By Sarah Mansheim
Ronceverte has a plan. The Ronceverte city council has put into place a 10-year comprehensive plan, making use of community feedback and sustainable land use guidelines to map out the municipality’s future.
During a special meeting and public hearing last Tuesday night, community planning consultant Terrell Ellis, of Charleston, presented city council with a “working document,” the result of an “ongoing, nine-month coordination of all (the city’s) smaller plans that have already been in place.”
State law requires municipalities to have a comprehensive plan in place, and to factor in land use, housing, transportation, infrastructure, public services, rural lands, recreation, economic development, community design, historic preservation and financing.
Ellis said the Ronceverte Planning Commission sent out questionnaires with Ronceverte citizens’ water bills netting 120 responses from the city’s residents. The commission also held a community forum earlier this year, where about 20 citizens showed up and commented on the future of the River City.
According to Ellis, community feedback identified the city’s strengths including:
• small town charm and friendly people
• local government responsiveness
• police protection and community safety
• affordability and low cost of property
and weaknesses including:
• dilapidated buildings and negligent landlords
• poor condition of streets and sidewalks
• poor condition of water and sewer systems
• general appearance of the town
• need for better jobs and more businesses
• drug activity
Another challenge the city faces, said Ellis, is its high level of poverty. According to census data contained in the plan, 14 percent of Ronceverte residents live below the poverty level; and 50 percent of families with female heads of household live below the poverty level. Also, Ellis noted, Ronceverte’s population is getting older. An aging and impoverished population, she said, impacts housing, services and transportation needs – all things the city needs to address.
The comprehensive plan envisions a mixed-use downtown, with the city encouraging development within the its own limits as opposed to the annexation of outlying areas. As she described the need to “infill,” or increase the town’s density, council member Adam Rosin expressed concern that building within city limits could potentially compromise the integrity of the older neighborhood areas, particularly the historic district.
Rosin said he worried about multi-family apartment buildings and their impact on parking availability in Ronceverte’s older neighborhoods; and also, that new building construction may not mesh well with other existing structures.
Ellis responded that the lack of heavy population growth in the city indicated that there would not be much need for multi-family projects, and segued into a discussion of revamping existing, vacant structures such as the old Greenbrier High School to create housing for the senior population. Ellis also indicated that language could be added to the comprehensive plan, creating housing guidelines to protect the historic district.
Ellis continued to the discuss the need for growth within city limits, saying it would not only serve the downtown area by promoting area businesses (and possibly recruiting more to the area) but would also serve the existing infrastructure, which is already overwhelmed, by not adding more water and sewer lines to outlying, annexed areas.
Between the need for extensive sidewalk repairs (an ongoing project which grant coordinator Doug Hylton asserted has some funds coming in); aging, leaking water lines; and an antiquated sewer and wastewater system that must be able to filter the waste of Ronceverte, Fairlea and Lewisburg (the city’s new sewer plant is still in its planning stages with advertisements for construction bids expected to be released mid-December), Ellis said the city is not going to be able to effectively provide reliable services to outlying areas. Moreover, by investing in, beautifying and standardizing properties within city limits, the town becomes more self sustaining.
“We’re never going to compete with big box stores,” she said about downtown businesses, so the city should focus on developing small, niche businesses that serve the local and tourism markets. Meanwhile, viable storefronts on the street level would support residential and office space on buildings’ upper floors.
Other plan highlights included
• expanding recreational facilities and opportunities for residents and tourists by improving Island Park facilities, creating green spaces and building a new community pool
• addressing residents’ safety concerns
• flood prevention, including redevelopment of the wetlands in the lower areas near Locust, Spruce and Pine streets
• protecting and promoting historic resources through incentive programs
• strengthening the city’s vacant lot ordinance
• updating land development and subdivision ordinances
Following the public hearing, a non-unanimous vote was passed to approve the comprehensive plan with Rosin voting against. Rosin said that he chose to vote “no” because of the lack of language in the document regarding the restrictions on building in the historic areas and because of factual errors on one of the official maps, which misidentified the historical district and referred to Pocahontas Avenue as Pocahontas Street. While Ellis had ensured that such changes would be made on a future document, Rosin told the Mountain Messenger that he felt uncomfortable voting for the plan as it was presented Monday night.
The plan is available for review at city hall.