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Zoning for a possible SECU branch in Granite Quarry remains a sticking point

By Mark Wineka

GRANITE QUARRY — The State Employees Credit Union would like to locate a branch in Granite Quarry, but its proposed location has led to considerable confusion about zoning, not to mention an appeal and accusations that town officials are shutting out the public.

“Who’s going to trample on us next?” asked Ed Shell, a resident, a party to the appeal and an opponent to the SECU’s proposed site.

The SECU would like to build on land in a development known as “Granite Place,” located off North Salisbury Avenue.

Salisbury attorney Jay Dees told the Granite Quarry Board of Aldermen Wednesday night neighbors to the property are looking forward to working with the town as soon as the town is willing to work with them.

On behalf of Shell and Paul Fisher, Dees has filed the appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment in which he challenges the property’s zoning, which has been at the heart of discussions and goes back to the settlement of a 1995 lawsuit.

Since Aug. 1, Dees said, his clients have tried to protect themselves against a process “bent on going the wrong way.” He questioned whether the entire process the town has followed in this case has been inclusive and open to the public.

The saga continued Wednesday night when the Board of Aldermen planned to have a public hearing to amend the town’s zoning map and establish over Granite Place a new zoning district called RB-4 (Repealed Suburban Business District).

But aldermen moved quickly Wednesday to remove the public hearing from their agenda. The proposed zoning basically is back to square one, meaning it probably will go to the Planning Board for a recommendation, then return to aldermen for a public hearing and action.

Dees and Shell, who both spoke during a public comment period, thanked the aldermen for taking the hearing off the agenda.

Dees stressed citizens needed to have input at the Planning Board stage. Dees said has a standing request, based on his appeal, to be notified of all meetings and public hearings.

He and other citizens were not notified of a Planning Board discussion of the case, Dees said, and they only received notice of the town board’s Wednesday night hearing from signs posted on the property at Granite Place.

Granite Place represents 14 different parcels of roughly 30 acres, extending generally from the corner of North Salisbury Avenue and Dunn’s Mountain Church Road. Dollar General and Gary Morgan’s accounting office are among the parcels already developed.

Shell said the town’s process had been flawed, creating angst among citizens. He suggested that a disconnection is developing between residents and town officials. Residents want to be involved and they want information in a timely manner, Shell said.

“Once the bond of trust is broken,” Shell added, “it’s hard to repair.”

Mayor Bill Feather and other board members took issue with charges the town had excluded citizens in the process or purposely withheld information.

In July, the Planning Board had recommended against a rezoning request from owners who want to sell the Granite Place parcels to the SECU. But that’s when the confusion started.

In 1994, the property was zoned to B-4 (Suburban Business), but six months after the rezoning, it was changed back to R-1 — single-family residential.

Palmer Development Corp, one of the property owners in Granite Place, said the zoning change back to single-family residential created a hardship in its hopes to develop the property for business.

Palmer Development filed a lawsuit against the town over the zoning change.

In 1995, the town reached an agreement in the lawsuit. It stated Granite Place would be rezoned back to B-4, and the town also would provide infrastructure to develop the business park.

But the change of zoning was never recorded on town zoning maps. Town Attorney Chip Short concluded the 1995 court agreement supersedes everything else. He said the zoning should be HB (Highway Business), which the B-4 zoning district was changed to in 2009 when the town adopted its Unified Development Ordinance.

Short also recommended that the SECU-related zoning request, which the Planning Board considered in July, be withdrawn because the appropriate zoning already was in place.

At its August meeting, the town board also requested that the zoning map be corrected for Granite Place.

In September, the Planning Board recommended the establishment of the RB-4 (Repealed Suburban District) for Granite Place and Granite Place only.

“The Repealed Suburban Business District is intended to apply to properties that were zoned B-4 for which appeals were settled in N.C. Superior Court, prior to the adoption of the Unified Development ordinance in 2009,” the Planning Board said.

The proposed RB-4 district would allow the SECU branch.

According to Planning Board minutes, Feather said the SECU has been looking at Granite Quarry for 10 years. He said the SECU had considered three properties. The other two, both rejected, were the old Winn-Dixie (and Fred’s) shopping center and the former gas station/store at West Church Street and North Salisbury Avenue.

Feather told the Planning Board the Granite Place site was more than the 3 acres needed, but the SECU also considered building transitional housing for local school teachers on the site.

It was never the SECU’s intent to create low-income, multi-family housing — only housing for school teachers, Feather said.

The SECU would pay property taxes for its branch and any housing it would build, according to town minutes.

Several people in the audience — Dees and Shell among them — took issue with another matter Wednesday night in which aldermen decided to remove the words “courtesy hearing” from the Planning Board’s recommendation duties to the board.

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Brinkley said removing the mention of courtesy hearings from Section 11.4 of the Unified Development Ordinance would not eliminate public discussion. Rather, it would mean the town didn’t have to pay for a legal advertisement for the hearing, he said.

Brinkley and other board members stressed that no one on the Planning Board wanted to do away with public comment.

Erin Burris, a Banchmark planning consultant for the town, said the Planning Board, as an advisory body, is required to make a recommendation to the town board, but it is not required to conduct a courtesy hearing.

Planning Board meetings are open to the public and subject to open meeting laws, she noted.

Dees said courtesy hearings of the Planning Board serve a valuable purpose “and to strike that provision is inherently wrong.” Shell called the move to strike the language “a horrible idea.”

The public needs to be involved early and have information at its disposal, Shell said.

“These meetings (hearings) are invaluable,” he added. “Don’t take them away.”

Steve Fisher, president of F&M Bank, said the “optics” of the town board’s taking this action were not good. As the town prepared to discuss the SECU zoning case anew, Fisher said, the board was moving to remove public comment.

Fisher said there were long-term ramifications. “I beg you not to do it,” he said.

Fisher stressed later his remarks were directed at the town’s decision “to exclude public notice and public input from the the planning process …  and not the current rezoning of the Granite Place property.”

“I was very disappointed to watch my hometown essentially remove the citizens’ voice from the community planning process,” he said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.



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