Residents weigh in on major mixed use complex and a need for a homeless shelter

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Housing issues dominated Tuesday’s Harrisonburg City Council meeting, with local residents delivering two petitions to the council – one against a proposed high-density housing complex and one asking the city to build a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

The council voted unanimously to hold off until later this month to make a decision on the high-density development after a public hearing for the rezoning and special use permitting of a 6.6 acre property at Foley Avenue and Reservoir Street. Developers want to build a 375-bedroom housing complex with retail spaces. 

But with council member George Hirschmann absent — and asking to be included in the decision — the council agreed to table a vote until the next meeting, Oct. 22.  

Adam Fletcher, director of planning and community development, said the project was reminiscent of another housing complex planned on Peach Grove Avenue that also required rezoning and three special use permits. The council approved those applications in May.

The property debated at Tuesday night’s meeting is “one of the remaining few undeveloped sections of Reservoir Street,” Fletcher said. 

The developer, Madison Lucy Realty, LLC, submitted a concept drawing that, while not legally binding, detailed a plan to build 100 apartments – five one-bedroom units, five two-bedroom units and 90 with four-bedrooms. The complex could also include a pool, gym and other common spaces, as well as ground-floor spaces for retail stores or restaurants.

The rezoning request would take the property from a medium-density to a high-density residential district. 

The three special use permits would cover the development’s plans to: 

  • construct more than 12 multi-family units;
  • build structures taller than four stories;
  • and include retail and restaurant spaces.

In addition, a small piece of the property is in the floodplain, Fletcher said.

The developer has agreed to not build within 100 feet of the property line that borders the Woodland housing subdivision. And the developer pledged to build a large fence along that border and maintain a small forested corner of the property.

The city staff recommended that the council approve the rezoning and permits with the added condition that the development couldn’t include stand-alone buildings for anything other than housing. 

The planning commission voted unanimously against the rezoning and two of the special use permits, effectively balking at the project’s size, but unanimously in favor of the third special use permit to allow the mix of retail and residential. 

More than 30 local residents stood up during Tuesday’s public hearing to signify their opposition to the project. A dozen of them spoke against it. One person delivered a petition to the council with 68 signatures from neighborhood residents.

Many cited concerns, such as developers not promising to build a large fence or leave a 100-foot barrier on the Foley Road side of the property as well as their opposition to the removal of “a very vibrant forest” on the property and adding traffic to an already “dangerous intersection” on Reservoir Street. Some residents raised the potential for an increase in flooding after storms.

Council member Richard Baugh directed residents to the Harrisonburg Conservation Assistance Program and the Drainage Improvements Program, which both launched this year to help provide funding to property owners and neighborhoods dealing with drainage problems. 

Tom Hartman, director of public works, said some residents already contacted his office about the programs.

The council did unanimously approve another rezoning request in Tuesday’s meeting. This property, also on Foley Road, is slated for the construction of 12 one-bedroom apartments to be rented only to families or two unrelated persons.

Calls for a low-barrier shelter

Eight local residents, some who are now or have been homeless, spoke during public comment in support of a year-round, low-barrier homeless shelter. Such a facility would be open to anyone — as opposed to people in specific circumstances, such as abuse survivors or families — and would not bar people for being intoxicated. 

The group delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to the council, which participants of the Occupy Harrisonburg movement have been circulating for the past few weeks.

The request comes after a difficult summer in which more people began sleeping on the streets in the downtown area, fanning concerns from business owners, people experiencing homelessness, community organizations seeking to help them and city leaders. 

Mayor Deanna Reed began meeting with stakeholders in July to discuss possible solutions.

Bruce Busching, one of the initiators of the petition, told The Citizen before the meeting that “volunteers, waitstaff, people from churches, [and] people at the Pride festival” all helped to circulate the petition.

“What we’re trying to do is generate the political will in the community and communicate to the city council … so that the actual process of planning a shelter, using the resources of the city and community, starts happening,” Michael Snell-Feikema, another organizer, told The Citizen.

Katina Perry, who is homeless, helped gather signatures and spoke in Tuesday’s meeting.

“We just want to sleep at night,” Perry said. “We all have lives; we all matter to someone out there.”

Reed responded to the petition, saying, “please don’t think that we are not trying to solve this issue. We are really looking at the options and what we can do as a city.” 

Reed said in addition to the ongoing stakeholder meetings, she has been meeting with developers to discuss potential affordable housing solutions, such as tiny homes.

She also said while attending the Virginia Municipal League’s annual conference this week, it became clear that city leaders across the commonwealth face housing and homelessness issues.

“It is a crisis. And it’s a crisis for more than just Harrisonburg,” Reed said.

Magnets show off the newly-unveiled seal and logos for Harrisonburg city departments.

Also at the meeting:

  • City staff unveiled the new city seal and logos for city departments, giving away magnets and other paraphernalia with the slogan, “friendly by nature.”
  • The council unanimously approved a special use permit to allow a small manufacturing operation at the former “Big L Tire” building on West Gay Street, to allow a coffee roasting business. The applicant also plans to develop a diner and coworking space on the property.
  • The council passed three special use permit applications for short-term rentals. Two had unanimous support. Vice-mayor Sal Romero, who also serves on Planning Commission, voted against the third application. Because the commission had split, three to three, in voting on the application, they gave no recommendation either way to City Council. Romero had planned to visit the neighborhood to hear their complaints, but because the application was tabled in Planning Commission, he said he didn’t think it was ready for the council’s review. 

— Contributor Kyle Kirby added to this report by conducting the interviews with Busching and Snell-Feikema.

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