Locust reaches agreement with Elm Street developers

Published 6:06 pm Friday, June 14, 2019

By Shannon Beamon, for the SNAP

A much contended development in Locust now has the city’s go-ahead.

Before a full meeting room of around 60 people, the Locust City Council unanimously approved a development agreement with Hopper Communities that will allow for a new subdivision of about 250 homes off Elm Street.

“It was not an easy decision,” Councilman Larry Baucom said. “A lot of us lost sleep over it… it might not be quite what you wanted, it might not be quite what we wanted, but that’s the nature of compromise.”

While most of the agreement remains the same as presented last month, council members did add a stipulation requiring lots to be at least 70 feet wide (a 10-foot increase from a May draft of the agreement and an 18-foot increase from the original development plans).

Other points negotiated with developers include thicker vinyl on the houses, additional facade elements and more recreational facilities.

“There has been a lot of effort put into tweaking this,” said Mayor Steve Huber, noting that council members visited two other Hopper developments this month to better evaluate the impact on the Elm Street community. “I think it’s going to be good for our city.”

However, many nearby property owners remained unsatisfied with the agreement.

In a public hearing prior to the decision, eight speakers commented on the matter. Seven of them (four from Locust and three from bordering properties outside the city limits) were opposed to the development.

“It looks to me like it’s profit rather than progress,” Locust resident Tana Stroupe of Elm Street said.

While the development adds a lot of rooftops to Locust, it could also lower existing property values, harm local wildlife, aggravate existing wastewater issues, and increase traffic, she and other speakers noted.

In addition, every opposed speaker was worried the city was making special accommodations for the developers. Particularly in regards to grading ordinances.

According to city bylaws, they pointed out, any development that requires major grading is not allowed in the city limits. Since the new development will require “step-down” grading in its hillier areas, they considered it a violation of that ordinance.

In fact, many were under the impression that the city council intended to change its ordinances to allow Hopper Communities to move more dirt.

“You can’t change rules to benefit one project,” said Joel Whitley.

Tension on that point reached its climax when speaker Patrick Dennis insinuated that a staff member was profiting off the agreement with Hopper Communities.

Dennis refused to leave the floor at the end of his five-minute comment period and an officer approached to escort him from the podium.

“I will not tolerate any further personal attacks on city staff,” interjected Mayor Huber afterwards. “They work incredibly hard for this city.”

Council members added that much of the tension was a misunderstanding.

They were not changing any ordinances that evening.

The council cannot change any zoning related ordinances without a public hearing as well as a recommendation from a separate planning and zoning board, so it could not have changed the language of the bylaws at that meeting if it wanted to.

Staff said the planning and zoning board does recommend some new changes to Locust’s development ordinances, but those proposals will not go before a public hearing until July.

As a result, Hopper Communities must comply to all of the city’s ordinances as they currently stand.

But that may be where the issue lies, other council members added. As the ordinances stand, “major grading” is not clearly defined in their bylaws.

“So definitively, we cannot defend that in court,” Baucom said. “We looked into it.”

Since the city cannot reject a legitimate development agreement for reasons outside its ordinances (without risking a lawsuit), council members seemed reluctant to reject the development agreement on the grounds of grading.

“While we may not all walk out of this room happy, I hope we all realize that everyone in this room worked hard to bring us to this point,” Huber said.

“You, the staff. Everyone in this room was working towards a common goal, a common good … that’s what government is all about,” he added.

Shannon Beamon is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.