Spencer wants out of House Bill 150, opposes tax rate increase

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 12:52 a.m.

SPENCER — Aldermen agreed in a split vote Tuesday to ask state lawmakers to exempt Spencer from legislation that would prevent towns and cities from restricting the appearance of most residences.

Aldermen also started budget discussions at the meeting and informally agreed to not raise the property tax rate. But at least one board member said he would consider raising garbage collection rates to come up with money to pay for a master plan for town property.

Aldermen approved asking for the exemption to House Bill 150 on a 4-2 vote with Jeff Morris and Kevin Jones opposed. Town Manager Larry Smith will ask the local delegation to add Spencer to an exemption that includes Montreat and Biltmore Forest.

If it becomes law, House Bill 150 would prevent local governments from enacting design or architectural rules for most single-family homes and duplexes. Historic districts like downtown Spencer and planned subdivisions like Steeplechase are already exempt from the proposed law.

But Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gobbel said he wants the entire town exempted to help protect property values.

“We need to do everything we can,” Gobbel said.

Alderman Reid Walters said House Bill 150 and a companion bill in the senate are aimed at large cities that have abused aesthetic controls. Legislators should not lump small towns like Spencer in with cities, he said.

“I don’t see any good coming out of it,” Walters said. “How does it benefit Spencer?”

Morris, who supports the bill, said it will “enable the highest and best use of land” and would still allow towns to pass nuisance ordinances and zoning controls for single-family and multi-family developments.

Gobbel said the proposed law is another example of Republicans in the General Assembly trying to take control away from towns and cities. Without the ability to pass rules and regulations, towns could fall victim to large developers who come in, make their money and leave, Gobbel said.

“We can’t have a free trade zone here,” Gobbel said. “… This is not the wild west.”

Morris said as a Democrat, he supports the bill and does not believe it is partisan.

All of the bill’s 16 sponsors in the house are Republican, including N.C. Rep. Carl Ford, who represents Rowan County. Half of the bill’s 10 sponsors in the senate are Democrats, including N.C. Sen. Gene McLaurin, who represents Rowan County.

Mayor Jody Everhart pointed out that town regulations didn’t stop an undesirable apartment building from going up, and the town nearly lost Spencer Woods to clear cutting.

But others said they wanted to pursue the exemption.

“I’m for giving it a shot,” Walters said. “It will get buried, but what do we have to lose?”

In budget discussions, aldermen agreed the town needs an extensive facilities study to help determine if administration and the police department should stay in Town Hall, build a new facility or move into another building, such as Park Plaza.

A study could cost up to $100,000 but would include a master plan for town property, including parks, which could help win grant funding for capital projects, Town Manager Larry Smith said.

“This is very dire,” Smith said. “We need to have a plan.”

Creating a master plan for the 8th Street Ballpark that ties the facility to the town’s 42-acre forest will help “tap into those donors who have been so enthusiastic about Spencer Woods,” Smith said.

Everhart said the town has discussed completing a facilities study for nearly 10 years to no avail. Town leaders need to know if they should continue to spend money to maintain the existing Town Hall, or if it would be cheaper in the long run to move, he said.

Spencer owns “arguably too much” downtown property and should consider selling some buildings to boost the town’s commercial tax base, Smith said.

To come up with money for the study, Morris said he would prefer to raise fees for services that are not paying for themselves, like garbage collection, rather than raise property taxes or dip into reserves.

Alderman Scott Benfield said Town Hall is “falling apart,” but he is opposed to raising any fees in the coming year to help pay for a facilities study.

“We want to keep residents in Spencer,” Benfield said. “We don’t want to run them out.”

Walters said he was not in favor of raising fees or taxes. A one penny increase to Spencer’s 62.8-cent property tax rate would generate $20,700.

“The economy is not where it needs to be for anything to be raised,” Walters said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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