4/21/2022 4:51:00 PM 'No' vote signals 'overwhelming' opposition to apartments
By 4-1 vote, Summerfield Town Council sets back landowner David Couch's development plans, leading to calls for cooperation amid the divisive debate
Photo by Chris Burritt/NWO | Speaking during a public hearing at Laughlin Professional Development Center on April 12, Armfield resident Sonya Cheema expresses her opposition to landowner David Couch’s application for a text amendment to Summerfield’s development rules to accommodate his plans for higher-density housing including apartments.
by CHRIS BURRITT
SUMMERFIELD - The Town Council voted 4-1 to deny landowner David Couch's request for a text amendment to the town's development rules, giving a victory to opponents of apartments in Summerfield.
"I think the overwhelming majority of you don't want apartments and high density, and I hear you," council member Janelle Robinson said near the end of a 5 ½-hour meeting that started April 12 and ended just after midnight the next day. Roughly 90 people voiced opposition and support for Couch's text amendment request, the first step in his plan to develop 973 acres spanning the town from Summerfield Road to Interstate 73.
Robinson joined Mayor Pro Tem Lynne Williams DeVaney and fellow council members John O'Day and Reece Walker in voting to deny Couch's request. Councilman John Doggett voted in favor of it, leading to calls on social media for his defeat if he seeks reelection to the council.
In an interview earlier this week, Doggett said he "was prepared to vote the way I felt was in the best interest of Summerfield's long-term health. This is why I was elected to make decisions, easy or hard, that are in the best interest of Summerfield.
"I have been told to explain myself or they would make sure I did not get re-elected next time," he said. "I have also had emails supporting me. I heard from a lot of townspeople who said they wanted the text amendment and they felt it was the best thing for the town."
Some Couch opponents accused Doggett of favoring the text amendment because his family might want to someday develop its land using the zoning district proposed by Couch. Doggett said those accusations are "the furthest from the truth."
"We have absolutely no plans to ever develop our farm," he said. "I am fifth generation on the farm and my granddaughter is the seventh. We hope that she will love the farm as much as we do and will continue farming long after we are gone. That is the reason we have brought back horses, cows, and raise hay. We actually started raising pumpkins last year and giving them away to get everyone's interest up on the farm."
Other council members cited various reasons for opposing Couch's text amendment request. Walker said the plan was at odds with the recommendation of the town's comprehensive plan that "residential development in Summerfield should remain mostly low density, single-family detached housing."
DeVaney presented a poster board showing that the developer's text amendment request lacked some specifics, such as lot sizes and landscaping buffers. Those are details that Couch has said he'd negotiate later with town officials.
Near the end of the meeting, Couch proposed cutting the number of apartments he originally hoped to build in half, to 596 apartments. He also said he'd eliminate plans for apartments on a tract at the southwestern corner of I-73 and N.C. 150 that abuts the Armfield subdivision.
That would leave apartments in three other areas - at two other corners of the I-73/N.C. 150 interchange and a tract behind the mobile home park on Summerfield Road.
In an interview earlier this week, Mayor Tim Sessoms said the public hearing wasn't an appropriate time for the council to negotiate with Couch. On that night council members were obligated to listen to the views of residents while giving the developer's proposal a fair hearing.
Sessoms said he appreciated residents "who calmly came and spoke, who calmly and diligently did their homework. Those are the people that we heard. Those are the people who made the difference.
"You have people on both ends of the spectrum," he continued. "And many times for whatever reason they are so locked in to their opinions that they don't necessarily represent the opinions of the masses. What we tried to do was listen to the people in the middle."
O'Day told the audience he expects Couch to return with another proposal. "I'd like to see all of the stakeholders get together and figure out what's the best path," he said.
In interviews earlier this week, O'Day, Sessoms, Robinson and Walker elaborated on how they'd like for the process to evolve. They raised the idea of the council creating a committee representing developers, residents and business owners exploring possible changes to the town's unified development ordinance (UDO).
The committee would essentially replicate the committee formed several years ago to advise town leaders on the creation of the UDO, the set of rules that govern development in Summerfield.
The new committee would consider ways to incorporate some of Couch's ideas if the UDO were amended.
"There were citizens who thought highly of parts of the development, such as the concept that villages would be connected by attractive streets and trails," O'Day said in an interview.
