Mercy House Vote Privacy

City Council Approves Parking Reg Change

Posted: January 11, 2013

Staff and interns work in the cramped caseworker office at Mercy House in Harrisonburg on Wednesday. An ordinance amendment recently approved by City Council will allow the shelter to expand its facilities into a vacant property across the street. The ordinance amendment states that employees of charitable and benevolent organizations are allowed to park off-site and cross a local street to work. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
The nonprofit is in the process of acquiring the vacant house at 305 N. High St. and plans to move its offices there after renovations are complete.

HARRISONBURG — While serving their clients, employees of the Mercy House shelter find that confidentiality is compromised.

For example, in one room at the North High Street office, two caseworkers and two interns have desks that double as a place to meet shelter residents because no other space is available.

A third intern has no desk.

“We just have a lot of scheduling nightmares,” said Twila Lee, Mercy House’s executive director.

On Tuesday, City Council helped ease the shelter’s space crunch by unanimously approving a city staff-opposed ordinance amendment that frees up parking for employees.

In doing so, Mercy House will have more room to operate and can add two apartments for the homeless. Forty-three people, including 24 children, live within the 12 apartments the group has at locations on North High and Liberty streets.

Lee said the waiting list has 14 families on it.

About 30 families live in rental properties and also receive assistance through Mercy House.

Precedent-Setting Move?

The ordinance amendment states that employees of charitable and benevolent organizations are allowed to park off-site and cross a local street to work.

The practice of parking off-site and walking to work is prohibited in Harrisonburg except for large-scale industries, which have difficulty finding single parcels big enough for both their buildings and parking. George’s LLC on South Liberty Street is an example.

The downtown business district, where employees frequently walk a short distance to work, has no parking requirements.

In Mercy House’s case, the nonprofit wants to purchase a vacant house at 305 N. High St., which is across Green Street from the shelter, and move personnel there.

That would free up room for more apartments and generate more space for activities and events such as community dinners.

The vacant building, however, cannot support the number of parking spaces, six, that Mercy House needs. That led Lee to ask the city for the amendment, which allows employees to continue parking at Mercy House and cross Green Street to their new office.

Although it felt “un-American” to counter the request, city staff opposed the ordinance change in fear of setting a precedent of encouraging people to cross streets midblock, said Stacy Turner, director of Harrisonburg planning and community development.

For planning purposes, too, the idea raised concerns: Residential neighborhoods do not want a constant flow of employees crossing or walking down streets to get to work, staff members say.

The Harrisonburg Planning Commission, though, recommended approval of the change to City Council, believing that Mercy House’s proposal is tailored to avoid setting any precedents. Council agreed.

Still, Councilmen Richard Baugh and Kai Degner mentioned that the city might want to look into reviewing similar parking requests in the future through a special-use permit process.

“We have some charitable and benevolent uses that can be quite massive,” Baugh said. “[Industrial change] was sort of done as a one-off. We’re kind of doing this as a one-off. … Maybe staff’s impulses were right the first time, if we try to find out some way to come up with something more comprehensive. … It’s like a lot of things we do. Give me the crystal ball.”

Capital Campaign Coming

With the ordinance amendment, council approved a rezoning of the building Mercy House plans to purchase.

Lee says a capital campaign to pay for renovations to the house will be needed. She projects costs to be $60,000.

The house for sale will cost the shelter about another $150,000 to buy. The nonprofit has not yet closed on it.

Had city officials rejected the proposed amendment, the shelter would likely have had to start looking for a new location, which would be a far greater expense.

“We are so excited,” Lee said.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com

 



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