Lake Norman & Mooresville

Davidson mayoral candidates try to decipher how to grow and develop ... or not

Davidson Mayor John Woods, center, and challenger Laurie Venzon listen to Rusty Knox at Save Davidson’s mayoral candidate forum Sept. 14.
Davidson Mayor John Woods, center, and challenger Laurie Venzon listen to Rusty Knox at Save Davidson’s mayoral candidate forum Sept. 14.

The three candidates running for mayor of Davidson each place government transparency to build trust as a top goal if elected.

They also spoke about the effects of rapid residential growth and whether to sever ties with MI-Connection during a political forum Sept 14 sponsored by the Save Davidson citizen group.

Mayor John Woods and challengers Laurie Venzon and Rusty Knox answered questions sent via email by residents prior to the event and written questions collected during the forum held at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.

Save Davidson, a citizen group founded on Facebook, leads the opposition against some of the town’s proposed development projects the group says could change Davidson’s small-town identity.

The group also aims to educate voters about the candidates running for office in the upcoming election Nov. 7.

On the mayoral election ballot, Woods, who has served as mayor for the past 10 years and as a town board of commissioner from 1997-2007, faces Knox, a lifelong Davidson resident and the son of longtime former mayor Russell Knox, and Venzon, a part-time banking consultant who served as a town board of commissioner from 2007-13.

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When asked what the top five priorities each candidate would address in the first six months of office, all three candidates mentioned re-establishing trust between elected officials and the public.

“We have faltered in that over the past several years,” said Knox. “No one individual is to blame for that, but I think when you see the discord in town, right now you understand we’ve to gain that trust back from town hall.”

The town government has faced criticism over a perceived failure to listen to residents who are opposed to development proposals such as the Beaty Street project that will turn town-owned property into a mixed-use development as well as a separate proposed hotel project to be built across the street from a school.

“Town hall has attempted to be as transparent as we know how to be,” said Woods, who called himself a “community servant,” not a politician. “And we will continue to work on communicating.”

Venzon and Knox both agreed finding an exit strategy for the town’s involvement in MI-Connection, a cable and Internet system servicing Davidson, Cornelius and Mooresville, was also an important step they would take if elected.

The towns of Davidson and Mooresville controversially purchased the communications company, then in bankruptcy, in 2007.

Since then, the town of Davidson has been forced to pay the company’s multi-million debt in annual fees.

Venzon, who said she did not vote for the town to purchase the company in 2007, called MI-Connection “an albatross around our neck for 10 years.”

Woods said that MI-Connection is very close to breaking even and after that point “logical financial decisions can be made,” regarding its future.

Many of the questions posed by residents during the forum focused on the increasing pressure facing the town to develop at an uncomfortably fast rate for some residents.

This unmitigated growth has caused overcrowded schools and increased traffic congestion on Davidson’s roads, Venzon said.

Venzon said the town should not continue to allow growth if it outpaces the town’s ability to provide services and infrastructure.

Knox said the town couldn’t put a moratorium on new residential construction but town officials can put the brakes on plans to develop in order to retain one of the town’s core values of keeping Davidson a small town.

Venzon and Knox both said they’d like to build the town’s commercial tax base, however.

Woods said property owners have the right to develop their land and therefore the town forces developers to grow the town’s way to better control it.

“We don’t encourage development but when it comes, you will develop our way through our very strict ordinances,” Woods said.

One controversial housing project that has raised hackles for its proposed high-density apartments and its encroachment on a local watershed is the Potts Street development that had been proposed to be located partly in Cornelius and partly in Davidson.

But Crescent Acquisitions withdrew its rezoning request from the Cornelius Planning Board to build nine houses as part of the Potts project. The total project included 19 townhomes and 276 multi-family units on 23 acres at 513 Catawba Avenue near Potts Street.

“That project as it has been announced, in my opinion, is dead,” Woods said, adding the project will have to be changed if it comes back before the Davidson planning board.

Venzon said she couldn’t imagine building high-density homes when that area doesn’t have the infrastructure to support additional people.

The public’s opposition is enough for her to go against the project, she said.

“Even if I thought we should be proceeding down that road, when you see 200 people show up to town hall week after week, month after month, it’s time to pay attention and say time out. We need to stop what we’re doing and rethink this process,” said Venzon.

Knox and Venzon also took issue with the Luminous project, the proposed mixed-use development on approximately 18 acres of town-owned land on Beaty Street. The project is set to include up to 138 residential units, a 135-room hotel, 28,000 square-feet of commercial space and a seven acre-park with a pond, gazebo and walking trails.

But Save Davidson members have argued the land’s original owner sold the property to the town with the designation the land be used as a park.

Venzon said when she served as commissioner, that property was supposed to serve as a gateway to the town. There was no talk of mixed-use or high-density living, she said.

Plans for this property are “headed in the wrong direction,” Venzon said.

Woods maintained that the property was designated to be a park and be partly developed and that’s why town government opted to enter into contract negotiations to develop the land.

But Knox said only his father, the mayor at the time, and the property owner knew exactly how the land had been designated and both of them are deceased.

“The disparity between how much development and how much park has been the biggest problem,” Knox said.

Another problem with the Beaty Street property is that Knox believes two appraisals by the town have “grotesquely undervalued” the land’s value.

Valbridge Property Advisors, hired by Save Davidson, recently appraised the property at $4.6 million, more than double the town of Davidson’s appraisal of $1.9 million, according to the citizen group.

The $1.9 million town appraisal, released in July 2017 by T.B. Harris & Associates, was an updated valuation from the same firm’s $1.6 million appraisal originally conducted in spring 2016.

The low appraisal “is a great reason the town should have been able to say no,” Knox, said of the board of commissioner’s decision to move forward with the development plans.

Woods said the town is still waiting on soil and topography results to determine if the site will even be a good fit for the proposed project.

Woods also said there is work left to do to determine if two acres at Griffith Street and Davidson Gateway Drive is the right spot to build a proposed four-story, 115-room hotel with plaza and retail space.

Venzon and Knox are opposed to the hotel’s construction because of its location across the street from the Community School of Davidson and its encroachment on homes on Westside Terrace.

“People often say we’re not listening,” said Woods, about the town’s development projects. “I want to tell you we are. I want you to know that.”

Kate Stevens is a freelance writer: katebethstevens@icloud.com.

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