City council tables Bluestone housing development for now after four hours of public comments and discussion 

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)

By Rachel Petterson, contributor

After approving zoning ordinance changes that would pave the way for the proposed Bluestone Town Center, the city council ended up putting off the decision to approve that development after more than four hours of discussion that stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday.

The presentations and public comments about Bluestone Town Center attracted a flood of input.

It was the second council meeting held so far on this housing development, which is a joint effort between the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and investment advisory firm EquityPlus. The plans for Bluestone call for about 900 housing units that include a mix of single-family and multi-unit housing. 

Numerous community members offered support for Bluestone during Tuesday’s meeting, sometimes sharing emotional stories of their struggles with homelessness or their care for those who have experienced homelessness. They emphasized the importance of building more affordable housing in Harrisonburg and saw this as an opportunity to do so, especially with the help of housing vouchers. 

Shannon Porter, the executive director of Mercy House, was among those who urged the council to support the development to allow for more affordable housing inside the city limits at a time when Harrisonburg has been struggling with a housing crunch. 

“The reality is we cannot wait and we are behind,” he said. “The reality is that if this dies tonight, we have nothing else on the horizon that’s even remotely adequate” 

Chris Gamble, who has experienced homelessness because of a disability, told the story of how he still had to wait seven months for housing after obtaining a voucher through Our Community Place. 

“Because of my health, I was moved to the top of the list,” he said. “Well, the housing situation in Harrisonburg dictated that I still had to wait seven months to get housing and during that seven months I was obviously disabled and homeless, which was a problem because that prevented me from pursuing the medical care that was needed.” 

Others were still against it. Their concerns included skepticism over the actual affordability of the development, the development’s potential for remaining a viable and desirable area to live, the value of the houses, and property taxes that low-income families might not be able to afford. Other concerns focused on:

  • the structural integrity of the land it would be built on.
  • potential  health risks posed by a nearby poultry farm. 
  • radon that may be released from the land.
  • increased traffic and volume in the schools; the walkability of the development.
  • and whether the council had enough trustworthy information from the developers. 

Some said while they had reservations about it, they also considered the need for more housing and did not commit to one side or the other. 

A group of 18 organizations backed the development, and representatives from some of them, such as Mercy House, United Way, and the Sierra Club spoke at the meeting. 

“There are not many issues that we would find the Sierra Club or the Chamber of Commerce on the same side of a fight,” said Avram Fechter, the managing director of EquityPlus. 

By the time public comment ended, it was past 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, and the council tabled the issue, along with two other agenda items: considering adopting a resolution for VDOT maintenance inventory adjustments and considering approval of CDBG 2020 Action Plan Amendment. 

Because of technicalities in the way the item was tabled, Bluestone will not appear on the next agenda, but the council will have the opportunity to motion to reopen the issue then. 

Council approves zoning changes to allow for developments like Bluestone

Before the marathon discussion about Bluestone Town Center, the council approved changes to the ordinance regarding R-7 zoning, which covers planned developments that include a mixture of types of housing, including detached single-family units, townhomes, and apartment buildings. 

As presented by Adam Fletcher, the city’s director of the Department of Community Development, the changes to the ordinance include: 

  • To increase allow up to 64 units in a multi-family building, up from 16.
  • To permit manufactured homes that are attached to a permanent foundation and limited to one per lot. 
  • To increase the maximum percentage of multiple-family units allowed in an R-7 development to 50%, up from 30%.

These changes would allow for Bluestone, with its density and use of manufactured homes, to be built and zoned as R-7. But the ordinance change doesn’t approve Bluestone, itself. 

Still, more than 20 community members participated in the public comment period Tuesday night, with the majority opposing the change. Most focused on the use of manufactured homes. Their concerns included the risk of taking away local construction jobs. 

The council discussed at length whether the use of manufactured homes would disrupt the long-term value of the homes, whether because of real inferior quality or perception of the homes regardless of actual structural integrity. 

“I think this is all about perception,” council member Monica Robinson said. “I’m thinking in terms of down the road. Not everybody’s going to want to leave it to someone in their family. They’re not going to want to pass this house on. Maybe perhaps they want to sell. So I would be interested in looking at data in terms of: How are these homes viewed by potential homeowners who are out there looking to purchase a home?”

Despite concerns, the council ultimately approved the changes in a unanimous vote. 

Each R-7 project, including Bluestone, still must secure separate approval individually even if the zoning exists to make the size, density and build of the homes possible. Several times throughout discussion amongst the council and the public, this change was referred to as a tool. 

“Expanding our toolkit, I’m in favor,” council member Dany Fleming said. “We need to address affordable housing. We are not making progress…We need something that allows that to happen in an affordable way.”

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