find that balance.”
Gutierrez Valesquez said he’s thrilled to be in Winchester and that his love of GIS mapping led to what he hopes will be a long tenure with the city.
“I like it, I really do,” he said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.”