The next budget workshop will be on Monday at 4pm. You can find the agenda and a link to the livestream here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Org=Cal&Id=428

This will be the final workshop before the public hearing on the budget on June 1. It doesn’t sound like there have been any substantive changes to the budget proposal from what was presented in the initial workshop – but if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.

We will also be considering the creation of a Downtown “Al Fresco” Program. You may have seen other cities/towns (especially in other states) allow their restaurants the use of public streets for temporary seating as a way to enable the restaurants to reopen while also maintaining appropriate distancing. This would effectively be our version of that. We will learn more about the proposal on Monday, but the general idea is to allow downtown restaurants to set up tables on Main Street for the Friday and Saturday dinner hours (assuming that the governor proceeds with allowing outdoor dining next week). I think this is a great idea, and I am very interested in learning more about it.

We will also be hearing an update on the potential partnership between the City and the Montcross Chamber that would allow the Chamber to lease space in City Hall (for their offices) that will become vacant once the new public works building is complete.

We will also be reviewing a plan to construct a sidewalk from the new Belmont Middle School up to the current high school. The City, Gaston County Schools, and the developer of the McKee Farms retail project are building different sections of the sidewalk, and the project should greatly enhance the walkability of that area, which will be particularly important when the new middle school opens.

An update from this week’s City Council meeting and other goings-on:We will be having a special meeting on Monday, May 11 at 4pm to review our Stormwater Management Program. We will be reviewing the scope of the program (what it does and what it doesn’t do) and the Stormwater Capital Program for the next fiscal year. You can find the agenda and a link to listen to the livestream here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Org=Cal&Id=441

From our regular meeting this week:

-We endorsed two grant applications (from the Carolina Thread Trail) for the Abbey Creek Greenway and Rocky Branch Park Enhancement Project

-We also formally adopted the Small Business Emergency Loan Program under the City’s statutory authority for economic development

-We also had a very productive conversation around the code enforcement issue on Cason Street in North Belmont. We decided on a final deadline for compliance of August 14 (which is one year from when the building was officially found to be non-compliant with our ordinance), whereby if the building is not brought into compliance by that date, our intent would be to adopt the demolition ordinance at our August 17 meeting that would allow for the removal of the building. The property owner had originally proposed a final finish date that was well into October. I believe that we have already been exceedingly generous with our handling of this situation, and I do not want to see this issue continue to linger into the fall. So, for me, the building either needs to become compliant or needs to be gone by August.

-As mentioned previously, as of today, all park facilities (except for bathrooms and playgrounds) are now open. Please be sure to continue to practice social distancing as you use the parks. You’ll see helpful reminders posted around the parks that will help you use the parks safely.

The next City Council meeting will be Monday (5/4) at 6:45pm. This will be another virtual meeting, so we will be following the same process that we used last month for public comment. If you’d like to make a public comment, you may email your comments to the city clerk, and they will be read aloud at the meeting. You can access the livestream at cityofbelmont.org/livemeetings

-We will be receiving an update on the Rocky Branch Park Enhancement Project

-We will also be considering several technical changes to our land use ordinance to make it consistent with recent changes in state law.

-There will also be a public hearing on the Small Business Emergency Loan Program. This is part of the formal ratification process for this program. It was initially established under the temporary authorities invoked by our local state of emergency, but this process will ratify the program under the economic developments statutes, which avoids some legal complications once the state of emergency ends. If you would like to submit a comment for this hearing, simply email it to the city clerk.

-We will also be receiving an update on the status of the code enforcement case for the property at 951 Cason Street in North Belmont

-We will also be considering a plan that involves the construction of bike lanes and sidewalks along Woodlawn Street as part of NCDOT’s next funding cycle.

