An update on this week’s meeting and other goings-on:

We had a productive workshop meeting on Monday. We authorized the Kayak Rental Program with the Riverkeepers, the Utility Repayment Program for outstanding water/sewer bills, and the contract for the South Main Street sidewalk enhancements (all of which you find here:https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Id=430).

We also had a very good conversation around our planning and development process. I have talked with staff about the need to get more public input earlier in the development process so that residents can have a meaningful impact on whatever project is being proposed and have an opportunity to provide input before a lot of the key components of a project are already locked in. So, the planning staff presented a series of proposals for what I think will be a great improvement to our process. One of the biggest changes is that the community meeting (where the developer does a public presentation for anyone interested in the project and is a chance to gather input from the community) will be held much earlier in the process. There will also be individual web pages for each project that have all of the relevant plans and documents in one place and will also include a timeline that shows where each project is in the development process. There will also be much more consistent usage of the Zoning Notice signs and, those signs will have more information on them that will direct passers-by to the relevant project web page (by means of a QR code or other code) to make it easier to find information about each project. These changes will still need to go through the Planning Board and then be approved by the City Council, but I think we’re making good progress on this front.

We also spent some time talking about potential changes to things like increasing the setbacks between houses and switching our major redevelopment process from a largely by-right process (which is what it is today) to a conditional rezoning process (which is what most other cities and towns use). These are also changes that would need to go through the Planning Board before they come to Council, so we are looking at holding a joint meeting with the Planning Board in the next few weeks to flesh out some of these changes. So, more to come on those.
This week, the City Council also took a tour of the Carolina Orchards development in Fort Mill. The developer of that project is exploring the possibility of doing something similar (an age-restricted senior living community) along the northern third of the Pittenger Property (which is a large piece of land south of Armstrong Ford Road that runs along the South Fork River). There will likely be more to come on that in the next few weeks.
The next City Council workshop is Monday, July 20 at 4pm at TechWorks. The livestream will continue to be available at cityofbelmont.org/livemeetings.
 
During this meeting, we will be taking a look at our major development process for land use and zoning decisions. Staff will provide a presentation on our current state, and then Council will discuss potential improvements to the process. Some of the things we’ll be looking at are facilitating public input earlier in the process, use of conditional rezoning vs. by-right development, and residential building setbacks. This will be an important conversation and do a lot to inform how we approach new development for the next few years.
 
We will also be considering a utility repayment plan to help rehabilitate past-due water and sewer accounts once the Governor’s moratorium on utility disconnections expires on July 29. There is currently about $100k in outstanding balances due to the city and, the proposed plan will allow customers with past-due accounts up to 6 months to pay off their balances, balancing the needs of our customers while ensuring that we continue to manage our utility fund in a fiscally responsible manner.
 
The Catawba Riverkeepers have also approached the city about operating a kayak rental program at Kevin Loftin Park. The city owns several kayaks that were purchased with the intent of operating our own program, however staffing and other costs associated with such a program have complicated its roll-out. The agreement with the Riverkeepers would allow them to operate their own program (as a fundraiser) with the city responsible for providing the kayaks (which we already own) and the Riverkeepers responsible for the operating expenses and liability. City residents would be eligible for a discount on the hourly rental rates. This seems like a good way to get a kayaking program started and creates a win-win for the city and the Riverkeepers.
 
The final item on the agenda is a contract that would rehabilitate the sidewalk along South Main Street between Oak Street and Eagle Road and then extend it from Belmont Reserve to Dogwood Lane.
 
You can find the full agenda here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Org=Cal&Id=430
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.

Belmont's Speeding

Typically, when we think of Belmont’s traffic problems, we think of congestion, particularly on the city’s main roads – South Point, Wilkinson Blvd, etc. However, there’s another side to this problem that may not seem immediately obvious – speeding.

What happens is that once the main roads start to back up (especially at rush hour), people start looking for alternate routes, which usually involves frustrated commuters cutting through adjoining neighborhoods (and often at high rates of speed). Julia Avenue is one street that recently received some attention around this, but I’ve met with a lot of concerned residents who have told me that this is a problem in a lot of neighborhoods throughout the city.

And it’s really a safety issue. In a lot of the areas where this is a problem, the speed limit is only 35 mph (and sometimes only 20 mph), which is generally what you want in a relatively quiet residential area where people are out walking, kids are playing in the street, etc. However, if a car comes through that area at even 45 or 50 mph, that creates some significant risks for people who may just be out enjoying their neighborhoods.

As Belmont’s traffic gets worse, I would expect that problems like this will only continue to increase. But this is all the more reason why we need to be fully considering the impacts of development on our community before we green-light them. We need to be recognizing not only the initial impacts to congestion on our main thoroughfares, but also the secondary impacts on the neighborhoods that feed into them. One development doesn’t just impact one neighborhood, it ripples throughout the entire city.

