ELM STREET DEVELOPMENT: Additional restrictions surface in wake of resident protests

Published 11:00 am Friday, July 12, 2019

By Shannon Beamon, for the SNAP

An amendment approved by the Locust City Council will add a number of new restrictions for housing developments.

The changes — which affect housing construction in the city’s open space districts — come on the heels of a much protested development on Elm Street which had its site plans approved last month.

“You are ignoring us to do exactly what you want,” Elm Street resident Joel Whitley said at the council’s last meeting.

Over the last three months, nearly a dozen residents protested the development, he said, and yet the city still approved the developer’s plans.

In addition, he and others felt the city was violating its own rules. According to city ordinances, no “major regrading” is permitted in an open space district, which residents argued the proposed development would require.

However, since the term “major regrading” is not defined within Locust’s ordinances, the council felt it did not have the legal grounds to reject the development’s site plans on those grounds.

“I see a willingness to bend the rules for developers,” Whitley said.

Whitley and other residents met on Monday to discuss their options moving forward, Whitley said in an email. They have passed the site plans on to an attorney to review for legal recourse, as well.

“If you keep up with this, we’re going to be on you like chicken on a June bug,” Elm Street resident Joe Evankovech said.

During closing comments, councilmen Mike Haigler, Harry Fletcher and Larry Baucom, as well as Mayor Steve Huber, each protested the insinuation that the council was aiding developers.

“I’ve lived my whole life in this city,” Haigler said. “If someone thinks I would sell it out, we haven’t talked enough.”

Fletcher said the council has sent a number of developers packing because the city’s ordinances were too restrictive.

“They come in here and they don’t like what we’re doing and they want us to make changes, but we won’t do it,” Fletcher said. “They tell us they can’t make money doing it that way and our answer is that it’s not the city’s responsibility to make your project profitable. So go somewhere else and do it.”

Hopper Communities, the company that proposed the Elm Street development subdivision of about 250 homes, still has not decided if it will move forward with its project, Councilman Roger Hypes noted earlier in the meeting.

Before approving its site plans last month, council members stipulated the developer had to have 70-foot lots, which will cut a couple dozen houses from their plans, Hypes said. Due to that cut in the value of the project, it has not signed off on the agreement with the city yet.

“You may not be happy, but they’re not either,” Haigler said. “If they decide to pack up and leave, I’ll sleep just fine at night.”

The amendment the council passed at its last meeting is meant to hold all developers to a higher standard in open space districts, not make it easier for them, councilors argued.

Where before the city’s open spaces had no lot requirements, the amendment adds a minimum lot size (10,000 square feet), a minimum lot width (70 feet), minimum lot set backs (front 30 feet, rear 25 feet, sides 5-10 feet) and a uniform development density (two dwellings per acre).

It also requires multi-house developments to establish a homeowner’s association, or similar group, to see to the upkeep of the neighborhood, as well as streets wide enough for on-street parking.

The council also decided to research the industry standard of “major regrading.”

“That wasn’t defined anywhere,” Haigler said. “That needs to be clear.”

All changes — except a definition of “major regrading” — were recommended by the city’s Planning & Zoning Board before coming to the council, staff added. The city does not have the authority to initiate such changes on their own.

However, the changes are not all restrictive. At least one cuts down on developer requirements.

“Where before developments larger than 10 acres were required to leave 10 percent of the site undeveloped, the amended text requires only two percent remain undeveloped.

However, that two percent must be turned into “urban open space,” rather than remain unused (i.e. by putting in a park, playground, pool, etc.), city officials said. That will constitute more of an investment than simply unused land, they added.

It also removes separate standards for single-house construction, a definition for “rural open spaces” and a passage on open space preservation.

“Rural open spaces” — as previously defined under the ordinance — were areas with heritage features such as ponds, bridges and farm buildings. The text offered no special protections for such spaces, but views of them could be counted toward a development’s public space requirements.

By removing the term, developers can no longer count views of such sites toward those requirements.

As for the passage on open space preservation, it applied only to lands donated to a conservancy or privately preserved by landowners, both of which are already protected under state and/or federal law.

“If you ever have questions, come talk to us, any of us,” Councilwoman Mandy Watson said. “Come get the facts.”

The amendment was approved unanimously. To view a copy of the new text changes, contact City Hall at 704-888-5260.

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