Auto restoration shop owner threatens lawsuit if Spencer shuts him down

Published 12:08 am Sunday, July 17, 2022

SPENCER — A Spencer auto restoration shop’s future is in jeopardy as the town considers its special zoning case.

The board of aldermen signed off on letting the shop stay open in December by approving a conditional rezoning on the property.

The property’s regular zoning was the U.S. Commercial 29 classification, which allows retail stores, indoor batting cages and “coin operated amusement,” among a long list of other approved uses, but similarly disallows many uses, including auto repair shops.

The board signed off on the 200 S. Salisbury Ave. business continuing to operate with some stipulations, including hours of operation constraints and a limit on the number of vehicles in the front parking lot outside of business hours to a single show car.

“He is having a very difficult time living within the conditional zoning conditions that were applied to him,” Steve Blount, planning and zoning administrator for Spencer, told the town Board of Aldermen on Tuesday.

Blount said he agrees that some of the conditions like limits on hours of operations may be reasonable but are difficult to live by and the issue was first raised in reference to cars parked out front.

Business owner Michael King, who rents the facility, had asked for permission to build a fence to provide cover for vehicles in the front of the property, but Blount said given the size of the road right-of-way on Second Street it is questionable if that step would be functional.

Blount told the board that King showed him invoices for graveling the front lot and in reference to the damaged sidewalk and curbing off the property that is the responsibility of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“I need to hammer out some revisions and bring them back to you and get y’all to agree they are reasonable changes,” Blount said, adding the issue boils down to finding some less restrictive conditions the town can live with or strictly enforcing the existing conditions and putting King out of business.

Alderman Sam Morgan pointed out that King agreed to the conditions in December. Mayor Jonathan Williams said the town spent “a great amount of time” working through the conditions and not being able to live with those conditions indicates to him the property is not suitable for the current use.

“If that’s the case, we shouldn’t change our ordinances to make a piece of property fit for something it wasn’t originally intended to fit,” Williams said.

He said part of the reason for the stipulation was input from neighbors and he thinks the town owes it to them to enforce the rules.

Blount said planners have to walk a line between helping a business exist and protecting the community from an incorrect use of property. Blount pointed out King invested tens of thousands of dollars into the business before he found out the property was not zoned for its current use, and that would money would have gone to waste if he’s forced out.

“In his mind his hands were tied as far as whether he could agree or disagree with the conditions of the proposal,” Blount said. “The question this board should have asked itself during that process is if it wants an automobile repair shop on that piece of property.”

The current agreement allows unlimited amounts of employee and customer cars at the business during operating hours. Blount said he agrees he has driven past the business and seen cars parked in the lot and the fenced-in area is full.

Alderman Steve Miller pushed for working with King, noting the difficulty in getting parts. Miller defended the business and the quality of work in December as well.

Blount noted if another business that went in as acceptable use, it could have as many cars as wanted parked out front.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Blount said.

Alderman Andrew Howe said he has no problem enforcing the town’s ordinances, but the business is here and he would be interested in seeing what agreement can be made.

“But the car thing is a problem,” Howe said, noting neighbors specifically mentioned the cars in the lot and King would have to give in on that issue to get his support.

The board ultimately agreed to let Blount return with options at the August meeting.

On Wednesday, Blount hand-delivered a letter telling King he needs to move the cars by this coming week.

Williams said at the meeting that other properties in town are suitable for the business, and King said he would gladly move but he has not been able to find another location. He said he does not think the town government wants him there.

“I’ve been looking for the last seven months,” King said, adding he is trying to do due diligence so if he does have to move he does not have the same problems.

“There’s just nothing available in Rowan County right now that’s pre-existing, ready to go where I can jump in and not spend $10,000 a month on rent,” King said.

King said he wants to stay open and he is even looking to add bays to the back of the building, but he does not want to put more money into the building if he’s going to get shut down.

King said the town will not let him park vehicles in the front lot overnight and said the agreement specifies cars awaiting service will not be stored in the front, but he says the vehicles in the front have been serviced and are waiting for customer pickup. He said he has tried to move cars to other locations.

“This is the only means of income I have for my family,” King said.

He went to town officials to sort out the paperwork when he first wanted to open the shop and was told he did not need an occupancy permit. He said his contact information was taken down and shortly after opening, the town told him there was an issue.

“If I get shut down I’m going to sue,” King said.

The issue predates Blount’s time with the town, but he said he is confident in the conditional rezoning process.

“In my opinion as a planner, it’s a solid ordinance, has no problems, procedure was followed very carefully over a period of months that included public hearings and things of that nature,” Blount said. “The town bent over backwards to help him keep his business there.”

Blount said he is trying to work with King and the letter asked him to abide by the agreement.

“The cars in the front parking lot being stored there needs to be resolved,” Blount said.

King said he feels the town government does not want him there, adding he gets calls from them twice a month. He said he has no problems getting work and he gets calls every day from people living in Spencer bringing him their vehicles, mainly for work on restoring older models.

“The cars that are here are from the community, it’s not like they’re coming from Charlotte or Concord,” King said.

He told the Post that according to the zoning rules, his one display vehicle can be a mangled car that he buys from a junkyard.

“They didn’t tell me it had to be a pretty car, they didn’t say it had to be a nice car,” King said.

He pointed out he could legally turn the business into something less desirable than an auto repair facility and it would meet the zoning requirements.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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