Planners OK New City Hall

Posted: April 10, 2014

HARRISONBURG — It was a bit of a backward process, but the Harrisonburg Planning Commission on Wednesday gave its approval to City Council’s plans for a new city hall — a project that council’s already endorsed.

It’s doubtful an unfavorable review by planners would have derailed plans to build the new facility next to the current Municipal Building on South Main Street, but with their endorsement, there’s no longer a cloud hanging over it.

And the threat of a lawsuit has ended, too.

Council bypassed the Planning Commission when it approved the project in the fall — using a waiver in city code to do so — yet Deb Fitzgerald, who chairs the commission, wanted her panel to hold a special hearing on the project, as allowed by law.

It was the city’s first such hearing — known as a 2232 hearing — in reference to the provision that grants it in state code. The result is a report on how the new city hall meets goals set forth in Harrisonburg’s comprehensive plan.

“Many communities do this as a routine, boring, mundane, nerdy process,” Fitzgerald said at the meeting.

For those who have followed the city hall project, that’s sort of how Wednesday felt: Architect John Mather and project manager Ande Banks explained why the location, character and extent of the new building fits with the comprehensive plan.

After council approved the project on Oct. 22, a local group filed a lawsuit to block it by a stating that the panel violated state code because the proposal was not in the city’s plan, meaning it should go through the Planning Commission first.

The site has, however, been used for city offices for more than 50 years and is zoned for such use in the future, council members argue.

While the lawsuit was dismissed in Rockingham County Circuit Court, the opportunity remained for a second lawsuit once the city signed a contractor to do the work. That was an added reason to hold Wednesday’s hearing, Fitzgerald has said.

The seven-member commission is an advisory panel that includes a member of council, a role now filled by Richard Baugh. The commission offers guidance on zoning issues and the comprehensive plan to council, which normally supports the recommendation that comes from planners.

While Baugh joined Councilman Kai Degner in voting against the city hall project at the council level, he did not think the Planning Commission should contest the decision. He said the comprehensive plan does not have procedures in place to accomplish its goals, so City Council can’t be faulted for not implementing standards that “do not exist.”

Baugh adds that City Council is not legally bound to follow the document anyway.

“Who goes to jail? No one goes to jail. It’s not a law. It’s not a statute. That’s not how the comprehensive plan works,” he said.

The city has put out an invitation to bid for construction of city hall. Bids are due May 1, with a mandatory prebid meeting set for April 18.

The new structure is estimated to cost up to $10 million to build. Construction is expected to take 14 months and will connect the new and old buildings by a glass atrium. The Community Development Building — at 409 S. Main St., just south of the Municipal Building — would then be demolished for parking.

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



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