Mayor denies criticism that industrialist’s campaign contributions would influence council votes on issue
Burlington’s city council chose this week to postpone a potentially controversial decision on an attempt by one group of homeowners to defect from the city’s largest historic district.
During its latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, the council unanimously voted to wait until August 16 to render its final ruling on the proposed withdrawals of Allen E. Gant, Jr. and Emily and Patrick Robinson from the West Davis Street/Fountain Place district.
The Robinsons, who own a period home at 1004 West Davis Street,
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and Gant, who effectively owns the rest of the block with three other homes, had originally submitted applications to the city last spring to have their properties removed from the bounds of the district. Among the factors which drove their bids to withdraw are the three-decades-old design standards that the district’s homeowners are obligated to follow.
Their criticism of these rules led the city’s planning department to hire a consultant to update and streamline the design standards. The planning department expects the consultant’s work to be ready for the council’s approval by mid-July of this year. In the meantime, Gant and the Robinsons have continued to press their requests for removal – propelled, in part, by the hostile reaction that their applications have garnered from many of the district’s residents.
Much of the neighborhood’s criticism has focused on Gant, a prominent textile executive whose family owns Burlington-based Glen Raven, Inc. But the sense of resentment has also extended to members of the city council – several of whom received campaign contributions from Gant ahead of last year’s municipal elections. Gant’s donations to the council members were even the subject of an anonymous letter that circulated prior to Tuesday’s meeting.
Mayor Jim Butler, who has been among the textile executive’s beneficiaries, addressed the allegations point blank on Tuesday, asserting that Gant “has not one time asked me to vote a certain way” in his years on the council.
“[Gant] did support me financially. That is a fact. But forget the campaign contributions – Allen Gant is a friend. My relationship to Allen Gant goes back to 1991.
“Mr. Gant not one time has asked me to vote a certain way. I found it very disrespectful that I would be accused of being unethical, immoral, or doing something illegal for a rezoning…Don’t just surmise something based on a campaign contribution that is public record from a man who has supported me since 1991…Let’s love each other and do it the right way.”
– Burlington mayor Jim Butler
Meanwhile, Burlington’s mayor pro tem Harold Owen, another recipient of Gant’s largesse, insisted that, as much as passions have been inflamed, it would be imprudent for the council to render an immediate verdict on the proposed defections from the historic district.
“I think what’s happened here is that this thing has gotten personal,” he added. “I think this kind of environment does not lead to any good decision being made right now…It probably needs some time for things to cool down.”
In light of his concerns, Owen threw his support behind a suggested postponement that councilman Bob Ward had recommended to give the planning department a chance to
“I think what’s happened here is that this thing has gotten personal. I think this kind of environment does not lead to any good decision being made right now…It probably needs some time for things to cool down.” – Burlington city councilman Harold Owen
complete its overhaul of the district’s design standards. The council went on to give its unanimous nod to this proposed delay and agreed to revisit the issue at its second regularly-scheduled meeting in August.
Blasting the past
The council’s decision to put off the vote followed nearly a year of escalating tensions over the proposed withdrawal of Gant and the Robinsons from the historic district.
This neighborhood schism began in April of last year when Gant sent the city’s planning department a request to redraw the district’s boundaries to exclude three properties he owns or controls at 1010, 1016, and 1022 West Davis Street. These parcels are currently home to two of the district’s more memorable dwellings, including a Tudor-style manor that Gant’s father built 86 years ago and which presently serves as his son’s personal residence.
About a month after Gant submitted his application, the planning department received a similar submission from the Robinsons, who purchased their home at the corner of West Davis Street and Central Avenue in 2017. In justifying their requests, both Gant and the Robinsons objected to the antiquity of the district’s design standards, which hadn’t been substantially updated since the mid ‘90s. They also took issue with the slow clip of the approval process for home renovations and other proposed changes to their property.
The prospective defections nevertheless took on an apocalyptic significance for Burlington’s historic preservation commission. This quasi-judicial body, which enforces the district’s design standards and signs off on any proposed modifications, ultimately slated its unanimous opposition to the requests during a three-hour meeting in January that also brought on blizzard of uniformly negative feedback from other residents of the district toward the requested withdrawals.
The proposed change to the district’s boundaries went on to receive a negative ruling from the city’s planning and zoning commission, which voted 4-to-3 not to recommend the requests to Burlington’s city council on February 28. The planning commission’s decision followed an hour or so of public input that was, once again, categorically opposed to Gant and the Robinsons.
In the midst of this increasingly contentious neighborhood quarrel, the city’s planning department commissioned a consultant to overhaul the district’s design standards using the proceeds from a recently-approved grant. During the city council’s meeting on Tuesday, Jamie Lawson, the city’s principal planner, predicted that the consultant’s efforts would be ready for the council’s purusal within four months, although she conceded that the grant’s regulations would allow the work to continue until as late as September.
A declaration of independence
The promise of a wholesale revision of these much-despised rules has proven to be a small consolation to the historic district’s would be defectors.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, both sets of applicants complained about the onerous burden that they believe the district’s rules impose on its homeowners, and they expressed little optimism that the situation would change after the planning department has revised the design standards.
