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Wednesday, 03 October 2007 00:00

The new face of Waynesville: Town’s land use plan holds firm under pressure

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When Doug Anderson unfurled the blueprints for his latest assignment — a new Bojangles’ going up in Waynesville — he was expecting the same cookie-cutter design as the last 10 Bojangles’ his construction company built.

But instead he found something quite different. This plan called for a tree-lined entrance drive, a façade of stacked stone, and glass block windows along the back half of the building typically left blank.

“We tell everyone this Bojangles’ is the bomb,” said his partner, Ian Zabower, as the two put finishing touches on the Bojangle’s awning last week.

The fancy looking Bojangles’ is exactly what Waynesville town leaders hoped to see more of when they passed a comprehensive slate of development guidelines four years ago. The guidelines send one main message to developers: if you want to build here, it has to look nice.

While town residents may be enjoying the new look of landscaped parking lots and the stacked stone that’s rapidly becoming a signature of Waynesville architecture, the guidelines have led to mild grumbling by some commercial developers and outright threats from others not to come here. Rumors that the land-use plan has deterred business has some town board candidates attacking it and calling for its overhaul.

“It may look good on paper but it doesn’t work in the real world,” said Russell “Ty” McLean, a candidate for the town board. “I think many provisions of this land-use plan need to be completely rewritten or we just need to come up with an entire new land-use plan that makes more economic and common sense.”

McLean said the guidelines are so restrictive they are driving away businesses. McLean said he knew of “at least 100 jobs” lost as a result of the land-use plan. When asked for specific examples, however, McLean had only two — Walgreens drug store and a bank he didn’t know the name of.

Several candidates had similar claims as McLean.

“We’ve lost a lot of businesses that have said ‘Well, we aren’t coming into Waynesville because we have to build our building such and such,” said Alderman Kenneth Moore. “I’ve heard people talk, asking why didn’t so-and-so come in. They say the land-use plan was too strict.”

But like McLean, Moore was short on examples other than Walgreens, which so far is the only concrete example any of the land-use opponents have managed to come up with.

Nonetheless, it seems to be a common perception.

“I think it does prevent some businesses from coming to town, especially the smaller ones,” said Hugh Phillips, a candidate for mayor. “I don’t have any examples, but I feel like a smaller business might not be able to do it.”

On the front lines of the land-use plan, the town’s planning staff tasked with working with developers paint a much different picture.

“As far as I know, nothing has definitely not been built here because of our land development plan,” said Paul Benson, the town planner.

 

The land-use tango

It’s easy to see how the notion is propagated that the town’s guidelines are driving away business. Every couple of months it seems, a commercial developer makes a big fuss about the land-use plan, calls it impossible and threatens not to come here.

“They come in and float this idea and act like it makes them mad and threaten to walk away,” said Byron Hickox, a town zoning officer. “They try to guilt us, they try to intimidate us, all these different tests they go through, and finally the bottom line is if they want to be here they’ll do what we ask them to do and they’ll be here and be making money.”

Recently, developers of a new Super Wal-Mart and Home Depot shopping center submitted plans for three smaller chain stores that would line the periphery of the complex. The developers knew the drill so well, they didn’t bother showing up for their first meeting with the town’s community appearance commission. They knew their plans would be rejected, but it seems they first had to go through the motion of submitting the chain store’s standard design and getting it denied. Then they could go back to their corporate bosses and get permission to pursue something different, Hickox surmised.

“I think they were going to float this idea and see if we bit or not,” Hickox. To those unseasoned at the game, the scenario could be constructed as the town running off business — and was even reported on TV news in that context — but that’s not the case, Hickox said. They have simply gone back to the drawing board.

“I have never felt there was not a way to reach agreement and compromise with any developer that came before the board,” said Alderwoman Libba Feichter, a strong champion of the town’s guidelines.

Nonetheless, Feichter has heard her share of rumors about businesses being run off.

“I do know there have been instances where someone who wanted to develop a piece of property said ‘We’re not doing it. We will not acquiesce to those requirements,’” Feichter said. But when asked for a concrete example, Feichter said she only knew of one.

