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Communities, developers clash over housing proposals in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville

Mark Hogan, via Flickr

The public discourse surrounding two residential developments proposed in the region exemplifies the occasionally conflicting interests of builders, local governments, and residents. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Harrisonburg and Charlottesville share some common problems in terms of housing availability and affordability. Both have a housing 'mismatch,' where a lot of higher-income people are buying or renting below their means, which squeezes out lower-income people who can only find housing above their means. Both have large college student populations. And, being cities, they have less land on which to build new housing than rural areas do.

The level of competition for what housing inventory is available means residents have fewer options and face rising prices. In Charlottesville, according to a 2018 study, more than 99% of rental units were occupied in 2015 and 2016, and average rents rose 18% in a six year period. In Harrisonburg, up to 98% of rental units have been occupied in recent years.

Which basically means that both need more housing. However, two recently-proposed developments have run into some resistance – from local residents, which is common, but also from city staff, because of certain strategies the developers are using to try and get the projects approved.

Let's take a look at Harrisonburg first.

A conceptual rendering of Bluestone Town Center.

Bluestone Town Center is a residential development being planned by the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and the private investment firm EquityPlus, which initiated the project. The plans include up to 900 housing units on a parcel of land that borders Garbers Church Road and Erickson Avenue, across the street from Harrisonburg High School, and next to the city's golf course.

Michael Wong, the executive director of the housing authority said Bluestone would be –

MICHAEL WONG: … predominantly a workforce housing development. So it's teachers, city employees, housing authority staff, social services workers. … The housing is set up so that it's targeting first-time home buyers … single-family homes … townhomes for sale and rental, and then multi-family.

The for-sale homes would be priced for households making between $64,000 and $96,000 a year. Some apartments are aimed at senior citizens, and 75 rental units would be reserved for housing choice voucher recipients.

One interesting piece of Bluestone's rezoning application is an "impact fee" that they've proffered – offering to donate $50,000 into city coffers for each unit that gets rented out. With at least 400 of the units being slated for rentals, that would equal $20 million total, to be paid out over 40 years. Wong said this money would help offset the impact that additional families would have on city schools and infrastructure.

Blackwell Engineering
A conceptual layout of the development that was included in a rezoning application submitted to the Harrisonburg Planning Commission.

WONG: EquityPlus has done a similar type of financial arrangement for a housing development they did in South Carolina, so we felt like it was something that could potentially benefit our community.

However, in a three-page letter written by the city attorney's office, the staff detail multiple ways in which this is (quote) "not legally viable." In other words, those payments would be illegal. One major reason is that cash proffers are not allowed under Harrisonburg City Code, and even if they were, [quote] "case law in Virginia prohibits cash proffers from being used as a quid pro quo for a rezoning." [end quote]

Local residents have other critiques of the project, largely focused on how big it is. I looked around for comparably-sized developments in the area – one that's been approved but not yet built is Stoney Ridge. As currently planned, it will straddle the city-county line on the south end of Harrisonburg with a total of 800 housing units, as local real estate broker Scott Rogers explains in his blog.

Another, Preston Lake, has changed hands and master plans over the years, and is partially built out. Its master plan, as referenced in a 2016 board of supervisor's meeting, allows for up to 819 units.

Eric Pyle
Eric Pyle teaches geology at James Madison University, where he is also the co-curator of the mineral museum.

Bluestone Town Center was approved unanimously by the Harrisonburg Planning Commission on Tuesday, in a crowded meeting that included two hours of public comment, as The Harrisonburg Citizen reported. Eric Pyle was among them.

ERIC PYLE: No one disagrees that there could be development in that area. … but just the scale is what sort of knocks everybody back on their heels.

Pyle teaches geology at James Madison University, and lives near the proposed development. He said that the fractured limestone geology of this area poses a number of hazards for high-density development, including underground pinnacles of rock –

PYLE: … and they're just solid things that you either have to blast or you have to use one of those big backhoe-mounted hammers, percussion, just going tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

– as well as underground water flow –

PYLE: … where you can see sinkholes develop. Just off the property, at the south end of the golf course, you can walk right past a sinkhole.

Waterways are also an issue with a proposed development in Charlottesville. A residential project referred to as "0 East High Street" would put 245 units, made up of one- and two-bedroom apartments, on a parcel bordering the Rivanna River and abutting Caroline and Fairway avenues.

Shimp Engineering
Photographs of the Rivanna River submitted to city staff as part of a floodplain analysis.

One of the developers, Shimp Engineering, did not have anyone available for an interview in the past week.

Now, because of how this property is already zoned for what the developers want to build, they don't have to go through the planning commission or city council. However, there are a number of city ordinances that they must meet.

The developers have already had to update and re-submit their site plans – in which they note they will not be making an affordable housing commitment, as staff had hoped. Staff also wrote that their planned access roads into the development violate zoning regulations, although the developers have contested that.

Local resident Becca Reilly has another concern, and one that's been a topic of conflict between city staff, the developers, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for a number of years – flooding.

A map of the area depicting varying degrees of flooding risk around the Rivanna River.

BECCA REILLY: This proposal is literally up against my back fence, which has had water from the river in it several times. We have seen that area under many inches, maybe even a foot of water, as recently as 2018, and that was just from a big rainstorm. … The idea of adding that much fill, a big wall blocking water that wants to run naturally, and a huge parking lot … the impacts … can be pretty drastic and catastrophic.

According to documents and emails that Reilly obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the developers, city staff, and FEMA engineers have had a convoluted back-and-forth over this project for years. The crux of the matter is Shimp Engineering's request to revise floodway boundaries so that the apartments could be built closer to the river.

Shimp Engineering
A preliminary site plan of 0 East High Street submitted to the city.

As one city staffer wrote in a 2021 email, almost 70% of the property is in the floodway, and [quote] "we are deeply opposed to narrowing the regulatory floodway without exhaustive justification, especially for residential development." [end quote]

REILLY: We are not opposed to development in this area at all. In fact, we really welcome new neighbors and high-density housing in responsible places.

After Shimp repeatedly requested that FEMA redraw flood maps, the agency acquiesced. The revised maps went into effect in March of last year. However, other issues with the site plan – like the access points – could trigger an extra review by the city's planning commission.

Between that, and the upcoming Harrisonburg City Council review of Bluestone Town Center, neither development's future is certain.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.