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.