Holding ground

A Cornelius developer has failed to change his project’s plans -- and that might mean planning to fail

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//February 15, 2013//

Holding ground

A Cornelius developer has failed to change his project’s plans -- and that might mean planning to fail

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//February 15, 2013//

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Updated: Cornelius developer yanks controversial Bailey Forest plan from meeting agenda

CORNELIUS — Three residential projects stalled in the municipal planning process are back from the living dead in this recently development-resistant town, and at least one of them — Bailey Forest — is already a regular fireworks display.

Developer Jake Palillo says he's tried but failed to sell his forested property, pictured here Wednesday, in 5-acre chunks. The increased traffic from nearby schools on the section of Bailey Road that Palillo agreed to build is one reason why the developer believes the property should not continue to be zoned rural preservation. Photo by Tony Brown

Fiery-tongued Cornelius developer Jake Palillo said he’s ready to rumble all over again to win approval for Bailey Forest, an unusual multifamily project proposed for a rural preservation zone limited to one single-family house per 5 acres.

One of the leaders of the town’s Board of Commissioners, Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Travis, said he’s ready, when it comes before commissioners Monday, to vigorously oppose the plan that Palillo has not significantly modified.

Surprisingly, though, another commissioner, David Gilroy, the board’s most outspoken opponent of new, higher-density projects, said he’s going to meet with Palillo to try to work things out so that an altered version of the proposal might move forward. He said he might even vote for the project, which he’s on record as opposing in no uncertain terms.

The two other proposals also back after being stalled or dropped altogether are Pender Pointe and Columbus, Ohio-based Epcon Communities’ slightly modified Courtyards at Jetton. In yet another twist, Palillo has taken over and radically changed Pender Pointe, which was original proposed by Cornelius-based McLeod Corp.

The difficulty encountered by the three proposals is part of a larger, four-month trend in which a total of six development projects have been rejected by town officials or withdrawn or put on hold by developers in the face of angry residents or cost-prohibitive local ordinances.

Travis, Gilroy and Jeff Hare, who form a 3-1 majority on the Board of Commissioners, say they are trying to repair past land-use mistakes in the largely built-out and hemmed-in town and grow it in a more disciplined and balanced way. They are joined in their sentiments by Lynette Rinker, who in January became the mayor of Cornelius, replacing Jeff Tarte, a more developer-friendly politician who is now a state senator.

Blasting the town

After a highly contentious December meeting of the town’s Planning Board, Palillo, known as an active developer in Cornelius and as an aggressive communicator, said, “They ought to change the law that says common sense is not allowed in the town of Cornelius.”

His approach did not change during a January meeting of commissioners, when they voted to suspend consideration of Bailey Forest to allow Palillo to tweak the plan in consultation with the town.

His plan — and his rhetoric — remain unchanged as he brings the development back before commissioners Monday, when the January hearing is scheduled to be continued.

Now Palillo says all of the commissioners he has approached except for Gilroy  have refused to meet with him, so he’s forging ahead with the project even though he expects it to fail.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare,” Palillo said. “Travis said there was ‘no use of (meeting).’ Oh, really? That’s what we were supposed to be doing during this extension. I’m going ahead with the original plan, because now they say that if I make any changes I’ll have to start all over again — another four-month process.”

Travis said he is unconvinced.

“Yeah, I did say that,” he said. “He’s done a lot of great things in town, and this is an interesting proposal, really unique, but not for this tract of land. We took a straw poll last time on his proposal for that tract, and it was clear, and we tried to relay that to him. We were being business-friendly, trying to communicate to him that it would be a waste of time and money to pursue.”

Gilroy, too, praised Palillo’s work, especially on Bailey’s Glen, a Bailey Road housing development marketed to senior citizens. Gilroy had voted against the project.

“Jake is a smart and creative developer, but he’s a catastrophe as a communicator,” Gilroy said. “He shoots himself in both feet and the side of the head.”

Yet Gilroy said he would meet with Palillo — and is open to changing his mind, in part because he actually likes the development’s feel.

“That development is real interesting, and, to tell you the truth, despite all the units possible in there, it would do a lot to preserve the rural feel of that area.”

Plan thought to be unique

Palillo’s Bailey Forest plan, believed to be unique in the Charlotte market, calls for a multifamily project with 22 lots and up to 88 residential units on 62 forested acres on Bailey and Barnhardt roads. Palillo’s Bluestream Partners development firm owns the land.

