Cornelius board goes back and forth on subdivision

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//October 31, 2013//

Cornelius board goes back and forth on subdivision

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//October 31, 2013//

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CORNELIUS – The town of Cornelius Planning Board on Wednesday took three very confusing votes on the long-embattled Barnhardt single-family subdivision plan.

Cornelius Planning Director Wayne Herron, the only person at Monday's town Planning Board who did not appear to be confused. Photo by Tony Brown
Cornelius Planning Director Wayne Herron, the only person at Monday’s town Planning Board who did not appear to be confused. Photo by Tony Brown

First the appointed Planning Board on Wednesday night voted to recommend that the town’s elected Board of Commissioners not approve Barnhardt.

Then the Planning Board on Wednesday night voted to recommend that the town board approve the subdivision on a condition: that the 62 acres along Bailey Road on which the subdivision would be developed is properly rezoned.

Finally, the Planning Board on Wednesday night voted to recommend the Board of Commissioners not approve the rezoning of the land on which the subdivision would be.

The net effect of which, apparently, is that Planning Board on Wednesday night voted to recommend the Board of Commissioners not approve the subdivision.


So were the six appointed Planning Board members who cast the votes.

So was Bill Brown, town attorney, who was trying to guide the board.

The outspoken Jake Palillo, principal of the Bluestream Partners development company that owns the 62 acres along Bailey Road and which has been trying for the better part of a year to get something saleable developed on it, was not only confused.

He was also angry.

At several points during the decision-making process – which certainly will be remembered as one of the most bizarre in Cornelius Planning Board history – Palillo spoke out of order from the gallery. He was out of order because, to add to the confusion, the public hearing part of the process was held back in July, when the board decided to delay its decision.

“Just make a motion to deny, so we can all get out of here,” Palillo said after the first vote Wednesday  night.

Planning Board Chairman Brian Simmons, who was arranging Wednesday night’s second vote, said back: “There are a few of us up here trying to help you; I appreciate your patience.”

After Wednesday night’s final vote, Palillo left the meeting with this comment: “With that, we can all go home because the show is over. What a waste of time.”

Palillo has said his frustration has been building since he bought the land – which Mecklenburg County tax records say was back in 2007 – and agreed to pay for the extension of Bailey Road as a requirement by the town before he could develop the nearby Bailey’s Glen senior living subdivision.

He’s been trying to unload the land ever since. But he says he has been unsuccessful because the land is zoned rural preservation, which limits residential development to one single-family house per 5 acres.

Palillo argues that few people in today’s real estate market want such large lots, particularly in an area he says is not really rural because of the proximity of two large Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department infrastructure, a public park, a major thoroughfare (Old Statesville Road) and Norfolk Southern railroad tracks that are one day supposed to be home to the Red Line commuter train.

He has brought forth four plans to rezone the land to allow for denser development, including the Barnhardt subdivision now in question, each of them rejected at one level or another of the town’s rezoning process.

Tempers reached a boiling point at a Planning Board meeting in December 2012 on the third proposal, an unusual multifamily development that would have divided the land into 22 lots, on which owners could build up to four living units each. During that meeting, Palillo accused attorney Brown and Karen Floyd, then town planning director, of betraying a promise he said the town made to rezone the land back when he bought it. Brown and Floyd said that wasn’t true.

With his fourth proposal, the Barnhardt subdivision, Palillo wants to create 26 2-acre lots that would preserve much of the wooded character of the land. There is some disagreement between the town Planning Department and Palillo about Barnhardt, including the exact amount of forest to be preserved in what Palillo calls a “low-impact development.” And Palillo still insists that one house per acre, or even denser, would be more appropriate for the area.

But the planning staff endorsed the Barnhardt plan, with 11 conditions, and Palillo appeared ready to accept that deal.

Then came the Planning Board meeting back in July, when many neighbors said they opposed the change because they feared it would lower their property values and because they said they wanted to preserve what they see as the area’s rural nature. Palillo shot back that at least some of the neighbors secretly approached him to buy their land for the subdivision, but were upset when he balked at their asking price.

And then came Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting.

The confusion at Wednesday’s meeting stemmed in large part from the fact that the Planning Board has spent the last few months creating a draft of a new land-use plan for the town, replacing one created back in 1996. Earlier at Wednesday’s meeting, the Planning Board put its final touches on the new draft and passed it along to the Board of Commissioners to tweak this coming Monday and to vote up or down Nov. 18.

The new land-use plan draft calls for Palillo’s land to be reclassified under a new zoning designation that would allow one house per 2.5 acres. So the Planning Board members were left to wonder whether they were allowed to approve a subdivision with one unit per 2 acres if the new land-use draft said otherwise.

The confusion was intensified when the Planning Board members began questioning why Palillo was seeking to rezone the land from rural preservation to general residential, which allows for development to be denser than the subdivision called for: two units per acre.

Why couldn’t they rezone the land to a designation between RP and GR, the Planning Board members asked, or to approve the GR rezoning conditionally, with the condition being that the density not exceed one unit per 2 acres?

What if, the board members wondered, they approved the rezoning and Palillo suddenly decided to abandon the Barnhardt subdivision and build something denser under the GR rezoning they had approved?

Not finding any way around this conundrum, the Planning Board voted the subdivision down, then voted it up on condition the land be rezoned, then voted down the rezoning. Palillo walked out and just about everybody at the meeting was left wondering what just happened.

Almost everybody.

The one person who didn’t appear confused at all was Wayne Herron, the first-year town planning director, who explained the situation several times, though few seemed to understand.

After the meeting he explained it again:

The town’s 1999 planning ordinance is flawed in that it doesn’t include any zoning designation calling for density between RP’s one unit per 5 acres and GR’s two units per 1 acre – a pretty wide spread.

Also, Herron explains, the existing ordinance doesn’t allow for a GR rezoning to be granted conditionally.

Then Herron, who is responsible for getting the ball rolling on the update of the ’96 land-use plan, explained further that after the new land-use plan is set by the Board of Commissioners as expected later this month, he and his staff plan to present a new zoning ordinance to replace the ’99 one.

“That’s the next step,” Herron said, “to update the existing ordinance to conform with all the changes to the town, just as we are doing with the land-use plan, and to correct things like this, to give everybody more flexibility. Under the existing code, the Planning Board’s hands were tied in this situation.”

Still confused?

You’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see if you can get any further clarification.

It is now up to the Board of Commissioners to untangle the Barnhardt debacle, at a meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at Cornelius Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Ave.

But please note: At that same meeting, the Board of Commissioners is scheduled to take a vote on the new land-use plan, the one that helped confuse the Barnhardt matter at Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting.

So stay tuned.

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