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The city’s main goal for the Elizabeth Campus is revenue, as evidenced by its piecemeal development.
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Spoken assurances by Salem’s elected leaders 15 years ago carry no legal weight now. But what about moral obligation?
In the case of development of the Elizabeth Campus, not much — though loose promises were made back in 1998 that 18 acres of the then undeveloped 52-acre tract would “remain in green space.”
Salem City Council faced intense public opposition at the time to rezoning any of the land for commerce. Whether individual members recognized the benefit and truly intended to preserve a portion for passive public use, or agreed to the “compromise” merely as a safety valve to quiet protesters, the result was unenforceable.
Fifteen years later, an almost entirely new council is proceeding as the language in the zoning code clearly allows. And, it should be acknowledged, as city officials intended when they acquired the property in the first place.
Salem swapped Roanoke College for other property more suitable to its purposes, plus $1.7 million. The 1996 newspaper report of the pending deal was headlined: “Salem is hoping for land swap. Roanoke College acres could solve city’s trouble.”
Salem’s trouble then, as now, was that, as a landlocked city of only 14 square miles, it had limited undeveloped land left to attract commercial or industrial development to grow its tax base. City services, including a top-notch school division, cost a lot of money. Salemites have willingly paid handsomely for sports venues and, officials roughly figure, more than 14 percent of the city’s 14 square miles is green space.
Today, the city budget is tight, and Salem is looking for business development to produce revenue to maintain services residents expect. Its comprehensive plan, updated in June, lists providing added space for economic development first among its goals. Improving the city’s appearance is second, a goal that includes ensuring Salem Commerce Park on the Elizabeth Campus “meets highest development standards” and reserves open space and public walkways.
One day, the Elizabeth Campus likely will be almost entirely built out, with some land set aside with each piecemeal development for the walking trail that did make it into the city’s zoning code. The vision sketched out in 1998 would be a wonderful community asset — that it cannot afford.
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