The Stallings Town Council unanimously voted this week to table a proposed moratorium on residential development after learning just hours before a Monday night meeting that such a move could raise the threat of litigation.
The council last month directed the town’s planning staff to draft a development moratorium ordinance to rein in a spike in the development of single-family subdivisions, particularly those with small lot sizes and high density. The council proposed the 15-month moratorium on considering new rezoning petitions on single-family projects that featured less than an acre and all multifamily development. That, the council said, would restrict development until the town’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan was updated.
But, according to industry insiders, the proposal would be in violation of state law.
North Carolina Home Builders Association Vice President J. Michael Carpenter told council members Monday morning in an email that state legislation enacted in 2011 removed the authority of cities and counties to suspend residential development for the purpose of amending and adopting a land-use plan.
The amendment to H.B. 332 states that “cities may adopt temporary moratoria on any city development approval required by law, except for the purpose of developing and adopting new or amended plans or ordinances as to residential uses.”
Carpenter pointed out that separate legislation, also enacted in 2011, created a statute that allows the court to award attorneys’ fees and costs to parties who successfully challenge the governing body’s action if the court also finds the action to be “an abuse” of discretion.
Reached after the meeting, Carpenter said he wasn’t aware of any local government in North Carolina having placed a moratorium on residential development since the N.C. General Assembly passed the laws.
“This legislation was intended to remove the authority of local governments to adopt moratoria affecting residential uses and it appears to have accomplished its intended purpose,” he said.
Charlotte-based Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition Executive Public Policy Director Joe Padilla also contacted the council Monday morning, citing the same concerns.
After the meeting, Padilla said he was heartened by the fact that the council had postponed a vote on the issue.
“We were confident that any residential moratorium would be illegal,” he said. “I hope they come to the same conclusion on the subject of litigation.”
Padilla has been a vocal opponent of moratoriums on development.
“You can’t just tell property owners, businesses, and developers that we’re shutting down your business while we develop a plan to grow,” he said. “Communities should always be planning to grow. It’s an ongoing process. Taking a break to update is poor planning.”
That hasn’t stopped governing bodies in South Carolina, which has separate laws on moratoria. Lancaster County this week extended by three months until Sept. 8 a moratorium on rezoning petitions for properties north of S.C. Highway 5. The county said it needs the time to further revise its unified development ordinance.
York County, faced with the increased traffic congestion and infrastructure demands brought on by rapid growth, is currently mulling the issue.
Stallings District 4 Councilwoman Shawna Steele said the town, which comprises less than 8 square miles, also faces another issue.
“We’re very limited with our space,” she said. “We want to get the highest and best use of our land.”
That, she said, means promoting commercial growth, which is more beneficial to the town’s tax base.
District 6 Councilwoman Deborah Romanow, who spent 12 years on the town’s planning board, agreed.
She said she tended to favor the moratorium in order to “take a breather” until the town can create a land-use plan to replace the one adopted in 2005. In February, the council approved the hiring of Centralina Council of Governments to prepare an updated population analysis and identify potential areas of residential and commercial growth.
As part of the deal, Centralina also will outline the town’s future public facility and transportation needs, and identify the town’s intersections and corridors most impacted by construction of the Monroe Bypass.
Romanow said the town needed to ascertain which pockets of limited available land should be reserved for the commercial projects. Residential growth, the town said, has caused overcrowding in schools and put a strain on roads and sewers.
According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Stalling’s population grew more than 8 percent between 2010 and 2014 to nearly 15,000 residents.
And that has brought higher density and smaller lots.
The last two years have brought seven such residential projects with smaller lot sizes than permitted under the town’s unified development ordinance. The 483 lots have an average size of 7,332 square feet and a density of 2.6 units per acre, the planning department said.
In just the past six months, the department has received four proposals for single-family projects and two requests to build multifamily units.
“We need to re-evaluate about where we want to put commercial,” Romanow said. “We want to catch our breath and be wise about the land we have left.”
Opportunities for commercial development exist on tracts at Stevens Mill and Stallings roads, Stevens Mill and Idlewild roads, and Chestnut Lane and Matthews-Weddington Road, she added.
Meanwhile, the issue of whether or not to pass a moratorium in the future appears up in the air.
“At the moment, the town is looking to evaluate our options,” said Mayor Pro Tem Regis Griffin. “We have some concerns over the way the ordinance was worded and if Stallings was doing the right thing.”
Griffin said the town has not rescheduled another vote on the issue.