by Joe Fitzgerald

Those aren’t wood chips or bark in the cow pasture.

David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish swimming along when an older, wiser fish swims past and asks, “How’s the water?” One of the young fish looks at the other and asks, “What’s water?”

Absurdity is the water that proponents of the Bluestone Town Center (BTC) are swimming in. Like the young fish, they’ve been in it long enough and deeply enough that they don’t know that’s what it is.

Consider this scenario. A city council member who serves as the council’s representative to the planning commission listens to a long recommendation from the planning staff. She then makes a motion to more or less accept the recommendation. Four weeks later, she asks the planning staff what their recommendation meant.

Yes, this really happened. So did the argument that building apartments in a cow pasture would preserve farmland.

The deciding factor on support of Bluestone Town Center seems to be the amorphous phrase “affordable housing.” Say the phrase and watch logic and critical thinking fall to the wayside. Press those pushing for affordable housing, whatever that is, and some will ask what opponents of a particular project propose instead.

It’s closer to a playground taunt than policy debate. But let’s engage.

Closing costs on a home include title search and insurance costs that add about 1 percent to the cost of a home. A title search meant hours in a clerk’s office 50 years ago. It’s not quite a mouse-click now, but it’s closer to that than to a paperwork search. Let the city’s housing coordinator handle it as a service. The insurance protects against something that rarely happens. Let the city or state provide it.

Then there’s the real estate sales person’s fee. Make that a government service as well. And when someone complains that it’s taking money away from the private sector, let’s remember that the local Realtors association is supporting Bluestone Town Center, which takes home building out of the private sector.

Then let’s talk about sidewalks to nowhere. The street we live on ended when it was annexed. Not even a cul de sac. It just ended. So did the next street over. That one now ends in a cul-de-sac. Our street was extended to meet the other. The new section, and the new cul de sac, have sidewalks.

They don’t go anywhere. They don’t make anything more walkable. They are just there. In the other direction, within a mile, are a bank, a convenience store, a pawn shop, and a tattoo parlor with no sidewalks to them.

The sidewalks to nowhere are required by the city’s building standards. City Council voted last night to lower the city’s building standards by allowing manufactured homes, which we used to call trailers or — when dropped on a makeshift foundation — double-wides.

Double-wides with sidewalks. Sidewalks are the ones that are easy. There are other building standards that add more to the cost of lot preparation.

These things add up. Without going into too much arithmetic about titles, sidewalks, and sales commissions, the changes suggested above would reduce the monthly payment on a quarter-million dollar double-wide at Bluestone Town Center by about $125 a month.

The playground taunt is, “Have you got a better idea?” Yes. Lower the cost of building a home in Harrisonburg. BTC would let government take over the construction of homes by letting the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) and its Mississippi-based partner bring in over-priced pre-fabs. It would make a lot more sense to let government take over the over-priced services that inflate the cost of a home, and lower the general building regulations to bring a locally built home closer to the cost of a double-wide from out of town with an inflated price.

Implementing these changes would be hard work, harder by far than rubber-stamping the HRHA experiment. But they could create long-term change and, if they spark more private home-building, create or preserve local jobs.

Let’s let the city be an experiment, if that’s the only solution. But let it be an experiment in easing local building, not in enriching an out-of-state, paper-pushing, tax-credit specialist.

We need to do more than just say “affordable housing.” It doesn’t work any better than “abracadabra.” Also, there’s no Santa Claus, and he’s not from Mississippi.

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

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19 responses to “Something Is in the Water”

  1. LesGabriel Avatar

    It would be useful to know which housing standards and other requirements (title search and insurance) are mandated by the local, state, or national governments. I am guessing that not all of your suggestions could be implemented at the Harrisonburg level, even if they were willing.

    1. Joseph Fitzgerald Avatar
      Joseph Fitzgerald

      Good point. As I said, this would be hard.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds. -Henry Adams, historian and teacher (16 Feb 1838-1918)

    Apparently, ignorance is in that mix as well.

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Speaking of something really bad in the water, Norfolk is breathing a sigh of relief that Norfolk and Southern abandoned the City for Georgia. Well, in an “Not our problem” sort of way…

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    I would make one point on sidewalks. The spousal unit and I have as part of our exercise regimen, walking (we’re 70) — 5 miles per day, 4 or 5 days per week. 18 minutes per mile. We indeed go nowhere.

