Graham’s planning board was decidedly unenthusiastic about a project brought to them for consideration this week that would convert about a half block of a residential area along North Maple Street from residential to business zoning.
In particular, board members were concerned by the “straight rezoning,” which means the city’s ability to oversee the evolution of the project is more limited than with other forms of rezoning, such as “conditional use,” in which more details are specified on what the developer is promising for the project.
Jason Cox presented the proposal to the planning board, though the request was filed by Jerry Smith, who lives in one of the houses proposed for the rezoning and owns several other parcels. Cox said that seven lots totaling 3½ acres – four facing North Maple Street and three more on West Market Street – are being proposed for rezoning from residential to B-1, which is the commercial designation for the downtown business district.
Cox declined to answer or skirted a number of planning board members’ questions about the intentions for the project.
It was revealed that city zoning would allow for buildings four or five stories high to be built in the area. None could have residential dwellings on the first floor, but they could all have residences above the ground level.
The same lots along with five others had been part of a package (totaling 5 acres) proposed in February 2020 for an unspecified multi-family zoning designation.
That request was abruptly withdrawn at a planning board meeting when one of the first residents to speak about the project, Bob Drumwright, voiced opposition to it, even though five lots he owned were ostensibly a part of a larger, 12-lot project.
This time, Drumwright’s five lots were not included, and the intended use had been changed to business zoning. The business zoning would back onto houses that front Mill Street, as well as face homes across Maple Street on the eastern side of the street.
Cox said that Graham has an “extreme need for more commercial space” in the downtown area. He said this area, now residential, was a logical extension of downtown business zoning.
Planning board member Eric Crissman pressed as to what types of businesses he envisioned for the area. “Smaller business,” he said, “independent type businesses,” in particular, Cox responded.
Cary Worthy, the long-time former head of the Arts Council who lives on nearby Albright Avenue, expressed concerns, echoed by other speakers, that development is “eating out our historic district.”
Much discussion focused on residents’ and board members’ desire to preserve historic homes and, at a minimum, to save some elements from homes that might be demolished for the project.
Board member Jerome Bias expressed concerns that “we’d be giving a green light to tear down” historic structures, emphasizing the potential precedent that might be set by allowing the project.
To those who insisted that the area was residential, Cox said it “has always been mixed use.”
Planning board member Mike Benesch described the situation, “You’re growing. You got to have something to move into.”
Meanwhile, planning board chairman Dean Ward expressed a preference that the project be modified to have a “mixed use” that would include some residential elements.
After more than a hour of hearing Cox’s presentation and neighbors’ and planning board members’ concerns, Benesch made a motion to approve the rezoning request. That motion failed 2-3; Benesch was supported by Crissman, but Bias, Ward, and Bobby Chin voted against the approval.
Crissman made a subsequent motion that the planning board was forwarding the rezoning request to the city council with a recommendation that the council send it back to the developers for additional changes.