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Lots of negatives to consider on auto repair shop rezoning

letter to the editor logoTo the Editor:

Regarding the Davidson Town Board’s leaning towards supporting a Conditional Planning Area amendment in Davidson Commons East (March 13, 2013, “Board scraps APFO, hints support for auto repair shop”), allowing a Woodie’s Auto Service center across the street from the Community School of Davidson and behind homes on Westside Terrace: I’d like to follow up on a quote attributed to my friend Commissioner Rodney Graham in the article, using it as a straw dog upon which to comment.

He asked “What is the value …” of Davidsonians having to travel outside Davidson to get their vehicles serviced? Although the comments following are only my own, I can say that we on the Planning Board expressed similar thoughts about that specific issue at our meeting of Feb. 25, and about the $1.7 million per year in sales leakage in this service sector (see Feb. 26, 2013, “Plan board backs ending APFO, opposes auto shop”). In fact, I have asked staff to provide us with an outline of the general locations in town suitable to this use so we might provide them to this applicant and others.

However, we also discussed the following questions about this proposal:

  • What is the value to be lost in economic development potential (and tax value to the town) if a one-story auto service center is built on the site under consideration, rather than a fully activated two-story building and land use of the sort envisioned in the approved plan? Staff provided that answer, to the tune of anywhere between $3.0M-$3.5M. Yes, Davidson could use an auto repair facility. But at what cost to the Town’s long-term fiscal health if it goes where it’s currently proposed?
  • What is the value of the peace, quiet and even potential safety to the adjoining residents across the swale along Westside Terrace, only a few hundred feet away from the bays of an active auto service facility? And to their expectation that cars waiting to be repaired, fencing to protect those vehicles from vandalism and theft, along with noise, exhaust and even occasional runoff would not be present when the currently approved plan was adopted by the Town Board after extensive public input?
  • What is the value of the Town’s smart growth practices and Guiding Principles, so notably relied upon by Commissioners, Planning Board members, Town staff and property owners/developers in their planning and adoption of the Davidson Commons East master plan? The plan called for this portion of the overall site to be either multi-family residential (attached townhomes were envisioned)—which would protect the Westside Terrace single family homes from unsuitable adjacent activities and would enhance the developing walkable mixed-use neighborhood around the Harris-Teeter core—and/or multi-story, active office/retail—which would provide relatively quiet and compatible land use to all adjacent neighbors while improving the Town’s fiscal health and creating additional employment opportunity for Davidsonians and others.

The proposed use is inconsistent with the Town’s adopted Comprehensive Plan, its adopted Planning Ordinance, the “Circles at 30” Small Area Plan (which is pending adoption), and with the principle of taking the long view about growth and development in Davidson.

In an earlier section of the March 13th article on this topic, Commissioner Wessner—also a friend—points out that scrapping the town’s APFO now “…is not at all a step away from smart growth practices.” I see her underlying point (and am using her comment only as a springboard) but respectfully disagree with it … at least until there is an adopted policy replacing it that addresses both the latent legal challenge and the sound planning principle that new development should pay for its own needs so as not to add additional burden to existing residents and business.

But—to the point—it is my strong, personal, suggestion that the Board of Commissioners not approve the proposed amendment to the Conditional Plan; doing so flies in the face of a number of the Town’s Guiding Principles and well-vetted planning policies.

It is not that the desire for automotive service in Davidson is not there—it clearly is. But what is the value of the three issues above: the fiscal health of Davidson, the environmental justice of its residents, and the development pattern and growth goals expressed by the citizens in a number of collaboratively-arrived at plans and policy documents? At what cost do we put a needed service in our town in the first location a developer requests—something that satisfies the short run desire, but very likely will detract from the fulfillment of the community’s long run needs.

While I appreciate the property owner’s desire to develop his property, I think this is a poor value proposition for Davidson.

George Berger The writer lives in the McConnell neighborhood and serves on the Davidson Planning Board.


