Saturday, September 24, 2016

More Arrows for the Citizen Activist's Quiver

A few weeks ago, fellow Herald columnist Eric Rowell wrote a piece on how to make a public records request.  From what I understand it has been well received with several people following up to get more information.  That is a great thing for helping ensure more transparency in local government.

I’ve previously called the records request the sharpest arrow in the activist’s quiver, but it’s not the only arrow. There are many others those interested in local government can use to stay on top of what’s happening in their community.  Several people over the years have asked me “where do I get ideas for all the pieces I write “  at Lake Norman Publications and at my blog.  The answer is very often “from using these tools.”

This week I thought I would pass along a few more of these tools and provide an example of how they are used.

Tool #1:  Google Alerts – Google allows anyone to set up alerts on any topic using key words.  Anytime a story appears anywhere in cyberspace you’ll get a daily email.  Set up a few alerts with the name of your town and one for each elected official.  You won’t get overwhelmed with emails but when something happens you will know. If you save these emails, you have an easy reference to all that’s been written on the subject.

Tool #2:  Town Agendas – All the local towns keep their agendas online.  Look at the agendas for the Planning Board and Design Review Board for early warning signs of new development projects.  By the time things show up on the Commissioners’ agenda it’s usually too late.  Commissioners also discuss important details at so called “pre meetings” and dinner meetings.  Know that whenever a majority of Commissioners are present, the meeting is open to the public so you can attend if you want.

Tool #3:  Online Public Records – Almost as important as the public records request are the available online records systems.  In the old days one had to practically be a trained detective to acquire information.  Now, so much is available onljne that the challenge is sifting through it all.  Property records can be found at Mecklenburg Polaris.  Business records can be found on the NC Secretary of State site at SOSNC.gov.

So, let’s take an example from the development world, something that impacts almost all of us in this fast growing region.  What should you do if you hear around town or from a neighbor that some new development is going in on the property around the corner?

First, go to Polaris3g at CharMeck.org and look up the property.  You can search for it or find it using the map.  Look at the information there.  If the property is something long planned for development it very well may be owned by an LLC – meaning you can’t see the real owner’s name.

Never fear, the NC Secretary of State website will have what you need.  Go to SOSNC.gov and look up the LLC.  Often the officers of the LLC will be listed or at the least the registered agent for the company.  The names listed here will often be developers or real estate attorneys.

You can also look at the information on file at the Register of Deeds via the links in Polaris3g to find more information on who may be involved with the property and potential development.

With these names in hand you’ll better be able to understand how the information in a records request all fits together if you choose to go that route.  Do this a few times on a few developments and you’ll realize you often see the same names, over, and over, and over again.  After a little practice, you’ll realize those steps only took a few minutes and you’ll be asking better questions of your town hall.

Mix these steps together with regularly reading your Google alerts and scanning the agendas for your town meetings – maybe even attend a few in person, and you’ll soon be surprised at what you learn.

This post first appeared in the Herald Weekly at HuntersvilleHerald.com

Thursday, September 22, 2016

#Catslyst2: Exit 30 Hotel Development developments...

Ahead of the October 3rd public information session at Town Hall, the town took a few of the mandated steps on Thursday to start publicizing the Hyatt Place hotel project.

On the site along Griffith Street and across Davidson Gateway Dr from the Community School of Davidson the ubiquitous "Development Project" sign went up on Thursday.  Also on Thursday, Town staff confirmed for aShortChronicle that notification letters to nearby property owners also went in the mail today.  (They had to go out by Friday to meet the town’s ordinance requirements.)

By our count per the list provided by the Town, 29 residential recipients will receive the notice.  The were several other properties also listed including others owned by the owner of the hotel site and two owned by the Town itself.

Here are the town requirements for who receives notice.

A notice shall be sent by first class mail to adjacent and adjoining property plus property 
owners within 100 feet of any adjacent and adjoining parcels. Notice also shall be given 
to other affected parties as determined by the Planning Director. The applicant shall prepare the notice, which shall be approved by the Planning Director. The notices with addressed stamped envelopes shall be given to the Planning Director not less than fourteen (14) days prior to the public input session and mailed by the Planning Director not less than ten 10 days prior to the date of the public input session.

The bold line in the above is interesting.

From what can be determined by who is not on the list, the residents who live on the back of Spinnaker Cove are not receiving a notice, but those in the front are getting one.  The same can be said for the many of the residents in the West Side neighborhood.  Only a few are getting the notice while many are not.  None of the residents down Gateway at Jetton received the notice.

