City_COUNCIL (copy)

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

Harrisonburg saw the season’s first snow flurries fall as Mayor Deanna Reed called Tuesday’s City Council meeting to order. The council deliberated two short-term rental permits and determined the cost for the second Harrisonburg high school.

1. Airbnb adjacent arboretum breeds animosity

City Council denied a short-term rental in the Forest Hill neighborhood adjacent to the Edith Carrier Arboretum in a split 3-to-1 decision. Councilman Chris Jones abstained, because he said the council wasn’t presented with sufficient evidence on how the decision may harm the applicant and neighborhood. Councilman Sal Romero said this petition has been the “biggest headache” he’s had since joining the Planning Commission in January.

Concerned neighbors swarmed council chambers to implore the council to “maintain the integrity” of the single-family residential area and deny Claudia McClean’s request to open her home to a maximum of four short-term residents. The Planning Commission received 14 letters of opposition to the permit.

Mothers living in the neighborhood said they feared an increase in traffic would endanger their kids, who play on bikes and scooters along the winding road. Jones, however, wasn’t convinced.

“When we have these conversations, the things that are already problematic in a particular zone or area then become like the end of the world,” Jones said. “People aren’t just going to start driving recklessly all throughout the city because of Airbnbs.”

McClean said she rented to guests for 10 months before the council required hosts to obtain a special-use permit in August. The Airbnb host said her guests’ impact on the neighborhood was “uneventful and unnoticed,” but neighbors weren’t appeased.

“It’s a stranger, and you’re exposing all of us to that person because a website said they were credible,” Forest Hill resident Lisa Gallagher said.

Councilman George Hirschmann compared McClean’s Airbnb to a “turnstile front door” and argued long-term college student renters would be more integrated into the neighborhood.

Neighbor Alice Doyle said Forest Hill is among a “dying breed” of neighborhoods that offer an interconnectedness between neighbors. She said the “mass exodus” to new neighborhoods in Rockingham County is, in part, due to the expansion of special-use permits in city residential neighborhoods.

“What’s the purpose and function of a neighborhood?” Doyle asked. “Is it for commercial use or residential use? Special permit use blurs the line in a way that I do not support.”

2. Returning petitioners struck down a second time

In a seeming streak of denials, the council also unanimously rejected property owners Wesley Smallwood and his fiancee, Dionne Jones, of Orange Sky Investments LLC’s petition for a short-term rental permit for their seven-bedroom home on New York Avenue.

In September, City Council deferred the application back to Planning Commission because the couple failed to cancel a reservation while waiting on their application to be reviewed. When the issue went before the Planning Commission again Oct. 9, the body unanimously recommended the permit be rejected.

Due to concern of potential influx of cars on the street, Romero suggested the couple reduce their number of proposed occupants from 12 to eight, but Councilman Richard Baugh explained the permit would then have to be kicked back to Planning for a third time.

Jones voiced his intent to prepare a motion to increase the penalty for violating short-term rental ordinance from $100 to $500 on the first offense because of the couple’s insubordination.

“If it can be thought to be economically feasible to go ahead and do that to us, then that means that our penalties are too low,” Jones said.

3. Taxes to fund new high school will ‘burden’ homeowners

Harrisonburg’s growing population necessitates the development of a second area high school, Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards said. In his presentation of the total project costs, Richards said the anticipated cost is $109.8 million.

Homeowners can expect a significant increase in their taxes as a result of the steep bill. The current real estate tax on a $200,000 home is $1,720, but with a possible tax increase of $0.13 to build the high school, those same property holders can expect to pay $260 more on real estate taxes annually.

“As a citizen, I can’t afford it,” Reed said. “I’m in support of the high school. I know we need it … But I also am aware that there’s going to be a burden put on some people. I happen to be one of them.”

To lessen the financial impact on the community, Richards proposed breaking the building process into two phases. In the first stage, builders would construct the building, parking lot, bike path and bus loop. In the second period, the School Board would tackle the naming and redistricting process once city debt eases. While this would alleviate $7.2 million from the total project cost, the new school would sacrifice its auxiliary gym, stadium and baseball and softball fields.

Jim DeLucas, chief development officer at Nielsen Builders, Inc., commended the project for being almost entirely locally developed. Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County contractors constitute 55% of the project. Another 20% of contractors are from the surrounding valley, and an additional 20% are Virginia residents.

“We put together a team that’s committed to this area — that wants to see this happen,” DeLucas said. “Everybody put their sharpest pencil to this … and we beat the state average price for schools being built right now.”

If the School Board adheres to their outlined schedule, they’ll break ground on the school in December and open its doors to students in August 2022.

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