Harrisonburg leaders discuss Bluestone Town Center’s potential impact on schools

Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 6:08 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - On Friday The Harrisonburg City Council and School Board liaison committee met to discuss the proposed Bluestone Town Center and the impact it would have on Harrisonburg’s Public Schools.

The proposal from the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority would bring nearly 900 units of mixed-income housing to a property near the intersection of Garber’s Church Road and Erickson Ave. The city’s planning commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the project on January 17.

“I always go with the Field of Dreams illusion on this one, If you build it they will come. So if we’re going to have the housing I think I’ve got to expect kids to be in those houses, new students,” said Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Richards.

According to data from HCPS the first two phases of the project would add around 273 elementary school students to the school system.

“It is complicated and you may get something very good from this but there’s also a ton of complicated factors that involve a lot of trade-offs if you do choose to go forward with this,” said School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald.

Councilman Chris Jones expressed a number of concerns during the meeting one of which was that the town center units would go to people looking to move to Harrisonburg rather than to those in need of Affordable Housing who already live in the city.

“Do I welcome new people to Harrisonburg? Heck Yeah. Does Chris Jones want to build any more schools? Hell No... period point blank I can’t be any more clear than that,” said Jones during the meeting.

Jones said that this could create major capacity issues for Harrisonburg schools

“Most likely folks outside of the market are going to be already prequalified, be in a position to move, and be ready to go,” he said. “As long as we’re in America and we have a Fair Housing Act in Virginia you can’t just cut people off who don’t live here and say ‘No this housing is for people that live in Harrisonburg’ no it’s for people with money.”

HCPS data projected that if the town center is approved it would require the rezoning of students within the school division or the extension of school buildings to avoid overcrowding. It would also expedite the need for a new elementary school.

“The BTC students are loaded into Bluestone Elementary because that’s the attendance zone that community would be built within. That doesn’t mean they’d have to go there with rezoning, I think they would go there but it doesn’t mean all the students from Bluestone now would stay there,” said Richards.

The potential tax burden of the city and school resources needed for the project was another concern of Councilman Chris Jones.

“The cost of us to do businesses with BTC for me from an educational standpoint is too expensive because we’re still in the middle of increasing taxes now for the high school that’s not even finished being built yet,” said Jones.

Jones said that the amount of housing that would be built in a single area is also a major concern.

“Do we need housing for low to moderate-income folks? Yes. Do we need workforce housing? Yes. Should we put Dayton beside Dayton? No! That doesn’t make sense because then you would have to equip it as such,” he said.

Council member Monica Robinson said during the meeting that she hopes to hear more from the city’s A.L.I.C.E. population (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) to get their thoughts on the project.

“We’re hearing from everybody except that A.L.I.C.E. population, except those homeless people, except those people who are looking for affordable housing. Everyone else is fighting to get to the microphone,” said Robinson.

“Do they want to live there? Everyone’s assuming we’re going to go around the Northeast Neighborhood, where I live, rounding up folks, putting them on the bus, and driving them out to the Bluestone Town Center and say ‘Here’s the American Dream, you’re going to get a piece of yours and have some generational wealth’ that’s just not how it is.”

The Bluestone Town Center proposal will go before the entire Harrisonburg City Council on February 14.