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David Boraks is the founder and editor of Davidson News LLC, which started in 2006 as a neighborhood blog and evolved into a regional community news network. He is a print, magazine, web and radio journalist, with experience in every nook and cranny of the news world, covering everything from local news to Fortune 100 companies to technology to Asia. He lives on South Street in Davidson, in a house that was at the center of a 1914 murder case. Ask him and he'll tell you that story.

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5 Responses to “Lots of negatives to consider on auto repair shop rezoning”

  1. Hans Diessel says:

    I agree with the points raised by George Berger. Approval of the rezoning request for the automotive repair shop – factually a one-story facility across the street of a school and bordering a residential area – would appear to be shortsightedly opportunistic and run counter to Davidson’s longstanding planning principles which have given our community its unique character and appearance.

  2. Ed Harris says:

    It’s a hard call for the town. On the one hand it is good planning to maintain a density of use and proximity to services. On the other, a good plan incorporates the dynamics of market demand and responds appropriately.

    In over five years of marketing the parcel under consideration, there has been no demand for the second floor space. The building contemplated is structured for two stories and can be converted to that use when the demand for the additional space can support the cost of completion. Of what benefit is it to the town to deny the application if the alternative is no building, or a building that fails economically?

    In addition, since we have lost Stowe’s Exxon and Cashion’s Gulf stations downtown (both one-story buildings), all the repair business that they generated has migrated out of town. Auto repair is a service most of us can use and it would be a great benefit to be able to drop a car off and walk to other nearby buildings for groceries, medical appointments or restaurants.

    Ed Harris

  3. George Berger says:

    I know all of us are truly sensitive to the tangible, everyday fiscal and economic realities; and I appreciate Mr. Harris’s comment in a healthy conversation about trying to balance the values important to Davidson–for both its residents and its business community. In fact, the reason I wrote the letter to the editor in the first place was because–with very few attendees at the Planning Board meeting and my own inability to attend the Town Board meeting to comment–I thought this was something people ought to give some additional thought to, about issues that hadn’t really been brought to the table.

    At least one other proposal amending the original plan has been brought to the Town for review prior to this one; we (the Planning Board) recommended that the Town Board approve it (they did), but somewhere along the way it lost traction in the Great Recession. So we’re OK with the idea of dynamic planning, fundamentally. But again, just speaking for myself, I’m not sure that this potential “one bird in hand” is worth losing the “two in the bush.”

    In fact–given the important community values I expressed in my original letter–I think it’s worth far less than the two birds in the bush. Additionally, it pretty well precludes many future “two in the bushes” that might want to locate on the property should the proposed use not continue there (for whatever reason) … at least without the considerable expense of demolition, etc., that wouldn’t be required if a structure consistent with the approved plan were built.

    Mr. Harris is absolutely right–it would be great to be able to drop off the car for service and walk to other needs, or walk home–that’s one of the hallmarks of a small town, and I’d love it. But it seems like there are a number of other locations across town–even some in the same planning area (along Davidson Gateway, or sections of Jetton, for instance) where the proposed use could locate and satisfy that desire while being less detrimental to both the surrounding neighbors and the still-emerging new neighborhood fabric, and where it would certainly be as successful.

    Again, a bird in the hand is nice to have, but there are a lot of birds in those bushes–ones that are better catches in the long run. We can use the service in town, but I think this location is pretty short-sighted. We’re emerging quickly from the deepest recession in nearly a century; our economic development/redevelopment strategy is a strong one. I have little doubt that the already-dynamic Davidson Commons East plan process will prove itself successful with a suitable project on the proposed site, and that if this service is in as much demand as it appears to be, an operator will find another, more suitable, (in my estimation, anyway) location via the workings of a rebounding, enthusiastic supply market.

    Again, my thanks to for the opportunity to have this forum; it’s a valuable service that adds to the community in a lot of ways.

