DENVER – A large portion of the Denver community’s small businesses are concentrated along N.C. 16, and because regulations weren’t in place until 25 year ago, a number of traffic, aesthetic and zoning conflicts have arisen since, including a recent debate about a car dealership that resulted in it being denied. Moving forward, especially as east Lincoln continues to grow, honing in on a vision for the highway has become imperative.
According to Zoning Administer Randy Hawkins, there were no zoning laws for the N.C. 16 area until 1993 when the land use plan was adopted, and by that time, a significant number of businesses had already taken root on N.C. 16.
“Like many areas in North Carolina, development had occurred on a lot by lot basis,” Hawkins said. “And you ended up with a business with its own driveway, a business with its own driveway, a business with its own driveway, instead of any planned development.”
Traffic-wise, Hawkins said, that created an unfavorable situation because to visit one business and go to another, people have to get back on the highway.
And even after some zoning regulations were put in place, there were no other guidelines to help create a long-term, comprehensive plan for N.C. 16 until 2009 when the Unified Development Ordinance was established.
“A lot of businesses and buildings pre-date 1993, and then others were constructed before 2009,” Hawkins said.
And because of that, some buildings are grandfathered, which doesn’t require the owner of the property to bring the building up to current standards.
Current issues, state of zoning on N.C. 16
Steve Taylor opened First Class Autos, Inc. 15 years ago in an existing building on N.C. 16, which is owned by someone other than himself. To expand his used-car sales business and purchase a building, Taylor recently sought a conditional use permit for a building further up the road.
The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners denied Taylor’s request because it is inconsistent with the land use plan, but the process left a number of things unclear for Taylor.
“My big concern is them changing the rules that so grandfathered (buildings) don’t count,” Taylor said.
The building Taylor wanted to move in to was grandfathered in, meaning it shoudn’t have to be upfitted to meet various county guidelines.
Taylor said changing a building’s facade to meet certain regulations isn’t in some small-businesses owners’ budgets.
“The way I see it,” Taylor said, “is you have lot of small-business owners, and when it comes time for them to sell it, it’ll cost $40,000, $50,000, $100,000 to upfit it.”
As a small-business owner, Taylor predicts that because of the high cost of renovating a building until it reaches the recommended beautification standards, buildings will either sit empty for long periods of time or small businesses owners and land owners will be forced to sell their property at incredibly discounted prices so the incoming owner can do the upfitting.
Taylor also said zoning standards for N.C. 16 aren’t exactly clear. The N.C. 16 Corridor Vision Plan, for example, states that commercial businesses should be concentrated in nodes rather than sprawled along N.C. 16, but Taylor said it’s difficult to know what is or isn’t considered a node.
“The two corners at Unity Church and (N.C.) 16, right now, I can buy either one or both (for my business),” Taylor said. “There are four car lots right there, so is that an acceptable node? I don't know.”
And though he hasn’t had many complications with his current space, he believes there’s room for improvement along N.C. 16.
Lincoln County commissioners Martin Oakes and Richard Permenter have been heavily involved in strengthening the vision for N.C. 16 as it pertains to the land use plan, as the two have been working with county staff to make suggestions.
Oakes said the land use plan is still under review, but the idea is to improve the look of the whole road, and suggest guidelines that might make improvements, like road projects, more viable.
If new businesses are required to be built further from the road than currently permitted, it will be easier for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to come in and widen N.C. 16 to alleviate some traffic concerns, Oakes said.
And with new guidelines potentially to come, the concept of grandfathering resurfaces.
Oakes said land use and zoning laws allow for existing buildings to be “somewhat grandfathered.”
“We have discovered if the use (of the building) changes significantly, grandfather status expires,” Oakes said. “And if an owner expands the building by more than 25 percent, it expires.”
These caveats are outlined in state statute and through the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, respectively, he said.