Scooter crackdown gets thumbs up from council

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor 

Harrisonburg is a little closer to allowing police and city staff to impound scooters abandoned in a right-of-way, blocking entryways or pedestrian traffic, or being ridden on sidewalks downtown.

Those provisions to include scooters into existing city ordinances — as well as a ban on allowing two or more people to cram onto a scooter and a requirement for riders under 14 to wear a helmet — won unanimous approval at Tuesday’s city council meeting, setting up final approval of how to enforce the rules in January.

City Attorney Chris Brown presented the council with details from his staff’s recent meetings with representatives from the electric scooter companies Bird and Lime-S.

Brown said the representatives took seriously city officials’ safety concerns, including where and how the scooters are “staged,” or parked to await new riders. They agreed to increase self-policing, including removing the scooters before inclement weather events, but did not follow through in time for Sunday’s snow.

“Eventually, the market will correct a lot of the problems we’re seeing,” Brown said, such as overcrowding of unused scooters, “but who knows when that will happen.”

He added that one company intends to introduce electric bicycles to Harrisonburg in the spring to add to its scooter fleet.

City Manager Eric Campbell said he had received “anecdotal complaints from the [public works] department” about the placement of the scooters.

After the  proposed amendments passed unanimously, Council member Chris Jones then joked, “It’d be a nice Christmas present if they started disappearing.”

Higher signs near I-81?

Despite city staff’s recommendation to the contrary, the council voted 4-1 to approve a request from Holtzman Oil Company to get special permission to raise its sign by the Interstate 81 exit 243 interchange. Holtzman owns the truck stop property which includes Joe’s Griddle & Grill on South Main Street.

Richard Baugh was the lone vote against it.

Currently, sign heights are limited to 35 feet in the area, although some nearby signs have been built higher under special use permits that are not still available.

Adam Fletcher, Director of Planning and Community Development, said his staff first began looking into this issue in November of 2017 upon Holtzman’s request. Other jurisdictions range wildly in their treatment of sign height near the interstate: four have no regulations and Strasburg limits all signs to just eight feet. Eddie Edwards Signs, Inc. estimated that the average sign height along the Interstate 81 was 91 feet, although many of these are now “non-conforming” to local codes.

Holtzman’s argument, Fletcher said, is that the company’s Mount Jackson truck stop  — with a more visible sign — sold almost twice as many gallons of gas in the last two years as the Harrisonburg location. The company projects that increased business from a taller sign could bring as much as $110,000 per year to the city through tax revenue.

However, Fletcher said the Mount Jackson location, off of exit 273, is relatively easier to enter and exit. For tractor trailers leaving the Harrisonburg location to return to the interstate, they must make a left turn across several lanes of often busy traffic. His staff recommended denying the request.

Before ultimately approving the request, council members debated the likelihood of the other 31 businesses in the interchange area raising their signs. They also discussed how large an impact road signage has for truck stops, when truckers may rely more on personal experience or GPS information to decide where to stop.

In other news …

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, which drew about three dozen residents and observers, the council:

  • Unanimously supported an amendment to allow for more flexibility with parking regulations for medium-density residential areas, potentially allowing townhouse developments to devote less space to parking and more to green space. It would primarily affect parking requirements for housing subdivisions in R7 zones. The only two currently in use are Brookside Park and The Quarry, with two more under construction. Currently, city ordinance requires four off-street parking spots per townhouse, based on how many bedrooms are in the unit. As a result, some townhouse parking lots are required to have many more spaces than tenants have cars to park in them. 
  • Unanimously passed a request for two jointly-owned commercial parcels on East Market Street — formerly the home of Mattress Warehouse and Long John Silver’s — to use a “comprehensive sign plan” to advertise their businesses rather than separate business signs for each parcel. 
  • Voted to purchase the small parking lot between Black’s Run and the historic Denton building jointly with the county to serve as extra court parking. The supplemental appropriation was for $215,500.
  • Approved the rezoning of a property on South High Street near the intersection of South Avenue, which the owner had applied to convert from industrial to conditional business zoning. 
  • Ended the two-and-a-half-hour meeting by going into a closed session, which City Attorney Chris Brown proposed to discuss a personnel matter.

Appointments delayed until 2019

The council decided to review appointments to boards and commissions when they reconvene in January – including the Harrisonburg Electric Commission, Transportation Safety and Advisory Commision, Parks and Recreation Commission, Community Services Board, and Planning Commission.

They also discussed the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee, an 11 member group created by the city council to recommend ways the city can improve energy efficiency, the environment and sustainability in 2017. Vice-Mayor Richard Baugh, who also serves on the committee, says that the hope is for them “to have the sustainability plan back to city council in six months.”

Council member Chris Jones said he would like to see more people of color on or advising the committee to better represent the city.

The committee has autonomy in deciding who will advise it, but the members themselves are appointed by city council for indefinite terms.

“We have to be intentional that we’re putting people on the boards and commissions that reflect our city, so that all voices are being heard,” said Mayor Deanna Reed.

While existing committee members were sought for being technical experts in their fields, Jones said he would like to see people on the committee who are seen as “leaders in their community and advocates.”

Byrd’s last meeting

The meeting opened with the recognition of council member Ted Byrd’s 12 year public service on the council. Tuesday was his last meeting as a council member after not seeking re-election this fall.

Mayor Deanna Reed recognized Byrd with a framed resolution, which acknowledged his contributions to environmental regulation compliance, public transportation, updates to public utilities, and renovations to the fire department, among others. Reed closed the special recognition by thanking Byrd for “making the city of Harrisonburg a better place to live.”

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