Planning Board recommends denial of zoning petition

Published 11:38 pm Monday, March 13, 2023

Clemmons Gymnastics’ proposed move to New Hope Church site thwarted; Agape Faith Church reveals backup offer

The City-County Planning Board held a public hearing last Thursday in Winston-Salem regarding the zoning petition of New Hope Presbyterian Church on Harper Road from RS-40 (residential) to LB-L (limited business) and agreed with the staff’s earlier recommendation of denial.
The special-use limited rezoning request asked for by the petitioner (the current owner, New Hope Presbyterian Church) involves a proposed move by Clemmons Gymnastics to the site of the church.
Regardless of the staff and now Planning Board vote of unanimous denial for Zoning Docket F-1626, the final say will ultimately come from the elected body — the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.
Chris Murphy, who is director of the Planning & Development Services Department, said that there is no set date for it to be heard by the commissioners.
“Once we prepare the minutes and add the relevant minutes to each case, we put the agenda items into the county agenda system, and they will schedule them from there,” Murphy said following last week’s public hearing. “Generally, the county doesn’t consider more than two zoning items on a single agenda, and there were three items that will be going to them from this meeting along with one from February.”
Murphy added he might have a better idea in a couple of weeks for when the Harper Road rezoning item may appear on an upcoming agenda.
Along with an overview of the project, proponents and opponents offered their input in the public hearing, which included a new twist when Allison Tomberlin, an attorney representing Clemmons-based Agape Faith Church, asked for pastors from that church to raise their hand.
“They are here in force and have a very strong interest in the outcome of this rezoning petition because the current owner, New Hope, has accepted Agape Faith’s backup offer to purchase this property,” she said. “Mr. Murphy said earlier that it would take another church moving in to resolve this problem and, in fact, another church is ready to move in.
“So you do not have to worry about any rezoning. They can operate as the land has been used and the facility has been used and intended within the current RS-40 zoning. I believe this is the best possible result for the Harper Road Neighbors and hopefully for this Planning Board.”
Prior to Tomberlin’s remarks in the public hearing, Ron Davis, speaking on behalf of himself and “approximately 500 residents for the Harper Road community in opposition to this rezoning,” said that the property was only marketed to commercial interests.
“I personally contacted the three largest churches in Clemmons and none of them were aware that this property was for sale,” Davis said. “There was no signage out there. I personally have shown the property with the associate pastor and with their permission was able to get an executed contract in place with an area church. If they had contacted the local churches, we would not be here. A church would be operating on site with the community support.”
When asked for comment the day following the public hearing, John Lindsay, senior pastor at New Hope, said: “The church has no comment on any of the rezoning issues nor about offers.”
New Hope purchased the property in 2004 listed at 6.21 acres on Harper Road and established a two-story church with about 18,000 square feet of space.
Last Thursday’s meeting started with an overview of the case, including looking at maps and other information related to the site, and an overall summary of F-1626 with the following bullet points:
• The proposal will rezone a rural residentially zoned site to a more intense commercial zoning district.
• Approval could establish a precedent for nonresidential rezonings in the general area.
• The use included in the proposed request (e.g., Recreational Services, Indoor) could negatively impact traffic generation and the character of the area.
The petitioner volunteered conditions include:
• The use Recreation Services, Indoor shall be further limited to Gymnastics Instruction as classified under SIC 7999 (Amusement and Recreation, NEC).
• No additional freestanding signs shall be constructed on-site.
• No additional buildings shall be constructed or placed on-site, and additions that are cumulatively greater than 15,000 square feet in size shall be prohibited.
• No additional outdoor lighting shall be installed on-site.
The public hearing opened with comments from those in favor, including Nicole Leftwich, the co-owner and chief operating officer of Clemmons Gymnastics, which has been in business for more than 30 years, is currently located on Hacker’s Bend Court off of Kinnamon Road with 6,875 feet and needs more room with 462 students a week.
“We currently have just outgrown the space that we’re in,” Leftwich said. “So it’s not that we’re trying to build this huge empire. We’re just trying to give space to what we currently have and give our programs the space we need to operate safely. ”
La-Deidre Matthews, an attorney for Fox Rothschild out of Charlotte, offered other reasons why Clemmons Gymnastics makes sense for the location.
“We learned throughout the process there is a lot of support for this relocation despite the very vocal opposition, and that’s not just from current Clemmons Gymnastics students,” she said. “There’s actually some people who have signed up because they’ve seen the zoning cases, they stopped by to see what the deal was and decided that this was something that was ultimately good for the community if it did relocate to Harper Road.”
She said that the petitioner had a traffic study conducted by Davenport Engineering that concluded “there would be no adverse effect on traffic. Harper Road’s capacity is over 15,000 vehicular trips a day and with the anticipated traffic from Clemmons Gymnastics the road would still be at about a third of its capacity.”
Matthews also discussed the petitioner’s willingness to reach out to the community through a three-page Q&A letter to neighbors and having a neighborhood meeting in addition to being in compliance with the intent and spirit of the County’s Comprehensive Plan.
“I think this boils down to an issue of ownership and not necessarily land use,” she said. “This use would be allowed if they were a public entity, and North Carolina courts have disapproved the distinction of land use based on ownership.”
On the opponents’ side, Davis brought up the rezoning’s “tremendous negative impact on the surrounding property values estimated in excess of $500,000” along with “the high-intensity use with long and late hours that would negatively impact quality of life.”
Davis, who lives adjacent to the church site, added the property is located in “one of the most dangerous road sections in North Carolina in what the community, NCDOT and Highway Patrol call ‘Dead Man’s Curve.’ ”
Attorney David Niblock, who said he was asked to assist in this matter, pointed out that the site does not meet the definition of the limited-business district in an area that is not just residential — but rural residential.
“It is not located near the intersection or collector street or a thoroughfare in areas which are otherwise developed with the residents, is not a transitional area proposed use and is not a business that would serve the nearby neighborhood,” he said. “Further, we believe the proposed commercial use is incompatible with the surrounding single-family homes.”
In addition to her early comments about Agape Faith Church having a backup offer to purchase the property, Tomberlin added concerns about giving up a stable use over time such as churches over institutional uses along with considering the preservation of historical properties in the area and a traffic study showing the Harper Road section in question has a higher crash rate than the N.C. average.
As for the offers in play, Planning Board member Jack Steelman, who is a N.C. licensed commercial real estate broker, had this to say before the final vote: “You’re in a great situation if you have an offer that’s approvable and a backup offer. Please trust me when I say neither one may happen. There’s nothing here to count on except for what we’re responsible for responding to this evening.”
Afterward, regarding the recommendation of denial, Murphy offered this comment: “It was stated at the meeting — by folks in opposition, by several of the Planning Board members and even myself — this certainly isn’t to take away from the importance of or diminish the impact of Clemmons Gymnastics — this just isn’t the appropriate location.”