During a special public meeting last week, more than 30 people attended to either express their opinions on the matter or simply see how events played out. The meeting was conducted by the Mantachie Zoning Board, which consists entirely of members of the town’s board of aldermen.
The property in question is a five-acre lot on Highway 371 West, adjacent to the Norris Chapel Church Fellowship Hall, owned by town alderman Mike Horton. Last month, Horton submitted a written request to the town to have the property rezoned from R-1 to C-3.
If the property is rezoned as commercial, Horton said he plans to build a small gas station/tobacco store on the lot. A small temporary building has been erected on the property, but it sits empty at this time.
Although Horton was in attendance at the meeting, he is not be able to participate in any official discussions among zoning board members regarding his property, nor vote on the matter in his role as alderman.
Opinions as to whether or not the change should take place seem to fall on both sides of the argument. The meeting found time for semi-intense debate among the differing opinions.
At the onset, there seemed to be some misconception about what the proposed change would accomplish. Several members of the audience questioned whether or not changing the zoning designation would affect their own property. Town attorney Greg Keenum assured the audience it would not.
“The only change that’s before this commission tonight affects the five acres that belong to Mr. Horton,” Keenum said. “If it gets changed to commercial, that’s the only property it’s going to affect. Not the neighbors beside it; it doesn’t impact your land at all.”
Other concerns involved the nature of Horton’s proposed business. Some in attendance argued that placing a gas station in the middle of a residential area will depreciate property values and increase traffic.
The most vocal opponent of the proposed zoning change was former Mantachie building inspector Joe Barnes, who came armed with a folder full of personal notes. Among his grievances with the project was the accusation that Horton failed to follow the town’s long-established guidelines for rezoning a property, including submitting a detailed site plan to town hall and posting a sign on the property itself announcing the proposed change 14 days before the public hearing takes place.
Barnes accused the zoning board of failing to follow its own rules.
“Zoning officials have a responsibility to make sure the guidelines are followed,” Barnes said. “This doesn’t even come close to that … Steps have been skipped. They’re supposed to go by the book and follow regulations. They haven’t done that. They’ve picked what they wanted to do and have done what they’ve wanted to do.”
Additionally, Barnes claimed the building Horton erected on the property was constructed without a building permit. Keenum countered by saying this wasn’t the case and that the building currently sitting on the property is perfectly legal.
“He’s not building anything that violates any city ordinance,” Keenum said, adding that the building isn’t, at this point, a business and therefore doesn’t violate the residential zoning. “He can build any house down there he wants to build. Can anybody prove that’s not a house? I don’t know. He can live in it if he wants to.”
Barnes also argued that the nature of Horton’s proposed business fails to meet the town’s guidelines for changing a residential to a commercial zone. In short, the rezone must be a result of a public need. Barnes said the town of Mantachie doesn’t need another gas station.
“I don’t see any public need for that [type of business] and I think any taxes gained from that business will be lost from our other businesses in town,” Barnes said, speaking of Mantachie’s two existing gas stations. “We’ll be lucky if it’s a wash.”
Some, however, argued in favor of the change.
“He bought that land fair and square,” said Roy Smith, who lives near the property in question. “That’s his land; he should be able to do what he wants to do with it.”
Mantachie Mayor Jeff Butler said that any new business is good, adding that there are already a lot of places in town that have commercial property directly next to residential property.
“Times change and things happen; as your town grows, you have to add more commercial area,” Butler said. “We operate strictly off of sales tax; we don’t charge anybody a penny to live inside the city limits of Mantachie. We operate off the businesses in Mantachie … We operate on a fixed income … We need all the money we can get.”
But Barnes warned that even if Horton’s proposed gas station is well-maintained and aesthetically pleasing to the community, five acres is a lot of space on which to build. He called the slow crawl of businesses into residential areas, “commercial creep.”
“In my opinion, we’d be better off paying a small city tax than changing a residential zone [to a commercial zone],” Barnes said. “This opens a door … If you start doing this to our residential zones, you’re opening a can of worms I don’t think you want to open.
“I have no problem increasing businesses in the town … as long as it’s done within the legal requirements and it benefits the town and its citizens,” Barnes added. “But I do have a problem when one of our aldermen in this town attempts to disregard the adopted ordinances … and tries to force through a rezoning project that will disrupt a quiet residential area with no benefit to the town or residents.”
Although the argument continued back and forth for nearly an hour, in the end, very little was decided. After some pressing from the audience, the zoning board decided to delay its official discussion until the public was given time to organize a protest, should they desire to do so. Only people or entities with properties within 300 feet of the lot in question may officially protest the zoning change — there are eight such property owners altogether — and must do so by submitting written protests to the town hall.
If at least 20 percent of those who may officially protest do so, the zoning board is supposed to recommend against the change.
The zoning board plans to host another public meeting in the coming weeks to further discussions about the proposed change.