HUNTERSVILLE – Growth and aging. The town of Huntersville – the fastest-growing municipality in the state, and one of the fastest in the country – is grappling with both as it plans for its future.
Although nothing was decided on a pair of separate major projects related to both issues at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday – the eve of this week’s elections – they will remain front and center of the town’s immediate and long-range planning and zoning agenda.
The board on Monday deferred two decisions related to the growth expected along Eastfield Road, the border between northeast Charlotte and southeast Huntersville. The area is expected to explode in both municipalities into what one developer calls “a feeding frenzy” of development as the winter 2015 completion of the last section of Interstate 485 approaches.
In a separate matter, the board held an initial public hearing on the Courtyards at Huntersville, a proposed 55-plus residential development proposed by Columbus, Ohio-based Epcon Communities that would comprise 52 units on 17 acres on N.C. 73 in northwest Huntersville.
Study draws critics
The Huntersville planning department began work on its Eastfield Road Small Area Plan in 2012 after a 2011 planning document identified two development “hotspots,” both in south Huntersville: the huge mixed-use Bryton at Old Statesville and Alexanderana roads, and the intersection of Eastfield and Prosperity Church Road, said town Planning Director Jack Simoneau.
When town officials learned the city of Charlotte was doing its own plan for future development along Prosperity Church, which will have an interchange with I-485, Simoneau decided to “expand our study for the whole of Eastfield.”
In conjunction with the small-area plan, the town also began to study the long-term future alignment of three roads likely to be extended and become thoroughfares that will connect with Eastfield and Prosperity Church: Verhoeff Drive and Everette Keith and Hambright roads.
Simoneau emphasized that the thoroughfare study is not a detailed, set-in-stone document calling for immediate action, but “looks 20 years out.”
The road study was ready for a vote by the Board of Commissioners in June, but its members delayed acting because they said they wanted to investigate the impact of Hambright Road’s alignment on the Bethesda Methodist Church cemetery, one of the oldest in northern Mecklenburg County. The cemetery, it turned out, will not be affected.
On Monday night, when the board was again expected to act, the thoroughfare study received negative and often venomous opposition at Monday’s meeting from a half-dozen owners of property on or near the roads. Some accused the town commissioners of trying to approve the study before Tuesday’s elections, calling it a “land grab” and accusing the town of misfeasance in its study.
The Board of Commissioners then voted 5-1 to again delay its decision on adopting the road study, but not before outspoken longtime Commissioner Sarah McAuley and Mayor Jill Swain answered the citizen-critics, characterizing them as rude and misinformed. McAuley, the one commissioner who voted not to delay the decision, challenged her colleagues to get on with it despite the pending elections.
McAuley will return to the board after Tuesday’s elections, as will all but one member of the rest of the Board of Commissioners, and Swain appeared on Wednesday to be reseated as mayor.
As of press time, the complete but unofficial vote tally in the mayoral race had incumbent Swain ahead of challenger Jim Puckett, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner, 50.12 percent to 49.59 percent. That is a margin of 27 votes, or 0.42 percent of the total ballots cast, including 14 write-in votes. The Mecklenburg County Board of Elections rules say that a second-place finisher in a two-person race can ask for a recount if the margin of victory is less than 1 percent of the total vote in the contest. As of press time, Puckett had not announced his intentions, and the email address on his election website did not function. Swain did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment.
In addition to McAuley, Huntersville Board of Commissioners incumbents Melinda Bales, Danny Phillips, Ron Julian and Jeff Neely are headed back to their seats, according to the unofficial results. The only new member of the board could be Rob Kidwell, who outpolled incumbent Charles Guignard by 44 votes. Guignard is also eligible to ask for a recount under county election rules for multi-seat races. Guignard was appointed to his seat by the other commissioners at the end of 2012 after former Commissioner Charles Jeter was elected to the N.C. Legislature.
Eastfield Road plan
Because the Eastfield Road Small Area Plan is dependent on the approval of the thoroughfare study, a vote on it was delayed by the board on Monday as well.
The ERSAP study area includes 1,897 acres, 1,336 of which are outside the town limits but with its planning jurisdiction, and could be annexed in the future.
