Community justice planner hired; Council approves first small houses in new zoning class 

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Starting March 9, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County will have a criminal justice planner, an addition to the court system for which local justice advocates have long been campaigning

City Manager Eric Campbell announced in the Harrisonburg City Council meeting Tuesday that the municipalities hired S. Frank Sottaceti, who formerly worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. More details would be released later this week, Campbell said.

The grassroots organization Faith in Action is one of several that urged the city to create the position as a way to monitor incarceration and recidivism data and identify potential approaches to reduce the financial and societal costs of the criminal justice system. They began their campaign in the fall of 2017, which lasted until last year, when the city and county included funds for the position. 

In an earlier interview with The Citizen, Nadia Dames, the organization’s campaign committee chair, said the group hopes whoever is hired “will shed light on the injustices taking place,” “reduce recidivism rates,” and “identify best practices to reduce the number of people incarcerated.”

R8 zoning pioneers to create affordable housing

The Central Virginia Habitat for Humanity will be the first to make use of the innovative “R8 small lot residential” zoning class to build smaller houses on three plots on Virginia Avenue, between Second and Third streets.  

This marks the first approval for the new R8 zoning class since the council added it to the city ordinances last year. Council created the new class for homes to be built on smaller lots, which allow for increased residential density within the city. One goal was that small houses would be affordable for lower-income and first-time home buyers.

The council unanimously approved the organization’s request to rezone the three Virginia Avenue properties from the lower density “R2 residential” to R8. Habitat intends to build a duplex on each property, doubling the number of housing units that would have been allowed under R2, based on the lot sizes. The parcels are currently vacant lots except for a few auxiliary structures.

“It does support our efforts to increase the availability of housing,” especially for low-income families, said Adam Fletcher, director of planning and community development.

David Wenger, the organization’s executive director, said Habitat has built more than 65 homes in the area — with a majority inside the Harrisonburg city limits — in the last three decades. 

City making progress on last year’s council retreat goals

Campbell provided an update on the council’s vision and priorities developed as part of a retreat last February, which staff then translated into a three-year work plan. Campbell said staff identified 72 projects from the council’s priorities. Of those, 21 are complete, 44 are underway and seven haven’t begun. 

Completed projects include restructuring the city’s process for funding local nonprofit organizations, conducting community walks with the Harrisonburg Police Department and adopting phase one of the Environmental Action Plan created by the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee.

Projects underway include developing a comprehensive housing plan, securing bond funding to build the new high school and expanding language support services “so that citizens feel they can engage their local government,” Campbell said.

Big-ticket projects still in the starting blocks include redeveloping the Water Street and Elizabeth Street parking decks and creating a comprehensive master plan for the Parks and Recreation Department. 

“There’s been a lot of work put into this, and very detailed work,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. “Sometimes we feel like things are not really happening, but it kind of takes time.”

Also at the meeting:

  • The council unanimously approved issuing up to $141 million in general obligation bonds. The bonds will finance construction of the new high school ($104.8 million), the Eastern Raw Water Line and other infrastructure ($15 million), a new public works building ($5.7 million), and associated issuance costs ($15.5 million). The resolution also allows the city to look into refinancing some of its existing bonds.
  • Reed recognized Barbara Blakey, who passed away on Feb. 4. Reed said Blakey was the first African American teacher Reed had in high school. “She was very much a trailblazer here in Harrisonburg,” Reed said.
  • The council unanimously appointed Dany Fleming to the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
  • The council unanimously approved permits for upcoming special event, including:
    • Feb. 23: Sunday Funday 1K, run by VA Momentum,
    • April 18: 5K Run/Walk for Autism by the Shenandoah Valley Autism Partnership,
    • April 18: Rocktown Beer & Music Festival at the Turner Pavilion,
    • Oct. 17: 18th annual Race to Beat Breast Cancer 5K by the Parks and Recreation department, and
    • Oct. 24: the Skeleton Festival on Court Square.

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