Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Questions for the Davidson Cottages Public Input Session on Wednesday

Last Thursday, Davidson Town Hall put out the below notice for a public input session for the new Davidson Cottages project as part of the Davidson Commons East development that includes Woodies..

aShortChronicle previously reported on this project here and last week asked some questions about the overall Davidson Commons East development last week.  See here for that story.

As stated before, the Davidson Cottages project seems like one that meshes well with the surroundings.  It's close to the commercial and transit services at Exit 30.  It will include built affordable housing and market price housing at the more affordable end of the spectrum for Davidson.  It also has a quality builder/developer in Saussey Burbank.

The only obvious drawback from the perspective of aShortChronicle is the possible/expected use of "density averaging" to achieve the planned footprint.  From the Town website on the Board of Adjustment page density averaging (also known as built upon area (BUA) averaging) is described as

Built-Upon Area Averaging is a program whereby parcels located within a protected watershed may obtain additional impervious coverage rights by averaging the total impervious area of the developing lot with the total impervious area of an undeveloped/less developed lot within the same watershed. Essentially, the "receiving lot" obtains additional impervious square footage allowance when the "giving lot" establishes a non-revocable easement containing undeveloped, vegetated area. The amount of this easement area may be transferred from the giving lot to the receiving lot by Final Plat recordation, subject to applicable criteria and processes. Davidson Planning Ordinance Section 17.8 outlines the process and requirements for obtaining a Density Averaging Certificate, which must be approved by the Board of Adjustment. 

Another way to look at this is it is a gimmick to benefit developers that has little to nothing to do with water quality. Less expensive land, possibly unbuildable land, can be bought for relatively cheap then "set aside" to allow more density on high dollar land.

Any developer desiring to use density averaging should present the exact potential donor lot or lots that might be a part of any such equation in its public information session.  Would these donor lots be buildable at the same scale?  If not then density averaging doesn't really add value from an overall water quality perspective.  In fact it could take away value if the donor lot is unbuildable anyway and would never have impervious development but "saving" it allows more density elsewhere.

Importantly, under the current Davidson ordinance the final density averaging decision does not occur until a Board of Adjustment hearing after the rest of the plan is approved.  This sets up the situation where a lot of time and effort has been expended before the BOA hearing.  What are the chances the BOA turns down the request for density averaging at that point?  There will obviously be a lot of pressure on them to approve.  It would be much better if this was done earlier, but it is not.

With this particular development there is also a lot of history on the subject already.  aShortChronicle would like to see a full explanation of the history of this project and the possibility of using density averaging at the public information session.  It is very unlikely that will happen however.

Public records requests completed over the past few years show that the possible use of density averaging on this parcel has been under discussion as early as late 2016 during the swirl around the neighboring Griffith Street Hotel project. Records show there have been multiple times the density averaging subject on this particular parcel was planned to go before the BOA - as early 2017 - in both July and October of that year.  Former Town Attorney Rick Kline was engaged by the developer for this 2017 work.  The October 2017 hearing was suddenly pulled at the last minute in what appears to be a Town decision, but the record contains no explanation of why.  However, the latest records request received earlier this month also appears to be incomplete.  If this idea was pulled by the Town in 2017, why would the Town even be considering it now?  Was there a process mistake in 2017 that required it to be pulled or some other reason?  These concerns were all presented to elected officials last week for comment, but none has been received as of this posting.

Again, the Davidson Cottages project seems like a very good one.  This isn't really about that.  However, in the interest of transparency for this project and future ones, all of these concerns about how the Town and Town Staff handle these things need addressing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

New/Old project in the works for former Griffith Street Hotel site?

Last week, aShortChronicle encouraged Davidson Commissioners to go slow in approving new developments on the remaining Davidson Commons East development sites.  These are the vacant parcels on either side of Woodies including the two closest to Griffith Street that had been designated for the now defunct hotel project and the one furthest from Griffith Street now designated for the Davidson Cottages project.

