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About moving to the mall: Can we talk?

“All those opposed?”
“No,” I voted. I lost.
As a member of the Salisbury Planning Board, I opposed the city granting the county a special use permit — a blank check — to use West End Plaza (formerly Salisbury Mall) for government services.
I never expected to win, and in fact, believe we had an obligation to put the county’s request in front of City Council because a decision this important should lie with the City Council, not the Planning Board.
Even so, I felt obligated to oppose it, hoping that the City Council think long and hard before granting this permit.

City-county relations have been, well, lousy for the past few years, with the two unable to negotiate or work through disagreements. Both seem to live by the cynical golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
While Salisbury provides the county with the largest part of its tax base, voices around the county openly root for Salisbury to fail, claiming that Salisbury is crumbling and crime ridden, and hoping to hasten its demise. These voices view the city, Downtown Salisbury Inc. (which has brought $50 million investment to the downtown), rich bankers, downtown businesses, Historic Salisbury Foundation and the Salisbury Post as an evil cabal interested only in unrestrained power.

After approving the development of a 60,000-square-foot central school office on South Main Street, the county commission reconstituted after the 2012 election and reversed itself. Now, increased construction costs and interest rates have raised the price some $2 million. To fit within budget, a building on North Main Street must be reduced to 47,000 square feet which cannot accommodate today’s needs, let alone tomorrow’s. Elections in a few weeks could again unravel this plan.
The county de-annexed the airport to enhance its tax base at the expense of the city. Believing that lower taxes cure all economic ills, the county claimed that million-dollar airplanes were waiting to move to Rowan County upon de-annexation. No planes yet.
Noise has been made about moving the courthouse or Sheriff’s Office or Register of Deeds or Tax Administration. Removing hundreds of employees out of downtown would hurt badly.
Knowing that the county will not work with the city and that harming the city is an unstated goal, however, were not reason enough for me to vote against the zoning exception. As a lawyer, I had to follow the law, regardless of my personal opinion.
One legal criteria for this special use permit is that it must “support new business formation and growth in the city’s older commercial areas.” Moving county offices into the mall is neither “new business formation” nor at 30 years old is the mall in one of the “city’s older commercial areas.”
Another legal criteria was that “large scale commercial developments … contain a diverse mixture of retail, office, restaurant and service uses.”
Moving two small offices to the mall is neither “commercial development” nor “large scale.” That some retail, office and restaurants already exist does not qualify as any “development.” Finally, I questioned whether the city intended that government services (rather than business services such as a hair salon) be included within the term “service uses.”
The county failed to prove, as it was required to do, that it met any of those criteria. So, I voted No.

Joan Rivers — may she rest in peace — was famous for her line, “Can we talk?”
I suggested that the city and county talk, that they work together, that they compromise. Maybe the county can agree to finance the full cost of a larger, 60,000-square-foot central school office in downtown. Maybe the city and county can work together to expand water and sewer service to the eastern side of I-85 to encourage economic development or agree that no more downtown county government offices will be moved to the mall. Maybe they can agree working together should be good for everyone rather than seeking good for one at the expense of the other.
If the city grants this exception to the county, it forever forfeits any city input or involvement in the county’s use or relocation of any county offices to the mall. The city should move cautiously.
Listen to Joan Rivers. Negotiate for mutual benefit. Otherwise, Salisbury is going to find itself snapped again at the end of the county’s whip.
David Post lives in Salisbury.

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