The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 Thursday night to deny a rezoning request for property on Forrest Drive which would have allowed a commercial development in a predominantly residential area.
That action came after a public hearing in which seven of 11 people who commented, mostly homeowners in that area, were against a proposal to change the zoning of the property from R-20 (residential) to B-2 (general business).
The 2.53-acre parcel in question, located in the 1300 block of Forrest Drive across the street from Holiday Inn Express, is owned by Dr. Dean Simmons. He sought the rezoning to allow the construction of a 16,820-square-foot commercial (wholesale/retail) structure that was to be leased to a supply company dealing in bulk items.
Simmons declined to identify that entity, but said the project would have created five jobs, while ensuring the preservation of several existing positions at the business which stand to be lost if another location outside the city is chosen.
“We didn’t go out seeking to do this — this local company came to us,” said Simmons, who was one of the four people who spoke in favor of the rezoning. It previously was rejected by the Mount Airy Planning Board due to the potential impact on the surrounding residential neighborhood located on the southwestern side of the city.
As was pointed out during Thursday night’s meeting, the Simmons property on Forrest Drive, near the South Franklin Road intersection, is adjacent to a number of businesses such as the Holiday Inn and fast-food establishments.
However, it is located on the north side of Forrest Drive where only single-family homes now exist — a boundary that opposing speakers — including a former Mount Airy school official — said should be recognized.
“Our concern is that once this is approved for commercial development north of Forrest Drive, then there will be other requests,” said Robert Holder of Welch Road, a retired administrator of city schools.
“Once it begins … there will be no stopping,” Holder added.
“We need that buffer between (U.S.) 601 and our residences,” said another hearing speaker, Tim Parsons of Welch Road.
“I am not opposed to Dean,” Bob Chilton of South Franklin Road said of Dr. Simmons. “But we don’t need any more commercial construction.”
Such comments seemed to reflect the fact that while business growth in the U.S. 601/Rockford Street corridor has exploded in recent years, existing homes in the area need to be respected.
Additional concerns were expressed about traffic generated by the new business, which Simmons said would be about 50 to 60 vehicles per day. Residents said this would make an already bad situation worse on Forrest Drive and other nearby roadways.
“In the course of your regular day, traffic is terrible,” Chilton said.
Others were worried about how the extra commercial encroachment would impact them financially, including a woman who lives on Forrest Drive right next door to the Simmons site.
“I’m against this because it’s going to hurt the value of our property if we need to sell,” said Mary Ann Cockerham, who believes the site in question is not suited for a business because of its residential nature.
“And I would like to keep it residential like it is,” Cockerham said.
Some of the sternest opposition came Thursday night from a citizen who lives on the other side of town, Paul Eich, who said principles are involved.
“Zoning, if you believe in it, is an important factor in quality of life,” Eich said. If the rezoning for the Forrest Drive site were approved, he added, “you might as well throw out all the zoning you have.”
Eich said the potential impact was obvious.
“You don’t spot-zone and set a 16,000-square-foot building in the middle of it,” he said of the residential area. “This will ruin that neighborhood.”
Eich said if the commissioners support quality of life, they should just vote no. “Deny, deny, deny,” he stated just before leaving the speaker’s podium to a round of applause.
Yet Simmons’ rezoning request did draw support from others, including John Lichvar and Richard Lowe, who cited its economic-development implications.
“We can’t afford to lose any more projects,” Lichvar said, citing the potential closure of Mayberry Mall and recent business losses.
“Five jobs is a whole lot better than none,” Lowe said. “I believe the additional jobs and growth will be good for the city.”
Dwayne Carter also supported the rezoning, saying it is a continuation of patterns along U.S. 601 set in motion long ago.
“Land moves, land evolves,” Carter reasoned. If citizens had opposed such changes in the past, then needed businesses now located along that route would not exist today.
In weighing all the comments made in rendering their decision at the end of Thursday night’s meeting, both commissioners Jon Cawley and Jim Armbrister referred to the shifting character of the Forrest Drive area.
“At some point it may be commercial, maybe not in our lifetime,” Cawley said.
Armbrister said he agreed with Carter’s statements about growth, but suggested that the present residential character of the area should be taken into account.
“To me, now is just not the time,” Armbrister said of taking a step which could upset the balance of the neighborhood.
As he left the meeting after the vote, Dr. Simmons offered only a brief comment in reaction to the commissioners’ action:
“They spoke,” he said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.