The including of private property in Mount Airy’s Westside Redevelopment Plan dominated a public hearing on the plan Wednesday night at the Municipal Building.
Among the highlights was a vow by one citizen who heads an alliance of affected property owners to vigorously resist that inclusion by the city Redevelopment Commission (RDC).
“It is our property — and we’re going to defend our property no matter what it takes,” said Gene Clark, who was speaking at the public hearing on behalf of the recently established Mount Airy Property Rights Alliance. He said it represents about 60 percent of 20 privately owned sites in the area of Franklin, South and Pine streets which were placed in the redevelopment plan against the owners’ will.
The seven-member redevelopment commission was formed in 2014 to guide revitalization of the former Spencer’s Inc. complex nearby after the vacant industrial buildings were bought by the city government. But the private sites also were included in the redevelopment plan, which has irked many citizens, who see it as an attack on owners’ rights.
“We should have a right to say whether our property is included,” said Clark, who co-owns a structure at 452 Franklin St. Also included are longtime local businesses such as Worth Honda, King’s Garage and Pioneer Printing.
“We just don’t want to be in it (the plan) — we feel like it’s our right,” Clark said during the well-attended hearing, which is part of a legal process required before any redevelopment actually occurs.
After the hearing, the RDC voted to forward the plan, with some revisions that didn’t include removing the private property, to the Mount Airy Planning Board later this month for further review, the next step in the process. The city board of commissioners will have the final say on the plan, after another public hearing.
Clark made it clear at Wednesday’s hearing that he and other owners are “100 percent” in favor of redevelopment of the city-owned Spencer’s property, but don’t want their holdings included.
So far, a Winston-Salem developer has proposed building a four-star hotel/banquet center on part of the former Spencer’s property, while another out-of-town entity seeks to develop an upscale apartment complex.
Last year, the private sites were lumped into a plan designating the entire area as “blighted,” as certified by the planning board and later approved by the RDC, including notations that some were in a deteriorating state. Owners have expressed concern about lowered real estate values as a result.
Diana Gwyn, another hearing speaker, said that for more than a year, private property owners have had to “beg like a dog for a bone” to be removed from the redevelopment plan, but to no avail.
Other speakers for Wednesday’s hearing, numbering less than 10 altogether, also made impassioned statements in favor of the full redevelopment plan.
“I supported the RDC from the beginning,” said Jerry Taylor, a city resident, who like Clark ran unsuccessfully last year for the at-large seat on the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. Jim Armbrister was able to retain that seat, along with two other incumbents who supported a limited redevelopment plan without the private properties.
Taylor said during the hearing that in analyzing what went wrong for him, he blamed The Mount Airy News for its coverage and editorial support for the limited plan and the role “misinformation” played — using an expletive to make his point.
“Six hundred people managed to see through all the bull**** and vote for the redevelopment,” Taylor said in reference to those who cast ballots for him. (Armbrister received more than 800 votes in his race with Taylor.)
Other speakers, including Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison, and Craig Deas, who last year opened a sports bar downtown called The Loaded Goat, said they favored the growth the redevelopment plan represents for the municipality.
Neither specifically mentioned the inclusion of private properties, although Deas said the plan overall could benefit all concerned economically through new investment by developers of various projects.
“You can’t convince me that driving hundreds of people to the downtown area is not going to benefit the entire area,” Deas said.
“Let’s get this thing going, whatever that is,” Deas added. “I hope we can move forward and get something going on down there.”
The need to move ahead also was cited by veteran downtown businessman Gene Rees, who spoke at the hearing. He owns a number of retail buildings in the central business district and has developed one condominium project near the Spencer’s complex and now is undertaking another.
Rees said he knows property owners who are affected by the redevelopment plan, and that he supports their rights. Yet Rees said he sees no particular problem with their holdings being included within its boundaries.
The longtime local businessman seemed to be more concerned with the progress of the plan overall.
“My point is, we have to keep our eye on the ball,” Rees said, reminding that deadlines exist in order for redevelopment projects to qualify for historic tax credits that are essential to the process from a financial standpoint.
Rees mainly is concerned that the plan move forward in a “timely manner” and “not go back to Square One” in terms of its scope.
“There’s not a lot of room for public discord,” he said.
That prompted Clark to speak for a second time at the hearing.
“We’ve had seven or eight months to go back to Square One,” Clark said of the time since the draft redevelopment plan was prepared last spring. “And it’s the property owners’ fault?”
Removal not easy
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who also was victorious in the recent election, was another speaker for Wednesday’s public hearing. But she mainly addressed the gathering to inquire about what it would take to remove the private properties in question.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell, who has researched the legalities involved, said it is his understanding that the area designated for the plan, as certified by the planning board, may not be altered.
“There’s nothing explicit in the statutes that says the redevelopment area can be changed,” Campbell said. But he explained that the plan itself can be altered in terms of what the city commissioners ultimately decide to do with properties within its scope.
Campbell compared the plan to a garden, where those tending it can decide to grow crops in one section while ignoring others and not devoting resources to those portions.
“And that’s pretty clear, the plan can be changed,” the attorney continued.
“The plan is what you do in your garden.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.