The agenda for the meeting (along with all supporting information) can be found here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Org=Cal&Id=331

Here’s a quick update from our City Council workshop this week:

-The current budget proposal from staff is basically a hold-the-line budget, which makes sense given the current very fluid situation. It calls for leaving all taxes, fees, etc. unchanged for the upcoming fiscal year. So, residents will see no change in their tax or utility bills. Because we are less likely to see property development of all types (commercial, residential, industrial) in the current economic environment, it is projecting a smaller increase in property tax receipts next year (3%) as well as a 3.5% reduction in sales tax receipts coming into the City. The proposed budget uses pretty conservative estimates for next year, so while I am looking forward to the lifting of the shut-down orders, we are well-prepared in the event that they are continued for several more weeks. You can find a copy of the budget presentation here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/document/21012/5690AA89120941A390872577450672E2-.pdf?handle=F531A685AAF546F8AEDFC6B11B48149F

We also decided to accept offers to purchase part of a city-owned parcel at the corner of South Main Street and Myrtle Street. The city’s lot abuts the current home to Two Chicks and Garibaldi Realty, and the offer is to purchase the slice of the lot that currently houses Two Chicks’ outdoor patio and a small piece directly behind the building. We will make a final decision on the sale once the bidding period ends (which is 10 days after the last bid is received).

-We also received an update on the code enforcement case for 951 Cason Street (the old mill across from Linford Park). The property owner has indicated that he will have the front side of his building fixed by May 31, the roof done by August 1, and the back side finished by October 1. Council requested that he obtain the necessary permits to complete this work by our May meeting (on 5/4), and we will receive another update on this case at that time.

City Council will be holding a special meeting on Monday at 4:30 to consider a Small Business Emergency Loan Program. The meeting will be virtual (i.e. a conference call), and I will post call-in information for anyone who wants to listen once that is available.

This emergency loan program is the result of an idea that I pitched to our city manager as a way to address the cash flow issues that many of our small businesses are now facing as a result of the shutdown orders that have forced many of them to severely curtail or, in many cases, completely reinvent their businesses. After a lot of collaboration with Adrian and his team, I think we have come up with a very workable solution.

The Montcross Area Chamber of Commerce recently did a survey of local businesses following the initial round of shut-down orders. Of those that responded, 80% indicated that they were concerned with cash flow issues, and 63% said that they needed resources for recovery funding for business operations and revenue disruption. This program is designed to address these short-term cash flow needs (allowing them to pay rent, utilities, payroll, etc.) and allow these businesses to remain open and solvent until they are able to tap more long-term state and federal assistance that is slowly working its way through the system but is still likely weeks away.

This is the general outline of the program:

-Funding will be available for up to 40 loans of $10,000 each for small businesses in Belmont-The loans will be unsecured with a term of 36-months and an interest rate of 7%

-No payments will be required within the first 12 months of the loan-

A three-person staff committee will review and approve loan applications with oversight by the city manager and city council

-Funding for this program will come from the $400,000 budgeted surplus that was scheduled to go into the city savings account at the end of the fiscal year. So, there will be no impact to other areas of the budget.

You can find a more complete outline of the program here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/document/20709/AAC650ABBB874BC69D523F1A3065EBC5-.pdf?handle=3936F9BDE52049B8BDE96CF729AF770A

The idea is that these loans will address the immediate cash needs of our small businesses now and, then when they have been able to tap into SBA assistance, etc. later, they can roll these loans over into that assistance.

I am, of course, interested to hear your feedback on this (especially from our small business owners). Belmont has spent many years building up what I think is a very vibrant small businesses environment that is an integral part of our community. So, I want to make sure that we are doing what we can to help them weather a storm that no one could have predicted or planned for.

Mount Holly Loop Map

Here’s a quick update from last week’s City Council meeting (all votes on these items were 5-0):

  • For the buildings on Cason Street and Wilkinson Blvd facing potential demolition, City Council opted to grant another extension to the Wilkinson Blvd property as the property owners are continuing to make good-faith efforts to rehabilitate that building. For the Cason Street property, City Council granted a 15-day extension, with the option to obtain another 15 days if a fence is installed around the property. As you may recall, one of the asks we made of this particular property back in December was erecting some sort of fencing around the building as a safety measure given its proximity to Linford Park. As of last week, there was still no fence (although there was some evidence that the property owner had begun clearing out debris that afternoon). We will receive another update on this property at our March meeting.
  • City Council also decided to maintain our existing policy regarding consumption of alcoholic beverages in our parks (which means that the prohibition will remain in place). I think it is important to protect the family-friendly nature of our parks (particularly important to me as the father of a one-year-old), so I was happy to support the existing policy.
  • We also passed a resolution supporting the list of Belmont road projects to be considered in the next round of transportation funding, which will be submitted as an official comment to the MPO (a map of one of the projects is attached to this post). The MPO will continue to solicit public feedback on the list of projects through March 1. For more information go to https://gclmpo.org/how-to-get-involved/public-involvement/.
  • City Council has also decided to consolidate what have been a series of committee meetings into a monthly workshop on the third Monday of each month, beginning in March. These workshops will also give us an opportunity to spend a little more time working through more complicated issues before they are presented in the regular business meeting (on the first Monday of the month). I think this a great enhancement to our process and will help drive more fruitful conversation about the topics before us while being a more efficient use of everyone’s time.
Belmont Economic Development

