By DAVID BORAKS
Davidson’s Town Board voted 4-1 Tuesday night to revise the town’s development approval process in a move some town officials said would make it “more predictable” for developers. The vote came after a lengthy debate and discussion with citizens, some concerned that it would reduce public involvement in planning decisions.
The 4 hour and 47 minute meeting included a presentation and public hearing about the $9.3 million town budget for 2012-13 and a presentation by Carolinas HealthCare System officials about a planned mental health hospital off N.C. 73. The board also adopted a new ordinance limiting and regulating the use of golf carts and utility vehicles in town.
Several speakers, including Town Board members, a Davidson physician, Lake Norman Chamber chief Bill Russell, and a Davidson College professor, said they welcome the project, which they said is needed in this area. Hospital officials said the state has already agreed by granting a Certificate of Need for the project.
Others noted that the project would create 155 jobs, and be the first development on the site of the failed Davidson East project.
A group of residents who live near the site came to object the plans, expressing concerns about safety and negative effects on their property values. Martha Jenkins, whose property touches the site, complained that Davidson residents had “never asked for this.”
“I can’t understand why you would ever consider such a facility,” she said. “Davidson has always been the most prestigious community. Why would Davidson – our Davidson – ever accept something that the town of Huntersville rejected.”
Huntersville’s town board in March voted against rezoning for a site off N.C. 115 at Verhoeff Drive. But town and Carolinas HealthCare System officials noted Tuesday that this case is different: They said the hospital is allowed under existing zoning on the former Davidson East site and does not require hearings or Town Board approval.
CHS officials said they would schedule meetings with neighbors to present and answer questions about their plans.
Commissioner Rodney Graham was the only “no” vote on the new development process Tuesday night. The first-term board member and local home builder objected to doing away with multi-day design “charrettes” for development projects, saying they often help improve the quality of developments.
During a discussion with citizens at the meeting, Mayor John Woods tried to assuage concerns that the town was giving up anything. He said recent emails and comments on DavidsonNews.net erred in suggesting that the changes would be a setback.
“The intent of this is to increase or improve the predictability and process under which our ordinance operates. It is not a loss of focus on the quality of developments,” Mayor Woods said.
Town attorney Rick Kline and some board members also pointed out that the Town Board’s role in approving most developments has always been limited: The board has never had the leeway to reject projects that follow the town ordinance. The new process, town officials said, acknowledges this by shifting approval for those kinds of projects – known as “by right” developments” – from the Town Board to the planning staff. Officials said the planning staff is better equipped to conduct the thorough technical review needed to determine if a project is within the town ordinances. If a project fits, it could be approved more quickly.
Tuesday’s changes do not affect projects that aren’t allowed under current ordinances. These so-called “conditional” projects would still require public meetings and a review and vote by the Town Board.
The new process replaces longer public design workshops with “public information sessions.” After discussion, the board agreed to adopt Commissioner Connie Wessner’s suggestion that the ordinance call these “public input sessions” – to better reflect their intent. Town officials and interim Planning Manager Ben McCrary said these meetings would come earlier in the development process, would be based on developers’ preliminary proposals instead of blank site plans, and could give citizens a chance for more influence in the process.
After discussion, the board made other revisions as well. At commissioners’ request, the new process will require public input meetings for “minor subdivision” projects – those with six or fewer homes. The original proposal called for eliminating those.
The original proposal also eliminated public meetings for master plans in areas that have an existing small area plan. The theory was that the small area plans already are based on extensive public meetings and input. But commissioner Wessner said small-area plans could fall out of date. So commissioners agreed that if an area plan is more than three years old, approval of a master plan would require a public meeting. Master plans in areas lacking small-area plans also would require public meetings.
And as long as they met the town ordinance, master plans will no longer require Town Board approval. Instead, they will come before the board for an “FYI” meeting.
Download a copy of the new planning approval process, which is spelled out in Section 7 of the Davidson Planning Ordinance.
The board on Tuesday held a public hearing on the proposed town budget for 2012-13, the fiscal year that begins July 1. If approved in its current form, the plan would leave the property tax rate unchanged, at 35 cents per $100 of assessed value. No commissioners on Tuesday suggested changing the rate either up or down.
There was little discussion at the meeting about the money-losing MI-Connection Communications System, which Davidson owns with the town of Mooresville, except for a passing acknowledgement by finance director Cindy Jones that it is a major expense. MI-Connection is costing the two towns about $2 million a year, mainly to help repay about $80 million in debt still owed for buying and upgrading the system.
(Download a PDF of the proposed budget, CLICK HERE»)
[Please check back later for updates on this story or additional coverage of issues at Tuesday's meeting.]
On Tuesday, the board also:
- Approved MI-Connection Communications System’s request for an additional $396,402 this year to cover a shortfall. Davidson is paying for the extra subsidy with higher-than-expected property, sales and vehicle tax revenues, $65,000 from town reserves and about $40,000 in “miscellaneous revenue.” Download the budget amendment (PDF), CLICK HERE»
- Held a public hearing on proposed planning amendments that would spell out the process for approval of wall murals. Murals would be allowed only in the town’s downtown historic district and could not cover more than 50 percent of area of a wall. Any murals would have to be approved by the Design Review Board. Download copies of the proposed revised Planning Sections 9 and 20.
- Approved a resolution that allows the town board to keep the minutes of closed sessions sealed indefinitely, as long as “public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.” (See the resolution (PDF).
- Appointed John Chesser as chair of the board of adjustment and Diana Merrifield as a town representative to the Visit Lake Norman Board
- Voted 5-0 to adopt a new ordinance regulating golf carts and utility vehicles in town. Police chief Jeanne Miller said the new rules would prohibit the private use of these small vehicles on public streets and regulate other uses. She said the rules permit the vehicles to be used “in a utilitarian manner on the parts of businesses, schools and government bodies that would need this in the course of their daily business. It’s something we need to do for public safety.” Read the new ordinance (PDF)
- Adopted a Solid Waste Management Plan for 2012-22. (Download here – PDF.)
Download a copy of the full agenda, with links to all documents, on the town website.