Zoning Commission Gives
Trader Joe’s First Round Win
Despite a roomful of opponents, the Greensboro Zoning Commission voted 8 to 1 on Monday, Feb. 10 to rezone land for a Trader Joe’s grocery store on the northwest corner of the intersection of West Friendly Avenue and Hobbs Road.
All of the zoning commissioners except James Griffin were swayed by the arguments of the applicant – Centennial American Properties (CAP) Development LLC of Greenville, South Carolina – that 6.7 acres between Hobbs Road and the First Lutheran Church at 3600 W. Friendly Ave. was too valuable for residential development, contained decaying houses and was bound to be commercially developed eventually.
The Zoning Commission voted to approve CAP Development’s request to rezone the land from Residential (R-5) to Conditional District-Commercial-Medium (CD-CM).
The City Council chambers at city hall were full, mostly of supporters of the Friendly Coalition, a group whose leaders said it represents residents of 14 neighborhoods along Friendly Avenue who oppose the rezoning request.
Scott Kinsey, one of the three co-chairs of the Friendly Coalition steering committee, acknowledged that his group didn’t have agreements with homeowners’ associations and couldn’t claim to represent each neighborhood as a whole. He said that the Friendly Coalition has 400 people on its mailing list and suggested that the commissioners count the emails in their inboxes to judge the extent of support and opposition to the request.
Zoning Commissioner Rick Pinto said that he had done just that, and that 85 percent of the hundreds of emails he had received were in favor of the rezoning request.
“I don’t think this is a close call,” Pinto said. “I don’t think this piece of property can remain residential.”
The Friendly Coalition had, however, filled rooms at meetings against the rezoning request, and other commissioners said they had received many emails against the rezoning.
Griffin said, “I just find it difficult to support the development that, first of all, the neighborhood doesn’t want, and they don’t need, and for that reason, I will be voting no.”
Opponents of the rezoning request had argued that Hobbs Road should be the breakwater against commercial development extending further west down Friendly Avenue. The Zoning Commission’s vote is a recommendation to the Greensboro City Council for approval. If the City Council approves the rezoning request, that breakwater will move to Holden Road.
There is already an office building, the Friendly Holden Building, between the First Lutheran Church and Holden Road. Beyond Holden Road, Friendly Avenue is lined with houses and churches for two miles.
Pinto said, “Once you pass Holden, it’s a different story.”
Attorney Tom Terrell of Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP, who represented CAP Development, argued that the Trader Joe’s would be a classic infill development between The Shops at Friendly Center and the First Lutheran Church and the Friendly Holden Building.
CAP Development’s rezoning request is the second in two years from a developer wanting to build a Trader Joe’s on this property. Two years ago, Regency Centers Corp. dropped an attempt to get the land rezoned before the request made it to the Zoning Commission.
Terrell, the zoning commissioners and even opponents of the development agreed that the CAP Development proposal was much better than that by Regency Centers.
CAP Development agreed to numerous conditions on the rezoning, including limiting the size of the two buildings to 16,000 and 20,000 square feet, agreeing to a 55-foot setback from Friendly Avenue and limiting access to one driveway on Friendly Avenue and one on Hobbs Road.
The developer also agreed to a 180-foot buffer of trees and bushes and a 5-foot berm topped by a 6ix-foot wall between the buildings and the rear of the new and expensive houses on Hobbs Landing Court.
Terrell said, “I would argue that it’s the most expensive buffer ever dedicated in the City of Greensboro.”
The properties the Zoning Commission voted to rezone include six parcels and four houses. Terrell said three of the houses are vacant rental properties and the fourth is in foreclosure.
Zoning Commission Chairman Mary Skenes kicked off the hearing by telling those who wanted to speak to line up against the wall of the City Council chamber so they wouldn’t waste part of their speaking time walking to the lectern.
Skenes said, “I know we’re probably going to have a lot of speakers tonight.”
In fact, the Zoning Commission heard remarkably few. Terrell and CAP President Brody Glenn spoke in favor of the request. The Friendly Coalition members let Kinsey and fellow steering committee co-chair Mark O’Connor do the talking for the group.
The opponents of the rezoning request, who stood up to show that they filled almost all of the chamber, were mostly quiet, although they cut loose a few times.
“Why this property?” Zoning Commissioner Russ Parmele asked Glenn at one point. “You can do this development on almost any property in Greensboro.”
The audience erupted in applause.
Skenes warned, “I’ll clear this room in a heartbeat.”
Glenn answered Parmele’s question calmly, saying the land was centrally located and was next to a million square feet of high-end retail space at The Shops at Friendly Center.
“Trader’s will probably only do one store in Greensboro,” Glenn said. “If they went somewhere else and didn’t do well, then the sustainability of that development wouldn’t be great.”
Terrell said, “This is where high-end retailers in Greensboro want to be.”
Much of the debate centered on the proposed development’s effect on property values and traffic.
Proponents of the development said a market study had shown that property tax assessments near Friendly Center and The Shops at Friendly Center increased far more than the Greensboro average between the 2004 and 2012.
O’Connor argued that homeowners who bought after the 2008 real estate market crash may have made money, but those who bought before 2008 didn’t.
“Do we really think that property values have increased in that time?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
Opponents of the development argued that it would cause a hazardous increase in traffic affecting surrounding schools. Terrell said a traffic study commissioned by the developer showed that 33,000 cars a day now go through the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Holden Road, and that the development would increase that number by 1,200.
Asked how much that would slow traffic at the intersection, John Davenport, of Davenport Transportation Consulting in Winston-Salem, said, “We’re probably talking about less than a second delay.”
Davenport’s estimate drew some laughter from the audience.
In the weeks running up to the Zoning Commission hearing, the debate over the Trader Joe’s development wandered down avenues that turned out to be irrelevant dead ends.
Friendly Coalition members argued that the parcels, which were originally developed by Starmount Co., had restrictive covenants that prohibited them from being used for commercial developments.
Greensboro Assistant City Attorney Tom Carruthers told the zoning commissioners to ignore the covenants, because they were private contracts that could only be enforced by a court of law.
Carruthers said, “The short answer is that restrictive covenants are not properly considered by the Zoning Commission in making its determination.”
Opponents of the development also argued that, when The Shops at Friendly Center were built, a gentlemen’s agreement between the developer and the city guaranteed it would be the last commercial development extending westward along Friendly Avenue.
O’Connor called the gentlemen’s agreement “very real,” but several zoning commissioners said they had spent days trying to find a record of such an agreement without success.
Terrell said that cities don’t have gentlemen’s agreements.
“There was no gentlemen’s agreement,” he said. “It’s an urban myth that has gathered intensity over time.”
By Paul C. Clark
February 13, 2014
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