Denton building’s future sparks protest, uncertainty among council members

Katina Dellapenna, with the mic, has been homeless in Harrisonburg for two years. She also helped organize the petition to council for a low-barrier shelter.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Concern about the fate of the Denton building in downtown Harrisonburg drew about 50 people to Court Square Thursday to protest the county administration’s interest in purchasing the historic building, which houses Larkin Arts, a bail bonds office and apartments. 

The county is interested in expanding its court services, as The Daily News-Record first reported. But if the county decides to move forward with the purchase, it would require approval from both the county supervisors and the Harrisonburg City Council because the two local entities share those court services. 

After The Citizen reached out to all five members of Harrisonburg’s City Council this week, two of them — Richard Baugh and George Hirschmann — said they’re aware of the county’s interest in the building but cautioned that it’s too early in the process to know whether a deal could come together. 

“I wouldn’t bet on it at this time,” Hirschmann said in an email. 

The other three members of the council didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

County Administrator Stephen King told The Citizen that the Denton building is attractive for court expansion because of its location — adjacent to the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Judicial Center. King said the county also looked at other properties downtown and even considered relocating the courts elsewhere in the county.

Part of the need for expansion, he said, stems from an increase in court cases. King said he was unsure if that increase is driven by population growth or other factors.

“We haven’t done any kind of study to address the why there are more court cases,” King said. 

To organizers of Thursday’s protest, such as Michael Snell-Feikema, part of the problem lies in the content of those cases.

“Change the enforcement priorities” away from matters like misdemeanor trespassing charges against homeless people, he told The Citizen after the rally.

Who makes the decision? 

Rockingham County is the fiscal agent for the judicial services that they share with the city. 

The two entities are equally fiscally responsible, but the county is the one that takes the initiative on court-related issues, City Manager Eric Campbell said.

“They have initiated the discussions, and we’re at the table as a partner of the shared services,” Campbell said. At this point, though, “it was just an initial review and staff discussion … It’s at a very, very early stage of staff review, so it’s not like there are specific plans or a timeframe.”

If county staff decide they’d like to acquire the building, the purchase would have to be approved by both the city council and county board of supervisors. 

Council Member Richard Baugh wrote in an email to The Citizen that he understood consideration of the building to be “very much in the early stages,” and it could turn out to not be viable.

“I do tend to be a fan of fully considering the broadest reasonable range of options, not for stylistic reasons but because my understanding is that this is how communities make the best decisions,” Baugh wrote. “This means that personally I tend to err on the side of being open to considering things, rather than looking for reasons to take options off of the table before a process really starts moving along.”

Council Member George Hirschmann wrote in an email to The Citizen that “there has been some talk about the property,” but he too was unsure “whether a deal could be made.”  

Mayor Deanna Reed, Vice Mayor Sal Romero and Council Member Chris Jones did not answer The Citizen’s requests for comment.

More space? 

The need for more court-related space really began earlier this year, King said, when the Virginia General Assembly assigned a new judge to the local Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. The Daily News-Record reported that Rachel Figura was elected to the position in February. 

“We were struggling to come up with space,” King said. The county magistrate’s office moved to a new building, and court services were shuffled around to make space for two more courtrooms, one of which would house Figura’s cases.

King said the county is looking at expanding into the Denton building to prevent another scramble for space years down the road.

“It’s not an urgent situation,” King said. 

Specifically, the judicial services will need more room for “courtrooms or court-related functions … storage, files, clerks, [and] the commonwealth’s attorney’s office is very crowded right now.” King said they’re also looking for a long-term home for the magistrate’s office.

But King said it’s “absolutely not true” that the Denton building would be used for jail space. 

“We are not expanding or moving or creating a satellite jail or anything,” he said. 

Michael Snell-Feikema leads Thursday’s rally opposing the idea of the county and city purchasing the Denton building.

What the protesters want

The local governments’ consideration of the purchase attracted people to Court Square on Thursday for several reasons. 

“Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none,” protesters sang from the old miners’ organizing song, “Step by step.”

Carol Snell-Feikema, who led the song, thanked the attendees for showing up “and being a drop of water.”

The rally was organized by participants of Occupy Harrisonburg, one of the local groups that has taken up the torch of housing and homelessness issues. 

Many said they generally oppose expansion of the criminal justice system. Several speakers also denounced spending taxpayer money on this building instead of on affordable housing initiatives. And, if the building is repurposed for the courts, it will mean the loss of more 40 studio apartments that are housed in its upper stories.

“That’s exactly what our city leaders say we need more of in this town” is affordable housing, organizer Michael Snell-Feikema said during the rally. 

Some of the other organizers who spoke are currently homeless or have been in the past.

“We deserve homes,” Katina Dellapenna said. “We need action now! Not tomorrow!” She challenged the city council to lay on the concrete at night to get a taste of life on the streets, garnering a few cheers from the protestors.

A representative from the National Union of the Homeless, Anthony Prince, also came to support the protestors. 

Occupy Harrisonburg participant Bruce Lundeen told The Citizen that he met Prince through Poor People’s Campaign conferences earlier this year. Lundeen, Prince, and others are working to reestablish the union, which was active from the mid-1980s into the 1990s.

“We just voted [this year] to start it back up formally,” Lundeen said.

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