Cornelius is honing its zoning

Town aims to preserve its character while adding waterfront access, allowing denser development

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//October 24, 2013//

Cornelius is honing its zoning

Town aims to preserve its character while adding waterfront access, allowing denser development

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//October 24, 2013//

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Proposed Cornelius land-use map. Courtesy of the town of Cornelius Planning Department

CORNELIUS – The town of Cornelius might be ready to switch rather than fight.

The town’s elected Board of Commissioners and appointed Planning Board, operating under a land-use plan that dates all the way back to 1996 and a zoning ordinance passed in 1999, have denied a long series of rezonings over the past year in sometimes ugly battles. One particularly ugly battle is still ongoing.

But on Monday, the town board got its first glance at a 21st-century land-use plan, customized for Cornelius as it exists today by first-year Planning Director Wayne Herron and his staff, the Chapel Hill-based Clarion Associates land-management consulting firm and the Planning Board.

At the same time, Herron and his staff are at work on a new zoning ordinance that will be introduced to the town board after the land-use plan is set.

The hope, Herron said, is to create a land-use and zoning process for the town that is more “business-friendly” to developers often frustrated when trying to work in Cornelius, while at the same time respectful of the town’s “traditional character.”

The first draft of the land-use plan is, in the words of the progressive-thinking Herron, a more “sophisticated guide-map” that would replace one that “encourages sprawl and decimation of forests” despite the town’s recent anti-growth actions.

Among other things, the plan would establish Cornelius’ first “waterfront mixed-use” areas, creating new opportunities for what almost everybody in the town wants: More public access to Lake Norman.

It would also establish “campus business” areas to encourage employment-center development and high-tech industrial growth.

And it would slightly increase density in an area of Cornelius now considered “rural preservation,” which is the locus of a hotly contested rezoning dispute that has repeatedly pitted developer Jake Palillo against the town.

Don Harrow, the economic development consultant hired by Cornelius, called the draft plan “a step in the right direction.”

Lynette Rinker

Even Lynette Rinker, who before as a commissioner and now as mayor of Cornelius has helped lead the fight against higher-density residential development, sees it as a seminal moment in the former mill-town’s history.

“This is the future of our town,” Rinker said Monday night after the town board studied the draft plan during a work session and at a public hearing.

“Our future rests on this.”

But Monday was only the beginning of the political process for the proposed guideline.

Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Travis and Commissioner David Gilroy, the loudest voices among the anti-development majority of the five-member board, wasted little time in trying poke holes in the plan even though data that would measure the impact of the new plan will not be ready until the town board looks at the plan for a second time Nov. 4.

David Gilroy

“It looks like a lot more rooftops,” Gilroy said. “I’m not so sure that is a good thing.”

Herron, Planning Board Chairman Brian Simmons and Clarion Associates Principal Roger Waldon defended the land-use plan, explaining its potential benefits and pointing out to the commissioners that it is like a roadmap; the town board could decide how to set the metaphorical speed limits and stop signs on the map’s roads.

Zones redefined

The proposed plan is headed back to the Planning Board on Wednesday for tweaking and recommendations to the town board. But here are the general outlines of the draft plan presented.

The town’s residential categories would be redefined into three categories. Low-density rural would replace 1999’s rural preservation classification and ups the density from one unit per 5 acres to one unit per 2.5 acres. Low density single-family would replace today’s single-family, with a density of one to three units per acre. And medium-density residential, a new category, would comprise single- and multifamily development above three per acre.

The plan would introduce three mixed-use categories. Town center would be the densest, encourage pedestrian traffic, and apply largely to downtown and the future Red Line commuter train station. Village center would apply to large-scale but less dense hubs, centers and “nodes” of commercial development where vehicular traffic is dominant. Waterfront mixed-use, which would be used on the west side of lower West Catawba Avenue as it approaches Huntersville and on the northeast side of Cornelius to the Victoria Bay area, would “encourage more well-planned commercial development, and opportunities for more public gathering and lake-related activities,” the plan says. Finally, urban mixed-use would apply to the Catawba Avenue and North Main Street corridors near town center that have an “old Cornelius” feel, and would accommodate infill residential, office institutional and light commercial uses while preserving the architectural and historical character of the streets.

The only big change proposed in the commercial and industrial categories is the addition of a campus business designation, which is “intended to provide for large business parks and light industrial parks, which, because of the scale of the building or the nature of the use, cannot be fully integrated into the fabric of the community.”

Other categories remain largely unaffected except for the creation of a rural conservation category for rural and agricultural use, including Cornelius’ Potts Plantation, family-owned farmland that has been passed down from generation to generation beginning, according to town legend, starting with a land grant from the king of England.

