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.