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Wednesday, 24 October 2012 00:00

Sylva auto dealer locked in sidewalk stand-off with town

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fr conceptautoA grand goal of bringing sidewalks to the main commercial drag in Sylva has elicited protests from one business owner who claims he’s the victim of costly and unrealistic goals of creating a walkable community along a five-lane highway.

Russ Cagle, the owner of Concept Automotive car dealership, is trying to get out of a town requirement to build a sidewalk in front of his business after relocating it to N.C. 107.

Cagle initially promised to build the sidewalk last spring. The property where Cagle set up shop was zoned residential. To get it changed to commercial, Cagle had to bring the property into compliance with a town sidewalk ordinance.

In short, the ordinance requires newly constructed businesses — or business seeking a zoning change from residential to commercial — to build a sidewalk along their street frontage.

The vision of Sylva’s ordinance is that, eventually, a patchwork of sidewalk sections completed over time will create a connected system of pedestrian infrastructure.

The town’s planning enforcement official, Gerald Green, said many municipalities, such as Waynesville, Asheville, Hendersonville and Brevard, all carry similar laws.

“It’s not an unusual requirement,” Green said. “It’s just realizing that it takes time to get things done.”

What resulted has been a battle between Cagle and the sidewalk.

Cagle has dubbed the sidewalk a “sidewalk to nowhere” — and a $6,000 sidewalk to nowhere at that, according to one contractor’s estimate.

“Why would I want to put one in?” Cagle asked. “It doesn’t connect to anywhere.”

Cagle is flanked by properties that don’t have sidewalks. Furthermore, there are no other sidewalk sections on his side of the road as far as the eye can see. Although there is a sidewalk across the street from him, it can’t be reached because there is no crosswalk.

“Isn’t it crazy?” said Christie Swain, one of Cagle’s employees. “What is someone going to do, come out here and walk back and forth?”

Cagle has already spent $8,000 on the site, including landscaping required by the town, grading and other site work. The additional cost of the sidewalk would be an undue hardship, he claims.

Cagle has pleaded his case before the Sylva town board several times, instances in which he inevitably finds himself face to face with his landlord. It just so happens the property Cagle is leasing belongs to Sylva Town Commissioner Harold Hensley.

As the property owner, Hensley is ultimately responsible for any code violations on the property, according to Green.

Green is the Jackson County Planning Department director, but the town of Sylva contracts its enforcement out to the county.

In June, Cagle went before the town board to request three variances: one to reduce the amount of required landscaping; one to build a driveway that sits partially in a required setback zone; and one to get out of the sidewalk requirement.

The first two were granted unanimously by the board. The last was denied unanimously. Hensley abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest.

Cagle was given 90 days by the town to build the sidewalk. That date passed in mid-September and still Cagle has not built a sidewalk.

Then, on Oct. 18, he appeared again before the town board. At that meeting he pleaded his case, saying Hensley was in negotiations to sell the property to another business entity from Georgia. Cagle argued that he didn’t want to make the investment to pave the sidewalk if the property would be sold to another party.

Hensley confirmed in a letter presented to the mayor and the town board and that he indeed is in ongoing negotiations with a business entity from Georgia. But he would not disclose the nature of the negotiations or the name of the entity.

Neither would Cagle release the details of his lease.

Hensley added that a contract should be entered into by December, and if the unnamed business entity decides to move forward with development on the property, the improvements would involve site grading, constructing parking areas and sidewalks.

“Why build a sidewalk if the sidewalk is going to be town out?” Hensley said.

But, in the meantime, Hensley said he has stayed out of any official town business concerning his property and has left negotiations with the board to Cagle.

“Whenever they’re negotiating I sit there like a good boy and keep my mouth shut,” Hensley said. “I don’t want anyone to think that the town board is planning on doing any favors to me. And truthfully they’d probably go out of their way to do less for it.”

At that October town board meeting, Cagle was accompanied by a highway engineering consultant, Jamie Wilson, as well as a fellow business owner Tim Jones, of Napa Auto Parts in Sylva. Both spoke in Cagle’s defense.

Jones asked why the renter was being asked to foot the bill for improvements to the property. And Wilson also pointed out that at some point in the distant future the N.C. Department of Transportation had plans to redesign N.C. 107, which would most likely affect sidewalks.

He offered the argument that in light of the future work, even though it could be more than a decade off, the mandatory sidewalk might not make sense.

But, Green was not convinced.

“There’s a chance a giant meteor will fall and hit Earth, too,” Green said. “How can we project or speculate on what will happen? All we can do is enforce the ordinance as it’s written.”

Green said the ordinance was implemented in the late 1990s, and during the past 18 months, three other establishments in Sylva have complied with the sidewalk requirement, including two other automotive businesses and a beauty salon.

At the conclusion of the town board meeting last week, the board instructed town attorney Kim Lay to look at the prospect of granting an extension until December.

The town also asked her to plot out what legal recourse it could take if the requirements are not followed.

The town’s usual attorney is Eric Ridenour, but Ridenour had to recuse himself from the issue since Hensley and Cagle are his clients and he saw it as a conflict of interest. Thus Lay was contracted to act in an advisory role on the issue.

The matter will be revisited at a future Sylva Town Board meeting, with a recommendation from Lay.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody commented on the seemingly delicate situation the board members and he are faced with.

“The stage we’re at now is what action the town is going to take,” Moody said. “When someone doesn’t follow the requirements, you have to take some sort of action.”

He added that Hensley’s position on the board makes the situation more volatile.

“Our only concern is to be fair and impartial,” Moody said. “And it makes it a little bit sensitive because one of the individuals is a town commissioner.”

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