Democratic council candidates carve out slight differences over approaches toward housing, JMU and the golf course’s fate

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

The candidates seeking the Democratic nominations for this fall’s city council election signaled a general agreement on big-picture issues, such as supporting education and working to encourage affordable housing, although they each sought to differentiate themselves over how they’d prioritize certain approaches. 

The five candidates are vying for three nominations in a long-distance caucus conducted by emailed and mailed ballots by May 16. Incumbents Richard Baugh and Deanna Reed are running against newcomers Laura Dent, Charles Hendricks, and Luciano Benjamin.The three nominees will move on to the general election to face any Republicans or independents in the Nov. 3 election for the three council seats up for re-election. 

All five candidates responded to questions about key local issues as part of a virtual town hall Wednesday night hosted by The Citizen and JMU’ Madison Center for Civic Engagement and Dukes Vote. The virtual forum, conducted through Zoom, was supposed to have been streamed over Facebook at 7 p.m., but the overburdened site couldn’t handle prime-time traffic of so many groups and communities using the service globally amid the pandemic. Instead, the town hall was recorded and will be made available on social media and on The Citizen:

The forum — moderated by The Citizen’s Bridget Manley with questions asked by JMU students Aaliyah McLean and Angelina Clapp — led with a disussion about the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which yielded wide praise among the newcomers of the existing council for some of the steps and policies the city has taken so far. 

The need for more efforts to promote inclusivity, a greater push to encourage restorative justice to improve community relations with police and support for an increase in public participation all drew wide support among the five candidates as well.

Other issues allowed the candidates to more clearly distinguish themselves. 

Affordable housing

The candidates, for instance, promoted slightly different approaches for how to encourage more affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents. 

Benjamin called for strict measures to hold accountable landlords and create more protections for tenants. He also JMU could do more to address the problem.

“We need to make sure JMU students are housed on campus for more than a year,” Benjamin said. However, while JMU opened a new residence hall in the fall, its enrollment growth over the last 20 years outpaced the number of available beds in on-campus housing. That has shifted more students into off-campus apartments in the city and Rockingham County. 

Hendricks suggested working with developers and encouraging them to think outside the box. 

“Being creative and open with developers is going be a critical element for solving the problem,” he said. 

Reed said that while ensuring affordable housing is one of her goals on city council, she also wants to see more equity as affordable housing becomes more widely available in Harrisonburg. 

“I want to see it throughout the city,” Reed said. “There should be no poor area and elite area.”

Dent responded by asking the council to reconsider how to define affordable housing because the term carries different meanings for city residents with different levels of income. 

Low-barrier homeless shelter

In addressing Harrisonburg’s homeless problem, many of the candidates pointed to the city’s work with JMU to designate Godwin Hall as a shelter for people experiencing homelessness this spring during the pandemic. 

It shows “we can solve complex problems quickly,” Hendricks said. 

The Godwin Hall solution, however, is temporary and will last only until students return to campus, as Reed noted. Reed has been working with local organizations to find ways to best provide help to people experiencing homelessness, especially after a series of incidents last summer. One idea has been for the city to at least help fund a shelter that has fewer restrictions than existing facilities and, for instance, wouldn’t turn away people for substance abuse issues or for having pets. 

Baugh said the council would need to tread carefully in deciding how to proceed with a permanent shelter — especially whether to build it as opposed to help operate it. 

“It would actually be a mistake to build a shelter first and then get a better understanding of the people using it,” Baugh said. “We’ve been approaching it this way because that’s what the best minds are telling us to do.”

Some of the candidates agreed that further conversations with stakeholders in the shelter would be needed. Dent said a low-barrier shelter would be a good opportunity to tap into available state and federal funding, while Benjamin said the council would need to think beyond a shelter in order to help Harrisonburg’s homeless population.

“When I think about the house-less population, I don’t want to put them in a shelter, I want to put them in a home,” he said. 

The city’s relationship with JMU

The need for more cooperation between JMU and the city was widely agreed upon between both incumbents. Baugh described communication between the two as being at an all-time high.

“Like it or not, our relationship with JMU is that of a neighbor,” Baugh said. “They are an entity of the state, and we can order them to do things, but it’s in our best interest to work together, which is where we’ve been successful.” 

In developing a better working relationship with the university, Reed suggested including students in the city’s liaison committee with JMU in which city and university leaders meet regularly to talk about strategic issues. 

“There is no Harrisonburg without JMU or EMU,” Reed said. “I just want students to know you are part of our community. We need you and the more we get together, the better.”

Benjamin — who is preparing the graduate from JMU next week — said the university needs to increase its investment in the city and cover costs of its effect on residents. That, he said, would mean a more stern hand from the city council. 

Dent – an adjunct instructor at JMU – said the university could contribute more by building more on campus housing and providing their own transportation in order to ease the burden of affordable housing and public transit for the city’s working class families. 

“I’ve been through the permeable membrane to see how JMU can improve that synergy,” Dent said.

Heritage Oaks Golf Course

The debate over what the city should do with the Heritage Oaks Golf Course ,which has a net cost to the city of more than a half-million-dollars to operate per year, had the candidates agreeing that the city should use the land — but they differed over how. 

Dent said the conflict over Heritage Oaks ties directly into the core values of her campaign – sustainability, equity, and compassion – as tax subsidies for the course benefit only a small minority of Harrisonburg residents. 

“I believe we can put that money to better use elsewhere,” she said. 

Benjamin also said the course was exclusionary for city residents, so he would support closing the course for golfing and repurposing the land for widespread public use. 

“I think there are far better things we can do with that land to let our residents use it to its full capacity.”

Reed said she would be open to discussions about alternative uses for the land but would need to take a closer look before she made a decision. She said she worried about how closing the course could affect the 15 employees who work there. 

“If we shut down the golf course, what will happen to them?” Reed asked. 

Environmental issues

On environmental policies, Hendricks stressed his experience as an architect in developing buildings in the city with a minimum energy standard, while Reed said she would like to see the return of a curbside recycling pickup option in Harrisonburg.

Both Dent and Benjamin championed the “50 by 25 campaign” which aims to reduce carbon emissions is Harrisonburg by 50% by the year 2025. Dent suggested a more short-term plan to reach that goal though. She said she supports a recent call from Gov. Ralph Northam for a 30%reduction In carbon emissions by 2022 to reach the 50-by-25 goal. 

Other issues

The candidates also discussed Harrisonburg’s recently published comprehensive plan and the question of what will be done with the Denton building downtown. Baugh, for instance, said he wouldn’t support an effort for the county and city to take over the Denton building in order to use it as part of the criminal justice complex. Baugh expressed his support for keeping the building as mixed-use for businesses and apartments.  

“I agree that type of development is the future and our planning is already that way to support that,” Baugh said. 

Reed said she supports saving the Denton building in its current role as a space for affordable housing. 

“It’s home to 40 affordable apartments,” Reed said. “I understand why people have their concerns, but I’m trying to get people off the street, not put them on the street.”

The last question of the forum came from a member of the community, submitted before the town hall on social media, and asked about the need for affordable childcare in Harrisonburg. As all candidates agreed that it is a pressing issue, Dent called out the council’s decision to prioritize other needs in the city before childcare in the budget. She pointed to a draft of the 2020-21 budget the council is considering now that took out $10,000 in city funding for a child care facility. 

“Why are we funding a golf course instead of child care?” Dent asked. “I would appreciate the city council putting that back in the budget. 

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