Members of the Blacksburg and Virginia Tech communities are resisting a request by American Campus Communities to rezone 3.8 acres of the Houston-Harrell Street neighborhood for student housing.
If approved, the rezoning request would allow the developer, American Campus Communities, to build a high-density apartment building adjacent to Stadium Woods, the old-growth forest behind Lane Stadium.
Friends of Stadium Woods, as stated on its website, is an “all-volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the woods from development.” They are against the rezoning.
According to Rebekah Paulson, executive director of Friends of Stadium Woods, the old-growth forest “is a forest that has existed for hundreds and thousands of years, continuing as it is.”
There are several reasons why the Friends of Stadium Woods are upset with the request.
Some of the trees in Stadium Woods predate Virginia Tech. An old-growth forest like Stadium Woods is rare as many have been cut out for logging or development.
“On the East Coast, there is less than half a percent of old-growth forest remaining,” Paulson said. “To have a remnant on the VT campus ... is just exceptionally rare.”
The proximity of the proposed apartment building to Stadium Woods is why Paulson is urging the Town Council to reject the rezoning.
“We're concerned about several things, one is just the density of the building and how many people will be there that might impact the Woods,” Paulson said. “I think the density problem with the housing is different because it's the density, not just of the students, but of the building and the parking lots and vehicles traffic that is going in there.”
Another concern of hers is the storm water runoff from heavy rains.
“The location where they want to build is at the very lowest point in that neighborhood,” Paulson said. “Currently there is already flooding that comes from the top of the hill down to the bottom at that point and then floods through Stadium Woods.”
The developers want to pave a path through Stadium Woods to give residents easier access to campus. Paulson is concerned this will have a negative impact on Stroubles Creek.
“We're concerned about that because that's the location where the water will run off and it's at the headwaters of Stroubles Creek,” Paulson said. A headwater is the source of streams and rivers.
Paulson also thinks rezoning this area to high-density would set a bad precedent.
“Our concern is that if this project were approved, all the developers, all the people who own property there, when they get ready to redevelop their property, it would be high-density as well,” Paulson said.
Paulson and Friends of Stadium Woods are not against rezoning areas to high-density on principle. Their goal is to raise awareness for the old-growth forest and protect it.
“I mean, clearly, it's right next to Virginia Tech so it's ideal for student housing. But I think (development) needs to be a smaller impact on the area,” Paulson said. “But unless they're properly protected, and in my opinion legally protected, they’re going to continue to degrade.”
American Campus Communities executives who have been involved in the rezoning could not be reached for comment.
Mayor of Blacksburg Leslie Hager-Smith spoke about the proposal and said she is in full support of preserving the Woods.
“I have been a passionate supporter of saving the Stadium Woods. I've paid for my yard sign, I made a contribution; the necklace I'm wearing today was actually bought at auction to support the Stadium Woods,” Hager-Smith said.
Blacksburg Town Council doesn’t have the authority to protect Stadium Woods. Virginia Tech owns the land, so that power belongs to the university administration.
“At the end of the day, the town has no control over those woods,” Hager-Smith said. “It's owned by Virginia Tech, they have not put it into a conservation easement which is what we hoped they would do.”
The Houston-Harrell neighborhood has been around for almost a century. The roads there were first paved in the 1920s, which is also when the root systems of the trees in Stadium Woods were first disturbed.
“There would be some disturbance if you put in an apartment building,” Hager-Smith said. “(But) the amount of square footage you need for the ground level of a two-story or a one-story building is approximately the same as for a four-story building. So the idea that there's going to be density and they're going to build up high doesn't necessarily represent a greater threat.”
To Hager-Smith, there is a bigger problem underlying this rezoning debate. Virginia Tech announced in 2017 its intention to grow the student population of the university, and that presents obstacles the Town Council has to navigate.
“I think there are all those sensitivities to deal with the amount of growth we're having, the speed of the growth that VT is basically imposing on us, and that, I think, is what is an issue,” Hager-Smith said. “This is our constant job, is to pay for services for a town much larger than the 19 or 20,000 tax paying, working citizens.”
A public hearing on the rezoning was postponed on Feb. 12 at the request of American Campus Communities. The hearing will now be held during the April 9 Blacksburg Town Council meeting.