Belmont Water Sprinkler

Are water bills in Belmont higher than in other municipalities? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately, so I decided to do some research and find out!

Our friends at the UNC School of Government have a pretty robust water and sewer rate dashboard that lets you compare rates in Belmont with every other municipality in the state. You can even select different comparison groups to compare Belmont to various different collections of cities: cities within the same watershed, cities of the same size, cities within different distances, etc. If you really want to see how we compare to other cities, this is a great tool.

So, I set Belmont as my main city and then set the comparison group to all cities/towns within 25 miles of Belmont. Here is the resulting dashboard:

Belmont Water Rates
Source: UNC SOG Environmental Finance Center

With 5000 gallons of usage, the combined (monthly) water/sewer bill for a Belmont resident is $81.24 (note that this is based on the “In City” rate – the “Out of City” rate is roughly double this). This is above the average rate of $74.92 for municipalities within 25 miles of ours (including Charlotte, Mount Holly, Gastonia, etc.). The darkest shade of green on the Bill Comparison dial represents the range of rates for the middle 50% of municipalities – and you can see that we fall just outside the high end of that range. So, our rates aren’t the highest in the area, but they are higher than more than half of the surrounding towns/cities.

Changes Coming to Sewer Service

Something else to keep an eye on is the pending interlocal agreement between Belmont and the City of Charlotte that would have Belmont pump its wastewater under the Catawba to be treated by Charlotte Water at a new wastewater treatment plant in Charlotte. It will be interesting to see what impact that has on rates, as Belmont will need to buy additional sewage treatment capacity from Charlotte as we continue to grow.

As part of the agreement, Belmont will pay $9.3 million (and up to $9.6 million) to access the new treatment plant in Charlotte in order to avoid paying approximately $14.3 million to upgrade Belmont’s existing plant (the cost of a brand new plant would be considerably higher). Of course, once the plant comes online, the agreement gives Charlotte the ability to set rates for sewer treatment (which presumably would be passed on to Belmont sewer customers).

Right now, Charlotte sewer rates are pretty close to Belmont’s – but it would be valuable to see a little more information provided around rate projections for Belmont residents to allow some comparisons on the impact to household bills both with and without this project. Will we see any significant change in rates as a result of this project (versus what they otherwise would have been)?

A regional partnership like this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as there some economies of scale to be gained), but we should be considering the impacts on residents (i.e. ratepayers) before engaging in projects like this (especially since this particular agreement doesn’t sunset for 99 years). The city is supposed to be preparing some estimates in advance of a discussion of this at next week’s council meeting, which unfortunately means there likely won’t be much time to review them before there’s a formal vote. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Child Confused Belmont Schools

As I’ve talked to people about the growth that’s flooding in around us, crowding in Belmont schools keeps coming up. Winston is still a couple years off from school, but with my curiosity aroused, I decided to take a look. Using data from the Department of Public Instruction’s scorecard data site, I was able to pull this table together:

SchoolInstructional CapacityEnrollment% Full
Belmont Central619726117%
Belmont Middle70769999%
Catawba Heights41133481%
JB Page Primary339345102%
North Belmont Elem.41137591%
South Point High1061101996%
All Belmont Schools3548349899%

The % Full column is just a measure of how large the enrollment at each school is relative to its instructional capacity, which (according to the Gazette) is the “number of available seats in regular classrooms within a school”. There is also some allowance for things like the gym, the band room, etc. The grand total line at the bottom adds up the total enrollment and capacity numbers across all schools in Belmont.

Using that as our gauge of how many students a school can reasonably teach, those numbers are pretty startling. You already have two schools (Belmont Central and JB Page) that are over 100% and another two that are within spitting distance of full capacity (Belmont Middle and South Point High). North Belmont and Catawba Heights have room for about another 100 students – which sounds like a lot until you consider that another project like the Morris development would completely overwhelm those schools.

For a 325-unit development like the Morris, if we use the Census average of 0.58 children (under 18) per household, that gives us 189 children in just that one development that then have to be absorbed by some combination of Page & Belmont Central, Belmont Middle, and South Point – all schools that are already at or near capacity. Fortunately, by the time some of the younger ones hit middle school, the new Belmont Middle should be up and running (with a new capacity of around 1000). So, for the three years they’re in middle school, they’ll be fine. It’s just the other 10 years of K-8 and 9-12 that might be a little rough.

Schools are just one example of the many long-term impacts that come with any development. There are many other side-effects to consider. This is why we need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how we approach growth. For a lot of these projects, you often only get one shot to get it right.