HUNTERSVILLE – The town board’s April 15 meeting turned out to be much ado about nothing, with anticipated decisions on two previously discussed and debated projects rescheduled at the applicants’ requests. But the board’s work session three days earlier provides plenty of fuel for continued conversations.
On Monday, the planned continuation of a quasi-judicial special use permit hearing – and possible board decision – related to plans for a golf training academy and driving range along N.C. 73 near Bradford Park was deferred until the board’s May 20 meeting. During the hearing on the matter two weeks earlier, commissioners had asked for more details about the lighting plan for the facility. At that hearing, there was also opposition expressed by neighboring property owners and others affiliated with a sizable land conservation district that adjoins the acreage where the driving range is proposed.
Consideration of a ruling concerning a rezoning for a neighborhood proposed by Epcon Communities Carolinas was also scheduled, and subsequently delayed. Epcon is asking for 34 acres along Eastfield Road to be rezoned from a Rural designation to allow for an 85-lot, age-restricted single-family subdivision. That item was shifted to the board’s May 6 agenda.
At previous town board and planning board discussions about Epcon’s plan, the proposed density of the project and other specifics of the proposal’s design have been highlighted as drawbacks to approval.
The lack of action on Monday, however, was offset by the fast-paced and multi-topic conversations and conflicting opinions presented at the board’s April 12 work session.
A new town hall?
At the day-long work session – a combination budget preview, project update and planning prioritization process – the prospects for a new vision for downtown property was a featured topic.
Town Manager Anthony Roberts, adding to a presentation made at the end of the town’s annual retreat two months earlier, outlined details of a proposal to build an innovative town hall/community space facility on town-owned property in the southwest quadrant of the Gilead Road/N.C. 115 intersection.
The acreage, in front of the Town Center building that houses Discover Place Kids and some town offices, is diagonally across the intersection from the current 22-year-old, 9,000-square-foot town hall building. The concept presented by Roberts would include construction of a three-story, 33,000-square-foot building that would initially feature retail and office rental space along with town offices, but could eventually become a “life-time” home for town administrative operations.
His proposal would include the town borrowing about $9.5 million for the project with financing spread over a 20-year period. Rental income from first-floor retail space and third-floor office areas would be used to offset some of the early year expenditures. And Roberts and Mayor John Aneralla pointed out that if the project was pursued, the process would also likely include the sale of the current town hall site and adjacent property, along with the Bob Blythe Building (also built in 1997) a few hundred feet to the west along Gilead Road, to generate additional revenue.
The facility as proposed would include a large first-floor meeting space, which could also be reconfigured for smaller gatherings, with the second floor designated for town office use.
In his presentation, Roberts said the specific proposal was just an idea to consider, but the need for more municipal meeting and working space was a pressing issue.
“All I’ll tell you is you need a new town hall,” Roberts told commissioners. “It’s a board decision, but you need a new town hall at some point. You need to do it.”
Commissioners had varying opinions.
“No, hell no,” was Commissioner Danny Phillips response, citing other town needs as higher priorities. “We don’t need a new town hall.”
Commissioner Nick Walsh viewed it differently.
“Yes, we need a new town hall,” Walsh said.
Roberts and Commissioner Melinda Bales stressed the town’s current and anticipated growth as reasons for moving ahead with the project.
“Are we going to be proactive to the meet the need,” Bales said, “or continue to kick the can? I’ve never liked to just kick the can.”
Interim Police Chief Bence Hoyle, who was with the Huntersville Police Department in the 1990s when what is now the Blythe building was proposed to accommodate the department, provided an added perspective on preparing for and meeting growth expectations.
“We had trouble getting the Blythe building approved at that size,” Hoyle told commissioners. “When we moved in, we didn’t have a empty desk. And by 1999, we had desks in the halls.
“It’s incredible how you don’t think you’ll grow into it. At the time, they called it the ‘Taj Majal.’ But we grew into it, and outgrew it, quickly.”
Roberts has included the possibility of a new town hall project in his budget outline, but like all sections of the budget proposal, the subject is destined for additional board discussions.
No changes in election
An item not scheduled for more discussion in the immediate future is a change in the way commissioners are elected.
At the work session, with head nods, four of the six commissioners, with the mayor’s encouragement, agreed the time is not right to consider by-district representation and staggered four-year terms for town board seats. The decision halted a process that would have required public hearings and placement of an election-change referendum on the November ballot.
Walsh had introduced the idea of district representation and longer, staggered board terms at the town board retreat, and it was the subject of a board public hearing in early April that attracted no participants. At the work session, Walsh and Phillips were the only two commissioners in favor of continued review of the topic, and Phillips didn’t endorse the longer-term concept.
“I favor two-year terms,” Phillips said. “But for years and years, people on my side of town felt left out. I think the discussion needs to happen.”
Aneralla, describing the issue as “a solution looking for problem” reiterated his retreat and public hearing comments endorsing keeping the at-large procedures in place for all town elected officials.
Commissioners Brian Hines, Dan Boone and Mark Gibbons agreed, saying that at some point in the future there may be a need to consider changes – or there may be interest in change expressed by residents – but, as Hines said, “we’re not there yet.”
“I don’t think the system is broken,” Boone added.
Comprehensive plan project
At the work session, Planning Director Jack Simoneau mapped out expectations to invest $100,000 for consultant assistance and $10,000 for enhanced communication efforts encouraging public participation in a comprehensive plan update for the town.
Simoneau said the town’s last comprehensive plan was completed in 2011 and an update is needed. He expects to begin preparing an outline of the project this month and, working with a local steering committee of residents, hopes work can begin by late summer.
The comprehensive plan, Simoneau said, will examine a wide range of town topics, including land use, economic and commercial development, transportation, public systems and facilities, the expected and potential evolution of the downtown area and an emphasized examination of the town’s affordable housing options.
Growth and growth management and regional trends will also be highlighted topics in the anticipated comprehensive plan effort, which Simoneau said will concentrate on expectations for the town in the next five to seven years.
He said town staff will be fully engaged in the effort to mitigate some of the project’s costs and, unlike the previous comprehensive plan process, he expects a website dedicated to all details of the project will be included to enhance community participation and encourage feedback.
A survey asking residents to provide opinions on how the town has fared between 2011 and 2019 will also be included.
“As part of this,” Simoneau said, “We want to know how are we doing compared to where we were.”