City Council Mulls Public Alley Plan

Blight Policy Also Eyed Amid Residents’ Concerns

Posted: February 4, 2013

An alley along Myrtle Street is among other alleyways in Harrisonburg’s Northeast neighborhood that are becoming increasingly overgrown. (Photo by Michael Reilly)

HARRISONBURG — Improving the Northeast neighborhood now includes addressing a large concentration of the city’s more than 400 public alleys.


In late 2011, the Northeast Neighborhood Association expressed concerns to the city that alleys in the area were becoming increasingly overgrown and accumulating garbage, including large items such as broken refrigerators.


Members wanted to know who was responsible for the upkeep of the properties, many of which serve no public use.


“Back in the day, kids used to ride through the alleys,” said Karen Thomas, NENA’s president. “Now they can’t even do that.”


The group’s inquiry prompted a citywide study of alleys and a staff effort to get City Council to determine what to do with them. Officials found that Harrisonburg has 402 alleys, with a high concentration in the Northeast section of the city.


Last week, City Council tabled a decision so the Harrisonburg bicycle and pedestrian committee could review a map of the alleys in case some may connect to plans currently in the works for several bike and walking paths in the city.


“We aren’t even close to determining which ones to close or not,” Councilman Charles Chenault said. “We do know which ones we don’t need for public utility purposes. We want to know if we need some for other uses.”


Some alleys are open to vehicles or used for refuse collection. Many are also known as “paper alleys” — designated roads platted on the city land map that aren’t planned for development.


According to Harrisonburg’s 1993 public alley maintenance plan, if the city uses an alley for trash collection, it is responsible for maintenance of it.


If the alley is just open to vehicles, abutting property owners share the costs for upkeep with the city. But, if an alley is not open to traffic, abutting landowners must maintain it, the plan says.


City Council expects to decide which alleys the city does not need — closing and handing them over to property owners, in that case — by the end of March.


Blight Action Taken


While reviewing alleys, the city also has looked at adopting a blight ordinance, also based on concerns from the Northeast neighborhood.


Residents view blight as harming property values and increasing criminal activity, which has been a growing problem in the Northeast section of the city. State law defines blight as a property that endangers the public’s health, safety or welfare because a structure is dilapidated, deteriorated or violates minimum health and safety standards.


The council accepted city staff’s recommendation last week to adopt the state’s policy. That allows City Manager Kurt Hodgen, or a designee, to notify a landowner of a possible blighted property that a problem needs rectifying.


The owner will have 30 days to respond. If he or she does not, Hodgen can ask City Council to deem the property as blighted.


If the owner again fails to respond with a plan for the property, Harrisonburg can repair it — and would be entitled to a lien on the parcel — or even acquire it through eminent domain.


Chenault said the state ordinance is more efficient and will lead to faster solutions than what the city has in its code.


Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or

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