Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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“Offensive” anti-speeding signs throw village into turmoil

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It takes a village to raise a child – and it also apparently takes one to raise a ruckus over some suggestive messages that a child may happen to glimpse through a car window.

That has certainly proven to be the case in the Village of Alamance, where a veritable uprising has recently flared over some provocative warnings that a number of residents have posted to drivers who speed down the community’s main thoroughfare.

This controversy, which has dominated the past two meetings of the village’s aldermen, may seem like a mere backwater brouhaha to many an outsider. But for a substantial chunk of the village’s 1,000-plus residents, the furor over these signs is serious business, indeed. Not only does this dispute touch on the significant issues of public safety and community values, but it also exposes deeper divisions that threaten to fray the very fabric of this idyllic hamlet on the outskirts of Burlington.

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The Village of Alamance may seem like an unlikely setting for such a heated exchange to boil over. Nestled in the countryside beyond Burlington’s southernmost limits, Alamance began its existence as one of the numerous mill villages that pervaded Alamance County during the heyday of the local textile industry. The core of the community consists of over a dozen historic mill houses that once served a 170-year-old cotton mill, which has itself fallen prey to the ravages of time. The mill houses have been more fortunate, however, and now form the heart of a historic district that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

The Village of Alamance had already extended beyond these period homes by the time it obtained its municipal charter in 1979. Since then, the village has witnessed a great deal of additional growth – thanks, in large part, to its absorption of the Heritage Glen subdivision roughly two decades ago. With its annexation of this sizable development, the village positioned itself to explode from a mere 310 residents in 2000 to more than 950 when the next federal census took place in 2010.

Although the addition of so many new homes has significantly increased the village’s tax base, it has also stirred some resentment within older parts of the community. Residents of what’s sometimes known as “the old village” have often bemoaned the side effects of this growth and development – including the additional traffic that these changes have wrought along NC 62. Over the years, complaints about speeding and noise have become perennial table topics for residents of the old village, and particularly within the historic district, where many of the homes are within spitting distance of the state-maintained roadway.

Earlier this year, a new factor was thrown into this already volatile mix when residents along NC 62 began to trot out their own anti-speeding placards to reinforce the state-sanctioned signs that inform drivers of the 30-mile-an-hour speed limit along this stretch of NC 62. The first of the signs to go up, which simply warned drivers that this historic neighborhood “is not a racetrack,” quickly found favor with Elizabeth Powell, a real estate manager who owns many of the homes within the bounds of the historic district.

The daughter of two Alamance natives, Powell purchased and restored many of these dwellings in tandem with her ex-husband, and she currently rents many of them to tenants, who she says have often approached her to complain about speeding along NC 62. Powell said that these novelty signs seemed like the least she could do to address these perennial gripes.

“I personally don’t believe there’s the problem [with speeding] that she says there is. The real problem is the noise. it’s a busy state highway and there’s a lot of trucks on it.”

– Village of Alamance mayor Don Tichy

“That is an issue that has gone on for quite some time, and it has generally fallen on deaf ears,” Powell recalled in an interview last week. “I purchased them because my tenants requested them, and I was happy to oblige.”

Powell added that when she began to explore the various placards available for purchase, she stumbled across a slightly cheeky option that struck her fancy immediately. This Day-Glo yellow caution sign admonishes overly fast drivers to “SLOW THE #@%! DOWN” – a sentiment that Powell said seemed to sum up the prevailing mood rather aptly. Powell added that the sign’s use of special characters also appealed to her since they could serve as a stand-in for “hell” or “heck” just as easily as a more potent four-letter word.

“It was never intended to offend people,” she added. “It was meant to amuse them and maybe provoke some thought.”

But offend them she did – as the village’s mayor Don Tichy recalled in a recent interview with The Alamance News.

“I’ve had 40-plus phone calls with everyone saying that it makes us look like trash,” Tichy elaborated. “It’s annoyed a lot of people…I had a couple of people complaining that their children were asking them what the signs meant.”

Critics of these signs did more than just unload their complaints to Tichy over the phone. In April, a number of them appeared before the village’s board of aldermen to register their opposition to the placards in a more formal setting. Also on hand at these proceedings was Powell, who was joined by her mother as well as several of her tenants who have planted the suggestive signs in their yards.

According to the minutes from this particular meeting, six people including Powell spoke up in support of the signs during the board’s designated public comment period that evening. Five others declared the signs to be “offensive,” ineffective, or both – although four of these critics also voiced their concerns about speeding vehicles along NC 62. Meanwhile, three others also raised traffic-related concerns but, according to the minutes, said nothing about the contentious yard signs.

