Rise above the drama and serve the citizens

Published 11:26 am Friday, June 17, 2016

Farmville arguably is a better place because of the investments of real estate developer Russell Harper. He reminded us so at a town council meeting last week, detailing the economic impact of his projects over the years.

It’s equally true that Harper is a wealthier man because of Farmville, its elected and appointed officials who have blessed his projects, some controversial, and the citizens who have paid him a handsome return on his investments here.

All of which is to say that Harper and Farmville are square. Harper owes nothing to Farmville. Farmville owes nothing to Harper.

In a lengthy interview last week, I asked Harper if he agreed. His comments at last week’s council meeting inferred that he was above any questions from this community, much less criticism. He insisted to me that Farmville owes him nothing. I take him at his word.

So, if in response to reasonable conditions that the town might want to place on apartments Harper proposes to build on South Main Street, he kills the project, there should be no hard feelings on either side. The town council certainly shouldn’t cower to Harper’s threats to walk away if its members impose reasonable requirements to ensure the safety of motorists on the town’s most heavily traveled thoroughfare.

Farmville’s planning commission quickly backed down last month after a member floated the commonsensical requirement that cars leaving the apartment complex be required to turn right onto Main Street, rather than risk life and limb to cross two lanes of traffic to turn left without the benefit of a traffic signal. Harper, in a fit of hyperbole, said the right-turn-only rule would discourage so many would-be renters that the project couldn’t be profitable. Therefore, if it were imposed, he’d walk. Planning commissioners dropped a reasonable suggestion like a hot potato.

“Right turn only” may or may not be the answer, but regardless, the town council needs to show more backbone.

Let’s not overstate the stakes here. Many economists will vouch that multi-family rental housing is the flimsiest of economic generators. The ongoing cost of municipal services triggered by such developments typically offsets the additional tax revenue generated. After the brief construction phase, jobs are minimal.

If I were making list of Farmville’s top 50 economic needs, a 120-unit apartment complex on Fast Food Row would rate somewhere around 48th, maybe 49th, depending on my mood when trying to make a left turn on to Main Street any given day.

Harper has every right to build his apartments. The property is zoned for it. The town has every right to impose reasonable restrictions that keep citizens safe and minimize the inconveniences caused.

The town council needs to rebuke Harper’s theatrics, such as shameful personal attacks on two of its own at a meeting last week, ignore his bully tactics, and make an independent, unemotional, fact-based decision — vetted in full view of the taxpaying public — that protects the citizens while allowing Harper to build his apartments.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Farmville Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@farmvilleherald.com.