No clear path emerges yet for Heritage Oaks’ future

Jessica Rossi and Sal Musarra, who worked on the report about Heritage Oaks Golf Course, present options to the council for the course’s future during Tuesday’s meeting.

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Representatives from the Urban Land Institute presented three possible answers to the question about Heritage Oaks Golf Course’s future, but council members weren’t wowed by any of the options. 

The representatives from the Washington-based research institute, after studying the courses and getting community feedback, suggested: 

  • keeping and enhancing the course.
  • partially redeveloping it.
  • or completely redeveloping it.

“I’m looking for plan D,” as council member Laura Dent put it. “As in, keep it a city park, and repurpose it to be appealing to usable by a much broader and diverse segment of the population,” Dent said. “The best idea I’ve heard is, put a music venue out there.”

Ultimately, the council members agreed they needed more time to let the information sink in.

Sal Romero, the vice mayor, said there’s still community outreach to be done beyond a survey, which he said “typically engage the already engaged.”

“This is a community conversation, and I think we should decide as a community, and at the end of the day we’re going to make the decision,” Romero said. “I feel like, for me, this is great information, but I still personally need to talk to people within the community who need to be part of the conversation, and I think that’s the key.”

Several council members also said Heritage Oaks is located in a part of town inaccessible for some residents, including those among the 60 percent of Harrisonburg’s population who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed (called the ALICE population).

“So when I hear, ‘Oh, let’s just make it into a park,’ it’s like, we’ve got parks,” mayor Deanna Reed said. “So many people have different ideas about what to do with this golf course, but it’s a process. Just because you’ve got a massive piece of land, you just can’t throw anything on it and think it’s gonna be successful.”

Sal Musarra, chairman of the institute’s panel report, said the survey results showed polarized results. But he said those surveyed were generally not supportive of redevelopment alternatives, particularly a low income housing sector because it’s not close to many of the city’s amenities. 

Musarra also said the course’s finances have improved based on some new management and general upkeep practices. 

“Getting it to be financially viable certainly seems very feasible,” he said. 

Still, he said, the city would need to define realistic expectations for the course’s financial performance. And even though redeveloping the course would be challenging and potentially expensive, leaving the course as-is wouldn’t perform well either.

Approval of apartment development change

The council also approved a rezoning request for a future development targeted at more student housing. First approved as a mixed-use building in June 2019, the Apartments at Peach Grove developers came back Tuesday and presented the project as an all-residential building with a maximum of 460 bedrooms.

The pandemic quashed developers’ hopes for shops and commercial businesses on the development’s ground floor and apartments above, especially with stores being slow to resume pre-pandemic business and restaurants struggling to hire. 

The proposed amendments also took council by surprise, because configuration of the building had changed from when it was first proposed from a variety of one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom units to completely four-bedroom units. Such units make the development more likely to be targeted toward college students, several council members said. 

Council member Chris Jones said he had been excited about its mixed use potential when first presented in 2019, “but that’s where the economy was, that’s where the world was at that time.”

“We’re in a different place. In this particular case, I think we move forward with this project because of where it’s falling,” Jones said. “In addition to the fact that it’s literally right beside commercial (property) that I’m praying … stays there and does well.”

Reed pointed out that the location is also surrounded by other student housing developments and James Madison University facilities, and that even if they chose to deny the request they developers still have the option to move ahead with their proposed plans.

“When student housing comes up, it is my hope that when we do these types of projects, that it does pull students out of developments that can be used for affordable housing,” Reed said. “But the landlords have to be willing to do that. And this can hopefully free up for families in those areas.”

Dent, who also serves on the planning commission which unanimously voted to not recommend approving the request, said “it was more the general sentiment that we don’t need more student housing.”

“The other thing was that the applicant wasn’t willing to work with staff on some of the alternative layouts that would have been both more pedestrian friendly and left the option open for further development in the future, whether other commercial or even more residential units,” Dent said.

The request passed with a 3-2 vote, with Romero and Dent voting against it.

University Boulevard project on the move

The council also endorsed the Public Works Department’s plan to seek state money to help fund the $10.4 million University Boulevard Relocation Project. 

The plan includes a shared-use path installation along Forest Hill Drive, and would realign University Boulevard at the intersection of Oak Hill, and would go through property currently owned by JMU and along the edge of the arboretum. JMU has agreed to kick in nearly $4 million toward the project. 

Director of public works Tom Hartman said that “the section of University Boulevard that goes down near the interstate will be abandoned, and it’ll be grassed and we’ll remove that pavement.”

Engineering has been underway since August, and a design public hearing will be held in April 2022, followed by utility relocation through December 2024. Construction would start in 2025.

Also at the meeting, the council members: 

  • approved requests for developer PDY LLC to rezone, subdivide, and grant a special use permit for the construction of townhomes at the end of Suter Street, terminating the undeveloped cul-de-sac.
  • approved a resolution for the VDOT Transportation Alternatives Program Grant to seek funds to install sidewalks on Country Club Road between the Linda Lane shared use path and the Spotswood Trailer Park.
  • approved a resolution for the VDOT Transportation Alternatives Program Grant to seek funds to extend the Northend Greenway along the Brookside neighborhood between Jefferson and Suter Streets.
  • appointed Sara Snyer to the Social Services Board, and Andrew Payton to the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee.
  • approved a resolution to set the final percentage of personal property tax relief for the year 2021 to be 22.6%.

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