Huge proposed development sparks massive public discussion, then earns planning commission’s support

people sit in the audience listening to speakers
Area residents pack Tuesday’s special meeting of the planning commission and would fill a two hour-long public comment period offering pros and cons of the proposed Bluestone Town Center development. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

After considering arguments Tuesday for and against a nearly 900-unit housing development along Garber’s Church Road and Erickson Avenue, the Harrisonburg Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to recommend the project for the city council’s approval. 

The planning commission held a special meeting Tuesday evening focused on the proposed Bluestone Town Center development, which drew a crowd to the city council chambers. 

The proposed development’s size has brought to the foreground the complexities of increasing the availability of much-needed affordable housing. The details how constructing affordable rental and real-estate homes often become more complicated when developments are actually planned — and can affect nearby neighborhoods.

Bluestone Town Center would be a mixed-use devleompent that would add a combination of multi-family buildings, townhouses and single-family detached housing, as well as shops and businesses. The proposed development is a public/private partnership between the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and EquityPlus, an investment advisory firm.

The project has sparked heated debate, with change.org petitions both for and against the project. Both the local chapter of the Sierra Club and Climate Action Alliance of the Valley support the development. 

Opponents of the project presented arguments regarding the geological characteristics of the area, the health implications of nearby poultry houses, storm water runoff, traffic concerns, and the added strain to the school system, police and fire departments. 

And city planning staff presented their own concerns to the planning commission — mainly regarding some of the proffers that the development planners presented as part of the master plan for the project. A proffer is an offer by the developer during a rezoning process to donate money or perform acts to justify the proposed rezoning.

Two of the three main concerns city staff raised focused on the developers’ promise to incorporate solar panels and green spaces — elements that weren’t clearly outlined in the plan, according to Assistant Director of Planning and Zoning Thanh Dang. 

Dang told the planning commission that the proffer regarding solar panels was vague and not measurable and said the proposed green spaces were too to be walkable by the development’s residents.

Michael Wong, executive director of HRHA, and Avram Fetcher, managing director of EquityPlus, fielded questions about the proffers and said they could not be more specific regarding solar panels and green spaces because plans were not yet far enough along.

The third proffer with which city staff had concerns had to do with proposed money that the developers would give to the city to address the added students in city schools. Developers have promised a $50,000 payment per unit to the city to pay for the additional considerations, such as school construction, road construction, city police, fire and other issues.

The city, however, would only keep $10,000 for each unit, and would then “loan back” $40,000 per unit to the developers for construction as part of a long-term loan. 

Westley Russ, assistant city attorney, told the commission that while many municipalities accepted monetary proffers, he did not know of a municipality that made an agreement where the money would be loaned back. 

Developers acquiesced to those concerns, saying that while the long-term loan was set up in order to fund the full project, they were open to more discussions about how to work through the loan proffer. 

That proffer was ultimately pulled from the approved recommendations until further discussions about funding could be had with developers and city staff. 

Image of grassy land
The land on the corner of Garbers Church Road and Erickson Avenue is the site for the planned Bluestone Town Center. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Community members pack public comment

Public comment lasted for two hours.  

Several members of Friendly City for Smart Growth who spoke to the planning commission raised health issues they were worried about. 

Eric Pyle, a geology professor at JMU and resident close to the proposed development, told the commission that the underlying rock that was prevalent in the area could pose major problems to future residents with radon gas. According to the EPA, Harrisonburg is in a “Zone 1” Radon Zone – the highest potential for radon gasses.

Pyle also said removing that rock would most likely require blasting, which might lead to greater water runoff and lead to sinkholes. 

Multiple residents brought up stormwater runoff, which is already an issue in the area of Garbers Church Road. Many told the commission that during heavy rains, their lawns became rivers and their basements flooded.  Many were scared that further development would only increase flooding in the area. 

Jeremy Akers, another professor at JMU, asked the commission to consider the adverse health effects that poultry farms can have on those living close by.

Part of the development is only 100 feet away from a poultry farm located on the same plot of land. Later in the meeting, Commissioner Valerie Washington said she agreed that the poultry farm was a concern, noting that Black and Brown people have experienced negative health effects from environmental racism.

Another concern was the strain on the Harrisonburg school district, which is currently building a second high school, looking for property for the next elementary school, and is already feeling the pressure of staffing issues and overcrowded schools. 

During his presentation, EquityPlus’s Fetcher told the commission that the plan is to build 100 units per year over a 10-year period, and that according to his calculations, it would only add another 2-3 more students per grade level to the system. 

When the project is complete, it is projected that around 3,000 people will live in the town center. Many commenters said that adding what equals to be the same population size a Broadway or Elkton to the city would certainly put a strain on school resources. 

Others, however, supported the project. 

The two environmental groups whose representatives spoke in support of the project said planned communities with a greater density of people and walkable access to shopping and working lead to less vehicles on the roads. 

K.C. Kettler, spokesman for the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, told the planning commission that the severe housing shortage has caused builders to expand to the county, causing urban sprawl. 

“People can’t find decent housing because it doesn’t exist,” Kettler said. 

Others who support the project said that Harrisonburg had an opportunity to provide low-income housing for residents, while reducing the number of cars on the roads. Many cited the housing shortage and the need for public/private partnerships that could bring projects to life that help those who need it. 

The planning commission members acknowledged the concerns about flooding, health issues and the necessary resources that will need to be added, but ultimately decided that the need for affordable housing was far greater. 

“I don’t know how folks expect families — specifically those of low income or extremely low income — to afford [market value housing], so this is really nice,” Commissioner Valerie Washington said. “And to talk about wealth building and being able to house the more vulnerable…I can’t say no to that.” 

The project now moves to city council for approval. The council is slated to take up the matter at its Feb.14 meeting.

Street signs of Erickson Ave. and Garbers Church Road
(Photo by Bridget Manley)

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