During Tuesday's Board meeting there were multiple interesting and some concerning discussions that could impact this land.

During the agenda item discussion on possibly allowing CFA Church to take over the former Healthy Home Market space at Sadler Square, something the Board declined to support, Mayor Knox asked the CFA representative if they had checked the possibility of building on the former hotel sites.  That discussion ended with this seeming to be a possibility.  Something like a church on that site certainly wouldn't generate the type of response as the old hotel project, so that was an interesting suggestion.

Next in the meeting agenda relating to Davidson Commons East was discussion on extending water and sewer to the new Davidson Cottages development proposed by Saussey Burbank on parcel 4D of Davidson Commons East.  That's the parcel furthest from Griffith Street highlighted in green.  Parcels 4A and 4B are the parcels formerly designated for the failed hotel project.  Parcel 4C is Woodies Auto.

Davidson Commons East
After much discussion on the possibility of having to use a gimmick called "density averaging" to allow the Davidson Cottages project to be built, the Board did eventually approve the water and sewer extension but only for this specific project, meaning if this project doesn't happen, another project doesn't automatically get the water sewer extension.  A public input session for the Davidson Cottages project is scheduled for January 29 at Town Hall.  More details on that to come.

aShortChronicle has no issue with approving the water/sewer extension, the Saussey Burbank project seems like a good one.  However, there were multiple points made in the discussion around density averaging as well as vested rights that raise some serious concerns.  aShortChronicle has asked Davidson electeds for comment on these concerns for a follow up story, so stay tuned.

The crux of the problem is this.  Density averaging is a gimmick that allows a developer to use impervious built upon area (BUA) from another non-contiguous parcel to allow for more density in a target parcel.  In the case of DCE the total BUA applies to all 4 parcels including Woodies which is already built and needs to be divided among all four parcels.  The only reason for the Saussey Burbank project to need to employ density averaging is if there is not enough unallocated BUA remaining because of what is supposedly allocated for parcels 4A and 4B, the old hotel parcels.  To their credit, multiple Commissioners, particularly Commissioners Matthew Fort and David Sitton, asked a number of questions probing why this is the case and what they can possibly do to prevent density averaging from being used.  The answer was briefly mentioned, but it boils down to something called "vested rights".

Vested rights is a legal determination that allows a developer to build a plan based on various approvals.  This is also where we get to the possibility of a new project for DCE parcels 4A and 4B.

After some delay, this past Friday, aShortChronicle finally received the results of a records request on DCE.  This request was for anything to do with DCE since January 1, 2017 through December 20, 2019.  aShortChronicle has been asking questions since August regarding the former hotel parcels, this records request would hopefully fill in the blanks.

In this request, there are numerous emails with Town staff making it clear the land owner/developer for DCE has been planning to implement a new project on the former hotel parcels, and things have been in motion for quite some time.  This in spite of Town staff repeatedly telling aShortChronicle over many months that they hadn't heard anything from the "hotel developer".

The earliest mention in the records request is an email from Planning staff member David Cole to the land owner/developer on July 12, 2019 - less than one month after the State Appeals Court decision invalidating the hotel zoning.  This email was in reference to obtaining building permits for 127 and 151 Gateway Drive.  Those are the two former hotel parcels.  There is a later email in November indicating the land owner/developer is eager to get started on this new project.  aShortChronicle did receive a message from Town Staff on December 5th saying the land owner would be refilling plats to specifically allocate BUA to the 4 parcels making up DCE.  While it did not specifically mention a new project, it did mention "vested rights" for the zoning prior to the entire hotel debacle.

So, what is the project?

For those who followed the hotel debacle from the beginning you may remember (or not) that the developer/landowner had a previously approved plan that was never built.  It was a plan for 2, 3-story mixed use buildings on parcels 4A and 4B. This plan was used to attempt to cudgel the public into supporting the hotel.  In fact Commissioner Jim Fuller who was the only current Commissioner on the Board back then made a vague reference to this at last Tuesday's Board meeting during the DCE related conversation.  Here is a link to a 2016 story on this.

