When I spoke with him on Nov. 13, Sam Smith had put in countless hours of community organizing over recent months to push back against a massive industrial development proposed just a half-mile from his home that he and many of his neighbors believed would put his community at a crossroads.
The Northwest Community Alliance president planned to push harder to have his voice heard over the coming weekend, before the Nov. 16 meeting at which Charlotte City Council would vote on whether to approve a rezoning of 156 acres in unincorporated Mecklenburg County that would open the door to the Square Grooves project, a 1.5-million-square-foot industrial development.
That Friday before the vote, Smith said that despite the multiple community meetings he and others had held in recent months, and despite the petition opposing the rezoning that garnered more than 1,100 signatures, he wasn’t optimistic about the vote.
“Knowing the makeup of council, I’m afraid that they’re going to support this rezoning,” Smith said, “but I think council also needs to understand that the developers do not vote them in, the constituents are the ones who vote you in, and if you’re constituents are saying, ‘We don’t want it,’ you have to listen to us, because election season is about to start again.”
At Monday night’s meeting, Charlotte city council members spoke about the tough situation the rezoning petition put them in. At-large council member Dimple Ajmera compared it to choosing between “the lesser of two evils.” The council eventually voted to approve the rezoning petition 7-4.
As described in our latest News feature, the area near the western interchange of I-85 and I-485 is seen as the perfect place for industrial development due to its highway access and vicinity to the airport.
There are also more than 1,000 new jobs at stake. As at-large council member Julie Eiselt pointed out during Monday’s meeting, logistics and distribution jobs like the ones to be offered at this site have the highest potential for wage growth among trades that don’t require a college degree.
As Eiselt emphasized, while it’s great to have new high-paying fintech jobs and the like coming to the city all the time, they don’t improve economic mobility and tend to only send the cost of living higher.
Speaking before the vote, Smith said he struggled with the promises of jobs because he wasn’t confident they would benefit the people on the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor and surrounding areas where his organization works. He pointed to the large Amazon fulfillment center that opened near the intersection of Tuckaseegee Road and Wilkinson Boulevard in 2019.
“I’m a community leader, I think everybody in this area knows me, one of the things I will tell you is that not a lot of people in this area are working in Amazon,” he said. “They’re bringing people from all over Charlotte to come and work in these plants like Amazon, but they’re not specifically targeting the people in this community who are impacted by the development, and that’s where I struggle.”
Smith said he would support efforts to recruit from within the 28214 zip code if the vote were to pass.
Following Monday’s discussion and vote, however, Smith’s tone was not so accommodating.
In a letter to council and city staff on Nov. 17, Smith thanked the members who voted against the rezoning — Victoria Watlington, Renee Johnson, Braxton Winston and Matt Newton — then criticized the others for going against the city’s 2003 plan for the area, which called for only residential development.
Planners and council members such as Ed Driggs said the area plan was outdated during discussions about the rezoning.
“This wasn’t the plan for this area when many of us purchased our property (and those that have been around the area for over 20+ years),” Smith wrote in the email. “Even though zoning might not be a promise — as Councilmember Driggs suggested — a PLAN is a promise and a contract between the community and its elected leaders. It is not the community’s fault that the existing plan is out of date and the new plan is not finished, yet we were punished for that.”
Smith stated he would continue to hold Charlotte city council reps accountable, despite the fact that many of the residents in his area live in the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ, or unincorporated Mecklenburg County) and are unable to vote in city council elections.
“As a community leader/organizer and co-founder of the Northwest Community Alliance, I have been provided the trust of this community to fight for smart development in this area,” he wrote. “We will continue to hold every elected official accountable to the people they are elected to serve.”
In fact, Smith now has more help on that front. The fight over the Square Grooves project led to the formation of another community organization that aims to push back against the flood of rezoning petitions expected to hit the ETJ in the near future.
Earlier in the year, during the Square Grooves fight, Smith’s neighbors Missy Eppes and Janaris Washington formed the Far West Charlotte Community Coalition, described in an email earlier in November as “a diverse group of primarily working parents struggling – like everyone else – in the time of COVID to do our jobs, and keep our children learning and safe.”
Despite the pandemic and a presidential election that soaked up the majority of everyone’s attention throughout the year, Washington, Eppes and Smith held multiple community meetings on Zoom and canvassed to reach their neighbors with unreliable internet access.
At Monday’s meeting, it was clear that those efforts weren’t in vain. Charlotte City Council member Renee Johnson credited the community feedback with her No vote, stating, “If we hear this type of outpouring, we don’t have a choice. We need to listen to the residents.”
Even those who voted for the rezoning such as Tariq Bokhari lauded the community organizing efforts of the neighbors, crediting them with pushing the developer to voluntarily commit to road improvements and tree-saving initiatives within the project.
Victoria Watlington, District 3 representative who technically represents the ETJ area where these residents with no vote live, stood strong for them on Monday, saying it was “deplorable” how developers and city staff were railroading the residents there, comparing the situation to the razing of the Brooklyn neighborhood and implying that some on city staff don’t believe they’re accountable to ETJ residents.
One thing that became clear during Monday night’s discussion and in the months preceding it: The residents of west Mecklenburg County have grown stronger in their solidarity thanks to the Square Grooves fight, and they won’t be ignored moving forward.
Speaking directly after the vote, Janaris Washington of Far West Charlotte Community Coalition suggested that “policies need to be adjusted to provide justice for areas that are not fairly represented,” building on Watlington’s complaints that city planning staff does not have enough representation from District 3 and ETJ.
“We fought the good fight. However, we are at the mercy of city council,” Washington said. “Over 1,000 signatures, that was very impressive. West Charlotte will continue to fight for equality.”