Four candidates for three open seats in the Blacksburg Town Council responded to questions about housing options, citizens engagement in council processes, and other top issues for the Town of Blacksburg.
The candidate forum occurred Thursday, Oct. 5 and was hosted by the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.
The incumbent candidates running for re-election are Jerry Ford and Michael Sutphin. Two write-ins, Rick Johnson and Liam Watson, are also running for election,.
Watson, a native of Blacksburg, has previously worked in the Planning Commission office and has received the endorsements of Ford and Sutphin. At the age of 24 years old, he his age sets him apart from the other candidates.
“My experience combined with a youthful outlook positions me to bridge generational gaps and work towards solutions that benefit all residents, from students and young professionals to families and seniors,” Watson said.
Good governance is a focus that Ford wishes to see improved within the Blacksburg Town Council.
“One thing I’ve experienced over these past few years is that when people are not happy with the decision we make, sometimes they are not happy with the decision, but other times they are not happy with the process,” Ford said. “I believe that when we have public hearings that involve, and spark more interest and engagement from our community, we should hold the public hearing, take the comment, and we should wait two weeks before we vote on it.”
Affordable housing was a top priority for Rick Johnson. He wishes to tackle this problem through community involvement and feedback. Rebuilding the trust of town council is also a top focus for the candidate, running as an Independent.
“Development is great, it’s overdevelopment…” Johnson said. “We don’t need another story on top of a hotel when we don’t have infrastructure to support that.”
Ford addressed the housing issues, specifically for single-family homes, in Blacksburg, recommending an update to the ordinances and a new comprehensive plan for subdivision development.
“We all know that traditional model was living in a suburban neighborhood, home ownership, that was always the American dream, but we don’t have enough space in town to accommodate everyone at that level. I think what we are starting to work on now, and I hope to continue that work, is to have a new ordinance that allows still single-family homes, but on smaller lots,” Ford said.
Johnson pointed out that it is incorrect to think that town residents do not want affordable housing. Housing, according to Ford and his constituents, should be less densely populated on a small parcel of land.
“The Glade Springs deal was terrible,” Johnson said. “The developer got 185 homes on 44 acres, and we got 10 affordable homes. Not a great deal; we can do better.”
Sutphin agreed that growth and development issues are a top priority for Blacksburg. With continued increases in enrollment at Virginia Tech, a need for housing has also increased. One way that has been accomplished in the past, according to Sutphin, is adding on to existing infrastructure to create more housing for students. Developments like Terrace View and Sturbridge have been increased in density on their existing lots to accommodate for more single and multi-residential housing.
“We’ve improved a lot of additional bedrooms for student housing in the town of Blacksburg. In 2019, the town of Blacksburg passed a resolution saying that we were essentially finished with the large student housing development projects that we’ve seen all around town,” Sutphin said.
Candidates responded to questions presented by moderator, Peggy Layne, who read both prepared questions and those submitted by audience members. Improving the relationship between Blacksburg and Virginia Tech University was also proposed to the candidates.
A common theme amongst the candidates for improving a working relationship between Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech University was open communication and interest projects that would provide benefits to both entities.
“I know that the mayor also meets regularly with President Sands, so there are these open lines of communication between Virginia Tech and town of Blacksburg. I don’t want citizens to think that those don’t already exist,” Sutphin said. “With that said, there are often going to be issues in a college town or in any community between different entities where there’s different priorities.”
Watson pointed out that Virginia Tech, as a state institution, does not have to pay property tax in the town of Blacksburg or Montgomery County.
“The largest landholder inside of Blacksburg does not pay property tax,” Watson said. “Now, I’m not crazy about living in a world where Peggy has to pay property tax, but Tim Sands does not.”
Watson is suggesting a program where a payment will be made to the town in lieu of property taxes to provide additional funding to the community that supports the university.
Other issues discussed by the candidates were climate change and sustainability practices. Ideas brought forth by the candidates, as they relate to environmental protection, include water quality, stormwater waste management, transportation, and single-use plastic. Additionally, candidates responded to citizens’ concerns with a need for increased affordable child-care options, town and county taxes, senior housing, and creating a more accepting environment for those who identify as LGBTQ+ community members.
The full recorded video of the live event can be viewed in its entirety at the Blacksburg Town Council website at www.blacksburg.gov.
In the next candidate forum in the series, Christiansburg Town Council candidates will have an opportunity to speak to community members. The event will happen Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Christiansburg Town Hall.