However, the key to this new/old/new again plan is this concept called "vested rights".  If there are no vested rights the plan would have to start over from the beginning.  The requirements for vested rights are very complex and this DCE development is particularly complex with multiple plans and amendments since 2007 and now a court case to be factored into the equation.  This also now impacts the BUA calculation for lot 4D and the Davidson Cottages because if 4A and 4B do not have vested rights then some of the BUA needed for lot 4D could be moved to that project negating the need for density averaging there.

On December 4th, December 6th, December 20th, and January 9th, aShortChronicle followed up with the Town for an explanation on how these supposed vested rights were determined and how long they would be valid.  To date, there has been no response from the Town or the Town Attorney other than acknowledgement of receiving the requests.  This is very similar to the non-response received when aShortChronicle was asking these same questions back in 2017.  See this post for more on that.

Frankly, Davidson's Town Attorney, Cindy Reid, is not a career real-estate attorney and the Town Planning Director, Jason Burdette, isn't either.  Without an unbiased and unencumbered third party opinion on this complex issue of vested rights the Town runs the risk of putting the citizens through another Griffith Street Hotel situation, and that's something to be avoided at all costs.

Check back for more.  This story is just beginning.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Continuum sale update from Tuesday's Davidson Board Meeting

On Monday, aShortChronicle reported on the update expected at this week's Board of Commissioners meeting.  In that earlier post information indicated the dollar amount cleared for Davidson may be smaller than many expected due to some previously undisclosed (or at least undetailed) post sale expenses.  The update Tuesday shed little light on that.

However, here is where the numbers land as of now.

After paying off the outstanding debt, the deferred liability to Mooresville, and the known transaction costs, Davidson's portion of the net proceeds from the sale equals just over $2.5 million dollars.  There is $2.75 million in two different escrow accounts to cover any post sale items that pop up.  This includes:
  • $750,000 in operations contingency to cover Bill's that my need to be covered by the Towns within the next 90 days.  
  • $2 million indemnification escrow
If the escrow money is not used, that money eventually would be split between Mooresville and Davidson based on the 70%/30% ownership.  If zero of it is used, an unlikely scenario, it would bring Davidson's likely highest dollar amount from the sale to $3.325 million.

There was a very brief mention of the other possible costs mentioned in Monday's post.  These are
 still being addressed involving claims by Cornelius, Mecklenburg County, and the State Retirement Plan.  Specific dollar amounts were not mentioned, but obviously if any of these need to be covered they will eat into the net amount on the transaction.  It is the understanding here at aShortChronicle that these costs are not directly related to the sale of the company to TDS, but related to agreements that created Mi-Connection in the first place more than a decade ago that may need to be met if the company was sold.

Aside from these things, Mi-Connection/Continuum cost Mooresville and Davidson taxpayers a net loss overall since 2007 is estimated to be between $31m - $39m over the life of the project.

See the whole presentation here under the first agenda item.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Town of Davidson Hires First Town Arborist (press release)

DAVIDSON, N.C. – The Town of Davidson announces the hiring of Peter Grisewood as the first Town Arborist. Peter will serve as the subject matter expert for all municipal tree efforts, arboriculture, public tree planting and management, tree removal, and urban forest management, including development and interpretation of regulations through the town’s newly revised tree ordinance. He will also lead community outreach efforts, build partnerships, and coordinate public education.