  4. John Kennedy says:

    First, thanks to George for his thoughtful letter, for this forum, and other citizens for sharing thoughts on this important issue. I serve on the Planning Board with George. In addition to the issues George raised I voiced several concerns at the Planning Board meeting. I hope our town officials are receptive to recommendations by the planning board and staff. The planning board voted firmly against allowing this zoning amendment/exception.

    1. Like most of the planning board, I too see the need for a facility like this. It is an economic opportunity for this business owner and for Davidson.
    2. Our well established planning principles and our nationally recognized comprehensive plan are the filters that the Planning Board uses to evaluate this and other issues. It is not an arbitrary decision; conversely it is grounded in our principles and core values.
    3. We have clearly stated in our planning and in community meetings business will be conducted in Davidson on terms that sustain quality of life and long term community health. To allow this exception is contrary to our principles and community health.
    4. I voiced a grave concern with precedent. When we allow this exception it becomes easier for developers to submit future requests and argue effectively based on this exception. Davidson would be in a compromised position of needing to explain to developers why their project should not also be allowed to proceed when not consistent with our planning principles.
    5. This does not have to be an either/or. Yes, we’d like this business in Davidson, yes; we need to maintain our principles and quality of life.
    6. A business very similar to the one proposed here was demolished in downtown Davidson, and a nice building was erected at Stowe’s Corner. I’m concerned with what may be a pattern of keeping a 4 block core of downtown Davidson intact/revitalized and making exception after exception at the Exit 30 area and on Griffith west of the railroad tracks. We are not creating a sustainable community by compromising one side of town, allowing the exit 30 area to look like any other exit on I77.

    The irony is that a façade of a 2nd story has been presented to allow this exception, to exempt requiring the 2nd floor. A façade is a way to fake it, to make something appear as something it isn’t. Is this what we are willing to do to our planning principles? Abandon them for artifice and overzealous economic development?

  5. Brian Bonness says:

    I agree with the points made by George Berger and others who raise concerns about rezoning this area of Davidson. As someone who lives just a few hundred feet away from the proposed building site, I have a particularly strong interest in seeing us maintain the integrity of the original plan for this area. I would be quite surprised if the board votes to approve the change. I just don’t see the benefits outweighing the potential negative aspects.

    Economically, a single, one-story business of this sort seems to limit the potential revenue for the town compared to a two-story, multi-unit structure with several businesses, more jobs, and the flexibility to move different businesses in and out more easily in the future. Plus, building a structure for an auto repair shop seems to greatly limit the options down the road if they don’t stay at this location. I also wonder if this sort of business will make other potential businesses hesitate before building next door. Will a nice restaurant or a specialty boutique want to locate next to an auto repair shop? I think making this change would set a precedent for what we can expect for that entire area along Davidson Gateway and I can’t believe that is what we want. It feels a little like settling for a small gain in the short term but at the expense of the long-term potential for one of the most valuable plots of land in town.

    I’ve heard some say it would be nice to have a repair shop in Davidson so we don’t have to drive out of the town to fix our cars. I agree, this would be great, but are there not other, more suitable spaces for a repair shop in town? I also heard the prospective business owner say average salaries at the shop would be in the $70K range. This seems quite high and I would just ask the town to dig into this estimate a bit more to be sure it is what we can expect for the majority of individuals employed at this location.

    I also think about the noise, security concerns, and potential for pollution that an auto repair shop may create. Have we done the research to know for sure that there are no concerns about the potential impact on the air, water or soil in this area? Let’s consider some of the contaminants common to an auto repair shop: gasoline, oil, antifreeze, solvents, cleaners, paint, grease, battery acid, also air pollutants from car exhaust. These are important questions given that this business will be literally feet away from residential homes as well as a school where kids play outside every day that weather permits.

    I hope the rezoning does not pass. I can’t believe that it will. In particular given the fact that the planning board voted so overwhelmingly to oppose it. I am not an expert in how our local government works but such a clear disconnect between the Town Board and Planning Board would be quite surprising.

    Brian Bonness