Greensboro council overturns apartment decision

by Jordan Green

Deloris Davis, a technology support specialist at UNCG who lives in the new Meadow Oaks subdivision in south Greensboro, was reeling from a city council vote the night before as she settled into her couch and opened a folder containing correspondence and city planning reports detailing the battle that has consumed her days for the past four months.

“I’m still trying to figure out what happened between May and now,” she said. “It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with these council members changing their vote. Did they get paid off?” Davis and her neighbors in predominantly African- American Meadow Oaks have been engaged in a pitched battle with Scott Wallace, the developer who sold them their homes. The last of 75 single-family homes closed on May 16; by then, Wallace had already gone before the city’s zoning commission to request a zoning change allowing him to put up a three-story apartment building on a parcel adjacent to the neighborhood. As a succession of empty house lots in K. Hovnanian Homes’ nearby Brookstone subdivision attests, home sales have dropped over a precipice, and housing demand has decisively shifted to the rental market. The answer to Davis’ question about whether the political process in Greensboro is rigged by campaign cash — at least according to the developer and the city council member — would be an emphatic no. But the sequence of events over the past several months has given Davis and her neighbors cause to wonder aloud. The request ended up before city council after residents appealed a favorable decision by the zoning commission in March. Council members voted to continue the request to allow the developer and the residents to fashion a compromise after the first city council hearing in April. Following the second hearing, the rezoning request was defeated in a 6-3 vote that saw the residents representative, District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small, joined by District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, Mayor Yvonne Johnson, at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and District 4 Councilman Mike Barber, prevail over Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, a homebuilder at the time, alongside District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. A month later, Barber asked that Wallace’s rezoning request be reconsidered. When the matter came before council again on July 15, Perkins and Rakestraw followed Barber over to the other side, giving the developer an overwhelming majority. Bellamy-Small and Wells were the lone holdouts, and the mayor, who participated in the meeting by telephone, persuaded her colleagues to allow her to abstain from the vote. So compelling were the Meadow Oaks residents’ arguments against the new apartment building that Kelly Hale, a resident of affluent Guilford Hills, was moved to speak in opposition at the council meeting — a rare occurrence of cross-town solidarity in Greensboro. “What you’re saying is that the northwest area where you live there’s a lot of space?” Bellamy-Small asked her. “There are some open fields, and yes, we have some property that’s not developed,” Hale replied. “We also have apartment buildings mixed in with single-family homes and they’re not right on top of each other. And if you saw the same photo I saw, then I’m surprised we’re here again for that issue.” (Hale’s item, a request to amend the generalized future land-use map for her neighborhood near Battleground Avenue from a commercial to residential designation, sailed through unamimously.) A visit to the site of the planned apartment building reveals a rather cramped parcel hemmed in between the meandering Meadow Oak Drive, the property line of resident Lawanda Smith, Business 85 and a wooded ravine, across which lies three preexisting apartment buildings, also built by Wallace’s company, Keystone Group. A Duke Power transmission line suspended by a pylon bisects the plot. Topmost among the residents’ arguments is that the additional apartment building will cause their houses to depreciate in value. Wallace struck back during the July 15 hearing by producing an article provided to him by the Triad Apartment Association arguing that, to the contrary, apartments enhance the value of surrounding properties. Several of the residents, including Mona Ndiaye — the last to close on her house — have said that sales representatives for Keystone Group misled them by telling them the property would be developed with townhouses or condos, or not at all. “My husband and I were not told about the apartment building,” Ndiaye said. “So being four houses down and looking down and seeing the apartment building is not what we invested our money for. “I did ask that, and at that time I was told that nothing was going to be there,” she said when asked if she inquired about plans for the empty lot. “We actually looked at two homes. We looked at one in Spicewood, which is further up and we looked at this one in Meadow Oaks, and had we known we would have picked the other one.” Wallace emphatically denied that any of his sales representatives lied to residents about Keystone Group’s plans.

“We had in our sales literature and maps that this property was multifamily,” he said. “I don’t see how there could be a misunderstanding.” The question of whether there was a causal relationship between the campaign cash and approval of the rezoning request or council members made their decisions purely based on the merits of the project is likely to remain unresolved, but Wallace’s contributions last year landed in almost perfect alignment with the breakdown of votes on July 15. And the developer demonstrated an uncanny ability to pick all winners in an election that saw almost half its seats turn over. Wallace contributed $1,000 to the campaign of Wade, a challenger who ousted incumbent Sandy Carmany and proved to be an early supporter of his request, while Groat and Matheny — who also lined up behind the developer in the first vote — received $500 contributions. Wallace also wrote $500 checks to Barber, Perkins and Rakestraw, who eventually crossed over, and to Johnson, who abstained. The only two races in which Wallace did not contribute to a candidate were districts 1 and 2, whose representatives voted against his request. “We want to encourage leaders that we feel will improve Greensboro,” Wallace said, when asked his motive for making the contributions. “We support candidates that will encourage a beautiful Greensboro, a vibrant economy and a quality of life that is unparalleled.” Perkins said the contribution he received did not influence his vote. “That five hundred dollars?” he said. “No.” The developer’s willingness to compromise, including offering to install a fence, plant trees underneath the power lines and push the apartment building back up against the interstate, swayed his decision, Perkins said. The councilman, who is the president of a commercial real estate company, added that the apartment building would help deaden sound from the interstate.

Barber and Rakestraw did not returncalls requesting comment about their votes. Matheny, who did not changehis vote, said the council has applied its comprehensive plan torezoning decisions with more consistency than critics acknowledge. Thecurrent council has pushed through a number of infill projects in thenorthwestern quadrant of the city that ran up against shrill oppositionfrom neighboring residents, including a 7-2 decision allowing aWalgreens drug store to be built next to a residential neighborhood offNew Garden Road and a 5-3 vote allowing apartments to be built nearsingle family homes south of Friendly Avenue — both in February — alongwith an 8-1 vote to rezone property near Guilford County fromresidential to high intensity office in January. In a rare exceptionlast month, the council unanimously turned down a developer who soughtto change property on North Elm Street from single-family tomulti-family residential zoning. Bellamy-Small pleaded withher colleagues to block Keystone Group’s rezoning request. “We need tobe sensitive to all our citizens who we say we want them to have theAmerican Dream,” she said. “Those apartments are huge. If you come down85, all of sudden you see these big, huge buildings…. I think we oughtto be compassionate enough to know this is not a compatible use.”Matheny congratulated Wallace before casting his vote. “Any companythat sells seventy five homes in one community is doing somethingright,” he said. “I think it would behoove the neighborhood to havethis development.” Davis, the self-described ringleader of theMeadow Oaks residents, remains unconvinced. “They’re not for thecitizens,” she said of the council. “They’re for the developers,”

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