The Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Monday voted no on a proposed 64-unit apartment project for working families, saying that the high-density zoning was inappropriate for the area and that traffic was already hazardous. The board's vote, coming after a public hearing that lasted more than two hours, killed a $7 million Housing Assistance Corp. project that had been years in the making and was intended to fill what many human services agencies have described as the most pressing need for working families in high-priced Henderson County.
An overflow crowd turned out at the Historic Courthouse to speak for and against the rezoning of 5.6 acres of mostly vacant wooded property on Pisgah Drive, a loop road just west of Laurel Park. The public hearing lasted more than two hours. Commissioners heard from 49 people, although 60 had signed up.
The board voted 2-1 to reject the rezoning. Commissioners Grady Hawkins and Larry Young voted yes on a motion to uphold a Planning Board recommendation to reject the rezoning. Messer voted no on the motion, saying he supported the rezoning because of the great need for affordable housing.
Hawkins echoed the sentiments of many opponents, saying a vote against the rezoning was not a vote against affordable housing or the HAC. The choice, Hawkins said, was about whether the development was consistent with the county's land-use plan.
"Although this has been portrayed in the media as a referendum on affordable housing, I would say that is not the question we are charged to deal with," Commissioner Grady Hawkins said. The board is charged with looking at whether the density is appropriate and whether the zoning change is safe. "There are other areas that you can look at now" allowing higher density housing. "I would think there are areas in Henderson County that's conducive to high-density occupation zones."
Noelle McKay, the executive director of the Housing Assistance Corp., said the board's vote kills the project and deals a devastating blow to the agency that had sunk time and money into the proposal.
"True to our word, we cannot proceed with the project and we will not be submitting an application," she said. "We're out for this funding cycle. There is not an opportunity to choose a different piece of property in this funding cycle.."
Asked about the impact on the agency, she said, "I would say that with any organization it becomes difficult when you invest several years of labor and funding into a particular project" and it dies in the end. "It is a hardship."
The board's vote came after commissioners resolved two procedural questions that could have changed the outcome. The board voted not to permit Commissioner Tommy Thompson, who was out of town, to participate in the meeting remotely by phone. And it also voted to recuse Commissioner Michael Edney from voting because his wife works for the company that manages the Laurel Park Place condo development.
Commissioner Larry Young said his visits to the area convinced him that Pisgah Drive could not handle the increased traffic.
Chairman Charlie Messer spoke in support of the rezoning and the project.
"I have people come to me every day talking about the price of land — $25,000 for an acre of land," Messer said. "If they don't have an heir giving them land they can't afford to live here. I guarantee you 50 percent of the people that work in Henderson County live outside Henderson County today.... I think this is an opportunity lost. You can look at what we have and we have an organization that's trying to build affordable housing.... Somewhere down the road, we got to work together."
Residents of Laurel Park Place and other surrounding property owners delivered a petition with more than signatures opposing the rezoning. Although more spoke in favor of the project than against it, commissioners Hawkins and Young focused on the increased traffic.
The development "adds 511 vehicles per day and the safety concerns have not been addressed," said John Crook of Laurel Park, who urged the board to send the request back to the HAC for adjustment.
David Cook, the executive director of the Interfaith Assistance Ministry, urged the board to allow the development of badly needed affordable housing for local working families. "One thing we see when we do the budget (for clients) is that they're spending more than half of their income on housing," he said.
Housing Assistance Corp. had applied in February to rezone 5.6 acres on Pisgah Drive from R-2 residential, which allows two units per acre, to office-institutional, which would allow a 64-unit complex of lower-cost rental apartments for working families. The Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend denial of the rezoning after neighbors objected based on a change in density from two to 12 units per acre and on traffic concerns.
A resident of Laurel Park Place said residents of the condo development east of the rezoning site unanimously opposed the development. When he asked the residents to stand, about 40 people stood; he said some 40 more were in the overflow room.
A manager with the Greensboro-based company that manages HAC's developments said the company has a "2 plus 1" rule, allowing two occupants per bedroom plus one more person — meaning three people in a one-bedroom apartment, five in a two-bedroom and seven in a three-bedroom. The management company also requires a criminal records and credit history check, she said.
"This apartment project meets a keen need for affordable housing in this area," said Brett Shaffer, president of the Housing Assistance Corp. for the past two years. The site received a perfect score from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, he said.
Chamber of Commerce President Bob Williford said the chamber's 27-member Board of Directors and its 20-member Government Affairs Committee had voted unanimously to support the project. "In talking to DOT, the number of units would not immediately trigger a traffic impact analysis but if traffic showed adjustment was needed" the department would study it again, he said.
Tea Party leader Jane Bilello opposed the rezoning.
"This small area of the county cannot absorb 64 units on 5.6 acres," she said. The project was an example of government "social engineering" that casts aside free market solutions to issues like lower-cost housing.
"I come from two places where I've seen this happen — New York and California — and the result is abysmal," she said.
Jim Howell, who grew up and lived in the area for 47 years, said the development is too dense for the neighborhood.
Evan Bracket, a resident of Housing Assistance Corp. apartment and agency board member, spoke in favor of the proposal.
Jay Clapp, a traffic engineer the HAC hired, said traffic counts at both Pisgah Drive entrances would go up a small amount. "The impact was very minor compared to existing (zoning) and no-build," he said.
Neither the eastern or western end of Pisgah Drive's intersections with U.S. 64 has a traffic light.
"Regardless of the merits for the subsidized housing, it will change the atmosphere, it will change the demographics of the people in the area," said Ryan Howell, who lives across Pisgah Drive from the property. "In addition to that ... I take this route every day on the way to work. If you watch, people are already cutting through the grocery store parking lot to get to the traffic light."
Commissioner Hawkins questioned Clapp's numbers, which he said appeared to suggest that only 35 people in the 64 units would be working. That's because not all would be working an 8-to-5 job, the engineer said. Clapp said the study made a traffic count of each turning movement at both Pisgah Drive intersections on U.S. 64 from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. and used the highest number to calculate peak traffic.
"Sixty-four units is not going to generate a tremendous amount of traffic," Clapp said.
DOT District Engineer Steve Cannon said the development was not big enough to trigger the requirement for a traffic study.
"When we received the proposed package for this site, we looked at the number of units," Cannon said. The three-quarters of a mile Pisgah Drive is deteroriated, he said, but not currently funded for repaving.
As for a stoplight at Pisgah Drive and U.S. 64, he said, accident statistics do justify a stoplight. But it's not hazardous enough to make the list of funded safety improvements. "It never actually developed a high enough need to get funded," he said.
The crash history compiled by the DOT showed that there had been one accident at the eastern end of Pisgah Drive and seven at the western end. "DOT is willing to take a look at the need for a signal again," Cannon said.
Commissioner Young said he had checked the area several times in the last month and found that both Pisgah Drive intersections are hazardous and that the road itself is too narrow for school buses and other traffic.
"That is a terrible place to try to get out of because you got two hills on either side," he said.
Hunter Marks, a landscape architect, land planner and former Housing Assistance Corp. board member, said: "In my professional opinion, this is a transitional area. It's not an urban area but it's not a rural area either. Growth is happening in Henderson County, like it or not. The question is not is it going to grow? The question is how are we going to channel that growth?"