With extensive experience, Peter comes to us most recently from the City of Charlotte, where he has served as Urban Forestry Supervisor since 2016. Previously, Peter worked as an arborist, engineering technician, and tree climber mainly in the Charlotte region. He brings over 20 years of leadership in Urban Forestry and Arboriculture, 10 years of public service at the federal, state, and local levels, and has also been at the top of the industry as an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist for 10 years.  He is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Originally recommended by a resident-based advisory committee (livability board), the creation of this position is vital to the successful implementation of the town’s tree ordinance, which is a priority identified by the mayor and board of commissioners. It also equally executes the strategic vision the community set forth in the new Davidson Comprehensive Plan, which calls for the town to create an effective tree canopy management plan. This ultimately enables the community to best preserve and enhance tree canopy throughout town - something that has long been a priority for both Davidson residents and town staff alike.

“We are excited about the level of expertise Peter will be able to bring to the town,” said Davidson Town Manager Jamie Justice.  “We are looking forward to how he will help us build upon the critical work we have been doing to preserve our tree canopy and educate everyone in the community about this important issue.”

Peter begins in his role on January 27th and may be reached at pgrisewood@townofdavidson.org.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

NorthMeck bus route changes on way with MetroRapid service starting Feb-3

NorthMeck bus riders will be getting some new options and a couple of new routes in early February to speed commuter traffic to/from Uptown.  The service, branded as "MetroRapid", features the following:
  • a new 290 local circulator will serve the Davidson-Concord Rd area of Davidson between Main Street and the Rocky River Road roundabout
  • a new 63x direct from the Huntersville Gateway Park and Ride with mid-day service to Northcross.
  • a modified 48x serving only the Northcross Park and Ride
  • a modified 77x serving the Davidson and Cornelius Park and Rides
  • 53x unchanged on the NorthMeck end
  • Uptown dropoff/pickup points significantly changed to use Church and College streets utilizing the Express Lanes direct access ramps on 277.  This will primarily impact riders to the Gateway/Johnson &Wales side of Uptown.
This service all starts on February 3rd.  Routes and schedules below.  This information was obtained at the Tuesday open house event in Uptown at the Main Library.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Town should go slow on Davidson Commons East development to avoid another "Griffith Street Hotel" situation

Tuesday evening, the Davidson Town Board is set to vote on a water/sewer extension for a proposed Saussey Burbank project called "Davidson Cottages".  aShortChronicle strongly encourages the board to hold off on this decision.

To be clear, the proposed development itself is not at all a bad one.  Saussey Burbank is a quality builder and a residential project in that location makes sense with its proximity to services and transit.  However, this project is also part of the larger Davidson Commons East development site that includes Woodies and the former Griffith Street Hotel parcels.  Considering the very recent history of flawed process and procedure on other parcels of this development, those formerly intended for the hotel, it is imperative any further development at DCE be done with absolute transparency.

To date it is hard to say that test has been passed.

There are multiple complicated zoning/planning concepts that potentially come into play with the remaining parcels of Davidson Commons East.  These include vested rights, built upon area (BUA) limitations due to watershed, and density averaging.

Any development on the parcel for the "Davidson Cottages" project potentially impacts the other possible development on the remaining two parcels (the former hotel parcels) because of BUA limitations for the entire DCE master plan that includes the former hotel parcels, Woodies, and now this Davidson Cottages project in question.  The developer of Davidson Cottages has indicated in multiple public meetings that they may use something called "density averaging" to allow them to build a higher density of footprint on their project.  Density averaging allows a developer to use some of the permitted built upon area from a non-contiguous parcel elsewhere in the same watershed to allow more density on their development.  The unbuilt BUA on the donor parcel is then permanently protected.  It is a relatively new and gimmicky tactic to benefit developers, and Davidson's Planning Department and Town Attorney don't have much experience in it.  To the best of aShortChronicle's knowledge, density averaging has not been previously used on an approved project in Davidson.  Importantly in this case, by saving some BUA on the overall DCE project if density averaging is used on Davidson Cottages, that allows more density on the remaining DCE parcels.  The public deserves to know what that might be built on these remaining parcels and if anything else is in the works for these remaining parcels.  Transparency into this would also prevent the sequencing of projects on the DCE property by Town Staff to avoid unwanted public scrutiny - something which has been a problem on this property in the past during the hotel debacle.

