I have received a lot of phone calls and emails over the last few days concerning the future of Frady Park. In the interest of ensuring that I don’t inadvertently miss any messages, I wanted to provide an update on where things stand. I am, of course, happy to answer any other questions you might have.

I did speak with staff earlier this week to get an idea of what the situation is regarding the park. The City currently leases the land that houses the park, and that land is owned by Pharr Yarns. Pharr is currently exploring their options for their properties in East Belmont, but they are still very early in the process and have not yet submitted a development application to the City. So, nothing is set in stone yet. However, if/when they decide to move forward with a project, the details will be posted at https://www.cityofbelmont.org/projects/. I will also provide relevant updates on my Facebook Page. The new changes that Council made to the development process last year will ensure that there is plenty of notice (including the new large development signs on-site) and opportunity for public engagement once Pharr’s plans are more concrete.

For my own part, it is clear that this is a well-used and well-loved park, and I think the preservation of the park should be a top consideration when reviewing any proposal for that part of town.

tax collection

Another big topic we discussed at our annual retreat is our budget strategy for the upcoming fiscal year. Revenue for the current fiscal year continues to be strong. As of the end of January, ad valorem property tax receipts are just over 100% of budget. Sales tax receipts through the end of December (half the fiscal year, which does not include the full impact of Christmas) are at 56.5% of budget. On the expense side, most line items are on track with our budget.

As a result of this, we are looking at a pretty healthy surplus when we close out the fiscal year at the end of June. Part of our strategy for the current fiscal year was to take a fairly conservative approach to the budget, and if the economy bounced back faster than anticipated, we would use some of the resulting surplus on outstanding capital projects.

So, staff presented four options for prioritization for the current year. Those were the Splash Pad, Skate Park, Dog Park, and the next phase of improvements to Rocky Branch Park. After some discussion, we decided to prioritize the Skate Park and the Rocky Branch Park improvements, which together will consume roughly $220k of this year’s surplus.

Looking ahead to next year, capital projects will likely continue to be a focus. Given how strong our revenues have been and continue to be, I suggested that we, as a Council, take a look at our property taxes to determine if we need to make any adjustments to the tax rate. The City has seen very positive growth in both our tax base and our sales tax collections over the last few years, so I think this may create an opportunity for us to implement a small cut to the tax rate while still accomplishing the goals that we have for the City. Prudence would suggest that whatever we do on that front should be measured, and the rest of the Council agreed to take a look at this at an upcoming workshop. So, we will take a look at this over the next few weeks as we get into building the budget for next year.

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.

Our next City Council meeting will be Tuesday (not Monday), September 8 at 6:45pm at Techworks. You can find a copy of the agenda here: http://ow.ly/eBnW50BhFsP. Here are some of the highlights:

-We will be voting to accept a grant from Gaston County to help cover expenses the city incurred as a result of COVID-19. The funding for this comes from North Carolina’s slice of CARES Act funding that was subsequently distributed to each county by the General Assembly. The total amount of Belmont’s reimbursement is about $180k.

-We will also be holding a public hearing and voting on our updated Tree Protection Ordinance. The general intent of this ordinance is the protection and preservation of larger trees, especially in areas impacted by new development. At a very high level, it would require new development to inventory the existing trees in the development, develop a tree protection plan, and submit a planting plan to correct for any deficiencies created by the development. You can find the full text of the proposed ordinance here: http://ow.ly/RHyL50BhFIG

-We will also be holding a public hearing and voting on an update to the Land Development Code that would allow for the construction of “Accessory Dwelling Units”, which is a smaller, separate living space either attached to a “principal” dwelling unit (i.e. a house) or located on the same lot as one (similar to an in-law suite). You can find the text of that proposed ordinance here: http://ow.ly/ZZFa50BhFUT

-There are two code enforcement cases: 114 Morning Glory Ave and 325 Todd Street Ext.

-The Downtown Belmont Development Association has also proposed an advertising agreement for the red kiosks that would allow them to begin renting out ad space on those.

-We will also be discussing the location of the proposed skateboard park. Current candidates are Davis Park and two different locations at the new Rec Center.

If you have any questions, let me know!

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

A recap of Monday night’s meeting:

Public comment was likely the most interesting part of Monday’s meeting. We actually had two separate issues come up during public comment. The first few comments concerned the intersection design of the new intersection in front of the new middle school. The current design from NCDOT calls for a three-way intersection on South Point Road mere steps away from the existing Belwood Drive intersection. The speakers suggested aligning the intersection with Belwood Drive such that we would have one four-way intersection instead of two separate three-way intersections. I think this is a very sensible request and will do a lot to improve traffic flow and safety in that area. Unfortunately, NCDOT does not see it in quite the same way, so Council decided to work with our county and state partners to see if we can talk some sense into DOT.

