Developer refuses to make road improvements required by NCDOT, town staff

CORNELIUS — Former Cornelius Mayor Gary Knox called the planning board’s requirements for one developer to get approval of a new neighborhood  “unreasonable” and against “common sense."

The planning board met March 10 to hear the rezoning proposal for Courtyards at Nantz, a 63-home neighborhood geared for ages 55 and older, plus an 8,000-square-foot medical center to be located on Nantz Road at West Catawba Avenue. While few questioned the project concept, the rift was how to handle the traffic — despite the claim that the impact would be minimal. Recommendations by staff and the N.C. Department of Transportation were for the applicant, EPCON Communities, to foot the bill to ease existing and future congestion.

“We are committed to being part of the solution,” said EPCON Communities CEO Phil Fankhauser, after admitting he knew there was already a traffic problem. “How can the burden rest with us when we are contributing 1 percent of the traffic on West Catawba? And yet we are looked at to contribute to 100 percent of the solution. Where are other people to partner with us?”

Fankhauser initially offered to donate nearly three-quarters of an acre to realign West Catawba and Nantz Road in lieu of NCDOT’s construction requirements. As unfavorable discussions wore on, Fankhauser raised the ante, offering to pay $25,000 for an engineering study. He also considered having the board only approve the residential portion instead of the whole project. But it wasn’t enough.

EPCON’s refusal to meet all of NCDOT's stipulations and the desire for an immediate answer led planning board members to each say they couldn’t recommend the project.

“I was prepared to approve the request for zoning,” said planning board member Scott Reynolds. “But if the applicant is not going to accept the recommendations, I’d rather not split the project up. We should not approve the request.”

After two and a half hours of discussion, Fankhauser requested a continuance.

“How about if we ask this to be tabled to buy more time and muster support from other private participants showing up on scene,” Fankhauser began. “If I don’t return, it’s because I wasn’t able to muster support from the property owners (to delay the sale). If I do return, I hope to return with more answers for you and me too to make an informed judgment.”

Fankhauser has 60 days to return to the board.

Prior to going to the planning board, Fankhauser invested $8,000 in a traffic impact study, as required. The result showed that his development would have such a small impact that no additional improvements were needed, but discussions with NCDOT led to several recommendations, a Feb. 21 memo to Planning Director Wayne Herron from Transportation Engineering Consultant David Naylor of Jafari-Namin and Associates states. Mecklenburg County District Engineer Brett Canipe gave the same feedback in a Feb. 17 email to town staff.

Among NCDOT’s requirements for EPCON:

• Realign Nantz Road to provide a safer connection with West Catawba.

• Add a southbound right-turn lane on West Catawba approaching Nantz Road with at least 100 feet of right lane storage.

• Construct a left and right turn lane on Nantz Road so that it can be eventually converted to a thru-right scenario.

Town staff added that road construction must be completed prior to building and that the design must be in line with plans for the future West Catawba Avenue widening, which isn’t slated for five years.

Because the necessary road improvements are outside of the proposed subdivision, Herron said after the meeting, staff decided they were  necessary to be done before anything else.

He added previous NCDOT studies have pointed out similar needs for improvements, but the town has never qualified for funding. Staff had hoped the road widening would address many of the problems, but since it’s been pushed back, NCDOT has said in order to have the development before then, the improvements are required now.

EPCON refused all of those conditions, offering only the land donation and money for a study. 

“We want to be part of the solution, but we can’t be the solution ourselves. What you are asking is hundreds of thousands of dollars and that’s a tremendous amount of money,” Fankhauser said. “That’s more money than the community we are talking about can shoulder. All of the people who contribute to the problem should contribute to the solution.”

He said this was a perfect opportunity for a public-private partnership, adding this would be a good use for bond money.

“I have no problem with the project other than the road,” said Serenity Point resident Scobie Woolwine, adding that if the project contributes just 1 percent of traffic on West Catawba Avenue, it may be closer to 30 percent on Nantz Road. “Anybody who has sat at the intersection on a Sunday knows we have a problem. … It’s a disaster in the making, and I promise there will be a fatality there.”

He added that if the intersection just had a traffic signal “the conversation goes away.”

However, Naylor’s letter states NCDOT has said one isn’t warranted and will still not be needed with this new development.

Neighboring resident Sean Fowler added that the traffic study should have been in warmer weather to consider the park, boat and dog park traffic.

The board agreed that something needs to be improved prior to a new development.

“Right now it’s difficult for me to go ahead with the subdivision when I don’t know how we are going to handle the road," board member Cheryl Crawford said. "It’s a great project and it’s ideal for Cornelius.”