Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Small Town Politics Water Ballet

Someone once described small town southern politics like this to me…

“It is like water ballet - serene on the surface with a lot of frantic churning down below.”

Nothing brings out this type of action more than land use questions, and Davidson has recently seen multiple acts in this never ending dance unfold at the same time.

The just completed fight over the proposed Narrow Passage neighborhood in Davidson’s rural area was one of the more brutal examples in recent memory – that's saying something for a town that is no stranger to planning and land use related controversies.  As public as it was, this story also saw aggressive behind the scenes action.

In addition to multiple letters to the editor in local publications and passionate speeches at public hearings, those who opposed this project also engaged in a scorched earth campaign that may have ultimately backfired.  Rumors were spread in what can best be described as a good old fashioned whisper campaign against those involved in the project as well as some commissioners.  More than one of those emails landed in my inbox.

In the end, those who wanted "no" to be the answer lost this one in part because of their own tactics.  Reasonable compromise won the day and resulted in a unanimous vote by Davidson’s commissioners to approve the town’s first “conservation neighborhood.”

Another act in the political ballet that is “land planing” in Davidson also seems of have wrapped up in recent weeks.   This one was even less public outside of some coverage in this column.  However, it involved multiple developers, home owners associations, and even attorneys.  There were dozens of emails, meetings, and a good bit of swirl around potential conflicts of interest.

Readers may remember a piece several weeks ago that asked question “Is there a River Run Phase Six?”.  Well, the answer to that question now appears to be a resounding “no”..

For almost 11 months, the River Run Country Club has been pursuing the possibility of carving off some of its golf course property and converting it into single family lots.  If successful, sale of these lots would have brought in several hundred thousand dollars to the club.  But, there was a catch – or two.

The proposed lots were on land designated as golf course and at least partially impacted by floodplain ordinances.  As one would  expect, neighbors and others were concerned not just on an environmental basis, but also on the precedent it would set for converting land from one use to another without following the correct process.  Additionally, this one had the interesting aspect of involvement by the Town Attorney, Rick Kline, on both sides of the issue between the club where he’s a founding member and the town where he’s been town attorney for 39 years.

In the end, it appears the town landed where it should have when this idea was originally proposed.  According to town planning staff, in order for these lots to be sold, the original planning documents for the River Run development will need to be amended – something that requires approval by the Town Board.  The town's Board of Adjustment will also need to approve any building in the flood plane.

Both are long-shot prospects, and as a result, the sales signs on the lots came down.

These two examples of land planning decision making are opposite sides of the same coin.

In the first, town residents were forced to fight tooth and nail to get town hall approval for something that will very likely prove to ultimately be very good for the town.  In the second, homeowners struggled against something the town should have stopped right from the start for the very reasons they took nearly a year to arrive at.

In both cases, citizens were forced to fight a battle of attrition over many months to get the right answer from town hall.

Maybe the metaphor at the beginning was wrong.  Southern politics isn't always like water ballet.  It’s sometimes more like water polo where you have to claw and scratch until the very end.

This post originally appeared in the Herald Weekly at

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