Charles Miller, a town board candidate that supports most elements of the land-use plan, has heard the same rumors, but didn’t know whether to believe them.

“I have thought a whole lot about businesses walking away and the town losing the property tax and the sales tax revenue and also the jobs. I am concerned if we are running any off,” Miller said. But Miller admitted he didn’t know of any.

Mayor Henry Foy is the only candidate who’s confident that the town’s land-use plan hasn’t cost the town a single business.

“No one has ever told me one that has walked away,” Foy said.

The front man for the development — whether it’s McDonald’s or Walgreens — claims his corporate office won’t deviate from the company prototype.

“These business coming into Waynesville with cookie-cutter plans don’t like it and they jump up and down,” said Foy. “When they leave, we get on the Internet and find buildings they have done other places that are nice looking and would be adaptable to what we require. But for some reason they bring in these cookie-cutter designs and say it is a company policy.”

McLean, a leading opponent of the land-use plan among the town board candidates, disagrees with the town’s cavalier attitude.

“The town planning department told me that they don’t care that these business are leaving town because they will be back in a few years begging to come in,” McLean said. “That’s not how it works. They move on and focus on expanding stores in other areas.”

But Alderman Gavin Brown, who is running for the seat of mayor, has seen it happen again and again. A business claims the town’s guidelines are impossible. A couple years later, the business is opening its doors to customers.

“The seasoned developers are well aware of these land design standards. They want the register to go ‘ca-ching, ca-ching’ and they know it will,” Brown said.

Scott Vanacore, a developer of strip malls in Florida with a second-home in Waynesville, let the town in on a little secret developers would rather not get out. The whining and complaining is just part of the game. While businesses will balk, rest assured Waynesville’s not the first town with such rules. In the coastal Florida town where Vanacore lives, commercial buildings have to meet one of four architectural styles.

“I think it is very important that Waynesville maintains its integrity of what it is — a small mountain town,” Vanacore said. “I would think the code is in place to protect that small hometown feeling. They have to stick to their guns and keep Waynesville what it is.”

Sticking to the town’s guns is difficult, however, said Alderman Kenneth Moore. Moore doesn’t like it when businesses come before the board complaining about the land-use plan. In fact, Moore dislikes it so much, he no longer supports the land-use plan, despite voting for it four years ago.

“You read the land-use plan and think ‘Well that’s not too bad,’” Moore said. But when a business owner is actually standing in front of you talking about their hardships with the guidelines, it’s a different story.

“I think a business, when they come in, they should have the right to build their building the way they want to and do their parking the way they want to and not make them do what we want them to do,” Moore said.

 

Running off business

One of McLean’s examples contributing to his “100 lost jobs” estimate is a bank he didn’t know the name of, but had heard about on the street.

“Within the past couple weeks, a bank had been looking into a piece of property on Russ Avenue that they really liked. However, after reviewing the town ordinances on what they would have to do with their business they decided that they were no longer going to be looking at that piece of property,” McLean said.

According to town planning staff — the first stop for a business interested in coming to town — there have been no inquiries by a bank interested in property on Russ Avenue. Typically, if a developer is truly interested, they will at least meet with town planners, pitch their idea and ask for exemptions. It’s rare a serious developer would walk away without at least asking first.

Others rumors cited by candidates ranged from Red Lobster to Taco Bell, but none are substantiated. The town planning staff has no record of these businesses ever approaching the town. With others, it’s hard to tell why they may have bowed out for now.

“When someone asks about developing and you tell them the requirements, and then you don’t hear from them, you don’t know why,” Benson said.

That’s currently the case with Walgreens, Benson said. Walgreens was considering property on Russ Avenue — namely the corner lot beside Rite-Aid and the neighboring lot with an abandoned white house. The Walgreens developers met with Benson and he reviewed the town’s standards.

Walgreens had one major issue: it didn’t want to put its parking to the side or rear of the building as the land-use plan requires. The land-use plan requires building facades, not parking lots, to flank the street and define the visual landscape. But most businesses don’t like that, including Walgreens. Benson said he told Walgreens the town was willing to work with them. They had a good case for a hardship exemption. A large power line right of way ran across the property, limiting where the building could actually go. But they didn’t take up Benson’s offer.

