Neighborhood fights Waffle House plans for East Innes eatery
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY - The normally sedate Salisbury Planning Board meeting turned into a showdown Tuesday between a neighborhood concerned with safety and proponents of a new Waffle House restaurant.
More than 40 people showed up to support a rezoning request from the Brooklyn-South Square neighborhood that could prevent Waffle House from building a 24-hour eatery on East Innes Street at the former Jade Express site, across from Wilco Hess and next to Wendy's.
"When you've got property or businesses open all through the night, you are automatically going to get people who are up to no good," said Anne Lyles, neighborhood advocate. "And that spills out in the community that's right behind it."
The Wilco Hess has been a hot spot for criminal activity.
But Salisbury resident Sam Nash, whose family has owned the Jade Express property since the 1940s, said Waffle House is neighborhood-friendly.
"What's wrong with coffee, eggs, grits and waffles?" Nash said.
Nash said his family has turned down offers from other businesses to lease the property, which has been vacant for two and half years, "in an effort to find a nationally known and respected company to be a good neighbor. We finally found just that."
The neighborhood is asking the city to rezone the Jade Express lot from commercial mixed-use (CMX) to residential mixed-use (RMX). The change would still allow a restaurant on the property but would force Waffle House to request a special use permit before it could operate.
The city can place conditions on a special use permit, such as hours of operation.
"A lot of people have never eaten at Waffle House sober," said Dick Huffman, a planning board member who recused himself due to a property conflict and spoke in favor of the rezoning.
Huffman, an attorney, said he's sure Waffle House tries hard to run a good and safe restaurant, but "facts are facts."
People who are "less than sober" end up fighting and breaking the law, he said.
Another local attorney said an interesting thing happened to Waffle House on the way to apply for city permits.
"They got ambushed," said Glenn Ketner Jr., who represents property owner Nash Management. "This is an obvious attempt to undermine a legitimate use of the property."
Neighbors said they only oppose Waffle House because it's open 24 hours and would support another restaurant in the same location.
Waffle House filed development plans with the city Monday and will request a building permit from Rowan County "as soon as possible," said Butch Baur, the company's vice president for real estate.
'The race is on'
A new emphasis by the city and county on fast-tracking commercial development could work against the neighborhood and in Waffle House's favor.
The Planning Board has 30 days to make a recommendation on the rezoning to City Council.
It could take about that long for Waffle House to pull the required permits to start construction.
"The race is on," said Preston Mitchell, the city's Planning and Development Services manager.
If the city decides to rezone the property but Waffle House has already pulled the permits, the neighborhood's request is moot and the restaurant is grandfathered.
The Jade Express property is part of a much larger request to rezone 35 parcels in Brooklyn-South Square. Overwhelmed, the Planning Board voted to send the issue to a committee and will ask City Council for up to 60 additional days to consider the neighborhood's request.
Neighborhood President Ken Weaver said the delay likely will mean defeat for Brooklyn-South Square.
Weaver said he expects Waffle House to pull permits before the issue can work through a committee, the Planning Board and finally City Council.
But Planning Board Chairwoman Karen Alexander said referring the issue to a committee was not tacit agreement with Waffle House.
"We need time to adequately digest all the information," said Alexander, who added the Planning Board would work "as quickly and as thoroughly as possible."
No Planning Board member suggested considering the Jade Express property separately, although two members voted against asking City Council to extend the 30-day deadline.
The neighborhood may have inadvertently delayed a decision by presenting stacks of documents, including letters from residents who could not attend the meeting, Salisbury Police incident reports for Wilco Hess and Wendy's and a compilation of national crime statistics regarding Waffle House.
Mitchell serves as staff for the Planning Board. He also shepherds commercial development through the city's new one-stop shop for businesses.
He said he will work equally as quickly on both the Waffle House development request and the Planning Board process.
During his staff presentation, Mitchell recommended Planning Board remove the Jade Express lot from the neighborhood's overall rezoning request.
Baur of Waffle House agreed and asked the neighborhood to stand down. The company takes safety seriously, he said, and the new restaurant would be as asset to Brooklyn-South Square, not a liability.
"We would tear down an old building that is dark at night and encourages loitering," he said.
Discouraging criminal activity
With lights, police officers, activity and commerce, the new Waffle House would discourage criminal activity and create jobs during an economic downturn, Baur said.
"We do everything we can to be a good member of this community," he said.
Brooklyn-South Square requested residential, historic and RMX rezoning for 35 parcels - more than eight acres - from Long Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and from East Bank Street to East Innes Street.
The third-party request - meaning it came from someone other than the property owner - stirred more opposition than just from Waffle House.
Rowan County has worked hard to make it easier for new businesses to set up shop, said Gus Andrews, former county commissioner.
Rezoning three lots on East Innes Street - Jade Express, the former Havanna Knights and the Charles Parks property - would make them less appealing for commercial use, Andrews said.
"This would be defeating our purpose and sending a message we don't need to send out," he said.
The neighborhood included those lots in the rezoning request because the properties are vacant, vulnerable and corner locations that define the character of the neighborhood, Karl Sale said.
Rezoning to RMX would not change the use of the properties, which would remain business-friendly, he said.
The additional resources the city and Salisbury Police would have to expend on a new Waffle House would cancel out any tax base benefit, he said.
"Everybody knows this is a powder keg, an accident waiting to happen," Sale said.
Charles Parks, who owns the restored house at 531 E. Innes St. included in the rezoning request, said he's already having trouble renting or selling the commercial property and is concerned RMX would not help.
"It does us no good to have empty building," he said. "That invites elements that none of us like."
Developer Victor Wallace complained the city didn't give property owners enough notice, although Mitchell said the Planning Board met the required notification deadlines.
"The government just can't keep doing this," Wallace said. "It's got to be fair to all the parties."
Developer Chris Bradshaw said his property would end up with three different zonings if the request is granted.
He called the third-party rezoning request "ludicrous."
Neighborhood advocates said they are working to protect their investment.
Living near a 24-hour restaurant would mean lights, noise, traffic and pedestrians all night, they said.
"I come down on the side of preserving this as a safe and attractive neighborhood for people," said Karen Young, a former City Council member.
The rezoning would attract development that's more sympathetic to neighborhood concerns and improve the city's appeal and vitality, said Brian Davis, who lives in the adjacent Park Avenue neighborhood.
Davis is executive director for Historic Salisbury Foundation, which has not taken a position on the rezoning issue. Suzanne Blunk lives in the house behind Christo's restaurant, near the Jade Express lot. "I am not against Waffle House on the highway," she said. "But not in my back door." Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.