Council endorses environmental plan, also learns historic Thomas Harrison house wasn’t Thomas Harrison’s house

council meeting 10.23

By Bridget Manley, contributor

An environmental plan that includes calls for upgrading the city’s recycling program and encouraging renewable energy received unanimous support from the Harrisonburg city council Tuesday night in front of a crowd of residents.

All five council members supported moving forward in developing and implementing the plan, which a committee of volunteers and city staff put forward. Some of the other proposals the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee outlined in the plan include a reducing storm water runoff, implementing higher fees for increased water use, promoting a walking and cycling network and promoting sustainable food gardens.

“I think it’s great,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. “I think it’s time for Harrisonburg to be on the list.” She was referring to the list of cities that have committed to encouraging renewable energy. Those in the audience responded with thunderous applause.

More than 150 residents attended Tuesday’s meeting. Most wore bright yellow “Sustainable Harrisonburg” stickers distributed by volunteers outside the council chambers.

In addition to taking up the Environmental Action Plan, the council on Tuesday declined to approve more housing for chronically homeless citizens in the city’s Northeast end, approved two resolutions for Public Works to seek grant money for sidewalk and bike lane improvements and learned that the Thomas Harrison House might not have been Thomas Harrison’s house.

But it was the environmental plan that attracted most of the crowd to city hall Tuesday.

Council backs plan’s ideas, has questions about implementation

The environmental committee asked council to adopt the plan’s “Phase One,” which included supporting the goals and targets of the committee, directing city staff and the city manager to finalize the plan in the next six months, and to create a Sustainability Coordinator Position by 2020 or sooner.

The committee’s full presentation included recommendations for the city that other municipalities around Virginia have implemented.

But council members also agreed that the current level of city staff could not maintain their added responsibilities, raising questions about how many more staff positions might be needed and by when. The council asked the city manager to look at that further.

The council agreed to discuss the path forward within the next six months and examine how to budget the necessary staff needed to fully execute the committee’s recommendations.

The Not-So-Thomas Harrison House?

Carole Nash, JMU associate professor and director of the Shenandoah National Park Environmental Archaeology Program, presented some of her team’s findings on the Thomas Harrison House Project in downtown Harrisonburg.

The city had hoped to fully research the house’s history and then restore it to become a museum focusing on the life of Thomas Harrison, the town’s founder.

Nash’s team used tree ring readings to try and date the home and learned through this research that the beams in the cellar were cut between 1789 and 1790. The trees that were used for the structure of the house were cut five years after the death of Thomas Harrison.

Nash also pointed out that the artifacts found in the archeological dig of the home as well as the paint scrapings the team tested all point to this same conclusion.

The overall findings conclude that the house is a late 18th century/early 19th century home, and not a dwelling from the 1750s, as those in the city have long believed. Her team’s theory is that the early occupants of the structure were enslaved.

“So we know he didn’t live here, he didn’t build it, and we don’t know who lived there, correct?” Reed asked.

Nash told her that her conclusion was correct, and that they hope to find more in the coming months about who did.


New housing for homeless turned down

The council rejected the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s grant application for a housing development on East Gay Street. The grant, which would have been through the Housing Trust Fund, would have built three new housing projects designated for those who are chronically homeless and with special needs.

Emily McCarty, community development and grant coordinator, presented the council with the plan to build one- and two-bedroom units that would be energy efficient and close to city transportation and other city resources.

Councilman Chris Jones and Mayor Reed both agreed that while they think the city needs more affordable housing, they said the Northeast neighborhood already has a high concentration of that kind of housing.

Both Jones and Reed, who pointed out that they live in the Northeast neighborhood, suggested the Housing Authority look into other neighborhoods to build such properties. They also said communication with residents was necessary and that no one had talked to residents or the Northeast Neighborhood Association about the proposed new buildings.

The resolution was unanimously voted down.

City to seek bike lane and sidewalk grants

The council unanimously agreed on two resolutions of support for two public works projects to apply for grants through the Highway Safety Improvement Grant Program. Tom Hartman with the Public Works Department presented the information to council for their review.

The funds won’t be available for six years because of the grant’s parameters, Hartman said.

The first project the Public Works Department plans to apply for would put a sidewalk on Port Republic Road’s south side. The second grant would help pay for changes to Federal Street. The plan would be to make the street one way while making the other half a shared use path:  ten to twelve feet wide through the south end of the city.

The council unanimously approved both resolutions, paving the way for Public Works to apply for the grants.

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