To that point, aShortChronicle has for months been trying to find out from Town Hall exactly what might be buildable on the former hotel pieces of this development now that the former hotel project is defunct.  To say we've been "getting the runaround" is putting it politely.  Starting in August of last year, a request to Davidson's Town Attorney, Cindy Reid via the Communications Director, Amanda Preston, aShortChronicle asked some simple questions to get at what can be built on those parcels now.  After months of saying more research needed to be done, when a response was finally received in early December it was nothing more than a copy and paste of a section of the original July 2018 court order invalidating the hotel zoning - information the Town Attorney clearly had for a year and a half which does not even really answer the question.  A follow-up question regarding how any supposed vested rights for this zoning has been calculated has yet to be answered.  Vested rights is a legal term in land development identifying a legal permission to build/develop something on a piece of land.

Finally, after the December Board of Commissioners meeting where the Davidson Cottages was again on the agenda, in an attempt to get to the bottom of all of this before any votes are taken, aShortChronicle filed a public records request where the results will very likely shed some light on all these things.  The Town has yet to respond with anything.

Confused and concerned yet?  You probably should be.  These are complicated zoning issues being handled by the same Planning Department leadership and Town Attorney that landed the Town in court on the Griffith Street Hotel.

With all this in mind, while tonight's scheduled vote on water/sewer is just the first of multiple votes required for Davidson Cottages, prudence dictates going slow on any approval for any project on any parcel of Davidson Commons East until the community feels comfortable everything is being done with 100% transparency.  This community should not be put through another situation like the Griffith Street Hotel, and it is the current Board's responsibility to make sure that does not happen.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Big fish chasing Continuum sale proceeds?

The sale of Continuum in late 2019 was arguably the most positive financial decision in Davidson town history.  It freed taxpayers from endless $1 million per year subsidies.  It extracted the town from the cutthroat telecommunications industry where there was little likelihood of long term success.  It also allowd the town to focus its financial energy where it needs to be in the future - providing critical public services such as Police, Fire, and Parks.

For all these reasons voters approved the sale of the company this past November with 94% voting yes to getting the company off the books.

However, that doesn't mean discussion of the company and its various financial impacts is quite over at Davidson Town Hall.  On Tuesday's agenda, the Board is set to hear an update on the disposition of proceeds from the sale.  aShortChronicle has received information that this may not be the entirely positive discussion that most people would expect.

The word received here at aShortChronicle is that multiple outside government bodies as well as some private entities are looking to get what they see as their respective pieces of these proceeds, and the numbers are not small - potentially running into the millions.

If true, this would significantly eat into any one-time infusion of cash Davidson receives from the proceeds of the sale.  This of course would not make the decision to sell Continuum a bad idea.  Getting into the cable business was the single worst and most damaging decision in the town's history, so getting out of that situation was an imperative at any reasonable cost.  However, it would be highly disappointing and should lead citizens to wonder why this wasn't known to the public before the referendum.

aShortChronicle contacted the Town last week in an attempt to confirm this information.  Town Communications Director, Amanda Preston, declined to provide that confirmation stating only that the Board would be receiving an update on Tuesday.

So, Tuesaday it is.

This is one post where aShortChronicle really hope's the information received was off the mark, but if it was not, then Town Staff will certainly have some explaining to do.  Citizens should be on watch to see how forthcoming Staff is in this update.  aShortChronicle certainly will.

Monday, January 6, 2020

2019 saw major "cleaning" in Davidson, but 2020 poses further work to do.

Belated Happy New Year and welcome to the 2020's!