The next 20 or so speakers spoke on the recent petition that seeks to change the Red Raider mascot at South Point High School. While this is not something in the direct jurisdiction of the City Council, I’m glad we were able to provide a forum for the community to come and voice their opinions. Particularly since I did not grow up here and do not have the same connection with South Point that many of the speakers have, I enjoyed listening to the speakers talk about what it means to be a Red Raider and why that is important to them. It was very educational for me, and I learned a lot from the speakers.

After public comment, we moved through the regular agenda pretty quickly – approving a special use permit for temporary housing at Belmont Abbey and authorizing a contract for a Construction Manager at Risk for the new rec center.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a virtual conference put on by the League of Municipalities and in that conference, they devoted several sessions to IT security for city governments (specifically, the rising threat presented to small cities from malicious entities that lock down city systems and/or steal data for ransom). So, I shared some of the findings from that with the rest of the Council, and we discussed the City’s current security posture (which appears to be very strong). Our IT coordinator is going to provide a summary of what he’s done/is doing to protect our systems so that we can continue to be proactive in this area.

Councilman Turner also suggested that we discuss lot setbacks (the envelope around a building that creates space between one building and the next) as part of our upcoming discussion on development, and suggested that we use the $75,000 we will obtain as part of an upcoming (unplanned) property sale to purchase a new city bus. I think both of these ideas were excellent suggestions. I know that the bus in particular has been needed for a while (I believe the existing bus is 17 years old) and would be greatly appreciated by both the Gadabouts and the other programs that use the bus once those activities are able to resume. So, I look forward to having a conversation on both of those things over the next few weeks.

Our next City Council meeting will be on Monday, July 6 at 6:45pm at TechWorks. You can attend in person or find the livestream here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqOtdtH7gyyToZnnC8kKLQQ

The most significant item on the agenda is providing authorization for the signing of a contract for a Construction Manager at Risk for the new parks & rec multipurpose facility. The CMaR will take this project through the rest of the pre-construction process, including design and bidding of the project.

There will also be a public hearing on a special use permit application from Belmont Abbey to allow them to utilize temporary student housing on campus until their new residential dorms are complete.

Also – the City will be hosting its annual fireworks display tomorrow night at 9:30pm. You can find a parking and street closure map here: https://www.facebook.com/BelmontMainStreetDBDA/photos/a.1909020652650314/2832751306943906

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.

child slide crop

One of the bigger projects I have been involved with over the last few months is the new Parks and Recreation Master Plan (draft final version as of this writing). The last Belmont Parks master plan was updated in 2003 (!) and obviously quite a bit has changed since then. The consultant we hired conducted a lot of community meetings, surveys, staff interviews, etc. to get an idea of what we have, where we want to go, and how we can get there.

One of the most valuable aspects of the new master plan is where it benchmarks Belmont parks against a set of standards for peer cities and then projects our anticipated parks/recreation needs based on current growth projections (while also accounting for current deficiencies). So, for example, right now the greatest need for new park facilities is in North Belmont and South Point and, the plan calls for the addition of two Neighborhood Parks by 2029. Now that we know what we as a community need (as far as parks go), we can start planning around those needs, and if an opportunity for some new parkland presents itself we can take advantage of that. It sets expectations for residents as far as what the city will look like in 10 years while also setting some benchmarks to evaluate our city leaders against. So, in 10 years, if we don’t find a way to get those two parks – we can hold our city council members accountable.

I think this approach to governing is something that would benefit other areas of the city, not just Parks. Believe it or not, there is actually a Comprehensive Land Use Plan for Belmont that was just updated in 2018 and contains a plan for land use and growth for the city for the next 20 years. There are actually a lot of good ideas in the Land Use Plan. Unfortunately, those ideas aren’t worth very much if they aren’t effectively implemented. This, I believe, is part of where we’ve started to stray. Increasingly, we are reinterpreting the Land Use Plan to fit development projects when we should be reshaping these projects (and/or saying “No Thanks”) to fit the Land Use Plan.

What we need on city council are more people willing to stick up for what we, as a community, have collectively decided we want the city to look like. We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by showy PowerPoint presentations and pie-in-the-sky economic projections from people who don’t even live here. We have to be willing to fight for what makes Belmont special.