As of press time on Monday, with the planning commission having unanimously recommended a denial of Crescent's request for the 1,500-acre golf course community, most signs indicated that the County Commission was leaning toward denial at Tuesday's December 11 meeting. However, with a few commissioners saying they're in favor of the project -- Republicans Bill James and Jim Puckett -- and a few others still on the fence, and developers hard at work making last-minute revisions and compromises, there was still a chance it could pass. Even if the county ultimately decides to deny The Palisades, the developers could file for a rezoning petition with the Charlotte City Council in February, when they assume zoning control and the whole process could sart over again.
County Commission Vice Chairperson Becky Carney stated Friday that, based on the plan that was submitted to the planning commission two weeks ago and their unanimous denial of it, she was not in favor of the project. However, she said that if the developers make enough concessions -- including more meaningful water monitoring equipment and a water quality impact study prior to zoning approval -- she would be more likely to lend her support. Yet she added that the scope and size of the project still make her uneasy.
"This is one development that from the start I felt we should have told the petitioners that we didn't have enough time to adequately deal with it, and they should take it to the city," Carney said. "It's a beautiful plan, if it was just a mile farther away from the water. If we approve this thing, we can't tear it down. It lasts forever. And when you've got experts denying it, I don't see how anybody can vote in favor of it. There is going to have to be some more bending and giving on the petitioners' part before we can reach an agreement."
Commission Chairman Parks Helms said Friday that he, too, would like to work out some agreement with the developers, and in the process establish a better overall process. However, he added that turning the project over to the city would be a mistake.
"I would like very much to see the developers and our various departments of environmental protection come to some agreeable procedure to protect water quality on this project," Helms said. "I would then like to see that procedure expanded to cover any other project that may hereafter be built on any part of the county that is on the Catawba River basin.
"It might seem politically and environmentally wise to simply deny the petition, but I don't think that's right," Helms continued. "This issue will never come before the County Commission again, and any decisions hereafter will be made by a governing body (City Council) that traditionally has very little to do with water quality. I think it's time for elected officials to do what they were elected to do -- determine what is in the best interest over the longterm and broker a deal. Personally, I'm leaning in favor of using whatever leverage I have to get the developers to create a development that will protect the water and at the same time create a valuable asset for Mecklenburg County."
Whichever way the vote goes (or rather, went), many say that all the hand-wringing and machinations that have taken place over the past several months illustrate the fundamental flaws in Charlotte's development system.
"This whole process of government employees negotiating and asking developers to comply with environmental regulations is absurd," said Sierra Club conservation chair Rick Roti. "It points to the fact that we've got some serious work to do to protect our environmental future. We should have ordinances that effectively interrelate with one another and have the flexibility to get the job done. We need to give the experts we're paying to protect our environment the power and tools to do their job."
Roti stated that while the Sierra Club doesn't normally speak out on zoning issues, the organization was concerned enough about The Palisades that it has urged the county to enact a moratorium on the land that has been targeted.
Helms stated Friday that taking such action is "overly simplistic and short-sighted." He also said that if the county did impose a moratorium, it would become invalid and unenforceable once the city assumes zoning control in February.
Roti said that even if the county denies the Crescent proposal, there is still much work to do.
"It's really a two-edged sword. A denial would send a good message, but unless our politicians are willing to follow our recommendation for a moratorium, it just opens up that area for development on a piecemeal basis with less protection. If you want to see a true change, our leaders have to take decisive action and put some teeth in the rules. We can either follow the template of other cities that have trashed their environments, or we can dare to be different. But we can only do this if our political leaders step up to the plate."
The Lower Lake Wylie Association has been a vocal opponent of The Palisades. Members say the development is too big and would seriously compromise the lake's water quality.
"I'm glad the planning commission had the courage to stand up for water quality," said Todd Little, president of the Association. "I just hope the county commissioners will have the courage to listen to their staff. Hopefully, the green of nature will start being considered before the green of money."
Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby says she is also encouraged by the planning commission's decision, and thinks it marks a big change in how elected officials see development along the Catawba River.
"Because of the education and information that has been given to elected officials during this whole process, they have a new understanding about the threat to the Catawba River," she said. "They have a sense of urgency they didn't have before. As little as two years ago, you would never have heard elected or appointed officials talking about water quality as a reason to deny a proposal. So I see it as a huge shift in the political landscape."
Disagreeing is Ted Arrington, Chairman of the UNC-Charlotte Political Science department. He doesn't see The Palisades issue sparking any significant longterm changes.
"We're just dealing with an extreme example," said Arrington. "Lake Wylie is so heavily polluted, people have finally said 'enough is enough.' But I still think the developers have the upper hand because the expectation among many people -- particularly those active in politics -- is that the city and county need to grow, and developers are the only people who contribute large sums of money to these people's campaigns. This is just a modification. Look at SouthPark. Developers made some modifications in response to the objections of the area residents, but they still basically got what they wanted."
This week's county commission vote on the fate of The Palisades comes after years of planning and negotiations, as well as escalating conflicts between environmentalists and developers. Crescent, along with development partner Robert C. Rhein Interests, has stressed that they are going above and beyond the county's environmental regulations. They also say a master-planned development like The Palisades would mean fewer houses compared to the area being developed in piecemeal fashion by different builders. Current zoning allows three to five houses per acre, which could ultimately result in about 7,500 homes on the site. Plans for The Palisades call for about 4,100 houses.
Environmentalists, however, say there aren't enough environmental safeguards in place, and that the developers are being disingenuous by saying they're limiting the number of residential units for the sake of the environment. Many stress that because of the area's rough and uneven terrain, it would be impossible to build the maximum number of houses allowed by current zoning, and that 4,100 houses is already stretching the land's limits.
Many have questioned why current zoning allows up to five houses per acres when the county's 10-year-plan indicates the area should have no more than one house per acre.
"Plans are just that; they're generalized," explained Tom Drake, zoning coordinator for the planning commission. "While the overall 10-year plan was approved, when we tried to get the R1 district (one house per acre) put in the new zoning ordinance in 1992, the elected officials wouldn't approve it. Clearly the development community and stakeholder groups were vying for R3 and R5. So there was never an R1 district adopted."