Thursday night’s special meeting of the City Council saw the initial requests for economic development incentives from the City of Belmont for the Chronicle Mill and River West Business Park projects. There was no vote taken on these, but they will likely come up for a vote at the regular January 6th meeting. Below is a summary of each request:

Chronicle Mill

The developers of Chronicle Mill are seeking what is effectively a refund of 70% of their property taxes over five years once the redevelopment of the mill is complete. The way this would work is that the property owner would pay the full tax each year – but then at the end of the year Belmont would refund 70% of the taxes paid back to the property owner as the economic development incentive. According to the developer’s presentation the other night, the total cost/refund amount would be approximately $388,000 over the course of five years.

Beyond the question of whether the city should be in the business of subsidizing apartment buildings in the first place, my other concern is that it’s not clear to me what benefit the city is supposed to obtain by making this grant. There are no new enhancements being proposed beyond what is already a part of the project plan that the city council just approved a few weeks ago. There was a lot of talk about the economic benefits of having so many people close to downtown – which while true, would also be true of any 5-story apartment building built near downtown. The job growth from this project is also pretty small. According to the developer’s presentation, up to 22 “long-term” jobs will be created by whatever businesses choose to lease space from the ground-level units, while the developer itself will hire about 5 people to run and manage the apartment complex. I see very little tangible public benefit here, which also raises potential legal issues for such a deal.

Another interesting facet of the conversation was this idea that the grants were somehow “free” since what Belmont would effectively be doing is refunding a portion (70%) of the taxes that had already been paid. But that misses an important point. The property owner is legally obligated to pay those property taxes. On the other hand, the city is under no obligation to pay these grants (unless it chooses to enter into this agreement). It’s an expenditure like anything else, except instead of cutting a check to somebody for new playground equipment or new sidewalks, we’d be cutting a check to a developer for…? It’s important to remember that a choice to spend money on these grants is also a choice not to spend money on something else.

River West Business Park

The River West economic development incentives are aimed at obtaining financial support from Belmont for some of the TIA (Traffic Impact Analysis) improvements that were incorporated as conditions of this plan’s conditional rezoning. Per the developer, the total cost of all the improvements (which includes the areas around Woodlawn Street, Acme Road, and Cason Street) is approximately $1.9MM. The total ask from Belmont is undetermined at this point, but their primary interest seemed to be around the improvements that were required at the intersection of Acme Road and Woodlawn Street (where it is currently fairly dangerous to make a turn from Acme onto Woodlawn due to a sharp curve and significant hill right at that intersection).

Personally, I think it would have made a lot of sense to have this conversation about who pays for what within the larger context of the conditional rezoning process that just wrapped up a few weeks ago. Being able to negotiate all of this at the same time makes sense from a process stand point and would also likely save everyone some time.

Regarding this project in particular, I think a lot of it will come down to how much the developer is expecting the city to contribute and whether it makes sense to accelerate the improvements at this intersection ahead of other identified needs on Belmont’s capital improvement plan (since money spent on this is money that can’t be spent on other projects). So, this one is worth keeping an eye on.

Chronicle Mill Belmont NC

There were two big projects before the Planning & Zoning board last night. Here are some of my thoughts:

Adding a Story to Chronicle Mill

As a bona fide history nerd, I certainly appreciate the value and importance of buildings such as Chronicle Mill. Especially given the mill’s importance to the history of Belmont in particular, we should be looking for creative ways to preserve those parts of our history.

