07/08/09 — County reviews zoning request by Keen

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County reviews zoning request by Keen

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 8, 2009 1:43 PM

Comments that appeared to hold promise of a contentious vote Tuesday morning instead ended up in an almost comment-free 6-0 initial approval of county Commissioner Steve Keen's rezoning request.

County attorney Borden Parker told commissioners that since Keen recused himself from the vote that a second vote would be required. The board will not meet again until Tuesday, Aug. 4.

Commissioners Jack Best and John Bell during commissioners' briefing session voiced worry that the pending vote would give the public a perception of a double standard on the board's part.

They also suggested the need might exist for the board to revisit a request from developer John T. Bell, not the commissioner, which raised a firestorm of protest in the Rosewood community -- the same area were Keen's property is located.

Bell had sought the county's endorsement to apply for grant funds to assist in developing a low-to-moderate-income rental project. The county would have received the funds, then loaned the money to Bell who would have repaid it with interest. The county has done so on other past projects.

When word of Bell's project spread, angry residents of the Rosewood community organized opposition and descended on commissioners.

Commissioners referred the project back to the Planning Board. Bell did not pursue the county's involvement and instead is moving forward without the county's endorsement.

If he can secure funding, there is no zoning in place that would prevent him proceeding.

Keen, who is also a member of the Planning Board, along with responding to Best and Bell, urged the two to repeat their comments during the televised portion of the board meeting implying that newspaper coverage of his request had been more contrived than factual. He offered no supporting comments.

During an earlier article, Keen turned his back and walked away after being asked for comment. Nor did he respond to a request to a telephone interview.

The regular meeting produced few comments.

"We are in a difficult time in the county and we need to do everything we can to help ourselves," said Commision-er Andy Anderson, who made the motion to approve the request. "I think the project will help the county tax base."

He said he adjoining property owners had been contacted and that it appeared safety concerns about traffic on U.S. 70 near the site were being addressed by the state Department of Transportation.

"As I have said, I have no problem with the project," Commissioner Bell said. "I think we owe it to John Bell to go back and look at his project. I think this (vote) will look funny. Something needs to be done."

Before the vote, Best repeated that a second reading and vote would be required before the request is officially approved.

Keen has petitioned the county to rezone 70 acres located south of U.S. 70 west of Goldsboro just east of N.C. 581 where he plans a mixture of commercial and residential development.

It was during the briefing session that Commissioner Bell noted that a letter from developer Bell indicated that he plans to continue his housing project.

Commissioner Bell questioned why commissioners refused to endorse it even though it was "OK and in-line."

"Do we have a double standard?" he said.

Best said Keen's project was "well planned out" and would be a "nice addition" to the county.

However, he said that in his mind there could be public perception of a double standard.

"Somebody went out and told them (Rosewood-area residents) things that were not true (about developer Bell's project)," Best said.

The residents, he said, argued Bell's project would overcrowd the schools, create safety hazards on a busy U.S. 70 and would lower their property values.

"I just don't know if we have a double standard or not, but I think the public will see that," he said.

Keen's project, he said, would put more people out there than Bell's would.

Best said he understood that adjoining property owner David Weil plans to build a road that would connect to N.C. 581 thereby eliminating the U.S. 70 highway safety issue.

Best asked Keen when Weil would build the road.

"You need to ask him," Keen said.

As for school overcrowding, schools assistant superintendent Sprunt Hill "will have to work on that. They have three nice schools out there," Best said

However, he again renewed his concerns about perception of a double standard.

Keen said he wanted to be careful about commenting since he had been recusing himself. Parker said that there should be no problem since the briefing session was not the same as a regular board meeting.

"The Planning Board and this board and the planning director have said over and over that each project stands on its own merit," Keen said.

Best again said his issue was about perception and that Keen's project was a good one with its mix of residential and commercial.

Speaking of commercial, Keen said that the county's sales tax revenues are down by roughly $2.2 million indicating a loss of $100 million in retail sales.

The land where the Rosewood Wal-Mart is located was worth $300,000 before the store was built and is now valued at $14 million, he said. It creates $160,000 in property tax revenue, generates retail sales and employs many people, he added.

He said that developer Bell's project was about a $2 million investment compared to an estimated value of $17 million for his. In addition, he said that the Bell project was for rental units.

County Planning Director Connie Price said the residential zoning sought by Keen would allow site-built houses only.

There is, Keen said, a difference between his and Bell's projects.

"To some extent," Best said.

"To all extents," Keen said.

Keen said his goal was to increase property values and thereby increase the property taxes received by the county.

"Mr. Bell was trying to do the same thing," Best said.