Monday, October 4, 2010

Eating the bait

Look here for a description of the original golf course vote, and some of the background. If you're a city voter, contact me and I'll give you a copy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

City Council and Job Creation

A DNR reporter left a phone message on Labor Day asking about job creation as an issue in the City Council election. The answer goes beyond a sound bite.

The City Council’s ability to create jobs is negligible, particularly during a long economic downturn. The tax policies and workforce to attract new jobs already exist here, but the city, in attempting to draw new jobs, is in the same buyer’s market as the roughly one in six Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. The city’s policies looking forward should be aimed at protecting what we have, particularly in two areas. The first is maintaining the current level of services without raising tax rates or, as the city has done three times in the past twenty years, creating new taxes. The second is in adopting a housing policy that puts the needs of the city as a whole ahead of the needs of specific developers, especially regarding new student housing. The city should instead adopt a moratorium on new student housing complexes, and begin looking for new ways to get tax revenues from students.

Campaign initiatives based on job creation or budget issues should be taken with a grain of salt. Cities in Virginia have limited budget options to begin with, and those options shrink during a downturn. The city’s most important choices will be on development, and candidates who have a record in that area should be judged on that record.

It is odd that the DNR would do a story focusing on jobs and the Council considering its own past failings in that regard. In 2003 the DNR did a news story that fantasized a faux feud between two members after one of those members put forth a project he claimed would create jobs. The DNR has consistently declined to follow up on that story. But lest I create or continue a story-line, I should point out that the DNR declining to follow up was not based on its coziness with the city’s establishment, but on the laziness of the reporter involved.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We can't go back

Development in Harrisonburg for a long time followed a straightforward model. A person owned land, and tried to find a use for it, balancing what they wanted to see there with what would reward them the most financially.

The attitude that created that situation was sensible. Townhouses made good starter homes for the Valley’s sons and daughters. And student housing had multiple advantages. It kept college kids, who were away from home for the first time, out of neighborhoods. It kept students apartments on the tax rolls, instead of in state-owned dorms. And it allowed the rapid growth of JMU, which even the most ardent foes of the university admit has brought financial and other benefits for our community.

But what was a good idea in 1985 may not be a good idea today. By the time we decided to build a new high school almost ten years ago, there was talk that we were running out of land. In reality there was plenty of land, but it cost too much because it could earn more if it were sold for housing.

We need to start consistently looking at development decisions as binding and permanent choices about what kind of community we’ll be. We’ve run out of room for mistakes, and every zoning and building decision has to look at the city as a whole. Nothing can be built any more that’s not next to something, and what it’s close to has to be a part of the choice.

We still are the community we were 25 years ago, but we can’t go back to the city we were back then. When we were a smaller city, we could make development decisions based on who asked for them, because everybody still knew each other. But as we grow, we need to acknowledge that you rezone the land, not the builder, and our choices will linger for people not yet born.

We can’t go back, but we have to remember who we are and what kind of city we want to be as we move forward. The community is still there; but we have to manage the change, before the city we were 25 years ago disappears.

Tax Student Cars?

A lot of people wonder if there’s a way to make college students register their cars here so they’ll have to pay personal property taxes. The best way might be to ask them.

Granted, students already pay taxes to the city, directly and indirectly. The apartments they live in pay real estate taxes. They eat in restaurants more, and pay the meals tax. They pay sales taxes at Harrisonburg’s businesses.

And if they have cars, their parents pay the car tax on those vehicles in Virginia Beach, Chesterfield County, Norfolk and Fairfax County. Even though Harrisonburg’s tax rate is lower.

We should be encouraging the parents of our college students to register their cars here and pay their taxes here. They pay less, but the city makes more. And if those other localities think that’s unfair, they can always lower their tax rates to match ours.

There might be a legal reason we can’t do this. It’s often the case that the best ideas haven’t been tried because the state or the feds won’t let us. That might mean we can’t do those things. But it doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about them.

Heritage Oaks' Future

Ten years after a divided city council approved the Heritage Oaks golf course, the city has more options about how to make the project pay for itself.

A lot of people may think I’m not the one to be making those choices. They still ask me about the campaign promise to shut down the golf course. The short answer is: there wasn’t one. But the long answer requires a look at the city’s recent history.

Emotions ran high in 1999 and 2000 about the proposed golf course. The people of Harrisonburg didn’t want it, and the city council did. Those emotions were hard to gauge in the 2000 city council campaign. It became apparent well before the election that those of us who’d been opposed to the golf course would win. But what wasn’t clear was what people expected us to do. Did they think we could shut down the project, or were they just expressing their anger about it?

