Important ordinances that will build low-income housing downtown and define how Blacksburg residents will hold protests and public assemblies were approved by Town Council this week.
Those community-defining changes, though, were eclipsed by the final vote “no” on the rezoning of Airport Road parcels, as the council and the town itself works toward what was called that night its “progressive history.”
The evening began quietly enough.
Ordinances #1862 and #1863 adopting the town budget, increasing real estate tax rates by $0.01 to $0.26/$100 of assessed value to pay for a new police station, along with increased rates for water, sewer and golf.
Those ordinances were placed on first reading with a public hearing scheduled for April 10.
Ordinance #1858 was approved with smiles welcoming the building of low-income housing on Church Street by Habitat for Humanity made possible by land donated by the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church to begin to address the need of affordable housing in the town.
The council was pleased as were the property’s neighbors.
“I’m thrilled to see Blacksburg Presbyterian and Habitat for Humanity propose a project in town. We can’t wait to have new neighbors,” Catherine Polys, whose house will be across Church Street from the new single-story development, said.
Then, heeding the 654 citizen signatures, red ribbons in trees, signs in lawns, a stream of grown-ups and children who have been filling council and planning commission public hearings for months wearing red sweaters to deplore the proposed rezoning of six acres on Airport Road for not keeping with the modest scale, simple character and inclusive spirit of the surrounding mid-century, tight-knit neighborhood, Blacksburg Town Council voted 4-2 against rezoning.
Before public comment leading to the vote, in an unconventional step, Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith spoke to the audience in a preamble that was part intention setting and part reproach that called on everyone for cordiality and introspection.
“My goal on this council is and has always been to advance our quality of life in community, not just for certain people, and not for select neighborhoods but for us all,” she said.
Suggesting that the proposal had provoked protectionism and exclusion.
“Concern for protecting what is important to us lies on a continuum that includes the progressivism for which we are so well known,” Hager-Smith said.
“What does it mean to be a citizen of Blacksburg? At the end of the evening, we need to remain friends, and neighbors, people who will see each other at the grocery store, on the Huckleberry,” she said, asking speakers to consider this as they come to the podium.
During public comment, residents spoke as they have at every public hearing since last autumn when the rezoning was proposed by the Lester Group.
After nearly an hour, so many neighbors had reiterated their worries and grievances that Mayor Hager-Smith finally asked whether there were any new points to be made causing many waiting to sit back down.
Before the vote, the Lester Group representative rose to quiet hisses from the audience.
“We have made continued changes to try to make this work,” Jim O’Brien, president of the Lester Group, said, citing the several proffers that widened a path and reduced the height of some buildings below 40 feet, one of neighbors’ central objections to the development’s scale.
“Your job, as you know,” he said to the council, “is to develop Blacksburg. I do believe, like some people’s concerns, that if this happens, you’ll see others just like this develop, because they’re so popular. Because there are people who would really like to live here. Are these evil people? No. They’re not evil people. These are people who are pillars of the community. They are people who run foundations and build businesses in this community. These are the people we are dealing with. I did get responses that what R-4 is. We will develop the land. We’ll have to get our expenses and development costs out there. There will be 40-foot structures. This won’t be a low-income development. By right we can just do that.”
Then, in a situation that left council at a loss, when the council called for action, Councilwoman Lauren Colliver moved to approve, no other member would second.
In order to move on to discussion, Hager-Smith seconded the motion.
Each councilperson offered context to his and her vote.
“It feels to me like that this development doesn’t really want to participate in the history of that neighborhood or its history or the context of what the neighborhood has stood for,” Councilman John Bush said. “Is it a bad development? I don’t think it is. Could the scale be different? Could some aspects that reek of exclusivity, of a gated community without a gate be changed to be more welcoming to its neighbors? But that’s not what’s before us.”
He and others suggested that the developers might retract the proposal, so they could work on it with the neighbors and developers.
With an almost “High Noon” vibe, Bush declared the town council’s dedication to respecting neighborhood context.
“When you want to design in this town you have to design in such a way that respects its context and scale. This project doesn’t do that,” he said.
After the vote, leaving the meeting, O’Brien seemed unfazed.
“Oh we’ll develop it. I just feel bad for all those good people who were waiting for those houses,” he said.
The “no” vote on rezoning now remains R-4, allowing four residences per acre on the six-acre parcel to be developed by right, that is, with no public oversight or input.
Neighbors said that they knew what they were getting into in a neighborhood surrounded by R-4, and that they resented the threat of “who knows what you’re going to get” leveled by the developer.
“We knew that when we moved here,” Jane Machin, Airport Acres resident said. “We’re fine with that.”
Following the Airport Road decision, the council waited while most of the red-clad audience filed out for the meeting to continue.
The council heard the staff report on Ordinance #1848 amending town code sections regarding picketing.
In response to violent and deadly protests in Charlottesville last summer, Town Attorney Larry Spencer reviewed and edited Blacksburg’s existing ordinances, collecting insight from community action groups, Blacksburg police, the Governor’s task force, the Charlottesville commission and other towns throughout Virginia.
Spencer will solicit public comment in a year to see whether the changes work.
“This is a starting place,” he said.
Following the council’s approval and no citizen comment, to a now nearly-empty council chamber, Bush thanked all involved.
“This may not seem very sexy; it’s not a big development project, but we were talking about the progressive history of the town, the history of the town,” Bush said.
Michael Sutphin recognized the importance of including all voices to craft the changes.
Finally, during citizen comments, a number of residents addressed the council, voicing their concerns about two sanitary sewer leaks from the Windsor Hills pumping station (1199 Ascot Lane) that occurred in January of 2017 and 2018.
Exasperated resident Dough White, who said he intends to submit Freedom of Information Act requests for staffers’ emails on the subject, and two other pumping station neighbors, addressed the council.
They contended poor maintenance of the pumping facility, failure to notify residents of the spill, an evident and perhaps wanton obliviousness of the town concerning the fate of the sewage described by authorities as “presumably to the New River.”
They also noted a marked difference between the volume reportedly spilled (42,000 gallons) and what appeared to have actually bubbled up out of the drain (frozen remains nine inches deep on a nearby fence).
In a small and inexplicable ruckus, White raised his voice to the mayor when she spoke to him.
“Doug…,” the Mayor said as he left the podium.
Mr. White swung around “You don’t talk to me here,” he said with his papers in his fist. “You just listen to me here. I come to this council, you never speak to me on this pulpit. You will wait and have this conversation with me privately out in the hallway like you really want it,” he said.
In fact, councilmembers often thank, query, or offer suggestions to citizens following their statements.
“I will do that Doug. I’ll be happy to speak to you after this meeting,” Hager-Smith said.
Deputy Town Manager Chris Lawrence, contributed information, explaining that the 2017 spill was caused by too much rain overflowing the system, and the recent, 2018 spill was caused by the failure of a pump to begin pumping, possibly due to near-zero temperatures.
A report from CHA, a third-party engineering firm is expected next week.