An update from our meeting on Monday:

At the top of our meeting, one of the actions we took via the Consent Agenda was raising the minimum starting salary of our police officers to $45,000 (from the current $39,749). Generally, most of the police officers hired by the City start at a salary above the minimum due to various certifications, experience, etc. that they bring to the job. However, the number for the minimum starting salary is the number used when the department advertises new positions, so it is important that it be competitive with what other municipalities offer. The new $45k level we adopted is more in line with what other peer cities offer. There is minimal impact to the budget as a result of this (as most of our officers already make above that level), but it will make us more competitive in recruiting new talent.

There were two major land use decisions on the regular agenda, and the first was for the Dixon Village neighborhood proposed by Habitat for Humanity. We received a lot of public comment on this project during our meeting (both for and against). And Habitat actually made several substantive changes to their proposal between last week’s Planning Board meeting and our hearing on Monday. As a Council, we weighed the pros and cons of sending it back to the Planning Board to give them a chance to review the changes, but we ultimately voted against doing that and then proceeded to approve the proposal unanimously.

I think what Habitat has proposed for this neighborhood is a positive step forward in addressing affordability in our area. Additionally, they have been very receptive to all of the feedback they have received on this project over the last few weeks, and a lot of that was reflected in the final proposal we saw Monday night. They have clearly put a lot of thought into making this neighborhood a very nice place to live, and the mixed-income approach they are taking is not something that has been tried in our area before. So, I am very excited to see how this project turns out.

We also heard the proposal for the Smith property across from the new middle school. This development calls for a mix of 42 single-family homes and 57 townhomes (99 units total) while also providing for the realignment of Belwood Drive. The Council discussed this project at length. There was an overriding concern about the density of this development. Most of the larger properties south of Stowe Road (including the middle school property right across the street from the Smith property) are zoned to a maximum density of 3 dwelling units per acre.

By what appears to be a unique set of circumstances, the Smith property was not included in the overlay district that down-zoned much of the peninsula, so the zoning on this property is set at 3 dwelling units per acre but may go up to 6 units per acre on a project-by-project basis. The proposed development would have a density of 4.3.

My view is that this property probably should have been included in the overlay district that limits density to 3 units per acre, so while the property can technically be developed at up to 6 units per acre, the fact that the land use code allows this on a “project-by-project” basis seems to imply that that density is not automatic. In this case, I think the most appropriate density is 3 units per acre as that is consistent with similarly situated properties along South Point Road. I think when you also consider the impact that an additional 99 homes would have on the traffic infrastructure in that area, the lower density also makes sense from that perspective.

For an idea of the impact this seemingly small change in density would have on this project, consider that 3 units per acre on 22.84 acres would result in about 68 homes, which is a 31% drop in the number of units from the proposed 99. Presumably, this would also mean 31% fewer cars on South Point Road as a result of this development too.

The general feeling on Council was that this project is too dense, and we provided that feedback to the developer. The development team seemed open to revising their project to incorporate our feedback. So, rather than voting the project down, which legally would preclude them from applying for another rezoning for 12 months (and would also mean that any realignment of Belwood Drive would have to wait another 12 months), we deferred action on their application until our March meeting to give them time to revise their project and come back with another proposal.

I think this was actually a very positive outcome. I definitely want to see Belwood Drive fixed, but we do also have to be cognizant of the impact this development will have on the surrounding area. Based on the tone of our conversation, I look forward to seeing what they come back with, as I do think there is an opportunity for a win-win situation with this property.

If you have any questions on anything, let me know!

The next City Council meeting will be on Monday at 6pm at City Works. You can find the agenda here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Id=507

The two biggest items on the agenda are rezoning requests for Dixon Village in North Belmont and the Smith Property across from the new middle school.

The Dixon Village request is from Habitat for Humanity to build a mixed income neighborhood in North Belmont (off Lee Street). The proposal calls for 28 homes, one-third of which will be homes built through Habitat’s traditional “sweat equity” process, and the other two-thirds will be market-rate entry-level homes. The Planning Board heard this proposal at its January meeting and recommended against approval on a 5-1 vote, largely because of concerns about the density of the project (current zoning allows for 23 homes on the site by-right, versus the 28 they are looking for).

Ordinarily, I think density is one area we need to be very mindful of. However, in this case, the difference between what is allowed and what Habitat is asking for is only 5 houses – which I don’t think is likely to significantly alter the impact of this project. However, because of the density issue, the Planning Board did not have a chance to review some of the other aspects of this proposal that I think warrant a little more study (things like setbacks, the road coming into the neighborhood, etc.).

