city council

Council endorsed the 2040 Downtown Report — a "road map" that highlights future changes to Harrisonburg's downtown — at this week's city council meeting.

In debates over what “affordable housing” means in Harrisonburg, Council votes to approve new units

City Council voted 4-1, with Vice Mayor Sal Romero voting nay, to allow Joyce Shultz of Bluestone Land Company to rezone 6.48 acres of forested area parallel with Franklin Street, and to approve a special use permit (SUP) to allow multi-family units of more than 12 units per building. 

The builder, Shultz, said to the Council that building new residential space on Franklin Street would increase the value of all adjacent properties.

Shultz said he’d provide “affordable housing,” stating that 5% of units — eight units — would be offered to tenants making 80% or less of the median city income. Shultz also said no price match would be given to these tenants — a one-bedroom unit would start at $1,300. 

Mayor Deanna Reed commented on the affordable housing, saying it was false advertising to the city. 

“You can’t stand there and call this affordable housing,” Reed said. 

The building complex would also create a passthrough between Reservoir and East Market streets, increasing traffic in a walkable street neighborhood, Shultz said. 

In public discussion, many residents of Franklin Street and the adjacent neighborhood said they were concerned with the dramatic safety shift it would create for their families. 

“With increased traffic, I don’t think it would be safe to walk with my children,” Sarah Showalter, a Franklin Street resident, said.

Others were concerned with the increase in traffic that would cut through their spaces, the destruction of the wildlife and the potential skyline obstruction.

Council debated on what “affordable housing” meant in this project: whether it meant the demographic that could afford the housing this project offered, or if the housing could be reached by all income groups, especially low income. 

Romero said that while he supports the need for units in the city, there should be a focus on affordability if the project claims to provide affordable housing. 

“Paying these high prices is not a choice but something people just have to pay now,” Romero said. 

Councilman Chris Jones said that while he agrees the project isn’t truly affordable housing, the builder still approached them with the proposal.

“The demand is there, and that’s a fact,” Jones said. “While this isn’t the shiny popular project we like to vote on, we have an obligation to meet the needs of the whole city.”

Jones mentioned Harrisonburg’s increase in technology and health care jobs with new workforce members who need a place to live.

“Harrisonburg is a great place to live, work and play, but we need to think about where [residents] sleep,” Jones said. 

Reed closed by requesting that Shultz “be a good neighbor” to the people who are already living there and to ensure that the people’s needs who they represent are met. 

“We need to start asking developers more things that we believe in,” Reed said. “While I am hesitant about this project, it’s going to take all kinds of housing to get through this housing crisis.” 

JMU voting precinct to be moved to Godwin Hall

Council voted unanimously to move voting precinct 105 from the Convocation Center to Godwin Hall.

Mark Finks, Harrisonburg director of elections, told the Council that the electoral board had weighed five different criteria for choosing a new location, the highest being on-campus student access. 

The other four criteria were off-campus student access, disability accommodations, availability and space — each respectively given weight from 1-5.

The two final choices presented to the board were JMU X-Labs and Godwin Hall.  

Ultimately, the choice centered around student access; with Godwin Hall’s location, parking and the only on-campus score of 5, the electoral board voted 2-1 to choose Godwin Hall as the new precinct.

“Godwin meets the spirit of what we’re looking for,” Finks said. 

Finks said that unless the Council took action that night, precinct 105 wouldn’t have a space to vote for a potential June primary election. 

Jones asked if there would be any burdens on JMU for signage and accommodations. 

Finks said the city has been working closely with JMU officials on the process of the move, and that while nothing is concrete yet, only minor adjustments will be needed with no major construction in the works. 

Romero said he was concerned with the communication for the students and asked how they would be informed of the changes. Finks said letters will be sent out to all registered voters regarding the new precinct change for 105 if approved.

Senior Grayson Fontaine and freshman Caroline Park-Stucker of JMU College Democrats came out with bipartisan support for the move to Godwin Hall as JMU’s precinct.

“Godwin is the most accessible location for students — the central location of the campus,” Fontaine said.

Council endorses 2040 Report

The council unanimously endorsed the Downtown 2040 Report as presented.

Director of Economic Development Brian Shull said over the last year, the community has been fully engaged in the development of the 2040 Downtown “road map.”

“This plan is the result of a community-driven process to learn from teachers, students, workers, first responders and parents to form a vision for their downtown,” Shull said. 

Councilwoman Laura Dent said she looks forward to the green improvements of solar panels and electric charging that are present in the plan.

Councilman George Hirschmann said he hopes the plan isn’t “written in stone,” with Shull confirming the length of the plan, stating that things can and will change over 20 years. 

Jones said he felt good looking into the future after all the studies the city has conducted to collect the data for the plan but that where the development comes from is crucial.

“We have to be careful that this isn’t a license to create unnecessary expenses,” Jones said. “Let’s try to emphasize the private in the public and private investment.”

Contact JJ Hensley at henslejj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

CORRECTION (3/12/22 3:14 p.m.): A previous version of the article stated that Grayson Fontaine is a member of JMU College Republicans, but he's a member of JMU College Democrats. The article has also been updated to reflect this.