Pilot Mountain officials met with a consultant recently while considering an overhaul of town zoning ordinances.
Vagn Hansen, of Benchmark Planning in Charlotte, traveled to The Pilot Center on East Main Street to provide wisdom and guidance to the Board of Commissioners.
The first session saw both sides feeling each other out, with Hansen trying to gauge where the town board would like to go.
“I think we’ve got a mess,” Commissioner Gary Bell said of the current zoning rules.
Commissioner Evan Cockerham said Pilot could use a buffer between residential and business areas. He said zoning needed to expand to allow a mixed-use category.
This transitional area between housing and business districts could allow residential dwellings and a limited segment of business, said Cockerham. A business office or doctor’s office is less intrusive next door to houses.
“Residential areas should stay residential,” agreed Commissioner Linda Needham.
There are also issues of safety, said Bell. He could think of one location where the business closed, but flammable material remained inside the structure. This could be a threat to the business adjacent to the property.
Bell added that he is also concerned about locations that don’t maintain their property, which devalues the whole area.
“What about enforcement?” Bell asked. Otherwise all the rules are worthless.
“One of the things that draws people to town is the aesthetics,” said Mayor Dwight Atkins. He encourages improvements to property, while keeping the feel of the downtown area intact.
Atkins said town rules could regulate downtown in a way to keep those aesthetics, such as not allowing ground floor spaces to be used just for storage. One building has kept stuff on the ground floor so long that the merchandise that can be seen through the windows is as outdated as Members Only jackets and fedoras.
“They are also full of mold,” Bell said of the storage areas.
Sounds like the board wants buildings to be actively used, said Hansen. Doing so would boost property values of all the downtown area.
Historic feel is important to draw people, said Cockerham, but businesses are saying they would like just a little more freedom to decorate as they want.The town has some burdensome restrictions, such as the color of paint used on a building.
Needham agreed, saying she once had a property up for rent. She wanted to draw attention to it so she painted it a bright color that she knew wasn’t up to regulations. Then once the space was rented, she could repaint the door to conform.
One guy wanted black awnings on the front of the building, but it wasn’t allowed, said Needham. Somehow he got clearance for the black color, and the awnings ended up looking great.
“Pilot Mountain needs to be proactive and almost aggressive to catch up to modern times,” said Commissioner Kim Quinn. “Our ordinances need to work toward economic growth, not against it by having so many hoops to jump through such as painting a door.”
The town still has to have regulations, said Bell.
“You don’t want someone putting vinyl siding on a downtown building,” Atkins said with a smile.
If the property is in an area designated as a historic property, then the work has to be done the way the Historic Preservation Foundation wants it done in order to qualify for tax credit, pointed out Town Manager Michael Boaz.
Atkins said he has seen some nice downtowns fall to disrepair over the years. If the town doesn’t have some control over what happens, how would people feel if Pilot’s downtown was made up of pawn shops, check-cashing businesses and tattoo parlors?
“When there’s not a market for what you consider ‘good stuff,’ you’re going to get what you might consider ‘bad stuff,’” said Hansen.
“You can zone your town in any way you want to,” said the consultant. “That could generate a challenge. … You could upset some people along the way.”
When it comes to creating regulations, he said, there is a balance between control and a vision against freedom and expression. “If the perception is that you can’t do anything in Pilot Mountain because of regulations …,” he trailed off.
Think about what rules are already in place, Hansen advised. What is being managed well, and what is frivolous and is impeding progress?
Quinn said that until she learned more about the town codes she didn’t know that when a new business occupies a downtown building the business owner has to get a change-of-use permit.
Hansen said this is a common practice because a business’s needs can affect building codes. And fire inspectors want to know what type of work goes on there and what materials might be housed on site.
Needham pointed out that a new permit costs $50, and this fee comes up when a new company is busy spending money on renovations and building inventory.
It is up to the town to decide what the price of the fee is, said Hansen. Ask yourself, he said to the board, are you trying to bring in revenue or would you like to see better compliance because the rate is cheaper?
A lot of times, people don’t get permits just because they don’t know they need one, Hansen noted. They don’t sit around on a Saturday afternoon reading up on town codes for fun.
If a business is fixing up the front of a building, the town does have a facade improvement program, said the town manager. However, because of the expense associated with getting the grant money, people don’t bother to use it.
The facade expenses can be reimbursed up to $2,000, but it can cost about $600 in order to get that money, Boaz said.
“Well, we can cure that,” said Atkins.
It’s not a profit for the town, said Boaz. The applicant has to get a conditional-use permit, which takes up time from the town staff. Then any such permit must be publicly advertised in the local paper, in accordance with state law. That can cost $300 or more.
One way around all that expense is to allow the staff to decide what is allowable without having to fill out the conditional-use permit. Is the board willing to allow something like that?
Maybe the town should create a plan that is well defined enough so the town staff can handle these things, said Atkins.
Then that goes back to the questions Hansen was asking about how closely do you want to regulate buildings, answered Boaz. Do you want to regulate color, thickness of windows, building materials?
“Are you happy with what is regulated now and the spirit of those regulations?” asked Hansen.
Maybe reduce the number of improvements that require a permit, said Quinn.
Then there are issues with other rules, she said. Homeowners can’t put a front porch on their houses because of regulations like setbacks.
People will want to add something to their property, and the planning department has to tell them no because of things like setbacks, said Boaz.
The back and forth is frustrating to folks, said Cockerham, figuring out what is allowed by the town and what is regulated by another authority.
The next time the board meets with him, Hansen suggested they all discuss signage.
Quinn said it is good to know what topic is coming up so that she and her fellow commissioners can read up on it first.
After the work session, Quinn said, “My main concern is the downtown overlay ordinances, in addition to creating zones that allow builders to come into our area — whether with housing or big businesses — along the highway area. Thus increasing traffic flow to our exit.
“Then on the back end, work in this new Main Street Committee to ensure we have something to offer once they find the downtown — from the angle of beautification, infrastructure, marketing and so on.”
Jeff is the associate editor of The Mount Airy News and can be reached at (336) 415-4692.