“They sort of went away and we didn’t hear any more from them,” Benson said. There was probably something else wrong with the site rather than the town’s land-use plan, but that’s what’s getting blamed, Benson said.

“Other parties since said it was because of that requirement, but I don’t know for a fact that was the reason. I think it would be hard-pressed for anybody to say that,” Benson said.

The town doesn’t know Walgreens has walked just because they haven’t been heard from them for a few months.

“They’ll be back here, I’m not worried,” Foy said.

That’s what happened with McDonald’s last year. McDonald’s wanted to overhaul its dated Russ Avenue location. At the developer’s first meeting the town, they had no sooner unrolled their plans when town planning staff launched into a laundry list of problems with the design. McDonald’s rolled up their plans, literally walked out, and wasn’t heard from for months. Eventually, they came back knocking.

Earlier this summer, the town faced complaints from Ingle’s over the land-use plan. The store wanted to build a gas station along the entrance drive to its grocery store on Russ Avenue. The town’s land-use plan would require the facade of the convenience store to flank the entrance drive with the gas pumps positioned to the side or rear.

Ingle’s complained the guidelines simply weren’t doable. It wanted its pumps in front along the street. But Ingle’s is still at the drawing board, Benson said, considering a different location within its Russ Avenue complex that is likely the better option anyway.

 

1,000 pound gorilla

For Alderman Gavin Brown, Super Wal-Mart and Home Depot are the only proof he needs that the land-use plan is working. If Super Wal-Mart will do it, anyone can do it. But as usual, the town’s first meeting with the developers didn’t start out so well.

“It started out as a list of 56 things that weren’t going to work,” Hickox said. “It got whittled down to 16 then down to five.”

After being sent back to the drawing board by the town’s community appearance commission, the developers asked their architects to come up with a new design. But first, they went on a tour of the town with local engineer Patrick Bradshaw to see examples of the type of architecture the town wanted. They returned with a design featuring stacked stone columns and wooden timbers.

“I was so impressed that these designers for Wal-Mart and Home Depot went around this community and took pictures,” said Alderwoman Libba Feichter. “That’s the kind of community spirit we are talking about.”

That’s not to say the town didn’t compromise some. It did — relaxing everything from sign height to the architectural standards.

“What I saw was the negotiating process at its best. They start at point A and we are at point Z,” Brown said.

Brown recounted one of the final meetings between the town and the developers of the Super Wal-Mart site. Gary O’Nesti, the point man for the development, brought his boss along to the meeting. O’Nesti had previously asked the town for a 75 foot sign — almost 10 times taller than the town’s sign ordinance allows. When the sign request came up for discussion, O’Nesti’s boss turned to him.

“He said ‘Did these nice people turn you down?’” Brown recounted. When O’Nesti answered “Yes, they did,” his boss replied, “That’s why I like this town.”

It’s one of Brown’s favorite anecdotes.

“I found that so intriguing. It pointed out the mentality that they ask for the whole ball of wax and expect to get only part of it,” Brown said.

But Bernie Branhut, a candidate for mayor, was sure the town was going to kill the deal with Super Wal-Mart last year. Branhut was in the audience at a town board meeting when developers pitched their proposal, along with the exemptions they wanted. Branhut was irked when Mayor Henry Foy pushed the developer for more trees in the parking lot.

“Mayor Foy kept harping on more and more trees. I finally stood up and said ‘Let’s get these people in and then worry about the trees later, otherwise you will turn these people off and there will be no buildings built,’” Branhut said.

It’s hard to know when a business is bluffing. Brown said he doesn’t attempt to weigh whether the threat is a bluff.

“The issue isn’t whether it is a bluff or not,” Brown said. So what if a developer is genuine in his threat to walk? That alone is not a reason to cave, Brown said. Brown is an advocate of compromise — largely responsible for shepherding the compromises that eventually made the Super Wal-Mart and Home Depot a reality. But first you have to determine if the development is in the town’s best interest in the long run — what Brown calls the “quick nickel, slow dime” litmus test.

