Development Beat: Planning Commission Report

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

At the close of their meeting Tuesday, Planning Commission Chairman Steven Schuster announced gleefully, “We’ve successfully deferred everything on our agenda — that’s a record, and I want to set it as a goal moving forward.”

The feasibility of this remains to be seen, but it’s not as if the Commission had a huge agenda to get through — one new zoning case, and two proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan.

The new rezoning case, Z-6-16, was for a 7.72 acre parcel of land in North Raleigh located approximately at 9501 Leesville Road. The developer, Halpern Enterprises, is seeking to rezone the parcel from Residential-4 & 6 to Neighborhood Mixed Use. This would allow Halpern to build a 63,000 square foot shopping center anchored by a 50,000 square-foot grocery store.

A site plan drawing for the site

Halpern Enterprises

A site plan drawing for the proposed shopping center

I reached out to Charles Worthen, who was at Tuesday’s meeting but very understandably left before I did to see if he could tell me what grocer would be anchoring the center.

For some reason, the name of the anchor grocer for any new shopping center is almost always treated like it’s the nuclear launch codes; while I didn’t hear back from Worthen, another employee with the firm told me a final decision on the grocer hadn’t been reached yet. Even though the project has been in the works for more than a year.

In fact, hard-core rezoning fans might recall another case that was submitted just last year, Z-14-15, which called for the same rezoning classification for the exact same kind development — square footage and all — at the exact same location. The case was withdrawn in January.

When Z-14 was working its way through the process, neighbors speculated that the grocery anchor would be a Publix. On its website, Halpern prominently displays both Publix and Kroger as clients, so this rumor wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility.

The very next slide is for a Publix!

The very next slide is for a Publix!

The only real difference between the old case and the new one is that the new one has a much longer list of conditions placed on the property. Both cases, for instance would have banned uses such as gas stations, car dealerships and prisons, capped the size of the center at 63,000 SF and limited the hours of operation for its retailers.

The new case, Z-6, has an additional 10 conditions, which do things like restrict the location of the dumpsters and prohibit delivery trucks from entering off Old Leesville Road. One of the conditions goes on for nearly 400 words about building a wall. It’s unclear whether Halpern is consulting with the Trump Organization on this development.

These additional conditions appear to be the result of strong community feedback from local neighbors and the Northwest Citizens Advisory Council, which voted overwhelmingly 63-16 against the case in a meeting it held last June. 

At Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, in fact, the only two neighbors who spoke during the public comment section were in favor of the project.

Jerry Cram, president of the HOA for the nearby Draymoor Manor townhome development, said he was impressed with the lengths the developers had gone to to accommodate the neighbors’ concerns.

“They’ve gone above and beyond what’s required to assuage our fears and lessen the impact,” Cram said.

“The development of this particular piece of property is inevitable; we would do well not to assume an adversarial relationship with this company, because they’re bending over backward to try and help us.

“If this development is unsuccessful, who knows who we might be dealing with in the future.”

Cram also referenced the classified nature of the anchor grocer when discussing some of Halpern’s accommodations to the neighborhood, noting that while “this secret grocery store” wanted to put in a drive-thru window, Halpern had told the grocer this wouldn’t be an option.

While there were no members of the public who spoke against the project at Tuesday’s meeting, buzzkill City staffers were on hand to point out that, accommodating or not, the development was inconsistent with the City’s Future Land Use Map.

The blue dot indicates where the proposed shopping center in Z-14-15 would go. The red dots indicate existing grocery stores.

Bing Maps

The blue dot indicates where the proposed shopping center in Z-6-15 would go. The red dots indicate existing grocery stores.

According to an annual report presented to the Planning Commission following discussion of Z-6, City Council approved a total of seven inconsistent cases in 2015.

In the case of Z-6, the property is designated for a mix of office and residential development; not a shopping center.

Michael Birch from Morningstar Law pointed out that a number of the properties on the west side of Leesville Road were presently designated NX.

“We’ve argued that a more appropriate place to locate retail in this area is not along the west side of Leesville Road; it’s small lots, shallow lots, narrow lots.”

