Up to now, private property owners unwillingly caught up in a redevelopment plan in Mount Airy have not come together as a formal group — but that is changing with the creation of the Mount Airy Property Rights Alliance.
As is customary with organizations these days, the alliance even has its own acronym (MAPRA), and mission statement: to remove the privately owned properties from the Westside Redevelopment Plan, amid concerns of eminent domain and other negative impacts.
Gene Clark, a recent candidate for city commissioner and one of the affected property owners — who hold about 20 sites altogether in the area of Pine and South streets — announced the formation of the Mount Airy Property Rights Alliance late Wednesday.
“The plan, created by the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission (RDC), focuses on the redevelopment of the government-owned Spencer’s properties,” reads a statement released by Clark, founding member of the alliance.
“But (it) would allow for the unnecessary destruction of several small, privately owned businesses in the process. MAPRA’s stated goal is to remove the privately owned properties from the plan.”
The redevelopment commission was formed last year to guide revitalization of the former Spencer’s Inc. buildings in downtown Mount Airy, soon after the city government acquired those holdings.
However, rather than focusing on the former industrial site, the commission’s redevelopment plan has incorporated nearby private property including thriving business such as King’s Garage and Worth Honda. Owners fear property could be taken by eminent domain for the redevelopment effort for new street construction, including a “roundabout,” and other changes that have been proposed in conjunction with the plan.
Along with the eminent domain specter, business owners have voiced concerns about the values of their real estate dropping as a result of it being labeled “blighted” by the city planning board and redevelopment group for purposes of the revitalization.
The scope of the redevelopment plan, namely its inclusion of the private property, was the central issue of the recent municipal election that was one of the most bitterly contested in Mount Airy history.
Four city council candidates whose platforms favored only the limited redevelopment with Spencer’s were victorious on Nov. 3. This might have led observers to think immediate relief was in store for the property owners from Mount Airy’s top leadership.
However, this has not occurred, Clark said Thursday when explaining why the group was launched at this particular time.
“The election was 45 days ago and they’ve had time to put this to rest and they haven’t,” Clark said of city officials not acting to have the private property removed from the redevelopment plan.
They have had time to make a “very clear” move on this issue, he added. “And they haven’t.”
Clark, a furniture company executive, believes that forming the Mount Airy Property Rights Alliance will provide extra leverage at a critical juncture.
“I think the time is right to do it,” he said of a need to hold city officials to their election promises and to not “take our eye off the ball.”
Clark indicated that with the city needing to finalize the redevelopment plan in order to meet deadlines for receiving historic tax credits to aid the Spencer’s redevelopment, owners think their property should be removed before a die is unalterably cast.
There is a possibility that, based on the majority of city commissioners opposing the expanded development plan, it also could put the Spencer’s revitalization in jeopardy if the private parcels are not removed, should a lawsuit or other complication emerge.
The property owners are working with the Institute for Justice, according to Clark. That organization is a non-profit, civil liberties law firm that advocates for property owners fighting eminent domain abuse across the country.
Another MAPRA member whose property is affected, Charles Paul, owner of Paul Painting and Decorating Co., a family business since 1974, is one who believes the plan, as it now stands, will not move forward.
“As MAPRA, we are not against developing the Spencer property — to the contrary,” Paul said in a prepared statement.
“We want the members of the RDC, and the city (board of commissioners), to work out a plan that benefits everyone and will end up passing the city commission. That would mean removing our properties from the plan.”
Paul and Clark also referred to the ultimate possibility of eminent domain, which some fear could be exercised simply because properties do not represent an attractive “gateway” for downtown Mount Airy.
“No one in Mount Airy wants to see eminent domain used on small, family-run businesses that, in summation, account for over 50 jobs,” Clark stated regarding those collectively employed by the affected businesses. Those employees are trying to function under a cloud of uncertainty along with the owners, he said Thursday.
“As property owners, we have the right to do what we want with our properties and we should not have to be concerned with even the mere possibility of eminent domain being used against us for economic development.”
Clark owns property at 452 Franklin St. in the redevelopment area which has been rented for office use.
He said MAPRA further is concerned about the cost of the plan, such as spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for the traffic roundabout he says is “needless.”
Clark said a recent, and potentially extremely costly, plan to offer grants to the property owners for building and facade improvements along with structural demolitions, is not an olive branch in terms of what MAPRA seeks to accomplish.
He said applying for the grants would subject property owners to certain requirements and standards to qualify, which could be a further burden.
“The issue is not what are we going to get, but what is going to happen with our property?”
RDC officials react
Both Steve Yokeley and Chip Pulliam, the chairman and vice chairman of the redevelopment commission, respectively, declined to comment Thursday on the fact the property owners’ alliance had been created.
“I’ve not heard anything about it — I didn’t know anything about it,” Pulliam said of MAPRA’s emergence.
“It is too soon — I just don’t want to comment,” the RDC vice chairman added.
“I can’t comment on it,” said Yokeley, who, along with Pulliam, citing having no knowledge about the alliance which would allow them to offer a reaction.
Each then was emailed a copy of a news release by MAPRA detailing its intentions, but neither Pulliam nor Yokeley had responded by mid-day.
Pulliam was asked point-blank Wednesday why the RDC just doesn’t take out the private properties — and he indicated that it is a matter of bureaucratic protocol.
“We just can’t arbitrarily change the redevelopment area that the planning board has approved and that we (the RDC) approved,” he replied.
“It would be going back to Square One.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.