In recounting last month’s debate before the village’s aldermen, Tichy expressed a great deal of skepticism about the authenticity of the comments he heard that were favorable to the signs. He noted that many of these apologists had been Powell’s tenants. Another was Powell’s own mother, who Tichy went on to reveal has graced her front yard with one of the aforementioned “race track” signs, and not the suggestive sort that has caused all the commotion. Powell, for her part, has acknowledged that her mother has opted for one of the less provocative signs, which she attributed to the fact that her home stands next to the church she has attended for years.

“All of her income now is from rent from her tenants and anything she can do to increase her property values will benefit her. Basically, they want the village to hire a police officer solely to enforce the speed limit in the old village there . . . The opinion of the board is that we’re not spending that sort of money on solving a problem that doesn’t need solving anywhere.”

– Village of Alamance mayor Don Tichy

Tichy also suggested that Powell may have a less-than-pure motive for mounting her crusade against speeding – of which, the yard signs are merely the latest manifestation.

“All of her income now is from rent from her tenants and anything she can do to increase her property values will benefit her,” he insisted. “Basically, they want the village to hire a police officer solely to enforce the speed limit in the old village there…The opinion of the board is that we’re not spending that sort of money on solving a problem that doesn’t need solving anywhere.

“I personally don’t believe there’s the problem [with speeding] that she says there is,” he added. “The real problem is the noise it’s a busy state highway and there’s a lot of trucks on it.”

Tichy conceded that there’s little if anything that the village can do to compel residents to remove offensive yard signs, which are ultimately protected under the First Amendment. As for the underlying issue of speeding, he noted that Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson has ramped up traffic enforcement along this stretch of NC 62 in response to these latest concerns about speeding. He added that the sheriff’s office has been issuing speeding tickets and has trundled in a digital readout that displays each driver’s velocity as he or she passes through.

Powell insists that she appreciates everything the sheriff has done to address the concerns which she and her neighbors have raised. She added, however, that the response from the village itself has been much less exemplary.

“We would like to feel like our feelings are valid, and they’ve just been cast aside.  These signs will come down when we get some genuine help.

– elizabeth powell, village of alamance resident and rental property owner

Powell said that she and the other residents who’ve put up novelty yard signs have done so only after repeated attempts to get the village’s leaders to do something about speeding along NC 62.

“We would like to feel like our feelings are valid, and they’ve just been cast aside,” she explained. “These signs will come down when we get some genuine help…Regardless of whether people have children or not, we all deserve to live in a safe environment. We love it here, and we have no intention of going anywhere else.”

Powell was particularly critical of Tichy, who she said was dismissive and disrespectful to her and her cohorts at last month’s meeting. She said that the mayor’s impolitic behavior continued when the village’s aldermen convened their latest monthly meeting last week.

“We’re not asking for any special treatment, and I have always had a lot of respect for our mayor,” she said. “But in the last couple months his attitude has changed…I can tell you that he has caught a lot of grief over the signs. But his initial response to the signs was laughter.”

Among the items that came up for consideration at last week’s meeting was a rezoning request that Powell had filed in order to obtain residential zoning for a number of old mill houses she owns in an area that has traditionally been zoned for industrial use. Although the homes have been grandfathered in under the current designation, Powell said that she had hoped to have a more compatible zoning applied to these lots in the event that a home burns down or is otherwise destroyed – at which point, the grandfathering would become null and void.

The board of aldermen unanimously turned down Powell’s request to rezone these lots. Tichy attributed this decision to the irregular dimensions of the parcels, which he said would inevitably be ill-suited for residential use under modern setback and buffering rules.

Powell said that her mother has come to suspect that the board actually rejected the rezoning request in retaliation for her daughter’s campaign for more speeding enforcement along NC 62. Powell added that she herself isn’t inclined to impute such crass motives to the village’s leaders. She added that the board of aldermen had never been particularly supportive of her efforts to rehabilitate and improve the community’s historic residences.

In the meantime, Powell admitted that many of her tenants are more adamant than ever about leaving the provocative yard signs in place until they see the village’s elected leaders make a complete u-turn in their philosophy on traffic enforcement.

“I will tell you that my tenants’ reaction is that they don’t want them taken down,” she added. “I have offered them an alternative sign but they don’t want it…I think for the time being, we don’t want the signs taken down until we see a genuine concerted effort to do something about [speeding].

“I will probably take my own sign down next month,” Powell went on to conceded. “It’s my 6-year-old daughter’s birthday, and I’m going to take it down for her birthday party.”


See earlier coverage (May 20, 2021 edition) on the issue of signs: https://alamancenews.com/do-unauthorized-anti-speeding-signs-in-alamance-go-too-far/

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