Rezoning change concerns residents

The Harrisburg Town Council voted last week to approve an amendment to a rezoning ordinance in a contentious meeting in which many residents expressed concern about the effects of the change.

The amendment to the town's Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which is linked to a controversial development project in Harrisburg, would add an "innovative development" option that would give developers more flexibility during the rezoning process. The amendment comes before the council again Aug. 9.

The absence of councilman Jeffrey Redfern left the council's July 12 vote on the amendment in a 3-3 split, leaving Mayor Tim Hagler to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of adopting the amendment.

Frustrated people who came to the meeting in opposition of the amendment threw up their hands and left the council chambers as Hagler explained that a change to the ordinance requires a two-thirds vote.

In order for the ordinance amendment to pass, five of the seven council members must vote in favor of the amendment at the council's Aug. 9 meeting. Redfern declined to comment on how he would vote next month.

The amendment could provide developers with more flexibility on regulations concerning minimum lot sizes, open space requirements, the location and amount of sidewalks, curbs and gutters, and more.

The amendment was proposed by Taylor Properties Group, a Charlotte-based commercial real estate firm that plans to develop the Village of Blume, an eco-sustainable community on about 360 acres near the intersection of Rocky River Road and Hickory Ridge Road in Harrisburg.

The development has drawn criticism from locals who argue that the neighborhood would add congestion to the area and damage the town's rural scenery.

About half of the land is on a flood plain, prompting developers to propose clustering homes on small lots. Although the density of the subdivision would be typical for the area, the lot sizes would be smaller.

Developers have also proposed incorporating active farmland and adding a commercial component to the subdivision near the intersection.

Blume developers are hoping to receive some flexibility on ordinance requirements that would require them to build sidewalks on both sides of the streets they build through the neighborhood.

Walter Fields, a planner for the Taylor Properties Group, addressed the council at the meeting and said that adding more impervious surfaces such as sidewalks would only add to stormwater problems in the area, which the council had discussed earlier in the meeting.

The amendment would merely give developers the chance to ask for permission to do something different, he said.

Taylor Properties Group submitted a rezoning request in August 2009 and proposed an amendment to the town's rezoning ordinance to allow their plans to be considered.

"We've never had a request like this," said Harrisburg Planning Director Josh Watkins. "A text amendment was necessary to create framework to consider it."

But Watkins said town officials found it difficult to craft an amendment. It's about balancing flexibility with developers and looking out for the community, he said.

The town's planning and zoning board voted unanimously to deny recommendation of the original proposed amendment. The amendment considered last week was the third version proposed and the first to be recommended for approval by the planning and zoning board.

If approved, developers who ask for the innovative development option must meet higher standards than a traditional development. The amendment includes a list of items for which developers can ask for flexibility, but they must explain why the leniency is needed and what actions will be taken to relieve any negative outcomes associated with the request.

"Just because I say I like this text amendment doesn't mean I like the Blume project," said Watkins. "We're talking about Blume, but we're not talking about Blume."

About 60 people attended the meeting, many of them to protest the amendment. During the public hearing, more than 10 people spoke against the ordinance change, pointing to concerns about giving too much leniency to developers and speaking against the Blume project.

Marie Morrison addressed the council and explained that she lives on land on Hickory Ridge Road that has been owned by her family since the 1700's.

Morrison said she recently visited the town's website and clicked on a link that read "quality of life."

"It said, 'Coming soon,'" she said, prompting laughter throughout the room.

She said Harrisburg is loved for its quietness and serene pastures.

"Once the bulldozers roll through those pastures, the damage will be done," she said, drawing applause from those in attendance as she left the podium.

Laura Carriker of Harrisburg said the proposed amendment and the Blume project are one and the same.

"You can't separate the two issues," she said. "You're opening a can of worms."

But flexibility might be what's needed to move the town forward, said Councilman Jeff Phillips, pointing to empty commercial centers around town. The Harrisburg Town Center has become a ghost town, he said.

His remark sent the crowd grumbling.

"Then why build more?" asked one person.

Councilwoman Rhonda Poppen said she would vote against the amendment.

"Call me simple-minded, but I still have trouble with the definition of 'innovative,'" she said.

Councilman Bob Scaggs said the amendment is a tool the town needs available in the future, but he's not necessarily in favor of the Blume project.

Council members Steve Sciascia, Bill Williams and Poppen voted against the amendment while Chad Baucom, Phillips and Scaggs voted in favor of the change.