After taking a few weeks off from covering Davidson Town Hall, it is time to get back at it here at aShortChronicle.  For those keeping track, 2019 was a "slow" year for what this blog does, generating only 52 posts for the year.  That was the fewest by far of any year since the blog's inception at the beginning of 2012...down from an average of over 150 posts per year.  When things are going well, the regular news media can tell the story.  We're glad to let them do it since they get paid and we don't!  From that perspective, a slow year here at aShortChronicle means likely a good year for things here in town.

However, with 2019 now firmly in the rear view mirror, aShortChronicle wanted to take a few minutes to reflect back on what was accomplished last year in Davidson before looking to the challenges of 2020.

2019 was the year when the general mess left by the former administration(s) at Davidson Town Hall finally go cleaned up.  Is it "eat-off-the-floor clean" yet?  No, that would not be recommended.  But, for many there is no longer the sense Davidson Town Hall has a significant "sanitation problem" either.

Here is just some of the "cleaning" that happened during 2019.

  • Beaty Street Park became a reality with the land now protected under a permanent conservation easement.  This is a big one and is the culmination of the Save Davidson citizen uprising of 2017.
  • The Griffith Street Hotel saga came to an end with citizen plaintiffs settling with the Town to re-coup a portion of their attorney's fees.  The Town Planning Department and Town Attorney should now be on notice that they actually have to follow the rules.
  • The Public Facilities Bonds passed with just under 70% support.  This was slightly higher than Bonds passed in 2017 and a firm rebuke of the position the former regime held that citizens could not be trusted with a vote for something as important as Police/Fire and a new Town Hall.
  • Davidson and Mooresville sold Mi-Connection/Continuum and got the Towns out of the cable business.  More than a decade ago, citizens were not allowed to vote on purchasing the cable operation.  When Davidson citizens were allowed to vote on selling it, they voted 94% FOR the sale.
As a result of these things and others, Davidson's elected officials were all re-elected with minimal opposition.  There wasn't a divisive election season and the year ended on a high note with the closing of the Mi-Connection deal.

2020 may be a different story though as the cleaning crews over the last decade just hit the main public areas.  There's still unfinished work to be done in the garage, a junk drawer to clean out, and we won't even talk about the attic.

With the economy hitting on all cylinders managing growth will be a constant pressure and stopping bad smelling projects a consistent worry.  Here are some of the things that will likely swirl in the next 12 months that could make things messy again.
  • The Potts Street massive apartment complex still in legal limbo will likely get some sort of resolution.  This project if it goes forward will be something that forever changes that area of town.
  • Ditto for the Hoke Lumber redevelopment proposal.
  • The Davidson Commons East sites will also see more action with a new residential proposal already in the works on the south side of Woodies Auto. The former Griffith Street Hotel parcels also need to be watched now that they are back on the market.
  • Commercial projects like the ones already proposed at Exit 30 and on South main also need to be watched closely to make sure the designs mesh with the surroundings.
Citizen efforts like the one at this blog and to an even  greater degree the efforts of the group over at Save Davidson to keep things clean are often mischaracterizing as being "anti-development", but nothing really could be further from the truth.  Instead, these efforts are all about ensuring the right developments happen in the right places.  If that means working to sanitize some truly bad and foul smelling ideas when they come up, so be it.

Take a look sometime at the Town Planning Department page.  There are currently 30 projects on that page ranging from big to small, from residential to commercial.  The majority of them have never warranted even a mention by citizens much less organized opposition.  Why?  Because they are reasonable.  Because they are good.  Because they fit with the character of the town.

Now think about this.  What if citizens had never stood up against efforts like the Catalyst Project, or developing the Beaty Street land instead of keeping it as a park, or stopping the Griffith Street Hotel?  What would Davidson look like then?  Would it be recognizable as a picturesque small college town?  Or, would it be something much different.

All of those things were stopped in the last years of the last decade.  Things were kept clean by citizen cleaning crews.  It wasn't easy work, but things look pretty good now...on the outside.  In the 2020's it will be time to tackle the garage, the junk drawer, and maybe even that attic.