Harrisonburg City Council tackled a loaded agenda about housing disputes in the area Tuesday evening, drawing a congregation of constituents and neighbors packed elbow-to-elbow in City Hall.
The crowded chamber didn’t disperse until 10 p.m., marking a three-hour meeting. The meeting opened with the official unveiling of the new city seal and logos for city departments. The Council later tabled a special use permit request for a six-story housing complex and was presented with a petition concerning the homelessness epidemic in Harrisonburg. Councilmembers also approved a special use permit for the construction of a new coffee roasting facility.
The request for a special use permit to build a high-rise housing complex came from Kathy Hite, Dick Blackwell and Madison Lucy Realty, LLC. The team wants to develop a 6.6-acre plot of land on Reservoir Street into a 375-bedroom housing complex with retail stores, a convenience store, a pool, a gym and restaurants.
Adam Fletcher, director of planning and community development, said the project will sit on “one of the remaining few undeveloped sections of Reservoir Street.”
The property is wedged between Sunchase and Charleston Townes and is surrounded on three sides by the Woodland subdivision along Foley Road and Woodland Drive. Sixty-eight Woodland subdivision residents signed a petition that was presented to the Council in opposition of the development.
Marvin Hillsman, a Woodland subdivision dweller, said he believes the developers are hiding how pervasive their plans for development are. Hillsman said the building would tower six stories, house primarily “rowdy college students” and host a rooftop swimming pool with live music.
“Imagine the noise from that,” Hillsman said. “They might as well be up there in a helicopter with their sound system.”
Hillman said the project is a “classic and obvious case” for spot zoning, which is the unlawful placement of a small area of land in a different zone from the rest of a neighboring property for personal gain.
“Protect us instead of a land developer from Kansas City,” Hillsman demanded; he was met with thunderous applause.
Matthew Phillippi, a resident in the Woodland subdivision, said he thinks the land could meet a “founded need that we have in the City for affordable housing” rather than the high-density complex proposed. He also said that residents along Foley Road are left with the “short end of the stick” because no fence or tree buffer has been proposed along their shared property line, like Woodland Drive would have. Phillippi said he believes this could be because a member of the realty staff on the project and some members of the Blackwell family live on Woodland Drive.
Jeff Foster would live adjacent to the proposed fence line if the project is approved. He said he was most concerned with preserving the nature that surrounds his home. Foster said he’s observed deer, squirrels and a new species of fox from his window. He said the ability to live in close proximity to town while being secluded in a forested area is what makes that neighborhood special. Foster said he was worried the value of his property would fall once their natural haven was uprooted.
“Nature too often gets paved over in the name of progress,” Foster said.
Homeowners are also concerned about what effect the increase of concrete will have on their neighborhood, which is in a marked floodplain, an area of low-lying ground frequently subject to flooding. A resident whose home is at the lowest point in the neighborhood said the stormwater basin and drainage ditch designed to detain water and release it at a controlled rate into the intersection, part of the Reservoir Street Road Improvement Project, isn’t adequate. She said she’s afraid every time it rains, even if it’s a short 30-minute rain shower.
Kurt Johnson, who works in JMU’s Office of the Registrar, said that the intersection where Reservoir Street and Neff Avenue meet is already highly congested without the addition of another massive housing complex. Recently, a full light cycle passed before he was able to turn toward campus because cars were clogging the intersection in a standstill. Johnson cited that JMU missed enrollment projections for this year, and the Board of Visitors is expecting enrollment to remain flat or decrease in the coming years. He said that because of this, there isn’t an immediate need for a student housing development of this caliber.
The City Council unanimously decided to table the request until Councilman George Hirschmann could be present to further discuss the contentious issue.
Over a thousand individuals signed a petition demanding a low-barrier homeless shelter be built in Harrisonburg and presented it to the Council at Tuesday’s meeting.
Open Doors is a low-barrier homeless shelter open in the city from November until April, but it isn’t a sufficient resource, according to Katina Perry, one of Harrisonburg’s homeless residents and the organizer of the petition. Perry asserts there are at least 168 homeless people in Harrisonburg, but Open Doors provides lodging for only 40 individuals, and only during the harshest months of the year. Perry said that last year, three local homeless residents died due to the freezing temperatures.
Michael Snell-Feikema said he feels a “moral obligation” to the people who are homeless that he’s come to know at the Court Square gazebo.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Snell-Feikema said. “It wasn’t caused by the people in this room. It’s caused by a society that is more concerned with the accumulation of wealth than it is with the dignity and wellbeing of human beings.”
Snell-Feikema has researched Seattle’s method of correcting the homeless epidemic. Their remedy takes the form of “tiny home villages.” The city provides approximately $2,500 of materials per home, but the community provides the volunteer construction labor. Each home has electricity, while the bathrooms and kitchen are communal facilities.
Jerome Fulton has been homeless since May. He has been hospitalized 13 times, twice with pneumonia and 11 times with heat exhaustion. He says he also suffers from severe sleep deprivation because he has to sleep with “one eye open” and has only gotten eight to 12 hours of sleep every month. Fulton has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), diabetes and uses a wheelchair. He has a voucher for a one-bedroom wheelchair accessible apartment, but there are none available. Fulton says he was lucky this happened while it was summer, but he doesn’t know how much longer he can keep going.
“Winter is here,” Fulton said. “I’m not going to survive this winter. Nobody is going to be able to … I can’t do it in a wheelchair.”
Pastor John Barmore II and his wife Lady Pamela Barmore said they are offering “hope for free” at Zion Ministries Worship Center on Broad Street. The couple accept donations of resources and services for community members in need. They’ve partnered with a local barber to offer haircuts in the hope that those individuals “may be inspired to get a job.” The pair asked the business community to get involved in their effort so they can teach their recipients tradable skills that will benefit them in the workforce.
“We’re not giving sandwiches,” John Barmore said. “We’re teaching them how to fish.”
Mayor Deanna Reed said “things are in the works” to solve this issue. She said it isn’t as easy as opening up a building and letting people stay there.
“It is a crisis, and it’s a crisis for more than just Harrisonburg,” Reed said. “I’m not about just putting you somewhere to sleep. I want to make sure that when you need help, I have set you up for success … I want to make sure that you’re taken care of — mind, body and soul.”
The Council also deliberated the future of a proposed coffee manufacturing operation, which would be located at the former Big L Tire building on West Gay Street. The applicant plans to roast and sell their freshly brewed coffee at an on-site diner. The memorandum states that coffee roasting isn’t a noisy operation, but does produce a coffee aroma. The facility will host occasional coffee tasting to “introduce customers to the process and nuances of each roast.”
The request mirrors another appeal for a special use permit a few months ago for an adjacent property that boasts a cidery. That request was also approved.
In response to the massive number of constituents who spoke during public hearings, Reed expressed her appreciation in her closing remarks.
“You know you can contact me anytime and talk to me about what’s going on or what I have in the pipeline,” Reed said.
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.