Recent JMU land purchases give new life to a longstanding city anxiety

After purchasing 201 Port Republic Road, seen here from Crawford Avenue, JMU demolished the building – to the dismay of some neighbors. Photo by Logan Roddy.

By Logan Roddy, contributor

To James Madison University, demolishing the house at 201 Port Republic Road – purchased for $245,000 in February 2020 – was a sensible move, given its condition. To many residents of the Purcell Park neighborhood, however, it was an ominous sign

“JMU is getting too close for comfort… definitely concerned! Do we know what their plans are for the property?” wrote one member of a private Facebook group for neighborhood residents this spring.

Some said they’d heard it would become a parking lot. Another, who lives on nearby Orchard Lane, said they expect that JMU would buy their house if they ever sell.

“Expanding further into the Crawford Road corner has been part of their plan for at least 10 years or so,” the person wrote.

At 217 Port Republic Road, two houses down from the now-empty lot at 201, the same thing happened after the university bought the property for $150,000 in March 2019. All told, neighborhood resident Nicky Gauthier-Martin, said the school’s recent property acquisitions shows its relationship with the city around it has become “less symbiotic and more parasitic” in recent years.

“The university’s encroaching more and more and in especially very established residential neighborhoods,” Gauthier-Martin said. “This is one of few neighborhoods with affordable housing, you could actually find a single family home for under $200,000, even $150,000. And for them to buy those houses is heartbreaking.”

Gauthier-Martin moved to Harrisonburg from Waynesboro seven years ago in search of a modestly priced house where she and her family could build a life and hopefully one day retire. But she now fears that the unpredictability of the university’s expansion threatens that dream.

“So now I have a little house, it has one bathroom, it’s great for me and my little family, and I thought I would retire in this home, but now I have to think, ‘Well, I’m just a street or two down, so how much time do I have?’” Gauthier-Martin said. “‘Do I need to sell it now, can I retire in this house, or when I’m at that age am I even going to be able to sell it? Will no one want to buy it except JMU and then we’ll just get a crappy price because they know they’re the only option?”

These sorts of fears have long accompanied JMU’s rapid growth in Harrisonburg over the decades, during which time it has consistently expanded its footprint in the city. According to public records, the university has spent $10,400,383 to purchase 14 properties in Harrisonburg since 2017.

While half of these properties are now being used for faculty and staff housing, four (including 201 and 217 Port Republic Road) have been demolished. One lot now holds the newest East Campus parking deck and the new Atlantic Union Bank Center, one became the Harrisonburg Resource Recovery Center  at 1630 Driver Drive, and one is being leased to the Canterbury Episcopal Campus Ministry.

University says it is often approached by sellers

Responding to the concerns from neighbors about the demolition of 201 Port Republic Road, university spokesperson Mary-Hope Vass said JMU “strive(s) to be a good neighbor.”

“The university’s record indicates, we improve properties purchased, unless the property has to be demolished due to its condition,” Vass wrote in an email to The Citizen.

When it comes to property selection, Vass continued, the university is often contacted by prospective sellers, “especially when the university has purchased a property in an adjacent area/neighborhood.  The university reviews each of the properties to determine if they may be strategically beneficial to the university for the future.”

Although the university has a master plan regarding future development of the current campus, Vass said it has no formal plans that identify specific areas of the city for new land acquisition.

City’s role very limited

According to Harrisonburg spokesperson Michael Parks, there is no substantive communication between the university and city government regarding JMU’s plans for expansion.

“It’s important to remember that JMU is a state agency, so they don’t have to follow the City’s zoning regulations and as such we are rarely involved in those conversations,” Parks wrote in an email. “Once they own a property, from a use perspective, they can use it as they wish. They may work with us on things such as a street connection, or water/sewer connections. But they don’t bring projects before us for vote/action or something like that.”

While the city does have a JMU Liaison Committee, including a few council members and City Manager Eric Campbell, Parks said that it has no real authority and is more intended for the city and the university “to make sure we are staying connected.”

Parks said the Liaison Committee has not discussed the individual property purchases that have alarmed some residents of the Purcell Park neighborhood.

According to Vass, those purchases are not part of a larger plan to expand further into the neighborhood. Regardless, Gauthier-Martin and some of her neighbors feel there isn’t much they or the city can do to control the university’s expanding presence in Harrisonburg.

“I really don’t know what my rights are or what I can do as a citizen to even try to come back at it, like is it just hopeless?” Gauthier-Martin said. “Do I just see my neighbors watch their yards get demolished and watch their housing values plummet and watch their kids have no safe area to play? I just don’t know anymore.”

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