Instead, Birch said, retail should be placed closer to the intersection of Leesville and Strickland, where the property for Z-6 is located.

The case was deferred by Planning Commissioners in order to give the applicant time to add a few more conditions to the property.

Annual Report

As Z-6 was the only case Commissioners had on the agenda, its deferral was followed by the Commission’s annual report, presented by Charles Dillard, a planner with the City.

Dillard started off noting the speedy progress made with action items related to the City’s Comprehensive Plan: they started off with 550 when the plan was approved, and there are 363 now remaining. 33 were completed in 2015.

In the past year, Dillard said, City Councilors had heard a total of 47 rezoning cases. Of the 44 that were approved, seven were inconsistent. The three that were not approved were consistent and denied for other reasons.

In addition, Dillard said there were a total of 13 text changes in 2015, seven of which were initiated by staff, four by citizen petition and two by City Council.

If you’re interested in a specific breakdown of the presentation, Dillard was kind enough to send over a copy of the PowerPoint Presentation. We turned it into a PDF you can view here. 

Before moving on to the two comprehensive plan amendments on the agenda, Planning Commissioner Eric Braun posed a good question for staff: by approving those inconsistent cases, was Council essentially authorizing changes to the Comprehensive Plan?

The City’s Planning Director Ken Bowers said this depends on how inconsistent a particular case was.

“Although we haven’t internally discussed [Z-6], that would be enough of a change, from office to 63,000 square feet of retail, so that if it goes through Council and gets approved, it’s a significant policy shift in terms of what the appropriate land use is for that area, and it may bring a change to the Future Land Use Map to bring it in line with what was done with the land,” Bowers explained.

Comprehensive Plan Amendments

A mislabeling of the two Comprehensive Plan amendments on the agenda led to a brief moment of confusion for councilors, and an extended period of confusion for yours truly.

The first amendment, CP-2, had to do with targeted economic development zones; which seemed awfully familiar to an updated map of targeted economic development zones Council had approved just last week.

Commissioner Adam Terando noted that since the map had already been vetted by Council, he was OK with it, but said there should be a provision that the map is updated every few years to reflect changing conditions within the City.

Staff will add in the conditions relating to map updates and come back to the Commissioners with those changes.

Now: why was Planning Commission hearing an amendment that was already approved by Council? I vaguely understood, but when it came time to write this, I figured the least I could do was pick up the phone and find out if I was right.

Planning Commission Chairman Steven Schuster confirmed for me that, essentially, the Council had approved a text change, but the Comprehensive Plan still needed to be updated. Schuster said I should probably check with someone else in case he was wrong.

I was lucky enough to get Ken Bowers on the phone, who explained it this way:

“The adopted policy included the map; it did not amend the Comprehensive Plan. Staff wants to put the map in the Comprehensive Plan so there’s not conflicting maps out there.”

Once Planning Commissioners have voted whether to recommend approval of the amendment, City Council approval will be required.

CP-1 was described as essentially being “the formal adoption of the amendment to accept the alterations that were just included in the annual progress report.” If you still remember how today’s column started off, you won’t be surprised to find out this amendment was also deferred.

A Sad Event That’s A Celebratory Event

Before closing out the meeting, Steven Schuster took a minute to say goodbye to Lemuel Whitsett, who’s resigning from the board.

“We are losing one of our members; that’s always a sad event, but in this case it’s a celebratory event,” Schuster said.

“Why doesn’t our commission member announce why he’s putting other priorities in front of us?” Schuster joked.

Whitsett laughed and said he and his wife are expecting their first child in three weeks and that something had to give.

“Unfortunately my time with the Commission is what’s winding up on the chopping block,” he said.

“We appreciate your service, and can’t think of a better reason to spend time elsewhere,” said Schuster.

Although Councilor Russ Stephenson had nominated one Steve Smith to fill Whitsett’s spot at last week’s Council meeting, Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin had noted she wanted more women on the commission.

“It’s important to have a second choice — we have almost all men on the Planning Commission, and I have a real problem with that lack of diversity,” Baldwin said.

Of the ten commissioners on the board before Whitsett’s departure, two are women: Veronica Alcine and Tika Hicks.