February 2003 Highlights

For a short month, February was certainly full of activity—so much so that this report is delayed four days into March. The main reason for delay is the first item.

Ice storm and recovery: Last week’s ice storm caused 350,000 outages in the Triad area, including more than 125,000 in Forsyth county. On Friday February 28, about 75% of Duke Power’s customers in Forsyth were out.  By the work of more than 6,000 people from Duke Power and other utilities’ borrowed crews, that dropped to about 40,000 here on Saturday, 15,000 on Sunday, and fewer than 200 homes still out by 8 p.m. Monday night.  City crews also worked all daylight hours since the storm hit, through yesterday, clearing roads and debris. I’ve added my thanks to all those who worked long and hard for public safety and fast recovery from this storm disaster.

The City Council last night ratified the mayor’s declaration of emergency, which may help the city receive state and federal financial assistance for the costs of cleanup. City crews will continue to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, clearing trees and brush from the streets, until the work is completed or until further notice.

If there is a fallen or broken street tree in your neighborhood which the city crews have not yet reached, you can call 748-3020 to report it and request removal. For other fallen trees and limbs in yards, the city crews will remove them as usual if they’re piled at the curbside. For dealing with the aftermath of this storm, the usual requirements for curbside brush pickup have been somewhat loosened. Limbs should be cut into sections no longer than six feet and no larger than 12 inches in diameter. Trash pickup and recycling is expected to be on schedule by today.

I’d again like to thank everyone who helped your neighbors with a warm place to stay, hot food, debris clearance, transportation, or other aid during the disaster. It’s always encouraging to be part of a community working together like this one.

Traffic calming: The long-awaited full draft report on “traffic calming” was reviewed at the Public Works Committee meeting on February 11. The report discusses in depth the dozens of alternatives for “calming” traffic on city streets and through neighborhoods—from low-cost approaches such as lane striping and reflective markers, to expensive structural fixes like traffic islands and circles. The report also lays out a recommended process for reviewing problem zones, prioritizing them, and designing plans for dealing with the problems, including neighborhood step-by-step involvement. 

After an extended discussion, the Committee determined to hold a public hearing for detailed comment opportunity at its Tuesday, April 15 meeting, at 5:30 p.m. on the 5th floor of City Hall South. Please feel invited to attend or to send in your comments.  Copies of the Draft Traffic Calming Policy are available for review at library branches in the city, and on the city website at www.cityofws.org/DOT/trafficcalming.html.  Advance written comments can be sent to DOT director Stan Polanis by email, stanp@cityofws.org, and you’re welcome to copy your comments directly to me as well.

Hillcrest rezoning: At our February 3 meeting, the City Council finalized approval of the proposed rezoning for the Hillcrest golf course property. This was certainly the most complex zoning case in which I’ve been involved. The property owners and their agents negotiated with city Planning staff and concerned neighbors including two separate neighborhood associations, through over 40 meetings over about a year and a half. I met with various parties about a dozen times to help negotiate agreements and compromises over public concerns. The final plans were approved overwhelmingly by the Planning Board and the City Council.

I was especially pleased that the final plans were satisfactory to both major neighborhood groups involved in the negotiations.  They put a great deal of time and thought into pursuing their interests in an appropriate and ultimately constructive process. The property owners are also to be commended in working out acceptable solutions to community objections. I think that the final plan approved should result in a high-quality, mixed-use development, including good buffers for existing neighborhoods and workable approaches to traffic issues. I was also particularly encouraged by important compromises which should protect existing neighborhoods from traffic overload while providing pedestrian access that will keep new neighbors from feeling isolated. The resulting development should be highly pedestrian-friendly, including sidewalks and street trees on both sides of all public streets there.

I know that many of us would have been at least as happy with retention of the golf course—but if the owners were going to develop it, we all wanted it to be done in the right way.

Clean air efforts: I’ve mentioned in these monthly reports previously that the Triad is one of several areas in North Carolina which exceed new federal standards for ozone air pollution. If you have asthma or spend any time outdoors on those hot summer days, that will come as no surprise to you.

In order to help clean up our air problems as quickly as possible, as well as to avoid the economic losses associated with federal air quality standard violations, local governments in the Piedmont Triad have agreed to work together in an “Early Action Compact” (EAC). The Triad is one of four areas in North Carolina with EPA-approved EACs. Our local governments here will be working together to develop plans for helping to clean up our ozone air pollution problems by the end of 2007. The first step will be putting together a list of action options by mid-June of this year. 

I’m on the committee which is developing action recommendations for the Triad. Your suggestions will be welcome. If you want more detail, I’ll be briefing the city’s Public Works Committee on the process and issues thus far, at our March 18 meeting, 5:30 p.m., on the 5th floor of City Hall South.

