School leaders say Bluestone Town Center would accelerate need for new schools

Members of the city council and school board meet Friday, Jan. 27, to debate the effects the Bluestone Town Center development will have on the student population. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Harrisonburg School Board members told city council members Friday afternoon that if the council approves a proposed Bluestone Town Center development, the influx of potentially 3,000 more residents would stress school capacity and increase the need for building additional schools.

The Bluestone Town Center complex, which the Harrisonburg Planning Commission voted to advance to city council last week, will add nearly 900 rental and for-sale apartments, townhomes and single-family units in the area of Garbers Church Road and Erickson Avenue. 

School Superintendent Michael Richards, school board chair Deb Fitzgerald and vice-chair Andy Kohen met with council members Chris Jones and Monica Robinson, along with city attorney Chris Brown and city manager Andy Banks on Friday specifically to discuss the proposed project and its potential effect on the city schools.

The project, which is colloquially being called BTC, has sparked heated debate in recent weeks about health, traffic, and flooding concerns, as well as concerns regarding the strain on city services like the school system. The council is slated to take up the matter at its Feb.14 meeting.

Richards provided current capacity enrollment numbers as well as the projected numbers for city schools for 2031. 

Four of the city’s six elementary schools — Keister, Waterman, Smithland and Stone Spring —are already over capacity. The school board previously discussed searching for land to potentially build an additional future elementary school. 

Richards said a short-term — and free — fix for the current overcrowding in schools would be to rezone school zones. That would “buy some time,” Richards said, by putting students in overcrowded schools into zones with schools that are under capacity. 

But he said if the projected Bluestone Town Center population were added into the mix, rezoning wouldn’t be enough.

“I think that the BTC project would push us to the point where we would have to talk more about building sooner,” Richards said. 

Bluestone Elementary School, the school that students who live in the proposed development would attend, is under capacity. The school was built for 755 students and has 569. 

Bluestone Town Center would add an additional 273 students to the Bluestone Elementary School zone, according to the board’s calculations. Combined with normal projected growth,  it would add up to around 988 students at the elementary school.

Bluestone Elementary, which opened in 2017, has numerous features that stress environmental and energy conservation and stewardship. (Photo by Eric Gorton)

The board’s projections are an amalgam of projections from both the Weldon-Cooper Institute for Public Service and by months of data analyzation by Nzar Sharif, manager of data and reporting for city schools. (Sharif is a former contributor to The Citizen.)

Board members told the city council members that they did not have a public position in support or against the development but wanted the council to understand the potential implications the development could have on city schools and what the council might need to fund later if the development moves forward. 

The developers, which includes a partnership between the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the company EquityPlus, promised a $50,000 payment per unit to the city to pay for school construction. But city attorney Chris Brown told council and board members that the proposed funding was not just for city schools, but for all city services. 

That promise — known as a proffer — failed to win the planning commission’s support, in part because it would let the council only keep $10,000 for each unit, then the council would “loan back” $40,000 per unit to the developers as part of a long-term loan for the construction. Brown said Friday that the proffer wasn’t legal, according to the city. 

The information presented to council seemed to give members Jones and Robinson pause, although both acknowledged that affordable housing was a necessary need in the city. 

One of the arguments Bluestone Town Center’s supporters have given is that it would provide affordable for-purchase and rental homes for people in the city who are struggling to find housing, including those experiencing homelessness and the ALICE population — an acronym coined by United Way that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. 

Jones, saying housing was needed on “every single level,” said the people who are pre-approved for loans and looking for housing will be the people ready to buy.

“Those people that are pre-qualified, those people that are already in the market shopping, because they are prepared, those are going to be the people ready to buy,” Jones said. “So the odds of all of a sudden a city that is 58-60%…ALICE population that we talk about all the time, how they will suddenly be able at the front of the line to buy these properties would amaze me.” 

Robinson said while she has not made a decision about how to vote when the issue is expected to come before the council next month, she said wanted to hear from the ALICE population about their needs. 

“How do they feel about it? Do they want to be moved to a new area of the city that they haven’t been welcomed in, because there hasn’t been housing there before for them,” Robinson asked. 

“We do recognize that it is complicated,” Fitzgerald said. “We wanted to make sure that if you do go through with this, you had the information that you needed to make a good decision.” 

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