Emily Robinson told the council that the impetus for her and her husband to withdraw from the district wasn’t so much the design standards as the approval process that’s overseen by the historic preservation commission. She went on to recall the nightmare these procedures allegedly caused when she and her husband had to obtain a certificate of appropriateness to conduct urgent roof repairs on their home.
“We were delayed for two months by that process. Meanwhile, we had standing water and intrusion was happening inside the home…The scope of work increased because we were delaying repairs…and the COA process added no value to this. It was just an unnecessary delay.” – Emily Robinson, one of the homeowners seeking to withdraw from the historic district
“We were delayed for two months by that process,” she added. “Meanwhile, we had standing water and intrusion was happening inside the home…The scope of work increased because we were delaying repairs…and the COA process added no value to this. It was just an unnecessary delay”
Gant also raised some concerns about the district’s design standards, arguing that their obsolescence has made it impossible to make upgrades and repairs using cost-effective, energy-efficient materials – like those that a 3-D printer can produce to simulate a home’s original features. Gant insisted that the existing standards make no allowance for such innovations, and he contended that the city’s historic preservation commission has been consistently tone deaf to this regulatory shortcoming.
“Has anybody from the HPC made any attempt to understand that cost that’s being inflicted on the property owners? I think the answer is no,” The textile executive said “We’re dedicated to this city. Our investment has proven that. And we will continue to invest in the city. We just want to do it in the most effective and efficient way…It would be nice to have a friendly attitude toward innovative improvements.”
The applicants also tried to debunk some of the claims that their detractors had previously shared with city officials.
Emily Robinson argued against the oft-repeated assertion that the secession of the 1000 block of West Davis Street would strike the death blow to the entire historic district.
“We are at the boundary’s edge,” she pointed out. “So this amendment wouldn’t cause a hole punch in the district…And the consultant did state this would still be a cohesive district without these properties.”
Patrick Robinson also assured the council that the potential change to the district’s boundaries would have a nugatory effect on the neighborhood’s property values. He added that, if anything, the red tape that comes with living in the district can discourage the sort of improvements that bolster home values.
Emily Robinson added that, in her view, these false claims about her and her husband’s intentions are responsible for much of the opposition to their request.
“It’s no surprise to us that members of the public are worried and motivated to submit form letters,” she added. “There’s been a coordinated campaign launched to oppose our applications. The issue with that is that it’s rooted in misinformation and severely misrepresented our intentions.”
“I don’t know if we’ve ever felt more loved and rejected at the same time, which is very, very sad, and all we want is to be able to care for our properties in the most effective and efficient way.” – Allen Gant, Jr.
These sentiments were also echoed by Gant in his remarks to the council.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever felt more loved and rejected at the same time, which is very, very sad,” he opined, “and all we want is to be able to care for our properties in the most effective and efficient way.”
There goes the neighborhood…
These pleas for understanding nevertheless fell flat with most of the residents who weighed in on the proposed defections on Tuesday.
The council ultimately heard from 17 people who attended Tuesday’s meeting in person as well as five others who tuned in using the Zoom teleconferencing platform. Of these 22 individuals, only five expressed their support for Gant and the Robinsons – and all of these sympathizers hailed from outside the district.
The sentiment within the district was better characterized by the likes of Vicki Vernon, a West Davis Street resident who recalled that she hosted the inaugural meeting of
the historic district in her own living room. Although Vernon conceded that she has been through the ringer herself when she has needed to make urgent repairs to her historic residence, she insisted that the experience has never soured her on the district’s advantages.
“We have participated willingly – not always smoothly but willingly,” she said. “However, I never once wanted to be removed from the historic district. I feel that it’s important. I feel that it does create value in our neighborhood.
Michelle Koebrich, the owner of a historic home along Front Street, contended that the Robinsons’ urgent repairs in 2020 were the inevitable result of a roof that hadn’t been replaced since 1994.
“It’s the homeowner’s duty to plan, budget, schedule, and repair and replace things before they fail. If the homeowners are not happy to live in the local historic district overlay, there is no reason to change the district for one roof.” – Michelle Koebrich, owner of a historic home along Front Street
“It’s the homeowner’s duty to plan, budget, schedule, and repair and replace things before they fail,” she argued. “If the homeowners are not happy to live in the local historic district overlay, there is no reason to change the district for one roof.”
Meanwhile, Sharon Roderick, who recently sold a home in the district, challenged Gant’s
repeated assertion that the district’s design standards make no allowance for the use of 3-D printed materials. Roderick recalled that she was able to use 3-D printing to make trim for her former home, which was reviewed and approved by the historic preservation commission. She went on to share her generic satisfaction with the district’s rules and procedures.
“We really needed the assurance that our neighbors wouldn’t make cheap renovations and repairs on their homes,” she recalled. “Although I no longer live in the district, I am district adjacent and still benefit from it…I know it raises the value of my own home.”
An equally adamant defense of the district’s value came from Molly Whitlatch, who formerly served as the chairman of the city’s historic preservation commission. Whitlatch conceded that the district’s current design standards do leave some room for improvement.
