At Monday night’s Huntersville Town Board meeting, a standing-room-only crowd, including 15 residents who signed up to address the board, illustrated the community interest in the board’s endorsement for the path of an extensively researched and much-debated thoroughfare in western Huntersville.
In the end, even the board’s vote reflected the controversial and potentially powerful impact of a decision at least two decades away from any sort of implementation. For the first time since the resignation of Commissioner Ken Lucas in July, the now four-member board deadlocked. By political design (municipal elections are 53 days away) or happenstance, that left the ball in Mayor Jill Swain’s court. Her decision pleased some, disappointed others and, for the moment, closed the book on Huntersville’s role in determining where the northern terminus of what will eventually be a thoroughfare between N.C. 73 and Exit 18 off I-77.
The board’s endorsement of Option 3, labeled by Transportation Planner Bill Coxe as the “bypass option,” will be forwarded to the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization for consideration. With a few necessary tweaks and turns – including a re-routing to remove the eastern end of a re-routed N.C. 73 from an existing creek bed and an adjustment of the connection to the existing highway from the McGuire Nuclear Station employee access road – Option 3 is, for now, the path the road will follow.
For families with property dissected or infringed by the route, the decision was a letdown.
“I don’t think it is fair at all that these people will lose their homes,” Stacy Phillips told the board during the public comment session prior to the vote. “They wanted to live in a rural area.”
But for some of those in favor of Option 3, which calls for four-laned N.C 73 to turn south from the existing highway a mile east of McGuire to intersect with the proposed Vance Road extension while leaving a two-lane section of the current N.C. 73 untouched by the project, the decision is a relief.
“I think Option 3 provides opportunities,” Susan Holtje told the board. “It is an opportunity to protect the lake, the aesthetics and an opportunity for future visions. In short, opportunity knocks, and Option 3 answers.”
Phillips and Holtje, and the parade of other speakers addressing the board, demonstrated the diverse views of the road plan. For the most part, those speaking in favor of the plan live along or right off N.C. 73 in the section dodged by the option. Those opposed, for the most part, own property that will be touched or divided by the proposed route and included in their statements the belief that a decision on the matter should be postponed until all six commissioner posts — the town charter was amended last year to add a sixth commissioner — are filled after November’s election.
The uncertainty of the long-discussed road, and the subsequent impact on property values, development plans and future land-use schematics along the potential routes, fueled the interest in the outcome. But the opinions aired at Monday’s meeting were far from the first heard on the issue.
The plans, all part of the Northwest Huntersville Transportation Study, have been in the works in one form or another for more than 20 years. In recent years, the focus narrowed to the options for linking north-south traffic on the western side of Huntersville with the town’s and region’s primary east-west corridor, N.C. 73.
At the meeting, Coxe a 30-year veteran of transportation planning who can talk about future local road projects like Walt Disney could discuss plans for Disney World — Disney would describe the paint scheme for “It’s a Small World” before others could locate the future park acreage on a map — provided a brief history of the town’s involvement in the road planning project and outlined the three options remaining for the N.C. 73 connection.
He then explained the evaluation process, featuring procedures with ominous titles such as Decision Analysis Model and Decision Matrix Evolution, members of the various boards and committees tasked with picking the best option followed in deciding to identify the best choice, or lesser of three evils depending on their point of view.
Coxe explained that in the road planning business, like most other decision-making processes, “Traditionally, what we do is count things.”
The items counted in identifying the best option for the roadway connection included the number of schools, businesses, houses and people directly impacted by each plan and, of course, the general cost estimate associated with each project.
The Decision Analysis Model assigns point values to various items and, depending on the formula followed, the project with the highest or lowest point value wins, or loses.
To further explain the complicated nature of the process, Coxe further explained the complicated nature of the process.
“The Decision Analysis Model is designed to eliminate and/or illuminate bias in the decision making,” Coxe said, then added that, by design, bias and prejudice enter the process because the weight placed on particular items — houses, schools and people, for example — shapes the outcome of the analysis.
Coxe’s explanations, including his statement that the Huntersville Planning Board didn’t choose an option but simply voted (8-0 with one abstention) to endorse the process used in evaluating the options, were a prelude to his summation that all indicators pointed to Option 3 as the preferred choice.
The board’s vote — with commissioners Ron Julian and Sarah McAulay in favor of Option 3 and Charles Jeter and Danae Caulfield opposed — and Swain’s subsequent tie-breaker, sends the issue to MUMPO. Coxe will present the board’s endorsement, with the recommended modifications to the plan’s route, to that organization Sept. 21.
Once stamped by MUMPO, Option 3 could progress from a fingertrace on the map to an actual pencilled-in line.
But set in stone is still a long way off.
“There are so many things that could change,” the road-tested veteran Coxe told the board. “It’s at least 20 years before something is built and at that time the plans will have to go through this same process. I’m not going to participate in that one.”
In other action at Monday’s session, the Huntersville commissioners:
• Unanimously approved a revised interlocal agreement with Visit Lake Norman, the north Mecklenburg’s travel and tourism authority. Parties involved compromised on lingering issues related to the agreement and the operating procedures now provide for municipal and agency representation on VLN’s board of directors and designate a regular schedule of payments from the towns of Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville to VLN. Huntersville and Davidson have yet to vote on the agreement.
• Delayed discussion on a long-running rezoning request to locate a cellular tower off Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road and voted instead to schedule a public hearing in November to consider a request from the cellular tower firm to change the town’s zoning ordinance to identify cellular towers as a permitted use in rural areas within the town’s zoning jurisdiction.
• Adopted, by a 3-1 vote with Commissioner Danae Caulfield opposed, new outdoor lighting standards for business, commercial and industrial use. The town’s guidelines, reviewed as the result of a request submitted by representatives of the under-construction ABB cable manufacturing facility in Commerce Station, now allow light poles up to 40 feet high, in place of the previous 30-foot maximum, and set glare and positioning requirements for outdoor illumination devices, including floodlights. Caulfield expressed concerns about the added allowed height applying to all business uses, not just ABB’s operation.
• Unanimously approved a request from American Asset Corp. to create a special sign district overlay for the 428-acre mixed-used Bryton development off N.C. 115 and Alexanderana Road in southern Huntersville. The change is designed to give large-scale developments more sign design flexibility. AAC sought permission to exceed the town’s signage limitations in order to install directional signs within the development and to meet the needs of the project’s first tenant, Walmart.
• Approved funds to cover cost overruns associated with the construction of the Ramah Church Road roundabout and Stumptown Road extension. The required funds will be drawn from the town’s Transportation Reserve Fund Balance. At Commissioner Sarah McAulay’s request, Town Manager Greg Ferguson will determine if funds can be drawn from the town’s storm water account balance to help pay for the project, which is also funded in part by Huntersville United Methodist Church and the developer of Monteith Park as a condition of their prior approvals.
• Approved town’s participation in a “sphere of influence” agreement with the Town of Davidson to formally recognize a natural and logical dividing line between the towns based on existing and projected growth patterns. The line will be used to determine each town’s zoning and annexation authorities.
• Held a public hearing to consider a request from Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home and Cremation Services to amend town ordinances to allow an on-site crematorium in the highway commercial district. The amendment, as proposed, would established setback guidelines for the use and limit the number of services the crematorium was allowed to perform each year. The issue will be addressed at a future board session.