Leroy Roberson, a candidate for town board, had a similar take. The land-use plan aims to preserve a certain atmosphere, character and charm for the town. Businesses not on board with that might chose not to come here, Roberson said. But in the long run, the town is better off preserving what makes it unique. The businesses are better off, too, Roberson said. Design standards for buildings make entire commercial districts more attractive.

“That’s part of the economy,” Roberson said. “People don’t come here to look at blank cinderblock walls.”

Dick Young, also a candidate, saw similar merit in the building design standards.

“They want the building to look nice in the future and by it looking nice it would promote more traffic and it would probably increase the economy,” Young said.

It’s a philosophy land-use plan advocates in Waynesville have been preaching for years, and apparently is becoming part of the community’s rhetoric.

 

The small guy

Making corporate chain stores comply with town guidelines is one thing. But small, local business owners are another. Lacking deep pockets, the added expense of town guidelines can put up barriers for a local entrepreneur, according to several candidates.

McLean, a leading land-use plan opponent, doesn’t necessarily object to architectural standards for the Wal-Marts and McDonald’s of the world.

“The big large national chains have the money to do that. However your average small business owner does not have or may not have the money to do it to the town’s design standards,” McLean said. “We have to stop this land-use plan from preventing local small business.”

For example, new businesses are required to build a sidewalk along the street. That can be costly for a small business owner, said Leroy Roberson, a candidate for town board. Roberson cited one developer with a corner lot who had to build sidewalks along two sides of his property.

“We don’t need to say, ‘if you can’t afford it tough.’ I don’t see why the town can’t help with sidewalks,” said Roberson, who otherwise supports the elements of the land-use plan.

One local business has become a rallying cry of sorts for land-use opponents: the Red Door hair salon on the Old Asheville Highway near the roundabout. The hair salon owners converted a former house into a business, but in the process had to put the parking to the rear and the back and pull the building closer to the sidewalk. That meant jacking up the foundation and physically moving the building.

“I told them if I was elected I would have somebody come back and push their building back,” said Bernie Branhut, a candidate for mayor.

Another local business having trouble with the town’s land-use guidelines is Old Town Bank, a new bank started by a group of local businessmen. They bought a lot along South Main Street to put up their new bank, but have run into what Joe Taylor has calls “hassles” with the town. Their biggest problem is with the town’s rule to that facades have to abut the street instead of the bank’s parking lot.

“There is a business philosophy that you want vehicles to be seen at your business,” Taylor said. “It is against the grain of business to hide your vehicles. People going up and down the road say, ‘I don’t see any cars there, I wonder if it is open.’”

For now, Taylor found a loophole. The property they bought for the bank is actually two lots — one abutting the street and one behind it. They built a bank building on the back lot, and made a parking lot out of the front lot, dodging the guideline that parking lots go behind buildings.

The building is just temporary for now, something thrown up quickly to give the new bank a home. Taylor plans to build a nicer bank building — which he would have underway already — but is holding out to see if the parking requirement is changed.

Other local businesses have found the town’s guidelines workable, however. Coldwell Banker on Russ Avenue was one of the first to build after the town’s new land-use plan went into effect.

John Moore, the broker in charge of Coldwell Banker, said the town was cordial to work with and the real estate company had no problems during the process.

“At first you looked at it and said ‘why?’ But after you went through all the details it enhanced the look of the building tremendously,” said Moore. “I think it is a matter of both parties getting together. We are very proud of our building.”

 

Next week:

This is the first of a two-part series on development guidelines adopted by the town of Waynesville four years ago.

This week’s issue explores whether the guidelines aimed at improving quality of life for town residents have been detrimental to the commercial climate.

Next week, get into the nitty gritty of the town’s land-use plan with candidates running for mayor and town board as we pin them down on the most controversial elements of the plan.

Also next week: the town of Waynesville is embarking on a new vision for Russ Avenue, from traffic flow to roadway aesthetics. A leading idea is to replace the middle-turn lane with a landscaped medians, eliminating left-turns across lanes of oncoming traffic except at designated U-turn points. Find out about the surprising number of town candidates who support the concept in next week’s issue.

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