Candidates discuss historic preservation issues
By Hugh Fisher
SALISBURY ó The restored downtown Salisbury railway depot once more provided an appropriate setting for the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance candidate forum on Tuesday.
All nine candidates competing for seats on the Salisbury City Council were in attendance.
About 65 audience members, according to organizersí estimates, listened as the field took questions on crime prevention, preservation and planning, among other topics.
Code enforcement was a recurring theme, as were the poor economy and housing market.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell joined other incumbents in touting the draft Historic Preservation Master Plan.
ěI saw many key things I liked,î Blackwell said.
She said she hopes to see the plan brought to council.
Blackwell also touted new software that would help the cityís code enforcement staff streamline their workload.
ěAs long as we have a high quantity of foreclosed properties, it does continue to be a concern …î Blackwell said. ěSome of itís just going to have to wait for the economy to improve.î
Challenger Blake Jarman said that, if there arenít enough police officers and a lack of community cooperation to solve the issue of crime, then it will be difficult to focus on code enforcement.
ěI think that anyone who invests in a historic neighborhood, home or building, wants to maintain that historic feeling or atmosphere,î Jarman said.
At the same time, Jarman said that ordinances and policies canít be allowed to make it difficult for companies to create jobs here.
Incumbent William ěPeteî Kennedy was asked how he would work to improve housing quality in historic areas.
He acknowledged that there are a number of boarded-up houses in the community.
ěWhen I ran some 18 years ago, things were even worse than they are now,î he said.
He cited the efforts of volunteers and partnerships with community groups that he said were ětaking it one block at a time to clean up the city.î
Challenger Rip Kersey said that, as a landlord, he knew firsthand the problems criminals cause when they move into a neighborhood.
ěI fight this like a 12-round fight,î he said of the struggle to keep drugs and crime out of rental properties.
And, as a businessman, Kersey said he knew the importance of protecting the cityís ěbrand.î
ěWhat is Salisburyís brand? Itís historic Salisbury,î Kersey said.
He said that any changes to ordinances should be driven by consequences in order to be effective.
Mayor Susan Kluttz also praised the Historic Preservation Master Plan, though itís yet to come before the council, for being sensitive to the financial impact on homeowners in historic districts.
ěI think itís a problem when we see whatís happened with housing in the city,î Kluttz said.
She also acknowledged that the code enforcement office is understaffed.
Regarding crime, Kluttz said absentee landlords are a major cause of the problem.
But, Kluttz added, with so many homeowners facing foreclosure, she does not want to impose fines and administrative action on those who are already in financial distress.
She said she would rather focus on helping those homeowners stay afloat rather than simply policing code enforcement violations.
Challenger Ben Lynch said that preservation meant taking care of the resources the city already has.
ěBy taking a smaller bite of the apple, we can take areas and make them the best they can be,î Lynch said.
Lynch said only partnerships within the community could improve the quality of life.
ěItís not a single organization that revives a neighborhood alone, but a community,î Lynch said.
Councilman Brian Miller called the housing marketís troubles a ěthe chicken or the eggî issue.
Nothing can be done to make people buy homes, or maintain them, Miller said.
ěThey have to want to be there, to do the things that make our neighborhoods more attractive,î he said.
Miller was one of several who talked about animal safety and the need to penalize those who fail to secure their pets, especially dogs.
In his responses, challenger Dale Stephens focused more on general responses to issues.
He apologized several times for his inability to fully address the questions on historical properties that were posed to him.
Asked how he would move toward implement a variety of development plans for different parts of the city, Stephens said he would focus on feedback from the public.
ěI think everything boils down to, what do the voters want from their elected officials?î
Councilman Paul Woodson said the poor economy is to blame for many issues, especially those relating to code enforcement.
He said budget constraints will have an impact on the level of service cities can provide in the next several years.
ěNobody wants their taxes raised,î Woodson said.
He also said that the economic downturn might hurt efforts to help transition some properties from rental to ownership.
Woodson said that, if reelected, he would continue to work on ways to improve the quality of life citywide, especially in the cityís many historic neighborhoods.
Reactions to the forum were generally positive.
Gwen Matthews, director of historic properties for the Historic Salisbury Foundation, was the moderator of the event.
She praised candidates for their willingness to talk about issues that affect owners and renters of historic properties.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editorís desk at 704-797-4244.