Public Hearing, Private Decision

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Bluestone Town Center (BTC), according to council members who voted 3-2 to approve it, was decided in secret meetings between those council members and the applicants. At Tuesday’s open meeting in which they voted to approve BTC, those council members rather shamelessly admitted to those sessions.

City staff and the city manager effectively sat on their hands during the discussion, which brought questionable numbers and questionable rhetoric from rookie council members Dany Fleming and Monica Robinson, respectively. It was left to Councilman Chris Jones and Mayor Deanna Reed to present the arguments against the development with an assist from City Attorney Chris Brown.

The city manager was mostly silent throughout the conversation.

Also mostly silent was Councilwoman Laura Dent. She made the motion to grant the rezoning BTC sought, and followed the motion with a rambling explanation of what she seemed to say was one of the best things about the project for her, the promise of solar energy panels. Her motion effectively released the developers from their legally binding proffer to provide the panels, but she said she believed they would be installed anyway based on her private discussions with the developers.

Dent had made the motion on the Planning Commission to recommend approval of the project. Four weeks later, she asked the Community Development staff to explain the recommendation she had voted to adopt.

Two council members voted against the project and tried to persuade their colleagues to do so. The two, Reed and Jones, have a combined 172 months of experience as council members. The three council members who voted to approve have a combined 54 months of experience on the board. The last hold-out, essentially the tie-breaker, has no government experience beyond her two months on the council.

The tie-breaker, Robinson, said she met with BTC backers Dent and Fleming to discuss the issue behind closed doors. She apparently did not meet with BTC opponents Reed or Jones, who seemed to express surprise on hearing of her private meetings. She did not use the phrase “behind closed doors” in reference to her own dealings, but did use it to criticize past city decisions, although she didn’t say which ones.

Robinson was nominated for the council in a flawed Democratic caucus that flouted party rules and by default and inaction declared her the winner of an effectively tied vote. (It’s a long story.) Fleming won that caucus outright, but only after paying a fellow Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) member more than $1,000 as a campaign operative. Despite what might seem like a conflict of interest, it was politically wise for Fleming to hire an operative, since he had lost that same caucus on his own six years earlier.

Those voting to approve cited no pragmatic or practical reasons for their votes, instead relying on the mantra of “affordable housing.” Much of the BTC housing does not fit the definition of affordable housing. Robinson relentlessly cited “equity,” but did not say what she meant by equity, or who would receive it, or how they would get it.

BTC as approved could grow the non-student population of the city by 10 percent before the next census at a time when the city, the state, the nation, and the world are trying to recover from a pandemic. The three council members’ vote of approval will make that recovery harder. They don’t seem to mind.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.