Mebane residents were deeply divided, largely along racial lines, Monday night during Mebane’s monthly city council meeting over a proposed rezoning request for Kenyon Meat Market.
The council heard about two hours of comments from those for and against the rezoning, including more than a dozen emailed letters and comments read into the record by city clerk Stephanie Shaw.
The company wants to build a new store, to replace its location in a strip shopping center along NC 119, on a lot on South Fifth Street in a traditionally residential area of the city that is simultaneously in transition because of the construction of the NC 119 bypass nearby.
Darrin and Renea Kenyon, who are white, had initially proposed that all 1.55 acres of a lot at 1204 South Fifth Street, that runs between South Fifth Street on the front and Foust Road on the back side, be rezoned from office and institutional use to B-2, general business.
But the planning board’s endorsement was split, 4-3, in favor of the project.
The rezoning had drawn particular objections at the planning board meeting last month from neighbors along Foust Road, most of whom were black and who expressed concerns over truck traffic exiting along their quiet street.
Among those most opposed was Wilma Crisp, 110 Foust Road, immediately beside the proposed lot in the back, who told the planning board, “I support Kenyon Meat Market from a distance, but not at my door.” She presented the planning board with a petition signed by 16 residents voicing concerns over the proposed rezoning.
Danny Walker, 106 Foust Road, said traffic, on both Foust Road and South Fifth Street is already busy; inasmuch as Foust Road intersects with South Fifth Street “in a sharp curve,” he also questioned how well trucks delivering to Kenyon’s would be able to maneuver in the area.
This week, when Kenyon’s rezoning request was before the city council itself, he had revised the proposal in an attempt to assuage the concerns of some of those Foust Road neighbors. He also now had an attorney, Paul Koonts, representing him and making the presentation to the city council.
Instead of a full business rezoning, Koonts on Kenyon’s behalf now proposed to divide the lot, leaving the back third of the lot (about 14,727 square feet) beside Crisp undisturbed, with its current office and institutional zoning designation.
Only the front two-thirds of the lot – about 49,167 square feet where the 6,000 square foot store, loading area, and customer parking lot would be located – would be rezoned for business use.
Still, that did not quell the opposition from neighbors, who now also attracted the attention and support of some members of Mebane’s new Racial Equity Advisory Committee (REAC).
Three members of the seven-member committee questioned whether the request, and the council’s consideration, had adequately considered the impact on “people of color,” and specifically whether those black neighbors were being disadvantaged by the rezoning.
Some seemed to suggest that the topic should have been discussed by their committee, while others proposed delaying final action in order to study the last-minute change in the proposal.
Discussion also focused on allegations that neighbors had not received formal notification from the city about the proposal, although city officials insisted that they had mailed letters to property owners within 300 feet of the lot (on all sides). In response to questions from the council, however, it was revealed that the notices are sent by traditional first-class mail, not by certified or other method requiring a signature.
At one point, council member Patty Philipps suggested that certified mail should be considered; planning director Cy Stober said that the city could do that although it would increase the costs to the city.
Another concern was where the dumpster would be located behind the meat market. Koonts explained that it would be on the back side of the building, but as close to the building as possible in order to save steps getting to and from it.
Koonts also assured that the Kenyons would comply with all screening requirements for the dumpster. Stober outlined that the city requires an 8-foot opaque screen and to prevent the dumpster from being visible from the road or neighboring properties.
Next door neighbor reacts
Crisp, who had opposed the project at the planning board, renewed her objections. She passed out photographs taken at the current Kenyon’s Meat Market to demonstrate her concerns over the possible implications for the new location.
“How would you like this being in the middle of your quiet neighborhood? Would you approve it for Mill Creek? Would you approve it to be next to your own home? If not, why would you vote to put it next to mine?” – FOUST ROAD RESIDENT WILMA CRISP
Among them was “garbage spilling out of poorly constructed wooden boxes”; workers taking smoke breaks behind the store; and shipping containers brought in by semi-trucks.
Crisp challenged council members: “How would you like this being in the middle of your quiet neighborhood? Would you approve it for Mill Creek? Would you approve it to be next to your own home? If not, why would you vote to put it next to mine?”
She suggested the idea was akin the previous injustices in which black neighborhoods across the country had been “picked apart,” being split by highways, strip malls, and store fronts like Kenyon’s.
Opposition from members of the Racial Equity Advisory Committee
Three members of the city’s Racial Equity Advisory Committee (REAC) also voiced concerns – in some cases, suggesting that the committee should have had a say in the rezoning. Speaking were Dr. Schenita Randolph, Travis Albritton, and Keisha Bluford.
Albritton suggested that, on issues “as sensitive as this one,” the REAC committee should have an opportunity to review the proposal. There have, he said, been “historical misuses of land where people of color live.”
Bluford stressed that the council should not “rush” a decision on the rezoning, saying it would be “premature” for the council to make a final rezoning decision.
Bluford said opponents had “not [had] ample opportunity to review this modified proposal.”
While the Kenyons had stressed at the planning board that they’re hopeful their daughter will continue the family business – making it “multigenerational,” as Koonts put it at one point Monday night – Bluford focused on the fact that “intentions and actuality are two different things.”
Anthony Pierce, who is also black and was an unsuccessful candidate in last year’s Democratic primary for county commissioner, also spoke against the Kenyon rezoning. He stressed that the affected black neighbors “have lived there longer than I’ve been alive [43 years].”
He suggested there were two legacies involved in the rezoning, both the Kenyons and the black neighbors in the community.
Pierce stressed that the rezoning would remove the “feeling of it feeling like a neighborhood.”
White support for the Kenyons
Several residents, all of whom were white, spoke in support of the Kenyons, both as business people and their request for rezoning. The city clerk also read letters of support received by the city, most of which supported the Kenyons and the proposed rezoning. They included customers, friends, and even one employee.
Karen Oldham, who with her sister Billie Hair owns the family home place where they grew up on South Fifth Street beside the proposed site of the Kenyon Meat Market, also spoke in favor of the rezoning.
“There’s never been any ‘black-white,’ anything,” she stressed about the harmonious relations among black and white residents in the area.
She said she and her sister are trying to sell the property next door. She insisted that the Kenyons would not do anything “detrimental” to neighbors. And she added that she and her sister would not sell to anyone who would do anything detrimental on the lot next to the Kenyons.
“Our property would be impacted,” she suggested, adding that if the Kenyon rezoning is turned down, they might not be able to “do anything” – sell their property, presumably for business zoning, as well.
Also supporting the Kenyons was Eastern High School football coach John Kirby, who talked about the family had been so generous in supporting Eastern High School athletics.
The current property owner, Steve Hensley, also addressed the council. He said there simply had not been the level of interest or an appropriate buyer until the Kenyons.
“We’ve been paying the high taxes of O&I [office and institutional on the property] for over 20 years.”
“It will be an asset to the entire neighborhood,” he said.
Hensley also stressed that he owns other property along Foust Road, so that he would not do anything that would negatively impact his own property, nor those of the neighbors who have opposed the project.
City council members tried to explain that. with the present office and institutional zoning designation, many things that neighbors might think objectionable could already go on the property.
Council member Jill Auditori listed examples: a fitness center, day care, rest home, funeral home, bed and breakfast, or a florist.
Councilman Tim Bradley noted that much of the area is “going to go commercial” because of the NC 119 bypass, which has split some of the lots and area.
The council ultimately voted 5-0 in favor of the revised rezoning that Koonts had presented on behalf of the Kenyons, rezoning only the front two-thirds of the lot for business while leaving the rear section, next to the Crisp property, with its current office and institutional zoning.