The project proposal includes adding an additional story (for a total of 5 stories) and 25 apartments (for 240 total) on the top of the mill. Right now, the ordinance sets the maximum building height at 3 stories. I have the same concerns as other people at the meeting around this excess building height, as this development takes advantage of some vagueries in the land development code about how the height of a building should be measured. In my opinion, we need to update the ordinance to clearly spell out how building heights are measured (and from where they are measured). I don’t think there’s any real good policy reason to effectively grant a “bonus” level for developments that happen to be built on hilly lots. I think that could have a lot of unintended consequences and result in projects with higher densities than were initially planned for.

Second and notably, there aren’t enough parking spaces in the current site plan to meet the parking requirements spelled out in the land use ordinance. The Chronicle Mill development would have 240 apartments, 10 town homes, and 10,000 sqft of retail. We have to think about the impact this is going to have on the local neighborhood, especially with regard to traffic and parking. This issue was basically punted to city council, but the traffic mitigation piece is really up in the air, and I don’t see how it makes sense to move forward on something like this without (at the very least) having that figured out.

North Belmont Warehouse Project

There was also a project presented that would build 2-4 warehouses on an industrial site off Woodlawn Street. Per the Gazette, the site would potentially create 250-350 jobs once the site was built out and leased. Our Pedestrian Master Plan does call for 8-foot sidewalks in that area (along Woodlawn and Acme Streets) both in recognition of some significant pedestrian activity that already occurs there but also in anticipation of additional student housing being installed in that area at some point in the future.

So, I was really disappointed to see the sidewalk and pedestrian improvement requirements basically tossed right out the window. In the same vein as the building height issue noted above, I don’t understand why we spend all of this time planning only to cast it aside as soon as a developer threatens to walk. Does anyone really think that they’re going to walk from a $35 Million project over a couple of sidewalks? I think there were a lot of valid points raised about pedestrian safety and the potential for more development in that area that the city will need to address sooner or later. And the developer didn’t really provide any reason for not doing the improvements beyond basically just not wanting to do them. I think economic development is important for the city, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold the development to our plan.

Belmont Apartments

At the Montcross Chamber candidates forum last week, there was a lot of talk about growth – which makes sense given the mess that our roads are in, an ever-rising cost of living, and schools that have more students than seats. So, it was quite concerning to hear the three candidates who have perhaps more than anyone given the green light to the development currently overwhelming the city (through their current positions on city council and the zoning board) indicate that not only do they not get it, they actually want to accelerate it.

In the course of a discussion on the light rail (which according to current plans would pass through the Wilkinson Blvd corridor), these three candidates said that we actually need to bring in even more apartment development along Wilkinson Blvd so that there’s more people around to ride the light rail. This is exactly wrong for three reasons:

  1. Clearly none of these three commute up and down the 74/85 corridor every day. If they did, they’d realize that traffic there is already a mess, so throwing in a bunch of high-density, multi-story apartment buildings is only going to make getting up and down Wilkinson that much worse. The light rail is not some magical solution that will make all of our traffic woes disappear. At best, it will take some traffic off the road – but if you don’t control growth along Wilkinson, then whatever car trips you’re saving will quickly be overwhelmed by all the new car trips generated by the brand-new apartment buildings.
  2. CATS (Charlotte’s transit system) always overestimates how many people will end up using the light rail. The Blue Line Extension has been open for about 18 months now – and ridership is still about 10,000 riders less than what Charlotte initially projected for the line. So, this idea that everyone who lives in these shiny new apartment buildings is just going to hop on the light rail and never drive anywhere is pure fantasy. Sure, some of those people may ride the light rail, but most won’t.
  3. We really need to get away from this build now and ask questions later approach to development. If there’s anything to be learned from the situation down on South Point Road, it’s that you can’t build a bunch of housing and then hope somebody else (the state, the county, Charlotte?) will swoop in and save us from ourselves. Currently, the Silver Line is nothing more than an unfunded line on a map, which even in a best-case scenario won’t be operational until at least 2030. Has anyone considered what we’re supposed to do if we build out Wilkinson and the light rail gets pushed out to a 2035 or 2040 opening? What if the project gets cancelled? It’s happened in NC before.

What we need is careful, thoughtful planning based on the actual facts on the ground. Planning for the light rail is important, but it’s imprudent to unleash an avalanche of apartment development on Wilkinson in anticipation of a project that may or may not ever happen.