Mercy House (left), a Harrisonburg shelter for the homeless, would like to buy property across Green Street for offices. City code requires on-site parking, but the property lacks enough spaces. (Photo by Michael Reilly)
HARRISONBURG — City officials are about to answer an important question: Why should we let employees cross the road?
The Harrisonburg Planning Commission will hold a public hearing Wednesday on Mercy House’s request to allow off-site parking for its workers. The charitable organization at 247 N. High St. seeks to purchase a single-family home at 305 N. High St. and convert it into office and meeting space for its homeless residents.
That would then clear room at Mercy House, where the office and meeting space is now, to add another apartment for a homeless family. All 12 of its apartments are occupied and the shelter has nine families on its waiting list.
“We are out of space,” Executive Director Twila Lee said. “Every year, the board [of directors] and staff look at gaps and services. It just never happens that we lean back and say, ‘Hey, we have it covered.’”
The issue, though, is that city code does not allow off-site parking in this situation. The parking limitations for businesses and organizations exist for several reasons, including the safety of people crossing the street and protecting the makeup of residential neighborhoods, city planner Adam Fletcher said.
For example, residents would likely not want an office’s parking lot to be built down the street from the actual office in a neighborhood of single-family homes.
Exceptions to the rule include Harrisonburg’s downtown business district, where no parking requirements are in place, and large-scale industries, such as George’s LLC on South Liberty Street.
Lee hopes the city adds another exception for Mercy House, which seeks an amendment to the parking ordinance. Green Street sits between Mercy House and the single-family residence, which has only three parking spaces.
Six employees would need to park at the house, but it has only three parking spaces, Lee said, meaning Mercy House’s 18-space lot would still need to be used.
“What we’re asking is a gift from the City Council for us to make the investment in the house to solve our problem,” Lee said.
The Planning Commission meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday in council chambers at 409 S. Main St. The commission serves in an advisory role to council, making recommendations on rezonings and other land-use matters. Council has final say.
Only if the amendment were approved would Mercy House then buy the single-family home. A public hearing to rezone that house is also on Wednesday’s agenda.
Mercy House wrote a fairly narrow proposal so that the ordinance would not open the door for all types of places, such as retail shops, to have off-site parking, Fletcher said.
But city staff still recommends denial of the amendment because of the precedent it could set.
“It’s the bigger question of if we’re going to do it for this type of use, where’s it going to end?” Fletcher said. “We don’t think it’s good planning and zoning policy to do this. … You could make the argument for everybody.”
Staff does support Mercy House’s rezoning request, if officials elect to change the parking ordinance, he added.
Large businesses can have difficulty finding a single parcel big enough for both its buildings and parking, which is why they have been granted an exception, Fletcher said. Until Mercy House, no organization had pushed “this far” for an amendment to the off-site parking regulation, he said.
“I’m sure there’s a desire to do it [from others],” Fletcher said.
Mercy House serves homeless families with children. Nineteen adults and 24 children live in the 12 apartments it has now.
Lee said the shelter could buy the single-family house and move a family in from its waiting list. Still, she has concerns about child safety because the home’s front yard sits almost on top of North High Street.
The best option is to amend the parking ordinance, Lee said, but also not at the expense of opening “a can of worms” for the city.
“I’m hopeful,” she said. “I don’t know if I should be or shouldn’t be.”