Housing task force approves strategies report

Staff writer

After more than a year of study and debate, James City County’s affordable housing task force voted to approve its final report on how the county can address its housing challenges Tuesday, with an added nod to rural land preservation.

The task force voted unanimously in favor of the report, which details 15 suggested strategies that run the gamut from zoning policy changes to financial tools.

“The recommendations are not one silver bullet, it’s a broad approach,” said Vaughn Poller, county neighborhood development administrator.

The county conducted a housing study in 2016 that found there isn’t enough housing for low- and moderate-income residents. James City has 8,400 households, which means about a third of households in the county can’t afford their housing costs without sacrificing other expenses, such as medical care and food.

Strategies include adaptive reuse, which is aimed at low- and moderate-income renters, and a proposal to redevelop existing motels and commercial buildings into residential units. Also among the recommendations are rehabilitation of existing housing, a housing trust fund and multi-family property tax exemptions and abatement. The strategy recommendations will target workers across income levels, ranging from childcare workers to elementary school teachers and medical technicians.

Recommendations in the final report don’t come packaged with cost projections. The proposed housing trust fund does have suggested funding sources, such as a 1-cent increase to the real estate tax or allocation of part of James City’s share of income generated by the Historic Triangle’s regional tourism tax revenue. In the first year, the fund would be used to finance single-family home rehabilitation.

A previous draft of the report suggested $900,000 annually be put into the fund. That figure isn’t in the report approved by the task force.

The report will go to the Board of Supervisors for review in the near future. Supervisors will determine which, if any, recommendations will be implemented.

In the run up to the approval, the task force added two amendments to the report it informally agreed on in December — stronger language in support of rural land preservation and a note about a lack of existing R-5 zoned, residential multifamily — land in the county.

Task force members sparred over James City County’s perennial development debate — preservation of rural character — and how to present it with the report.

Member Jack Haldeman, who is also on the Planning Commission, suggested additional, stronger language in support of protection of rural lands in the county as part of an existing statement included with the report’s guiding principals.

“I view it as an almost existential issue,” Haldeman said, saying rural character was important not only culturally, but also fiscally and economically. He wanted to see rural land protections become a more developed concept within the report’s principals.

Task force member Susan Gaston disagreed with some of Haldeman’s suggestions, worrying language that’s too forceful could dissuade developers from coming forward with projects. The task force adopted some of Haldeman’s suggestions to create a slightly more forceful statement in defense of rural lands.

Member Roger Guernsey wanted, and ultimately got, new wording in the report’s zoning suggestions to note that viable R-5 Multifamily Residential zoning parcels — which lay the groundwork for moderate and high-density development — are very limited in the county.

“I just think that needs to be very clear to everybody, the challenges that we face,” he said, adding the language as written in the draft might give readers the impression to the contrary.

Off the top of his head, Planning Director Paul Holt said there were just a couple existing R-5 parcels, and at least one didn’t have utilities.

Oakland Pointe

Looming over the task force’s work is Oakland Pointe, a proposed affordable housing complex in Norge.

Task force members worried their work could be caught up in the debate over the proposed complex, and that residents may mistakenly believe the task force suggested or has an official position of support for the proposed complex.

“I don’t want 13 months of work to be lost in the jet wash,” Gaston said.

That being said, James City Social Services Director Rebecca Vinroot said whatever decision the Board of Supervisors makes, it could set the tone for the report’s recommendations.

To combat that, education and emphasis on the task force’s varied toolbox will be important.

“If not that, what?” task force member Stephen Anderson said. “If that doesn’t work, all the smaller initiatives are necessary.”

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote whether to approve a rezoning application to allow the construction of the 126-unit apartment complex next Tuesday.

Looking forward, the task force expressed interest in an advisory group, likely drawn from its membership, to advise the county on affordable housing and implementing strategies.

“It provides that vehicle for communication with the community” said task force member Jeanne Zeidler.

Creation of an advisory group is up to the Board of Supervisors. What that will group will look like or how it will operate hasn’t been determined.

“We need to give that some thought on our end” Board of Supervisors member Ruth Larson said of the advisory group.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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