A Mount Airy councilman is concerned that the preliminary identification of a blighted area in the city will cause “anger” among citizens, although it’s still at the proposal stage.
“I don’t know if anybody feels the way I do, but I think it’s going to create a firestorm,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of the draft proposal for an “urban redevelopment area” in town.
Even though the draft — which includes former property of Spencer’s Inc. and other nearby sites — is just being suggested at this point, Cawley believes the public might feel blindsided by the blighted designation. “None of these owners have been identified,” he said of the properties involved.
Cawley’s remarks came during a meeting Wednesday of the new Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, which he is a member of along with also representing the North Ward on the city board of commissioners.
Those comments were in response to the recent preparation of a map showing the proposed urban redevelopment plan. It represents the first such area of town to be targeted by the redevelopment commission, which was formed in April for the specific purpose of identifying blighted commercial properties in Mount Airy and devising plans to improve them.
No “Bulldozing” Eyed
As expected, the initial target area includes the former Spencer’s industrial complex the city government bought at a public auction in May. But it also includes other nearby properties along Franklin, Pine and South streets.
Twenty-one separate parcels are included in the draft proposal. “Some have multiple buildings we’ll have to look at,” city planner Andy Goodall said during the meeting.
Goodall stressed that while the area has been identified by the redevelopment group, the individual sites there still must be investigated by municipal planning personnel to determine if these collectively meet the criteria for the distressed label. “And the main thing is that two-thirds of those structures are blighted or are in danger of being blighted,” he explained of the criteria involved.
“This group needs an area to study” to see if it can be redeveloped, Goodall said of the new commission. “This is exactly what this is — an area to study.”
Goodall added that the mere identification of the section does not mean anyone is going to “start bulldozing.”
“And I would say that none of that is going to build any trust,” Cawley countered concerning the preliminary status of the blighted-area plan.
“I can’t support this,” Cawley said of the proposed designation “These are the kind of conversations that I don’t want to be a part of.”
A fellow councilman, Steve Yokeley, who is one of two commissioners serving on the new seven-member group that he also chairs, noted at Wednesday’s meeting that some of the areas on the map automatically will not qualify. That’s because those sites either contain a home or are zoned for residential use.
When approving the redevelopment commission last spring, the city council specified that only blighted commercial properties would be eyed, in response to citizen concerns the group might go after homes that are simply unsightly.
Citizens also were leery of the commission’s vast powers in general, which include the ability to seize blighted properties through eminent domain.
Cawley touched on this Wednesday, saying that the building formerly housing the Koozies establishment at the corner of Frankin and South streets in the target area seems to be sound structurally, but could be considered an eyesore.
He said the board of commissioners — which will have the ultimate say over the redevelopment area chosen — likely would not approve what’s now on the table.
If it comes to a vote, “I can’t support it,” Cawley said.
Others at the meeting attempted to allay the fears of Cawley, pointing out that no commercial properties can be touched unless they are determined to be blighted.
Tom Webb, a member of the redevelopment commission, said a carefully controlled process will be undertaken, including the approval of the Mount Airy Planning Board and the holding of public hearings, before any blighted designation officially occurs.
“It needs to be strictly adhered to,” Webb said of the procedure.
“People don’t accept change very well,” said another redevelopment commission member, Alton Gaither, who also is associated with the city housing authority that oversees Mount Airy’s public housing neighborhoods.
“It’s not that we’re going to shoot you or kill you or anything like that,” Gaither said of the message to the public, which is just that the area in question is being examined.
“We’re not here to hurt anybody,” he continued. “There are laws and procedures and policies that we’ve got to go through.”
Cawley said that while he understood the procedural aspects, once processes get started and money is spent, it is difficult to reverse them.
The councilman said he wouldn’t be able to back the proposal at hand until affected property owners can be heard.
“A lot of times, it’s not what you do, but how you do it,” Cawley said of the need to involve the public early on in such processes.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.