The area is now about 70 percent low-density residential; the population is 1,100, living in about 400 homes, largely in the subdivisions of Olmsted, McGinnis Village and Skybrook. About 15 percent is undeveloped land, and the rest largely institutional, including churches and civic buildings, according to a draft of the plan. Because of the many streams and steep slope of much of the area, development has largely been along Eastfield Road.
Simoneau said the opening of the last leg of I-485, stretching southeast from Old Statesville Road to Interstate 85, and particularly the Prosperity Church Road interchange, will “substantially increase development pressure in that area.”
Commercial and residential development has already begun in earnest on the more densely populated Charlotte side of Eastfield, and Cambridge Properties is now developing the Huntersville Market small retail center on the Huntersville side, at Prosperity Church.
“Builders are coming in there and seeing a lot of opportunity because of 485, and that’s what is creating a feeding frenzy in this market,” said Jay Priester, vice president of development and leasing for Cambridge.
“There are so many possibilities opening up in that area because of the future interchange.”
The draft small-area plan, which Simoneau said is largely the result of three meetings the town held for property-owner and community input that together drew 200 people, has recommendations for four zones, working from west to east along Eastfield:
“We wanted to involve the citizens to come up with a plan so that when development picks up in the Eastfield area, we aren’t making ad-hoc decisions about whatever the issue is at the time,” Simoneau said.
“We wanted to rationally sit down and come up with a good plan, and I think we did.”
The Board of Commissioners will not take up the road study and small-area plan again until a 6:30 p.m. Jan. 6 meeting at Town Hall, 101 Huntersville-Concord Road, said town spokesman Bobby Williams.
Project meets resistance
In other action Monday night, the Huntersville Board of Commissioners heard presentations on the Courtyards at Huntersville by town planning staff member Whitney Hodges and by Craig Thomas, vice president of development and construction for Epcon Communities.
After noting the high quality of the detached, condominium-style patio homes being proposed by Epcon, and saying that Huntersville needs residential development for older adults, the staff report noted that the blocks lengths, the narrow streets, the non-recessed front-loading garages and the absence of street stubs connecting to nearby future development were all not in keeping with Huntersville 1996 zoning ordinance.
In his presentation, Thomas argued that his company’s research shows that its growing customer base wants many of the features the planning report objects to. Because Epcon is asking for a conditional zoning, the Board of Commissioners can grant exceptions to the zoning ordinance, though the staff report advises against it.
In addition to those issues, town board members and a few citizens attending the meeting expressed concerns about the impact of increased traffic on N.C. 73 at the intersection with Terry Lane. Hodges told the board that because age 55-plus communities do not generate as many daily and rush-hour car trips as a regular residential development, no traffic-impact analysis is necessary.
There was also discussion of the proposal to put sidewalks on only one side of the streets in the development when the zoning ordinance calls for two.
Two real estate agents working in Huntersville, a representative of the Norkett family that owns the land and several others spoke in favor of the Epcon plan, saying that Huntersville’s growing older population needed it if they were to stay in the community.
No petitions of protest have been filed against the project, and no significant criticism of the project was recorded at an earlier community meeting.
Mayor Swain joked, as she put on her bifocals, that she would soon be in the market for senior housing.
After Monday’s town board meeting, both Simoneau and Thomas said they are ready to negotiate their differences before the proposal goes to a meeting of the Huntersville Planning Board at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 26, and back to the Board of Commissioners at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 2.
But both men sounded as if they expected the other to make the first concession.
“It has to do with, how do you fit everything onto a site?” said Thomas, noting that Epcon has gotten similar communities approved in Cornelius, Stallings, Mooresville and Marvin.
“Widening the streets and adding sidewalks – how much land would that occupy? In order to do that we might have to lose some amenities – like the clubhouse – that we are committed to providing our customers. We have a financial model that works.”
Simoneau put the onus on Epcon, saying the company has compromised with the other towns in which it is developing similar subdivisions.
“We’re excited to see this kind of product coming into Huntersville; it is a beautiful product, and a product we obviously need,” Simoneau said.
“But it’s just a matter of them hiring an architect to tweak the project, to modify their floor plan, to put sidewalks on both sides. Since the zoning ordinance in 1996, 5,000 homes have been built in Huntersville, and every one of them that has a front-loading garage is set back 10 feet from the front of the house. This is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, so obviously our code works.”