Council approves housing projects, denies request for boarding house

A map showing plots of land marked off between major roads.
The aerial view shows the location of the planned Tuscan Village housing development off Country Club Road and Keezletown Road. (Image from Harrisonburg city council materials)

Housing development issues dominated the agenda Harrisonburg City Council’s first meeting of 2024 with the council giving the go-ahead for 113 new homes on Harrisonburg’s east side and, conversely, halting operations for an unofficial fraternity house that the city condemned last year as being unlivable. 

Council approves Tuscan Village development

The new housing project, named Tuscan Village, will be built across multiple plots of land at the intersection of Country Club Road and Keezletown Road, near the Spotswood Country Club golf course. The plan includes two existing single family homes on the properties, with the addition of 57 townhomes and 54 one-bedroom apartments. 

The council voted to approve three items: a comprehensive plan amendment, a rezoning request, and a special use permit that would allow the housing project to move forward. Both city staff and the Harrisonburg Planning Commission, which voted to approve those requests at their October meeting, endorsed the project 

Amar Gogia, a real estate developer in Harrisonburg, presented the project to the council. He pledged that the townhomes would be sold to members of the community and that the group heading the project would maintain the apartments on site. 

“We all live here, we raise our families here, so we have a vested interest to make sure this community thrives for years to come,” Gogia said. 

Scripture Communities, a local builder, will develop Tuscan Village. They have headed several other projects in Harrisonburg, including Stone Spring Village, Avalon Woods and Liberty Square. 

As the name implies, the units in Tuscan Village will incorporate the Italian stone and stucco architectural elements found historically in Tuscany. The project plans also include pedestrian and bicycle paths, green spaces and a playground; while the townhomes will be solar ready and will have garages equipped with electric vehicle chargers. 

Scott Rogers, a realtor with Funkhouser Real Estate Group who is also involved with the project, told the council members that they hope to fill an unmet need for housing in Harrisonburg, as an alternative to new construction in Rockingham County. 

”Most of the new entry level housing right now is being built in the county,” Rogers said. “We’ve built and sold a lot of townhomes in the county, but we’ve talked to plenty of folks who’d like to buy and live in the city.”

When council member Chris Jones asked about the price point for the townhomes, Rogers estimated that they would be offered in the upper $200,000 to lower $300,000 range and targeted toward first-time buyers. A price range for the apartments has not yet been set. 

Dawn Neil, a Harrisonburg resident living on Keezletown Road near the development’s future site, called in during the public comment period. She said she was concerned about the project’s potential impact to traffic in the area, as well whether the new homes would add an influx of students to the already strained Spotswood Elementary School nearby.

“It can be very difficult to get in and out,” Neil said. “This is going to increase noise levels, traffic, and pollution in an area that has been relatively quiet.” 

Council member Monica Robinson acknowledged Neil’s concerns about the increase in traffic, but she said that impact would have to be weighed with the long-term benefits that would come with a new housing development. 

“We have to prepare for some humps and bumps in the road,” Robinson said. “I hear you, but I also know that we can work with those issues.”

Mayor Deanna Reed echoed Robinson’s point. She also pointed out that the developers are obligated to cover public infrastructure costs related to the project, and the city would work with them to that end. 

“As long as Harrisonburg keeps growing, you’re gonna have traffic, you’re gonna have issues like that, and it’s up to us to alleviate them,” Reed said. 

Code violations prompt city council to deny permit for downtown house

A local independent landlord and one of his properties rented to James Madison University students came under scrutiny Tuesday night. 

The house’s owner, Craig Smith, applied for a special use permit that would designate his property — a 16-bedroom single family detached house on Walnut Lane — as a boarding house after city staff discovered that it was over-occupied. The council unanimously denied the application in light of multiple violations at the house. That decision came after more than an hour of discussion with Smith and his attorney during the meeting.

Smith has rented the house to students, many of whom belong to JMU’s Sigma Nu fraternity, for more than 30 years. He also owns several nearby properties with similar rental arrangements. City staff condemned the house last summer after police responded to a burglary report from tenants. They found the house in unsanitary conditions that indicated 15 people living there, exceeding the rental agreement’s maximum 10-person occupancy. 

Smith quickly remedied the violation and made an agreement with the tenants that the house would not be used for fraternity activities. However, city staff had already been investigating the property for illegal fraternity use, finding that city police had responded to the house multiple times since 2021 for noise and alcohol-related calls, among other violations. 

The council members agreed to deny Smith’s request on the grounds that he failed to catch the fact that more people were living there than the prescribed number of tenants. Jones, at one point, spoke directly to Smith and, while acknowledging that Smith sought to rectify the situation after receiving the violation, said that the council can’t ignore the mistake.

”Mr. Smith, you’re not a terrible person. We all miss things, but 15 people is a lot,” Jones said. “This shows a level of disregard different than what we typically see.”

Smith told the council he takes full responsibility for the problem. But he criticized the city’s response. 

“It doesn’t feel right, and I think we’re making every effort to make this place compliant, and this has been skewed to the degree that it impinges on our reputation as landlords,” Smith said. ”I want to go on record to validate the fact that we are as morally committed as we are legally to making sure that we show the students of JMU that we honor everything in terms of servicing our leases.”

Kathy Whitten, who lives near the house, called in during the public hearing criticizing Smith’s handling of the house and frequent misbehavior she’s witnessed from students in Harrisonburg’s neighborhoods near campus. 

“Students will run up and down Campbell Street nearby in shopping carts with gallons of milk. There’s a lot of behavior that you wouldn’t enjoy having in your neighborhood,” Whitten said. “I don’t have much information about this house on Walnut Lane. But boarding houses are one of the scourges in our zone and have been for the 30-some years I’ve lived here.” 

City staff and the planning commission advised the city council to deny the request, but suggested that, if the council voted to approve, that Smith be required to convert the house into a duplex to comply with the zoning ordinance. 

Smith’s attorney, Hunter Rush, argued during the public hearing that the extensive renovations needed to renovate the house would be cost prohibitive. 

Council member Dany Fleming lamented the house as a lost opportunity to ease the city’s housing shortage. 

“It’s a shame because this is a building that could be used responsibly or in accordance with our zoning ordinances,” Fleming said. “I wish this was a house we could make use of.”

No alternative solutions for the property emerged Tuesday night.

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