Age-old land-use conflicts delay two major decisions in Cornelius

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//November 21, 2013//

Age-old land-use conflicts delay two major decisions in Cornelius

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//November 21, 2013//

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Cornelius developer Jake Palillo of Bluestream Partners argues that he cannot sell his 62 acres along Bailey Road in 5-acre chunks, as dictated by its current rural preservation zoning. He is asking the town to increase the density to one house per 2 acres, but also says changes to the area justify an even denser residential zoning. File photo by Tony Brown

CORNELIUS – The town’s Board of Commissioners on Monday voted unanimously to delay two related decisions, one on a new land-use plan and another on a rezoning request by a developer of a proposed residential subdivision.

Former Cornelius Mayor Gary Knox – a commercial real-estate broker representing several landowners in the Bailey Road area east of Old Statesville Road – testified that his clients were not satisfied that their concerns had been incorporated in the draft land-use plan and asked the board to delay its decision.

After the board voted in agreement with Knox, the commissioners next convinced developer Jake Palillo to request a deferment of a decision on his 62-acre Barnhardt development because his land is also along Bailey Road, which is outside the town’s limits but within its zoning jurisdiction. The commissioners and town officials told him the land-use plan could affect the board’s thinking about his proposal.

Much of the land in the Bailey Road area, which is home to Hough High and Bailey Middle schools, has been zoned rural preservation since the 1990s, which limits residential development to one house per 5 acres.

Knox and Palillo argue that much has changed since then that disqualifies the land as being truly rural, including an extension of the once dead-end Bailey Road to connect it to other Old Statesville Road feeder streets; the construction of the schools; the extension of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department water and sewer lines; and the construction of a park – all elements of denser development.


A changing landscape

The new land-use plan, drafted by a consulting firm, the town’s planning department and the Cornelius Planning Board with input from the public, proposes that the land now be zoned to accept more dense development, up to one unit per 2 to 3 acres.

Some landowners, such as Joan Boon, who testified Monday, say that proposal is too dense for their liking. Boon said she bought property in the Bailey Road area years ago because of the forested nature of the land and wants to see it stay that way.

Boon characterized the push for zoning change in the area as being motived by “the profits of the few – is that fair?”

But Knox, representing several other property owners, took umbrage at that characterization of his clients. He said the proposed density increase is not enough to make sense financially for his clients, whose property taxes have risen because of the changes in the area but who cannot sell their land because developers need more density to turn a profit on a project.

Nor, Knox said, is the proposed density in keeping with other public policy issues such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ desire to promote walkability near its schools, CMUD’s desire to lower costs by connecting as many customers as possible to its line extensions in the area, and the public health and ecological consequences of residents continuing to use septic tanks and well water. Both outdated practices, he said, are promoted by lower density zonings.

Finally, he said, the nearby towns of Davidson and Huntersville, whose jurisdictions intersect near the Bailey Road area, allow residential development at more than one unit per acre.

“My clients have been sentenced to a down-zoning, when there are so many other tools in the toolbox other than zoning to resolve these differences and approach these issues,” Knox said in an interview after the meeting.

“A lot of people regard the down-zoning as a taking, a condemnation. This kind of stuff deserves to be put into the land-use plan consideration. The (decision-making) track we’re on is not really allowing for that broader education. We need more time and study.”

In response to both sides of the issue, Commissioner David Gilroy, a vocal denser-development critic, said at Monday’s meeting that he wasn’t sure everybody – or even anybody – could be fully satisfied.

“There’s an irreconcilability to it all, if that’s a word,” Gilroy said. “This is about as hard as it gets. I don’t think they can be fully reconciled.”

Outgoing Mayor Lynette Rinker, who is running for a seat in the N.C. General Assembly, had a more hopeful point of view, saying she thinks the town can come up with a way to preserve “the rural character” of the area, help resolve the financial plights of landowners who want to sell and promote healthy growth for the town.

Cornelius Planning Director Wayne Herron emphasized that the land-use plan is a long-range planning document and not a set-in-stone zoning ordinance, although a new version of that, too, will be coming up before the Board of Commissioners, after the land-use plan is approved.

“We are busy this week setting up meetings with those property owners (represented by Knox) to make sure we hear from them,” Herron said in an interview after the meeting.

“These are big issues, for the property owners and for the town’s future, and this has been a conflict for some time on the east side. As Mr. Gilroy said, this is not an easy decision. Both sides should be respected. I hope we come to some middle ground, but I’m not sure there is one.”

Asked about some of Knox’s arguments, Herron said he had no opinion one way or the other, but “from a planning standpoint,” he agreed with many of the former mayor’s assessments.

“Where you have infrastructure – improved roads, utilities, schools, parks, bike lanes – you want a little more density. You have invested money, and you need a little density to afford that. We all pay into CMUD for the cost of extending utilities. When the customer base is low, the price escalates. Density can lower costs.

“As far as (Knox’s points about) the schools, I am so glad CMS has that (walkability) policy. Schools are often central building blocks for neighborhoods from a planning standpoint; neighborhoods can develop around them.”


Palillo still on hold

After voting to delay a decision on the land-use plan so that more public input from residents can be gathered and incorporated into it, the board next turned to Palillo and his fourth plan since buying his land in 2007 to develop the forested acreage into what he calls a financially viable development.

Palillo has previously argued many of the same points brought up by Knox. He also says the town owes him a break because he bought his land as part of an agreement with the town to extend Bailey Road in exchange for the town’s approval of his nearby Baileys Glen senior living subdivision. The town wanted Bailey Road extended to connect with Barnhardt Road to satisfy an N.C. Department of Transportation requirement allowing the two much-needed schools to be built. The towns of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville all contributed money to get the schools built, Knox said.

Palillo wants to change the zoning from one unit per 5 acres to one unit per 2 acres, but he has argued that even that increase in density is not really enough to help him develop and sell the land at a profit.

He appeared set to argue many of the same points Monday, at first balking at the Commissioners’ request to delay a decision until after the land-use plan is honed and adopted.

“I’ve been at this for six years and I just want to get out of here; I’m going to lose anyway,” the outspoken Palillo said during the meeting.

But after some of the commissioners, the mayor, Herron and other town officials told him deferring might help his case, Palillo reluctantly agreed to a delay.

“I have no choice, do I?” Palillo asked, and left the meeting shortly afterward.

The land-use plan will again come before the Board of Commissioners at its next scheduled meeting, at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 in town hall, 21445 Catawba Ave.

Action on Palillo’s Barnhardt subdivision was deferred until Jan. 6, 2014.

For more information on the draft of the town’s new land-use plan, go to, click on Your Government and follow the links to Departments, Planning & Zoning and Land Use.

For more information on the Barnhardt proposal, follow the same procedure to Planning & Zoning, but click on Projects instead of Land Use.

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