I think this is a worthy project and addresses a very real need around affordability in our community. I also believe Habitat’s use of a mixed-income approach to this project is a very good idea and could potentially serve as a model for future projects (even beyond Belmont). So, I am optimistic that we will be able to figure out a way forward.

The second rezoning proposal involves the Smith property directly across from the new middle school. This project calls for the construction of 57 townhomes and 42 single-family homes (99 units in total) while also providing for the realignment of Belwood Drive.

The realignment of Belwood Drive is very important (as DOT has made it very clear that fixing it is not a priority for them), however, I am concerned about the number of townhomes that are proposed for this project and the impact that will have on traffic in the area. At the same time, failing to realign Belwood Drive will also create traffic issues after the new school opens. And I have not completely decided which problem is worse. I think some allowance for additional units makes sense in this situation if it helps get Belwood Drive fixed. However, I am concerned that we may be going too far.

If you are interested in attending the meeting or participating in public comment, the City has some details about how that will work on their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/cityofbelmont/posts/10158824882061648

You can also feel free to leave me a comment below!

goal

We had a very productive retreat this past weekend, reviewing our progress over the past year and planning for the future. We covered a lot of ground, so I’ll just hit the highlights in this post. Over the next week or so, I’ll go more in-depth with individual posts on some of the bigger topics.

Successes for 2020 include:

-Progress on several long-standing capital projects, including the Rec Center, new city bus, Skateboard Park, CityWorks, Sidewalks, and a new irrigation system for the planters downtown

-Updates to the Land Development Code: increasing side setbacks, requiring apartment development by conditional rezoning only, the Tree Protection Ordinance, and enhanced community engagement (new/bigger rezoning signs, additional requirements for community meetings, etc.)

-A new website and enhanced land development project pages

-Livestreaming of council meetings and agenda packets made available to the public

-COVID Response: Small business emergency loans, Al Fresco Dining, Keep the Lights On Campaign, etc.

Looking ahead, we also talked about the new Solid Waste Services contract (which expires this year), Leaf Collection, new zoning for the Wilkinson Blvd corridor in anticipation of the light rail (as well as general growth concerns), and the budget for next year.

I will post separately on the budget, but the City is in very solid financial shape and, we appear set to have another surplus at the end of this fiscal year (assuming current trends continue). There are many municipalities around the state that are not so fortunate (and are having to figure out how to keep their lights on), and I believe the way everyone in this City pulled together this year has a lot to do with the numbers we are seeing.

I’ll post more in the coming days, but if there’s anything in particular you have a question about, feel free to leave a comment below.

it security

An update from our workshop on Tuesday:

We spent the first part of the meeting getting an update on some of the IT projects that our IT Specialist, Seth Norket, has been working on over the last 12-18 months. The highlights include replacing over 100 pieces of old and outdated equipment (which is not only inefficient but also a security risk), the installation of cloud surveillance devices around City buildings, installing fleet-tracking GPS devices on City-owned vehicles, upgrading the City phone system to provide better service to callers and greater accountability for staff, refreshing the City website (which is now faster and more secure), and implementing a modernized job-tracking system that allows for better management of man hours but also includes an online portal where residents can submit service requests (https://www.cityofbelmont.org/services). If you create an account, you can also track the status of your request, and a text-for-service system is currently in pilot.

We covered a lot of ground, so I would encourage you to watch the full presentation (http://ow.ly/h0El50De5fu), but it’s clear that we’re making a lot of progress in providing better security and better service (for both staff and residents) with our technology.

Planning staff then provided an update on various transportation projects from around the City. Many projects were pushed back as a result of NCDOT’s cash problems last year, with the result that projects like the I-85 widening and the improvements to the Wilkinson Blvd/Main Street intersection are now looking at potentially starting in 2025. On the Silver Line, a potential site at Hawley Ave and Wilkinson Blvd (in front of BB&T) is being considered for the location of Belmont’s station. And if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to complete the public survey for the Catawba Crossings project (http://ow.ly/Zq1750De5rt). Public comment for that project is open through Feb. 4.

blueprints

Next week is shaping up to be a busy week. There is a City Council Workshop on Tuesday (the 19th), a Planning Board Meeting on Thursday (the 21st), and Council’s annual retreat kicks off on Friday (the 22nd). All meetings are at CityWorks.

Agenda for Workshop
Agenda for Planning Board

At our workshop on Tuesday, we will be getting an update from the City’s IT staff about the various software and technology upgrades that have been made over the last few years. We will also be getting an overview of how the City is guarding against cybersecurity threats. It should be a very interesting presentation.

