City_COUNCIL

Mark Finks, theater manager for Court Square Theater, gave a presentation about the theater at the meeting. 

Harrisonburg City Council met Tuesday evening and reopened the tabled discussion on a potential student housing complex, heard an update from the Arts Council of the Valley and considered amending the regulation of the Harrisonburg Police Department’s Auxiliary Police Force.

Debate continued on the request for a special use permit to build a six-story, 375-bedroom housing complex near the intersection of Neff Avenue and Reservoir Street, complete with retail stores, restaurants and a convenience store, pool and gym. At the last council meeting, more than 30 residents of the adjacent Woodland subdivision attended to show their opposition to the project. Councilman Chris Jones said he found it “disturbing” and “objectifying” that the neighbors used the word “outsiders” to describe the college students who would live in the complex instead of typical JMU off-campus housing.

“College students are residents of Harrisonburg and have the same rights and freedoms as any other resident,” Jones said. “Families and single-family homeowners are no better or no more important than a single person who lives in an apartment.”

Councilman George Hirschmann, however, said he disagrees with Jones. He said he believed that the petition signed by 68 Woodland residents was an “outcry” he couldn’t ignore. Hirschmann said the homeowners who would be impacted by the complex’s construction have “earned to keep their neighborhood” through their activism and attendance.

Councilman Sal Romero also opposed the proposal. He said he’d rather see affordable public housing built on the land instead of more apartments geared toward college students. Councilman Richard Baugh, however, said it’s not the Council’s place to determine if college students should inhabit the lot.

“We’re not in the business of telling people who you can rent to,” Baugh said.

Baugh said even if the Council denied the permit, the land is still zoned to allow developers to build townhouses without the Council’s permission. Baugh said college students would most likely occupy the townhouses anyway, and he’s “tired” of seeing new townhouse developments.

Mayor Deanna Reed cast the deciding vote to approve the permit alongside Jones and Baugh. Reed urged constituents in attendance to re-evaluate the way they think about the college students who live in Harrisonburg.

“They’re half of our population, and we need to figure out how we are going to live together,” Reed said.

The Council also heard from Executive Director of the Arts Council of the Valley Jenny Burden, who delivered a report on the progress of the Arts Council’s three-year plan to “cultivate the arts” and “connect communities,” as their revised mission statement says. Her review came nearly one year after the plan’s implementation.

Burden said that since the organization was created, the Arts Council has awarded more than $350,000 to artists and art educators in the Shenandoah Valley through their Advancing the Arts grants, and the past year, it’s awarded $10,935 to 13 recipients. 

2020 is the Arts Council’s 20th anniversary. The organization will host an event called “Celebration of Local Arts” in partnership with several nonprofits and businesses downtown to commemorate its anniversary and to unveil the installation of the “Language of Love” sculpture.

“By virtue of the wide variety of cultural heritages, ethnicities and countries of origin present, our city has a unique culture that should be celebrated and cultivated,” the sculpture’s artist, Jeff Guinn, said. “I hope that this sculpture will help contribute to that cultivation.”

The sculpture will mimic the silhouette of mountains and water in tribute to the Shenandoah Valley’s physical geography. The piece will also represent the “movement of shared language and experiences between people,” which isn’t static, but “exchanged and experienced.” The art will stand behind the Arts Council building downtown, and, during the “Celebrate Local Arts” event, members of the community will paint it in a palette of blue with a series of stencils.

The Smith House Galleries is one of the Arts Council’s programs outlined in their three-year plan. Last year, over 2,700 people frequented the gallery, which features the work of emerging and established artists in 11 exhibitions throughout the year. For National Poetry Month in April, Virginia Poet Laureate Henry Hart visited the exhibit. 

Burden reported that 33 venues participated in First Fridays Downtown, an effort by retail shops, restaurants, galleries and museums to support the downtown art and cultural district by exhibiting artwork on the first Friday evening of every month.

Burden also detailed that 6,500 kindergarten through eighth grade students benefited from the Any Given Child program, which strives to introduce students to live arts experiences. Any Given Child took entire grade levels to see performances at the Forbes Center, which, for many, was the “first time they have stepped foot inside a performance arts hall.”

Later on the Council’s agenda, Chief of Police Eric English requested that council members amend several city ordinances that regulate the Harrisonburg Police Department’s auxiliary police force. Auxiliary police officers assist regular officers during emergencies and when the number of regular officers is insufficient, such as during parades and special events. The Council unanimously voted to approve English’s petition.

One of the chief’s concerns was about revising the ordinance sections to be consistent with applicable state law. He also said he wished to increase the potential number of auxiliary officers from 25 to 35. Harrisonburg Police Department had no plans as of Tuesday to expand the auxiliary force to that many officers because it would need to be approved as part of the budgeting process. The current cost to equip an auxiliary officer is approximately $11,000.

The chief of police also wanted to modify the residency and age requirements to be consistent with regular police officers. With the Council’s approval, the auxiliary officers will now have to reside within a one hour commute of the Public Safety Building, be at least 21 years of age and retire from their sworn position by the time they turn 70.

The final adjustment to the auxiliary police force made by the Council Tuesday will offer more flexibility to the chief in determining what conflicts of interest should disqualify people from becoming an auxiliary officer. This amendment will benefit a local firefighter who’s interested in becoming an auxiliary police officer. With the change, once the fire chief gives approval, the firefighter’s application can be considered.

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.