What stagnant Red Line discussions means for Huntersville’s high-density development

Anticipated rail usage through the heart of Huntersville helped shape part of a Transit-Oriented Development policy now destined for reality-based adjustments. /Lee Sullivan

HUNTERSVILLE – Policies and procedures dominated discussions at the town board’s Jan. 18 meeting with one ordinance section targeted for change, one partial new guideline adopted and one current board practice facing a quasi-uncertain future.

Rail reference removal

Commissioner Derek Partee, citing a lack of “absoluteness” about passenger rail’s future, was the lone dissenter in a board vote to start removing part of the zoning ordinance containing specific reference – accompanied by development-limit exceptions – to rail transit stations.

On an issue raised by commissioners Rob Kidwell and Amber Kovacs, the board – following discussion about options, the ability to revisit the issue if commuter rail becomes “approved and funded” and how ordinance changes could impact property owners in current Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zones – voted 5-1 to initiate the prescribed amendment process.

The targeted topic is a town rule that removes limitations on apartments and mixed-use buildings within a quarter-mile of a “designated rail transit station.” The exception exists because high-density development near mass-transit facilities is a basic mobility objective.

However, if that mass-transit service – in this case, long-discussed but stagnant plans for the Charlotte Area Transit Service “Red Line” carrying light rail or commuter rail service on Norfolk-Southern tracks roughly following N.C. 115 – is not going to materialize, keeping development exceptions in the ordinance is, in Kovacs’ view, “reckless.”

The focal point was the Town Center downtown area, where two mixed-use projects with apartments are in development.

That section was in an illustration provided by Planning Director Jack Simoneau. It states the total number of “dwelling units contained in attached houses, apartment buildings and mixed-use buildings shall not exceed 30 percent of the total number of dwelling units in a project.”

But the next section – the one commissioners targeted – states that number is “not limited” near an anticipated rail station.

In explaining his opposition, Partee said he likes to “deal in absolutes” and didn’t want to make the change until it was clear rail service would never come.

Mayor Melinda Bales added she believed there was a current push to renew Red Line discussions, but was also the one suggesting a change with the option to revisit when, or if, rail service is “approved and funded.”

Social media, quasi-judicial

Calling for closer review of impacts to employees, the board, in a 3-3 vote with Bales breaking the tie, approved a scaled-back version of a policy regulating town-managed social media platforms. Several commissioners cited the need for a clearer understanding about the separation between private employee interactions and those that could be interpreted as representing the town.

A need for closer scrutiny was also the conclusion in pre-meeting discussion about the quasi-judicial procedure currently used to review many subdivision plans.

Commissioners had asked for a way to allow for more public input and non-courtroom-like conversations about issues, but they were also hesitant about removing subjective standards and the possibility of negotiations with developers that would accompany a proposed change to an administrative review process handled primarily by the town’s planning staff.

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