We will also be getting an update on various transportation and pedestrian improvement projects planned and/or underway in the City. Council will also be discussing a potential leasing of the old Planning Department building (which was vacated when the Planning staff moved to CityWorks).
On Thursday, the Planning Board will be hearing two development proposals. The first is a Habitat for Humanity Project in North Belmont (off Lee Road) for 28 mixed-income single-family homes. A summary of the proposal is here: Link

The second proposal is for the Smith Property located directly across from the new Belmont Middle School on South Point Road. The project calls for 43 single-family homes and 56 townhomes and provides for the realignment and reconstruction of the intersection of Belwood Drive and South Point Road. A summary of the proposal is here: Link

If you would like to comment on either of those projects, you can either comment in person at the Planning Board’s meeting or email your comments to the Planning staff before the meeting (contacts for each project are located here: https://www.cityofbelmont.org/projects/). I am also happy to pass along your comments to staff if you would like.

Council’s annual retreat will be Friday evening and Saturday morning (1/22-23). The agenda is still being finalized, but it will be open to the public. I will post more information on this as it becomes available.

If you have any questions, let me know!

apartments

An update from our meeting on Monday:

The biggest item on our agenda was the text amendment to the Land Development Code to make (effectively) all apartment/multi-family development outside the Wilkinson Blvd corridor subject to the conditional zoning process. I think we had a very robust and interesting conversation on the two different options that the Planning Board explored.

I favored the option that would have removed apartments as a building form from the ordinance, which would have effectively precluded the construction of new apartments in most of the city (except along Wilkinson Blvd). I believe that owing to the stresses that are already present on our infrastructure in much of the city, apartment development is not something that the city can effectively support without significantly compromising the quality of life of the people already living in those areas. So, for me, I believe that a clean exclusion makes more sense for where we are as a city right now. I moved to adopt that amendment over the proposal recommended by the Planning Board.

After some discussion, my motion failed by a 2-3 vote. However, we did end up adopting the original proposal (which pushes these projects through the conditional zoning process) unanimously. So, now, any new apartment development will need to come before Council before it can be approved. While this was not my preferred option, I do believe that this is an improvement over the existing process and, it does make Council accountable for these projects. So, I am glad that we were able to get that done.

We also received an update on Code Enforcement. The most significant case involves the building at 951 Cason Street. This case is in litigation and was scheduled to be heard at the end of December. However, due to Chief Justice Beasley’s 30-day hold on judicial proceedings (due to COVID), the hearing was rescheduled for the end of January. The property owner apparently continues to make repairs to the property, so it is possible that the situation may resolve itself prior to the hearing at the end of the month. So, we will see.

If you have any questions on anything, please let me know!

apartment building

The next City Council meeting will be Monday, January 4 at 6pm (note the new time) at City Works. The Watershed Review Board (comprised of the entire Council) will also be meeting prior to the regular meeting (at 5:45pm in the same room) to review a permit for Caromont’s new hospital. The agenda for the meeting is here: http://ow.ly/kFBY50CY8wL

The biggest item on the agenda is an amendment to the Land Development Code that would require all new multi-family development outside of the Wilkinson Blvd corridor to go through the conditional zoning process. Except for multi-family/apartment projects along Wilkinson Blvd and those located within one of the Institutional Campus districts (which are used for things like Belmont Abbey College, South Point High School, City Works, etc.), any new multi-family development would need to come before Council for approval.

The Land Development Code currently permits multi-family development in several situations by-right (meaning that Council has very little opportunity to influence the direction of those projects). This change effectively limits those by-right developments to Wilkinson Blvd and gives Council the ability to reject unsuitable projects in the rest of the city.

We will be holding a public hearing on this change, so you can sign up before the meeting to speak if you’d like to make comments to the full Council. You can also feel free to leave me a comment below or email me at mseelinger@cityofbelmont.org.

There will also be a public hearing on a request to subdivide a lot at 402 Ferrell Ave into three new lots to build three new homes.

We will also be getting an update on Code Enforcement activities from our Code Enforcement officer. Code Enforcement is something that I’ve been getting a lot of questions about, so during our December meeting, I asked staff to give us an update on where things stand with these cases.

If you have any questions, let me know!

An update from our Monday meeting:

We kicked off the meeting with special recognition for the retirements of Public Works Director David Isenhour and Public Utilities Director Chuck Flowers and for their many decades of service to the City of Belmont. They both played no small role in making the City what it is today, and their presence will certainly be missed.

We also had a special presentation by the police department to recognize them for their recent CALEA accreditation and to introduce some of the new officers and promotions that have occurred this year. They also presented the results of a survey that they conducted of the entire department to gauge employee satisfaction. The numbers they presented were some of the most positive employee engagement scores I have ever seen, with upwards of 90% of the department indicating that they were satisfied or very satisfied across the board (including on things like training opportunities, advancement, their supervisor, and general job satisfaction). Belmont has a lot to be proud of when it comes to its police department, and I think results like these really just underline that fact.

