Could ending single-family-only zoning ease city’s housing crunch?

By Stephanie Spernak, contributor

City officials say one way to allow for more affordable housing in Harrisonburg could potentially be another zoning change — one that makes it easier for developers to build duplexes in town. 

The city held a housing summit on the JMU campus, Saturday, bringing together community members and housing stakeholders to share information about housing issues and progress toward the “available housing for all” goal set out in the City Council’s “ Harrisonburg 2039” vision statement.  

At the summit, Adam Fletcher, the city’s director of community development, said the city council tasked his staff to review and redraft the city’s zoning ordinances to increase housing density on the available land.

And Fletcher said one proposed revision to increase housing density in the city would be to switch from “exclusionary” zoning that restricts some residential lots to only allow for single-family homes. Instead, “inclusionary” zoning will allow duplex homes on lots in all residential districts, he said.  

Home builders will also have more design flexibility, Fletcher said, as new zoning proposes to reduce lot widths, setback and parking requirements. 

His staff is also proposing that the hodgepodge of multiple zoning districts will be reduced to seven districts.

The current zoning map shows how Harrisonburg is divided up into multiple zones.

Similar zoning changes to increase density and lower land costs per dwelling are also being considered at the county and regional level, said Rhonda Cooper, director of development for Rockingham County, who also spoke at the housing summit.   

Other changes would include increased building heights and reduced or eliminated lot size. In addition, other changes might require fewer “linear feet of infrastructure,” such as utility lines, streets, sidewalks and shared use paths, Cooper said.   

Fletcher said other cities have successfully implemented zoning approaches like those Harrisonburg is considering. They can serve as models and pointed to Minneapolis as one example.  

But, Fletcher said, from staff’s perspective as they’ve begun looking into potential changes, it’s not yet clear if Harrisonburg is being “too aggressive or not aggressive enough” in changing zoning density.  

He said he wondered if two units per lot, such a duplex, was going to be enough to address the city’s housing crunch, especially for affordable units. The city paid for a consulting firm to examine some of the causes and potential options to address the lack of affordable housing. 

Fletcher also noted that the housing situation in Harrisonburg is complicated by big differences in the housing needs of the large student population and other city residents.  

Michael Parks, the city’s communications director, said updating the city’s zoning laws is an immediate priority and could be finished by 2022. Parks said the city is hiring for a new position — a Housing Coordinator — who, if hired in time, could start as early as January. That person will help lead the zoning revision effort and other priorities outlined in city’s “Harrisonburg 2039”

vision statement.

Parks said the process of revamping Harrisonburg’s zoning began this year. The city held a public meeting June 7.

The city’s planning commission gets first crack at approving any proposed zoning changes, and the city council must give the final approval. 

Fletcher said the impact of any changes in zoning “will not happen overnight,” but they will affect residents by offering more housing options.  

He said city officials want to make sure the public understands what is being proposed with zoning and said he wants community members to take advantage of upcoming education events. Fletcher urged residents to “be engaged, be involved and make sure you are heard.”

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