Per the town's planning ordinance notifying all these people could have been done if they were identified as "affected".  Apparently, they are not.

In addition to these notices the town put out its required press release Thursday.


Citizens are invited to a public input session, led by developer Beacon IMG, Inc., on the proposed conditional master plan amendment to change the permitted use from two mixed-use commercial/residential buildings to a hotel at the corner of Griffith Street and Davidson Gateway Drive. The site is located at 127 Davidson Gateway Drive, consists of 2.1 acres, and currently serves as a surface parking lot.
The public input session will be held on Monday, October 3 from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. in the Davidson Town Hall board room. It will be an open house format with no formal presentation. The hotel developer and project team, along with members of the Davidson Planning Department, will be present to discuss the proposed development and answer any questions. All citizens are invited to review the initial plans and provide comment.

Mark your calendars and plan to be there!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

POSTPONED - Davidson Depot Information Session pushed out!

Tuesday, aShortChronicle told you about the meeting involving a select group of citizens last week regarding the Davidson Depot project.  In that post we told you about the upcoming public information session on September 29th.  That notice had been on the project's page on the town website for weeks.

Interestingly, a couple hours after that post hit the web late Tuesday night, the town emailed out the below press release announcing the same.  That email landed at 12:14am Wednesday morning.


Citizens are invited to a public information session on the Davidson Depot development on the Metrolina Warehouse site on Depot Street led by developer Miller-Valentine Group. This 5.15-acre property is located on Depot Street between the railroad, Eden Street, and Sloan Street and will feature approximately 180 apartments. The developer is coordinating with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Brownfields Program to define the activity needed to make the site suitable for reuse since the parcel contains underground asbestos.
The public input session will be held on Thursday, September 29 between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. in the Davidson Town Hall board room. There will be two identical short presentations: one at 4:00 p.m. and one at 6:00 p.m. to educate citizens about the project. Members from the developer’s team and the state’s Brownfields Program will be available to share information and answer questions throughout the session. All citizens are invited to attend.

That invitation was short lived however.  A little before 5pm Wednesday the town sent out the below notice postponing the event.

Miller-Valentine Group, the developer for this project, had originally planned to host a public information session on September 29, but have made the decision to postpone it. They wish to thank the community for its attendance, thoughtful comments and questions regarding the Davidson Depot project at their September 15 meeting held specifically for adjacent property owners. In order to give the questions raised at this meeting the thought and consideration they deserve, the company feels it is appropriate to postpone the September 29th meeting in order to further advance its redevelopment plans. Miller-Valentine Group appreciates the community’s patience in this matter and looks forward to meeting again early next year.


...early next year!?!?!

That's at least three months. That seems like an awfully long  time to delay.

Also, let's be very clear about last week's  "community" meeting.  The meeting was not a "public" meeting.  It was not advertised.  It did not appear on the town website.  It did not include people from all the neighboring subdivisions.  It was a hand picked group that raised a number of valid concerns.  Concerns would have been raised completely behind closed doors if not for a leaked email that landed at aShortChronicle.

Now, the long planned public meeting gets "postponed".   While the people invited to last week's meeting certainly are the most directly impacted, they aren't the only ones.  Furthermore, they certainly aren't the only ones with an opinion of the safety aspects of the cleanup.

Unfortunately, those added opinions are going to have to wait.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Davidson Depot: Brownfields tax credits but nothing extra

The Davidson Depot developers held a meeting at Town Hall last Thursday with people living nearest to the property.  Most of those who attended were long time residents of the West Side neighborhood.  About 25 attendees looked to be there.

The meeting wasn't advertised to the "public" per se, but an email circulated from non Town Hall sources Thursday afternoon landed in the inbox here at aShortChronicle.  With the recent swirl about the on again/off again closed sessions and inconclusive information about possible town financial support for the project, it seemed like a good idea to check it out.

aShortChronicle confirmed with the town Public Information Officer, Christina Shaul, that it was OK to stay since this was technically the developer's meeting though Town Hall was clearly helping with the coordination. Two Commissioners, Rodney Graham and Jim Fuller, were there, but that was below quorum so technically the meeting didn't need to be open to the public.

The meeting was intended to be mostly about how the cleanup of the asbestos on the site would occur.  However, before that piece of the presentation occurred, a significant bit of uncomfortable and disturbing history with the site needed to be aired.

