Letter: Think big, Little Washington

It is beneficial to set a course for one’s future. As the great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” It’s also beneficial for governing bodies; they should endeavor to chart a future strategic course for the communities they are entrusted to protect and guide. There are different ways to achieve this but the one instrument that localities most frequently use to shape their future is the comprehensive plan. The plan states the vision of a town or county and is reviewed periodically to ensure it accurately defines the short and long-term goals required to achieve that vision.

Closer to home, the comprehensive plan of the town of Washington cites an objective to “encourage housing that is affordable to local residents but also compatible with the Town’s historic character and resources.” Similarly, the comprehensive plan of Rappahannock County states, “We desire low and moderate income housing to be available” and that “housing in the region will be affordable to all socioeconomic levels, and [we should] educate the public so there will no longer be a stigma associated with lower income housing.”

Strategic visions are fine thoughts often made from 30,000 feet up. In reality, the opportunity to execute and achieve a lofty vision rarely presents itself. However, such an opportunity is now before the Washington town council, which is scheduled to further discuss low-income housing during its 7 p.m. monthly meeting on Monday at the town hall.

People, Inc. of Abingdon, Va. has approached the town for a special-use permit to construct nine apartment units in the auxiliary building (gym) of the former Washington School on Mount Salem Avenue. This special-use permit is required in People, Inc.’s application to the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) for the historic tax credits required for the purchase of the Washington School property from its current owner, the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC).

The issue is not about increasing density on the site. In 2003, the town approved a similar special-use permit request by CCLC for the construction of eight apartment units in the old school building (the structure closest to Mount Salem Avenue). Those units are now fully rented, primarily to persons who work in the town and county.

No, this is an issue about whether the town of Washington, and by extension the county, wants workforce housing in its backyard as People, Inc. proposes to construct these apartments for low- to moderate-income residents who might work in Rappahannock. Given the language and the spirit of the town and county’s comprehensive plans, this would appear a straightforward choice. In fact, County Administrator John McCarthy, who also serves as the town’s zoning administrator, has recommended the special-use permit application be approved. But, alas, when the words “affordable” and “housing” are joined, citizens can be separated.

Perhaps it is best to start by saying what this is not. People, Inc. is not proposing Section 8 subsidized housing for the Washington School. Nor is the prospective owner proposing to purchase, improve and flip a multifamily investment property in historic Washington. They have made a 15-year ownership commitment and have suggested an extended commitment reaching to 30 years. Also, they will not change the exterior look of the building or expand the footprint on the site. They actually have a property-management operation that will paint the exterior, repair the roof and maintain the grounds. Green space between the school and Mount Salem Avenue will be maintained.

What this will do is create a small amount of multifamily housing where it is best located: in the town where population is decreasing and “urban density” has been sought and encouraged. Because People, Inc. uses a percentage formula of adjusted median income (AMI) to determine occupancy eligibility, it is possible that employees in our school system, workers in our restaurants and ecotourism businesses, and certain county employees may qualify for residency instead of having to commute from outlying areas.

This is a needed and noble use that complies with the strategic vision of both the town and the county. People, Inc. would still have many hurdles to overcome beyond obtaining the special-use permit. But without it, the vision dies here and the opportunity for a limited number of workforce housing apartments goes away. We encourage the town council to embrace its comprehensive plan and approve People, Inc.’s application for the special-use permit.

Signed, on behalf of board members Karen Beck-Herzog, Steph Ridder, Cole Johnson, John Bourgeois, Betsy Dietel, John Guido, Alexia Morrison, Susan Parrish, Jen Perrot, David Poran and Rose Ann Smythe,

John Lesinski
CCLC board president

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