Denser development proposed

Wayne Herron

Herron and Waldon walked the Board of Commissioners through a demonstration of how these categories might be applied to various sections of town.

The plan’s recommendations for Bailey Road east of Old Statesville Road was the most-discussed subject of the night because it could affect Palillo’s ongoing fight to rezone what is now rural preservation to low-density single-family.

Palillo, an owner of Bluestream Partners, argues that he cannot sell his 62 acres along Bailey as five-acre lots; the new 2.5-acre lot recommendation would help, but really isn’t going to help him much – nor, he said, help the town.

Palillo wasn’t at Monday’s meeting, nor has he seen the proposed plan; when told it might up the density of his acreage, he deadpanned: “Thirty-six units per acre high-rise?”

In a more serious vein, he said: “Still, 2.5 units per acre, that’s urban sprawl and waste of the (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department) infrastructure that’s there. And taxes; if you build a $500,000 house on an acre and add another acre and a half, it only adds maybe $30,000 in tax value to it. You could get so much more in taxes at one unit per acre; or, even better, at one unit per three-quarters acre. That area has two schools, a 63-acre park, an extension of the Mecklenburg County greenway trail, and all that infrastructure is there. That area should be denser.”

Although he stopped short of endorsing Palillo’s numbers, Herron told the Board of Commissioners Monday that he agrees with the spirit of Palillo’s argument.

“Rural (in the Bailey Road area) is not a good use in the future,” Herron said. “It poses a lot of problems for property owners and doesn’t acknowledge what is going on. It doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Among other considerations, Herron said, is that “CMUD wants more customers to maximize usage” of its water and sewer infrastructure “and keep prices lower.”

Palillo got even more support from Rob Nanfelt, government affairs manager for the Charlotte-based Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, who spoke at Monday’s meeting in support of the new land-use plan.

“We think it’s going in the right direction,” Nanfelt said. “But we would rather see (the low-density rural classification) be one unit per 1 acre than one per 2.5. This is not business model that make sense in one per 2.5 any better than one per 5. That’s in terms of infrastructure and (home) pricing.”

REBIC, which lobbies on behalf of the industry it represents, has used its website to vigorously encourage its members to get involved in the shaping of the new Cornelius land-use plan and future zoning ordinance recodification.

And, perhaps most helpful for Palillo in the eyes of the town board, universally respected former Mayor Gary Knox, who is in the real estate business, also called for higher density in the area. Lot sizes of 2.5 acres, he said, “is not a sustainable business model.”

Herron told the board that his department and the Planning Board considered what the contiguous towns of Huntersville and Davidson are doing in the area of Bailey Road in drafting the new land-use plan.

“Davidson uses a tiered approach; you can do two units per acre in Davidson, but with dedicated open space,” Herron said. “It takes better advantage of CMUD and other utilities, it maximizes density and it has rural preservation, too. When you see a good idea, that’s when you (should) plagiarize.”

Opening up possibilities

Monday’s meeting also included discussion of how the new plan would affect other areas of town, including the waterfront mixed-use provisions, which Rinker said she found “exciting.”

“Water access on the east side!” the mayor said. “You could walk from the town center to water. That opens up exciting possibilities. It’s a great opportunity for redevelopment of the waterfront.”

Also discussed were plans for the Westmoreland Road area, where town officials have long said they would like to see a new exit from Interstate 77 and the revival of the abandoned Augustalee office-based mixed-use development, a $515 million development that would have included a 2.3-million-square-foot lifestyle center with retail, residential, hotel and office space.

The town approved the development plan in 2007, but it stalled when the recession hit, and the 104 acres was foreclosed on. Hopes were re-raised after Concord-based telecommunications company ACN bought the land last year for $7.3 million, less than half the price Fifth Third Bank had listed it for in 2010.

“We and (consultant) Don Harrow are in talks with ACN to see what it would take and what the town is interested in; what works in today’s economy,” Herron said after Monday’s meeting.

But time and again, the conversation went back to residential density – especially in the Bailey Road area – which almost certainly will be a subject of more discussion as the plan moves forward to the political process.

The Planning Board will look at the land-use plan again at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (interestingly, the board will also be looking at Palillo’s latest rezoning request for his Bailey Road land at that meeting). The town board will get data about the impact of the plan at a work session at 6 p.m. Nov. 4. Herron said he hopes to get final town board approval for the new land-use plan as early as a 7 p.m. meeting Nov. 18 (for which Palillo’s proposal is also on the agenda). All the meetings will be in Cornelius Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Ave.

While not directly addressing Palillo’s rezoning fight, even Mayor Rinker showed some leeway in her past thinking, and hinted at her possible stance on the new land-use plan by saying this: “We’ve been focusing on density. We should be focusing on the town’s character.”

That, Herron said, is exactly his plan.

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