Last updated: April 04. 2014 4:26PM - 2841 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

Local attorney Fred Johnson argues in vain on behalf of residents opposed to a 60-unit apartment complex in the South Franklin Road area.
Local attorney Fred Johnson argues in vain on behalf of residents opposed to a 60-unit apartment complex in the South Franklin Road area.
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A city rezoning decision allowing a 60-unit apartment complex to be constructed in the South Franklin Road area has left behind bad feelings among neighboring property owners, who might be pursuing legal action as a result.

“The citizens’ voice has carried no weight whatsoever,” one resident, J.T. Henson, said Friday of a Thursday afternoon vote by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners permitting the project to be developed near his home. The 2-1 decision capped one of the most-bizarre episodes in city government history, which included two members of the five-person board being disqualified from the vote.

Even though Henson and other neighbors had sharply criticized the housing targeted for low-to-moderate income residents at a recent “quasi-judicial hearing” before the commissioners on the rezoning request, it didn’t seem to matter, he added.

“I was very disappointed with the whole procedure,” the retired businessman said of a process that he charged put the desires of the Charlotte firm wanting to develop the Stonebrooke Terrace complex above those of local citizens.

The Flatiron Group Inc. requested the rezoning to allow the building of the apartments on an 11-acre tract in the vicinity of the State Employees Credit Union.

Commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley voted for the request, and Dean Brown against.

“I just felt like it was a foregone conclusion,” Henson said of Thursday’s action that occurred in the presence of about a dozen residents of the neighborhood.

“We went through an exercise in futility there,” he said of their opposition.

The strange set of circumstances leading up to the vote began unfolding before the March 20 hearing, when Henson and numerous other residents spoke against the rezoning that earlier had been unanimously rejected by the city planning board. They complained about the adverse effects on traffic, crime, property values, the environment and the general quality of life posed by the apartments.

That hearing had been advertised as a regular public hearing, which is required before rezoning and certain other decisions can be made by the commissioners. But at the start of the meeting, everyone who planned to speak was sworn in, similar to persons testifying at a court trial, and admonished to comment only as to their direct knowledge and not offer hearsay.

At that point, the commissioners also were asked to disclose any conflicts of interest they might have concerning the apartment project or any previous contacts with either the opposing residents or developers. The focus was on anything that might have caused them to already formulate an opinion on the rezoning, much like jurors being required to approach a case with an open mind.

This led to commissioners Shirley Brinkley and Steve Yokeley to recuse themselves from any discussion on the matter, and the vote on whether the property’s zoning should be changed from R-20 (single-family) residential to R-6 (general residential). The two physically left the room, for both the March public hearing, and Thursday’s consideration of the issue.

Attorney Argues

Adding to the courtroom atmosphere Thursday afternoon was the presence of lawyers representing both sides, who were allowed to make “closing arguments” before the commissioners voted.

“This is an oddity to me,” the counsel speaking on behalf of the neighboring residents, Fred Johnson, a veteran school board attorney in Surry County, said of the procedure involved.

But Johnson added that the concerns surrounding the rezoning should be clear to decision-makers.

He pointed out that a stated primary purpose of Mount Airy’s zoning regulations is to protect public safety and the welfare and security of private property. “The (city) Vision Plan talks about maintaining existing neighborhoods,” the attorney said.

“You are an advocate for the residents of Mount Airy,” Johnson further told the three commissioners. “You are their protector.”

The local attorney said citizens opposition to the rezoning had been clearly demonstrated. “At the public hearing, you heard from those residents who are most affected by this — and they were unanimous.”

Johnson added of the apartments: “No one said ‘we need this.’”

The attorney urged the commissioners to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“All I’m asking you to do is support your neighbors, support your constituents,” Johnson said, and do “what is in the best interest of this community and these citizens.”

After he spoke, the lawyer for The Flatiron Group declined to offer any argument in rebuttal.

That led into the commissioners’ discussion and vote.

Brown said he believed the apartments eyed for the South Franklin Road area are “not consistent” with the city’s Vision Plan and otherwise inappropriate for that location.

“It is my feeling that that the project is not consistent with housing styles and patterns of the existing neighborhood,” he said.

Fellow board members Armbrister and Cawley also cited problems with the project.

Speaking directly to Hollis Fitch, an official of The Flatrion Group present Thursday, Cawley said, “I don’t know why you would want to come (to Mount Airy).” The commissioner said it was clear “no one around here wants your project in their neighborhood.”

“I also feel that you should find another location more suitable,” Armbrister told Fitch, referring to apartment residents being crowded into 15 quadruplexes on the 11-acre site in a tight-knit neighborhood. “I see sardines,” Armbrister said.

However, Armbrister said the commissioners were obligated to decide the matter on legal grounds, not emotion or compassion. Cawley agreed, saying that in addition to the dissenting neighbors the person who owns the 11 acres (a Cana, Va., resident) has legal rights.

In all, about 10 different votes were taken on the rezoning request Thursday, including a final one approving the move, and the issuance of a conditional-use permit for the project.

This took the form an unusual scenario whereby city planner Andy Goodall read off a list of items pertaining to various conditions and standards regarding whether the apartments would conform to the surrounding area and not endanger public health or safety.

As Goodall went down the list, Armbrister read statements in response showing that the project met each condition. This also was accompanied by a vote on each, which was 2-1 in every instance with Brown voting no.

After the final vote, the group of residents left the meeting room, with a mild expletive heard from one as he exited a doorway.

As he departed, Fitch, The Flatiron Group official, said he had “no comment” on the board’s decision.

“You don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say,” said Terry Scott, one of the neighbors opposed to the project.

Henson, who had retained the services of Johnson, initially declined to comment, saying that any such statement would be “probably not anything you can print.”

But on Friday, he observed that Armbrister and Cawley were relying on the letter of the law and Brown on the spirit of the law.

Henson also implied that the rezoning decision was financially motivated. The developer will profit, he said, and so will the city government — based on plans for the $7 million development to be annexed and supply property tax revenues. The site is just outside the present city limits, but within municipal zoning control.

The neighbors have the option of appealing the action to the city, with a lawsuit a possibility as well. But Henson did not divulge any such plans Friday.

“I’d rather not tip my hand as far as going along with any further action,” he said.

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

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