HUNTERSVILLE – The protestors who live in the partly dilapidated neighborhood that a church-affiliated group wants to help showed up at a Board of Commissioners meeting Monday to say they don’t want the kind of help the nonprofit group wants to give.
But the controversy was trumped by an announcement by Earl Runcan, executive director of One More Neighborhood, that the proposed “enterprise center” his group wants to build on the edge of the Huntington Green area might be jeopardized by restrictive deed covenants on the four land parcels that comprise the 0.9-acre site.
After the Huntersville Planning Department gave a largely favorable report, Runcan presented his plan, and the protestors applauded their vociferous representatives, Runcan asked the Board of Commissioners to extend the public hearing on his group’s rezoning request for the enterprise center and defer its decision until April, about three months later than scheduled.
Runcan said he needed the time to try to unravel what he called “the mysterious” 1967 deed restrictions, which apparently require a 40-foot setback from both Hambright and McCoy roads for anything built on the vacant parcels.
If One More Neighborhood cannot figure out how to lift the restrictions, Runcan said after his presentation, the group might have to alter its plans for the 12,000-square-foot enterprise center.
Runcan also told the six commissioners and Mayor Jill Swain that no matter what happens to the enterprise center, One More Neighborhood remains committed to its principal focus in Huntington Green: Buying up vacant lots and abandoned mobile homes, constructing affordable, Habitat for Humanity-style homes and selling them at subsidized prices to residents who now rent one of the 350 or so homes in the area, almost all of which are trailers.
“We’ve counted 60 properties that are vacant or have abandoned trailers on them in Huntington Green, and we are proud to announce that we have just bought our first of what we expect will be many properties,” Runcan told the board. “And, eventually, we would also like to build a community center.”
One More Neighborhood needs nobody’s permission to buy up homes in the area, which is all zoned general residential – including Tesh’s Grocery store, which has sat at Hambright and McCoy since 1982 and was grandfathered-in when the town created its zoning ordinance 14 years later.
None of the residents of Huntington Green at Monday’s meeting criticized One More Neighborhood for the rehab part of its plan for the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood is changing, and I would like to see it change for the better,” resident Melba Adams said. “Mr. Runcan wants to do new houses like Habitat, and I agree with that.”
About 1,800 people live in the neighborhood, according to the 2010 census, about half-and-half Hispanic and white, along with a small percentage of African-American and Asian residents. The census also shows the median household income in Huntington Green to be far below the region’s average.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department sewer and water lines reach only a few of the residences; most have septic systems and draw water from private or community wells. The streets have little in the way of sidewalks and streetlights.
In an interview, Huntersville Planning Director Jack Simoneau said Huntersville building-code enforcement officers spend much of their time ─ up to 20 percent ─ in Huntington Green, citing “minimum housing-code” violations of structural standards: broken windows, faulty roofing, dilapidated structures and “anything that poses a safety issue.”
Few of the residences are owner-occupied and there is no neighborhood association.
But like the four other neighbors who spoke at the meeting, Adams said that as much as she supported One More Neighborhood’s efforts in theory, she was worried that the enterprise center would create too much traffic and could possibly become a gathering place for criminals if it were to fail and close.
The enterprise center, which would also have a 32-space parking lot, would have a first floor housing a 3,000-square-foot, two-bay garage capable of minor auto repair; and a laundromat, snack shop and thrift store, each measuring about 1,500 square feet. One More Neighborhood administrative staff and a small-business incubation center would be on a 6,000-square-foot second floor.
The idea, Runcan told the commissioners Monday, would be to provide basic services that are not now available; to train residents who would work at the enterprise center to be mechanics and retailers; and to help them market themselves with a resume-writing service.
“We’ve already started the resume service, and to date we have placed three people in jobs,” Runcan said.
Mike Clark, who lives near the site of the proposed enterprise center, was not impressed.
“I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but the people there could not care less,” Clark said. “I bet it will be vacant in a year, and there will be all kinds of comers and goers.
“And the traffic. I can’t hardly get out of my drive unless somebody is courteous enough to let me out. A lot of people don’t understand a four-way stop like we have there.”
Runcan responded by saying that the enterprise center will be supported by contributions, fund-raising events and an endowment, not just by revenues.
Although One More Neighborhood operates as a separate nonprofit, it is affiliated with Lake Forest Church, which draws 1,500-2,000 congregants to its large campus in Huntersville and its satellite in Davidson. Another campus will soon launch in Denver. The church has a record of community outreach ministries.
Others attacked Runcan personally.
“Earl can talk a good game, but doing it is another thing,” said Huntington Green resident Randy Smith. “He’s pitting everybody against each other to get what he wants.”
Smith was apparently referencing a report Runcan filed with the town about an Aug. 29 community meeting about the enterprise center project, which said: “There is a big divide in the neighborhood between the long-time (white residents) and (newer) Hispanics living in the neighborhood. The Huntington Green residents in attendance see any/all efforts in the neighborhood as helping the Hispanics, not them.”
All of the protestors at Monday’s meeting were white. No Hispanics attended.
“The Hispanics are very hesitant to show up and speak … because they don’t want to make waves in the neighborhood and cause more ill feelings,” Runcan said after the meeting.
“Others who are renting fear their landlords would deal harshly with them, as some do, even to the point of threatening legal action for the undocumented immigrants. For most it’s all about survival, and ‘live and let live.’”
If the residents who have filed official petitions of protest against the enterprise center do not withdraw them, One More Neighborhood will need a supermajority of the Board of Commissioners to vote to rezone the site.
After the smoke and dust had cleared, Runcan asked for more time to investigate the deed covenants.
After the meeting, Runcan said: “Here’s how the paragraph that really concerns us is written: ‘No business structure shall be placed or erected on the aforesaid lots nearer the front lot line than 40 feet nor nearer the side lot lines than five feet nor nearer a side street line than 10 feet.’
“This restriction definitely conflicts with the current town ordinance for setbacks, so we really need to get clarification from all parties to know exactly what we are faced with and whether or not we can proceed as planned.”
The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to leave the public hearing open and to defer a decision until April. On Commissioner Sarah McAuley’s recommendation, the board stipulated that the plan not go to the town’s planning board until it appears again before the Board of Commissioners.