DEMOREST — The Demorest City Council has released Piedmont College from certain zoning conditions placed on the development of Piedmont Village on Demorest-Mt. Airy Highway.
The conditions were placed on the unusual development on 25 acres that, as proposed, was to have retail along Demorest-Mt. Airy Highway with apartment-style dorms behind. The residential development occurred, but the accompanying retail development and conditionally-required sidewalk did not.
During Tuesday night’s public hearing, Piedmont President James Mellichamp said the problem with retail development rests on him. He referred to a saying he remembers from his childhood.
“There was a saying then that’s as good today as it was then, and that’s ‘don’t put your cart before the horse’,” Mellichamp said. “Upon reflection, I think the reason we find ourselves here tonight is because Piedmont College did do that. We were under significant pressure because we were facing an imminent shortage of housing for our residential population. We moved forward with these plans and the best of intentions, I mean that sincerely. Were we to do it over again, we should have done a feasibility study before we ever pulled the trigger — and I accept the responsibility for that, and I apologize that we didn’t do that. Frankly, that’s really why we’re here.”
Councilman Bruce Harkness, a practicing attorney, said that after reading a 30-page document submitted by attorneys for Piedmont, he was convinced that not granting the college’s request to modify the zoning conditions could land the city in an unfavorable position in superior court because it could be interpreted as a “taking” of college property.
Mayor Rick Austin asked Attorney Tony Tarnacki, who represented City Attorney Joey Homans at Tuesday night’s public hearing and called meeting, if the city could be legal jeopardy for requiring the college to comply with fully developing retail space at Piedmont Village.
Tarnacki said he didn’t disagree with Harkness’ assertions that since the college has data demonstrating such development wouldn’t be sustainable that the court might look unfavorably on the city should it get to that point.
“Then why have zoning hearings and zoning conditions to begin with if they can’t be enforced,” Austin asked as a sidebar question to Tarnacki.
Tarnacki said legal challenges are not unique to zoning issues.
“We’ve wasted a lot of this council’s time when we put 15 conditions, and you’re telling me that if we try to enforce all 15, you’re telling me that there’s a possibility we may not prevail,” Austin said. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s a risk no matter what you go to court for,” Tarnacki responded.
Austin recommended delaying action on the college request for 30 days, but Councilman Sean Moore said he didn’t see that 30 days would change anything.
Harkness made a motion to grant the college’s request to remove certain conditions placed on the development when it was approved in 2014. His motion was seconded by Moore. Harkness, Moore and Councilman John Popham voted in favor. Councilwoman Florence Wikle was not in attendance.
Though frustrated during the discussion, Austin renewed his commitment during the meeting for the city to work with the college going forward to do what is best for all of Demorest.
“At the end of the day, in 2014 Piedmont College presented a novel plan to the City of Demorest, and that storyboard still sits behind us,” Austin said after the meeting. “With that story came the idea of a village complex that was fronted by commercial retail space that would be of benefit to the citizens of Demorest, our tax base, and also to the students that live in the village and are going to Piedmont College.”
With the passage of the college’s request to modify zoning conditions on the development, Mellichamp stressed to the council and the audience his commitment to work with the city on filling two downtown Demorest storefronts, owned by the college, with retail users.
“It is my sincere hope that following tonight’s decision by council that Piedmont will follow through and will deliver something that will show that they are extraordinarily committed to the citizens of Demorest and our development in a retail fashion that benefits both our citizens and the students that attend and the faculty and staff that attend Piedmont College,” Austin said.