After Planning Commission vote, updated Comprehensive Plan on the home stretch

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Late Wednesday night, Harrisonburg’s Planning Commission voted to recommend the updated version of the city’s Comprehensive Plan to the City Council. The Commission’s unanimous vote signaled the penultimate stage in a process that has been nearly two and a half years in the making.

One of the biggest changes in the updated plan is designating more areas in the city as “mixed use,” allowing for residential, retail and commercial development. A strategy outlined in the plan is “To promote mixed use neighborhoods as recommended by the Land Use Guide so that people can easily walk, bike, or take public transportation to work, shopping, schools, places of worship, and for recreation.” The 2011 plan designated 210 acres within the city as mixed use. In the proposed update, that number grows to nearly 1,400 acres, increasing the mixed-use area in the city from two percent to 14 percent of the city’s total area.

The update also designates the entire city as an “urban development area,” a phrase defined in state code that allows the city to designate areas appropriate for higher-density development, re-development and in-fill development. At the meeting this week, City Planner Thanh Dang pointed out that the plan is not a legally binding document, but a guiding framework for the city to make future decisions about growth and development.

Virginia code requires that cities develop and adopt a Comprehensive Plan and review it every five years, amending it if necessary. Harrisonburg’s plan was last updated in 2011. Beginning in the summer of 2016, the Planning Commission began revising Harrisonburg’s plan, opening the process up to public input and hosting three public information sessions in February 2017. The following month, the commission appointed 48 community members to four advisory committees (Land Use & Transportation, Education & Culture, Community Facilities and Economic Development). Last October and November, the initial public comment period was opened, along with four public workshops facilitated by the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue (ICAD) of James Madison University. In August 2018 a final public comment period was opened that included an open house.

On Wednesday night, only three people addressed the commission during the open hearing on the plan. One objected to the commission labeling the plan as a community effort, claiming that its framework was fixed before the public input period. Several members of the commission strongly objected to this characterization.

Two co-owners of a city home objected to the part of the plan designating the area where their house is located as “low density,” despite there being other medium density housing nearby. They said the designation will hurt their chances to have the property re-zoned in the future and limit their options in how they can use it.  

Following the public comment period all members of the Planning Commission voted in support of recommending the updated plan to the City Council for approval.

The updated Comprehensive Plan will be presented to the Harrisonburg City Council at their November 13 meeting. Community comments can be made at a public hearing at the meeting. The finalized plan could be adopted at the council’s second monthly meeting on November 27. The meetings are held at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.

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