Housing developer compared to ‘manure salesman’

By Tom Joyce

March 22, 2014

Residents of Mount Airy’s South Franklin Road area have made something abundantly clear: they do not want a 60-unit apartment complex in their midst.

At a public hearing Thursday night before the city board of commissioners on a related rezoning request, citizens flung out words such as “carpetbaggers” and “manure salesman” in describing the Charlotte developers seeking to build the Stonebrooke Terrace apartments in the 800 block of South Franklin Road.

They said injecting the new housing would affect the quality of life in that community by adding to an already congested traffic situation, and causing overcrowding at the nearby Franklin Elementary School.

Speakers also said if constructed, the apartment project will lower property values in the area, increase crime, adversely impact wildlife and create drainage problems, along with others they fear will materialize.

James E. Moseley, 73, said the complex would disrupt the character of a tight-knit neighborhood of predominantly single-family homes which is not suited for group housing.

“Don’t put that square peg in the round hole,” Moseley urged city officials regarding the granting of a rezoning request by The Flatiron Group Inc. of Charlotte for an 11-acre tract to accommodate the apartments.

“Leave us alone.”

Officials Leave Room

However, only two people on the five-member city board heard the public hearing comments, with two leaving the room beforehand in an unusual move after citing conflicts of interest regarding the apartment project.

Commissioners Steve Yokeley and Shirley Brinkley each cited previous contacts that could be construed as having biased their opinions on the rezoning matter that affects the project’s fate.

Yokeley disclosed that he had attended a Feb. 24 meeting of the city planning board — which recommended against the rezoning in a 6-0 vote — and also had contacts with both residents of the affected area and the developer.

“So I have developed a personal bias,” Yokeley said, which included hearing neighbors complain to the planning board and talking with them later. He also was provided information by the developer, which Yokeley said has made his personal bias even stronger.

“I deeply regret that I must request to be excused,” said Yokeley, who also has a financial interest due to living and owning property near the 11-acre site which would be affected if the zoning change is approved.

Brinkley also disclosed that she’d had telephone conversations and other communications with residents. “No contact should have been made with anyone before the hearing,” she said.

The explanation given Thursday night was the commissioners legally were required to approach the issue cold without any previous influences that could affect their decision.

In the same vein, everyone who spoke at the hearing — including Flatiron Group co-owner Hollis Fitch — had to be sworn in before speaking Thursday night. Similar to a court trial, they were admonished by City Attorney Hugh Campbell to not offer any hearsay, but only their direct knowledge of the situation, during their “testimony.”

Afterward, two commissioners said that this unusual procedure for a city rezoning hearing, which was called a “quasi-judicial hearing” by Campbell, recognized the possibility that any decision made could be appealed in court. Local officials want to prevent any repercussions in that regard, including conflicts of interest raised by the developer.

That left only two commissioners for Thursday night’s public hearing, Dean Brown and Jim Armbrister, due to Jon Cawley being absent. Both Brown and Armbrister said they’d had no inappropriate contacts on the issue.

But no decision could be made on the apartments Thursday because not enough commissioners were left to form a quorum (three). This means the rezoning decision will come at a later meeting, when Cawley will be on hand to join Armbrister and Brown.

No Punches Pulled

The restrictive atmosphere did not keep residents from speaking their mind on the proposed apartment complex that would require a zoning change from R-20 (single-family residential) to R-6 (general residential). The property involved is just outside the city limits, but still subject to municipal zoning, and would be considered for annexation if the rezoning occurs.

Granville Sydnor, who lives near the site, said he believes the 11-acre tract is too small to accommodate the 60 unit-complex, which would be spread out into 15 quadruplexes. The parking spaces needed for the units also must be part of the equation, Sydnor pointed out.

“It’s just literally too small,” he said of the area involved, an L-shaped tract now owned by Ricky Shelton which is located in an area across South Franklin Road from the State Employees Credit Union.

Moseley agreed, saying that in his opinion the apartments would put a large population on a parcel that’s not large enough to support that.

Complaints about increased traffic also surfaced during the hearing, including charges that a count on South Franklin Road suggesting that the route could handle the extra vehicles from the apartments was understated. It reportedly was based on a strip placed in the roadway for multiple days, which some residents said did not accurately portray usage at peak periods.

“Traffic is a problem,” said J.T. Henson, a South Franklin Road resident. “They speed like crazy down there.”

Some hearing speakers also hinted that the low-to-moderate-income population the apartments are targeting would promote more crime.

“I don’t want to go to bed every night and have to put gates and locks on my house,” said Moseley, who thinks the housing should be built elsewhere. “There are other, more appropriate places — I don’t know where.”

There also was concern that children living in the apartments could overtax Franklin Elementary School, which is already at 100-percent capacity, according to information from Surry County Schools presented at the meeting.

Terry Scott, another South Franklin Road resident, said the new housing would disrupt life in a traditionally quiet, rural residential farming setting. Scott compared Paul Fitch — another Flatiron Group owner who is the father of Hollis Fitch, who attended the hearing — to a manure salesman.

Such an individual comes to a community, sells his product and then departs, leaving the stench behind, Scott said.

Speaker John Pritchard used the term “carpetbaggers” to describe how out-of-town firms such as The Flatiron Group have come to Mount Airy in recent years seeking to build apartments using state and federal tax credits.

“And they make a lot of money off it,” Pritchard said.

Several times during Thursday night’s meeting, the idea of whether Paul Fitch would be willing to have such a project in his neighborhood arose.

Scott produced GPS photographs showing that Fitch lives in an exclusive neighborhood in Charlotte. “He knows for a fact when he goes home, there’s not going to be one (an apartment complex) in his back yard.”

Meanwhile, Scott said the fate of wildlife in the area — such as deer, wild turkeys and other birds and foxes — would be displaced by the cutting of a five-acre wooded area as part of the construction.

“All that would be threatened if this complex is built,” said Jessica Johnson, another person from the neighborhood, who also expressed concern about increased traffic.

While Commissioner Yokeley had left the room, there were no restrictions on his wife Ann, who spoke at the hearing and said she has something at stake due to owning property in the area which she fears will be devalued. Ann Yokeley also objected to alleged aggressive attempts by the developers to push the project.

“I have a vested interest in what is trying to be forced down my throat and those of my neighbors,” she said. “No one here is opposed to providing housing to those in need — but please just don’t put it in my community.”

Moseley was more impassioned in urging that the commissioners not OK the rezoning. “Leave us with a standard we have worked for all our lives,” he said.

Hollis Fitch, the Flatiron Group co-owner, attempted to deflect criticism by saying during the meeting that the apartments will help meet a local housing need and be well-managed. That includes credit and criminal background checks on all residents, he said.

Fitch also took issue with claims that the complex would cause property values in the area to drop.

“I don’t see how affordable housing would affect the marketability of adjoining properties,” he said.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.