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Saturday, March 9, 2013
“The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title of citizen.”
“We all have an obligation as citizens of this Earth to leave the world a healthier, cleaner and better place for our children and future generations.” — Benjamin Franklin
On March 4, Salem City Council announced with one week’s notice that it will consider selling another five-acre parcel of the Elizabeth Campus on March 11. This creates a tipping point in council’s ability to follow the 1998 council’s land-use promises and heralded compromises of the 1998 rezoning.
Roanoke College’s sale of 52 acres of its Elizabeth Campus to Salem and the city’s subsequent rezoning put the Elizabeth Campus on the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation’s Most Endangered List, repeatedly packed council chambers, instigated a citizen-commissioned citywide poll demonstrating overwhelming opposition to rezoning, a citizens’ purchase offer, a deluge of anti-rezoning letters to the editor and eventually spawned Salem’s most contested council election in 2000.
Salemites yearned to preserve this beloved 52 acres for all the best reasons. Council’s unanimous decision to rezone in the face of overwhelming public opposition spurred a lawsuit funded by citizens over three years to the tune of $50,000. Instead of making Salem shine with this drop-dead gorgeous historic acreage that, as green space, could have served as a gateway to the Roanoke Valley, council insisted the best thing was to chop it up and sell it off.
Aren’t we glad today that we still have acres of junk yards within walking distance of our town gem with its chopped-up campus, crowned with the largest above-ground water tower on Earth, instead of classy companies that would have been willing to build on redeveloped land so their employees could enjoy a spacious small-town central park full of unencumbered spectacular views and pleasant rolling hills? After all, council knew it was best to use its golden egg to make omelets.
Although citizens lost the fight to keep the campus all green, an important compromise for mixed-use was fleshed out. In a Roanoke Times news story at the time (“Salem council votes to rezone Elizabeth Campus,” Nov. 24, 1998), Vice Mayor Alex Brown said of the rezoning plan, “It keeps about 20 acres green and includes a walking and running trail as a compromise.”
In the May 20, 1999, Salem Times Register, Councilman Howard Packett said: “After a series of public hearings, we voted to develop the property to provide some tax revenue, and at the same time preserve half of the area for open space. None of the large trees and open space on the east end of the property will be disturbed. The area at Texas and Colorado streets will be developed as a park with a lake and fountains.”
Council has already broken its promise to leave the ancient trees untouched by selling the grove to the Montessori School. The water tower is more monstrous than promised, could have been located and maintained less expensively underground with pumps, and cost Salem more than $300,000 extra for useless, hideous doors and windows that lead into thin air. That money would have covered the cost of putting the tower at the city’s announced location of the ballpark.
Council’s current rush to consider selling five more acres is a stark contrast to its 15-year slow walk to implement the promised public, mixed-use plan for the property, despite repeated citizen reminders. It’s not like Salem council hasn’t had time. During the 15 years that Salem residents have been deprived of recreational use of this beloved property, council has sometimes canceled meetings and sometimes held meetings so short that the public would miss them by arriving five minutes late.
Instead of problem-solving and partnering with residents, council’s nattering refrain is that it “represents all Salem citizens.”
When Mayor Randy Foley (who lived away from Salem during the 1998 rezoning controversy) was first running for mayor, my husband and I invited him to our home. For the hour, I displayed a large watercolor of the citizens’ vision for the Elizabeth Campus. I will never forget his sincere comment: “I would have listened.” We promptly posted his campaign sign in our yard.
Following the citizens’ vision would have elevated Salem. The Elizabeth Campus is now a mixed-up, marred property with two large flat-roofed buildings fronted by large, stark parking lots and too-tall, clunky street lamps. Nevertheless, promises were made by city leaders who rezoned the land to dedicate from 20 acres to half the acreage for open space.
After 15 years, our request is that council abide by the 1998-99 compromises and promptly describe plans for the long-promised park before one more square inch of the property is sold.
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