    We have no sidewalks and thus walk on our heavily crowned neighborhood streets. I discovered something last month. Walking on a heavily crowned road will destroy your downhill knee. Well, not destroy, but injure. Required a damned month to heal. I walk on the crown now and it’s going to take another month to get back to military speed. Wish we had sidewalks.

    FWIW, I know the injury resulted from the road slope because the spousal unit had been saying for years that I should be walking on the crown. Needless to say that I also limped home to a chorus of “I told you so.”

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      If you go 5 miles at an 18min per mile clip – you’re doing something a lot of people can’t do , even younger folks.

      I do 3 at about 19, not sure I could maintain that pace for 5. I walk a combo of dirt and road but the road is a park road and not crowned like county/state roads are.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Stationary bike was the secret. Before the pandemic, I was doing 80 miles per week at 20 mph according to the instruments, not sure I fully trusted those numbers, but close. 95 rpm for 55 minutes. That I trust.

        Gave up the gym for walking, and the loop around the lake is 5 miles. It was great! Lots of short ups and downs. BUT not totally groomed. Patched, but still “woodsy”. Spouse caught a toe on a root and took a tumble, and within a week, I slid on some wet clay and stretched my leg badly. Realized that 90% of trail is inaccessible by vehicle and decided to use the neighborhood streets. Save the lake as a treat.

        The benefits of a brisk walk are greatly underestimated. Mom was 93 years old and walking 3 miles a day, 7 days a week. She was walking laps in the garden at her Alzheimer’s unit two weeks before she died at 96.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          walking is how you stay “here”.

    2. And a well-earned I-told-you-so it was, too!


      I hope you recover completely and soon.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I have discovered that the only thing worse than a sharp stabbing pain in the knee is the anticipation of a sharp stabbing pain in the knee.

        1. True dat! (as the kids say).

          I’ll probably be looking at a left-knee replacement at some point in the not too distant future, so I know where you’re coming from.

    3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I prefer to walk on sidewalks. That is why they are there. However, in an older with trees, like mine, there is a problem with sidewalks–sections and and edges pushed up by tree roots. I have tripped over these raised edges several times when I did not have my eyes glued to the ground. Now, I tend to walk in the street, but that crown is annoying.

  5. Consider this scenario. A city council member who serves as the council’s representative to the planning commission listens to a long recommendation from the planning staff. She then makes a motion to more or less accept the recommendation. Four weeks later, she asks the planning staff what their recommendation meant.

    That is a common scenario for any/all City & Town Councils, Boards of Supervisors, School Boards, and State & Federal Legislatures. Many legislators at all levels of government routinely vote for/against things without understanding what they are voting for/against.

    But we’re the ones who keep electing and then reelecting these people, so what does that say about us?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well, sometimes someone listens to a presentation and get’s their sense of it, then later realizes that perhaps the presentation actually had stuff in it that you did not recognize… so you do ask … what they meant … not a bad thing.

    in terms of cows and preserving farmland.

    A large development with a well capitalized developer will provide more efficient, less land-consuming development than a bunch of piecemeal development that essentially eats up farmland by leap-frogging it.

    Large, well capitalized businesses can do a much better job than a bunch of smaller, poorly capitalized developers. Well capitalized are much more amenable to amenities and road/services impact concessions.

  7. …the argument that building apartments in a cow pasture would preserve farmland.

    This is only true if the apartment buildings are single-level structures. Cows will walk up stairs, but it’s darned near impossible to get them to walk down stairs. Also, the builders will need to install larger-than-standard doors throughout the complex.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Lol. But more seriously – why is preserving farmland such a big deal? Farms get more and more efficient so less land is required o grow the same amount of food. Meanwhile, a couple of hundred acres for a housing development hardly puts a dent in the totality of farmland in the United States. It seems to me that housing (especially affordable housing) is a lot more important that preserving a few acres of farmland.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        totally agree. There is way more farmland than is needed. Take a
        drive out to the “country” any day and you’ll see hundreds/thousands of acres of land no longer farmed.

        And larger, denser developments can provide less expensive housing and use far less land.

      2. I agree, even as someone who started out as an Agricultural Engineer.*

        * The fancy, modern, name is “Biological Systems Engineer” but I switched to Civil Engineering a few decades ago.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          100 years from now our grandchildren will wonder how we ever fed ourselves planting our food crops in the dirt exposed to the elements and pests. Imagine ears of corn growing like Brussel sprouts on a 3-ft tall plant at 4x the yield.

          GMO? I gotcher GMO right here!

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