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Josh Bergeron: Permit, overlay … uh, what? A look at zoning and the mall

Government services at the West End Plaza may not be far off, especially with the latest vote by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to apply for a conditional district overlay.

On Tuesday, after a closed session, commissioners voted to put its special use permit appeal on pause and apply for a conditional district overlay. Along with the newly approved application, the county will shell out a couple thousand dollars to pay for engineering and architecture services.

The conditional district overlay is exactly what the city asked for after denying — by a 4-1 vote — the county’s application for a special use permit at West End Plaza. In fact, councilwoman Karen Alexander specifically mentioned a conditional district overlay after outlining her reasons for voting against the proposal. At the time, the county was asking for just enough space to fit two of its departments — Veterans Services and the Board of Elections.

Some of the reasons cited by city officials cited in the months following the denial include a feared “downtown exodus,” not having control over what departments move to the former mall and a strict quasi-judicial process that limits opinionated statements.

But what’s the difference between the two? Either way, the county would be able to locate its departments at the former mall. Sure, the county’s and city’s staff may know the difference, but to the Rowan County residents who pay taxes it all seems the same. One just has more letters in its name.

To Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson, a conditional district overlay is a more attractive option because it allows for opinionated statements, open discussion and Woodson can talk to anyone he wants about the idea.

Openly opinionated discussion is the exactly the item Salisbury’s Planning and ​Development Services Manager Preston Mitchell cited when describing major differences between the two — a special use permit and conditional district overlay.

“Someone could get up and stump about the weather,” Mitchell said about the conditional district overlay process. “There’s no restrictions on type of information presented. In other words, it can be opinion or it can be fact.”

When presenting a special use permit, the county prepared a powerpoint that listed various facts about the West End Plaza. During a conditional district overlay, which the county has not yet submitted an application for, the county could talk about whatever it wanted in reference to the mall.

For example, a special use permit hearing could include figures and statistics showing that county government employees frequent downtown lunch spots during the work-week. Subsequently, a speaker during the hearing could reasonably state county employees would have to travel a longer distance to frequent the same restaurants and businesses during work hours. Walking from the county’s administrative building to Go Burrito or Sidewalk Deli to eat lunch would take less time, on average, than a drive from the former mall — that’s a fact.

Saying that a special use permit would lead to a “downtown exodus” and businesses closing is opinionated without statistics; data and carefully-crafted, supporting statements.

The cost, while greater for a conditional district overlay, is negligible when compared to the overall cost of the West End Plaza. A special use permit costs $500, Mitchell said, while a conditional district overlay costs $1,000. The cost of the mall — over $3 million — dwarfs the cost difference.

Both processes require a site plan and both, obviously, have to fit within the city’s code requirements.

Much like debating a bill in the state legislature, the city council and county commissioners could also compromise on which departments are even picked for relocation. Mitchell even said the city council could be lobbied during the conditional district overlay process.

“In this particular situation, there’s so much conversation and so much community buy in and such a concern about the use of the mall by another government entity that it’s just the safer route from a legal and more logical decision,” he said.

So, what’s the big deal? Why go back to the city council for a conditional district overlay when the county is already appealing a special use permit denial. When asked after Tuesday’s commissioner meeting about the reasoning, chairman Greg Edds said it was all about time.

“It’s the quickest route to get what both of us want and that was our only concern,” Edds said after Tuesday’s meeting.

Time seems to be important because of space needs, which previous and current county commissioners cite as the reason for owning the former mall. The space needs for the Rowan County Board of Elections was obvious during election season. Elections Director Nancy Evans’ office during November was being used as a storage space, board meeting room, office and official ballot counting location.

The county has also received multiple letters from the state stating the relative lack of space. Though Veterans Services and the Board of Elections are the most crucial in the eyes of commissioners, space is needed for the Department of Social Services and the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.

The space needs study that would detail the exact problems in each department hasn’t yet been released — it was originally scheduled to be complete in early December. In a previous interview with the Salisbury Post, Commissioner Craig Pierce said the study would likely reveal that other departments are in need.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

 

 

 

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