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.

An update from our workshop on Monday:

We had a pretty wide-ranging conversation on several different aspects of development in Belmont. Staff started off by sharing some interesting statistics about growth in Belmont. Since 2010, our population has grown by about 20% and much of the fastest growth in Gaston County is occurring in Mount Holly, Belmont, and Cramerton (which you’ll notice are the three communities closest to Charlotte). Last year, Belmont saw about 350 new housing starts, and we are on track to meet or surpass that this year. So, we are seeing some very real growth (especially within the last two years or so).

To address this, we decided to begin making some updates to our Comprehensive Land Use Plan and our Land Development Code that will target different areas of the city to ensure that the planning for those areas is consistent with the community’s (and Council’s) vision for that area. Some of the changes we discussed involved limiting high density multi-family housing (i.e. apartment buildings) to the Wilkinson Blvd corridor and specifically keeping them out of the downtown district. We also discussed what sort of residential development we’d like to see downtown (such as second- or third-story units built on top of first-floor commercial/office space). Building height was another topic of interest, and we talked about the importance of preserving the vista of our downtown and not crowding it out with buildings that are too large.

I also suggested that we look at our planning specifically in the area where the Catawba Crossings project is being proposed. I’ve heard some concerns about what the proposed bridge would mean for that part of the peninsula. I think it makes sense for the City Council to be proactive about creating the vision for that part of the City. So, we’ll look at creating some specific planning in a Small Area Plan for that part of the city.

Given the scope of the changes we discussed, we’ll also be soliciting public input by way of a series of meet-and-greets/coffee hours in different neighborhoods throughout the City. Look for more information on these early next year. You can, of course, always feel free to reach out to me directly.

There’s a lot going on in our City, so if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!

Yesterday, City Council met with representatives from NCDOT, Ronnie Worley Gaston County Commissioner, and Representative Dana Bumgardner to discuss the intersection of Belwood Drive and South Point Road in front of the new middle school. There were also several residents from the Belwood Drive neighborhood present.

There was a general consensus among the group that the current design for that intersection presents a number of issues both from a safety and traffic flow perspective. I think that the current design basically creates either a situation where traffic deadlocks every time someone needs to go into or out of the Belwood Drive neighborhood or a situation where (young) pedestrians are in close proximity to drivers distracted by attempting to make a very quick turn.

There is some development interest in the property across the street from the middle school which may provide an opportunity for a long-term solution to this problem. However, even under the best-case scenario, it is unlikely a fix under this route would be in place by the time the new school opens. So, Council directed staff to obtain cost estimates for the work necessary to fix the intersection so that we can determine the level of financial commitment necessary for this project and explore some possible creative financing opportunities. There seemed to be a shared commitment among the different parties at the meeting yesterday to find a solution to this problem, so I am cautiously optimistic about our chances of figuring out a fix for this.

In other news, the agenda for our CIP workshop on Thursday is now available. You can find that here.

There are two Council meetings this week to be aware of:

-The first is tomorrow at 2pm at TechWorks. We will be meeting with staff from NCDOT to discuss the intersection design for Belwood Drive and South Point Road (in front of the new middle school). DOT’s current design for that intersection calls for creating two separate three-way intersections (one at Belwood Drive, the other at the entrance to the new school). The City is working with DOT to see if it is possible to shift Belwood Drive’s intersection over a few feet to create one four-way intersection. The agenda and some related schematics are located here.

-The second meeting will be Thursday at 3:30pm (also at TechWorks). We will be discussing our Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the current fiscal year. The CIP is the process by which the City funds all of the “big” projects and, there are usually more projects on the list than we can fund in a given year. So we will be prioritizing projects for funding at this meeting. I will post a link to that agenda once it is available.

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.

The next city council meeting will be on June 1 at 6:45pm. This meeting will once again be virtual, so if you are interested in participating in the public comment portion of the meeting, be sure to submit your comments to the city clerk so they can be read aloud at the meeting.

We have a very full agenda, but here are a few of the highlights:

-We will be receiving an update on the county’s response to COVID-19 from Gaston County Health and Human Services Director Chris Dobbins.

-We will also be conducting the public hearing on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

-There will be an update and a proposed change to the path of the Rail Trail due to some complications with that project.

-We will also be considering the closure of Jade Circle and Centerview Street in North Belmont to facilitate the development of the River West Business Park.-There will also be an update on the Belmont Trolley project, where we will consider a proposed Memorandum of Understanding.

-NCDOT is currently in the midst of a significant cash crunch and has stopped work on many projects and is also planning to significantly scale back maintenance of state roads. City Council will be considering a resolution asking NCDOT and the General Assembly to continue funding for the Powell Bill program (which funds maintenance of city-maintained streets) and to continue necessary maintenance of state roads (including things like patching pot holes and mowing grass along state roads).

You can find a copy of the meeting agenda and a link to the livestream here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Id=332