The most significant business item on the agenda was consideration of an ordinance that would increase side yard set backs for alley lot and street lot single-family homes. The ordinance increases the total space between alley lot homes by four feet (to 10 feet total) and increases the total space between street lot homes by one foot (to 12 feet total).

Councilman Turner proposed increasing the set backs on street lot homes to create a total space of 15 feet (an increase of four feet versus the one foot in the proposed ordinance). He explained that he thought that the proposed one foot expansion was not as substantial as the four feet proposed for alley lot homes and that we should consider a more significant change. I agreed and seconded his motion, and we then had an extended discussion on what we were attempting to accomplish with this change.

For me, I think a change like what Councilman Turner was proposing helps ensure continued diversity in the type of housing that we have on offer in Belmont. The nice thing about Belmont is that it has a little bit of everything – from denser/closer housing in places like Eagle Park to the more spread-out/larger lots found down on the peninsula (and everything in between). My concern stems from the fact that the trend among the development community appears to be more focused on fitting as many houses as they can on a given piece of property – which would mean that people who want to live in a close-in community would have a lot of choices and people who want a little bit more space would have significantly fewer choices. I think it falls on the Council to ensure a balance, and given the current situation, that means ensuring that people who want more space between them and their neighbors continue to have those options available to them.

The motion did fail (by a 2-3 vote), but I think we had a very productive conversation about where each of us would like to go on this. The original proposal (which increases the space by four feet for alley lots and one foot for street lots) did pass unanimously, which to me suggests that the difference on Council boils down to a difference over scale versus direction.
Just as a reminder – we will not be having a workshop this month. But if you have any questions on anything, feel free to let me know.

The next City Council meeting is Monday, December 7 at 6:45pm at the new CityWorks building (in the large conference room on the first floor). You can find a copy of the agenda here.

At the beginning of the meeting, we will take care of some administrative items dealing with our meeting schedule and committee appointments for 2021. The most significant change is a shift in our regular meeting time from 6:45pm to 6:00pm (still meeting on Mondays). The thought here is that meetings that start earlier can also end earlier while still starting the meetings at a time when people can attend (or tune in) after the regular work day.

We will also be conducting a public hearing and considering an ordinance that will increase the side setbacks of new single-family homes. The current ordinance sets the minimum setback at 20% of the lot width, with a minimum space between houses of 6 feet for homes on an alley lot and 11 feet for homes on a street lot. The proposed change sets the minimum distance between houses at 10 feet (or 20% of lot width, whichever is greater) for alley lots and 12 feet (or 20% of lot width, whichever is greater) for street lots.

I think this change will do a lot to address the concerns I have heard about the compactness of newer neighborhoods. The extra space between houses should help reduce the “crowded” feeling that some of these developments have and improve the look, feel, and livability of new neighborhoods. Of course, I welcome your input, and you can feel free to let me know what you think or you can present your comments during the public hearing on Monday.

We will also be considering some changes to the McLean Development (designating an additional section as a low-impact area) and approving some changes to the trail system in the Morgan’s Branch Development.

There is also a Facade Enhancement Grant application from KBN Interiors for their new location at 331 Catawba Street. They have applied for a $2,500 grant, and you can find the details (including a rendering) here.

Also, note that we will not be having a workshop this month in order to give everyone a bit of a break before Christmas.

An update from our meeting on Monday:

We ended up just meeting with the Main Street Board. The Environmental Sustainability Board requested that we postpone our meeting with them, but we did have a very productive conversation with the Main Street Board. They gave a presentation on several of the initiatives they have been working on this year, including the Keep the Lights On campaign, the utility box wrap art, and Trains on Main.

We also talked about the Façade Enhancement Grant program (which provides grants from the City to restore/upgrade building facades in the downtown district). Council discussed the possibility of making changes to this program in the future to ensure that the criteria for the program align with downtown’s current needs. For my own part, I suggested that grant applications that seek funding for things like wall art (on the side of a building) or more permanent façade improvements (such as upfitting or repairing a brick façade) would be a better use of funds versus grants for more temporary improvements (for things like building canopies, etc.).

The dog park initiative was also a key discussion point, and we encouraged the Main Street Board to continue collaborating with the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board on that project.

We also had a good conversation around public art and a general desire to see more of it. Given the expense involved with these sorts of projects, the Main Street Board indicated that they would look into the availability of non-public funds (grants, etc.) for public art projects.

All around a good conversation. I think check-ins like this with the advisory boards are a good way to keep everyone rowing in the same direction, so I look forward to doing more of these in the future.