First, the current owner spoke.  Her father bought the site in the mid 1970s with its contamination issues unbeknownst to him or the family.  They've supposedly been trying to sell it for 15 years and gone through 5 buyers.  After the contamination was revealed in 1984 the cleanup costs have made redevelopment of the site very difficult and prohibitively expensive.

The stories told after the owner spoke paint an even more dire picture of the history of the site. Numerous lifelong West Side residents told heart wrenching stories of the impact the asbestos factory has had on the community over decades.  Multiple people told stories of loved ones who they believed had died because of working there.  Their biggest concerns were clearly about the safety of the cleanup effort.

Readers can see for themselves what those cleanup plans include when the project has its public information session on September 29.

From the town website

"public information session on Thursday, September 29 from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. at Davidson Town Hall. There will be a formal presentation at 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. and members of the development team and state's Brownfields Program
 will be available throughout to share information and answer questions."

During the discussion one attendee did ask about a part of the story aShortChronicle has been covering.  Would the Town be footing the bill for the cleanup?

The answer is "partially" but no more than they would if anyone were to redevelop the project.

Here's why...

The project site will be a part of the State's "Brownfields" Program which does allow for 5 years of sliding scale tax credits once the project cleanup is verified by the state.

That's a credit any developer for any project would very likely utilize.

Why that was never clearly explained in the previous questions asked regarding town funding is unclear.  However, it was nice to see the citizen who asked the original question ask a follow-up question.  "Would there be any town specific funding for the project?"

The answer from developer Charlie Rulick with the Miller Valentine Group was a clear "no".  In a follow-up email to Rulick last Friday he reiterated "nothing other than the Brownfield tax abatement is being considered."

On Friday after getting this response from Rulick, the project's local attorney, Susan Irvin, called to provide a little more detail.  Irvin wanted to pass along that even with the 90% abatement in the first year, the town would receive more than twice the revenue it does now.

The property is currently valued right at $1 million and brings in $3,500 to Davidson.  Using those numbers that would put a ballpark value of more than $20 million on the completed project.  Interestingly though, when asked through the company's local marketing firm if a value was available, Miller-Valentine declined to provide a value saying it was too early to do so.

What was clear from the meeting however was that this site has caused a lot of heartache over many years for those owning it and those living near it.

Regardless of what people feel about the idea of 183 apartments there, the asbestos issue needs to be addressed and whenever that happens it will cost the town for a few years.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

#NCGA: Big DC money coming after John Bradford

A local pol asked me a couple weeks ago about the finance reports for the candidates in the race for NC House 98.  With only Q2 reports in the system at NCSBE.gov it looked like money might not be a huge factor in the race.

Since the Q2 reports are almost a full quarter behind at this point lots more money has likely flowed in for both candidates by now.

A couple weeks later it seems the big money may not be coming from the campaigns, but from Washington DC instead.

Since that exchange we've seen the beginning of a wave of flyers attacking Bradford from "NC Families First" a 527 dark money outfit out of Raleigh.  One unconfirmed source tells aShortChronicle they had heard there may be a couple dozen of these before election day.  The fact that 3 have already hit since last Wednesday is a good indication that may be true.  In the mechanics of an election, it wouldn't make sense to fire off three of these this far out from election day if you weren't going to keep doing it.

An earlier post mentioned that NC Families First was active in the 2014 campaign, but that there wasn't any information on FollowNCMoney.org for them this cycle.  That's true.

HOWEVER...we here at aShortChronicle are a persistent lot.

527 organizations have to report to the IRS, so it seemed like a good idea to check IRS.gov to see what we could find.

The Q2 reports there for "NC Families First" show the below "contributions" and "expenditures"

CONTRIBUTIONS

EXPENDITURES


By Q2 2016, NC Families First has gotten:

$450k from The Democratic Governors Association...in Washington, DC

$1.475m from NC Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, a group that historically receives most of its cash from the NEA...in Washington, DC.

The oh so innocently named NC Families First has spent:

$620k with Great American Media...an ad company right down K street in...you guessed it...Washington, DC

While it's obvious a lot of this cash will flow to support Roy Cooper in his race against Gov McCrory, a good bit is left to pound other candidates into submission.

Expect the anti-Bradford flyers to keep on coming - funded by Washington cash.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

#NCGA: 2nd anti-Bradford mailer from shadowy group hits area mailboxes.

On Wednesday, aShortChronicle told readers about a mailer from NC Families First - a partisan, dark money spending operation with a history of going after Republicans.  The mailer that landed that day went after NC-98 Rep John Bradford on the I77 toll issue.