"We need to get those groups together - the developer stakeholders, the citizen stakeholders and the business stakeholders - and try to find the right happy medium or at least a better middle ground," he said.
While the council hasn't discussed forming a citizens' committee, Sessoms said he favors exploring the idea as a way to smooth the development process for town leaders and foster collaboration among differing views.
"How do we proceed with that in a manner that is not so disruptive to the day in, day out operation of our town?" Sessoms said. "To that end, I think Mr. O'Day's idea of getting the shareholders to the table is worthy of further conversation."
In an interview earlier this week, Couch said, "I'm going to keep the slate completely clear for all options" in pursuing the development of his property.
"We created a world-class plan from one of the world's best designers," he said. "We will be exploring all of our options going forward, with the hope that we can find some ways to make Summerfield less exclusive and more inclusive."
Couch's proposed amendment to the town's unified development ordinance (UDO) sought to create a new zoning district to accommodate higher density housing, including apartments which aren't allowed by current regulations. If the council had approved the amendment, it would have allowed Couch to seek rezoning of his property and negotiate a development agreement with town leaders to govern the design and construction of his project, called the Villages of Summerfield Farms.
Couch, CEO of Blue Ridge Cos. and owner of Summerfield Farms, also proposed extending water and sewer services to his development, with property owners there - not other Summerfield taxpayers - paying for the additional public utilities.
In exchange for clustered, higher-density housing and the absence of septic fields, Couch said he would preserve fields and scenic views on Summerfield Farms and several other tracts where he proposed building 11 villages connected by walking and cycling trails. Less expensive housing such as apartments, townhouses, duplexes and cottages would have made living in Summerfield more affordable to people earning moderate incomes and enabled older residents to downsize and remain in the community, according to Couch.
Those are amenities recommended by Summerfield's comprehensive plan, helping explain Doggett's support of Couch.
"This text amendment was a great way to achieve a lot of the comprehensive development's goals," Doggett said.
Couch's plan to build 1,192 apartments in four locations emerged as the lightning rod of opposition, galvanizing residents of Armfield, Henson Forest, Henson Farms and other subdivisions abutting or near tracts Couch wants to develop. They mobilized using social media sites and turned out in large numbers to three public meetings in recent months, including the standing-room-only gathering April 12 in Guilford County Schools' Laughlin Professional Center.
In one of the few light moments during the meeting, John Van Kemp urged civility and turned to the crowd and asked, "what would Jesus do?"
The debate has split residents. Couch's supporters favor greater variety in housing, the availability of water and sewer services and amenities such as trails, more restaurants and shopping in Summerfield.
Former Summerfield Mayor Mark Brown said Couch's proposal would bring "different types of housing."
Summerfield Farms employee Edee Foster said she'd like to move from Asheboro to Summerfield if she could find affordable housing.
"Somebody let all of you in here," Foster said. "You should pay it forward."
"I think the diversity is important," said Allen Holmes, an Armfield resident who supports Couch's plans. "I like racial diversity, age diversity and economic diversity. I think that enriches our community."
Some supporters echo Couch's view that the town's zoning rules require building lots of roughly one acre contribute to housing prices beyond the reach of some moderate income people. That, in turn, may violate federal fair housing laws and make Summerfield vulnerable to lawsuits, according to Couch and his lawyer, Tom Terrell.
Speaking earlier this month, Summerfield resident and lawyer Jay DeVaney downplayed the legal risks, calling them "veiled threats of lawsuits. It is not enough to say 'I can't afford to live here."'
Other opponents of Couch's plans warn that higher density housing will lead to crowded roads and schools, a threat to well water, unwanted nighttime light and more crime. Mark Mortensen described the proposed trails as "back alleys" for troublemakers from outside of Summerfield.
"We don't need apartments in our backyard," Bev Pappas told the council. Added Sonya Cheema, another opponent of Couch's plans, "Is that our future?"
Some opponents criticized Couch's request for a text amendment as profit motivated. The developer said that's untrue. Instead, he said he wants to preserve the beauty, create amenities Summerfield doesn't have and accommodate a wider range of people on property he began assembling a quarter century ago and where he raised his two children.
"This was about making our town better and more inclusive," Couch said. "If this were about money, I would have provided cul-de-sacs and gotten out of town."