April 2004 Highlights

City topics this month include "big box" retail development issues, housing and homeless plans, and clean air strategies, among others.

"Big box" retail development moratorium: A temporary moratorium on oversized "big box" commercial development was approved by the City Council at our April 19 meeting. The moratorium was set to last 90 days from the date of approval. During that time, it will put on hold the granting of any permits for new commercial retail buildings of 150,000 square feet of floor space or larger. This temporary pause on such new projects is intended to give the Planning Board and the Council time to consider new design and development standards for such "big box" retailers.

A quick drive (if "quick" is possible) past the string of "big box" stores along Hanes Mall Boulevard, awash in their asphalt parking seas, is enough to show that our existing standards are inadequate. We need to do a better job of controlling the traffic, stormwater, and other neighborhood/community impacts of these mega-structures. I supported the 90-day moratorium on new approvals, which will give us time to craft new standards with broad neighborhood and business input. Work on these new standards was clearly given extra urgency by the pending proposal to build the third Wal-Mart Supercenter in Winston-Salem on Reynolda Road, but the implications for community quality of life here are much broader. Good planning standards for such developments will help to protect neighborhoods, control traffic and public infrastructure costs, and encourage sustainable economic development.

Housing plan (including homelessness efforts): Development of permanent housing with supportive services for the chronically homeless with disabilities is the goal of a half-million dollar grant received by the city this month from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The grant was announced on April 15, and the City Council at its April 19 meeting formally approved the year’s housing investment plan, including that grant. Mayor Allen Joines also announced that the city and county will jointly create a special task force to develop and implement a plan to find permanent housing for the hardest-to-help homeless. Human service agencies estimate that about a third of the local homeless population falls into this "chronic" category. These are the folks for whom homelessness is more than a temporary bad-luck situation, and whose problems are often associated with a serious disability or addiction problem. More focused attention is needed to succeed in getting them off the streets and into stable situations.

New rules for asphalt and concrete plant locations: Around the state during the past couple of years, there have been an increasing number of disputes between residential neighborhoods and owners of proposed new asphalt and concrete plants. Complaints by neighbors regarding dust and noise from one of the existing plants in Winston-Salem helped to call attention to the city’s existing rules, which turned out to be pretty weak on the question of buffer zones. In order to avoid future conflicts in this regard, the City Council in April approved a tightened set of rules regarding location and buffer zones for new asphalt and concrete manufacturing plants. They can still be located only in the General Industrial zones, and now also must meet certain setback requirements and other safeguards.

EPA approves Early Action Compact cleanup plans: The Piedmont Triad’s Early Action Compact for reduction of ground-level ozone pollution received welcome news this month when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved its three-year cleanup plan. Winston-Salem is one of 31 Triad-area local governments which worked together to create the plan and forwarded it to the EPA earlier this year.

Ozone is the principal component of urban smog, and hits unhealthily high levels in several regions of North Carolina on many hot summer days. High ozone levels irritate lungs, trigger asthma attacks, and complicate other heart and lung problems, especially in children, the sick, and the elderly. North Carolina has been working for several years to reduce ozone air pollution. "Early Action Compacts" (EACs) are one major strategy for involving local governments in this cleanup work. As Winston-Salem’s City Council representative, I chaired the local "stakeholders" committee of government, business, and citizen representatives which put together the local cleanup plan.

The Piedmont Triad EAC’s cleanup plan calls for steps to control traffic growth, use cleaner engines and fuels, and reduce specific industrial emissions, among other items. Actions already underway include the purchase of cleaner-emission buses by Winston-Salem and the retrofit of Guilford County school buses to cut pollution. Full plan details can be reviewed at www.ptcog.org/eac.html or www.nwpcog.org/EAC/.

Guard unit welcomed home: Families, friends, and local officials turned out last Saturday to welcome home the N.C. Army National Guard’s 105th Engineer Group, which is headquartered in Winston-Salem. The 105th was returning from a 12-month deployment primarily on force protection duty at Ft. Bragg, Ft. Belvoir, and other locations. As you may know, National Guard soldiers normally serve part-time, but are called up for more extended duty during times like these when our full-time military is under special stress. Even when deployed Guard units serve within the U.S., they are dealing with extended absences from their jobs and families. I am sure that I spoke for all of us in Winston-Salem in saying "thank you" to these soldiers and their families. We need to also remember the other local Guard and Reserve soldiers who continue to serve on extended duty, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Constituent service and other notes: This month I responded to a number of constituent calls regarding brush collection delays. All those locations should have been attended to by now, but the pickup schedule had fallen behind due to an unusual number of vacancies in collection staff.

Several sites have been noted recently as long-term problem spots in housing conditions, including certain houses on Magnolia and at the corner of Atwood and Carrollwood. (Neighborhood residents know which ones I mean.) Both of those sites, like others, are in the process of city enforcement. Giving the required notices and repair opportunity periods required by state law can take a while, but they have not been forgotten.

The Winston-Salem Police Department earlier this month announced 20 arrests in the continuing investigation of an auto-breakins operation which had affected several neighborhoods around the city. I hope that this will put a serious dent in the number of crimes of that kind locally.

I have periodically been questioned about the status of the Burke Mill Road realignment. Rest assured that this project has been funded, and the route selection finalized. According to the latest update from the city Transportation Department, engineering design should be completed in late summer or early fall, and right-of-way acquisition and construction begin immediately thereafter.

A call about the status of the Hathaway Park tennis courts has resulted in the city Recreation and Parks director confirming that those courts need to be resurfaced. That need will go into the parks improvements plans. Budget crunches have delayed needed maintenance and upfits at many parks, but please keep bringing problems to my attention. If we don’t speak up, those needs will continue to get bumped down on the spending priority lists.

Finally this month, I’m pleased to note that Winston-Salem has been named one of the 30 "most livable cities" in the United States by the national non-profit group Partners for Livable Communities (www.livable.com). This list is compiled once a decade, and recognizes achievement in economic development, arts and cultural resources, and other quality of life considerations.