Well, it turns out that mailer was just the first of a two barrel blast from NC Families First this week with the second one firing on Friday.  Here it is...

NC Families First Mailer


The points made on this second flyer were exactly the same as the ones made in the first, so there's no need to debunk them again here.

HOWEVER...

There was something interesting noticed with this second one.

On Tuesday we told you about the previous flyers mailed in support of Campbell by the Democratic Party of North Carolina.  All of these flyers were Authorized by Campbell and all had some level of focus on the I77 toll issue.  One of those mentioned Bradford specifically.


NC Democrats Mailer


In the bottom left hand corner of both flyers lists the "fact check" references for the statements made.

Here they are up close.  The top is from NC Families First and the bottom is from the NC Democrats.




Notice anything?  Take a good close look.

Four out of six references on each flyer are exactly the same.

Out of all the stories on the I77 issue done over multiple years by various print, TV, and online media outlets these two completely independent operations pick the same four out of six media reports to reference in hit pieces targeting the same person.

One paid for by the Democratic Party and one paid for by a dark money operation with 2014 campaign ties to the "eviscerate" crowd.

Hmmmm...

Friday, September 16, 2016

Who really wants the new Griffith Street Hyatt Place hotel?

The long awaited application for the proposed Hyatt Place hotel next to the Community School of Davidson finally landed at Davidson Town Hall the last week of August and hasn’t taken long to raise eyebrows.

Per the application the owner of the property seeks “to amend the approved conditional planning area to allow a hotel with commercial, retail and restaurant uses”.  It also asks “to amend the height restriction from four stories to 68 feet.”  The application would make way for a hotel developed by Nish Patel of Beacon IMG – the same firm behind the Exit 30 Homewood Suites

An email to Patel seeking more details got this response.

“We are still in the middle of the process of working out the final details of hotel design with our architects and the Town of Davidson, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on room size or height yet because those items may change”.

“I realize that any new development will be of interest to some of the residents in the area, but our company policy is to work through all of the appropriate design, safety and security issues before making any sort of public announcement.”

That may be the company policy, but an August email obtained via public records shows Patel told the town Planning Director the estimate was for 110-115 rooms.  Also, according to conversations with the Planning Director last week the discussions have been around a 6 story building including a rooftop restaurant as the 6th floor.  The amendment for 68 feet in the application would accommodate this.

As one can imagine, parents at the CSD elementary/middle school are not thrilled with the idea of a hotel next door just feet from the school.  Word has also circulated the Circles@30 Coalition neighborhood group will be taking a hard look at the project.  A Facebook group named “Citizens for a Safe Davidson Hotel Location” has also started and has about 200 members. (Transparency Alert: I’ve posted several times to this Facebook page as part of the discussion.)

It is safe to say opposition to this hotel site specifically - not another Exit 30 hotel - is brewing.  So, “who wants this site?” is the obvious question.

A public records document called “Project History” shows notes from an October 6, 2015 meeting between the property owner, the owner’s attorney, town staff, and Mayor John Woods.  Those notes mention staff providing “feedback from MSC and Davidson College that would support hotel on this site.”

The media contacts at both institutions were reached for verification.

Paul Mason who handles media relations for MSC, said MSC’s lead executive in Davidson, Doug Jones, “indicated he had a conversation with the mayor about the general need for more hotel rooms and meeting space in Davidson, but there was no mention of a specific site.”  When asked if MSC supported the proposed location Mason said “we generally do not take positions on city planning matters like these.”

Jay Pfeifer the media contact with Davidson College responded “as far as I can tell, Davidson College has not been involved in the proposed hotel at exit 30 in any way. Therefore, we can not comment on it.”

Joy Warner, CSD’s Executive Director, was also reached for comment to verify the school planned to stay out of the debate as indicated at a school meeting in late August.  Her response then was “the school takes no position on this particular issue.  As for the safety of our students, that is a more general issue that we spend time discussing every day no matter the potential source of the concern.  Fortunately, we have terrific allies in Davidson Police to keep our kids safe and they are always available when we ask for support and advice.  We consider and respond to what happens in and around our school daily.   That will not change.”

None of those are ringing endorsements of this site for a new hotel.  It seems the only institution that may want it there, other than the developers of course, may be the institution of Davidson Town Hall.

This post first appeared this week in the Herald Weekly at HuntersvilleHerald.com