Owners of the 2- to 3-acre lots could build up to four units per lot — standalone houses, townhouses or four-plex apartments, but not condos — and could choose to live on the premises and rent out the remaining units or rent out all of them.

Palillo said he came forward with the Bailey Forest plan after he could not sell the acreage in 5-acre lots meant for large, expensive “estate homes.”

“Only 1.9 percent of homes sold are on lots of 2 to 3 acres or more,” he said. “There’s no demand for that.”

During both the December Planning Board meeting — during which accusations of betrayal and lying flew between Palillo, the board, Town Attorney Bill Brown, then-Planning Director Karen Floyd and Bailey Forest-area resident Joan Boon — and at January’s commissioners meeting, Palillo enumerated a litany of reasons he believes the area should not remain zoned rural preservation but designated for denser development.

He reiterated those reasons earlier this week: the presence of two “industrial-looking” newer schools, Hough High and Bailey Middle; the status of nearby Old Statesville Road as a transit corridor, especially with the prospect of the Red Line commuter train on existing tracks along Old Statesville and two stations nearby; the status of Bailey Road as a “connector road, a through-street”; contiguous areas of nearby Huntersville that are zoned more densely; the presence of sewage lines and other utilities that rural areas don’t usually have; and the expressed desire of town officials to see more economic development in the area to balance what they see as too much residential and retail projects.

“More employment means density,” Palillo said this week. “Schools mean density. Highly traveled roads mean density. A rail line means density. Even if the commuter train is 10 or 20 years out, you need to plan for that today. The future is known. They say they want to plan better in the future. Now is the time for plan for it. That area is not rural, and it’s not going to be.”

Promise broken?

But in addition to those reasons, Palillo said the town owed him — and that he was promised future consideration by unnamed officials — for agreeing to extend Bailey Road when he developed Bailey’s Glen.

Palillo agreed to extend Bailey Road, which dead-ended nearby, so that it connected with Barnhardt Road. The town, where schools are overburdened, needed that to happen so the North Carolina Department of Transportation would approve the construction of the two new schools. The DOT said Bailey Road needed to be connected to other roads on both ends to handle the increase in traffic, or the schools could not be built.

In order to extend Bailey Road, Palillo said, he had to buy the land he now wants to develop into Bailey Forest. Together, the land and road cost him $5.5 million, he said.

In exchange, Palillo said, he was promised by town representatives that if he bought the land and built the road, the town would look favorably on a rezoning request in the future.

When Palillo made that argument at the Planning Board meeting, the already tense public forum turned ugly.

Palillo said Brown and Floyd attended meetings where the rezoning promises were made.

Floyd said she did not make any promises. Brown gave Palillo a lecture on the illegality of quid pro quo rezoning.

Travis and Gilroy earlier this week had responses for many of Palillo’s arguments. Travis, for instance, said, “there is no future rail station planned for Bailey Road; the two stations he’s talking about are more than a mile away.”

But Travis said a majority of the board is opposed primarily because nearby neighbors oppose the rezoning — and most of the rest of the town’s 24,000 or so residents also want one of the only remaining privately owned rural areas of Cornelius to be preserved.

“We’re losing all our open space, and our constituents have let us know they want that area preserved,” Travis said. He added that as an architect with the Charlotte-based Housing Studio, a multifamily design firm that has done high-density residential work “all over the East Coast,” he admired many aspects of the plan, including its preservation of as many trees as possible.

As for the promises Palillo said he was made in connection with the extension of Bailey Road, Gilroy said the developer’s assertions were one reason he was willing to meet with Palillo.

“I’m doing it because government should be public service,” Gilroy said. “We have an angry landowner with a history, a quid pro quo claim. Even though that’s not spelled out anywhere, I want to be sensitive to that, to try to solve it. I think there’s a compromise here; maybe shave off a little (land) to preserve. I want to be pragmatic and problem-solve. Hell, I might even vote for it, which is the last thing you’d expect to have happen.”

One possible compromise already mentioned by Palillo would involve a modification of the plan to restrict the 11 proposed lots nearest Barnhardt Road to single-family homes, though he expressed doubts they would sell in today’s market. The other 11 lots, nearest Hough High, would be available, in keeping with the original plan, for multifamily structures — if that’s what owners want to build on them.

The outcome is likely to be seen at Monday’s meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Ave. Given the history, and the current stances of the combatants, it’s just as likely to be a very interesting get-together.


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