Council approves plan to spread CARES Act funds, bans most gatherings of more than 50 people

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The $4.6 million in federal CARES Act funding will go toward paying for school technology, personal protective equipment and facility cleaning, as well as providing assistance for businesses and the city’s housing insecure population. 

The Harrisonburg City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve that spending plan and then to implement a 60-day ban on many large gatherings in time for the return of college students to town. Both measures are aimed at addressing the ongoing ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Council member Chris Jones was absent.

The CARES Act spending proposal, which City Manager Eric Campbell presented in a work session last week, further outlines details of how to deploy the $4.6 million — a plan the council first discussed in July. Some covers expenses the city has already incurred, such as purchasing more than 600 laptops for city students to engage in virtual learning and disaster impact loans to local businesses.

Half of the $4.6 million will go to city expenses, which includes the business loans, cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment for public safety personnel and city staff, as well as facility modifications that include installing soap or sanitizer dispensers and door openers to minimize surface handling.

The other half of the money will be spent by sending:

  • $750,000 in additional business assistance grants;
  • $700,000 to Harrisonburg City Public Schools for adaptations like technology and instructional materials;
  • $600,000 for site stabilization and stormwater maintenance on the site of the new high school, construction of which was put on hold earlier this year;
  • And $564,000 in aid to the community, such as rental and mortgage assistance through the nonprofit Mercy House, and funding for food banks and other nonprofits.

Only one local resident called in with a comment during a public hearing about the funds. The caller supported housing assistance but opposed to spending money on the new high school’s site. 

Council member Richard Baugh responded, saying, “this is not an optional decision to go spend some more money on it. This is money that we’ve had to spend for a major project that is on hold because of COVID-19.” The expenses the city is still paying for the new school’s site covered work that prevents erosion and stormwater damage until construction resumes. 

Temporary ban on certain large gatherings

In anticipation of tens of thousands of college students returning to Harrisonburg in the coming weeks, the council members also sought to preempt large gatherings, like massive parties, which they fear could increase transmission of the coronavirus. 

The council voted unanimously on a temporary ordinance to prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people with only a few exceptions. Demonstrations and protests, religious gatherings, weddings, schools and places of employment are exempt from the rule. Sports leagues and venues are not exempt.

City Attorney Chris Brown said staff partially modeled the ordinance after similar ones recently passed in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“We know that in the next 10 days, we’re going to have a tremendous amount of people in the city. So this is just a little guideline for people to still feel safe,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. “This is supported by the universities as well.”

The ordinance goes into effect at midnight Wednesday and lasts for 60 days. 

Brown said police would give warnings “before they start actively enforcing this.” 

If officers order a gathering to disperse and those present refuse to do so, they can be charged with a class four misdemeanor and fined up to $250. The property host can be charged with a class three misdemeanor and fined up to $500.

Rezoning for DN-R building denied

The council also voted unanimously to deny rezoning and special use permit requests from Rockingham Properties, LLC, and Matchbox Realty for the site of the Daily News-Record building. Baugh recused himself from voting on the matter. 

The stumbling block for council was the fact that, if the site is rezoned from an industrial to business category, the owners would not have to provide any off-street parking. Matchbox intends to keep the Daily News-Record in the building, but redevelop part of the property for additional tenants, such as residential units, office or retail space or a restaurant. The council had tabled this vote in January in order to make a decision after the downtown parking study was completed. Council received the study in April. 

Adam Fletcher, director of planning and community development, told the council that the city hall parking lot, which sits across Liberty Street from the site, currently reaches 80% capacity during some peak times. But if Matchbox developed the property in a way that eliminated the 80 parking spots currently there, and added tenants to the property, then the nearby public parking lot would be pushed to over 95% capacity at peak times.

“The demand will then bleed into other blocks and other facilities,” Fletcher said. City staff recommended denying the rezoning request, but the Planning Commission had voted six to one in favor of it. 

Vice-mayor Sal Romero, who also serves on the commission, voted in favor of the project when the commission reviewed it months ago. But he said on Tuesday that after receiving the parking study findings in April, he became concerned about the project’s effects on other local businesses whose customers rely on parking in that city lot.

This “essentially would overwhelm the current parking that we have,” Romero said.

Also in the meeting:

  • The council unanimously accepted an amended naming and re-naming policy for city streets and properties. 
  • City Manager Eric Campbell told the council that building and fire inspections had been conducted at the Lineweaver public housing complex following tenant complaints aired in the last regular city council meeting. Campbell said there were no “major or significant findings” from the inspections. Reed said she had plans to meet with the board of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which operates the apartment building, “to make sure that the tenants are taken care of” and their voices heard.
  • Campbell also announced that the city had hired a consulting firm to begin the comprehensive housing assessment and market study, which should be completed by January 2021.

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