LINCOLNTON – Lincoln County Commissioners officially denied First Class Autos, Inc., owned by Steve Taylor, a conditional use permit, which would have allowed the existing used car sales business to move into a larger building at 1598 N.C 16 Business N.

The request was initially denied 4-1 at the board’s Jan. 22 meeting, but after that vote was rescinded with the topic being tabled at that meeting, it was denied by a 3-2 vote  – with Commissioner Carrol Mitchem and Chairman Bill Beam supporting the project – on Feb. 5.

To turn down the zoning application, commissioners needed to adopt a statement detailing why they determined the request is inconsistent with the land use plan and why they decided it is  not reasonable or in the public’s interest.

Commissioners struggled to come up with the reasoning for the statement Jan. 22, but on Feb. 5 Commissioner Martin Oakes presented a motion to deny the conditional use permit because “it is not consistent with the comprehensive land use plan and other adopted plans within that plan.”

He explained that current land use guidelines designate the property in question as part of Lincoln County’s N.C. 16 Corridor Plan, which recommends business, like car sales, be concentrated in “nodes” rather than “sprawled” along N.C. 16 Business. The plan also recommends reducing the number of businesses that require outside or visible storage, including car lots, Oakes stated. Abiding by this plan, Oakes said, is reasonable and in public interest, which is grounds for denial.

But Mitchem, who has consistently endorsed approval of the permit, questioned how the county defines “outdoor storage.”

“Outside storage being what?” he asked. “But you can park trucks? That’s not equipment. The products being bananas, oranges or what?”

Lincoln County Zoning Administrator Randy Hawkins said outside storage is loosely defined as products for sale being kept outside.

“No products for sale?” Mitchem asked. “So that could be no animals, no produce, no cars, but yet there can be other equipment, as long as you’re not selling it, out there?”

Hawkins had a yes-no answer, stating that contractors aren’t permitted to use the space as a storage yard, but certain vehicles, no matter how clunky, can be parked there “as part of the business’s operation.”

Mitchem rattled off potential possibilities for future uses, and he seemed especially concerned with bulky equipment like trailers.

“I’ll tell you like we do people who call and ask these questions, ‘We don’t deal in hypotheticals,’” Hawkins said. “If we see a situation, we have to make decisions. We can get trapped in answering hypothetical questions.”

But Hawkins assured the boardroom that once commissioners make a decision regarding zoning, county staff enforce it. In fact, he said, one person has been fined within the year for improper use.

Mitchem was also wary of how the land use plan can be used to deny the case at the Feb. 5 meeting, but at the previous meeting, the board struggled to articulate a defense. Now, he said, the case has been “simplified” to “oh it doesn’t go with the land use plan.”

And though Beam initially voted against the permit in January, he ultimately decided to support it because the case brought some flaws in the system to light, in his opinion.

“This particular case has unearthed some deficiencies in overlay district (including N.C. 16 Business) and in the zoning regulations that we have,” he said. “It’s made it extremely difficult to look at this particular situation that could have been easily handled. ...We’ve got some sorting out to do.”

Beam said that through various conversations about the First Class Autos, Inc. case, he realized that what needs to be fixed shouldn’t work against this case, which was his justification for supporting it.

And to further his own point, Oakes said “through research” county staff found

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