“The district is important to people. That’s why so many people have attended these meetings and sent letters. You are being asked to bring an end to the historic district on the basis of one homeowner’s experience…this is a nuclear option…this is not about the Gants or the Robinsons. Nobody hates them. The vote is about whether the city will continue to have a local historic district.” – Molly Whitlatch, former chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission
“I agree that the standards should be updated but that doesn’t mean the process isn’t working,” she added. “Our HPC has done a very good job of applying these guidelines in a flexible way that meets the needs of homeowners – including allowing modern materials.
“The district is important to people. That’s why so many people have attended these meetings and sent letters,” Whitlatch continued. “You are being asked to bring an end to the historic district on the basis of one homeowner’s experience…this is a nuclear option…this is not about the Gants or the Robinsons. Nobody hates them. The vote is about whether the city will continue to have a local historic district.”
Villain or victim
The district’s prospective defectors also had a handful of supporters among the nearly two dozen people who addressed the council on Tuesday.
Although none of these allies reside within the district itself, they were nevertheless appalled by the bad blood that seemed to have been generated in response to the applications that Gant and the Robinsons had submitted.
Michaelle Graybeal, who told the council she lives just outside the district, was particularly put off by the anonymous letter that the defectors’ opponents had circulated ahead of the council’s meeting on Tuesday.
“It actually scared me because it felt like we were being personally attacked by our neighbors,” she said, “and I felt like these people were being attacked by our neighbors.”
Janice Burgess, a resident of West Willowbrook Drive, was deeply also concerned about the letter – which hinted at some potential corruption in its remarks about Gant’s campaign contributions.
“It really alarmed me because it made statements that I knew were absolutely not true,” she added.
Burgess went on to recall Gant’s role in the renewal of nearby Willowbrook Park, which has been spearheaded by the New Leaf Society, a nonprofit organization which the textile executive had founded to beautify the community.
Meanwhile, Robin Griswold expressed his chagrin over the role that the neighborhood’s hostility seems to have had in driving Gant and the Robinsons to secede from the district.
“It’s really a shame that it comes to this that they have to ask to be removed from the historic district…It’s not because they really want to. It’s because the historic district has not kept up with the standards.” – Robin Griswold
“It’s really a shame that it comes to this that they have to ask to be removed from the historic district…It’s not because they really want to. It’s because the historic district has not kept up with the standards.” On the letter: “All it was was to cause a stir.”
Return to sender
Tuesday’s public speakers weren’t the only ones distraught by the anonymous epistle, which went out to dozens of households within the district and on its periphery.
This one-page missive warns its recipients that the city council may be inclined to support the diminishment of the historic district in spite of the overwhelming opposition to the proposal. It goes on to insinuate that the council has been reluctant to reject the proposal because “one of the applicants has donated $12,000 to the campaigns” of Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler, its mayor pro tem Harold Owen, and councilman Ronnie Wall.
[Editor’s note: campaign finance records confirm that each of the three candidates who won in last November’s election – Butler, Owen, and Wall – received a $4,000 contribution from Gant.]
The letter proceeds to urge like-minded residents to voice their objections to this “corrupt bid” to “buy off” the council and make it less likely “that political campaigning and manipulation will win” the day.
These hints and allegations didn’t exactly get a vote of confidence from Butler, who asserted as much before Tuesday’s vote to postpone the matter.
“It made reference to Mr. Gant and his campaign contributions,” the mayor observed of the anonymous letter. “He did support me financially. That is a fact,” he went on to admit. “But forget the campaign contributions – Allen Gant is a friend. My relationship to Allen Gant goes back to 1991.
“Mr. Gant not one time has asked me to vote a certain way,” he added. “I found it very disrespectful that I would be accused of being unethical, immoral, or doing something illegal for a rezoning…Don’t just surmise something based on a campaign contribution that is public record from a man who has supported me since 1991…Let’s love each other and do it the right way.”
Butler’s distress was shared by Owen, who saw the disparaging letter as one of many indications that the debate over the district’s boundaries has become much too contentious.
“I don’t recall ever seeing anything like this before,” he added. “The situation has escalated so quickly that I think comments are being made whichever side you’re on that I don’t think it’s realistic anymore.”
Owen was consequently willing to support a motion made by councilman Bob Ward to delay the council’s decision until after the overhaul of the district’s design standards.
That proposal received a unanimous endorsement from the council.
See earlier coverage of the requests to withdraw houses and lots from the historic district:
Breaking news: planning board splits 4-3 against allowing withdrawal from historic district: https://alamancenews.com/burlington-planning-board-votes-4-3-against-endorsing-secession-for-four-homes-in-historic-district/
Planning board to consider requests for withdrawal of four homes and lots in historic district along West Davis Street: https://alamancenews.com/planning-board-to-consider-requests-from-two-residents-to-withdraw-four-homes-from-historic-district/
Historic preservation commission given tour of area where residents want to withdraw from city’s historic district: https://alamancenews.com/retired-industrialist-requests-three-properties-including-his-house-be-removed-from-citys-historic-district/