As I walk with Missy Eppes through the yard of her home on Moores Chapel Road, we pass a few roosters roaming the driveway. We also pass a few Volkswagen beetles and buses parked in the yard, where her husband works on them throughout the year in preparation for the couple’s annual Charlotte Transporter Show. We enter the woods, and after walking about 500 feet, we come across a creek where Eppes’ children play. Today, however, there appears to be a cloud hovering on the surface of the creek.
Upon closer look, the cloud is actually a cluster of foam, which came down the creek after spilling from a soap factory north of Eppes’ property. These are no soap bubbles, however; it is chemical foam, and Eppes has no idea what’s in it. The foam will eventually wash into the Catawba River, less than 3,000 feet farther downstream, but for the rest of the week her kids won’t be playing in the creek.
Eppes shows me the foam cluster not to blow the whistle on some hidden environmental disaster — she says the spill came from an honest mistake at the factory and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services is aware of it — but because it’s indicative of a bigger issue facing her community in unincorporated west Mecklenburg County. The longtime residential area is becoming more industrial by the day, it seems.
“This wouldn’t happen at a residence or from a restaurant,” she says, the foam coming up to her chest. “This is why you don’t build industrial developments in the middle of residential areas.”
There are already a few warehouses and factories near Eppes’ home, located on nearby Performance and Sam Wilson roads. There’s also the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center that opened on Old Dowd Road last year. She doesn’t mind those, as she says the topography in the area creates a natural barrier between the residential neighborhoods and industrial development, but now it’s coming to her doorstep — or backyard, rather.
A new rezoning petition from the Keith Corporation would open the door for a 1.5-million-square-foot industrial development on 156 acres right behind Eppes’ home. She and hundreds of area residents fear it could be the “tipping point” that turns their residential neighborhoods into infill for industrial development at a time when they should be preparing for different types of development arriving alongside the coming CATS Silver Line.
Charlotte City Council will vote on whether to approve the rezoning of the property at its meeting tonight.
What does ‘smarter growth’ look like?
While city planners have pointed to the area near the western interchange of I-85 and I-485 as a “sweet spot” for industrial development due to highway access and vicinity to the airport, neighbors are asking for “smarter growth” that melds better with the nearby U.S. National Whitewater Center, Iswa Nature Preserve and Lake Wylie.
“Smarter growth looks like connected communities where people can live, work and play in the same area as you grow,” says Eppes. “It means that that growth is concentrated along corridors like the light rail, and then industrial [development] occurs as infilling in places where it already is … As one of my neighbors put it, a lake is a destination. It should be a place where people come to enjoy themselves.”
Eppes launched an online petition opposing the development after city staff recommended its approval unanimously. As of the Sunday night preceding the vote, the petition had more than 1,100 votes.
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Eppes’ neighbor Sam Smith moved to the Moores Chapel area in 2017 because it was one of the last remaining underdeveloped spaces in Mecklenburg County. He knew development would come, but according to the Dixie Berryhill Strategic Plan formulated for the area in 2003, it would only come in the form of single-family residential development.
“It was the rural feel, but also I know this is one of the areas in Charlotte that still had a lot of land left, and doing my research before moving over here, a lot of the land over here was locked in for residential development,” Smith says. “So what brought me here was that opportunity for the growth that was supposed to happen here.”
What happened instead, he says, is that five factories popped up near his home in the first three years that he lived there. Now the new petition, which developers have called the Square Grooves project, would be the biggest of the bunch. Smith fears what the impact on traffic will look like — city staff estimates the development will generate 2,465 trips per day on surrounding roads — and the danger faced by the many cyclists that take the nearby roads to and from the Whitewater Center.
He also fears that it will be the final straw that leads to a flood of more industrial development surrounding his home.
“If this happens, I definitely think that’s going to open the door for more like this,” Smith says. “I think the size, just the square footage [of Square Grooves] definitely is a sign to us that the property here is valued more for logistical reasons than what it’s already zoned for, which is residential.”
A ‘sweet spot’ for industrial development
Speaking on the night before the vote, Keba Samuel, vice-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, confirms Smith’s fears.
“One of the issues that Charlotte faces today is that industrial zoning is kind of being eliminated,” says Samuel, pointing to South End as an example of a once heavy industrial area that has been rezoned to residential and mixed use. “Areas in which industrial zoning makes sense are becoming kind of extinct in the city, so the trend around this area, particularly because it’s at a sweet spot between 85 and 485, it’s close to the airport, so as the airport continues to expand, you will see more industrial petitions that come our way, and I think targeting that particular area for what may be going in this particular site kind of makes sense just because of the transportation infrastructure that’s already there.”
As for the fact that it goes against the Dixie Berryhill Strategic Plan, Samuel emphasizes that area plans can now become outdated in as little as 10 years due to the fast growth in Charlotte.
“Although they do play a big part in what we use in terms of criteria and evaluation, unfortunately because they are becoming so quickly outdated, sometimes it’s best to use what’s been a developing trend as opposed to an area plan,” Samuel says. “If that area plan were to be rewritten by the city today, it would more favor what is happening today.”
Smith also points to South End as an example, though he uses it as a reason the new trend is not the right move for Moores Chapel. After all, it was the arrival of the CATS Blue Line that turned South End from an industrial hub to a lively neighborhood. Now with the city set to bring the Silver Line down Wilkinson Boulevard, Smith hopes to see surrounding development go in the same direction as South End, not the opposite.
“For us in this area, when you want to go to your common things like Walmart, Lowe’s, out to eat, we actually go to Belmont [in Gaston County], because that’s the closest area for us that we can access those types of amenities,” Smith says. “When the light rail comes, what I would like to see is more smarter growth development, mixed-use communities. I would like to see more stores, more opportunity for people in this area to be able to walk to the stores. I would like to see more restaurants. These are things that we don’t have here.”
Samuel says city staff and the developer did take concerns of neighbors while analyzing the petition, though they had to “strike a balance” between those concerns and the economic impact.
“One of the heaviest things we take into consideration is the feedback from neighbors, feedback from the community, residents that live close by, but we also have to balance it with the fact that we want Charlotte still to be a competitor in terms of attracting new businesses and new jobs for our residents to have,” she says. “If this particular petition does not pass tomorrow, it likely will not at all be built in Charlotte. We don’t want to be known as a city that’s hard to do business with, but we also want to pay attention to those neighbors’ concerns.”
Samuel emphasized that the Keith Corporation has promised to set aside 56 of the 156 acres on the parcel to turn into a park or other green space, while also voluntarily committing to make improvements to roads and infrastructure in the areas surrounding the development.
Sitting on her porch, looking out at the two-lane Moores Chapel Road that will take on thousands more trips per day if the vote passes, Eppes acknowledges the good faith of the Keith Corporation, even stating she wishes more developers were like them. But it doesn’t quell her concerns.
“The problem is that, fundamentally, those accommodations don’t address the fact that if a facility of this size comes to this parcel, we are at a tipping point and we will be viewed as an industrial community, and we become infill,” she says. “We believe that no amount of accommodations will address that.”
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