Neither option was available to the City Council. A flawed bond issue had tied us to the course for at least ten years. Stopping it then would have hurt the city’s credit rating in ways we’d still be paying for. Three lawyers, including Virginia’s attorney general, told us we were stuck with it.

And I tried to tell people that during the campaign. But, as I said, emotions were running high.

Ten years later, the city has choices to make. Should we sell beer? Should we out-source the marketing? Should we hire an outside manager? Should we try to attract a restaurant to the property?

Those are all ideas worth looking into. But in 2000, we didn’t have a lot of options. The city had signed a contract. The trees had been cut. The money had been borrowed. Closing down the project was just not possible. If we’d shut it down, we wouldn’t have opened three new schools.

The commission we appointed told us the questions wasn’t whether we should have built a golf course, but whether we had to continue the project.

That’s similar to the question we face now. I hope people can get past the emotions of ten years ago. I’d like to be on City Council again, to use my experience and knowledge about this and other continuing issues. You may not always agree with me, but you know I’m willing to make tough decisions.

Student Housing Moratorium

One thing I’ve mentioned in my campaign is a moratorium on rezoning for student housing. That’s not an anti-student stance, or even an anti-housing stance. Here’s what it means.

There are more student apartments in Harrisonburg right now than there are students. There will be for at least ten years, and for longer than that if developers build more.

We can’t flat out ban student housing, but we can stop rezoning more land for it.

The question nobody has answered about new student housing is this: Who moves into the old housing? If a development on South Main draws a thousand renters, who’s going to move into the empty apartments on Port Road? Will it be young men wanting to live closer to campus? Will it be families who can’t afford to live anywhere else? If the changes produce new costs for the city, who pays for them?

Those answers are a time bomb for Harrisonburg. We should stop rezoning land for new townhouses and apartments. We have plenty of that kind of housing in Harrisonburg, and the people building it have plenty of money.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sparta to Harrisonburg, the principle's the same

Does voting really matter? (Longer version)

A lot of people think it doesn’t. There isn’t that much difference between the candidates, they’ll argue, and partisan districting means a Democrat may not win the 26th Delegate seat or the 6th Congressional District in our lifetimes.


But it you’re getting this letter, it’s because you’re on the list of people who vote. You know it matters, and here’s why I think it does.

Monday, June 21, 2010

1985: Late precincts and worst election karma

The worst election I ever dealt with was probably the one where everybody got sick. Or maybe it was the one where Sid thought he’d won. There are so many different layers and types of worst that it’s hard to cut it fine enough. And there are too many ways to define awful.

But here’s one way. Stuff kept being stolen from my apartment in Petersburg. I hadn’t known my girlfriend that long and was starting to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have given her a key. But it turned out that someone had a key to the vacant apartment next door, and was climbing into that attic and through the connecting space. I finally found out what was happening after I nailed the windows shut. The thief couldn’t get out the windows, so he had to scramble back out of the tiny attic opening in the bathroom. He turned over a set of shelves on the way out, and left footprints on the wall, evidence he’d never left before when he was dropping in and walking out onto the top of a connecting porch.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vote Nov. 2: Fitzgerald for Council

I’m running for City Council in 2010.
As a council member, my training curve will be less steep than for most. I’ve served in the office for four years, 2000-2004. I have the experience, the knowledge, and the memories of what we did right and wrong in a tumultuous period for the city. During that time the council built a new high school and approved a new comprehensive plan for the city. We also voted to complete Heritage Oaks, a decision that I hope and believe most of my neighbors have come to accept as the only cost-effective option.
The main thrust of my campaign will be the future development of Harrisonburg. The Friendly City needs to continue to be the sum of its people, and not the sum of its strip malls, townhouses, student housing, and parking lots.
The city is developed to the point that any variance, special-use permit, or rezoning decision will have permanent consequences not just where it’s granted but for the city as a whole. Sometime in the next decade, we’ll be down to the last square mile of undeveloped land in the city. We need to plan more wisely, and more long-range. We are past the point as a city that development decision can be made based on friendships and the needs of the individual developer. It doesn’t help to be the City with the Planned Future if we don’t stick to that plan.
There are other challenges facing the city. Taxes and services cannot both continue to grow in a recovering economy. Police, fire, and rescue services need to meet the needs of our changing community without losing touch with that community. We need to make sure our roads meet the needs of the city’s drivers while working to encourage increased bicycle, bus, and pedestrian traffic. We need to continue looking for ways that recreation, especially the golf course, can pay for itself.