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Business owners outside of downtown object to ordinance rewrites

South Boston Town Council, acting in response to an outpouring of citizen comment against portions of a proposed zoning ordinance rewrite, voted 3-2 Monday to send it back to the South Boston Planning Commission for further study.

Councilmen Coleman Speece and Bill Snead and Councilwoman Tina-Wyatt Younger voted against the proposed zoning ordinance as it currently stands.

Councilwoman Margaret F. Coleman and Robert “Bob” Hughes voted “yes,” but each of them expressed their willingness to explore the issue further. 

The action came after a joint public hearing between council and planners, after which the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend its passage.

Planners recommending passage of the ordinance and its accompanying zoning map included Chairman George Leonard, Beverly Crowder, Robert “Bob” Hughes, Harriett Claiborne and Christopher Davis.

Planners Fields Thomas and Roger Long were absent from Monday’s meeting.

Destination Downtown Vice President Gene Haugh and Executive Director Tamyra Vest both spoke in favor of the zoning rewrite.

“People are looking for vibrant downtown business districts with historic storefronts, small shops, restaurants and pleasant streetscapes,” said Haugh.

“South Boston has that potential if we allow that to happen.  Passage of this zoning ordinance is an essential part of that process.”

“Historic preservation is very important to our organization,” agreed Vest. “Downtown people are drawn to our unique character with the backdrop of historic buildings. Every consultant we’ve talked with over the years recommends we move toward adopting a local preservation ordinance.”

Retired dentist and South Boston resident Wayne Adams spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance that rezones his property from T-1 to R-2, but a number of business and property owners, particularly along the Seymour Drive and Wall Street corridors and in Riverdale, posted strong objections to the plan.

Wall Street business owners Avis Sutherland Jr. and Garland Ricketts said rezoning the land containing their businesses from M-1 to B-2 would restrict development and harm property values.

“There’s no storefront business or traffic that comes through, it always has been a manufacturing district through there,” argued Sutherland.

“Rezoning takes away some of our [property] values and some of our rights,” said Ricketts. “It would restrict our ability to rent or lease it, and it would restrict our ability to sell our property. Every time we have more restrictive zoning, property values go down. Ultimately, this would affect the town and county with lower assessed values.”

Seymour Drive business owner David Myers and property owner Morgan Miller also objected to rezoning their properties from M-1 to B-2.

Myers said he and his family made a substantial investment in their business five years ago.

“We borrowed over $300,000 for a new building and new equipment, overhead cranes, and then the bottom dropped out,” Myers said.

“We weathered the storm, and we’re still weathering the storm, but problem is if you change zoning from M-1 to business (B-2) that limits everything we can do in the future. I’ve got 500 feet of property behind us, and if we want to expand what we do in line with our industry, we might not be able to do it.”

Myers added he could envision around nine businesses his family could invest in at that same location if the property remained M-1 but only one if it were rezoned B-2.

“That could limit what we could do for property we worked hard for and paid money for and high dollar taxes for and not be able to use it,” Myers said.

Riverdale, a controversial subject during comprehensive plan revisions several years ago, was again a sore spot for many of its business and property owners.

Riverdale business owners Bunny Propst and Mac Ragans expressed dissatisfaction with the zoning rewrite for the Riverdale area, as did property owner Ward Burton.

“I just so happen to own six acres on the other side of the Dan River, which could be used for a wide variety of opportunities,” said Burton, adding the flood-prone area did not need an extra layer of restrictions on top of those already existing under FEMA.

“I just think it appears to me the plans for South Boston are quite a bit different from the plan for the flood zone and Riverdale,” Burton added. “I just think you need to consider the men and women who have their businesses over there and the ones of us who own property there before you restrict an area that’s restricted.”

“For the past four or five years I’ve been fighting to upgrade my business and make it look decent, and every time I’ve been beat down,” said Ragans. “This board should look at the whole situation and think about the people in Riverdale. They’ve been there working all their life. I want to see South Boston develop, too, but also those people in Riverdale want to see South Boston develop, too.”

“While it sounds like the Town of South Boston will get zoning that encourages businesses and encourages growth, we know our destiny is to be wiped out from the bridge to the stoplight,” said Propst.

“You’re not encouraging anything. You’re being very restrictive,” she added. “There can be no apartments, there can be no hotels. I’m not in favor of it, but I know from prior experience this is just a formality.”

Hughes, who serves on both the planning commission and town council, asked if this was the first time any planners or council members had heard from those opposed to the rewrite.

“We’ve been having these meetings since May, June, and I’m surprised at some of these comments against it.”

“We’ve had numerous meetings, and it’s been publicized in the paper, but we’ve had no response from the public until tonight,” Leonard said.

Letters the town mailed recently to property owners affected by proposed rezoning may have prompted the numbers at Monday’s meeting speaking against the rewrite, Speece responded.

“I had two or three people I respect a lot contact me… they did not know the extent or details until they got the mail,” he explained.

“It’s a valid concern,” he continued.  “To be honest, I didn’t know the details either until our meeting last month, and I’m somewhat sympathetic to that.

“I emphasize with those individuals on Seymour Drive,” said Snead. “It’s kind of difficult for me. I think there are some areas we could look at on Seymour Drive.”

Speece recalled the comprehensive plan update process that concluded in 2010. 

“I think all of us have anguished over what is right for Riverdale,” he pointed out.

“John Cannon has talked with me personally, and I know Ward and John have some pretty ambitious plans for that area. We felt hamstrung out there because of the FEMA requirements and the threat of losing insurance for those property owners.”

Speece noted he couldn’t imagine the town and planning commission denying anyone permission to develop property in Riverdale that satisfies all the FEMA requirements.

“The reason for these changes is to bring the ordinance more in line with the zoning map and bring them in agreement with the comprehensive plan,” said Leonard in a prepared statement. “The last thing the planning commission wants to do is hurt a business.” 

Addressing Riverdale property owners, Leonard said, “If you bring a major project before the planning commission, we’ll do anything we can to help that project. We will work with any applicant to improve their business or add to it. I hope people don’t walk away tonight thinking we’re trying to hurt business in this town.”