Bulky item pickup: Bulky item pickup will take place this year! In fact, it’s starting this month and will run through the end of August. Notices will be sent to households in areas about to be served by the pickup. For advance word of the schedule as it affects you, call 727-2638 or check the map and schedule at www.cityofws.org/sanitation

Brandon settlement: There’s been a lot of press coverage over the proposed settlement of Mr. William Brandon’s debt to the city for loans associated with development of the Eastway Plaza Shopping Center. The loans were made by the city in 1994 and 1995 as a part of the city’s effort to encourage economic development throughout the Winston-Salem community. They helped to leverage a multi-million dollar development in an underserved section of the city. The development was primarily financed by a coalition of private banks.

Unfortunately, the shopping center did not fully meet its financial goals. While it continues to operate and serve that part of the city, the business corporation created by Brandon to build and operate the center went into default on its loans and ultimately into bankruptcy. The banks foreclosed and sold the center to other private investors, who own and operate the shopping center now. Proceeds from the sale were insufficient to cover all the debts to the private banks.  In its original arrangements, the city in the early ‘90’s had accepted an inferior mortgage position to the banks, and received nothing from the sale.

The Brandons (Mr. and Mrs.) had personally guaranteed their debt, but lacked sufficient assets to pay it. The new owners of the shopping center were prepared to re-involve Brandon as a partner, but only if he eliminated his debt to the city. Brandon originally made a settlement offer of a $50,000 payment, with the remainder of the $422,000 debt to be dropped. The offer was increased during negotiations with city staff to $77,000.

This offer was unsatisfactory to a majority of the City Council, including myself. I believed that it would be particularly unacceptable to many taxpayers for the debt to be settled for such a low percentage, only to see the debtor then become a partner again in the development originally financed with city assistance.  However, it was also clear that the Brandons were prepared to file personal bankruptcy if necessary to clear the debt to the city.

After the City Council last month declined to accept the $77,000 settlement offer, Mayor Joines got involved in the negotiations. He persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Brandon and the existing owners of the shopping center to accept an arrangement in which the city would be guaranteed a percentage of the proceeds from the Brandons’ interest in the property, in addition to a partial debt payment beginning immediately. In this arrangement, the city is guaranteed $70,000 in payments, plus 50 per cent of Mr. Brandon’s (or his estate’s) net proceeds upon sale or refinancing of the center, up to $176,000—a total repayment of up to $246,000.

While not a full repayment, this arrangement will provide city taxpayers with the opportunity to recover over half of the total loan amount. It is clear that this is substantially more than the city could recover of the debt if it pursued it in court, since the Brandons were prepared to file personal bankruptcy in order to deal with it. Their present assets, less legal exemptions, would not produce such a substantial amount. As such, I and all other members of the council present and voting last night agreed to accept the new settlement as the best we could do for the taxpayers.

I believe that the city has also learned important lessons from its mistakes in the 1994-95 agreements which went into default. I will press for those lessons to be applied as the city considers further support of community economic development efforts in the future.

Other brief items: Problems involving ORV damage to Little Creek Park, and potential danger to children and other park users, have been reported to me and to the police and other city agencies. A cooperative effort is underway to block off illegal entrances, and to identify and stop the culprits. Anyone seeing ORVs in the park is encouraged to call the police when the activity is occurring.

Remember last year when the new trees were planted along Stratford Road? People came from all over Winston-Salem to help.  Now’s our chance to return the favor. This year’s annual Community Roots Day will plant trees and shrubs in the neighborhood around the John F. Kennedy Learning Center at 1000 N. Highland Avenue. It’s scheduled for Saturday, March 29, beginning at 9 a.m. Participants will be treated to lunch, and the opportunity to work with our neighbors to beautify our city. More information is available from Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful at 727-8013, and on the city’s website at www.cityofws.org

Don’t forget that burglar and fire alarm systems must be registered with the Police Department by April 1. It’s part of the city’s effort to reduce false alarms, which result in tying up of emergency responders on false calls, and very high costs to taxpayers. There’s no fee for registering an alarm, but there will be a penalty for not registering ($100 the first time the police or fire department responds to a false alarm from that system). For full info, call 773-7886 or check the Police Department’s website at www.wspd.org

The city and the Winston-Salem Downtown Partnership are investigating the feasibility of a streetcar system for downtown Winston-Salem. Interested? Two public meetings will be held to discuss the issue:  March 12, 8:30 a.m., and March 14, 11:30 a.m., both on the lower level of the Benton Convention Center.